Ryszard Siwecki, 63, of Poland, was a young student in an oppressive communist regime who encountered freedom for the first time 40 years ago in Svalbard. Now he is back in Longyearbyen and has completed his life's project.
"Finally, we managed it, " he said with an emotion-laden voice and glossy eyes.
Together with his son Adam Siwecki, 31, and two scientist friends, the software developer and former scientist circumnavigated Spitsbergen in two zodiac inflatable boats.
Twenty-eight days and 1,550 kilometers an open, small boats in all types of weather.
This is – as best as former Svalbardposten editor and zodiac enthusiast Birger Amundsen can remember – is the first time someone has circled the island in such a craft.
Siwecki was twice before cheated out of completing the round trip.
"The dream has been there long. In 1980, I was a member of a team that was preparing an expedition in boats around Spitsbergen, but I did not get off work. They did not make it completely around and organized a new trip a few years later. But then I had met my wife and could not join," he said with a smile.
The trip had two purposes: adventure and science. Siwecki explained how amphipods – small crustaceans that can be seen wriggling frantically when you lift a rock on the shore – can say something about climate change.
"We looked at two interesting species," he said. "One lives in warm Atlantic water, while the other is set in cold, Arctic water. Here in Svalbard, we can see where the border between them is going."
"And that the boundary is moving northward as it gets warmer."
The expedition periodically collected amphipods when they made landfalls. They will be submitted to the Polish Academy of Sciences, which heads the so-called Svalbard Intertidal Project, for analysis.
"Now we have gathered data from one season around the Spitsbergen," he said. "That has never been done before. Forty years ago we found out that the border between the two species went by Sørkapp. Last year it was in Isbukta on the east coast. Where are they now?"
The project this year received a 185,000-kroner grant from the Svalbard Environmental Protection Fund.
The rest was paid from participants' own pockets. Siwecki's eyes again got smooth and dreamy eyes as he reminisced about the second goal of the trip - adventuring with good friends.
In Hamburg Bay, just south of Magdalenefjord they encountered bad weather and Kjell Glendrange, a retired firefighter who was also looking to pursue his dream: to reach as far north as he could.
"He was all alone in a small boat, shooting a seal and cooking steaks," Siwecki said. "The Polish yacht Solanus came by and we had a really fun party, even though there was bad weather. A female bear with cubs came by and ate the rest of the carcass."
Navigating a zodiac through the exposed waters of Svalbard can't be described as dry, warm or comfortable.
But they had one big advantage: the boats could be fitted with wheels and instantly pulled up on the beach. That was not only fun after a long day, but also a safety measure if conditions suddenly got worse. But he said twice they ran into difficulties.
"The first time was when we went from Verlegenhuken to Sorgfjorden," he said. "There was very strong wind from the east and high waves. We didn't have a fuel deposit lying there, but there was an agreement with the Solanus to get some from them. They were waiting for us and we had to move on. It was hard and a little dangerous, but we did it."
The second episode took place in the narrow Heleysundet between east Spitsbergen and Kükenthaløya when strong tidal currents arose.
"We met huge icebergs that came rushing towards us," he said with a chuckle. "It was like driving in the wrong lane on the highway."
Much has changed in Longyearbyen since 1975, when Siwecki visited the archipelago for the first time. But some things are constant.
"People are different; conditions are different," he said. "But it is still so beautiful and free. Poland was a communist country at that time and it was quite a shock to experience this."
"I really love Spitsbergen," he concluded. "It's one of my favorite sites on Earth."
Translated by Mark Sabbatini