In many ways, the highlight of my Svalbard eclipse trip was managing to get there. For some reason, I had always wanted to visit Spitsbergen, the largest island of the Svalbard archipelago. Once, I’d gone to a travel agent and asked about going to Spitsbergen and they said, “Pittsburgh? We can get you to Pittsburgh anytime you want!” I’d also always wanted to see a total eclipse, but I’d never got around to doing either. Then I noticed the Travelquest ad for Svalbard and an eclipse and decided that if I didn’t go now, I probably never would. So I signed up.
I live on a small island in the western Pacific Ocean called Chuuk, better known to World War II buffs and scuba divers as Truk. To get from Chuuk to Oslo to meet the Travelquest tour group I bought an around-the-world ticket on the Star Alliance. The routing from Chuuk to Oslo was not difficult. I was scheduled to leave Chuuk at 2:00 a.m. on Monday, March 16, to Guam. (On Chuuk we call that flight the “turnaround flight” because it comes down from Guam on Sunday night at 9:30p.m., then goes on to Pohnpei, turns around there and gets back to Chuuk around 2:00 a.m. and then on to Guam.) From Guam, the itinerary was to then take the 6:30 a.m. flight to Narita (Tokyo) with a layover there of a couple of hours then non-stop to Copenhagen and a short hop over to Oslo, arriving around 8:30 p.m., still on the 16th. Total travel time would have been about 22 hours, all from Guam on during daylight, and I would’ve gotten to Oslo two days before Travelquest’s charter flight to Longyearbyen, Svalbard.
I had wanted to take the Saturday, March 14th flight to Guam and wait there until the 16th, but for some reason, the around-the-world ticket wasn’t good on that United flight. The March 14th flight arrived on Chuuk a little late but did not continue on to Guam until the next day when it arrived on Guam during a storm. The weather on Chuuk was fine, but the turnaround flight was canceled before mid-day. Before Continental (which was the airline that served Chuuk) merged with United, it would usually run a rescue flight 24 hours later when it had to cancel flights. Not this time, however. Severe weather (typhoon) on Guam prevented it. On the morning of the 16th, I kept getting e-mails from United that my flight from Guam to Narita would be delayed an hour or so, but I was still (very frustrated) on Chuuk. No planes came to Chuuk from Guam on the 15th or 16th. (On Monday mornings, United has a flight that arrives from Guam and then continues, with four more stops, to Honolulu, arriving 14 hours later.) No rescue flight was scheduled. I sent Travelquest an e-mail that I might not make it to Oslo on time to make the charter flight. Eventually, United rescheduled the Monday flight to Honolulu to Tuesday morning, the 17th. The next flight to Guam would be when that plane turned around at Honolulu and flew back the next day, so the earliest I could get to Guam would be 6:00 p.m. on the 18th, too late to get a flight from Guam to Narita before the morning of the 19th.
So I took the first flight off Chuuk, the flight to Honolulu. I checked in about 8:30 a.m. on the 17th, at Chuuk airport and got on the flight when it came. It eventually arrived at Honolulu at 4:00 a.m. (still March 17 because I’d crossed the International Dateline going east), and cleared customs and immigration. My winter clothing was in my checked luggage. (When in December 2014, I had brought my winter clothing to Chuuk, Guam customs had asked what was in the cardboard box and when I told them “winter clothes” they got curious but I told them I was next going to the North Pole for an eclipse, they let me through.) Walking to the departure gate area, I noticed the thin crescent moon low in the sky and thought that that moon was getting closer to the sun and I sure wanted to get to Svalbard before it did. As soon as it opened, I headed for the United lounge where I mentioned how frustrated I was trying to get to the eclipse in Svalbard.
Having got as far as Honolulu, I could have continued heading eastward across the United States and then to Oslo. Even though that routing was cheaper, I had avoided it because it was longer and, more importantly, because jetlag is much more severe on east-bound flights. The last thing I wanted was to be struggling to stay awake while the sun was in totality —if I dozed off for two minutes I might miss everything. No, if I could help it, I was going westbound. Besides, my ticket was a westbound around-the-world ticket, not an eastbound round trip. The first flight to Narita left at noon. I was on it.
