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Day 13 - June 24, 2008 - Pyramiden and Skansbukta

By Jarda Versloot, Assistant Expedition Leader

This morning we had an early start. At 06.00 our Expedition Leader, Brad, woke us up with an announcement that we had arrived at Pyramiden and that the conditions were perfect. After a quick breakfast, the first of us left in the Zodiac from the side gate and we were met ashore by the Expedition Team. Since we are now in Polar Bear areas, the Expedition Team expanded yesterday with two gentlemen, Geir and Jan who are here to look after us while ashore and to keep us safe from polar bears. With their leather outfits and big rifles, they looked quite impressive. Surely not the kind you would want to mess around with!

Pyramiden is the second Russian settlement, named after the impressive pyramid-shaped mountain above it. It has lain abandoned since its evacuation in late 1998. Located on Billefjord, at the inner end of Isfjorden, its history starts with the founding of a small Swedish mining enterprise. An expedition led by Bertil Hogborm came here in 1910 and in 1921 the area was controlled by Svenska Stenkolsaktiebolaget Spitsbergen, who also had interests in Sveagruva. Throughout its active decades, Pyramiden focused more wholly on coal extraction than Barentsburg, where research also played a certain role. The coal deposits, here Carboniferous, are inside the Pyramid mountain at several levels. Coalfields are extensive, with reserves for many years, but the geology is difficult, with seams falling and rising at changing angles and interrupting thrusts. Extensively modernized from 1975 to 1985, the town had accommodation for up to 900 inhabitants, a swimming pool (the world’s most northerly), kindergarten, primary school, greenhouse and a farm with dairy herd, pigs and hens. Of all the settlements in Spitsbergen, Pyramiden has probably one of the most attractive settings. At the same time, Pyramiden is most hindered by long-lasting winter fjord ice, which may cover the inner fjord up to 6 months per year unless icebreakers are used. Pyramiden was closed in 1998, when the Russian mining company could no longer maintain the two settlements due to unreliable supplies and reduced subsidies.

Once ashore, the Expedition Team guided us for a 2-hour walk through this ghost town. As we hiked through the village, we saw the old city hall, soccer field, library and swimming pool. From there, we walked up the hill where we stumbled upon the glass bottle house. This house was built entirely of glass bottles. It was quite a sight! After we all had a peek inside, we continued our walk up to the abandoned mine shafts, where birds have now found a comfortable place to build their nests.

Before returning to the ship, our Zodiac driver took us for a little Zodiac tour along the ice. On one of the ice floes, we spotted two Bearded Seals soaking up the sun. Many pictures later, we returned to the Prince Albert II.

After lunch, we quickly got back into our 5 layers of winter gear for another landing at charming Skansbukta and its impressive mountain, Skansen. At the foot of Skansen is an unsuccessful gypsum mine from the 1920s, and on the face you can clearly see light and dark sedimentary strata, the white being gypsum/anhydrite. Opposite Skansbukta, the Eastern side of Billefjord is formed by majestic rock walls and pillars, similar to Tempelfjord, with the typical horizontal sediment layers and plateau-type mountains.

Jan and Geir, the Bear watchers, kept a close eye on us as we strolled around Skansbukta. We spotted some Deer, Eider Ducks and beautiful pink flowers named Saxifrage. On our way back to the ship, we were treated to a surprise Zodiac cruise, where we spotted plenty of Puffins, Guillemots, Barnacle Geese, Kittiwakes and Ebony Gulls.

After the two landings today, we were quite satisfied with the day’s activities and ready for tea time. The day, however, wasn’t over yet. At 17.00 we were invited to join Sharon for a presentation in The Theatre. Sharon’s fascination with nature and love of art has always been an integral part of her life. In this presentation, Sharon showed us a multimedia program about her fine art and photography.

Just before dinner, we joined the Expedition Team for a recap and briefing to soak up more information from our lecture staff. The Captain also came on stage to inform us about the “Polar Bear spotting competition”. The first guest to spot a Polar Bear can be awarded with a generous bottle of Dom Perignon. We will surely be keeping our eyes wide open!

After yet another course too many in the dining room, we made our way to our suites where we looked back on a long but interesting day.

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