To the North Pole in a Balloon!? Virgohamna // Delos in the Arctic, Part 5

Ruins of petrol tanks from the Wellman expeditions.

The harbor is named after the ship ‘Virgo,’ which anchored off the desolate stony beach in the late 1800’s with supplies for the Swedish explorer Andree’s planned ballon expedition to the North Pole. We dropped anchor surely closer to shore than ‘Virgo’ did back then, anchoring in about 30-feet of water a few hundred feet off the beach. The scenery here is different than the west coast - small, but tall, islands, littered with black volcanic scree on they’re steep slopes. It’s rugged terrain, mostly black, yet surprisingly green in places where moss and lichen cling to the rocks and thrive on the moist environment. There was a low layer of clouds concealing the tops of the islands, fog at sea level that came and went and a light, almost nonexistent breeze from the northwest, which caused Isbjorn to lay stern-to the stony beach.

We woke up to the ‘Shanty Town’ song again about the whalefishes, though it took some time. I think it was after 1300 until the whole crew had life in their eyes and breakfast in their bellies. I’d been up since 0945 with a kink in my back - I was tired, and wanted to sleep, but simply couldn’t get comfortable in my bunk. 

When we finally got ready to land on the beach and explore the ruins of several polar expeditions that line a wide, flat area at the foot of steep hills, a pair of big black RIBs was racing at high speed from an anchored cruise ship to our east. The ‘ship’ wasn’t what you see in the Caribbean - it only held 114 people we later learned, and at this time had aboard only 76 - but it was a sore sight in the beauty of the Arctic, and after our previous experience with the small ship down by Poolepynten, none of us were very enthusiastic about sharing the beach wi them. However, it’s a reality of cruising Svalbard in 2018 - while you want to have the place to yourself, almost expect it, it just doesn’t happen. True, most if not all of our anchorages we had completely alone, but the more scenic fjords and likely places for wildlife you WILL share with these small ships at some point. Or the Sysselman, as I wrote yesterday. It doesn’t deter from the experience.

One of the nicer 'cruise ships' here in Spitsbergen. They anchor this ship in Isfjorden in the winter and let it freeze in, to be used as a winter hotel!

Mia called the ship, the m/v ‘Sea Spirit’ on the VHF to ask their plans. We’ve learned that these types of ships normally stay only a few hours in each place before moving on. Ironically, the guides on the ships also want their guests to feel ‘isolated’, so even us on our small sailboat are a sore sight for them. At any rate, they’d be there until 1800, so we could wait until then to explore ashore, or simply bite the bullet and share it with them and their red jackets.

Which we did. I met Chris, from Germany, the expedition leader on the ship in charge of the 13 guides and the itinerary. The captain of the ship basically drives them around to wherever Chris wants to go. Chris, unlike the guide we met on the beach in Poolepynten, was super duper. He’s also a sailor, and has a steel boat he bought with friends to sail out from Germany to Ireland a little while back. He’s been in Svalbard for six years, adventuring and working for the different ships as their guide.

“I definitely prefer the smaller ones,” Chris said to us. “This is the biggest ship I’ll be on all season. After this it’ll be back to the smaller schooners. I wish I was with you guys though!”

Chris the guide. He changed our minds a bit about the cruise ship tourism up here. He's awesome!

Chris was probably thirty-something, with a sharp face, scraggly Arctic beard and a definite spark in his eye. He took his thick leather gloves off to shake my hand, and he wore a bright red parka with black pants. His jacket was the same color as that of the ship tourists, who are given one for the duration of the trip, but Chris’ seemed a little more hardcore, with a radio strapped to it and a rifle slung over his back. 

Brian & I chatted for a few moments on the beach with Chris, who lamented that despite all the incredible scenery and history of Svalbard, most tourists on the big ships come her solely in the hopes of seeing a polar bear.

“I can’t promise that of course!” Said Chris. “We bring them to this amazing place like Virgohamna, with all this history. They enjoy it, but they’re always looking over their shoulder for a glimpse of a bear. It’s sad sometimes, and I genuinely want to make them happy, but can’t make that kind of promise.”

