More than three years since I was here last and true to the promise I made myself at the end of my expedition here in 2010, I have returned to Svalbard. During the intervening period spent at university, I have caught myself consistently distracted from my work, looking up to stare out of the window and reminisce about two very special months spent at the whim of an arctic wilderness. I am still possessed by the nature of these desolate islands, so much so that the name, Old Norse for “Cold Edge”, still reverberates in my mind long after it is stated. Svalbard.
Everything about this place is intensified, from the days which can last four months, to the wildlife which includes an estimated 3,000 polar bears. It is home to the Northern Lights, vast stretches of pack-ice, endless bleak wilderness and in winter, mørketid; the dark-time.
Life at such extremes is less about the physical challenge than the psychological one. Each day is characterised by a breadth of emotional experience, where one moment you are counting your blessings atop a mountain; the next, you are fighting for your life in a blizzard sprung upon you by the capricious Arctic climate. Living under such conditions, you begin to understand that overcoming despair, fear and great challenges are at least as important as happiness in attaining true contentment.
Adrift on an iceflow with my friend Matt Hay, Svalbard 2010
That was 2010, and seeking to recapture the bliss that characterises that period of my life, I have enrolled in a year-long course to become an Arctic Nature Guide. On the course curriculum are polar bear defence, crevasse rescue, glacier travel, arctic survival, flora and fauna, snow-mobile driving, story-telling and, as Brian Butterfield would say, that’s still not all.
I arrived at the camp-site where I was to spend the next two weeks under auspicious circumstances. Across the fjord, the ever-sunlit Oscar II Land put on a dazzling display of shifting greys and golds to welcome me back. Every time I looked up from pitching my lavvo (a conical tent, furnished with a wood-burning stove known as a “Titanium Goat” to keep the Arctic winter at bay), I was presented with another spectacular mountain vista.
Oscar II Land, just visible across the fjord
The next few days were spent struggling against the bureaucratic inertia that characterises arrival in any new land, even this one at the frontier of human civilisation. Chief among my list of priorities was registering as a Citizen of Svalbard, a status which entitles me to free search and rescue, a gun licence and, crucially, an alcohol ration card. Alcohol is rationed to a litre of spirits and twenty-four beers per person, per month; a measure that is partly practically orientated (as a tax haven, alcohol costs next to nothing in Svalbard and is therefore rationed to prevent the locals drinking themselves into oblivion during the long, dark winter), and partly as a result of tradition. The recent history of the islands is based mainly on coal-mining, and as the miners drinks of choice were spirits and beer, it was concluded by the company managers that the miners would work better with limited booze. These managers neglected to impose such restrictions on their own poisons, accounting for why cider and wine can still be purchased in unlimited quantities.
Only in Svalbard would this building, once used for storing coal, win an architectural award
Reminders of this mining history are to be found throughout Longyearbyen (Svalbard’s main town). For example, every time you enter a public building, you are required to remove your shoes; a legacy of the days when miners’ boots would be caked in coal dust. As someone who dislikes change at the best of times, a nod such as this to the history of the community serves only to endear it to me further. Svalbard, you feel, is not in a state of transition. It is here to stay.
If my arrival was auspicious, the start of the course was even more so. It began with observational placements at the local guiding companies which, one excursion with the local geriatric society aside, proved to be spectacular. A nine-hour round boat-trip on freezing grey sees to the Russian settlement of Barentsburg proved a particular highlight.
In contrast to Longyearbyen, which is colourful and well-kept, Barentsburg looks like a magnificently crumbling outpost of the Soviet Union, nestled among Arctic peaks. A statue of Lenin occupies the main square, surrounded by brightly painted school buildings and what must once have been intended as a communal garden; now wild and overgrown. The only two motor vehicles in evidence, a van and a bus, were clearly imported in the 50’s and haven’t been updated since, only adding to the sense that this is a settlement somehow adrift from time. As you walk down the eerily quiet main road, residents from the few apartment blocks not yet abandoned to the elements peer out at you silently before drawing curtains or retreating behind shutters. It was like a scene from Sleepy Hollow.
Lenin and me. The photos of Barentsburg are taken on my GoPro, as my main camera, a Lumix, was regrettably dropped in a crevasse on the first day and was taking some well-earned recovery time
Barentsburg’s “main road”
A sign in Barentsburg I can only assume means “Beware: paedophiles”
On the return leg, a splendid trip was capped off by spotting a pod of finnwhales. Not that it needed capping off, as the next day was spent husky-mushing. It’s too early in the season for the dogs to pull sledges, so instead we fed and watered the huskies before clipping them into specially designed buggies so that they could pull us even without snow. It’s a fantastic way to travel, though rather segmented at such a warm time of year as the dogs must stop regularly to drink. The hardest part of keeping so many dogs seems to be thinking up names for them, with each kennel bearing a painted sign advertising the name of the dog within. Bender, Fry and Zoidberg were quartered together, opposite the somewhat less congruous trio of Atom Bomb, GoPro and Alan.
The first week has held much promise, with some further photos below. Thanks to an incongruously good internet connection (Svalbard is serviced by world-class fibre-optics, owed to a NASA research station located on the main island), I hope to keep this blog full of news in the year to come. Stay tuned.
A whale pelvis, with three of my Norwegian classmates behind
Svalbard is covered in fossils, with these ancient leaves some of the more colourful examples
The coolest way to travel in the Arctic
Another view from the campsite