The Big Day
Svalbard, 2008

Svalbard, the Norwegian arctic
Early February 2008
Day 1

The Central America Surf Expedition 2004/2005 appears to be more off track than ever before. I am currently at 78° north, in the arctic settlement/miner town of Longyearbyen, probably 10000 miles away from any coconut palm tree. The morale of the expedition is high, even if the time schedule and budget have been thoroughly blown. We have firm confirmation that we enjoy the full support and understanding of the expedition backers.

Med lua i hånda: The expedition posing outside Basecamp Alpha (aka Rica Hotel Spitsbergen).

Svalbard is an archipelago out in the icy Barentz sea, and isn't really the typical island destination for a surf expedition. This is so far into the arctic that the comparable distance into Antarctica would be miles and miles into the actual continent.

So there will be no surfing. I'm not going to pretend, even..

However, while on the subject, with 3,587 km of coastline and unbroken sea miles to North Pole storms and Atlantic swell, Svalbard might be an untapped source of adventurous surf. With global warming, the mean temperature in Svalbard has risen 6 degrees and I can note by observation that the fjords are not iced over at winter time - this might mean some good opportunities for some cold water surf. However, it's quite out of the question to explore this further without a significant sponsorship of a very trustworthy wet-suit manufacturer. Regard this as a helpful hint for the next lost surf expedition.

The airport had a frozen lake as a landing strip until 1975 and was closed down by attacking polar bears as late as last year, but LYB comes off as a modern and hospitable welcome to the North. Even more so when, after running through snowy polar winds from the little plane and into the terminal, a lovely polar wahine gives us a glass of Champagne. Turns out there's a jazz festival going on.

Note: In the current phase of the expedition, "We" are, with areas of responsibility, the following:

  1. Jonas (my brother): Transportation
  2. Angela (girlfriend): Amusement
  3. Mats*: Communication

*exp. leader

The aim of the expedition is the standard one: examine good living. So we're gonna have some fun.

Sounds slack, eh?

Well, this is the fricking arctic. a-r-c-t-i-c. More likely we will be locked up in some researchers' sleeping quarters, playing Scrabble and snacking on military rations for four days while polar storms tear apart the snowy desert outside, before we finally run back to the airplane in relief, never mind the expedition being a complete failure. We'll have skin flaking off in frozen chunks, hiding inside to catch some heat only to dress up like spacemen to go out do nature's business in turns while the others mans the rifle to keep bears on a safe distance (you can never leave a Svalbard settlement without a gun. You are actually not allowed to.)

Or so, more or less, we think before we leave. We know only two things, the sun will not rise while we're there and the temperatures can go way below -20°C (That's -4° F). So we chickened out on the plane and added a secondary objective: See the Aurora Borealis.

-I'm happy as long as I get to see the northern lights!

Longyearbyen, southern part.

Svalbard, the Norwegian arctic
Early February 2008
Day 2: The Big Day.

In the warm sofa at basecamp things seemed straight forward. We had waffles (oh God, did we have waffles), hot chocolate and beers (even Coronas, but mostly local brand Mack - "local" as in being from Tromsø city, probably 1000km away, most likely making it the worlds least local local brand), red wine and curiously gourmetish delicacies from the kitchen. Like the forest mushroom soup. Or the breakfast buffét. In the red Chesterfield skin of the lounge it felt natural to plan some adventures. When the warm radiance from the fireplace lighted the pictures it almost seemed cozy out there in the frost.

So we signed up. And when the 100 Alaskan Huskies bark and howl at us in the staggering darkness and piercing cold of the arctic night, eager and frisky in anticipation of the trip about to come, and we can hardly hear through the balaclavas and spacesuit polstering, we regret not a thing.


Here's some practical things to know about the cold: There are two temperatures, namely real and perceived, whereas the latter includes what is known as wind chill, the cooling effect of the wind. You may want to keep things simple and stick to the real temperature. However, if you do, you will realize that the temperature you actually experience is, well, the perceived temperature. This will very likely bring you to start referring to temperature with two numbers from then on, as Svalbard people do.

Furthermore: If you make sure 98% of your body is warm, that does not mean you are 98% warm out of a maximum of 100%. That means 2% of your body will be an agonizing spot of freezing nightmare that completely overshadows whatever comfort the rest of your body may enjoy. Try smashing the tip of your finger with an hammer. Did your comfort level sink by 0.5%? That is how cold works as well.