The ship was at the end of their cruise, with only two days left until the crew disembarked from Longyearbyen and headed home, so Chris was feeling the pressure. They’d been further north and east, and as yet, hadn’t seen their bear.


Balloons & Blimps

The Delos crew and us kept our distance from the ship tourists on the beach, but felt much better about the whole thing after that brief chat with Chris, who you couldn’t help but respect. In any case, the area was big enough where we could spread out, film one side of the ruins while the ship tourists explored the other, then switch places. The Sysselman has taken to putting strict regulations on the site to help preserve it. There are whaler graves here from the 1600’s, above ground plots simply covered in big black stones, a few of them with bones visible amongst the stones. Some serious history here. We had to get a special permit in order to land here, which included strict instructions on where you’re allowed to walk, and a guarantee from us that we’d leave it as we found it. There’s a noticeable path around the different sites, so it’s easy to follow these rules, and handy to have the map, which explains the history you’re looking at.

  Virgohamna in it's heyday. Image courtesy of the  Norsk Polar Institut.  We anchored Isbjorn just off that little island, between it and the beach in the foreground, to the far right of the photo.

Virgohamna in it's heyday. Image courtesy of the Norsk Polar Institut. We anchored Isbjorn just off that little island, between it and the beach in the foreground, to the far right of the photo.

Besides the whaler graves, three significant events took place here starting in 1888. The Swedish explorer Andree landed here in 1896 and set up camp with his hydrogen-filled balloon in an attempt to make the North Pole, funded in part by the Swedish royalty, and with high expectations. Andree built a large wooden hangar for the balloon on the east side of the beach, complete with equipment for extracting hydrogen out of the atmosphere chemically. All that’s left of the hangar is scattered wooden splinters strewn amongst the stones, and a monument erected in the 1950’s to mark the spot.

Further down the hill to the west is the foundation of a pre-fabricated house in which a Mr. Pike spent a full year as the Arctic’s first tourist in 1888, planning to live here and observe the surroundings with no intention of hunting, fishing or otherwise pillaging the landscape and wildlife. 

East of this is the area where in 1906 a Mr. Wellman, a newspaperman from Chicago, set up an enormous dirigible (blimp) hangar for his own attempt at flying an airship over the North Pole. From the ground, you can easily make out the wooden frame of the hangar, lined on either side with large stone piles fitted with iron rings and which were used as tie-down points for the blimp as they filled it with hydrogen. Scattered in the foreground were hundreds of rusting steel barrels, once filled with petrol to supply fuel to the airship base. 

What's left of the blimp hangar when we visited. Photo from the drone by SV Delos.

Neither Andree nor Wellman were successful in their attempts at the Pole, though Andree much more tragically. Along with two others, a gondola full of champagne and currencies for Canada, the US and Russia (they expected to land in one of the countries), Andree took off in 1897 from the site and piloted the balloon north. He hadn’t anticipated the impact that icing would have on the balloon, and only three days later they were forced down over the ice to the north of Spitsbergen. They managed to survive, for a while anyway. In 1930, their remains were found on Kvitoya, far to the NE, where they’d managed to get to over the ice and live for some time. Their journals were recovered and much of the story was pieced back together, though to this day nobody knows why they eventually died. One of the party was buried by the other two, but eventually the journals simply stopped mid-sentence.

Moody glacier just around the corner from Virgohamna. Photo by James Austrums, Isbjorn's ship's photographer.

There’s a romantic side to the story as well. One of the men left a girlfriend back home, whom he wrote to daily in his journal after the balloon crashed. Of course he knew the letters would never make it back to her if they didn’t survive. But the journal was found long after his death and returned to the woman, who had in the interim remarried, knowing she’d likely never see him again. When she did, however, she made clear that her ‘heart would always remain with him,’ no matter who she married thereafter. When she eventually died of old age, her body was buried with her husbands, but her heart was removed, cremated, and sent to the gravesite of her partner in the balloon.