The Swim

It’s surprising how much colder the Arctic air feels when you’re completely naked. Although of course it could be argued that doing pretty much anything in the Arctic is likely to be colder than doing it anywhere else.

Now it’s fair to say that I’ve never been a great fan of cold water. You know the sort I mean - the freezing kind that forces the very breath from your body the instant you jump in, like a million needles being buried into your skin. I can’t remember the exact moment when I realised how much I detested it, but certainly by the time I’d reached adulthood a decade of compulsory school swimming lessons in our icy outdoor pool had given me a life-long aversion to anything even remotely tepid. If it’s a choice of cold shower or no shower I’d rather sit there and smell.

All of which means I’ve been skilfully avoiding cold water ever since. Whether it’s taking a quick dip at the seaside or chilling by a lake on a hot summer’s day, I would do my utmost best to ignore my friends’ pleas to get in. I didn’t care if it was lovely once you were in, if it failed the toe-dipping test that was it for me. Nada. Not a chance.

Fast forward twenty years and I found myself in Spitsbergen, high up in the Arctic. Largest in the Svalbard archipelago, these Norwegian islands are closer to the North Pole than they are to Oslo. And they’re simply stunning; jagged snow-topped mountain peaks soar into the sky and mighty cliffs plunge into stormy seas hundreds of feet below. There’s simply nowhere else on earth quite like it.

I did all the things that you would expect a good tourist to do; I explored colourful Longyearbyen - the islands’ capital and centre of its coal-mining industry - and ventured to Barentsburg, an isolated Russian outpost hemmed in by glaciers and home to the planet’s second-most northern statue of Lenin (there’s another one at the abandoned settlement of Pyramiden, further along the coast). And the whole time I could tell that I was in a special place, for here the forces of nature still hold the balance of power: in Svalbard polar bears roam free and seabirds fill the air with a cacophony of sound, indignant at the presence of human intruders. These truly are islands on the edge.

As I sat one evening sipping a steaming mug of tea in a quiet cabin near the shores of the Adventfjorden - the small bay that lines Longyearbyen’s shores - I got chatting to the owner of the campsite that was home for a few short days. We talked about the stunning vistas, the crisp Arctic air, the surreal 24 hour daylight – and the dark cold waters lapping just a short distance away.

“Of course” said Erik, “if you’re feeling really brave you can always go for a quick swim.”

I looked at him closely, at the craggy lines drawn deep in his face that spoke of a lifetime spent in the great outdoors. I couldn’t work out if he was joking or not.

“Oh no, I’m deadly serious” he laughed when he saw the expression on my face. “We have a special club here that you can only join if you swim in the sea. Naked, of course.”

So now I’m standing at water’s edge with a shirt or a sock to my name, trying to suppress a lifetime of memories all telling me to run in the opposite direction. Then, all of a sudden, it happened – pure pebbles scrunching between my toes, a fresh breeze toying with my hair, salty spray teasing my lips, distant peaks brooding on the opposite shore – all sights and sounds and smells coalescing together into a perfect, zen-like moment of serenity. It was perfect.

“Come on!” shouted Erik, camera in hand. “I haven’t got all day you know – I’ve two more this afternoon!”

And you know what? It didn’t even feel that cold anyway.

K. Ruffles

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