Previously I have always been in a rush to get around the island of Spitsbergen within a sixteen-day timescale so that usually means turning left out of Longyearbyen and heading for the open sea. However, to the right lie the upper reaches of Isfjorden, an often-ignored wilderness of Arctic tundra, huge escarpments and remote glaciers. In fact, the fjord extends so deep into the island of Spitsbergen that it almost cuts it in two. For instance, the large glacier Nordenskjöldbreen that flows into the head of Billefjorden leads directly to the ice cap of Olav V Land on the east coast. I felt sure that some of the wildlife that is commoner on the east coast probably uses these routes across the island and whilst we couldn’t find any bears during our time in Isfjorden (there had been at least one around two weeks earlier) we did see Sabine’s and Ivory Gulls here.
Passing this way also allowed a not-to-be-missed opportunity to visit the abandoned Russian mining settlement at Pyramiden (after the mountain of the same name that overlooks the town). I must admit to finding post-industrial decay fascinating, maybe it goes back to growing up on Tyneside in the 1970s surrounded by similar scenes but I also know that such places usually very quickly become havens for wildlife. I heard that Pyramiden was very good for Arctic Foxes and this proved to be worth the admission price alone.
The rickety old wooden jetty gave an idea of what was to come, a ramshackle decaying Arctic town, much of which is being allowed to lie where it falls. Pyramiden and its coal rights were bought in 1926 by Russia but it was not until after WWII that it flourished as a coal mining community. By 1989 there were 715 men, 228 women and 71 children living there. However, it was abandoned in 1998 owing to poor coal reserves and quickly fell into disrepair. We were picked up in a rather smart Russian bus and transferred to the hotel, which acts as the hub for the tourist activities, which are obviously growing in popularity. Our expedition leader, Phil Wickens, remembers only a couple of people living here not so long ago but there are now 30, employed as guides and hotel workers.
Opposite the hotel, there is a large kittiwake colony nesting on the old workers’ accommodation building, occupying every window ledge and overflowing onto surrounding buildings and even onto the swings in the adjacent derelict children’s playground. The settlement is a fascinating step back in time to the Soviet era and we were lucky to be allowed inside five buildings: the workers’ canteen, Yuri Gagarin Sports Centre, Swimming Pool, Cinema and the school. Most are now in a state of decay, minus much of their furniture and some have been tidied up a bit unfortunately, presumably to make them a little safer. I particularly liked the canteen and its awesome polar scene mural in the main dining hall. It struck me that whereas I am usually amazed at how much older than expected other artefacts are in Svalbard, I was equally stunned to learn how comparatively new the derelict Russian buildings are, thanks to a combination of shoddy Soviet era workmanship and the harsh winter environment.
It was not just the old buildings that were of interest, a pair of Long-tailed Jaegers flew over the jetty. We saw four separate Arctic Foxes, including two dark morphs (or ‘Blue Foxes’). Those up by the mine workings were taking numerous bits of kittiwake presumably to stash for the winter and the one that walked up to us by the jetty was particularly tame. The flora was good too, with Woolly Lousewort common (although now over) and of thistle proportions! Polar Dandelion and Arctic White Campion were growing everywhere among the buildings and Yellow Mountain Saxifrage was even to be found in coal deposits. A few of us had an evening in the bar of the restaurant sampling some nice Russian beer before hiking back to SV Noorderlicht and the 21st century. Thanks to Captain Floris Spikermann Immink and his crew of SV Noorderlicht and also to our expedition leader Phil Wickens for making the Pyramiden visit possible.