Once Upon A Sister; From the Pacific to the Polar Night (guest blog by my sister)
Once Upon A Sister; From the Pacific to the Polar Night
A guest blog from Svalbard by Trine J. Cederlöf, Thor’s sister
While Thor sailed across the endless blue of the Pacific Ocean, his little sister ventured North in pursuit of endless night.
Living up top in the Northern hemisphere, we are used to the imbalance of light, as our Summers have little, if any, night darkness at all, and our Winters quite opposite have little, if any, daylight at all. We in the North are comfortable with twilight, as it often lasts for hours and wraps around us like a blanket, telling us to slow down and be still.
And the stillness of untouched wilderness is one of the major attractions to visiting and living in Svalbard; the world’s northernmost human settlement in an archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, only 1309 km from the North Pole.
In 2012, Torbjørn (Thor) managed a work site in the north of Sweden, right in the middle of Sami Lapland, in the wilderness above the Arctic Circle. When he needed extra hands on site, he hired me to come help do whatever he told me to do, as all older brothers would…
Here, we worked 10 hours a day, 7 days a week, beginning in the endless Midnight Sun and ending in the Polar Night.
And I clearly remember the evening, when my brother came to find me, as I was off to bed, to bring me outside in the quiet, snowy landscape and pointed to the sky. The Aurora Borealis, better known as the Northern Lights, were gliding across the night sky, as green clouds dancing among the stars.
Once upon a mountain in 2012
While many of my friends and colleagues escape the cold and dark nordic winters, by taking a vacation to warmer countries in the south, this winter, I took my time off venturing north. And yes, like Thor, I travelled alone.
Unlike him, I took my seat in an airplane and looked out the window, as the daylight disappeared behind us and I knew that I would be wrapped in darkness and twilight for days to come.
The archipelago of Svalbard consists of several islands, only a few suitable for habitation. On the largest of these, Spitsbergen, Longyearbyen serves as the administrative centre, being the village with most citizens.
The group of islands range from 74° to 81° north latitude, and from 10° to 35° east longitude. The area is 61,022 sq km (23,561 sq mi) and there are about 2600 people living there.
This makes Svalbard bigger than Denmark and the population only slightly larger than the village of Bryrup, where we grew up.
But unlike Bryrup, Longyearbyen has several high standard hotels, many sporting goods and outdoor life shops, restaurants, pubs and both international sea- and airport.
And right outside the village borders is the vast and untouched wilderness of the Arctic desert, the tundra, the permafrost and the kingdom of the polar bears.
There are plenty of polar bears around town if you want to get close. They might be dead, but to preserve them, they should not be touched. Most have been killed because they were dangerous or diseased. Svalbard bears are protected from hunting. If you want to see living polar bears up close, I suggest a zoological park, where the bears are properly feed and used to a human audience. The ones in the wild are less welcoming.
Svalbard was discovered in 1596 by Dutch navigator Willem Barentz, only a hundred and four years after Christopher Columbus discovered America. And while Columbus went in pursuit of the ocean passage to the East through the West, the Dutch had begun the race for the North-West passage across the arctic, a passage which has as of yet still not been discovered, but with the recent climate change and polar ice caps melting, passage may be possible in the coming years. This is a great political topic in the arctic neighbouring countries, as who is to control and maintain the passage, if it becomes a reality.
As for Svalbard, it was settled by the Dutch, the English, the French and the Danes/Norwegians and was a whaling and hunting community for centuries, with no single country claiming the land.
Unlike the americas, there was no native population, as the land is unfarmable and therefore neither the vikings or the Sami settled there permanently, even though there are historical records of a place called Svalbarð, literally meaning ‘cold shores’, going back a thousand years.
It wasn’t until 1925, that it was determined that the archipelago should be a part of the Kingdom of Norway and it’s name was changed from Spitsbergen to it’s current (and historical) Svalbard.
And still, even though Svalbard is officially a part of Norway, which Torbjørn (Thor) visited in 2014, it is not part of geographical Norway proper, but forms an unincorporated area administered by a governor appointed by the Norwegian government.
