A Polar Bear Encounter During Our Overnight Snowmobiling Adventure in Svalbard

I’d never been on a snowmobile before my trip to Svalbard. Yep, you read that right… never.  So you may think that signing up for an overnight (2 full days of snowmobiling) in a location so close to the North Pole is insane. It was and it also happened to be one of my favorite experiences to date. Planning our 4 days in Svalbard was easy. We wanted to do ice caving and we wanted to see a polar bear–hopefully. Due to our limited research we knew that the best way to potentially see a polar bear was to head out of the town of Longyearbyen. In order to maximize our chances we thought it best to do 2 days of polar sledding (that’s what the Swedes & Norwegian’s call it). There are multiple routes that can be taken on day trips out of Longyearbyen so we decided to call Svalbard Wildlife Expeditions to get their professional opinion on which routes would be the best for polar bear sightings. Immediately they offered us their overnight, 2-day wildlife safari and without hesitation we said yes. We really had no idea what we were getting ourselves into, but we were excited.

The gorgeous glacier views of Svalbard

After a flight through Oslo to Svalbard we arrived in the evening and checked into Guesthouse 102. We spent the following day on an ice caving excursion and spent the afternoon exploring the town of Longyearbyen. The day after, our wildlife safari arrived and we were picked up at our Guesthouse by Svein, our guide for the next 2 days, and taken to their base camp in town.

Ready to embark on our 2-day snowmobile safari in SvalbardWe were fitted with our snowmobile suits, gloves, boots and helmets to keep us toasty warm for the duration of our trip. The handlebars of the snowmobiles were also heated so that was an added bonus to keep us warm. Our small group of 5 packed up the large steel containers, filled with our personal bags, food, emergency kits, satellite phone, flare gun and other essentials before heading out into the arctic tundra. These containers were loaded on sledges and attached to three of the snowmobiles.

Heading out on the polar sleds out of Longyearbyen in Svalbard

The First Day

Before heading out, Svein gave us a quick beginner’s tutorial on how to properly drive a snowmobile. It didn’t seem that hard, thankfully, because in a flash we were off! It wasn’t long before the town of Longyearbyen was far out of sight and all that lied in front of us were vast amounts of snow covered mountains.

Ice and snow for miles in the Svalbard tundraWe drove east for many miles, passing over the Sassendalen valley and stopping occasionally to make sure everyone was okay. During these moments we checked for any wildlife and admired the view . It was a gorgeous day with sunny blue skies, minimal wind and good visibility. We continued along until we reached Templefjorden, which is the location of the Noorderlicht (ship in the ice), a schooner that is frozen into the ice.

Covered head to toe in our warm snowsuits for our snowmobiling in SvalbardIt was here that we passed by some fellow snowmobilers who informed us that they had spotted a polar bear nearby. Following Svein, we slowly & safely proceeded in the direction of the polar bear’s last sighting. Finally, quite a distance away, was a polar bear!

Our polar bear sighting near Templefjorden in SvalbardIt was an exciting and humbling moment seeing such an incredible predator in the wild with only yards of snow-covered ice separating it and us. Watching the polar bear from afar we poured hot water in our Real Turmat freeze-dried food bags and ate lunch while taking turns peering at the bear through the lens of our cameras and binoculars.

The polar bear we saw at a safe distance in SvalbardThe polar bear eventually took his seal snack and disappeared behind a large boulder and was out of sight. We hopped back on our snowmobiles and drove just a little further before stopping at the Von Post & Tuna Glaciers to have a little fun running around in the snow. It is way more difficult than you think to run in those huge snowsuits and heavy boots!

Excited to be standing in front of the glacier in SvalbardFinding it hard to run in the snow in SvalbardIn the sunlight, the towering glaciers glowed a pristine blue and sparkled with the fresh snow. Just before driving off we stopped to investigate the unlikely fate of the polar bears latest seal snack.

The pristine blue glacier near Templefjorden in Svalbard

Back on the snowmobiles again we drove out of the Von Post and Tuna Glaciers and continued on past Tempelfjorden when the weather started to decline. We ended up turning back and choosing a different route to avoid any mishaps.

One of the trappers cabin located in SvalbardWe made a brief stop at a trapper’s cabin in Fjordnibba that now serves as a shelter for anyone who may need to get out of the inclimate weather or for safety. These trapper’s cabins can be found in additional locations around Svalbard. We drove our sleds up the Colorado Plateau to for better views over the valley.

The sun setting over the snow in SvalbardSoon after, we continued our journey back through Sassendalen eventually reaching Fulmardalen where we drove through a beautiful canyon. The sun had almost set, turning the snowy ground into a ocean blue landscape dotted with arctic fox footprints. The drive from the canyon to our “cabin” was about another 45 minute drive.

We finally made it to Skrulsbreen, the location of our cabin, after snowmobiling for 120 kilometers (75 miles). Our cabin for the evening can best be described as a large storage container chained into the snow.

