Polar

Kola Peninsula – Seydozero and Semenovske lakes

In March 2014 I travelled to the Kola Peninsula in the far north of European Russia. The logistics of day 1 were interesting as it involved leaving Prague at 12.30pm, flying to St Petersburg before arriving in Murmansk at 2.30am. I repacked my bag and managed to lie down on  bench for 45mins before I went outsode to get the bus to the city centre. There I sourced some petrol for my stove whcih wasn’t easy as I had to ask a motorist to buy it for me as 5litres is the minimum buy and I just wanted 800ml! Then I took a bus, 2 hours to Olenegorsk, followed by a smaller bus to Revda one of the final settlements before the tundra wilderness extends east, arriving there at 12.30pm. After a short walk around and a visit to the local shop I met a local man with whom I spoke in Russian for several minutes.Hhe was surprised that i wanted to go alone to Seydozero lake and he gave me a good tip which was to take a taxi to the factory marking the start of the trailhead. It cost only 100rubles and was a good idea for the walk was uphill on  a boring asphalt road for 8km….

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By 2pm I had signed myself in at the office as going through to the tundra and I was soon folowed by  a few dogs as I walked through the factory and upwards toward the pass some 7km away and several hundred metres higher. I soon put the snowshoes on and made good progress, reaching the pass within a few hours. The wind was blowing hard but I was well equipped. I was slightly concerned about finding the route down but in the end it was not a major challenge although I noted that the descent seemed more favourable than coming the other way.

Gradually I made my way down and bushes started to apppear, then a few trees. By 7pm it was getting gloomy and I was tired, deciding that I had made more than enough ground for day 1. I pitched the tent, melted snow and cooked, then soon I was fast asleep. that marathon first day or 2 had taken it’s toll and I the next day i was unable to open my eyes until 9.30am due to tiredness. I got away at 11.30 and made good progress for an hour and a half. Then I decided to follow the main stream of the frozen river to the southeast before trying to take one of the tributaries that led through the Taiga. After some time it became too difficult to get through and I returned. Shortly after I crossed what seemed like a small frozen lake but I couldn’t tell as there was such a lot of snow. The air temperature was around zero and the sun was shining, completely different conditions here in the valley compared to up on the pass. I tried to get through the thick taiga but it was no use so I retraced my steps and again troed to follow another tributary. I knew that the lae was only 1 or 2km away but i was already worried due to the sunshine, warm temperatures and the site of open water. In fact, again I had to turn round. I had now spent 2.5 hours without making any headway. I decided that I must try the northern shore as there was some kind of route there. Then I met a group of Russian skiers who assured me they knew the way to Seydozero so I joined them. We found a path through the tundra and after 2 more hours we reached the end of the taiga and finally the lake. I left the Russians at this point and went to inspect the lake. It didn’t look good as where I was standing there was open water and no way across. I looked around for a bridge. a few kms away to the north I could see the snow scooter of a fisherman. I dropped my pack and went to investigate the area, searching for a crossing point. I found an ice bridge but it was a metre or so short of the other side. There was a bush to grab onto. I weighed up the situation and decided to try it. The ice gave way and soon I was up to my waist in the icy water. In a split second several things went through my mind as I simultaneously cursed outloud. AS I said I was well equipped with goretex trousers and waterproof boots. I knew that I would be ok due to the proximity of the Taiga and ironically the mild weather that which had casued the problem. So I didn’t panic but simply extracted myself slowly and deliberately and went back to my bag. I assessed the situation and decided that I must make the 15min trip to the Taiga forest for safety. I got the tent up and changed clothes before getting  a fire on. At this point I met the Russians again and ended up camping with them for that night. It is worth mentioning that due to old legends about the man “Kuyva” who appears to be stuck in the side of a cliff the local Saami people don’t like to visit Seydozero lake. For the record Kuyva was visible when I went through the ice and I am sure I shared a moment with him!

The next day I had a look again at the lake, but wisely chose to make my way back to Revda. The wind was blowing fiercely and it was very intimidating to travel alone in the conditions but I just kept telling myself, “reach the pass and it will be ok.” It took several hours but finally I made it to the pass, straight up the couloir and then a traverse, technically it wasn’t difficult but it was steep. many hours later and I had found a Taiga forest outside Revda where I made  my camp. Now I relaxed somewhat and visited the local museums and the furthest reachable outpost of Lovozero including a corral that could hold several thousand reindeer.

