This was a trip for the University of the Arctic, of which I am the "Director of the International Office," a title which may someday mean something but which, for now, just means that the UArctic desperately wants a means of keeping student records across eight countries and I was volunteered to run the office and they expect me to Make It Work. We're not there yet, but there may be a way...
To set the scene, Svalbard is an arctic archipelago under the protection of Norway and, at nearly 80 degrees north, contains the most northerly non-military human communities on earth. By the time we arrived, the sun had set about two weeks previously, and would not be seen above the horizon until the end of February. It's dark, and it's also cold. We were in Longyearbyen, the largest community at about 1,100.
Without the influence of the Gulf Stream it probably would be uninhabitable, but this time of the year it is a not uncomfortable -20 or so for the whole 24-hour day (with no sun there's not much reason for the temperature to change. I was told that it would gradually drop to about -30 before rising again next spring. Like most of the north it's an arctic desert. There was little wind, and it was _very_ dry. It seemed impossible to take in too much fluid, though (as noted below) some tried.
The use of a watch was completely theoretical. It told you when to be where but bore no relationship to what was going on outdors. In fact, the sky lightened just slightly at noon - though you could still see stars overheard - but in a week or two even that would be gone. Every morning at 6:30 I would wake and look out my window, to see people walking their babies in carriages, or standing around talking, or heading out on errands; and that was how it was for every hour of day and night as far as I could tell, except that it did get busier during working hours.
Everybody spoke English, no matter where we met them. Our own meeting was a mixture of English, Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish and Russian; but English was the working language except at breaks, where you never knew what you were going to hear.
There are hardly any cars or trucks except for business purposes. They do have a comfortable bus service (probably just one bus in the fleet) that gets people around, and I was told that there are two snowmobiles for every resident. That said, what really amazed me was the bicycles. Even at -20, bikes are the preferred mode of transport for around town. Every store, and the University Centre, has a bike rack in front of it, and they are all used. I only heard one bike that sounded riding by as though it had studded tires. The rest got by with ordinary mountain bike tires, workable because there is little ice - either roadway scraped/blown clear, or packed granular snow.
Our glacier guides (see below) told us that the sport of choice for the local yahoos is referred-to as "highmarking" - where you ride your snowmobile as hard as you can straight up the mountain and see who gets the farthest up before the machine tips backwards onto you. The winner, of course, is the one with the high mark.
We stayed in the "Base Camp Hotel," and 18 of us were enough to take over the entire place. Much of the construction was "found wood." Because no trees grow in Svalbard it must be terribly expensive to transport construction materials in. So, there was a lot of rough-recycled packing case wood (making up many of the walls) and worm-holed wood salvaged from the water. The carpets were all seal skin, as was the upholstery on the chairs both in our meeting areas and in our rooms. The walls were kept warm with polar bear skins. The rooms themselves were spare to say the least, the only furniture being "box beds," stools made of salvaged logs padded with skins, and a pedestal table made of local slate. Lighting was minimal consisting of dim fluorescents, a reading lamp over the bed, and 5-watt white Xmas tree bulbs. The bathroom was small but functional. It was possible to take a hot shower if you were early in the daily cycle, but the water spilled directly onto the bathroom floor and exited by a drain in front of the toilet; once you had showered it was a while before you could go back in conveniently. You had to time activities with care.
Things to Eat (and drink)
We ate a lot of game. Vegetables were present but minimal. The truly memorable night was our last one there, when we were taken to the local community centre for a True Feast. To set the scene, that afternoon after lunch somebody (one of the Norwegians, I think) decided that it would be civilized to have a few beers during the business session; so of course we did (at $10.00 per beer, one drinks OP's as often as possible). At some point when we were only (I think) slightly lit, a bottle of aquavit and shot glasses were passed around. We finished at 5:00 but dinner wasn't until 6:30, so we decided to have a "breakout session" in a side room to discuss registrarial issues: more beer and aquavit. Arriving by bus we were met by the head waiter, who explained that previous mine managers (Svalbard's main industry is coal mining) were collectors of a sort, and the wine cellar held 26,000(!) bottles. In fact the youngest, and first, vintage we downed that night was 1996; and they did indeed save the best for last. You had to watch carefully, because if your glass was ever less than half full it would be filled again before you could possibly object.
