Summer Svalbard Part 2: Petunia Bay Camp

From 2 -9th July I joined the KTH (Stockholm Royal Institute of Technology)/ Illinois University field course: Environment and Society in a changing Arctic on their trip to Petunia Bay (we named our camp ‘Avangostad’ in honor of the course leader/ benevolent dictator, Dag Avango). What an incredible and magical week this was! Coming into a group of 35 Swedish and U.S students and leaders as a stranger, to join them in their field camp in a relatively remote location in Svalbard; well, it was a leap of faith from both sides…
I’m incredibly grateful and heartened that it turned into the most amazingly rich, diverse, interesting and unique experience I could possibly have hoped for, with a fantastic bunch of passionate skilled leaders and spirited, curious and perceptive students. So breaking convention, I’m starting off the post with the massive Thank You/ tusen takk that is deserved.

After the rather lonely (albeit extremely interesting and fruitful) 10 days in Longyearbyen, it was quite a relief to be part of a group, and have others to share experiences with, an added benefit I didn’t realize I’d be so grateful for. Indeed, my original motivations for barging in on the field trip were more a mixture of logistical (finding a way to safely spend more than a couple of hours in my case study site of Pyramiden) and methodological (gaining some insights in the educational value of Svalbard) than social.

After the safety briefing (including a few hairy polar bear stories and the news that there was a mum and two cubs within the area we were headed to) and low down on how the transport and set up of camp would work (we had a LOT of stuff to get ashore in a limited time slot), combined with a very wet morning, spirits were somewhat dampened and nervous aboard the cramped tourist boat. However, along way the mist and rain lifted, course leaders were eagerly pointing out interesting features from the boat, everyone pitched in to cart things around and no one fell off the heavily loaded zodiacs. Avangostad, complete with 4 communal tents, 4 private abodes, kitchen tent and toilet suburb (only to be visited with armed escort), was raised pretty quickly.

That view and the landscape in general was quite stunning and students (myself included) did quite a lot of trying to get our heads around it, and the fact we were actually in the Arctic. For some of the Illinois students in particular it at times felt ‘too much’ even to try. The persistent (and unusual amounts of) rain at times made it feel much more like a Welsh winter excursion weather wise, than one in the Arctic desert, at least to me! There were certainly a lot of comments about the ‘sublime landscape’, as some of the key readings pre-field trip covered narratives of the Arctic.
Through a series of short and longer hikes across the rocky terrain, we delved into Arctic geological, biological and physical processes as well as investigating the human impacts and interactions with the landscape. This was an inspiring inter-disciplinary course and group of both staff and students. Indeed it was great witnessing people getting excited for completely different reasons: a particular rock formation, lichen species or rusty Russian cultural artifact/piece of junk could be something very interesting and valuable to one, or an eyesore/ something to be hiked over to another.
Over the course of the week, starting with our first small forays in the area to collect water, the illusion of being in an ‘untouched wilderness’ was eroded as we noted the extent of past mining and scientific activities in the area. These observations (and disappointments for some) speak just as much of our expectations and perceptions of the Arctic as they do of the attitudes and actions of those who arrived before us. In the (normally relatively dry) and cold conditions and vulnerable soils and vegetation, things really do stick around a long time, were it not for our walking Encyclopedia on all things cultural heritage (Dag) dating and identifying these activities would have been very tricky.  As Tomczyk and Ewertowski [1] point out, the area is accessible in Arctic terms, being a couple of hours from Longyearbyen, outside of the protected national parks and close to the previous industrial settlement, now tourist destination, of Pyramiden. As we saw for ourselves, it also is home to plenty of interesting features, species and cultural remains. We should probably not have been surprised then!
There was however, still a definite sense of the exotic about staying in Petunia bay, whether it was due to the ‘wilderness experience’ of collecting our water from the stream, being cut off from (nearly) all communications, the alien landscape of rocks, rocks and more rocks, constant daylight, making sure we were always with an armed leader or the Arctic wildlife encounters we had. Yes, we saw the polar bear mum and two cubs: it was like being in a live episode of the Polar Bear Family and Me! We also got followed by a gosling, only to then see one being carried off as dinner for an Arctic Fox forcing us to engage with questions about our role in both species survival.
Soon after this, we were hiking up steep terrain to get up close to the Sven Glacier. Being in close vicinity to such large bodies of ice (including hearing the thunderous cracks from across the fjord coming from the massive Nordenskiold Glacier) that have shaped the whole area is pretty humbling. Looking at maps from the 80s, we saw that the nearby Hørbye glacier had retreated some 2 kilometres in 30 years. Though glacial retreat can’t be traced back entirely to climatic variation, this is a pretty big indication Svalbard’s landscape is not immune to the global climatic changes we are setting in motion.
Before we went back to civilization, we discussed how the experience might have an effect on us in the future and the impressions and questions we are left with. Several engineering students had become more aware of environmental impacts and expected to apply this in the future, whilst others hoped to report back on environmental impacts to others. We assessed the impacts we had had on the area through our activities and questioned definitions of wilderness and nature. Though I might have been the only geographer in the group officially, I felt I was coming out of a very well-designed geography field trip which happened to have some expert historians and arctic literary scholars along too. It would be great to see more collaborations like this, everyone learnt a great deal, not just from the teaching and field work, but from each other too.

There’s so much more I could say about this week, but perhaps I’ll leave some of the rest to other people… our one channel to the outside world was through a series of group blog posts (the English titled ones on this page), only some of which made it through the solar–powered satellite link, so there is more from me and the other students there, a post from Annika Nillson who joined us for some of the week, and one of the students (Tim Artman) has also made a great little video collage of the whole trip!

I’m going to have to leave the mysteries of the abandoned town of Pyramiden and working town of Barentsburg to be uncovered for another post…

[1] Tomczyk, A., Ewertowski, M. (2010) ‘Changes Of Arctic Landscape Due To Human Impact, North Part of Billefjorden Area, Svalbard’, Quaestiones Geographicae, 29(1), 75–83.

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