December 11, 2014

The Land of the North

Images and word by Jonatan Hedberg

About halfway between Norway and the North Pole, in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, lies an archipelago called Svalbard — a remote place of breathtaking beauty.

The landscape is spectacular. It’s dominated by high mountains, vertical cliffs dropping straight into the sea, large glaciers and fjords — and hardly any people at all. For someone who loves landscapes, there is not much more one could ask for.

Despite the isolated and harsh environment, there is an abundance of wildlife here in the summer including migrating seabirds, reindeer, arctic fox, seals, walrus, and several species of whale. It is also home to the king of the Arctic — the iconic symbol of Svalbard that draws many people here — the polar bear.

In late June 2014 I boarded the M/S Origo, my home for the coming 9 days, headed to Svalbard. M/S Origo is an ice strengthened Swedish expedition vessel and has sailed these arctic waters for the past 20 years. Built in 1955, she has all the charm of an old lady — in all of the best ways.

On this expedition we were a group of twelve photographers and two guides, representing seven different nationalities. Travelling with such a small group gave us enormous flexibility and was pure luxury compared to my previous trip here, which was on a much larger ship with a very mixed group.

This far up north you have approximately 120 days of midnight sun, with the sun never setting between mid April and mid August. Your need for sleep is more or less the only limiting factor when it comes to photography.

For the majority of our trip we had overcast or partially cloudy days, as well as some snow and times of incredibly poor visibility. This suited me just fine as I personally feel like a clear blue sky is to landscape photography what a city pigeon is to wildlife —bland and boring.

We set out to circumnavigate the main island, Spitsbergen. The two largest islands are separated by Hinlopenstretet, a long narrow strait which turned out to be full of pack ice. Usually by this time of year the sea ice has retreated further north, leaving the strait and the northern part of the islands relatively ice free.

Luckily we had a very determined captain who knew his stuff. Getting through took most of the night and required a look-out in the mast navigating the easiest route through the ice. Eventually we made it through as the first vessel of the season.

We saw a total of nine polar bears during this trip — seven of them during the same night. Unfortunately none of them took any interest in us and they all kept their distance. This all happened on their terms; they are not chased and it is them who choose to approach us. Or not, in this case. Still, seeing the world’s largest land carnivore in its arctic realm is truly magnificent.

We did however have several fantastic close encounters with other animals. We saw walrus on many occasions, both on land in big colonies lying on the beach and also while cruising around the pack ice in small rubber boats. These are huge animals; very slow and clumsy on land, but extremely agile when in the water — and very interested in people.

We also had several harbor seals very close to us swimming around the rubber boats and popping their heads up to look at us.

Despite being my second time here, I can’t wait to go back. Being in the high arctic, past the 80th parallel north and knowing that there is only ice separating you from the North Pole, is a hard feeling to describe. It is a magical area and among the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. When nature makes you feel this small and insignificant you know that you are in a good place.

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