They started with champagne, and once we were seated preceded the meal with an appetizer wine (the 1996). This was followed by the entrée and another red wine, the meal being followed by liqueurs and finally cognac. Now to the entrée: we had, that evening, ptarmigan over Svalbard reindeer. For those of you who have tried elk, reindeer is much like that only even finer. Interestingly, that afternoon we had seen a herd of local reindeer grazing through the snow inside the town limits (the Norwegians exchanged glances: "Mmmm, dinner."). Svalbard reindeer are a subspecies of the Lapland variety, with very short legs, and stout bodies carrying the most massive antlers I have ever seen.
Anyway, it's not very often that I go to bed in an alcoholic haze, but I was not alone on this occasion. I recall staggering out of bed for a 3 a.m. for a male mid-life trip to the washroom, and needing to support myself to and from the bed :). By morning (thanks to the dry air and plenty of fluid intake?) I was fine again.
At times during the summer cruise boats will come in and visitors will out number the locals, so there were a number of tourist-oriented places, and also outfitters, grocery stores, and three (I think) restaurants. From the outside they are mostly quite rustic. You can tell when the stores are open because the proprietors set flaming smudge pots in front of the entrances.
The grocery store was noteworthy in that, just inside the door, there is a large gun rack where patrons can deposit their weapons while shopping (See "Weaponry," below). Generally speaking and as a rule of thumb, anything you might want to buy is twice as expensive as anywhere else.
In Prince George the neighbourhood signs say "This neighbourhood adjoins bear habitat. Please take care not to put out garbage until the morning of pickup." In Longyearbyen the signs say "If you plan on leaving the town boundary, be sure to carry your weapon and know how to use it." This, of course, was because of the polar bears. We didn't see any, but they do take the danger quite seriously. The local schoolyards are stoutly fenced to keep the wildlife out rather than to keep the children in. People carry rifles slung over their shoulders throughout town. I was particularly intrigued to note a high concentration on rifles among the civilian population in the arrivals/departures area of the airport, and nobody seemed to mind.
On our outside-town excursion to a glacier (see below) our guides were two young-and-pretty graduate students, one Norwegian and the other Danish, who unslung their rifles at the start of the walk and loaded them before we set off. We were told (and they held us to it) that outside town there had to be a gun at the front of the group and another at the back - no stragglers allowed.
One of the locals told us, half-seriously I think, that when camping he preferred a large caliber pistol for dealing with any bears at close quarters, as it had the added advantage that, in extremis, you could use it to put yourself out of your misery ☺.
One noon-hour we took a break, bundled against the arctic air, and hiked north out of town to the base of a glacier. In the slightly-lighter dusk of noon it was possible to see our way but, since we would also be exploring a cave, we carried helmet lamps on our hard hats. In the cold desert environment the snow was not deeper than mid-calf, and in many places it was possible to walk on rocks as we climbed the bed of a glacial outwash river (photo attached). I don't think the distance was more than a couple of km, but we spent time waiting for people to take pictures and, in a couple of cases, catch up with the group along with their escort. My own camera worked fine in the cold, but outdoor pictures proved next to impossible using a handheld because of the long exposure times. Some others found that their camera batteries simply died in the cold.
During the summer, when the ice is melting, the river is full of water gushing from water conduits sandwiched between ice and rock. In the winter these dry up with freezing, and you can penetrate the base of the glacier by following the stream beds - which we did for perhaps 200m. Inside the glacier it was fascinating to see the jagged pieces of rock, caught in the ice, that were (when the ice is moving) eroding the glacial valley. In places the ice itself, a plastic under pressure, was impressively flow-banded. Prettiest were the ice-falls turned into cascading icicles, and the ice crystals - some of them several cm long and perfectly six-sided, that adorned the roof.
That's it. The trip to and from carried its own interest, but mostly was just pain long. We saw little of Oslo because on each transit we only had an overnight. Another time, though, I would plan to stay a couple of days as from what I saw it's lovely city.