The second part of the trip started when I got to Murmansk for the winter swimming competition and really deserves a longer article of it’s own. It was absolutely fantastic, amazing hospitality and a very well run event. The water in the frozen Semenovske lake was cold and just right for winter swimming. There was no super marathon and instead we swum all distances up to 500m. I surprised myself and won a silver in the head up breaststroke and another silver in the 500m freestyle before our relay team took a bronze. I’ve had longer more extreme swims but on this occasion I won medals which was a great feeling. A truly magificent experience and I even managed a few more adventures as we gtried to take a car to a remote outpost called Teriberka only to be halted by a blizzard. We also sampled the local nightlife with our new found friends, the group of young interpreters who were both excellent company and very good at their jobs. Murmansk is a smashing venue for winter swimming and the welcome is very warm from the local people. They are hosting the first 1km IISA world championship in March 2015 and it will surely be a great event.

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Spitsbergen 2013, Winter swimming and polar travel

For the last few years I had been thinking more about making a trip to the arctic, combining winter swimming with traditional polar travel. This went from fanciful idea to reality, mainly as I realized that I had a lot of the necessary skills for such a trip, namely tolerance to cold, endurance and a general indifference to hardship both emotional and physical. (after dealing with a murder the former becomes easier)….

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Well, I was something of an expert in tolerance to cold water so combining this with my abilities on cross country skis which I had been developing for the last 3 years I was looking forward to the trip with relish. I had visited arctic Alaska in 2011 and on that occasion I had recieved a wake up in the form of the powerful nature and therefore I prepared well and constantly compelled my club colleague and team mate for the trip Matej to do the same. An incredibly strong man but he was yet to taste the arctic so I had to reassure him that although western Spitzbergen might not be completely extreme it would certainly be no walk in the park as we flew into 78° north roughly halfway between the Norweigian mainland and the north pole.

I prepared well and with hindsight the only mistake was with the small amount of snacks packed to be eaten each day during the short breaks from skiing, (and even that was something I suspected). I was right that I had just enough snacks for 6 hours but after that it was a problem and so was the single 0.75l thermos. I was also right that the 50g of  “hunters” salami would prove to be the tastiest of all the snacks. However, I was wrong about the  soya bars – normally I don’t really like these so I decided on 1 every 2 days but I was already cursing after I ate the first one as these things took on a wonderfully strong taste in the arctic. Unfortunately my favourite muesli bars that have worked well in temperate latitudes all year were nothing more than a taste at around 78° north. Luckily I had counted and bagged the breakfasts and evening meals perfectly even if I do say so myself although the porridge did need a little more enriching which I will correct next time by taking more semolina and an extra slab of lard. Being probably the poorest polar travellers on Spitzbergen we of course shunned the instant meals in favour of rice and red lentil based dinners, combined with various other things including salami, lard, bacon, and flavoured with herbs and spices and large amounts of garlic. A soup with extra added noodles or spaghetti ensured that we were satisfied come time to stop moving and get into the sleeping bags. A lot about food there but the body needs huge amounts of energy in the harsh cold of the polar desert.

As for the trip itself we prepared and checked all equipment including firearms. We started with full sledges at 2pm and within an hour we were out of town and into what would turn out to be a 4 hour ascent that took us from sea level to  a mountain pass that was over 700m higher.  Tricky, but we were never at our maximum, all those hours of skiing and trekking and climbing and swimming can prepare the body quite well.  A few hours later and it was more difficult, my thermos was empty and it was bothering me. We should have been making a camp but there was a general concensus to push on and make it to Rusanovs hut. I had seen Matej furiously chopping wood in the morning and I had heard him mention the hut so I already knew his intentions. Ever the optimist he was sure we would be there in an hour and of course I disagreed and I was backed up by both our maps and the GPS.

At around 10pm we reached the large valley and turned right heading for the sea, a few moments of unceratainty as light coloured animals were spotted in the dark just 50m away. However, they were reindeer and not polar bears – drama over. Finally at 1am we made it to the hut, the final 50m involved much cursing in both Czech and English language as we had to drag the sledges over an old broken bridge which in the past was used for the transport of coal. After this, it was all downhill as we never needed to put another marathon day in although we twice more racked up near 10 hour skiing days. Our average time on the skis was 7.5 hours and we covered some 140km.

Seeing as this is a blog about swimming I must mention that we made a short swim in the frozen sea, some 4 minutes and the odd seconds, so by our standards nothing more than a bath but even so it took some doing given the -18c air temperature and strong wind which sometimes took temperatures to -37c. The water itself was about -1.7c, clear with that lovely soft ice that salt water produces, less of a danger than the freshwater ice regarding cuts. However a few metres from the shore and already the ice was thicker. This was no time for heroics and the short swim was quite enough given conditions

The trip was a success and Spitbergen 2013 was the first in series of trips to combine winter swimming with polar travel. (a short movie about the trip is currently in post production) The next trip will be in winter 2014. We will build on the success of this first trip with the aim of furthering our own and others knowledge of the places we travel to and what we encounter.

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