Our overnight cabin in SvalbardAt first we were quite skeptical but it ended up being a lot of fun. It had a tiny stove near the entry, a small freestanding gas stove and a table with benches that doubled as a bed. On top of the table was a 2 feet tall sleeping bunk where us girls ended up sleeping. It ended up being very cozy since we lined the bunk with reindeer skins and had heavy duty sleeping bags.

The small space inside our cabin in the middle of nowhere, SvalbardSvein served us beef stew for dinner and after we ate we all got ourselves ready for bed. To go to the bathroom we had to crack open the door to our cabin, wave our flashlights around to check for polar bears and slowly proceed outside and continue to check our surroundings the entire time we were out there. Back in our cabin, we climbed from the top of the table and slid into our bunk, strategically rotating our bodies to fit in the small space. The wind picked up overnight and there were moments when I was convinced that we would wake up in an overturned cabin the next morning.

The cabin where we stayed for our overnight excursion in Svalbard

The Second Day

Waking up the next morning we were served a breakfast of eggs and bacon before packing our sleds back up for our second day of polar sledding. Another guide, Frederic, met us at our cabin and would be our 6th person for the remainder or our 180 kilometer (112 miles) journey.

Heading out for our second day of snowmobiling in SvalbardToday’s ride began much windier and colder than the day prior. We headed out of Skrulsbreen just as it began snowing thus decreasing our visibility. We passed through Elfenbeinbreen before continuing on towards Agardhdalen.

Driving along the edge of the coast in Svalbard looking for polar bearsThis area was on the coast where a steep cliff dropped off into freezing waters covered with floating ice chunks. We took a moment to see if any seals or polar bears could be spotted but unfortunately there wasn’t any wildlife.

The many icebergs floating along the coast of SvalbardDespite the strong winds and impending storm clouds, we continued along the coast where the terrain became much steeper, icier and rockier (the Norwegians call this type of terrain moreana). Svein made the call to turn around and head back to safer ground. Due to the strong winds, icy terrain and weight of the snowmobile I had to literally lean completely off the scooter with my handlebars cocked all the way to one side just to not slide right off the cliff! The only thoughts going through my head in that moment was that I was ready to abandon the scooter and let it fly into the icy ocean. Luckily that didn’t happen and we all made it back to safe ground. We continued over a glacier and through a valley until we reached Kjellsromdalen and stopped at a cabin, similar to the one we stayed in, for another Real Turmat meal.

Our snowmobiles parked on the Templefjorden in SvalbardThe high winds didn’t stop and although it made it feel as though you were floating on a cloud, it was very difficult to see in anything surrounding you. There could have been a polar bear closer to us than we knew! We drove longer, again making a few stops along the way, passing by Sveagruva. Sveagruva is a very small coal mining town where the miners fly in from Longyearbean for 1 or 2 weeks at a time working 12 hour shifts before flying home for their days off.

The small coal mining town of Svea located in SvalbardWe drove our scooters around Sveagruva and continued on passing through Reindalen (reindeer valley). Just as the name implies there were many reindeer wandering and eating along the mountain. We stopped for a moment to stretch our legs and I was able to get quite close to a baby reindeer who had the smallest antlers.

The adorable baby reindeer in SvalbardAfter our brief stop we continued on through Semmeldalen before passing through Adventdalen. There was a very steep hill where I had to press firmly on the gas to make sure that I got up it. Some members of our group didn’t make it up so Svein had to go back and help them, leaving myself and 2 others with a flare gun and some simple instructions: “There aren’t usually many bears around here. But just in case, make sure you shoot in front of the bear, not at it, and not behind it as to scare it into running towards you.” Needless to say, I waited on my snowmobile ready to fly out of there if the need arose. It didn’t, luckily.

The vast expanse of snow and ice in SvalbardOnce the entire group had successfully made it up the hill we all drove off through the Longyear Glacier towards the sparkling city lights of Longyearbyen in the distance.

That evening, after we returned the snowmobiles and said our good-byes to Svein, we settled comfortably back into our room at Guesthouse 102. During dinner we spoke to some of the fellow travelers who had been on a day trip to the east coast but had to turn around due to the snowstorm and had been unsuccessful in spotting any polar bears. We felt incredibly lucky that we were able to experience the beauty of a polar bear in the wild during our overnight snowmobile safari. Despite some of the rough weather on the second day, this expedition was absolutely incredible and I would love to have another opportunity to embark on this journey again.

Our fancy snowmobiles parked in the snow in Svalbard

During our two day snowmobile expedition we traveled a total distance of 300 kilometers (186 miles). In the vast expanse of nothing but snow and ice, you will feel as though you are a part of the nature and the landscape. We went hours without seeing other people and I loved the feeling of solidarity that came with that.

Svalbard Wildlife Expeditions offer a wide array of trips, ranging from day trips to multi-day expeditions. We chose the 2 day snow mobile wildlife safari trip and rented the sleeping bag for an extra cost of 300 NOK. When we were not on our overnight snowmobile expedition we stayed at the cozy Guesthouse 102.

Our group posing with the stunning glacier backdrop in Svalbard

So, what are you waiting for? Would you like to seek out adventure in Svalbard on an overnight snowmobiling trip?

 

 

 

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