Winter is coming to Svalbard. The long arctic day has come to an end, with darkness now cloaking our evenings. Snow dusts the mountaintops that surround Longyearbyen and there is a bite in the air that signals an impending Arctic freeze. The relenting of the sun’s feeble grip on these islands brings with it the Northern Lights, a phenomenon I witnessed for the first time last night.
The wintry view outside the shooting range
Here, I am told we are too far north to witness the lights in their full glory. Nevertheless, the green veil that descended before me as I returned to the barracks after dark shall live long in the memory. Its earthenmost edges, tinged with red and yellow, fluttered in the solar breeze. At times it flickered, looking something like the inverse of a shadow cast by candlelight. I found myself stopping to stare open-mouthed at the display above me. It was awe-inspiring and intensely personal. I can only say that photos and videos do not do it justice. This is just as well, as the presence of mind to take any evaded me.
There is much folklore surrounding the Northern Lights. The Algonquin Indians thought they were the reflection of a fire lit by their god Nanahbohzo to remind them of his act of creation. The Saami people of Northern Scandinavia believed the Northern Lights were the energy of departed souls. To display disrespectful behaviour while the lights swept across the sky was to invite sickness and death upon yourself. We now know they are caused by charged particles emitted by the sun, funnelled by the earth’s magnetic fields towards the poles where they interact with our atmosphere. Standing beneath them, I certainly felt the reverence demanded by the Saami and Algonquin explanations was more appropriate. It is said that during powerful displays, you can even hear them crackling, a noise that has been likened to applause. In November, we travel further south to Alta, in Northern Norway; the self proclaimed Northern Lights capital of the world. There, I hope to be able to capture some essence of the lights on film.
Ascending the cloudy summit of Trollstein, “The Troll Stone”
Winter. The word carries a weight here that is absent back home in England; where it does not refer to a time of permanent darkness, or temperatures so cold that your spit freezes before hitting the snow. Perhaps the best prepared for this coming onslaught are the ptarmigans, who have already adopted their white winter plumage. They remain unprepared, however, for the news that the Sysselman has just granted me my small game license. Given the naivety of Svalbard wildlife, I anticipate an extremely positive impact on my food budget. In the case of the ptarmigan, as long as you can find them, you are assured a meal at the end of each hunt. Despite there having been a human presence on Svalbard since 1596, this endearing bird (a subspecies of that found in mainland Europe) has yet to adapt to anything better armed than an Arctic fox. Short of catching one with your bare hands and hurling it into the sky, persuading them to fly is almost impossible. Indeed, the most difficult aspect of the hunt is trying to explain to my Norwegian classmates how you pronounce the word “ptarmigan”.
Nevertheless, I have been struck by the level of respect engrained in Norwegian hunting culture. Heading through the fog up to the mountain of Trollstein (literally “The Troll Stone”, a name bestowed by the local miners) and beyond for my first experience of hunting on Svalbard, my head was awash with stern Norwegian maxims. It is better to regret the shot that you did not take, than the shot that you did. Cresting a snowy ridge, two ptarmigans soard ghost-like through the mist and out of sight. Continuing onwards, the birds came back into milky focus, sitting still against the snow. I raised the gun to my shoulder. Once you’ve started firing, do not stop until your quarry does.
A successful hunting trip
My stern Norwegian companions
Hunting the Svalbard reindeer presents similar challenges to the British sense of sportsmanship. A bumbling, truncated version of their mainland cousins, the reindeer are so inept that, on foggy days, they have been known to prance confidently over the edge of sheer cliffs and crash tragically onto the rocks below. If there is any challenge in hunting these, it is in finding the will to pull the trigger.
The Svalbard reindeer. Really more like a cow with antlers
In any case, the shooting skills of the whole class are now far in excess of those required to hunt Svalbard fauna. Last week was spent on an exhaustive polar bear defence course, focusing on the use of firearms. Over three days, we fired thousands of rounds with the aim of learning accurate rapid fire. The procedure was executed again and again until we could perform it at a moment’s notice, wearing a backpack and with a pounding heart. We threw grenades and extensively trialled the full armoury for dealing with polar bears, including pump-action shot-guns, a colt .45, a .44 magnum and a .460 magnum, this last more like a handheld cannon than anything else. In a land where polar bears outnumber people, these are comforting skills to have.
The rifles we use, a Ruger in 30-06 caliber, have only just replaced the Second World War Mausers that were, until now, the main currency in polar-bear defence. These rifles, built for uncompromising reliability, have been in service for over 70 years in one of the world’s harshest climates; a pedigree confirmed by the Nazi swastikas stamped on the barrel.
Just in case
Learning to use the Ruger 30-06 big-game rifle
I hope there will be no need to use them over the next week or so, when we’re off on an eight-day unsupported hiking trip to Barentsburg and back. To tide you over until I return, below is a splendid video made by my friend Stian of the Nordenskiolbreen glacier excursion, which I recommend you watch.
For now, I include a couple of photos below from the flora, fauna and geology lectures that have dominated the past few weeks. I am hopeful the coming trip will be sufficiently eventful in itself to constitute another blog update. Until then folks.
Giant fossilised leaves from the era when Svalbard was covered in sub-tropical forest. Around 50 million years old
One of Svalbard’s abundant species of fungi nestles among polar willow; the tallest woody-stemmed plant on Svalbard
One of the many ice-caves, carved out beneath a Svalbard glacier by melt-water
Things decay incredibly slowly in the refrigerated climate of Svalbard. Next to a river bed sits a moss-covered whale jaw-bone, as much as 10,000 years old