A Gap Year Trip into the Frozen Tundra
I remember the first time I saw a Polar Bear. I was no more than six years old, and I was staring through a gallery window, into a nature photography exhibit.
I mean – I have seen lots of polar bears before this. In cartoons, maybe even at a zoo. But this is the first time I have actually seen it and been absolutely stunned. The photographs in the exhibit made such an impact on me as a little girl that I can actually recall all the surrounding circumstances.
It was a cold autumn night and it was raining. My mother was holding a steaming Starbucks cup in her hand and also paused to look at the nature photos on display in the window. It was a photography show devoted entirely to the Arctic, and the large photographs were full of foxes, birds and frozen landscapes.
The polar bears seemed like they were from another world. So gigantic, dangerous, and yet I wanted to reach out and see what their fur might feel like under my fingers.
I have never lost my fascination with polar bears after that night. I became a collector of all sorts of white fluffy toys, books and postcards. A decade and some years later, I graduated with a B.A. in marine biology, and a gap year to prepare for my masters.
I realized that it was a rare time when I could actually do what I wanted, and having saved enough money for one solid excursion (plus a small stipend from writing science articles) I decided to fulfil my childhood wish and go to the arctic.
It took me a while to plan for this trip, but I also realized that it’s not impossible. Even if you don’t have a gap year. In fact, there are a lot of places out there that people don’t even think about when planning a trekking vacation. You just never really think of the arctic tundra for a trek, do you? Or a sightseeing tour?
Planning a visit to any of the world’s arctic regions doesn’t have to be like planning for a trip to the moon – although it may certainly seem like it. If you have hiked the Appalachian Trail, read about Shackleton or Amundsen, or wanted to challenge yourself to something amazing an arctic expedition might just be what you need.
I’ve put together a list of places where people can experience the arctic responsibly – remember that it’s not a tourist trap, but a fragile environment. By now, I have been to most of them can’t wait to go back this fall, when I hope to finally see the Aurora Borealis!
Norway – the land of the Vikings and Norse legends, fjords and some of the world’s most beautiful and remote landscapes.
Ultimately, this is the place where I ended up going to after getting my degree – I’m lucky enough to have family in Oslo, and I decided to save costs by staying with them and getting acclimated at first. With a little family reunion while I was at it!
Far removed relatives aside, some of us tend to forget that what we think of Norway is actually the very bottom part of Norway. Most of the country is remote and hard to get to if you don’t have a car.
I milled around the polar regions and took the train all the way up to Bodo. This train line, which I have taken several times now, is the most nostalgic to me and also my favorite. It’s the longest rail line in Norway and goes up the furthest.
Yes, you will see mountains, snow, 154 tunnels going through those mountains and it will take you over 10 hours. The trip is worth every minute. And you can observe from the warmth of your train car, hot chocolate in hand.
If you’re feeling more adventurous, you can continue on to Lofoten Islands like a lot of tourists who venture into Bodo. These islands might be the last stand of humanity out here in this remote part of the world. They draw not only tourists but writers and painters.
If you’re into the absolute wilderness, there are some amazing options too! I took it slow in Bodo, but soon I was ready to explore the fjords by kayak and the mountains on foot.
Here is where I insist that any traveler consider a certified guide or tour operator because they really know what they’re doing out there: this isn’t your regular campaign trip. You are in a very foreign place, where other species feel more at home than you.
From wolves, caribou, moose, foxes to
According to remote adventure operator Kandoo Adventures:
“The aim of our expedition is not to go searching for polar bears; in fact, we may even amend our itinerary to move away from an area if bears have been sighted. ”
In the words of a famous Canadian singer “Canada is really big!”. This is why I decided to put this vast country at the forefront.
Along with maple syrup, hockey and politeness, Canada is known as being the polar bear capital of the world. Many people come here for skiing, but stay in the lower regions of the country and don’t quite know how to go about wandering out into the wilderness and frozen tundra.
There are companies that will take care of you if you do decide to rough it. It’s the safest bet – you didn’t think I’d suggest you just grab your backpack and go? Of course not. With an environment as harsh as this, you need professionals to keep you safe.
I’d suggest picking a trip that lets you see the most wildlife. And out here, it’s not that hard to see wildlife. One of the most gorgeous and off-the-beaten-path National Parks in Canada has got to be Wapusk National Park in Manitoba.
It is home to the most polar bear mothers in the world. It’s practically a polar bear nursery! If you want to go, you must hire an operator because of the remoteness and lack of roads into this national park.
