Saturday, October 24, 2009

Jet Lag

Janet videotaping from aboard Kayak in the Arctic
Well, I'm finally home in NYC after some 32 hours of travel ... happy to be back with Bob and Lulu, but fighting some mean jet lag. It was an amazing expedition and experience! I've just started sorting through images and memories. I kept a diary on board, although life at sea challenged my connection with time. At one point I was reading through my diary and found that I had recorded an experience as having happened repeatedly for three consecutive days. It was an impressive experience ... the ship hit a rock which sent us all flying as the crew ran to see if we had breached the hull ... but one that only occur ed once (although we had some impressive run-ins with icebergs).

First sight of the Schooner NooderlichtI remember how I felt the first time I saw the schooner Norderlicht. I think pure terror would be a good description. She seemed so small in the big Arctic sea and was bobbing so much I was sure I would be sick as a dog for the next couple of weeks. I couldn't imagine how we would all fit, let alone live and work on her.

I grew to think of her as a safe, beautiful home that I really miss! I'll continue to update this blog with images and descriptions of my time in the Arctic.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Coming Home

Janet hasn't had web access in Longyearbyen. She's in the air now, flying through Tromso, will be in Olso tonight. Not sure, but she planned to spend the night in the Oslo airport.

It's a long way back: Longyearbyen to Tromso, Tromso to Oslo, night in airport, Oslo to Copenhagen, then finally over the Atlantic and back to Newark.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Back in Longyearbyen

Got a txt from Janet - the boat is back in Longyearbyen harbor! They're spending the night there, then they'll move back onshore. Hopefully, the next update will come from Janet herself!

Sunday, October 18, 2009


Here's a shot of Janet as she was packing for the trip. She left with about 75 pounds of stuff, which I'd estimate at 60% video/camera equipment, 15% kayaking gear, 15% clothing, 10% toiletries. She didn't take any books, or much other than video equipment, in order to save weight.

Lulu asked to go with her, but her passport was expired. It's for the best, she wouldn't have liked the cold weather.

As I type, it's 7:22am in Svalbard. I was just checking the Longyearbyen webcam - it's still dark. The sun won't come up there today until 9:56am. And it sets at 3:27pm. By Friday, the sun will rise at 11am, and they'll only get about 3 1/2 hours of sunlight.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Message from the North

Got a call from Janet today! They're docked overnight in Ny Alesund. She called from the town's one payphone.

The group has invaded the town - the most northerly permanantly inhabited spot on Earth. Population is usually 24 scientists, but tonight there's 15 artists driving the locals crazy.

Over the past few days the group weathered stormy seas just fine (although one passenger had to be given Xanax to handle the swells). They spent some time battened in their bunks, as seas have been quite rough -- she said she heard objects falling all over the boat (her cameras are fine).

They made it to Moffin island (past 80 north), where they had a close encounter with a walrus - one swam out to their boat, and tossed seashells to them. They've been in Kongsfjorden (near Ny Alesund) the past few days.

On the way to Moffin, they passed many polar bears -- including eight adults feeding on a dead whale. The crew said that this was the most bear they've ever seen in one place. Janet enjoyed watching them -- they gorged on whalemeat, sunned their full tummies, and played with each other -- including belly slides on the ice!

She's been kayaking almost every day -- with polar bears, in sleet, even through a snow storm! She's using her new Canon SLR camera, which acts as a high-def video camera. She also has a small waterproof Sanyo camcorder attached to the nose of the kayak (thanks to George Najar, photo-tech genius).

Food has not been a problem - there's a chef on board, and their chow has included Moroccan lamb on couscous, cod with orange cream sauce, and salmon on squid-ink pasta! She says the desserts are even better.

Sounds like they've had quite an adventure. Yesterday she hiked through show up past her knees (tracked by yet another curious polar bear).

They're going to spend the next four days sailing back to Longyearbyen. I'm looking forward to her next update!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Stormy Weather

No new word from Janet. I'm still worried about the weather (tomorrow's wind still predicted to be 50mph/80kh), but looked up some previous voyages of the Noorderlicht. In 2007 they sailed with a group of Brit artists/writers through a gale. Sounds uncomfortable, but they came through just fine. I noticed that some participants brought their own sat phones - next time Janet goes into the wild, I'll be sure she can stay in contact!Noorderlicht at sea, 2007

This picture is from the 2007 voyage.

Some folks have asked if it's dark all day in Svalbard.

Well, not yet.

