When you mention Svalbard archipelago to someone, usually the first association is polar bears. The largest number of them living in one place in the world is actually here, and that’s more than 3000. Then again, islands of Svalbard in size are bigger then Croatia, so the chances that you will meet a polar bear are rather slim. In our almost 5 day long visit, we weren’t lucky either. Still, whenever we went for a trip outside of the settlements we had to have a guide with us, equipped with a gun, who also knew how to use this gun just in case there was a too close encounter with a polar bear.
Geographically, Svalbard archipelago is settled half way between northern coast of Norway and North Pole, deep in the Arctic Circle. Despite remoteness and extreme climate, Svalbard has surprisingly rich life, very well adapted to half year long hibernation, and flourishing in the next half of the year. Life is possible here due to the warm Golf Stream that soothes Arctic conditions. The air here is super clean, the sun is mild and rare, and the nature intact, surreal and harsh.
Day and night ratio is never as moderate as on the rest of our inhabited planet, it transits from long never ending dark nights into long 24h sun only days. That is why, on Svalbard, every calendar month has certain magical effect, endemic for this latitude.
We visited Svalbard archipelago in the summer period, in June. When we were going there, the sunset was predicted for 25th of August, two months after our arrival. This is the period when the sun never leaves the sky, it just circles from one side of the sky to another. We literally needed sunglasses at midnight. Despite having sun all day long that slowly warms and awakens Svalbard’s life, it is still cold there. The temperature rises slightly above zero, but when the wind from the Arctic Ocean blows, the real feel is much lower. We prepared well for low temperatures, we took enough of warm clothes. The real challenge there, in this time of the year, isn’t the cold, it is the length of the daylight, 24h straight. Without good discipline of going to sleep and darkening the bedrooms, being here can be pretty exhausting. The feeling is as if someone is constantly pressing your “power on” button.
Svalbard archipelago, formally, doesn’t belong to anyone. Back in 1920, 45 countries signed the treaty that gave all the signed countries the same rights on usage of natural resources. Islands are under Norwegian governance, but not all Norwegian laws apply there, islands are outside of Schengen and Norwegian taxes. The law that was agreed upon right after WW2 says that no structure made by humans before 1946 can be moved. So, this law, together with cold Arctic climate, makes the settlements here open air museums, where you can visit old mines and cable cars on surrounding hills. Besides these historical elements, there are also scientific activities, including University that researches regional biology and geology, and there are numerous nature exploring activities.
There are two touristic settlements on Svalbard, Norwegian Longyearbyen and Russian Barentsburg, both of them are in the western parts of the island, on Isfjorden fjord. The roads, outside these settlements, are non-existent. They are about 45km in distance and you can either walk or sail between them, in winter you can travel by dog sledge or snowmobile. Besides the touristic settlements there are several inhabited miniature settlements, mostly for scientific (Ny-Ålesund) or coal mining (Svea) needs.
It is fairly easy to come to Longyearbyen from Oslo. There is a regular flight from Norwegian airline Norwegian Air. We settled in Longyearbyen because it was the easiest way to organize all excursions on the island. In almost 5 days of being there we crossed Isfjorden lengthwise and crosswise.
The first excursion was with a Polargirl boat to Russian settlement Barentsburg that is settled close to the end of the fjord, almost at the exit to the open sea. Barentsburg is visually and culturally the opposite to Norwegian Longyearbyen. Once the pride of the Soviet Union, it is a very authentic place decorated by unavoidable Lenin statue, typical monuments of social realism and “Red Bear”, a local brewery. On the way to Barentsburg we visited Esmark glacier, ice mountain that rises from the sea, surrounded by snowy peaks of the fjord. On our way back to Lonyearbyen, we visited Bird Mountain, where in summer birds nest in hundreds. We also passed by abandoned Russian coal mining settlement Grumant, with remnants of the now demolished local railroad and tunnels that are withstanding harsh Svalbard environment for the last hundred years.
The next excursion was a bit more physically demanding. It is not easy to walk around a fjord by the coast, as it is possible in winter when the sea is frozen, so we crossed the fjord by kayaks. On the other side of the fjord are mountains covered with snow and riverbeds flooded with water from melted snow and ice. To climb these mountains is quite a challenge, because you’re never on solid ground. All the way up, you walk on quite steep slippery talus, mud or in deep snow. All the efforts are in the end hugely rewarded, because the views from the top reveal entirely new landscapes and peaks of Svalbard, and the whole of Isfjorden.
The day after, we headed to Foxfona glacier, yet another hiking in deep snow, but this time with snowshoes. Our company was a guide named Philip and Tutu, one of his malamutes. The day was cloudy, the visibility was really low, but still the harshness of Svalbard in Tutu’s company in his natural environment was a unique experience. Tutu had no trouble to navigate us through the deep snow, thick clouds, scent of reindeers and even managed to entertain us. Later during the day we met the entire Tutu’s family and Philips’s ascetic way of life, a tent with a small stove and an improvised bed and shelves, and five beautiful devoted dogs.
We decided to do some sightseeing of the settlement and surrounding valleys by bike with the fattest tires we have ever seen, called fatbike. Those tires are necessary there due to permafrost, the soft ground. After short Longyearbyen history tales during our ride, we rode to an improvised sauna. We didn’t give it a go that time, but that’s something we definitely won’t skip next time we’re there.
There are endless possibilities to explore Svalbard archipelago, you can go on multiday excursions to more remote parts of the islands, visit ice caves, watch polar lights, get to know local flora and fauna during polar nights, polar sunsets or daytime. Svalbard is a truly magical place where we’ll definitely return in some other time of the year.