You can find an excursion operator in Churchill. If you don’t have the time for a full trekking adventure, there are always aerial tours that will let you catch a glimpse of the park’s stunning landscape.
The best time to plan a visit are the summer months – June, July and August, although the weather is rough and can change dramatically and can be described as being “bipolar”. Don’t be too surprised if you’re caught in a snowstorm in July!
If you want to experience that’s more active – with dramatic mountains, rock climbing, kayaking and whitewater rafting, you can see what you can do at Nahanni National Park Reserve.
Canada doesn’t do it small – you’ll see a waterfall that is taller than Niagara – but minus the tourist trappings and casinos. In fact, chances are you and your excursion group will be the only ones out there.
Here it is – if you don’t have a passport and you’re from America, Alaska is the place to go. This is a great gateway destination that will make you fall in love with the remote wilderness.
Denali National Park, glaciers tours and kayak excursions – they’re all here for the taking, and there are more tour operators than there are fish in the sea.
But where can you go if you don’t have all the money in the world and that month-long kayaking excursion is just not in your cards right now? If you have landed in Anchorage with nothing but a purse and an adventurous spirit, here are some tips on how to guide yourself to the tip of the world and maybe even see a polar bear.
First, you have to rent a car. This and gas are probably going to be your biggest investments here, as I recommend getting the type of insurance with all the bells and whistles just in case. It will make you feel more comfortable, trust me.
If you’re with friends, see if you can split the cost of a small camper van. This is probably the most posh way to travel around here. It’s what I call wilderness lite. It’s not like you’re up in the roadless wilds of Canada, but you are going to feel pretty alone a lot of the time.
Fairbanks – start here, and head up to the Dalton Highway. Don’t go to Denali – you’ll have to take a tour with a lot of other tourists. Instead, prepare for a long drive along the Alaskan Pipeline into the remote town of Deadhorse.
Another option is to catch the Dalton Highway Express – a bus that departs Fairbanks twice a week and heads to the very tip of the continent.
Along the way, you probably get to see yaks, moose, caribou and arctic foxes, not to mention amazing views of the Yukon River, mountain passes and wide fields of fireweed and boreal forests.
Your last “civilized” stop on this route will be Prudhoe Bay – about 13 hours away from Fairbanks if you keep a tight schedule. At first, this will seem like a village haphazardly put together out of shipping containers and spare drilling platforms, but we got used to it and began to see the sense in the layout.
Deadhorse is a great place to stop for two days – you can rent a hotel room in one of the container hotels. It’s sparse, but one of the cleanest places I have been to in my life. There is also a small gift shop here, where you can get hoodies and mugs.
Don’t plan on camping in Deadhorse because polar bears make this a dangerous – and forbidden activity.
Most hotels here have a kitchen, and since working in the remote Alaskan wilderness can leave a person hungry, the food is always excellent, no matter where you go.
Unlike in remote Norway, Sweden, Siberia or the Yukon, I always had this calm feeling at the back of my head – that I’m only a few hours drive away from the nearest burger. The Dalton Highway has a few stops along the way –
- Hilltop Restaurant & Marketplace, also known from the popular TV show “Ice Truckers” – this is the ultimate comfort food stop before you even begin your journey out of Fairbanks. It’s a great stop to come back to when you’re finished with your journey.
- The Hit & Run is a small stop along the Dalton Highway, and it’s great for a snack and a sandwich. If you just left the truck stop described above you might just pass it by.
- If you want to eat your way through some of the most remote places in the world, stop at the Yukon River Camp for a salmon burger. And some gas, as this is one of the few gas stations you’re going to see. It will make you feel safer knowing you’re running on a full tank!
- Coldfoot has a restaurant and a truck stop – it’s located approximately at the halfway point between Fairbanks and Deadhorse. The Coldfoot Camp Restaurant will give you the best comfort food you could ask for when you’re braving the wilderness. I felt spoiled and happy after visiting here. Don’t forget the local beer! Your next stop is Prudhoe Bay!
Choose your polar region and travel operator
As you can see, there is a variety of styles of polar travel you can pick from. From the ultimate remote trekking under the watchful eye of professionals to taking your first steps alone but holding on to the thin helping line that civilization offers you with one hand.
I chose to stick to trains and cars at first, and only when I knew exactly what I wanted to see I started to journey off the beaten path – with a backpack, a kayak and a few good trekking poles.
What you chose is up to you, but always remember that while it’s important to push your boundaries and grow your comfort zone, never cross too far. Be safe, and plan ahead.