Circumnavigating the Svalbard Archipelago

Per Gustav “PG” Porsanger paddles along the face of Europe’s largest glacier, the Austfonna, which guards the shore of Nordaustlandet Island for more than 100 miles. An expert skier and hunter, PG spent years in the Norwegian special forces. Though only a novice kayaker, he possessed other attributes to round out a strong three-paddler expedition team with Sharp and Mulvany.

The Unclaimed Circumnavigation
The Svalbard archipelago lies between 74 and 81 degrees north latitude. Previous attempts to circle the islands by kayak had come to ruin on Nordaustlandet, which is guarded by the archipelago’s densest population of polar bears and a 100-mile stretch of glacial cliffs. The team’s 71-day clockwise route is marked in red.
Svalbard glacial cliffs

“Svalbard had changed the way we assess danger. We were growing strangely comfortable with the glacial cliffs— perhaps too comfortable.”

Prins Karls Forland Island

Early in the trip, Prins Karls Forland Island provided a stunning backdrop and sheltered water to the paddlers in their overloaded kayaks.

Kayak Collage

Jaime (middle) locks eyes with an uncertain polar bear who moments before had been swimming in pursuit of the kayakers.

Ice Camp

Ice Camp: At a low spot in the Austfonna’s icy walls, the kayakers climbed onto the glacier for a few hours of rest.

The team encountered sea ice that would halt their progress for a week

PG (left) and Tara nearing the northeast shore of Nordaustlandet, where the team encountered sea ice that would halt their progress for a week.

Shifting ice

The team generally chose good routes through the shifting ice, meaning they only rarely had to drag their kayaks.

Animal Collage

Polar bears were the most constant pressure on the team’s psyche; sometimes relieved by the stress of meeting a walrus at sea.

A low point in the glacier

“Half an hour after leaving the bear we came across a low point in the glacier that appeared very stable. Perfect! It took a bit of effort, but we were able to climb out and haul our loaded kayaks up onto the ice.”

Sitting atop a calving glacier

“It was a magic yet risky setting – sitting atop a calving glacier that stretched to the horizon in both directions, looking down at an ocean studded with icebergs. We slept on the ice for the day before roping the kayaks and ourselves to the water and continuing onward into the most challenging section of our Svalbard circumnavigation.”

“What we came to next was like a scene from The Lord of the Rings.” — After 17 hours in their kayaks and a game of chase with a pair of swimming bears, the team arrived at this spectacular waterfall.

Polar Bear chase

“Then, through the roar of the falls, I heard shouts of ‘polar bear!’ I was gobsmacked. Not one, but two bears were swimming straight at me.”


“The gusts threatened to fling me out to sea. I cinched my hood in tight and pushed on, tears rolling down my cheeks. I couldn’t stop paddling to wipe them away.”

The midnight sun circles low in the sky as the team prepares to run the last long section of glacial cliffs on Edge Island.

Last place to stop and rest

“This could very well be the last place to stop and rest for the next 100 miles.”

“The journey far surpassed the destination, and already I think back and wonder, ‘Why such a rush?’”