Dog Sledding and Snowmobiling in Svalbard

Alice Hodgson

11 Mar 2019

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nws alice leaves the ships behind to explore svalbard's interior

Arriving back into Svalbard felt completely surreal. This was a place that one year ago I had never been to and two years ago I knew very little about! Now I have just finished my second trip to Svalbard in the space of 10 months, but my two trips could not have been more different!

On landing in Longyearbyen, it was completely pitch black. There was snow everywhere, even on the runway (if this had been the conditions at London Gatwick, the flight would likely have been delayed!). The pilot lands with a slight skid, but nothing too alarming, and lets us know it’s a chilly -19 °C outside.

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Day 1

My first full day back in the Arctic felt familiar and completely new all at the same time. When I was here in May 2018 there wasn’t that much snow and although I thought it was cold then, it had nothing on now. As I had explored Longyearbyen before, I took a few snowy snaps and then headed straight for a hot chocolate.

This afternoon we have our first group lunch so we can get to know each other before the next few days of activities. Then we are off to the Trapper’s Station to meet the husky dogs who will be the true guides on our dog sledding trip this evening!

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Pulling into the Trapper’s Station you are taken back in time to the trapping days, with dog houses everywhere and seals hanging outside. The dogs are extremely well behaved and very excitable. Our guide Rhi tells us that there are around 100 huskies here, Greenlandic and Siberian mixed-bred as this makes the perfect husky!

We split into two pairs and are shown how to harness the dogs; when you approach the dog you must say their name and give them a bit of love so they know they can trust you. The dogs run in groups of six and the teams are put together based on how well they get on. The front two dogs are the leaders, the second two the point/swing dogs and finally the back two are the muscle.

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After a quick lesson from Rhi on how to drive the sled, we were off, mushing into the Arctic night. Dog sledding was such an amazing experience, with no noise beside their paws crunching on the snow as they ran. We took it in turns to drive and to be the passenger so that we got to experience both. Being a passenger really put you on a good level with the dogs and you felt like a proper team.

Arriving back to the Trapper’s Station we got to spend time with the dogs and the puppies, showering them with pats and cuddles. A traditional dinner inside one of the cabins awaited us, with stories and history on both the trappers and Svalbard. On our way back to our hotel we were treated to the dashing sight of a beautiful, fluffy, white Arctic fox running across the road. After our first exciting day in Svalbard it was time for bed before heading out on our next big adventure.

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Day 2

At 10am our next guide, Arran, met us in the hotel ready to take us on a three-day snowmobiling expedition. We were briefed on our trip and what to expect from the next few days, and then it was time to gear up. We were provided with mittens, helmets, balaclavas, gaiters, big boots and thermo all-in-one suits. At this point I felt a little like I had all the gear and no idea, but I started to feel at ease with my group and my guide. We jumped on the snowmobiles, were shown how to start/stop them and were then given some tips for driving them; like leaning with the scooter around the corners.

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Our aim for today was to drive from Longyearbyen to Isfjord Radio, around a 100km drive. We’d been told the conditions were good and that we would make plenty of stops along the way, giving us time to get used to the snowmobiles. As soon as I was away from the town I felt more at ease. For miles around you there was absolutely nothing but white. Once we stopped our snowmobiles, we were engulfed in the Arctic silence and quickly reminded that we were some of only a few people to be this far north.

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Arriving at Isfjord Radio was greatly welcomed. After six hours on the snowmobiles in -22 °C weather, it was a nice relief to be in the warmth. Malin the station manager met us outside with a delicious warm apple-and-cinnamon drink and told us the news we all wanted to hear; the sauna was on and ready for us! We dropped our bags off and got changed into our swimwear, dressing gowns and snow boots (the height of Arctic fashion) and made a mad dash to the sauna (no-one wants to spend long outside with that little clothing on!). Arran accompanied us to the sauna and said he’d be back for us in 40 minutes – as polar bears are a real threat at Isfjord Radio you cannot go outside without your guide.

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After defrosting in the sauna, it was time for dinner; a four-course feast awaited us! All of the fish on the menu had been caught in the Isfjord River and the Svalbard reindeer was caught by an infamous trapper called Tommy Sandal, who lived in a cabin far away from the town. Being at Isfjord Radio felt like such a treat, as it really is a beautiful boutique hotel far away from anywhere else.

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Day 3

The weather in the Arctic is very unpredictable and this morning we found that out. The wind was howling and there was hardly any visibility, so we went for Plan B; do a tour of the radio station and then Arran would check what the weather was like further away from Isfjord Radio, so if we pushed through, we knew what we were getting into. Malin showed us around the different rooms and buildings and even their very own herb garden!

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Arran came back and told us that the bad weather was localised to Isfjord, so we waited for a couple of hours and then off we went. The weather leaving the station was crazy and a little nerve-wracking as you could barely see the scooter in front of you and the wind howled. It was around -28 °C and today was the coldest day we had experienced! But just as Arran had said, the weather got better and better, and it turned out to be the coldest but most stunning weather we had.

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We explored valleys and drove onto glaciers, driving for around five hours in total. We even came across a fresh set of polar bear footprints – Arran said that we’d only missed the bear by about an hour! A real highlight of the day was eating lunch on top of a glacier with a view that is impossible to describe. As we drove back to Isfjord Radio the sky was lit up in candyfloss pink. I have never seen a sky so impressive before... one of my fellow travellers likened Svalbard to a painting and I really think that hits the nail on the head!

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Arriving back at the station, we all congregated in the cosy, hygge-style living room and chatted about our day’s adventures before another four-course meal... not a bad Wednesday!

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Day 4

This morning it is time to leave Isfjord Radio and make our way back to Longyearbyen. We geared up and jumped back onto the snowmobiles for our last day. The cold wasn't as bad today (or maybe it was my extra layers and extra heat packs that did the trick!) but the wind was the worst we had experienced. The real feel was around -30 °C and when driving into the wind, you sure did feel it!

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We were facing some tricky driving conditions but our guide kept us safe and took us via the best route, making sure we did several stops along the way. When the wind was really bad we would make really quick stops where Arran would check our faces for any white spots (the sign that your face isn't getting any blood!), frostbite or bad windburn. Once he was happy we were all okay we continued on our journey.

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The goal this morning was to drive to Barentsburg, a small mining town of around 500 inhabitants who are mainly Russian and Ukrainian. We actually ended up having lunch at the hotel in Barentsburg due to the wind being so strong. The hour break in the warmth was exactly what we needed to re-energise and get us ready to continue on our cold adventure back to town.

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With more beautiful stops along the way, including some time observing the very cute Svalbard reindeer, we finally arrived back into Longyearbyen, six hours after we left Isford Radio. After a hot chocolate and a warm shower we met at the Gruvelageret restaurant for our last group meal. We chatted excitedly through the trip and our favourite moments. Arran drew out the route we had taken on a map and let us know that we had covered 320km of Spitsbergen! We raised our glasses with a chorus of skål to what has been a mindblowing Arctic expedition in Svalbard!

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