Part 2 – March through moraines and bone-freezing packrafting
If you haven’t done it yet, you can read the first part of the trip report and background for the trip from previous posts!
Falling into sleep in the sound of cold wind we woke up to a calm and sunny day at the mouth of Eskerdalen valley. In the morning a rare wildlife encounter awaited us right behind the door of our lavvu.
No, luckily not a polar bear – but unfortunately a horde of mosquitoes instead. They are not native to Svalbard and of the species introduced to the archipelago by man, they are about the only one that has managed to thrive. And to survive they must use every rare opportunity brought by calm and warm days with unaware foreign travelers passing by. So they were hungry and determined, but luckily stayed mostly out of our lavvu. Thanks a lot, who ever brought the little bastards there in the first place!
After packing up our still muddy kit (the light showers during the night were not enough to get the mud of our gear) we headed up to the Eskerdalen and got rid of the bugs. On the way we marvelled the Eskerfossen and numerous reindeer and enjoyed the easy walk on quite dry tundra. In winter time the valley is probably one of the busiest snow scooter routes in the archipelago and which was now indicated only by a few huts and old route markers. We were happy to find old bamboo wands and packed them up to be later used as part of improvised paddles.
Later the wind found us again and it started to feel cold enough that we had to wear our puffy clothing and search for a sheltering depression for the lunch break. As there are no trees in Svalbard and even big rocks are rare, you have to find relief from the wind either behind a prominence, from a depression or from your own shelter.
Turning into the upper parts of the Adventdalen the going started to get tough: tundra started to chance into moraine and rock and we had to climb up and down several ravines that crossed our path. It seemed that following the western side of the valley would have been easier but we were too lazy to cross the river until reaching the watershed. But as we knew that the terrain would get worse around the watershed (two glaciers used to intersect there and when retreating left behind a chaos of moraines) we decided to call it a day after some 15 kilometers. We camped to a spot with nice views and good source of clear melt-water. I went down to the river to wash the mud and silt of my packraft and other gear. I’m pretty sure the kit got lighter by a kilo or more!
The next day brought clouds and cold wind from the North. We broke camp and started heading up to the watershed aiming to get down to Reindalen to a place where we could start packrafting. Quite soon the going got tough as we had assumed: a mess of loose moraines with lots of ups and downs and very wet, muddy tundra in between. Slow but doable. But the views down to Reindalen and Oppdalen were awesome: barren moraines, streams, mountains and glaciers. Seemed like nothing could live or survive on that land. And we didn’t want to stay there either but continued towards the relatively verdant tundra lower in the massive Reindalen.
The weather got bitingly cold with the Northern wind bringing in some showers to amplify its effect. We were down to Reindalpasset and past the moraines and looking for protection from the wind. Luckily we found a huge pingo (earth-covered hill formed by ice), well over 50 meters high. We seek shelter from the lee-side of it and found relatively nice spot for our lavvu, except that it was a bit wet. Happy for the wind-break we didn’t let it bother us and pitched the tent. Soon we were happy that we had a ground cloth and soon we added our packrafts for extra protection. I even build a little floor out of stones by the door to help staying dry while coming and going. We were camping on very wet tundra but after hard 18 kilometers of walking, any bed feels great.
The next morning the big question was: could we start boating from our camp or would we pack for more walking? After some discussion we decided to walk little more as the river broke into dozens of shallow braids after passing “our pingo” and would probably not be deep enough even for packrafts. A few kilometers downstream few smaller pingos forced the river into a single channel and here we inflated our packrafts. We had already improvised some kayak paddles in the shelter of our lavvu so we were able to paddle in five solo-rafts as originally planned.
The paddles, made of hiking poles, bamboo wands, ice axes, gaiters, zip-ties, straps and a lot of duct tape (more would’ve been better, combined with iceaxe and some cord it makes a reasonably good paddle blade), were not pretty but worked. And the Reinelva river was great! We were cruising down the enormous valley up to 7 km/h with little effort carried by the brown glacial-fed flow. The river changed multiple times from a deeper single-channel to dozens of shallow braids which required good choices and good luck to find passable route. For a while we even paddled through a fast canyon like section, not very deep nor narrow but with proper steep rock walls and tight bends. Eddie-hopping from bend to another. Simply fun!
The only downside was, again, the wind. Unlike on Sassenelva it was a welcome backwind but it was damn cold! The temperature was probably below +5°C, water was closer to 0°C and the wind was blowing from the big expanses of ice in the North. Especially those soaked because of the splashy improvised paddles were feeling the chill and we had to take breaks to run on the tundra to get warm.
We must have been a hilarious sight wobbling from our little colourful boats with numb legs, shivering and starting to run around pointlessly. For the lunch break we pitched our shelter against the wind and some of us opted to chance into dry clothing and spend the break shivering in their sleeping bags. I guess this was very much back to the basics packrafting: improvised gear, definitely no dry-suits, wet and cold – yet still so awesome! (Though I bitterly missed the option of warming by a fire!)
What made the rafting even more awesome was the surroundings. While flowing down the river a huge flock of goose were swimming ahead of us and the lucky ones paddling in the lead saw an Arctic fox catching a stray goose from the river bank! You don’t see that happening every day! In addition we saw more arctic foxes and reindeer and passed the remainders of an old hut. For the whole day we were, once again, surrounded by snow-topped peaks with glaciers crawling down between them. In addition, this time we had the sea and distant mountains far in the horizon!
By the early evening were getting again too cold to paddle and closing to our exit we pulled out and pitched camp by the river. We had covered over 30 kilometers in a relatively easy (but cold) day! It was time to celebrate with hot chocolate spiced up with some Baileys. By paddling 10 kilometers further down the river we could have reached the shore at Kaldbukta (“Cold bay”) which was tempting because of the drift wood for fires but we would have had to walk back those 10 kilometers as we had reached our Southern-most point and needed to head North-West to Semmeldalen.
Our original plan was to continue through the Semmeldalen to the Russian coal mining town Barentsburg and then follow the coast line back to Longyearbyen but this started to seem unlikely. We had lost nearly a full-day because the swim at Sassenelva which made the schedule quite tight. But what was even more problematic was that Antti and Venla found out that in addition to the food bag lost in the swim they were missing lunches for four days due to miss-calculations – i.e. they were out of lunches. So being short on food and behind the schedule we had to change our plan, something we had just ignored until now, but could not postpone any further.
The new plan and the final days here! 😉