One day, seeking adventure and an icy swim, Jack Bright and his friends decided to take a dip off the island of Spitsbergen, the only permanently populated island of the Svalbard archipelago in northern Norway.
One late winter day, seeking adventure and an icy swim I arrived with two friends on the island of Spitsbergen in the middle of the Arctic Ocean at 78° north. Budget exhausted we donned skis and travelled over fells and glaciers from a sheltered fjord to the coast and the open ocean beyond. Only it wasn’t really open, but rather a semi-solid mass of slush and water interspersed with huge plates of ice.
Equipped with a rifle we steeled ourselves in the early evening gloom, but the dark shapes that worried us were Rangifer tarandus platyrhynchus (Svalbard reindeer) and not Ursus maritimus (polar bears), so our powder and our pants remained dry.
In Russian territory now, amid the ruins of Colesbukta, we take shelter in Rusanov’s hut, brew tea and plan how to go for a swim. The sun comes up, the wind too, but the ambient temperature doesn’t join in so it’s still bitter to the bone, the marrow even, the cold gnawing like an ice fisherman’s drill.
Trudging off in the pristine white landscape, our Canadian boots are good to minus 100 crunching as they grind in the ultra-dry snow of the polar desert. We scour the coast, eager as prospectors searching for riches, but we just want a place to swim, that would be treasure enough.
We come across a beach with fine white snow in place of yellow sand, and the rocky shore encased in ice and rounded smooth by the lightly lapping waves in the little space of sea that is open water makes a worthy swimming pool.
Mountaineers’ shovels out and engineers get to work. One of us is a builder so he directs the construction. Steps are cut and we retire to the hut. A mug of tea, a briefing of sorts, how long is a swim? Five minutes we all agree.
Now a peculiar sight as three men appear in swim caps, down jackets and huge polar boots, but in place of trousers just Speedos. The lifeguard has no whistle, but a rifle will do. A sublime moment as the feet go in, the body slides down, the sun-drenched icy sea accepts us as one, and we’re swimming.
Breaststroke then freestyle, pausing for a breath I can’t feel my arm. It’s disappeared if I rely on my sense of touch, though another few strokes prove it’s still there. Past cold and even freezing, this is something else – arctic.
Up and down we swim; can’t go round and round as what looks like inviting water further out is a moving mass of half-frozen ice and water, like an enormous salty slush puppy.
One more laborious length of freestyle in our pool of polar explorers and the words “let’s get out” equal to a silent consensus, and we head for shore.
The clambering and slipping begins as we home in on our boots with the resoluteness of a polar bear after a seal. The wind blows a violent gust as if in appreciation of us. 06:47 a proper swim that was. More wind makes getting off this frigid beach a further test of our mettle.
Shaking and trembling hands, fear and respect for the cold. But we’re by the wooden door and the fear stays outside. Soon drinking tea, fatty salami in place of cake, and a little getting dressed dance.
Now the humorous but serious question – Was that icy mass we swam in actually below zero? Our simple readings tell us so. Later confirmed at – 2.5c.
Mission accomplished, we put our skies on and fasten our pulks, travelling through the harsh white land back to civilisation, our watery wishes fulfilled and souls warmed by polar forces of nature.