Ice caves, reindeer, snowmobiles and the shed that might save the future of humanity. Wanderlust's Editor Phoebe Smith explores Longyearbyen in Svalbard, Norway: the town at the top of the world
Sat in the corner of Fruene, a wood-panelled coffee shop in the centre of Longyearbyen, the regional capital of Svalbard, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Thor’s cautionary speech was about polar bears. It’s here, after all, on Spitsbergen – the largest of the islands that make up the Arctic archipelago – that Ursus maritimus outnumber human residents by over 1,000. But this 60-something retired miner was not talking bears; he was, in fact, regaling me with stories about one of the more regular uninvited visitors to his home: the tourist.
Ever since the profits from coal mining – the industry on which this town was built back in 1906 – began to fall, both the Government and locals have been looking for a viable alternative economy. As coal prices slumped from US$160 per tonne in 2008 to just US$45 today, a good reason was needed to keep a permanent settlement in this the most northerly town in the world.
The colourful town of Longyearbyen (Neil S Price)
Scientific research is one, evidenced by the ever-expanding university that sits in the centre of town and whose students account for a large proportion of the population. The other is tourism.
Boasting arctic wildlife, polar night, Northern Lights and Midnight Sun, it’s no wonder that the numbers of visitors has continually increased since the first curious arrivals – aristocratic hunters – found there way here in the early 1800s. In 2015 alone, 130,000 people reportedly visited (that’s 12,000 more than the year before). This goes someway to explain the flow of visitors to Thor’s house who, according to him, wander in regularly to test the theory that all residents must leave their doors unlocked in case a polar bear unwittingly heads into the community.
It’s not that human guests are unwanted – in fact, they are fast becoming vital. I arrived to the island in April, just one week after the biggest working mine closed in Svea, 44km south of Longyearbyen, which employed about 400 people. They were – according to locals – to keep on just 25 employees, relocating them to Mine 7 on the outskirts of town, where the last working mine on the island exists solely to produce the coal needed to power the settlement. For locals, the closure was a hot topic of conversation.
For visitors, however, our minds were fixated on Arctic adventures, and I didn’t have to wait long for mine to start.
“This is your pulk,” said my guide, Petter Aker, as he hoisted an orange sleigh out of the back of his van on my first afternoon. It was the kind of apparatus usually associated with explorers or hard-core adventurers, and I looked around expectantly waiting for one of them to arrive. “Me?” I queried, as he handed me the harness and reins. Apparently I had all the necessary credentials needed to operate one – namely willingness.
For the next couple of hours I became a polar expeditioner, pulling an array of equipment (sleeping bag, mats, stove, gas and lots of food) up Lars Glacier at the southern edge of town. Any worries I had that the load would be too much for me were quickly replaced by the very real fear of stumbling across the aforementioned polar bears. The town itself is declared ‘safe’, but once you cross an invisible line on its outskirts (marked pink on the maps handed out at the tourist information centre) you are required to carry a loaded gun just in case. Petter walked alongside me with his casually slung on his back.
Husky dog (Neil S Price)
For him, polar bear awareness was a fact of life. Despite my anticipation, all was peaceful. Our snowshoe-encased feet barely made more than a squeak as snowflakes fell all around us. Due to the approaching season of ‘midnight sun’ (where the sun never truly sets), the sky looked the same shade of mottled grey as it had when I’d arrived late that morning; yet from our new viewpoint, around 550m above the city, we watched lights slowly twinkle on inside the houses, signalling the onset of evening. Around 8pm, as the gradient relented, we spotted some red posts protruding from the ground. “We’re here,” declared Petter.
Every year during winter there’s a build-up of snow on the top of this glacier, but come the warmer spring weather it melts to form two creeks that carve passageways inside the icy interior. In winter, it re-freezes and the empty meltwater channels inside the glacier can be walked through. Visiting them is not a new experience, but spending the night in one is – and I was to be the third person ever to try it.
We swapped snowshoes for ice grippers and, with helmets securely on, we descended backwards into the snowhole, clutching a handrail rope and treading on steps sliced into the ice. At first it was dark and fairly narrow, though large enough to move through comfortably without a squeeze. I thought I would feel claustrophobic, like a miner descending into a pit, but after about 10 metres of descent I could let go of the rope and turn around.
