Mittwoch, Februar 25, 2009

The Coolest Thing I Ever Did

I promised an adventure story for today, and here it is.

Almost five years ago, I had the opportunity to travel as far north as you can get in Europe: To Svalbard aka Spitsbergen, about 80° north, a group of arctic islands, as different from mainland Europe as another planet would be. We were filming some scenes and interviews for a documentary on climate change there, with a focus on the effects of global warming on arctic wildlife. Sounds boring? No, it wasn't!

The trip involved several days of speeding over frozen fjords with snowscooters, looking for the animals we were supposed to capture on video. Seals, walruses, reindeer, an amazing number and variety of seabirds, and - most importantly - polar bears. Since it can be really dangerous to encounter polar bears in the wild, we had a guard with us, a Norwegian ex-soldier who always carried a gun and never left us out of sight. He was tall, fair-haired and macho - the perfect cast for a Viking chieftain in any feature film. And it was good to have him there. One night, the bears came scouting right up to our camp. The tracks we found in the morning were proof of their presence.

Every day, we had to drive for hours to find the right spots and animals, and then had to wait patiently for even more hours to get good shots. So we used all the available daylight, worked almost around the clock, and only slept for three or four hours per night. Some of those nights we stayed on a ship that was frozen into the sea ice, to be used as basecamp for expeditions just like ours.

I will never forget that week. It was mad and frantic. We soon found out that we had to cover a vast area and didn't have nearly enough time for our film project, but there was no way to extend our stay. The trip had already cut a huge slice out of our production budget, so we had to make do. It was cold and uncomfortable at times, we were giddy from lack of sleep and the camera equipment didn't like the cold at all, so we had to be really careful not to use too much battery power - but in the end, none of that mattered. We were incredibly lucky with the weather and cooperative animals, and we managed to get breathtaking footage of arctic wildlife and landscape, plus the required interviews with resident scientists and environmentalists, of course.

Seeing those wild polar bears, seals and walruses was more amazing than I could ever describe with words. The landscape along the Svalbard coast is so beautiful that it almost physically hurt to leave the islands and fly back south. And driving that snowscooter over the snow of frozen valleys and vast stretches of sea ice, sometimes with over 100 kilometres per hour, was definitely the coolest thing I ever did.

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