Maksym Boreiko is a rugged explorer. He’s also a rash one whose hopefully thankful he’s alive.
The 21-year old Ukrainian man’s trip to Svalbard was anything but one of the cushy tours most summer visitors experience. Accustomed to traveling alone and uninhibited through Russia and most of Europe on foot and by hitchhiking, while spending little or no money, he decided upon arriving in Longyearbyen to walk to Barentsburg and back.
“I wanted to talk with people in Barentsburg because they are mostly Ukrainians,” Boreiko said while relaxing at Longyearbyen Camping after an expedition that was far more arduous than planned. “And I wanted to talk about their life in the Arctic Circle. People were very friendly to me there. They told me about the polar night which is very depressing and, because there are no facilities in the city, they don’t know what to do.”
The first night he stayed at an uninhabited cabin at Grumant, the second at a cabin at Colesbukta, the third in a tent next to the Russian settlement.
“It was really hard physically, but amazing rest for my mind,” he said.
Once Boreiko reached Barentsburg, he realized it might be for the first and last time, so he decided to go as far as possible: Isfjord Radio – but that would definitely be the end of trek.
“I also read about polar bears and the necessity of having a rifle,” he said. “I thought it was only a recommendation and I got the impression from people visiting Svalbard that there were not so many polar bears in this area. So I decided to economize the weight in my backpack, money and time asking for permission, and went without a rifle, taking my own risks.”
“I wanted to see the wild nature and to go in uninhabited land, to be alone with animals.”
Indeed, Boreiko met only one group of Slovakians, but he saw reindeer, Arctic foxes, many birds and, fortunately, no polar bears.
“It was pretty fine, bright sunshine, really warm,” he said. “I crossed all the rivers, strong waterfalls, very cold water. Usually my shoes where wet, because of the Arctic ground being very wet in the summer.”
The trek to Isfjord Radio took two days and Boreiko described the going as very difficult due to cold weather and strong winds.
“I had to cross around ten big rivers,” he said. “When I got to Isfjord Radio it was really hard to move against the wind – maybe one kilometer an hour.”
Boreiko then asked the hotel’s administration about joining a returning tour boat. But, of course, the crazy weather prevented a boat from arriving and it appeared one wouldn’t the next day. He said the best thing to do was to follow what he said was the staff’s advice: go all the way back to Barentsburg, spend the night in a shelter and arrive early in the settlement in the hope of catching a boat back to Longyearbyen.
It’s possible a mix-up in communications explains what happened next.
A few hours later, he was cooking in the warm and dry shelter of a cabin, happy to be protected from the wind, when a shocking thing occurred: he could suddenly hear a very loud noise. Even the wind could not make that much noise. A glance through the windows revealed a helicopter was arriving.
“My first idea was: this is for another group, because I’m fine, have warm clothes and I have enough food,” Boreiko said. “So I started eating my food, and the helicopter went further on. I thought it was OK. I started making some tea with chocolate and then the noise was getting so loud that it felt like it would break my head. I saw that it was landing next to the cabin. I came outside, met the two rescuers, two pilots and one doctor…they invited me inside. I took all my things very quickly and we departed.”
Which is why the next visitor at the cabin will find a cup of tea awaiting on the table.
“It was my first flight in a helicopter. All the distance I’ve walked for five days we covered in only 15 minutes,” Boreiko said.
As it turned out, The Governor of Svalbard sent one of its two rescue helicopters to the cabin after being notified about Boreiko’s trip by staff at Basecamp Spitsbergen, which operates Isfjord Radio, according to Steinar Rorgemoen, the company’s general manager.
He said Isfjord Radio employees told Boreiko to go to the Russian cabin he was found at. The staff then contacted Russian officials to see if they could transport him back to civilization. The staff subsequently contacted the governor’s office for informative purposes and officials there made the decision to send out a rescue helicopter.
Rorgemoen said it was Boreiko’s decision to leave the station.
“We cannot hold back people,” Rorgemoen said when asked why the staff let Boreiko depart the station without a weapon when one is required outside settled areas. “We don’t have the authority.”
Boreiko spoke at length of the kindness the rescuers and the police showed as they brought him back to the campsite in Longyearbyen.
“They asked about my health, food and money; I was very happy about how they treated me,” he said.
The next morning a police officer from the governor’s office returned to the campsite to check up on Boreiko, asking about his health and if he had sufficent supplies.
“This guy was really friendly and very cool,” Boreiko said. “Especially for me. On the second day he came back with a big bag of food. I was so surprised, it’s really cute! Then he offered me a lift to the city.”
Such inquires by officials, however, are about more than kindness since the law requires anyone staying here to have enough resources to be self-sufficient. The governor will force people to leave otherwise, billing them for the expense if they are unable to pay for a ticket home. Since Boreiko is departing Svalbard on Friday, his case didn’t merit such consideration.
Boreiko said he hasn’t been told he will face criminal charges for breaking laws requiring proper precautions to prevent polar bear attacks and notifying officials about his travel plans beforehand, nor a fine for the cost of the non-emergency helicopter “rescue.”
Similar past incidents have sparked local debate about whether people should be forced to pay the cost of rescues due to negligence and whether the failure to impose penalties encourages reckless behavior since people may presume they’ll be rescued regardless. But, while the governor has toughened penalties in recent years for people failing to take proper precautions when they are involved in polar bear encounters that results in an attack and/the killing of the bear, such penalties have generally not been imposed for non-emergency rescues.
Attempts to contact the governor’s office to determine if penalties might be considered in Boreiko’s case were unsuccessful as of press time.
Boreiko, who has been traveling between his studies and work in Kiev for the past five years, has experienced plenty of other adventures. He traveled to Baïkal Lake and most of the rest of Russia, along with most of Russia for what he said was about 45 kroner a day.
“It is a big experience to see how hard it is to live without money in European countries,” he said.
After visiting Iceland last year, Boreiko decided to head for a more northern place above the Arctic Circle.
“One day, a friend in Kiev told me about Svalbard,” he said, noting the decision-making process was short. “I look up where it was, got documentation, found a cheap flight ticket, bought it and decided to go to Svalbard this summer.”
Boreiko said his trip here taught him several things. Besides the obvious lessons that people should be notified beforehand about his travel plans and a communication device should be carried in such an extreme setting, the “tame” part of the experience was different than his expectations.
“First, I thought it was a small city and I would not stay here that long,” he said. “But I made a mistake and I met so many nice people, friendly and easy to communicate with, that I find it really interesting to stay in the safe area.”
And while he enjoyed stretching his limits, Boreiko said he definitely needs recovery time.
“Maybe when I go home I will take a trip to the Black Sea to have a rest for my body,” he said. “This trip was really interesting but I’m very tired physically.”
“I want to say thank you to these guys from the rescue group and all people that helped me during this time. This story should not be an example, but a lesson for the others.”