Svalbard: first view

I managed to sleep three hours the night before we left.  I was picked up at 4:15am.  Then I slept another three hours on the plane to Newark.  The Newark airport is not my new favorite.  We had to leave security to change terminals, and we were there five hours.  Then I slept another three hours on the flight to Oslo.  None of these three hour naps were the most restful I’ve ever had, mind you.  In Oslo we cleared customs.  We got on our final flight: to Longyearbyen.  But, turns out it stopped in Tromso, where we all had to get off and go through passport check again.  We weren’t technically leaving Norway by going to Svalbard, but we were leaving the Schengen area.  Svalbard has a different economic status too.  It’s weird.

getting back on the SAS plane in Tromso

arrivals in Svalbard

people getting off the plane in Svalbard

Further inland, up the fiord, it is still frozen over.  I notice that we’re driving and parking on giant snow banks.  The building I am in is on stilts presumably connected to the ground below, with adjustable walkways leading from the snow drift to the door.  It’s cold but not obscene.  We carried the luggage to the SUV without putting on gloves.  Wouldn’t want to stay that way too long though.  It’s basically like a place with real winter in the winter.  There is snow everywhere.  We take off our shoes when we enter buildings.  Our host just went to renew his rifle training.  (Outsiders can’t borrow guns from the institute.)

runway view

is that water in the fiord?

airport parking lot

everything I need is packed

[Written in transit:] So far I haven’t remembered anything that I forgot to pack.  Most of the traveling I’ve done recently I’ve managed to pack light enough to avoid checking a bag, but I had a lot of warm things to make sure to bring to the Arctic.

It turns out that it’s cold enough that when you’re out in the field and you have to pee it is a distinct advantage to not have to pull down your pants and expose your bare butt to the air.  Thus a plastic pee funnel can be used if you don’t normally pee standing up, to make that possible.  Much more convenient and less cold, it was recommended to me to acquire one of these devices.

My colleagues had ordered theirs on-line, but I didn’t have enough time for that.  I had heard of pee funnels before only in the context of something that trans-gender guys might like to have.  So my first thought was to check one of the sex toy stores catering to the queer population in my neighborhood.  However, Squid on Ice suggested one for sale at REI, which I assumed would be better suited to outdoor practicalities.

The plastic tube is definitely a practical plus.  It’s called the Freshette, which makes it sound like a feminine hygiene product or a female version of something that’s actually fresh.  And it’s pink, which is not a plus in my mind.  Why are so many woman-specific things at REI pink?  I want something designed to fit me properly because I’m petite.  Why should such a desire be correlated with a preference for the color schemes I favored when I was eight?  In this case it’s even worse because it’s this pale shade of hospital sort-of sterile.  Furthermore, I’d expect the pee funnel to appeal to a wide range of female-bodied people, if anything less likely than most to want everything to be pink.  Yuck.

But it does allow me to pee standing up.  Pretty cool.  I could see getting to like this, in fact.  It’s quite possible that I will start bringing my new funnel hiking and camping in general.  This could be one of those things, like the Keeper (what is with the branding, right?) that I discover and then wonder, “Why doesn’t everyone have one of these?!”

on firearms and irrational fears

Bears scare me.  I’m not sure why.  Probably because they could eat me if they wanted to.  But there are lots of sentient beings that could kill me if they wanted to.  Most of them are human.  So what is it then?  I could tell you about the scary experience backpacking with the bear outside my tent.  I’m pretty sure that my bear fear preceded that experience though.  Maybe because there’s no talking to a bear, no using reason, no running away.  It’s totally outside of my control.  But I can’t let it stop me from enjoying the outdoors either.

In Longyearbjen, Svalbard you can’t go out walking by yourself without carrying a rifle.  This precaution arises from the presence on the island of the biggest kind of bear: the polar bear.  Polar bears are iconic of course.  Like all bears we identify with them as fellow mammals and omnivores and are inclined to find them cute.  Polar bears have the additional distinction of being threatened by climate change, and serving as a symbol thereby of all that is currently going wrong with the environment.

No one wants to shoot a polar bear.  But just in case you have to scare one away… you’d rather have the ability to back up the threat of those warning shots if necessary.  If it’s me and the other researchers or the bear, I know who I’d choose.  The idea that someone will have a rifle out in the field makes me feel reassured about being an hour’s snowmobile drive from town in the middle of nowhere.

But this is a bit of a strange sensation for me, because I am usually rather uncomfortable around firearms.  I do not believe that having one at home is even a good idea for protection.  And I don’t go hunting, although I think that hunting for food is legitimate.  Hunting for sport bothers me.  And so does war.  So guns and I are not really well acquainted.  I try to avoid them and those who tote them.

My irrational fear of bears, however, drove me to try out shooting a gun.  Last Tuesday I got in the car with a friend and drove to the East side (of Lake Washington) where we I found a shooting range with a discount for ladies night.  I tried out a couple of different rifles.  No big deal.

Now, I’m not about to join the NRA, nor do I think that I’m an expert now who has any buisness carrying a gun in Svalbard – I’ll leave that to other members of our party.  The purpose of this expedition to the conservation Seattle suburbs was to demystify the rifle so that I could feel more comfortable in the situation.  And yes, it was meant to give me a false sense of security.  If I really needed to, I might be able to figure out how to fire one in an emergency.  Indeed, the purpose was to give me some irrational sense of control so that I won’t be as constantly stressed out when I’m out in the field on polar bear watch.

In any case I don’t think it did any harm to handle a firearm for the first time.  Turns out it’s not too difficult, especially with the scopes on the rifles they had at the shooting range.  Turns out it’s not so easy to find something to rent that would be intended primarily for hunting.  In fact, most people were shooting handguns.  At pictures of Osama bin Laden, as well as an assortment of zombies.

Talk about irrational fears.  Do any of those people think they’re ever actually going to run into a zombie?  The chances are about as good that they’ll ever get a clear shot at Osama bin Laden.  Is it just like a video game to them?  I will admit: I just don’t get it.  I’d feel uncomfortable, frankly, shooting at anything that had even a human form.  We worked with the little circular bullseyes which were the cheapest targets.

I guess I prefer not to think too much about the other people at ladies night, what motivates them, and how much more or less dangerous the world is as a result.  I wish them well is their legitimate endeavors.  Meanwhile, I’ll rest easy knowing that there’s no real risk of a polar bear taking a rifle from me as I fumble in panic.  If one gets close enough to me to try I’m already done for.

a fellow graduate student blog

The other graduate student making this trip to Svalbard has been blogging about previous journeys for a while (Antarctica!)  Check out what she’s had to say and awesome pictures.  I’m told we can expect updates from Svalbard from her as well.

This will be a graduate student’s perspective on a short research sojourn to the Arctic.  Furthermore, it is the narrative of a climate modeler in training, used to sitting at the computer, who is being given the opportunity to try out field work.  I’ll be doing a number of things that are new to me: driving a snow mobile, drilling ice cores, doing a little lab work, and wearing more warm clothing than has ever been required of me.  In the realm of personal development, I will have to deal with my fear of bears (polar bears are the biggest kind!), and reconcile burning so much carbon to travel the distance required to study climate in Svalbard.  I’ll be with a couple other Americans from the University of Washington as guests at the Norwegian Polar Institute in Longyearbjen for about 10 days in late April.