Svalbard in photos and fears
Last November I was in Malmö, Sweden for a conference and making plans to return to the U.S. What to do in Scandinavia in the meantime? I realized I had a chance to visit Svalbard. This is one of the northernmost populated areas on Earth. It was only settled in modern times — even the hardened peoples of northern Norway, Siberia, and Greenland avoided it — and there are still slightly fewer humans than polar bears living there.
Where is it?
After getting off the plane in Tromsø, getting stamped out of the EU, and returning to the plane, we took off across the Arctic, saw the dwindling sun set, and reached Svalbard around 3 in the afternoon. The sky was already pitch black, with snow blowing in the wind. It was only a few degrees below zero; that part was not so bad.
I met my Airbnb host at the airport’s destinations sign (pictured at left), which also features Svalbard’s unofficial outdoorsy logo, the polar bear hazard triangle.
There are two population centers: Norway’s Longyearbyen (where I visited), and the Russian Barentsburg, which is a popular curiosity for Western tourists. Officially all of the land is Norwegian, but the Svalbard Treaty leaves flexibility, including visa-free entry for all nations. Practically speaking, it would be difficult for other nationals to enter without transferring in an airport which puts you through EU or Russian passport control.
There are a handful of Airbnbs available and some hotels. When I booked last minute, not much was affordable. The Airbnb listings include some more remote, camp accommodations outside town, where sled dogs are kept. No offense, but I didn’t want to deal with the cold, the dark, the isolation, and rough facilities all at once. So I paid a bit more and got a room in a house. My host moved to Svalbard for work 20 years ago. After giving me a short tour, she quickly found me a reflective work vest (for visibility), a hat, snow pants, and long underwear. I don’t think that these extra clothes were 100% necessary, but they were comfortable.
Kunstpause — the art show
My visit was perfectly timed for Kunstpause (“art break”). There is also a Dark Season Blues festival in October and several tourist activities through the summer.
I was able to visit some different art galleries and a concert at Mine #3 thanks to this festival. This mine was converted to a museum. I was only able to see a small part of their collection.
Later I attended a small event at the Svalbard university’s museum, and a concert by local people at the historic church (the northernmost church). The crowd for all events seemed to be Norwegians and/or university students. Most of the presenters spoke English.
Seeing Longyearbyen only in the dark, regardless of hour of day or night, left me with so many strange impressions. It was light, it was warmth, it was one of those little Santa’s Villages. I couldn’t recognize the sunnier scenes of mountains featured in their postcards, so I picked out some cards with winter lights, polar bears, or Christmas themes.
Creepy Coal Mining History
The legacy of coal mining is strong. All through town are towers which once carried buckets of coal to waiting ships (there were no roads or trucks).
High atop a hill, you can see a massive spider-like building on stilts where the coal buckets were processed.
After many years of coal mining, the final mine is (controversially) expected to be shut down, as it loses financial support from Norway.
I was strategic with my dinner plans to try a moose burger and a seal steak (pictured at left, with lots of peppercorns for flavor). Sometimes you can get caribou or whale.
Nothing is super-fresh though (Norwegian food safety law requires local fish to go through inspection, and Svalbard doesn’t have facilities for it).
A local coffee shop is also the “northern-most chocolatier” offering a tray of cutesy winter and polar bear themed chocolates, as well as baked goods.
Two sushi and Thai restaurants recently closed, but there is still an Asian supermarket. I didn’t get to meet anyone in their famous Thai community, but I did speak and give directions to a woman who had just arrived from the Philippines after her husband found a telecom job. It was her first snow.
The Constant Threat of Polar Bears
A major mascot, fear, and fascination across Svalbard is POLAR BEARS.
My host says she saw two or three polar bears in the past year. Generally they avoid populated areas, or Longyearbyen locals and police will scare them off. Whenever leaving town, you are required to bring a rifle and travel with someone trained to use it. Guns are specifically banned from many areas in town, such as the grocery store. On maps, the bear-safe zone is marked in pink.
At the university museum, there are stark reminders of how deadly polar bears can be. Here is a rifle found with a stuck cartridge. The owner was unable to defend himself.
My host assured me that although polar bears are dangerous, there are dangers in every part of the world. You can die of thirst in a desert, or drown in the sea. People living on a frontier must accept this.
Svalbard was a fascinating visit. An acquaintance who studies the Arctic once told me about it and ended with: “you can’t be born there and you can’t die there.” Meaning, it is not really seen as a place for families or making your home. Everyone there is a traveler, they are there only temporarily for some function.
I would like to return in the summer, when I would stand a better chance at safely seeing the bears and other wildlife, and visit the Russians in Barentsburg.
Don’t discount winter visits, though. There are art shows, other events, and (if you get good weather) fantastic views of the aurora. Dress warm!