A sizeable polar bear keeps watch over the baggage carousel at Longyearbyen airport – and there are plenty more around town. A huge specimen towers in the lobby of the Radisson, another prowls above the entrance to the Co-op supermarket, and a small one bursts through the wall of the quirky restaurant at Mary-Anns Polarrigg.
These are all stuffed specimens, sick or dangerous bears who haven’t benefited from the protected status that the North’s largest mammal enjoys across Svalbard. The Viqueen and I arrived late in the afternoon, and were soon checking under the mighty bear’s gaze at the Radisson, but neither of us could shake the idea that the next morning the layout of the town and its disposition among geometrically regular flat-topped mountains would become clear. Not so, as we kept having to remind ourselves, for the reappearance of the sun was still 25 days away, and the best we could hope for was a dim glow at lunch-time, silhouetting the mountains against a pale grey sky, tinging the horizon with the promise of the sunlight just below it.
We were in Svalbard for a conference, but before that began there were Arctic adventures to be had. Despite a strong wind we went dog-sledding with SvalbardHusky, an experience I’ve dreamed of since my obsession with the North first took shape. It’s hard work wrestling 20 kilos of excitable Alaskan sled-dog into her harness, and harder still when it’s a chunky 40 kilo male who can’t wait to feel the crunch of fresh snow under his paws. The Viqueen took the passenger slot at first, while I drove, tipping the sled over when the dogs took a tight corner and having to struggle to my feet while holding onto the six-dog team who saw no reason why they should stop.
A photo of sled-dogs in Greenland from the art exhibition at the Polar Museum in Longyearbyen.
But with the sled righted, the passenger re-installed, the wind at my back and the dogs loping through the snow up to the top of the valley, this was an exhilarating way of feeling the darkness and snow, the power of the dogs and the looming outlines of the mountains before we turned back, and I took the passenger seat. Facing back into the wind was altogether chillier, but feeding the dogs back at the dog-yard warmed us up again. I absolutely loved dog-sledding – next time, further and longer will be my goal.
Later that day was a visit to a disused mine – mine number 3. Mining is the economic raison d’être of the settlements in Svalbard, although neither the Norwegian enterprise (Mine number 7, still employing 50 workers) nor the Russian mine at Barentsburg turns anything like a profit. Rather, the history of mining provides a reason for the Norwegians (and the Russians) to occupy this unpromising archipelago in the far North. Svalbard is administered by Norway, but is a separate territory and visa-less entry is available to any citizens of the signatory nations to the Treaty of Spitzbergen which came into existence in 1919 as an offshot of the Treaty of Versailles. Thus, it’s a lively and multicultural place – 40 nationalities are represented among the roughly 2,500 inhabitants of Longyearbyen. The Norwegians we met in the tourist business, whether guiding or running the outdoor activities, often had second- or third-generation family ties to Svalbard, grandfathers who were trappers, fathers who’d worked in the mines. The Norwegian social security system doesn’t extend as far as Svalbard; there are little care available to the elderly and – or so the story goes – you can’t die there. The permafrost certainly inhibits the digging of graves, and the hard existence encourages the elderly to spend their last years further south.
We ate conference food most of the time we were in Longyearbyen, burgers, meatballs and pizza. This last had an unusual local variant: a topping of raw cabbage, mayonnaise and fried mince which proved surprisingly tasty. I experimented with a seal-steak, having failed to taste this delicacy in Greenland. It was tasty enough, like rather tough beef with a hint of liver about it, but it took a good deal of chewing. Whale-steak, part of the final dinner, was much tenderer. The conference itself threw up many interesting papers, ranging from traditional folk-belief in the north in the modern context (‘how supernatural beings cause traffic accidents at a blackspot in Sweden’) to the unofficial literature associated with the expeditions sent to search for Sir John Franklin. The Viqueen talked about runic inscriptions in dark, hidden places, while I spoke about the White Walkers in Game of Thrones as embodying a particular type of Northern horror.
On the plane I’d re-read Michelle Paver’s incomparable Arctic horror novel Dark Matter and felt thoroughly unnerved. Echoes of the Sky Atlantic series Fortitude, filmed in Iceland, but set in a fictional territory based on Svalbard, and memories of Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow set up an uneasy sense that the snow and darkness hid an unseen terror, something ancient and inhuman that lay beneath the surface of the colourful brightly-lit and friendly little town. Prehistoric viruses, thawing quietly under the snow, long-extinct life-forms stirring back into existence, all these aspects of Arctic horror seemed more terrifying than the threat of the female polar-bear and her well-grown cubs who had been sighted in town, and whose whereabouts were unknown. One night on the way back down from the mountain above Mine number seven where we’d been looking at the Northern Lights we passed a jeep – the police on the lookout for the ice-bear and her cubs, our driver assured us.
It was the next night though, at the top end of the village, again watching the play of the mysterious green aurora over the snow on the mountain tops, and in faint swirls against the slopes, that I felt the primeval terror of the dark and what might lurk in it. We walked beyond the street-lights, to the edge of the darkness where the aurora could best be seen, a film of green cloud-like wisps drifting over a black sky crowded with sparkling stars. Cheerful residents with head-torches boldly strode past us with their lean, alert dogs. Nothing would have induced me to follow them though; the menace of the bear which had been something of a joke earlier suddenly seized hold of me. I was relieved to retreat back to the world’s 6th coolest bar and its unparalleled range of whiskies.
Tourism, not coal, looks set to be the future of Svalbard. Cruise liners glide through the archipelago in the summer; even in the depths of winter there are plenty of young folk seeking adventure in the ice. Dog-sledding, snow-shoe trekking, snowmobile safaris, and in the light, climbing, hiking, ski-ing and photography are among the islands’ attractions. For me this was a remarkable experience, kindling the imagination in unexpected ways and driving home the threat of the loss of habitat and the melting of the ice-cap in a way that is hard to imagine if you haven’t seen the Arctic for yourself. I keep thinking of that hungry mother-bear and her cubs searching for food in the unpromising streets of Longyearbyen, unable to hunt seals at the pack-ice edge because the temperature is so unseasonably warm that the ice hasn’t formed. That might be the real horror.