Polar Kayaking: what's involved?

Exploring Scorseby Sund by kayak | Toby Story
Exploring Scorseby Sund by kayak | Toby Story

Toby Story has over 20 years experience kayaking in the Arctic and Antarctic. We asked him to share some insights into this unique way to explore the Polar regions.

What’s been your greatest kayaking experience?

After 20 years of paddling this is a really hard question to answer as there have been so many! There is something incredible about paddling through ice, and while it never gets old, the first time is always memorable.

I remember paddling past icebergs in the low orange light of the midnight sun with just a hint of mist. It was perfectly still and there was silence except for the sound of the paddles in the water and the crackling of air escaping from the small pieces of ice. It was like being in another world and I have never forgotten it!

What’s been your most surprising kayaking experience?

For me it has been the first time (yes it has happened more than once!) that I was with a group and we were encircled by a playful Minke whale in Antarctica. It is common to see whales from the kayaks but this one really seemed curious. It kept swimming around and underneath us and intermittently lifting its head out of the water and looking directly at us. It seemed just really curious!

How much skill does someone need on one of your kayaking adventures?

While it is great if you have some paddling background, the most important element is an adventurous spirit and a willingness to prepare. You do not need to know how to roll or to be an expert kayaker but you should have practiced a “wet exit” [exiting the kayak by going into the water]. 

If you have never paddled in a sea kayak before but enjoy being active, there is always time to prepare for your trip. Learning the basics on paddling such as the different strokes to take you forwards, to stop, and to turn is really important and it is great to have some practice with a rudder.

These skills can be acquired at a local club or with an outfitter or skilled friend. The double kayaks are very stable so if you are not as experienced, with some basic preparation and fitness, you can always team up with a buddy in a double kayak.

A polar bear checks surroundings in Svalbard |  <i>Toby Story</i>

What does a typical day of kayaking look like in the Arctic or Antarctic?

We always offer kayaking as often as possible, subject to weather conditions of course. This is typically two times per day. We plan to paddle for between 1.5 and 4 hours on each outing, including breaks, and will paddle between 4 and 12 kms on most outings, depending on the highlights in the area.

We often mix up the paddling with shore stops to see any specific points of interest. Most days we return to the ship for our lunch, move to another location, and then we will go back out and paddle again. Occasionally, we will have the ship drop us in one location and collect us in another for a longer paddle, and we may even carry our lunch with us.

Do you kayak all day or are there breaks?

We always take breaks during the paddling. Because there is so much to see, we will naturally stop to enjoy the surrounds or to take photos but we will also stop onshore after an hour or so to stretch our legs on the longer paddles and take stops on the water to hydrate and snack.

How should I prepare for my Polar kayaking adventure with you?

I once asked my kayaking coach “what is the best way to prepare for a big kayaking trip?” and his answer was “go kayaking”.

This is very good advice and going out is one of the best ways to prepare for your journey. But if you don’t have a kayak that is easily accessible or you are a little short on time, swimming, hiking and even light gardening and or gym work is a great way to get ready for the trip.

For those who are completely new to paddling a sea kayak and using a spray skirt, it is important to practice a “wet exit”. This is an essential safety skill and is best practiced in warmer waters. It is incredibly unlikely to capsize but it is important to be fully prepared! If you need help getting ready reach out to us and we can suggest a coach or outfitter in your area.

Are the kayaks all single person?

No, we have a mix of double and single kayaks to suit a range of experience levels. We find that most people really enjoy the stability and flexibility of the double kayaks and it is a great way to “share the load” while the single kayaks can make for more of an adventure for the more experienced.

Breathtaking views in Svalbard |  <i>Tessa Chan</i>

How cold is that water?

Often the water temperature is very close to 0° Celcius. Sea water has a slightly lower freezing temperature than fresh water (approximately -1.8° C) and with all the ice melting nearby there is plenty of water near the surface that is close to 0.

If I fall out, will I freeze to death?

Definitely not! While the water is cold, we are always in dry suits and we wear warm layers under neath, which means that we can stay quite warm and comfortable in the water for at least 30 minutes. With all the extra layers you can get quite warm sometimes and it can be nice stop for a short “swim” in the dry suits to cool down!

What’s something I won’t be expecting on a kayaking adventure with you?

It is easier than you think.

For many people new to polar kayaking, there can be a worry that it is out of reach. While we are paddling in some of the world’s most extreme environments, with excellent equipment, good preparation and highly experienced guides, people are often surprised at how much they get to do as part of the kayaking program.

It truly is an opportunity to do something more and while you do have the option to not paddle on any day, most people end up joining the trip every time!

What’s unique about kayaking in Svalbard?

While Svalbard is very remote, it is surprisingly easy to get to. It is only a three-hour flight from Oslo to get to the starting point for the trip in Longyearbyen. Once you are there it really is another world. The word Svalbard translates to “the cold edge”, and this is a really great description as the archipelago sits right at the edge of the sea ice of the Arctic Ocean.

We are travelling in the early part of the year, just as the ice has broken up and the “summer” migration has begun. This means more chances of seeing polar bears on the sea ice and to get a real feel for the Arctic Ocean. What makes this place so special for me is the vastness of the pack ice combined with the backdrop of jagged peaks, stark glaciers and ice-filled fjords.

Svalbard is one of the world’s best destinations to reliably see polar bears in the wild and this is such a big highlight for me. It is also a great place to see arctic fox, walrus and the Svalbard reindeer as well as beluga whales. While there has never been an indigenous population, it has a very interesting  and varied human history. From the early whalers and fur trappers to the polar explorers, there are the remnants of these stories in the landscape if you know where and how to look.

What kind of animals will I see kayaking Svalbard with you?

We will commonly see ringed seals on the sea ice or in the water and I have spotted beluga regularly as well as the elusive narwhale on occasion. We see a wide range of bird species, including my favorite, the Arctic tern, that has one of the longest migration journeys with annual movement from the Arctic to the Antarctic.

As we are quiet and close to land a lot of the time in the kayaks we will also spot Svalbard reindeer and Arctic fox. It is also entirely possible to spot Walrus and Polar Bears although both of these animals are best viewed with a bit of distance.

It is always varied what we see but the interactions are always enjoyable from the kayaks. It is important to remember that there are up to 19 different species of marine mammal found in the waters surrounding Svalbard, and it is possible to see any of them.

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Polar Kayaking, Kayaking trips

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