To be honest, my first impression of Spitzbergen, the big island in the Svalbard archipeligo was pretty harsh. I tried to imagine living my life in Longyearbyen. It may have been an interesting place to visit, but live there…no way. My impression might have something to do with the fact that ever since I moved to the redwoods, I have become a big wuss about being cold. It might also be because living in a temperate rainforest has caused me to become somewhat conditioned to think that scenic beauty needs to be lush, big, green and in-your-face spectacular. From what I had seen so far in these brief two days, this island cluster is anything but green and lush. But Arctic beauty has a way of sneaking up on you…
For the most part, Spitzbergen is a giant metamorphic rock with a ton of glacial ice on top. There is not a lot of wildlife. Only 10% of the archipeligo has any sort of vegetation on it. Conditions are exceedingly harsh.
Spitzbergen means “sharp peak”, and the island is aptly named. The mountains are pencil tip pointy, due to eons of glacial carving. They are like the teeth of some geologic Kraken, rising up out of the Arctic ocean trying to tear into the Explorer.
As we cruised the coast, avoiding the Kraken, the ship tucked into a fjord. We were looking for polar bears and other marine mammals. Every where I looked I saw nothing but glaciers and mountains. Glaciers and mountains. I wasn’t really appreciating their beauty. I was focused on seeing wildlife, but no form of life was visible from the deck of the ship. Not a scrap. I was cold and frustrated.
That all changed when we pulled deeper into the fjord and made our way to “Stephen’s Garden”. The scene there reminded me of the dandelions that somehow found a way to push through the asphalt playgrounds of my childhood. On Spitzbergen, if you know where to look (or go with someone who knows), and are patient, the dandelions are there. Life finds ways to flourish, even in the roughest conditions.
Stephen’s Garden is underneath a set of sea cliffs and sits next to the 14th of July glacier. Scores of Kittiwakes nest in the steep, inhospitable cliffs to avoid getting preyed on. When the glacier calves, and drops an ice berg, these birds scour the ocean , searching for little marine critters to feed on. After feeding time, they fly back up to the cliffs to roost and digest their meal. And then they poop. A lot. This waste provides the basis for a productive food web. Reindeer meander amongst the Purple saxifrage browsing on lichen. An Arctic fox wanders under the cliffs, waiting for a kittiwake chick to plummet to its death. Lush in a subtle way, Stephen’s Garden WAS in your face spectacular…you just have to be patient and look closely.