Svalbard is also outside of the Schengen Area, the Nordic Passport Union and the European Economic Area. Since 2002, Svalbard's main settlement, Longyearbyen, has had an elected local government, somewhat similar to mainland municipalities. Other settlements include the Russian mining community of Barentsburg, the research station of Ny-Ålesund, and the mining outpost of Sveagruva. Ny-Ålesund is the northernmost settlement in the world with a permanent civilian population. Other settlements are farther north, but are populated only by rotating groups of researchers.
View over Longyearbyen at midday
Traces of the mining history are clear at Hotel Polarriggen, which is the former miners living quarters converted to hotel and restaurant.
After a long history of whaling and hunting, the future of Svalbard was set in coal and mining companies from several countries arrived to seek their fortunes in the industry of black gold. Svalbard remained a “company community” and while governed by Norway it functioned independently for decades.
And the population consisted primarily of men, working hard in the harsh environment and sending their earnings home to their families on the main continent of Europe.
It wasn’t until the 1970’s, that the Norwegian government decided to “normalize” the community and turned the hospital, nursery and school (for there were a few families up there roughing it out on company money) into public institutions and more permanent and normal settlements have been in Longyearbyen and Barentsburg ever since. Ny-Ålesund is mainly a research town, but has a family community as well.
And to say permanent is also a stretch, since roughly 25% of the population changes every year. Still Svalbard remains an incredibly international and diverse area, with more than 50 different nationalities in Longyearbyen alone.
kids are just kids all over the world and play games during recess even when it’s -19 degrees celsius and blowing winds of 14 m/s. And these kids still ride their bikes to school #b-ice-cles.
Some come just for a season or two, some fall in love with the area and never leave.
Since most of the world is converging to green energy, only two mines are still actively being worked in, one by Norwegians, the other by Russians.
This means, that while before, when the community was primarily male, today’s modern Svalbard consists of small family communities, working primarily in research or education in connection to the university branch in Longyearbyen, or in the commerce of the growing industry of tourism.
And that’s where I come in. I was there as a tourist.
Tourism on Svalbard consists of mainly urban city dwellers, who want to experience some of nature's last remaining wilderness. This comes with its own set of problems, as you can imagine that a small village of 2000 people can’t really cope with the arrival of daily cruise ships with 5000+ people wandering into town.
Not all guides are properly trained for the arctic wilderness and wildlife either, so instead of respecting nature and its inhabitants, tourists seek out walrus, reindeer and polar bears for that perfect instagrammable moment, not understanding the dangers involved.
The walrus might attack without warning and provocation, the polar bear is widely known for its hunting skills and strength and though herbivores, the reindeer are protective pack animals and well equipped to protect themselves, if they feel threatened.
And that’s only the wildlife. The amount of working dogs on Svalbard is overwhelming and while they are intelligent and under control by their owners, they are not pets. A tourist not respecting the boundaries of a husky might get bitten by either dog or owner. The owners are very protective of their four legged family members and most of them own hunting rifles…
Also, forget about picking up a flower or bringing home a handful of moss. Those are protected by law, as the floral life on Svalbard is spare, and removing it only increases the growing arctic desert. Also, the local fauna needs it, it’s food.
Torbjørn (Thor) and I have both been in the military and are experienced hikers, so him travelling the world with a backpack and me taking most of my vacations into the wild surprises few people who know us. And thankfully, I’m proud to say that we know never to leave a trace and to be humble in the presence of Mother Nature. Yet, when I arrive in a place like Longyearbyen, I’m glad to let the locals see me as a city dweller and have them lead the way.
I hadn’t planned beforehand, what I wanted to experience before I arrived. I just wanted to be there, look up at the sky and stand almost directly under the north star, Stella Polaris.
As children, we were taught how to find Ursa Major and Ursa Minor in the stars above us, knowing that Stella Polaris was the one point in the sky, which never moved. It is the one true north and for millenia, it has led travellers in the right direction and eventually home.
And there I was, neck bent as much as I possibly could without falling backwards, staring directly up at her.