As I did so, I gasped. The walls sparkled in the beam of my headtorch, the ice reflecting the light in tiny fragments like a disco ball. Either side of me, giant swirls of compressed layers of snow and sediment (which Petter explained could be counted, in a similar way to the rings found inside tree trunks, to estimate the age of the ice) snaked off in a yawning tunnel of brown and cream.
Above, the ice stretched upwards for several metres in great folds and curves. Occasionally a cluster of spikes protruded from the smooth walls, frozen into rhizomatic crystals that resembled upturned trees. It was unlike anything I had ever seen.
We spent an hour exploring these ice caves and tunnels before deciding on our bedchamber – a wide flattened ledge above the main throughway, accessed via footholes chiselled into the ice. There, by candlelight, curtained by icicles, we cooked up a feast of cheese and vegetable-laden pasta on our cooking stove, ate copious amount of crisps and supped hot chocolate. It was the perfect subterranean den.
Despite being surrounded by tonnes of glacier ice, it was a mild night. The temperature inside was around -3ºC (warmer than the -7ºC outside), and with the cosy expedition sleeping bags we’d pulled up here, and thick floor mats beneath us, I awoke only once – because I was too hot.
Svalbard's Global Seed Vault (Neil S Price)
The following morning, after using the pulks as sleighs for a speedy descent back into town, I embarked upon my second adventure: a husky sled ride. Having done this a couple of times before in varying parts of Lapland, I felt like I knew what to expect – once more Svalbard had packed a surprise.
“This is your team: five dogs that need to go in this order,” barked our musher and guide Audun Salte as a group of eight of us arrived at the kennels, eyed up the four sleds and jokingly noted that there were no dogs attached to them. It turned out this was because we had to collect and harness our own. I looked as sceptical as everyone else as Audun patiently showed us the correct procedure, which involved grasping the dog between your legs and slipping on the harness, before walking and clipping them in place.
My first attempt was with a ridiculously fluffy, blue-eyed Alaskan husky called Clooney who – even without jumping up – stood taller than my hips. At first he bounded about, excited to see the harness coming his way, but once I got him in place he became quiet and obedient. As I rounded up my team, I felt I got to know a little more about their personalities: the lead dog was clearly in charge; her second was more excitable but would quieten down with a firm nudge; the middle dog was all brute force; and the back two were young and argumentative but eager and fast.
Once out in the valley, they worked together like a well-oiled machine. The barks were left behind in the kennels and, over the next couple of hours, in the silent valley the only sound came from the hiss of the sled runners cutting through the snow. I felt like I’d become part of the frozen landscape, complementing the endless white rather than asserting any control over it – I didn’t want it to stop.
Barks ahead signalled when we were nearing the kennels once more, but the experience didn’t end immediately. We were responsible for thanking the dogs with cuddles, returning them to their kennels and feeding each of them. It felt like we’d progressed from passing visitor to involved musher.
To celebrate sleeping under the town and moving seamlessly through it with my dog team, I headed for a meal at Huset (meaning ‘house’). Perched high above the settlement, it’s one of the oldest buildings in Longyearbyen. Built in 1951 as an assembly hall, it has also served as cinema, theatre, dancehall, sports hall, bar and general meeting place for everyone, from mine owner to mine worker.
Today, it’s still the community’s go-to social hotspot, but in keeping with the town’s move towards catering for travellers, it also offers something unexpected: a restaurant with a seven-course tasting menu and ingredients sourced as locally as possible. It’s fine dining polar-style. That night, I sampled an unexpected feast, including reindeer, king crab and Arctic char, served alongside wine from the northernmost cellar in the world (naturally). It was a fitting way to toast the town’s future.
But it’s not just Longyearbyen that is gearing up for travellers. Over in Barentsburg – a Russian settlement 60km west – they, too, have been working hard to attract intrepid tourists. There are no roads on the island to link the settlements, so getting there is an adventure in itself. The following morning, with guide Ane-Luise Tellebon, we carved our way over Spitsbergen’s Arctic desert by snowmobile. We navigated through winding valleys, soared up hillsides, funneled down twisting passages and raced across a flattened plateau hemmed by mountains. As we reached the coast we passed the rusting remains of another Russian mine – closed many years previous – before speeding on to reach Barentsburg: population 350.
Here the road signs switched to Cyrillic and its buildings oozed archetypal Soviet functionality, replete with a statue of Lenin at its centre. The only exception to this uniformity was a small, ornate wooden orthodox church.
