(Longyearbyen, on Spitsbergen Island, SVALBARD ARCHIPELAGO)
Thursday-Thursday, December 22-28
During our six-day visit to this arctic winter wonderland we signed up for a variety of experiences, most being pretty unique to us, and all well worth doing.
Below is a recap our those adventures, but not a lot of pictures because it was too dark…
Coal Mine 3 Tour
With the coal industry being such an important part of Spitsbergen’s history we opted for a tour of Mine 3, a coal mine operated from 1971 to 1996 by Store Norske. In 2015 the company decided to re-open the deserted mine for touring, which is how we ended up standing in the chilly and eerie gloom of a coal mine one afternoon. With everything left just as it was the day the mine closed, right down to the jam jar in a break room with jam still in it, no wonder it felt a bit spooky.
Fortunately our youthful and extremely informative guide, Bodin, erased the spooky atmosphere. Being the only two visitors that day, we had a personal tour following Bodin through the miners’ typical workday. Her monologue definitely warmed up our tour as she nonchalantly would toss out “they finally added a cushion to the driver’s seat because his ass would sure get cold on the metal one.” I won’t even start to type what she said the miners called one of their tools, names associated with females because, as she noted, there weren’t any around…
But, back to more technical info. Mine 3’s coal is not only a drift mine, but also a low one. A drift mine means you access it horizontally versus digging down vertically. A low-drift mine means its coal is in a narrow, horizontal seam only two to three feet high (below is a part of the seam at a really narrow spot with the sulfur that’s part of it)
and, unlike the other mines operated by Store Norske, the miners at Mine 3 accessed this seam by hand!
In the dressing room we donned our mining suit, gloves, helmet and headlight using some of the actual clothing the miner’s used.
As we entered the area where trains transported workers to/from the tunnels and carted coal to a bin, she began explaining just how dangerous it was to work here. And, not because of the lack of safety protocols but due to the inherent risks of working with coal and the necessary machinery to mine it. One of her more descriptive deaths involved a runaway train where the driver jumped off only to be hit by the following, derailed carts. She said “they didn’t have to search for body parts because he had his jumpsuit on”…
To give you a feel of how it felt, Bodin offered us the opportunity to crawl through one shaft,
although it was taller than the actual vein the real miners had to use. Plus, they operated heavy equipment in these positions for eight hours a day… As Bodin says, this mine is where boys become men.
She also let us experience the total, and I mean total lack of light when the three of us turned off our head lamps.
Bodin mentioned the coal trolleys that used to ferry coal from the mines to this collecting spot. Trundling on aerial cables supported by wooden platforms, these carts would often spill coal dust and coal chunks all over the town.
Which is why it became the habit of everyone to remove their shoes and walk in stocking feet once inside private and public buildings, a tradition that continues to this day.
By the end of the tour both Max and I were shaking our heads as we imagined having to earn a living in such an environment. Bodin felt the same way, and her empathy and admiration for those who worked here came through loud and clear. We couldn’t have asked for a better guide.
By far our most favorite activity was the dog sledding. And, what a magical time that was! We’d signed up with Green Dog, a company with over 250 dogs and ten people (owners, guides and handlers) and joined six others our first morning in Spitsbergen. Each sled carried two people and was pulled by six dogs, except for the lead sled which carried three people (two tourists plus our guide, Marcel) pulled by 12 dogs.
In a roomful of snow suits, snow boots, snow hats, snow mittens and headlamps, the eight of us with a mixture of nerves and merriment outfitted ourselves. Not only did the equipment ensure we stayed warm but also provided protection from the exuberantly jumping dogs.
Once outside Marcel gave us a well-honed, ten-minute lecture on how to handle the sled. The most important instruction being “do NOT ever leave the driver’s station even when you have the snow anchor out.” He also mentioned that as soon as the dogs heard the cold ring of the metal snow brake (like a boat anchor) hit the holder on the sled, they’re off. Meaning, you’d have to run a far piece to catch up with these energetic pups.
Not quite sure I had taken it all in, we helped harness our individual teams, ‘helped’ in the sense we held the two lead dogs on their long lead as the other four were also attached to the shorter leads.
Then, with everyone set, Marcel drove off in the darkness followed by another sled driven by two Malaysian guys, then us with a Norwegian father and his daughter serving as the caboose of our dog sled train.
I had opted to drive (steer?) first with Max sitting in the passenger ‘seat’ with legs stretched out front. I won’t lie. The first three minutes was a bit scary as I tried to remember all the do’s and don’ts issued by Marcel, one being how to use the foot brake while you’re standing on the runners. Well, I did test it, first with one foot, then with both, neither of which appeared to truly cause the sled to brake; yet, it did begin to slow it down as I lost my fear and gained a semblance of driving technique. Then MAGIC!
We’d read it’d be you and the dogs quietly running through the arctic darkness, which sounded a bit optimistic considering the noise of a pound-full of dogs yelping and howling in excitement as we prepared the sleds. But, once we left the compound, the huskies quietened down, intent on pulling their human cargo through the dark day.