I work in the service industry, while I’m writing children’s books on the side, and the holiday season had left me exhausted and with a sore back, so I didn’t want much out of my time away from home. But after a few museums and trying out most of the restaurants, Longyearbyen doesn’t have much to offer and the desert valleys called my name. I knew they would, even in the almost complete darkness, I could see the mountain tops and longed to go to them.
So I booked a daytrip with a local dog sledding company, Arctic Husky Travellers (@huskytravellers), a family owned business with a long history of wilderness experience and the only dog sledding company in Svalbard with actual race dogs. These pups have been to the North Pole!
Taking three tourists to a nearby ice cave in a glacier and back again was a day off for them. It would be as if I called my walk to the bus stop exercise… (it’s just not!) These dogs were taking us to the “bus stop”.
While we had a wonderful human guide in Manon, who had come to Svalbard from France and settled here with her husband, I never doubted that the dogs were my true guides through the valleys. They followed a familiar trail and allowed me to think that I was in control, as I stood on the sleigh, one foot always on the brake, or helped push the sleigh as we were going uphill. Humans like to believe that we are in control, it makes us feel safe.
But as I was riding the sleigh in the polar night, the contours of the mountains on either side of the valley, the stars and green streaks of northern lights above me, in -19 degrees celsius, through polar bear territory, I gave my complete and utter trust to the eight alaskan huskies running in front of me.
We stopped on top of a 600 year old glacier (young, I know…) and tied the dogs up next to the sleighs as we went into a hole in the ground and entered the cave.
In here, some places clear as glass, other places foggy with dirt, the ice became our floor, roof and walls. Unlike outside, where a bit of twilight or moonlight would let us see a bit of the landscape, in here, there was complete darkness without the use of headlights.
Scientists at the local university study the ice of the glaciers and in particular the air bubbles trapped in the ice, as they can get access to climate data through centuries and might be able to forecast some of the climate changes in the future based on their findings.
After the cave we had a hot lunch of freeze dried ready meals, just add hot water and enjoy. Having lived in Norway for years now, I’m no stranger to these packs, but the Swiss among us was very impressed by the quality of more or less powdered food.
Travelling in a permafrost environment or really just hiking and camping in general, the weight of food to bring along should be as low as possible, so the freeze drying technology is just as important in the wilderness as tubed food is for astronauts in space.
And usually, I have to go to an outdoor equipment store to get it, on Svalbard it’s available in the only local supermarket. There are no diet varieties, as the cholesterol is highly needed and traditionally you finish off with a chocolate treat for dessert and some black currant toddy or coffee, brought along in a thermos.
The dogs are eager to go running and their excitement is loud and clear, as they are being tied to the sleighs, but as soon as they are running, they do so in absolute silence and the vastness of the arctic desert and polar night is stunning, as nothing but the sleigh on snow and your own heartbeat makes any sound at all.
In -19 degrees, regular camera batteries die fast, so the pictures are few and in low quality, but in the end, the pictures are nothing to the experience.
The Red Cross are of course also active on Svalbard, in the form of Longyearbyen Røde Kors Hjelpekorps (Aid Corpse).
They have been active since 1951 and currently consists of two employees and about 60 volunteers. They work closely with the local authority Sysselmannen (who’s a woman at the moment, syssel is old norse and can be translated to shire) and their main aim is to aid in rescue missions, when there are avalanches, landslides or missing persons. They also work to prevent accidents and to promote outdoor activities in the area.
In the wilderness of Svalbard, these rescue missions often take place with helicopters, snowmobiles, boats, dog sleighs, by skiing or on foot.
In order to be prepared for any rescue mission, there are training exercises year round and the main season for actually helping out during a rescue mission are February through May, which is oddly enough also the peak of tourism season… I wonder if that is a coincidence?
As I hadn’t planned to go talk to them (I’m not Torbjørn (Thor) after all), I gave my contribution at the airport, as I figured that the only two employees wouldn’t have time. Also, I have no idea what to say to them (I’m not Torbjørn (Thor) after all), even though I did once work for The Danish Red Cross myself, in the asylum division. Can’t imagine many refugees seeking up here.
Being a very special area on this planet we call home, Svalbard has some specific customs and rules to follow and here are a few interesting facts:
- You are not allowed to be born or die on Svalbard.