On September 24, Longyearbyen enjoyed over 12 hours of sun -- about the same as in New York.

However, the length of day reduces dramatically up there. Throughout October, each day gets 15 to 20 minutes less sun. Today there will be about 7 hours of sunlight.

This shortening gets faster in the coming weeks. Next Tuesday, the day will be about four hours long.

Then on October 26, the sun will be seen above the horizon for the last time until mid-February.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Sunday, October 11, 2009

80 North

Got a message from Janet today!

We’re allowed 100 words via ship satellite. No reply to email allowed. Amazing footage and trip. Kayaked today with swimming polar bears! Eight bears total and two Arctic foxes eating a dead whale! Paddled through pack ice, icebergs to glacier. Four walrus on shore. Tomorrow we reach 80 north – Moffen Island – breeding place of Walrus. Sea quiet in bays off of fjords - one day and one night of rough sea. Seen northern lights for past two nights. Played with herds of Walrus. I’m being careful – only kayak with armed escort.

"Kayaked with swimming polar bears." Hmmm.

Wow, sounds like an amazing voyage so far, can't wait to see the footage! Bears! Auroras! Rough seas and armed guards!

Moffen island is about a 370km/230mi sail north from Longyearbyen. At 80 degrees north she's in explorer-only territory, not many have been up that far. Here's a map, and I'll also put a link to this map in the link section.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, there's a weather forecast for gale-force winds, with gusts up to 50mph/80kpm. I'm sure the crew has been through these before, but I'll be happy when she gets through that weather.


Polar bear at tourist ship off SvalbardMany people think polar bears are cute, furry animals. In reality, they are the world's largest carnivores, and they're one of the most dangerous of humans' predators. An adult male weighs as much as FIVE football linemen (1500 lb/700kg) -- and is less smelly and much smarter.

They're one of the last of the "mega fauna", and will probably join the sabre tooth and mastodon very soon.

Polar bear visiting a ship kitchen off SvalbardThey're amazing adroit. They can swim 320km (200mi) from land, can smell prey from a mile away, and are smart enough to catch beluga whales by holding a paw over their breathing holes. They hunt via stealth, and are smart enough to catch humans if needed.

They can live past 40 years, and like to fall asleep while holding each other.

Most will be gone in another 30 years due to reduction of habitat. Arctic ice is disappearing, and with it goes the polar bear's hunting grounds.

Polar bear visiting tourist ship off SvalbardIn Svalbard, polar bears are a big danger to humans. It's easy to overstate the issue, as there have been "only" four fatal encounters in the past 35 years. This number would be much higher if there was not a huge focus on safety. Most locals are always armed, and are quick to scare bears away using flares, snowmobile backfires, and warning shots. 24 bears have been killed in defense in the past eight years. As food and hunting grounds continue to dwindle due to global warming, interactions between polar bears and humans will increase, necessitating more shootings.

I'm hoping that if Janet sees any bears, it will be from a far distance. These pictures were taken just this week - a bear visited another ship exploring Svalbard. Happily for all, and perhaps inspired by Norway's Nobel Peace Award, the interaction was non-violent.

All that being said, they're cute as dickens.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Summer Houses

Summer houses outside LongyearbyenSummer houses, about an hour out of Longyear- byen. I guess city life is too hectic for some folks.

Click to see the entire picture.

No word from the Arctic Circle team, but not expecting to hear from them for at least another day. They're probably about 150km out from Longyearbyen, which means the nearest civilization is at the outpost Ny-Ålesund , another 100km (60 miles) away.

If they don't stop in Ny-Ålesund , it's likely that they'll be out of contact for another 10 days.

According to Norwegian Weather Service, they've had cold and fog, but no snow and not much wind. The wind they are getting is blowing against their direction of travel, so the crew is probably getting a good workout. They'll get a fresh breeze next week, but it's forecast to swing around and come from the south. I hope they'll still have some Dramamine left.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Long Distance Information

I got a call from Janet today at about 10AM. The ship spent the night east of Longyearbyen, and passed back into cel phone range on the way out to sea today.

They overnighted in a sheltered cove, and went out in a zodiac this morning to visit an abandoned Russian mine. Not sure exactly where, but for those who are cartographically-inclined, here's a map. On shore, two of the crew stood by with rifles as they hiked around.

Janet was happy to see flat water in the coves, as she's planning on videotaping from kayaks. Should be interesting. They'll need to drop the kayaks into the water from the ship, then enter them from the zodiac. For those who haven't been in kayaks, they're very easy to capsize. For those who haven't been in the arctic, the water is very cold. She'll be wearing a drysuit, but it's still a bit dangerous.