Max and I switched off and he took over as every now and then we’d let out a whoop of pure joy as we rode our sled with our trusty team. And, they really did feel like ‘our team’. Just think: you, the sled, and your dogs mushing through the star-lit day with only their panting and the sled’s runners making any sounds. If you could bottle this, you’d be a snow-globe vision in motion.
I will say I was always a bit nervous when outdoors around here, even on the streets downtown. Why? Because polar bears outnumber people (3,000 bears to Spitsbergen’s population of 2,500+/-), and it’s not as if there aren’t plenty of stories of the unfortunate few who have become polar bear snacks.
Locals have seen them on the town streets, too, which made me constantly on the lookout when walking any distance along any long, people-empty walkways.
The government insists everyone have a gun if heading out of town for any outdoor activity.
which is why you see these signs on town doors,
And, this sign when leaving the town:
You know locals take it to heart when your taxi driver is standing watch with a rifle slung over his shoulder while using a flashlight to sweep the perimeter (especially downwind) when you’re out of the van checking for northern lights.
For a truly entertaining description on why polar bears aren’t something to be calm about, read Adam Cowlen’s article. If you’re like me, you’ll gain some valuable knowledge about these snow beasts while chuckling at his hilarious way with words.
So, realizing our gun-toting guide (who carried both a rifle and a pistol) was two-sleds ahead of ours, with our headlamps only illuminating about twenty feet in front of us, i.e., dogs’ butts, well, it made me just a wee bit scared to death. BUT, I had faith in the dogs thinking they’d be hauling ass if they smelled any bear. And, hey, if our time was up, at least we were doing something fun, right? At least that’s what I mantra’ed to myself now and then.
After an hour or so, we’d circled back to the pound, unharnessed the dogs and led them back to their individual homes,
disrobed, and celebrated with brandy-infused coffee and hot chocolate the amazing thrill of dog-sledding, thanks to our guide Marcel and the pups.
I’m sure we’ll be repeating dogsledding if another opportunity arises, especially as Max commented several times on how we were traveling like the South Pole explorers did over a century ago. Minus the hardships, of course!
Ice Cave Hike
Due to fear of being too cold and, more so, of becoming claustrophobic having to enter via a hole in the ground and subsequent crawling, I opted out of this adventure; so, the following is in Max’s own words of how he spent Christmas Day….
Ensconced beside the warm diesel heater aboard Juanona prior to our flying up to Svalbard, I had read about a trek up the Larsbreen Glacier where you can climb inside and explore an ice cave under the glacier. This sounded good to me, so I immediately signed up for a trek to take place on Christmas Day. It wasn’t until a day or two before Christmas that I began hearing murmurs of the strenuousness of the journey and I began to question my decision in view of my 62 year old body and lack of much aerobic exercise of late. But friends assured me it ‘wasn’t too bad’.
Christmas morning I donned pretty much every article of warm clothing in my wardrobe prior to the hotel pickup. Our group consisted of a large Danish family of 7, a single Dutch fellow, and our Norwegian guide. We were driven to a lodge near the outskirts of town and outfitted with snowshoes and headlamps. We started up the valley which multiple glacial events had carved out between two huge rocky ranges, the snowy peaks of which were barely visible in the murky light. Our guide helpfully and accurately, it turned out, told us to unzip our jackets and sweaters to let the heat out as we hiked. Zip them up only when you start to feel the chill.
The ascent took 3 1/2 or 4 hours, slowed by one of the group who was struggling mightily but to his credit, did not turn back. (The one opportunity to do so occurred when another group passed us on their way down. The guides would not let you walk alone out there, not least because of the polar bears for which they carry guns).
Eventually we reached the entrance to the snow cave, which our guide was happy to see had been shoveled out by the earlier group.
Once inside, there is a narrow path that twists and turns for hundreds of meters in a wide array of patterns, shapes, and variations in the ice. Dazzling crystals hang from the ceiling in some areas,
while in others the sides are comprised of ice that has been hardened by centuries of slight melting and refreezing under pressure from the weight above.
After we’d had our fill of exploring, we shared welcome mugs of hot water mixed with berry syrup. The journey down took another hour or more, and the sight of the hotel at the end of the day was welcome indeed.
While Max tested his physical endurance on the ice cave hike, I joined six others for a ‘city tour’ led by a laconic guy named Finn. Having been out the previous day on the hunt for northern lights and not seeing any, our cab driver Alex had given us an impromptu tour of Longyearbyen. Which meant I was a little familiar with Finn’s first destination, the Kjelll Henriksen Observatory (KHO), located about 10 miles from town on the hill where Mine 7 is located.
As Finn plowed through the snow drifts we peered through the frosty glass in hopes of glimpsing something other than darkness, but the only thing we managed to see was a vague shadowy outline of something large in the distance. Okay, turn around and head back to town for more sight-seeing, or should I say, more imagining what we’re suppose to be looking at.
But, you can always learn more, and Finn’s commentary on the history of Longyearbyen punctuated with anecdotes and stops for photos made the two-hours pass quickly.
