Svalbard: First encounter - and last?

by Andrew Stevenson

 

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'Don't go looking for Antarctica without this book.' - Susan Solomon

 

 

 

The SAS flight from Tromsø descends into low-hanging clouds until the brown craggy cliffs outside Longyearbyen appear through the mist just before we land. Shafts of coal mines, the elevated sifting station, and the pylons of the mine's cable-car system loom out of the mist.

In the tiny one-room arrival and departure lounge there's a loud bong of an electronic bell as an announcement is made in Norwegian and English that 'Permission is required from the Governor of Svalbard to go to areas outside of the settlement of Longyearbyen itself'.

At the information counter I pick up a postcard with two polar bears eating what looks suspiciously like a bloody human carcass. With a sense of relief, I read the back of the card, written in Norwegian, English and Russian: 'The photo shows polar bears eating a seal.' But there is also written the following warning:

TAKE THE POLAR BEAR DANGER SERIOUSLY!

  • The polar bear has been protected from hunting since 1973. It is also illegal to chase, entice, feed or disturb polar bears unnecessarily.
  • Close encounters with polar bears can be lethal.
  • Be well prepared before moving into the field. Always be alert and keep to open areas.
  • Be correctly armed at all times.
  • It is prohibited to carry loaded weapons in the settlements.

Since the 1600s people have been hunting and fishing on the Svalbard archipelago. The fact that it did not belong to any particular state was not a problem; there were few people interested in being here and fewer conflicts. Although in the early 1900s mining activities created pressure to obtain sole mining rights, it wasn't until after the First World War that the Svalbard Treaty of 1920 was signed, giving Norway and the Governor of Svalbard absolute and unlimited sovereignty over the entire archipelago.

Curiously, while Svalbard is deemed to be under the jurisdiction of the Kingdom of Norway, Norway is obliged to grant equal rights to citizens and companies from all the parties to the Treaty to enter and live, fish and hunt, mine, and acquire property here. The parties to the original treaty are an eclectic mix and include such disparate nations as Afghanistan, the Dominican Republic, Japan and South Africa. A citizen of any of these signatory countries could legally come to Svalbard to find a job or acquire mineral rights. Of course, they'd have to get a visa into mainland Norway first, because the only commercial flights to Svalbard these days are from Tromsø.

I'd imagined the bus route from the airport into town would be through snow-covered countryside. It isn't. It looks like an instant community, with mostly new buildings and even new blacktop tarmac on the couple of roads. The buildings, I notice, are built on stilts above the permafrost, as are the sewage pipes and the hot-water supply for heating the buildings. The buildings are all connected by this visible spider's web constructed a metre off the muddy earth.

As per the request posted on the front entrance to the SAS Radisson Hotel, I remove my shoes and put them in a neat line with scores of others. In stockinged feet I check in at reception after taking careful note of the sign:

To all our Guests
The risk of polar bears in the
restaurant isn't very big
so can you please hang your
weapons in the weapons cabinet
(rifle, gun, revolver).

While waiting at the front desk I open a copy of Svalbard Posten. This issue of 4th August headlines why a Polish researcher shot three polar bears in one day in self-defence after they tried to break into his hut.

Despite the unearthly hour I feel wide-awake. The midnight sun lasts from the 19th April to the 23rd August in Longyearbyen. Of course, the flip side of the coin is that the perpetual night endures from the 26th October to the 16th February.

Heading down the main pedestrian walkway, I find myself behind a woman carrying a rifle slung over her shoulder.

'Um, excuse me, but is it really necessary to carry a rifle here?' I ask, without a hint of superciliousness. I'm paranoid enough to think I shouldn't even be walking the couple of hundred metres from my hotel to the post office in case there's a polar bear hiding behind the corner of a building waiting to gobble me up. I notice the woman has duct tape over the barrel opening of the rifle to stop the rain getting in.

'No, I've just walked a couple of kilometres from out of town.'

'Where'd you get your rifle?'

'From the bicycle rental shop.'

'You just walk into the bicycle rental shop and they rent you a rifle with your bike?' I ask. 'Just to go a couple of kilometres?'

She points at the hillside, towards a line of rocky balustrades looming out of the mist like the ramparts of a giant fortress. I wouldn't be surprised to see gargantuan gargoyles appear out of the tops of the gothic parapets. 'A couple of years ago a woman was killed by a polar bear right up there. That's "just a couple of kilometres".'

'Did they show you how to use the rifle?'

'No.'

'Have you used one before?'

'No.'