Janet in the HudsonThese are shots of Janet playing kayak polo in the Hudson, where she spent plenty of time in the water. She wasn't crazy about getting into the Hudson, but at least it was warm.

Janet says the participants are spending more time falling down aboard ship than standing up. A concern, as they're in relatively still water -- the much rougher open ocean should be interesting. Her bunk is small but cozy -- and there's a large board across the side so that she doesn't fall out in rough seas. Not much storage, so she's sleeping with her cameras and books.

Janet Biggs, Artist/Kayak Polo-erThey're heading down Isfjorden tonight, then they plan to sail north for three days - straight through open sea, day and night. They plan on exploring Woodfjorden, near the northwest shore of Spitsbergen.

They're off!

Now that Janet is out of reach, I'm going to fill in for a few days. I have some pics from Janet, and will provide some information regarding the project.

Janet called just as they went out of cellphone range, sounds like the team is doing fine. There were numerous reported cases of seasickness at the beginning, but all but a couple people were ok after a few hours.

Longyearbyen harbor webcam shotThe Noorderlicht sailed on to a protected fjord for the night. Weather looks good for this week - I've been monitoring the Norwegian weather service and the local webcams. Here's a cam photo from yesterday, showing the ship just before they sailed - into a snowstorm.

They plan to sail to the uninhabited northern reaches of Svalbard -- above the 80th parallel, about 600 miles (1000km) from the pole. (Point Barrow Alaska is 1,250 miles from the pole). There's one more outpost as they head north, so I'm hoping for another update from Janet at that time.

The Noorderlicht is a steel-hulled two-masted schooner, built in Germany in 1910 to be able to handle icy waters. About 150 ft (46m) long. The 15 participants and five crew stay in small 8'x4' (240 x 125) two-bunk cabins. There are four toilet/bathrooms. These guys are really going to get to know each other.

This is the last voyage north this year for the Noorderlicht - and this is the latest she's ever headed this far north. Most winters, she's iced-in near Longyearbyen where she acts as a hotel for sled dog expeditions.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Off the Grid

All participants are gathering their bags, equipment, and nerves ... swallowing ginger and Dramamine, rushing out to the local clothing store for extra long johns and waterproof shells ... we sail tonight.

I went down to the Svalbard Sailing Club this morning and packed up the kayaks, paddles, drysuits, and life vests that we'll bring on board. I realized that I didn't have a way to transport the kayaks from the sailing club about a mile to the sailing ship. Eike, who runs the club (and has been the main reason why my project has gone well so far ... lining up paddlers and renting the equipment) only has a bicycle. He suggested I try the local post office to see if I could use their delivery truck. I'm thinking this would be a LONG day, when Andreas (another Svalbard Sailing paddler) showed up and suggested we use a truck that is owned by the construction company he works for. Totally saved! I'm heading down to the dock to meet him now.

Once we sail tonight the ship will be off the grid. I will keep writing posts with the hope that I will be able to upload at a research station we will reach in a few days. Bob will post images I've sent to him and keep the story going.

Till then ... I'm off the grid and off to the NORTH!

Bear Territory

Janet Biggs in Svalbard

These signs are posted on all the roads leading out of central Longyearbyen, reminding travellers that Polar Bears are active -- although the sign says that this is the case throughout Svalbard.

In Svalbard, when travelling outside settlements you are required to carry a rifle at all times to protect yourself from bears (although many locals carry weapons in town, too). Which may explain the lack of crime in Longyearbyen.

We have a gunman on the boat just in case. Hopefully, we'll all live in peace.

Monday, October 5, 2009


Reading the last post, I realize that some folks may not know the driving patterns around Longyearbyen. And if you're like I was until recently, you probably have no idea of Longyearbyen's position on the globe. Here is a google image of the outskirts of town, the red dots show appx where we went today. ("X" marks town. Basically, the entire island outside of town belongs to polar bears, so everywhere we went today we needed to be armed).

The other map shows the whole Svalbard archipelago in reference to Greenland and Europe. As you can see, we're just about off the map, and after tomorrow, we'll be somewhere in the blue.

The End of the Road

Karianne Steen, one of the kayak paddlers, offered to take me on a tour around Longyearbyen today. She picked me up in the morning and we drove past UNIS, the polar institute university, heading out of town. We visited two sledge dog kennels which were about 100 meters apart. Most of these dogs were owned by local residents. Eider ducks chose the area between the kennels to breed, since the Arctic foxes stay away from the dogs.

