Experiencing Isfjord Radio and Barentsburg
Isfjord Radio and Barentsburg are popular places to visit at Svalbard. I had actually been to both by snowmobile on my first visit to Svalbard a few years ago, but wanted to experience them in the summer as well.
Basecamp Explorer offer two day trips by boat to Isjord Radio and Barentsburg during the summer season, including accommodation at the former radio station at Cape Linné.
Dressed in woolen layers and the water and wind proof suit, we all found a seat in the open rib boat. Leaving the sheltered harbor in Longyearbyen, the wind picked up. Even though the waves did not look big, we were in for a bumpy ride. My previous rib boat trips came in handy, by knowing to ride the seat like a horse in the waves.
The fog was hanging heavily down the mountainside, while the sunbeams managed to break through the clouds further out in the ocean. Birds were speeding alongside the boat, and the peaceful puffins escaped under the surface when we approached. By the time we reached the tip of the peninsular near Barentsburg, I wished I had put on an extra layer of clothes. Luckily, we only had 30 more minutes until we docked at Isfjord Radio.
Being greeted with hot mulled wine with cava sure helped. Along with the struggle to get out of the large survival suit. “Welcome to Isfjord Radio! Your room is upstairs in the main building. And do you see the white spot over there?», the guide asked, pointing a finger to the shore on the other side of the house. “That is a polar bear”. We had heard rumors that polar bears had been observed in the area, but never in my wildest dreams did I think that we would be able to see one right away, with the naked eye! Just as a white dot in the distance, but still!
Armed with rifles, the guides walked us the short distance from the quay to the house. Safe inside, we took turns in using the binoculars to get a closer look at the large male polar bear, resting by the ocean. At the same time, one of the others spotted a female polar bear with her two cubs!
Hand-held binoculars flourished and exchanged hands so everyone could see. And through the telescope, patient souls could get mobile images of the mighty animals. The polar bears moved slowly along the shoreline. Towards us. The binoculars were rapidly exchanged, and the clicks from the shooting SLR cameras were increasing. Thrilled, we watched the baby bears play. Rolling over and play fighting, while the mother waited patiently.
At the closest, they were only 300 meters away from the house, before they disappeared behind a cliff.
The polar bear show was over for a while, but from the large windows, both from our room and downstairs in the living room, we could witness plenty of other wildlife. Birds flying around, reindeer grassing outside, and a fox that suddenly appeared running around. And the sleeping polar bear we had spotted in the beginning, was still enjoying his peace.
Dinner was served, a delicious 3-course meal mixing local ingredients both from the land and the ocean. I was just about to have a bite of the reindeer, when the polar bear and the cute cubs made their appearance for a second time. Everybody gathered by the windows to watch them as they walked along the beach, before sitting down again, enjoying the food with a polar bear view.
Satisfied by both food and impressions, I sat down in the windowsill, silently looking out. A rain shower passed, leaving behind a rainbow. Yet another magic moment before the time hit midnight.
A new day, new adventures
My planned morning swim was called off, as the polar bears were last spotted close to the beach (some would call that luck…). After a delicious breakfast, we packed our bags and did our morning gymnastics battling the survival suits.
Heading towards Barentsburg, a few Minke Whales all of a sudden appeared from the surface of the ocean. We stopped for a while to watch the majestic mammals as they graciously slid up and down in the water.
Arriving at the quay in Barentsburg, we again fought the survival suits to avoid walking around like penguins.
Climbing up the stairs felt like stepping back in time. Many of the houses looked quite abandoned, while others had gone through massive changes since I visited 5 years ago. Some houses had been demolished, while the two large apartment buildings had been modernized. Lenin was still watching over the community.
Walking through town felt like walking around in a ghost city. It was completely silent, and we did not see a single person. Unlike the abandoned settlement Pyramiden, this Russian settlement houses 3-400 persons, including 50 children. Non of the children were out playing. Not even the cat was out. Eh, sorry, the arctic fox. One of many fun facts about Svalbard is that as cats are not allowed on the archipelago, so the one they have in Barentsburg is registered as an arctic fox!
While the parents work in the mines underground, the children attend school in a colorful decorated building. Paintings of wildlife, Russian sailing vessel and a Norwegian Viking ship stands side by side with iconic buildings as the Empire state building in NY, Kreml in Moscow and Bryggen in Bergen.
Barentsburg rely only on themselves and Russia. The heating and electricity comes from the coal in the mines, drinking water from the lake at the other side of the fjord, and the food and other goods are imported from Murmansk.
The food at the hotel is typical Russian and the drinks in the bar as well. I of course had to taste it all; the pickled vegetables, the cured meat, the salty white fish mixed with potatoes and peas, the cabbage soup with sour cream, and last but not least – chunks of potato and meat mixed with vegetables and baked in the oven inside small ceramic bowls. The meat was so tender, and the potatoes and vegetables were soaked in the meaty sauce. Even though I was quite stuffed, I just could not stop eating. Good thing they had strong liquor to help digest afterwards. I did not go for the strongest one, though. The Russians apparently have a tradition to consume drinks with the same level of alcohol as the present latitude. Barentsburg is situated 78° N…
Walking back towards the harbor, I stopped by the characteristic wooden church. The Orthodox Church was built in 1996, after the fatal air crash that left 141 Russians and Ukrainians dead.
Our time in Barentsburg was up, but on our way back to Longyearbyen we stopped shortly by Grumant. This former Russian settlement was abandoned in 1960’s. At its peak it had 1200 inhabitants, but as they worked shift, the settlement only had beds for half of the population.
The two day trip to Isjord Radio and Barentsburg was an amazing combination of majestic nature, interesting settlements and history, tasty food, and lots of wildlife. It was absolutely a great way to experience some of what Svalbard has to offer, and I highly recommend it.
What to pack for Svalbard in summer:
Even if you visit Svalbard in the summer, keep in mind that it is far north, and the temperature is low. Dressing in woolen layers is the key to success, and if you are uncertain, it is always better to bring a little bit too much clothes, than to end up being cold. On the boat trip to Isfjord Radio, I was wearing a woolen singlet, a thin woolen sweater, another thin woolen sweater (but more loose to allow air between the layers) and a thick woolen sweater (instead of jacket). On my legs, I wore woolen johns and normal hiking trousers. A slightly loose pant is an advantage. Two pairs of woolen socks, the second being the large (and loose) kind that my grandmother knitted. I finished off with a hat, gloves and scarf. All in wool, of course. In addition, you get a survival suit to wear on top. This is windproof, but other than that, it does not give much isolation.
The two day trip to Isjord Radio and Barentsburg can be booked directly with Basecamp Explorer.
Are you visiting Svalbard in the winter? Do not despair; they have two-day trips to Isfjord Radio and Barentsburg by snowmobile as well.