By Jamie Sharp
On the 5th of September, a team of three kayakers completed the first ever kayak circumnavigation of Svalbard Archipelago. The 2200km long journey took them 71 days, during which they paddled north over the 80th parallel, had many encounters with polar bears, negotiated ice choked waters, survived gales, and endured days of freezing temperatures in the Arctic wilderness.
The team consisted of New Zealanders Jaime Sharp and Tara Mulvany, as well as Per Gustav Porsanger from Norway. It was Sharp who first envisioned the trip six years ago and brought the team together. He states, “I had dreamt of doing a trip like this since I was a kid, Arctic exploration in my mind is the plateau of any pursuit and of course every adventurer dreams of claiming a “world first”. Even after watching the failed attempts previously over the last 6 years, I was still drawn to do the trip, and this year it all fell into place as if it was meant to be.” In late 2014 the dream began turning into a reality and with Mulvany and Porsanger onboard they began organising, planning and preparing for the expedition which they expected to take between 2-3 months.
Situated in the Arctic Ocean between 76-81 degrees north, Svalbard Archipelago has seen a number of attempts by expedition kayakers over the years, the last being in 2010 when two Norwegian paddlers were attacked by a polar bear while sleeping in their tent. In order to save the man, who the polar bear had dragged from the tent by his head, the other had to shoot the bear dead while not hitting his mauled team mate. Despite this known harsh reality, Sharp’s dream persisted.
With the constant threat of polar bears the kayakers slept in shifts with one person awake at all times on ‘polar bear watch’ to guard their camp. Numerous times they were forced to use rifles and signal gun shots to scare away bears, some in excess of 800kg and which came within 50m of their camp. They saw a total of 40 bears during their expedition. The most intense encounter required 13 rifle rounds and six flash bangs to repel a single bear, only to have yet another one come at the group only a minute later. “Sometimes you just have to use the rifle” Porsanger states bluntly. Thankfully the group never had to shoot a polar bear in defence, which by Norwegian law would have brought their trip to a premature end.
Apart from the bears, one of their biggest challenges was a 180km uninterrupted glacial front, with waters often choked with ice debris, which took them over two days to cover including one last push of more than 26 hours of continuous paddling until they could step on solid ground again. For 17 hours of this endeavour they were also surrounded by thick fog and had to navigate by compass. Mulvany describes this experience as being, “Brutal yet beautiful, and totally surreal.”
They also tackled a number of long open water crossings across the fiords, the biggest being 65km which took them 15 hours of paddling before they landed on the other side.
In their 18-foot long sea kayaks they carried more than 50 days worth of food, as well as rifles, camping gear and everything else that they needed to be self sufficient for months at a time. Along the way they had one food resupply, which they had organised for a small cruise boat to drop for them approximately 500km into their journey.
Some of their highlights included sleeping atop a low section of glacial cliff, many encounters with wildlife including walrus, belugas, humpbacks and fin whales, as well as swimming polar bears who, despite attempting to eat the kayakers, where one of the most memorable moments of the trip.
When asked if they would do it again, the unanimous opinion was “No.” Sharp states, “we where so lucky with many things, not just the sea ice breaking and allowing us to pass, but the weather… We had a weather year like no other, and all the locals scoffed in disbelief on our return when we told them how little wind we had the whole trip. We hit the jackpot. This kinda trip is about being prepared and able yes, though there is a reason so many have failed before. I believe Svalbard is 70% luck, she has to want you to succeed.”
Further information about their journey can be found at www.svalbard.worldwildadventure.com
Contact: Jaime Sharp