“Coal mining is the past,” said Zheka Bzylkin, a 20-something Russian from the southern Urals, who had been working in the town’s one hotel for the past four months, along with a mainly Ukrainian workforce. “They’ve been developing tourism here for last two years – they’ve needed to. The hotel’s been renovated, they’ve improved snowmobile tours and started offering boat trips. People come to have a last glimpse at the Soviet past.”
Ane-Luise agreed: “They’ve realised they need to adapt. In my first summer here just one person spoke English, now about 20 do. It’s all changing – it has to.”
Native Svalbard deer (Neil S Price)
Back in Longyearbyen I met another man, a former miner who embodied this Svalbardian spirit of change. We chatted over beer – his beer in fact. Robert Johansen, who first arrived on the archipelago in 1982, was celebrating after successfully changing the law so that he could establish Svalbard Bryggeri, the town’s first microbrewery (now the northernmost in the world, of course). Until last year, producing alcohol on the island had been prohibited by an old law dating from 1928. Brewed using 2,000-year-old glacier water, he served his first legal beer in the summer of 2015.
“I just wanted Svalbard to produce something other than coal – something we could call our own,” he said, and gestured to the ale vats. He’s since produced 200,000 litres, with half of it being exported.
“We’re even hoping to burn our waste malt to produce energy to power the business,” said enthusiastic tour guide Emma Cranbom.
“If successful, we reckon there would be enough produced to sell some kilowatts back to the community, making this a truly sustainable business.” Now there was a thought worth raising a beer to.
On my final day, after chatting to Thor and the other miners in Fruene, I headed out on a guided walk with Rene Wilkens, from Wildlife Svalbard, on a brand new ‘Seed to Summit’ hike.
We only scaled a small peak – chosen for guests who want a taste of Svalbard’s mountains without too much effort required – but it afforded the chance of sighting snow ptarmigan and arctic fox on the way. The highlight was undoubtedly a visit to the entrance of the Global Seed Vault, which jutted out of the snow like a giant concrete wedge.
Home to millions of seeds from all over the world (from the USA to the UK and even North Korea), it exists so that if the worst were to happen – whether natural disaster, nuclear strike or severe climate change – we would have the means to regrow lost crops.
As we stood in front of its door, picturing the bounty that lay behind it, Rene spied movement nearby. It was a small flock of reindeer. But these looked unlike any I had seen before. Their long fur stretched down the length of their little squat legs. Their faces were round and stout, their antlers spindly. I wondered how they could survive up here in the frozen tundra.
“They’re a subspecies unique to Svalbard,” explained Rene.
“Scientists believe they crossed the ice from Greenland over 5,000 years ago, and over time their bodies have adapted to the extreme temperatures. They are not hunted by anything and they can feed on almost any vegetation, of any quality, spending the summer eating to build up their fat reserves, which they live off during winter.”
As we watched them searching for food, I was reminded of the miners I had met that morning. To outsiders, the landscape, much like the community’s future up here, might look bleak on the surface.
But the reindeer (like the locals) still determinedly push through the snow, knowing for certain that the small seeds and shoots that will sustain them lie hidden, right under their noses.
SAS has daily flights from the UK to Longyearbyen via Oslo.
The town of Longyearbyen is small and very walkable; to go further afield, your choices are limited to snowmobiles, skis or husky sleds and you need a guide who is trained in polar-bear safety. Any tour you sign up for will normally offer hotel pick-up and drop-off.
There’s lots of experiences to be had in Svalbard, with more cropping up all the time, from easy hikes to sleeping in glaciers.
Svalbard Wildlife Expeditions offer a guided ice-cave hike, with a sleepover inside Lars Glacier, plus most equipment and food. Day trips to see the caves are available.
For those after something less adventurous – but no less spectacular – the same company also offer the Seed to Summit Hike, a guided walk up a local peak where reindeer, arctic fox and snow ptarmigan may be spotted, before visiting the entrance to the Global Seed Bank.
Svalbard Husky offer a fantastic half-day experience where you get to harness up your own dog team like a real musher and head out into the valleys.
Better Moments will guide you on a full-day adventure (130km round trip) to visit the Russian settlement of Barentsburg, where you’ll have lunch at the Barentsburg Hotel.