The pilot announced that he expected a smooth flight for most of the trip but that it would get turbulent near Japan. I thought, “Oh no, the typhoon that hit Guam must have headed to Japan,” as they often do. But the weather at Narita turned out to be unremarkable.
By the time my flight got to Narita past 4 p.m. on the 18th (crossed the International Dateline again), all the flights to Europe had left, but I was now on a Thai Airways flight to Bangkok that started boarding at 4:45 p.m. I paused only long enough to buy some green-tea-flavored Kit Kat bars for a friend and easily got to the gate on time. I had an uneventful flight to Bangkok. I don’t know where the Guam typhoon went but at least it didn’t interfere with me anymore. I arrived at Bangkok past 10 pm on the 18th. Thankfully, Norwegians love to vacation in Thailand. There was a non-stop flight to Oslo leaving just after midnight. I was on it. As long as Putin didn’t close Russian airspace, I’d get to Oslo early on the 19th. After another uneventful, if long, flight, and I arrived in Oslo around 7 a.m. on the 19th. The Travelquest tour had left the day before, but I’d e-mailed them that I had got a reservation for the last flight from Oslo to Longyearbyen on the 19th, which should arrive before midnight.
Having made it to Oslo on the morning of the 19th, I didn’t want to wait that long or put my trust in the last possible flight. I went to the SAS ticket counter and told them I’d been flying around for days and I had a hotel room waiting for me in Longyearbyen could I get on their 10:00 flight to Longyearbyen? She was surprised I had a hotel room because she told me Longyearbyen hotel rooms had been sold out for two years, and asked if I had a ticket. I said I think I have one on the late night flight. She checked and said yes I did and there was a seat left in my fare class on the morning flight but there was a 500 kroner change fee so did I want it and did I want to know how much 500 kroner was in US dollars? I couldn’t give her my credit card fast enough. “Sure tell me how much, but get me on the plane.” There was only one empty seat on the plane on the plane when we left. The morning flight stopped in Tromso first where everyone got off to go through passport control to leave Norway for Svalbard. There were no jetways and it was snowing. I was still wearing what I had on when I left Chuuk (7 degrees, 30 minutes north of the equator) plus a Northface jacket I’d been using as a blanket on earlier flights. Everyone got back on the same plane and then off for Longyearbyen, at last!
The flight arrived at Longyearbyen at around 2pm on the 19th. Still wearing the clothes I had on when I left tropical Chuuk, I had my picture taken in front of the landmark Beware of Polar Bears sign in front of the airport. The temperature was only about an 85⁰F (or 46⁰C) difference from Chuuk. This was the only picture taken of me while I was on Svalbard. You can see my luggage at my feet with a cardboard box holding my winter clothes.
From the airport I took a taxi to the Radisson As soon as the Travelquest representative, who was Alec Kozak, at the Radisson lobby desk got off the phone, I introduced myself as, “Hi, I’m your long lost prodigal son.” He immediately replied, “Mr. Wentworth! Glad you made it! There’s an eclipse safety briefing going on right now over at the Culture Hall. Bring your luggage. We’ll go over there right now and take you to your hotel afterward.” So it was off to the eclipse briefing. Then on to the Spitsbergen Hotel where once I was checked in and everything was squared away, I got off an e-mail to a friend, “Top of the World, Chi-Chi, Top of the World!!!! I’m here!” She was glad I made it after all the problems I had just to get off of Chuuk and started on my way. I told everyone that it had taken me 65 hours of flying around and hanging around airports to get to my eclipse tour group. Since then I’ve recalculated the time and it was actually only 62 to 63 hours.
I was finally able to unpack my cold weather clothing that night. The eclipse the next day (and the weather) was magnificent! although my eclipse pictures weren’t. Here’s a passable one of the diamond ring I continued on around the world with stops in Boston and San Diego. When I got to the United lounge in the Honolulu airport, the agent remembered me and asked if I’d made it in time to see the eclipse; she said she’d thought of me when she watched it on television. I had to say, “Yes, I did and it was magnificent! And the color of the sky was ethereal!”
– Larry Wentworth