This effect increases when the speed of motion increases, see point 1.

If this sounds a bit, you know, arrogant, know-it-all-style, it is just the tone of voice to use when, you know, the knowledge is home-spun.

A brave, but mild, Mats, facing the cold.

Dog-sledding on Svalbard feels about like this: It is like dropping in on a wave, standing up and being in control, and then the wave is 60000 kilometers long and you can keep on surfing it by yourself for three weeks while friendly, furry dolphins follow you around.

Conversely, if you fall off, your equipment will run away and you will have to spend three days hunting it down while eating reindeer droppings and lichen for nutrition, in a race against time to stay alive for longer than the pooches so they can get you back to Longyearbyen. Anyways, it's pretty good fun, just hold on to the sled at all times. Seriously, hold on to that sled.

Spaceboy, spacegirl

At the end of the Bolterdalen (Bolter Valley) we tie up the dogs and enter a hole hidden beneath a little snow and some branches, submerging into a 300m glacier cave. Crawling at our knees at times, walking through caverns at other, we find a frozen vista left there for us to realize there is really magical things in the world, just as in the movies and fantastic stories. We are invited in through icy stalactites and sparkling icicles that at times feel like the inside of a giant diamond, at other turns reminds us that we are 50 meters down and between two parts of an actual glacier that might at any time simply crush us.

From the first tight tunnel, when I think I have crawled the wrong way through a tight corner, try to back up and realize my backpack is stuck to the roof so I can't go backwards, the underworld cathedral is breathtaking both through claustrophobia and beauty.

Some local signs to break things up:

This might go without saying on mainland Norway. But this is very far from mainland Norway.

And since this wasn't pointed out on the previous poster: Guns are not allowed in the bank either.

Back to the big day:

Jonas, flashin' some skin for a fag.

- So there's a jazz festival eh? We hang up our polar clothing, masks and helmets and asks some dude, a bit loosely out into the air so people can hear, because we don't know where this is going. Rumour has it that it's all sold out. I think we're looking for free tickets or something.

- We keep hearing it's sold out?
- yeah, think so, don't really know...

Some girl from the back comes up to us and chews on a toothpick, leans to the counter. She speaks with a solid accent from Oslo, but she seems to know her way around here.

- Drop by there, go for it.
- They say it's sold out?
- Yeah, go try it anyways, don't give up, if people don't show up they'll sell you their tickets.
- Isn't this the big day, don't you think everyone will come?
(It's saturday and the last of four days of festival)
- I think a lot of people.. had their big day yesterday.

She grins.

- You know, out here it doesn't matter if it's friday or saturday, you can always have your big day. People have their big days on sunday or monday too.

She thinks a bit and grins some more.

- Actually, it doesn't really matter if its day or night either.

Kari Bremnes

And so it goes.

Julie Dahle Aagård

At this point we have realized we are about to have the most spectacular day of all times. This is one of those points, where you pass the 600m mark at a better time than ever before and you're totally in the zone, and know you can possibly break the 800m world record. Not that we're about to have the best day of anyone, ever, I'm sure the people who've had kids would say nothing compares to that. But I'm looking at my own day, and I see a very big one coming. Angela seems to be ready to go too, and Jonas is pretty much there already, with everything happening now a pure bonus.

Mambo Compañeros

And when we stumble home we were thrilled by Kari Bremnes (although I was never a big fan, Kari is the sound of northern Norway, and felt so very appropriate in the snow), seduced by Julie Dahle Aagård and exhausted from the salsa the Mambo Compañeros shaked out of us. We're drenched in imported beers, most likely the cheapest imports you can get in all of Norway (a reminder that Svalbard isn't necessarily Norway) and we're convinced summer is here after the artists from four days of festival jams over Summertime for an hour. Then the green light again fills the skies and we collapse satiated after it took 29 hours (it was a big day after all..) to show us this certain kind of magic.

Svalbard people

Svalbard, the Norwegian arctic
Early February 2008
Day 3, a very small day.

Dear diary: days without sunrise can be a blessing.

Mission accomplished!

This is a letter from Uncle Travelling Mats' expedition around the world, that started in Costa Rica in August 2004, have circumnavigated the globe several times by now and hopefully is still going strong. Send email to if you liked this letter and he'll put you on the list and write some more. <<See some more, read some more