Due to the small capacity at the local hospital, they don’t have a maternity ward or a ward for long term care, so pregnant women close to their due date and those terminally ill are sent to the Norwegian mainland for care.
- Should you break this custom and die on Svalbard anyway, you cannot be buried there.
Because of the permafrost, there are no cemeteries on Svalbard, as the hungry wildlife will dig up the human remains and have them for dinner, since they stay fresh in the cold, cold ground. All dead bodies are sent to the mainland.
There was a cemetery at one point. It held quite a few people who had died of the Spanish Flu, but due to the risk of infection and a resurgence of the disease, the bodies have been moved to the mainland to be cremated, after strains of the disease were extracted from the bodies for research purposes.
While there is no cemetery, there is a memorial site for all those who died in mining accidents between 1916 and 2016. It stands up against the mountainside with a view of Longyearbyen. I even found my dear brother’s namesake.
- Because of the permafrost, Svalbard is host to one of the world’s Seed Banks as well as as historical artifact vaults.
Since practically nothing can perrish on Svalbard, it is the perfect location to preserve the planet’s agricultural heritage, as well as cultural history.
- You’re not allowed to leave the settlements without a flare gun or rifle (and knowing how to use them) in case of polar bears.
You are also not allowed to leave a settlement, without telling people where you are going. Same reason, you’re in the wild and no one will find you. In the weeks up until my arrival in Svalbard, one polar bear had to be killed, because it wouldn’t pay attention to the warning shots that were giving, as it was strolling down the main streets of Longyearbyen looking for a meal. Another was scared off, as it went sniffing around the huskies on a tourist trip to an ice cave and probably the same one tried to eat the seat of a snowmobile owned by the guy from @huskytravellers a few days later. These security measurements are not a joke. Still, shooting the bears must be a last resort, as they are protected wildlife.
although you are not allowed to be unprotected outside Longyearbyen, weapons are not allowed in any stores or establishments in town
- Cats are not allowed on Svalbard.
Unlike dogs, cats are not easily trained to stay in one place and only do as they are told, and so they can endanger the local fauna and birds as well as transfer diseases between humans and wildlife, since they enjoy a good cuddle after a good kill. Yet, there is one cat living in the Russian settlement Barentsburg. Her name is Kesha and no one knows how she arrived there. There seems to be no apparent owner, but she is taken well care of by the people in the village. Since she’s an illegal immigrant, she’s been logged in the files as a fox, her thick ginger coat resembling one of the local arctic fox’s mainland cousins. This particular prohibition on felines is the primary reason I couldn’t move to Svalbard, even for a short while. I have two darling cats.
- You’re not allowed to wear shoes or boots indoors.
A custom left from the mining days, when they wanted to avoid the miners bringing in dirt and coal from the mines, everyone leaves their footwear by the entrance to any house or hotel or even establishments such as museums, the tourism information and local library, as well as schools and office buildings. So make sure to wear clean socks and wash your feet.
Leave your boots by the door and don’t take a nicer pair when you leave.
People often wonder, if it’s safe for women to travel on their own and since I’ve been travelling this way for years, I would say that it absolutely is. More and more people travel on their own these days, including a rise in female travellers. Torbjørn (Thor) has been on his own for years, but he’s never been alone.
Like him, I believe, that A Stranger Is A Friend You’ve Never Met Before, and if you make sure to say “Hello” to your receptionist and your waitress/bartender and you sign up for a group tour, you will easily find like minded people to spend some of your vacation time with, unless you choose to have an introvert party-for-one, cuddling up with a book somewhere. And why not let that somewhere be a gastropub under the Polar Night?
So go travelling on your own and say hello to the beautiful and kind strangers out there in the world. Unless that stranger is a wild animal. Then you stand still and pray to whatever gods come to mind, that you don’t smell like dinner.
Northpole 1309 km, Southpole 18638 km, home in Oslo 2046 km.
I hope you enjoyed this guest blog from Svalbard by my sister Trine J. Cederlöf. If you have and want more then you're in luck! She is constructing a seductive mysterious world right here: https://tjcedar.com/
Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor)
"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"
Once Upon A Saga