We stopped at an old airstrip and research station and found reindeer grazing through the snow. Along the road, we drove by old coal mines and headed up a mountain. Half way up was another sledge dog kennel (owned by the hotel in town called Base Camp). There was also a hunters cabin with dead seals hanging outside (dinner for the dogs).

We reached the top of the mountain (the literal end of the road) and looked back down all of Advent Valley and out over the fjord. The view and light were just incredible.

We head back into town and Karianne suggested that we continue on past town out towards Bear Valley (I'm using the English translations as there's no way I'm going to be able to spell the Norwegian names). There were some small houses scattered along the valley. These houses are for Longyearbyen residents who find town too hectic and like to get away for the weekends! We arrived at yet another end of the road and took a walk down into the valley to look at one of the houses up close (with Karianne packing a flare gun to scare off any polar bears).

It was a fantastic day and I'm really thankful for Karianne's generosity. I finished up the day buying more warm clothes and sampling whale and seal meat at a local restaurant.

I have lots of great shots, but my web connection isn't letting me upload the pictures. I promise lots of great images when I return!

The whole Arctic Circle Program gang is all here now and tomorrow we board the sailboat and head north! Once we're on the boat, no web, no phone, basically, we'll all be in 1910.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Seal Watching Humans

Day three fiming kayakers was the best day so far! A seal showed up to see what we were up to ... or at least check what was caught in the local fishing nets. The sea cooperated and the kayakers were really skilled in preforming synchronized movements! Great footage! As soon as the kayak paddlers started doing underwater rolls (in Arctic seas!) the seal was front and center wondering what we were doing.

Tonight I went to the indoor Svalbard swimming pool to watch the my kayaker friends play a game of polo. They would give the NY national team a run for their money. One of the polo players gave me a ride back to the hotel, and told me about local polar bear sitings. A mother bear and two cubs were recently seen hiding under under one of the houses on the upper road of town. It made me pause as I remembered that I ran up that same road this morning. Happily I didn't run into any polar bears, but I did pass a couple with baby stroller -- who had a rifle slung across across their back.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Kayaks on Isfjorden

You can see hi-resolution versions of these photos by clicking on the pictures.

Arctic Kayak Paddling-Day2

Today the sea was as smooth as glass. Five members of the Svalbard kayak polo team arrived ready to paddle. They were skilled paddlers and performed the synchronized movement really well ... although they were requesting that I photoshop perfect precision into the moves once I return to NYC.

After a couple of hours filming, the paddlers were all warmed up and I was FREEZING! To warm up I went for a run up by a church at the base of a mountain. Jaw dropping beauty where ever you look ... as I'm constantly looking out for polar bears.

One of the paddlers told me he has seen 5 so far this year. One was in the center of the road. He had his one and a half year old daughter in the car so he slammed it into reverse and let the bear own the road.

I'm still the only one in the hotel. Tonight I thought I'd make a movie ... Shining II. Finally a money maker!

Friday, October 2, 2009

Kayak Paddling in Isfjorden

Today was my first day of filming kayak paddlers. The sea was pretty rough ... rough enough that 3 of the 4 paddlers had never been out in these conditions. It was also cold enough that the drysuit's rubber gaskets had frozen. Once these were thawed, and we had gone over the patterns to be paddled, we head out to the sea. I rigged one camera on the strongest paddler, Eike's kayak. The other camera was set up on a tripod on top of a barrel for height. Just as we were about to launch the kayaks, the local press arrived and asked for an interview. Happily, the reporter agreed to talk after the kayakers had paddled and just took photos of the event.

A few minutes after all the kayaks were in the sea and had started the first pattern, a huge wave came in and capsized the strongest paddler. He was not able to roll his kayak upright since it was so rough. After what felt like years of Eike being inverted, he did a wet release and swam back to shore. Even in a drysuit hypothermia sets in within minutes so I was amazed when he said he would take a few minutes to dry off and try again!

I'm happy to report that the day ended with everyone safe, patterns preformed, and great footage in camera (especially from the camera mounted on Eike's kayak)! Tomorrow we try again...

Studio 360

A preview of the Arctic story has gone live on Public Radio's Studio 360. Here's an excerpt of their piece about the Arctic Circle project.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

jet lag

I seem to be suffering from a bit of jet lag so I'm updating at 4am Svalbard time.

