"But what about the limbo-dancing polar bears?" I wondered as I wriggled into my four-season sleeping bag for my first night of camping in the Arctic wilderness. I was one of a small group of would-be adventurers who had disembarked from the cruise ship MS Nordstjernen for a four-day sea-kayaking trip in north-west Spitsbergen. Our tents were pitched on a sandy moraine shore opposite the massive Blomstrand Glacier - a monster of moving ice that groans and cracks as it calves icebergs into the sea.
The noise from the glacier and the light of the midnight sun made it difficult to sleep and I lay awake thinking about the Werner Herzog film Grizzly Man - a true account of a man in a tent who gets eaten alive by a bear.
Soon I was fixating on the 3,000 or so polar bears that roam wild in Spitsbergen, and had convinced myself that I could hear one of them heading to my place for a midnight feast. Lying cocooned on the ground with my grey hat sticking out of my black sleeping bag, I realised with horror that I was doing a great impersonation of a stranded seal.
Ralph, our German guide, gave us a thorough safety briefing when we arrived. He stressed that we would be in no danger as long as we followed correct procedures and familarised ourselves with the emergency equipment. This included a radio for calling a rescue helicopter that could arrive within 90 minutes - great for an airlift to hospital but not much comfort if a bear is gnawing at your leg.
“It was all too easy for me to picture a polar bear leaning backwards and shuffling Caribbean-style under the safety wire.”
Explosive devices to scare off predators provided more immediate protection and the camp was full of them. There was a fat flare pistol by the door of the kitchen-tent, two large-bore rifles (one of which Ralph always carried with him), a rocket launcher at the open-air toilet and a three foot-high tripwire surrounding our sleeping quarters. That's where the limbo-dancing concern came in. It was all too easy for me to picture a polar bear leaning backwards and shuffling Caribbean-style under the safety wire.
In true Arctic fashion, the weather changed that first evening from glorious sunshine to a gale severe enough to demolish our supply tent and blow the boats 20 yards from the camp. With the wind at full strength it was easy to see how tough the conditions were for early polar explorers.
The gale past, we made repairs and headed out for our first full day of kayaking in wintery conditions with the threat of snow, sleet and another storm on the horizon. As we paddled among huge chunks of floating ice I was grateful that we had completed our canoe training - including a mandatory capsize - in the relatively balmy sunshine of the previous day.
Our team was made up of a French physicist specialising in ice floes (useful), a Swedish IT engineer who was also a fully qualified canoe instructor (very useful), his quiet wife who looked after old people (useful in my case) and Ralph, who seemed more at home in his kayak than on dry land (very reassuring).
It was a good mix: heaven knows what happens in such extreme conditions when visitors don't get along - luckily we did. After consulting our maps and guide, we took collective decisions on how far to paddle and where to explore along coast and islands within the Kongsfjorden.
It was the first time I had tried sea kayaking and I found crossing the large expanses of Arctic water in choppy conditions challenging and nerve-racking, especially when my team-mates disappeared behind substantial swells. I preferred our normal routine of hugging the shoreline and exploring the crags and caves. Like cycling, touring by kayak gives you control over your journey, the opportunity to stop where you fancy and the satisfaction of arriving under your own steam.
The warm Gulf Stream has allowed the western coastline of Spitsbergen to become incredibly rich in wildlife. As we paddled along we enjoyed close encounters with eiders, auks, geese, skuas, puffins and terns, but no polar bears. Ralph had a pouch on his kayak for his rifle and scanned the waters for any sign of the bears, which are often mistaken for floating ice.
On land we saw a herd of wild reindeer, a Svalbard ptarmigan and the back of an arctic fox. I hadn't imagined that icy Svalbard would be so alive with flora and fauna and felt privileged to visit such a pristine part of the planet.
The kayak base camp certainly wasn't a safari-with-servants sort of place; it was more a grit-in-your-trainers and balaclava-in-bed style of living. Going without showers and brushing your teeth in the glacial stream is great for a few days, but after four nights I was glad to see the MS Nordstjernen turning into our bay to pick us up.
The joy of returning to the relative comfort of the ship soon evaporated as seasickness set in. As we chugged back to the port of Longyearbyen we encountered rough seas, and the MS Nordstjernen was tossed around like a toy boat. The first three days' journey around the Spitsbergen coast on the way to camp had been completely different. With calm waters and stunning scenery it was like cruising through a Wagner opera lit with Mediterranean sunshine.
Highlights included crossing the 80-degree line of latitude to view walrus on the remote Moffen island, a quick dip among the floating ice (I have a certificate and retracted body parts to prove it) and the sighting of five polar bears.
Yes, we did actually see Ursus maritimus. First there was just one, then our guide pointed out a family of four foraging for eider eggs on an island. As I watched through my binoculars, I reflected that it was strange finally to see these animals in their natural habitat, going about their normal icy business undisturbed by a ship full of visitors who had travelled thousands of miles to see them. I was glad that the ship stayed a respectful distance. And I wondered for just how long these creatures can remain undisturbed with the growing pressures of tourism, global warming and the rush for natural resources in the Arctic.
Spitsbergen is the largest island of the Svalbard archipelago - an outreach of Europe governed by Norway. It is 3,400 miles north of London, and the last bit of real land before you reach the North Pole.
Kayaking is available on Hurtigruten’s Ulitimate Expedition cruise hurtigruten.co.uk