On Sept. 5, three unique kayakers arrived and set foot on land in Longyearbyen. Norwegian Per Gustav Porsanger, 39, and New Zealanders Tara Mulvany, 25, and Jaime Sharp, 33, became the first to paddle around Spitsbergen, Nordaustlandet, Barentsøya and Edgeøya. The trio spent 71 days achieving the feat.
Six years of planning
The trip that started from Longyearbyen on June 27 was certainly not on impulse.
"It all started in 2009, when I met Jaime Sharp," Porsanger said. "He has worked for years as a kayaking guide in Canada and New Zealand. When we met he was working as a guide in Molde one summer, having been invited there by a company which he guided the previous year."
When talk about a longer expedition came up, the two started thinking about things never before accomplished and Sharp came up with the proposal for the trip they completed this summer. Accompanying them was Mulvany who, despite her young age, has plenty of experience. She has paddled around both North Island and South Island in New Zealand. And she did it during the winter.
A 200-kilometer glacier front
Six years after the idea first surfaced, the trio launched their boats from shore. Sponsors provided the kayaks, clothing and many other things, but the adventurers nevertheless had to spend hundreds of thousands of their own money to realize their dream.
"We took it slow from Longyearbyen and ate well," Porsanger said. "The goal was to get in great paddling shape until we reached Nordaustlandet, which has a glacier front of about 200 kilometers."
He said the contrasts in Svalbard's nature made a big impression. From the alpine landscape in the west and east, the steppe landscape of peninsulas, and the glaciers and the ice faces along portions of Nordaustlandet.
Especially noteworthy is nobody has previously paddled around icy island in the northeast. This summer there was an expedition, in addition to Porsanger's, that did.
The three saw Svalbard wildlife in abundance. Walruses, seals, beluga whales, minke whales, fin whales and, not least, polar bears. The latter species was at times very close.
"We had about 40 encounters with polar bears," Porsanger said.
He said there were some close-up encounters. In Hartogbukta, midway along the glacier front of Austfonna on Nordaustlandet, he suddenly saw something moving in the water in front of his kayak.
"So I saw that there was a polar bear, and I thought 'so great' and took out my camera," Porsanger said. "But then I realized that this bear was looking out at me and us. We paddled as fast as we could. The top speed of a polar bear is near the top speed you can achieve in a kayak. The bear followed us for about ten minutes. When we realized it was becoming tired, we headed toward an ice floe. Fortunately, it climbed it up on it and gave up the hunt."
Two more pursuers
The following day was also not free of drama. Just before Vibebukta, south of Nordaustlandet, a mother bear and a cub tried to reach one of the kayakers. The 18-month-old youth was particularly aggressive, getting less than ten meters from one of the kayakers it was apparently trying to eat, Porsanger said.
The kayakers paddled in stages of 10 to 12 hours a day, with rotating two-hour shifts at night to watch for polar bears. During the numerous encounters with polar bears it was often enough for the guard to scare the animals away with noises. But not always.
"At Isispynten, outside Austfonna, we had to scare away six aggressive polar bears," Porsanger said. "When the last two arrived, there was thick fog. One male bear took 13 rifle shots and six flares to scare away."
Were they close to needing to shoot to kill?
"It was just short of that," he said. "But that was a last resort. Our expedition probably would have been finished by then."
Lucky to get through it
Porsanger said he feels he and his tour mates from New Zealand were extremely lucky to spend only 22 days ashore because of bad weather or poor ice conditions. Especially when the sun began to go down in late August, when visibility was poor and it was difficult to see polar bears, and therefore scary.
What was the most spectacular experience?
"It's hard to say, but for my part Nordaustlandet was a very special experience with a marvelous glacier landscape," Porsanger said.
The trio has since decided they will not attempt to complete the same trip again.
"I felt like we were lucky to get through the whole trip," Porsanger said. "We had only 22 days that we were weather-bound and only two days of snow. It is not certain we'd have as much luck if we tried again."
Among the more notable feats of the expedition: The longest stretch of open sea the trio paddled was 65 kilometers across Storfjorden. The longest single leg in kayak happened along Austfonna, lasting 27 consecutive hours.
Translated by Mark Sabbatini