Shrouded in Fog and Intrigue
As the sun fights its way through a shroud of fog, you’ll feel as if you’ve slipped silently into a chilling chapter of an Alistair MacLean thriller.
Look over there. That man on your left, with the pencil-thin mustache, pleated trousers and piercing gaze. Is he who he claims to be? What about that woman who dines alone each night though she radiates a certain classic charm while sipping Veuve Clicquot? Seems a bit curious, don’t you think? And that handsome officer with a chiseled chin and golden locks? Is he who he purports to be, or merely an actor chosen from a cast of thousands during a cattle call in a smoky Hollywood screening room? For that matter… who am I, really? Am I that executive with the international successes I’ve boasted about or is that just a web of lies, a fabrication, a cover-up, a character I’ve concocted to conceal my true identity?
Mystery surrounds us all like a long dark cloak now that we skirt the shores of Bear Island.
The Truth Be Told
With that flight of fantasy behind us, the truth can be told.
Most of us are who we claim to be and we are truly passing into the realm of travel where few of our fellow men have or will ever have venture. Bear Island is our destination. It seems to hang precariously to the southern tip of Norway’s Svalbard archipelago where the icy waters of the Barents Sea churn. Your navigator will tell you it’s 74 degrees 31 minutes north, and that clearly explains why your armchair traveling friends haven’t been here.
You’ll need your navigator friend to find this remote speck of land as it measures a mere 68.7 square miles. Few others have found it, for only 9 people (unless there’s been some sort of recent snit) live here, sent to man the island’s meteorological outpost. Throngs don’t flock here since the warmest summer months register a bracing 39.9 degrees Fahrenheit and Spitsbergen is 146 miles away by bouncy boat. Plus, the shoreline is ringed with towering cliffs not sandy beaches.
But Bear Island wasn’t always so lonely. After its discovery in 1596 by Willem Barents, for whom the sea was named, and fellow Dutch explorer Jacob van Heemskerk, adventurers seeking their fortunes in whaling and fishing as well as coal mining arrived by the boatload. So, too, those who hunted seals and walruses, or gathered seabird eggs until that practice was halted in 1971. Their villages remain somewhat intact, even today, including the one at Kvalrossbukta.
For the record, walruses are the ones that look like they’re clowning around with straws stuck up under the upper lip. But they didn’t used to have fun when they were hunted not only for these impressive ivory tusks but also for their bone and blubber, meat and skin. Scientists believe there are fewer than 250,000 in the wild, counting both the Pacific and Atlantic groups. Though Atlantic walruses are quite big, just know that large males in the Pacific can weigh two tons and their tusks can reach more than three feet in length and weigh 12 pounds. Even so, polar bear and orca do hunt walruses for their dining pleasure.
More factoids -- many claim the Vikings were here before the Dutch and perhaps that is true though recorded history didn’t begin until 1596. And arctic foxes are sighted here though no polar bears are in residence on a permanent basis. The odd stray does linger longer occasionally. So, too, two delicacies on a polar bear’s menu – the bearded seal and the ringed seal.
A Flag Flies over Bear Island Today
Norway’s, in fact, but that wasn’t always so. The English flew their colors then struck them when the packs of walruses played out. Imperial Germany and Imperial Russia came next, shadowing each other and secretly jockeying for position. Each was well aware of the island’s significance and strategic location in the Barents Sea as it was right in the crosshairs of the sea-lanes between Murmansk, White Sea ports and the mighty Atlantic. The Germans launched attacks against the Soviet Union’s warships not far from where you sail today. Some missions were more successful than others while the war raged on in 1942 and 1943. 1944 was when the Soviets attempted to assert their ownership of Bear Island by tossing aside The Svalbard Treaty. These intentions were dashed when the war ended.
Back to Words and Songs
Well, as the day unfolds, curl up with a dog-eared copy of Bear Island with your earphones on. Read MacLean’s words about Bear Island being the “wartime graveyard of the Arctic, where Nazi subs lay in wait.” Or, for a lighter read, there’s always Lewis Carroll’s poem The Walrus and the Carpenter. Then dial in 1967 Beatles tune I Am the Walrus.
It’s all so… “Goo goo g’joob. Goo goo g’joob. Goo Goo g’joob.”