Driving by the hospital (which I wouldn’t haven known was a hospital) Finn informed us only minor operations are performed here, with the complicated cases flown to the mainland for treatment. He also said pregnant women are required to leave the island three weeks before their due date but added any unexpected deliveries have been successful. Nice to know. The fact that high-level medical care isn’t available on the island means one doesn’t come here to live out their life.
Finn also mentioned 14 police kept strict tabs on any criminal activity, specifically any involving drugs. The town banishes for a long time anyone convicted of a drug violation. Alcohol use is high and a concern, which seems typical when reading about isolated northern communities.
His commentary reminded me of a recent TV series I’d seen on Amazon Prime: Fortitude. There, no one was allowed to die on the island. How they managed that scenario, I don’t know.
We passed a relatively small, well-lit building with huge glass windows. The back-up generators are in there, ready in the event of any power outage from the energy plant. Norse Gods & Goddesses forbid. Loss of heat and power in a place such as this could quickly become fatal.
One of the highlights came from a sighting down at the harbor. We saw an Arctic Fox! Unfortunately, my phone camera didn’t capture it so well as you can see.
However, I was in the car with two professional photographers, Karim and his wife Maria, and their two clients, an Aussie and Kiwi, on an Arctic photography safari. Karim did immortalize the fox on film, and I’m hoping he’ll post it on his website. Even if he hasn’t, both his and Maria’s site are worth a long sight-seeing tour.
Finn, meanwhile, told us an interesting story about the solitary boat below.
The owners originally planned do cruises, but ended up instead harvesting glacial ice for water: Svalbaroi at 69.95 euros, or $83.93 a liter.
Not everyone thinks this is good for the world, which I can understand.
Another highlight was the Global Seed Vault opened in 2008. Sitting on a hillside on the way to the airport, a green glow alerted us to the vault. The light comes from an art installation, Perpetual Repercussion by Norwegian artist Dyvek Sanne, and it’s really the only visible part of this international food mine extending 100 meters into the side of the mountain.
This natural icebox holds over 400,000 crop seeds from around the world.
According to the gatekeepers of this vault, the Crop Trust, Longyearbear’s location offers the best safe-keeping for the world’s seeds: a remote but accessible site; the large capacity of a 100-meter tunnel; geologically stable with low humidity; well above sea level; and, a natural-freezing zone due to the permafrost.
Serving as the backup for 1,750 seed vaults throughout the world, in 2015 Syria withdrew seeds it had stored in this ‘doomsday vault’, returning some two years later.
Yet, in spite of its height and freezer temps, this vault didn’t prove impervious to global climate change. In 2016, due to an unusual amount of rain and warmer temperatures, some permafrost melted and flooded the first 15 meters into the 100-meter tunnel. No damage occurred, but water-proofing the vault is now underway.
If you’ve read any of my posts then you know, if there’s a museum close by, we may be in it. And, yes, there’s a museum here offering a quick perusal of the area’s history. So, on our last full day, we wandered down one of those deserted walkways I mentioned above, my head swiveling like the girl’s in The Exorcist movie as I panned the area for any large, white furry creature looking for a holiday meal. (Although, I heard they, supposedly, don’t eat you but just chew you up and spit you out. Reading about this later I found they DO eat you. Either way it doesn’t sound good.)
Attached to the University building, the museum guides you on a circular walk through displays of early explorers, whalers and hunters… the wildlife… local geology… and current residents.
I used some of our photos here in the previous post, but here are several showing the effect of global climate change on the ice cap. Not Good.
Like many establishments here, they welcomed visitors with Yule-time treats.
That is good.
Svalbard Museum offers an excellent introduction to this area, well worth an hour or two of one’s time–a visit we should have thought to do sooner versus later.
And, Finally, Northern Lights!
Knowing northern lights operate on Mother Nature’s schedule, not ours, I’d convinced myself not to be disappointed if we didn’t see any. But, that doesn’t mean we didn’t go a’hunting for them… four times… :)
And, we saw them two times during those forays out of town (one with that gun-toting taxi driver, Hendrik Sanio :).
Not being equipped with the best camera for snapping night shots, we received several photos from other folks with us, and I’ve put them below.
And from our friends Ali and Hanieh:
And, a few more from two brothers, Josh and David Redlich from New York City, who were packing in as many activities as possible between Christmas and New Years in Bergen, Oslo, and Longyearbyen.
As you can imagine, all of us were in awe of the Arctic sky as the Northern Lights pulsed from gray to white to light green. And, yes, it was spectacular! :)
Saving the Best for Last…
Although we had expected the small hotel to foster evenings of card-playing and conversations in the cozy lobby, most times it seemed folk were content to stay in the company of their family or friends. However, we’d lucked out when we met Ali and Hanieh, both living and working in Munich with Hanieh temporarily in Oxford, England with a Research Group.
Dogsledding and Northern Lights were highlights of our time in Longyearbyen. but these two were the best Christmas gift Svalbard could have given us.
And, the perfect ending to a magical time in a wintery wonderland!
As I write this it’s the first day of a new year. May 2018 bring everyone peace & love in healthy & happy lives.