Hope the polar bears know she's armed. 'How much was it?'

'A hundred krone for the rifle per day and ten krone per bullet, but you get your money back on the bullets if you haven't used them.'

The rifle looks like a Second World War Mauser that may or may not work, no matter how proficient the rifleman was. She'd probably have more effect if she threw bullets at the polar bears rather than putting them down the chamber and pulling the trigger. 'And you don't need a licence?'

'Just need to be older than twenty-one.'

What do kids do when they want to go out to play and aren't twenty-one?

Without a rifle to defend myself, I sidestep into the supermarket, bypassing a sign asking me to leave my weapons with the cashier on the way in. At least I don't have to remove my shoes. I buy two expensive New Zealand apples, and try to visualise someone picking them in New Zealand, literally half a different world away.

Tourism to Svalbard is only a relatively recent phenomenon. Fifteen years ago there were no hotels, just the campsite and Funken, where the coal miners stayed. Visitors had to bring everything they needed, including tents and food. Longyearbyen was, in effect, a coal-mining town. The building called Lompen used to be the coal miners' showers and changing room but has been more recently converted to exclusive shops catering to tourists.

New buildings, colourful imitations of Norwegian mainland architecture are replete with the steep roofs not needed in this arid climate. Wooden slat skirts cleverly disguise the mountings on which the buildings sit. I assume they are designed this way to allay bouts of homesickness amongst the inhabitants, mostly mainlanders. The majority of buildings have been constructed in the last decade and it's the employers - the coal mining companies, the State and the Sysselman's (Governor's) office, hospital, university and the adventure travel companies - who own most of these quaint houses.

I walk around to Huset, a pink building that serves as the community hall, theatre, dance hall and, once a week, the cinema. In the pub-like atmosphere of the restaurant I order seal with fried potatoes. The alternative is a combination plate of arctic char, seal, smoked salmon, smoked reindeer heart, smoked reindeer tongue, fish eggs, scallops and shrimps. Both the seal and the reindeer have been government inspected on mainland Norway, so the fact that there are seal and reindeer within gunshot is entirely beyond the point. The seal meat is purple in colour and bleeds profusely into the gravy.

Feeling slightly queasy after eating the meal, I continue walking back towards the centre of Longyearbyen, past the cemetery where two wild reindeer feed, quite unconcerned by my presence. I stop to look at them and can easily see by their amputated-like legs that these smaller reindeer are a subspecies endemic to Svalbard, more closely related to the Canadian caribou than the wild reindeer of Norway. They are so tame it's hard to believe that they were hunted almost to extinction.

I nervously keep looking over my shoulder to make sure I'm not the latest addition to Longyearbyen's polar bear attack folklore. Ubiquitous road signs warning about polar bears don't ease my paranoia. A car goes by and I resist the temptation to hitchhike. I notice the vehicles here have black licence plates, normally used on construction sites on the mainland. While there are only 60 kilometres of roads on Svalbard, there are 1,500 snow scooters, or an average of one per person.

Shoeless, but within the safe confines of the sumptuous hotel, I head into The Pub. Sitting at the bar, I notice several of the bottles of alcohol on the shelves have names, presumably of the owners, written on the labels. Beside commonplace Norwegian names like Lars and Tore is one bottle marked 'Jesus Christ'. I ask the bartender why.

'If someone has enough money to buy a whole bottle and wants to keep it here under the name of Jesus Christ, or anyone else for that matter, that's fine by me,' the bartender replies in impeccable English.

It's a motley group of Norwegians collected here, a bit reminiscent of the Star Wars pub scene where the inter-galactic denizens come to meet. In my few encounters with those who live here, it seems they are often escaping something on the mainland despite their claims that they have come here for the nature. They are a friendly crowd, gregarious, but at one in the morning I take my leave, stepping out of the completely blacked-out 'Puben' into broad daylight. With the sun shining brightly, I'm suddenly awake and it's difficult to persuade myself to go to bed.

 

© Andrew Stevenson 2002. This is an edited extract from Summer Light: A Walk Across Norway (Lonely Planet, £6.99), with kind permission from the author. Andrew, a Canadian, lived and worked in Norway for five years. His book is a deeply personal account of Norway and the Norwegians, delivered in his uniquely humorous and honest style that both informs and entertains the reader. A German translation Mittsommer was published by National Geographic Taschenbuch in 2007.

© All photographs in this article are copyright Andrew Stevenson. His photographic work, also covering Antarctica, can be seen on his website and is available for loan subject to conditions.

 

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