Last night I checked out the bar in the hotel ... I say hotel, but think polar outpost. Mary Ann's Polarrigg was an old Russian mining dorm. It is a series of long, low buildings, strung together, each on a slightly different there is a lot of going up and down steps to walk through the buildings.

I left my wing of small rooms, past the office, communal kitchen, through the common sitting area (one stuffed polar bear here), through the restaurant's kitchen, through a dinning room with old mining hats, boots, and pick axes left from when it was a working dorm, through what looks like a rock cave and into a long,candle lit, greenhouse style dinning room full of plants and a waterfall (three stuffed polar bears here and a few Arctic foxes too). This is a new addition to the old structure.

There were three people in this huge dinning room having dinner. It's off season. I sat at the bar and talked to the bartender, who was also the woman who checked me into the hotel on the first day (everybody does everything). She is third generation Svalbard (although each generaton was born on the mainland as required). The table of diners left and the chef and her assistant came out and joined me at the bar. The chef is from Thailand and her assistant is from Croatia. We taught each other words from our native languages, but they were all much better at English than I was at Norweigen, Thai, or Croatian.

[These aren't my pics, I should have some up soon.]

Radio Story About the Trip

Matt Holzman is an independent radio producer who will accompany us on our voyage aboard the schooner Noorderlicht. While on board, he will work on a radio piece which will air on Public Radio Internation's "Studio 360" once we return.

Matt has done a fun little radio piece about getting ready for our trip - featuring excerpts from his conversations with some of the Arctic Circle participants. It will hopefully set up the Peabody-prize winning epic he’ll put together if and when we get back.

It airs next week - check for local times and stations. You can stream and podcast the show beginning this Friday at

I'll try to alert readers when the show goes live. In New York, the show airs Saturdays at 10AM on 93.9 FM and Sundays at 7PM on AM 820.

Out the Polarrigg Hotel Window

Here are some pictures out my window of the Polarrigg hotel. It's near the docks of Longyearbyen. These are low-resolution images from my netbook's camera, hopefully, I'll have better pictures soon.

Arctic Running

I got up and went for a run this morning ... not like my normal lower east side of Manhattan runs. The roads, where paved are snow and ice covered with a bit of gravel on top which helped keep me upright.

It's cloudy today and the tops of the mountains are disappearing into the clouds...still unbelievably beautiful. I checked out the Svalbard Sailing Club (a small clubhouse on the water) and looked at the color of the kayaks for filming. I'm waiting to hear from Eike when the four paddlers will be available to be filmed ... till then I'm assembling tripods and reading manuals for all my new camera equipment.

Arctic Info

Skype is working well (my ID is Janetbiggs1). Bob and I have been video chatting up a storm. This is a picture of me in my small but warm room.

Here's some links to Svalbard info:

Travelling to Svalbard

Here I sit in the most beautiful place I've ever seen. I knew it was going to be amazing, but to see Svalbard from the air as we flew in was incredible...corny as it sounds it brought tears to my eyes.

I've checked in at the Polarrigg hotel, walked around town, shopped at the local grocery, and met with Eike Müller and fellow paddlers. Mary Ann's Polarrig is perfect for the group...full of character, stuffed polar bears and endless hallways (since I'm the only guest it has horror film written all over it). The communal space is great and the rooms will acclimate us to life shipboard (they can't be much larger than the boat's cabins).

The shopping area here has lots (considering the size of town) of sport outfitter shops so if anyone is lacking clothes they can pick them up here. There is an hardware/electronic store, but I haven't checked it out yet.

The hotel has wifi, but charges for it ($20 US for 24 hours access and about $1.50 per hour). Eike told me that there is a coffee shop in town with free wifi and it's also free at the library.

There is a communal kitchen here (that can be used for a small fee) which is great for me staying for a couple of days.

It takes about 15 minutes to walk into the town center (depending on how much ice is on the roads...there are two main dirt roads with smaller roads off to private residences.)

Great facts I learned tonight about Longyearbyen ... you can not retire here so all people of retirement age must return to the mainland. There is no unemployment and housing is expensive (most owned by mining companies who will only rent, not sell. To buy a house here costs more than in Oslo). No children are allowed to be born here as they don't have the medical care for births at the hospital and the child wouldn't have a nationality since the treaty makes Svalbard neutral (a great book in the making ... the birth the government doesn't catch). All pregnant women are flown to the mainland at about 6-7 months.