Dan Avila ventures to Svalbard, a remote yet fascinating archipelago in the High Arctic, to experience a vast wilderness of aquamarine glaciers, frozen tundras and polar bears.
The call of the wild
I’m on a snowmobile cruising at about 80 kilometres per hour over sea ice. The cold is taking a savage toll on the exposed parts of my face, but I’m more worried about losing sight of my fast-moving companions than maintaining any semblance of comfort.
Without warning, our guide Erlend Bratlie veers his machine into a hard-left arc, quickly skidding to a halt. He stands and points, and then I see them: my first polar bears, set against the dramatic, slow-setting Arctic sun and confidently making their way toward us.
We stand in awe as the hulking creatures lope in our direction, their thick white fur flapping in the breeze, until Erlend decides they are getting too close for comfort and gives the command for us to beat a hasty retreat.
Welcome to Svalbard, a wild, unforgiving and utterly spellbinding archipelago in the High Arctic where almost everything is a matter of extremes: extreme weather, wildlife and people. It’s a place where the Northern Lights are clearly visible during winter, and summer brings the “midnight sun” – sunlight 24 hours a day.
A cluster of Norwegian islands located between mainland Norway and the North Pole, Svalbard is becoming a magnet for intrepid travellers in search of expedition-style journeys infused with the Arctic’s inherent spirit of adventure and discovery.
Leading the way is Hurtigruten, an experienced expedition cruise company with a long Norwegian heritage that is making a concerted foray into quality land-based tours, upscale lodgings and unique excursions in and around coastal Longyearbyen.
Operating with rigorous safety procedures, cutting-edge environmental sustainability and premium-quality services, Hurtigruten aims to offer an outstanding Svalbard experience, complete with polar bears, reindeer and dog sleds.
A true Arctic frontier
Not too long ago, this remote and frigid outpost was the province of hunters and coal miners: in essence, the toughest of the tough. Today, it draws researchers and explorers from around the world. “That’s the funny thing about Svalbard,” says Helga Bårdsdatter, a long-time Longyearbyen resident. “People from all over come for six weeks and many are still here six years later. Svalbard gets under your skin.”
This is a true Arctic frontier and, at 78 degrees north, the northernmost permanently populated location on Earth. This is not a place where ambivalence is tolerated – here, it can get you killed. It is the duality of intense beauty, while demanding respect and a constant reminder of human fragility, that entices adventurers to linger.
Nothing is quite normal in Longyearbyen, Svalbard’s tourism capital. Walking past a shop displaying seal-skin boots and a stuffed polar bear is a twenty-something local girl in Norwegian Arctic-practical fashion, toting a high-powered rifle. It’s a reminder of what it means to live in a place where polar bears outnumber people by two to one. “No-one locks their cars or houses here,” says our guide Maria. “In case a bear comes through town, you can take refuge in any house or car.” While it’s rare for bears to wander into Longyearbyen, it’s a different story in Svea, a mining town on the southern side of Spitsbergen Island.
The Svea Ice Wall is close enough to reach before last light, so we go for it, stopping a safe distance from the decidedly menacing aquamarine ice face. I’m completely fascinated by the depth of colour and texture of glacier walls – it’s a photographer’s nirvana – and this one is no exception.
Stealing the final shot as the visual warmth of sunset surrenders to the blue light of evening, the temperature drops, and Svea, with its promise of a warm meal, beckons – but our initial polar bear sighting isn’t a one-off occurrence. “Did you hear the banging on your door last night?” asks Erlend. “That was security coming to make sure you stayed indoors; the bears wandered through town twice last night.”
The thrill of it all
The intense natural beauty of Svalbard isn’t just skin deep. Beneath the surface there are hidden jewels of glacial caves that must be seen to be believed; just getting there by dog sled is a major thrill. “There are two rules for dog sledding,” says our guide, with just a hint of Arctic understatement. “Number one: don’t let go. Number two: don’t let go.”
Our motley crew of huskies, malamutes and Greenland dogs howl in anticipation of a trail run. Snowmobiles are as fun as they are essential to modern life in the Arctic, but there is a primal beauty to traversing this immense, frigid wilderness behind a pack of working dogs.
A small tent marks an otherwise innocuous depression on a snow-covered glacier. Leaving our dogs to rest, we squeeze unceremoniously, backwards into the deep snow-covered orifice. The snow gives way to walls of deep, dark ice, natural sculptures of crystal formations and a series of large caverns. Helmet-mounted headlamps provide the only light source in this Narnian wonderland that is as awe-inspiring as any medieval cathedral.
Every day in Svalbard is a unique experience. The light changes in seconds, as does the weather, and everyone I meet has their own special story of excitement and extremes.
“Things change a lot in a couple of generations,” says one of my companions and Hurtigruten’s global public relations manager, Øystein Knoph. “Today we revere these polar bears, but the people here once hunted them. It must have been a strange sight to see my grandfather walking into Longyearbyen with two orphaned baby polar bear cubs by his side.”
Taking my final sunset shots from the comfort and warmth of my suite at Longyearbyen’s Funken Lodge, I think of the tales of survival of the early explorers who built shelters of timber covered in skins, and who wrote, in their final months of survival, of burning their feet against the fire while their backs froze in the unearthly temperatures of the Arctic winter.
My salubrious surroundings notwithstanding, it is this rawness and unforgiving honesty that is the true source of Svalbard’s rapidly growing appeal