Heading to the High Arctic

My friend and colleague viqueen and I decided a few months ago to present at the Island Dynamics conference on Folk Belief and the Supernatural in Literature and Film, held in Longyearbyen, Svalbard. This was a wonderful opportunity to experience the far north in the depths of winter. On the way we spent a couple of nights in Tromsø; the Viqueen had runic business there while I had always longed to see the Arctic Cathedral and the Polar Museum. In the event we were in town as the Tromsø International Film Festival got underway, so it was busy indeed. Moreover, for the high Arctic in January it was extraordinarily warm. Our heavy Arctic gear was a liability as we walked round town.

While the Viqueen was at the University Museum I visited Polaria, an extraordinary modern aquarium designed to look as if a series of ice-floes had crashed onto land. The Arctic fish species were less exotic than their Southern hemisphere cousins, but there was seal-feeding and the showing of a wonderful film of the different landscapes of Svalbard, as well as a room dedicated to Arctic climate change, showing the terrifying rate at which the ice, both sea-ice and the tongues of Svalbard’s many glaciers is diminishing – at the rate of 11% per decade. I also went to the Perspektivet Museum, where the great Norwegian writer Cora Sandel lived in her girlhood. It’s many years since I read her Alberte trilogy in the Women’s Press translation from the 1980s, but I shall be re-reading it soon.

The Polar Museum offered models and dioramas, with some particularly graphic depictions of seal-culling and animal trapping. The museum traces the history of the Far North and the polar heroes who made their way to the North and South Poles by ship, sled, plane and balloon. There’s also a remarkable range of stuffed animals, from the musk-ox to the polar-bear, including the dwarf reindeer sub-species of Svalbard

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These creatures roamed close to Longyearbyen, but unfortunately it was either too dark, or the car windows were too icy, for me ever to lay eyes on one. The viqueen and I made our way over the high curved bridge that spans the fjord to the Arctic Cathedral, a striking modern construction that looks as if it might be related to Jørn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House, but isn’t. We walked all round the outside before finding the entrance, and were dazzled by the brilliant blues, yellows and reds of the stained glass, shining out into the dark winter night. Tall newly snow-laden trees offered a dramatic counterpoint to the angularities of the cathedral itself. Inside it’s sparsely furnished and all the colours of the great window are levelled to black and white by the outside night. We ate at Fiskekompaniet, overlooking the harbour where the fishing-boats were snugly drawn up beside the quay, and the lights on the opposite shore twinkled through the occasional snow flurry.

The next day was warmer still, but the wind fierce and our plane on to Longyearbyen was delayed by the cross-winds blowing across the runway at Tromsø. But after a three-hour delay and a rather rocky takeoff we were airborne in the inky polar night.

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