Category Archives: Svalbard

Winter Wonderland continued

78°13’24.02″N, 15°38’48.8″E

(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.

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Below is a recap our those adventures, but not a lot of pictures because it was too dark…

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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)

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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.

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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.

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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.

Dog sledding

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.

The Atlantic polar bear feast

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.

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which is why you see these signs on town doors,

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And, this sign when leaving the town:

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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,

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disrobed, and celebrated with brandy-infused coffee and hot chocolate the amazing thrill of dog-sledding, thanks to our guide Marcel and the pups.

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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.

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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,

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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.

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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.

City Tour

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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This natural icebox holds over 400,000 crop seeds from around the world.

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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.

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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.

Svalbard Museum

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.

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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.

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Like many establishments here, they welcomed visitors with Yule-time treats.

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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.

Here’s Hendrik’s:

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And from our friends Ali and Hanieh:

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

A Winter Wonder Land

78°13’24.02″N, 15°38’48.8″E

(Longyearbyen, on Spitsbergen Island, SVALBARD ARCHIPELAGO)

Thursday-Thursday, December 22-28

Okay, we’re not going home for the holidays. No one is heading over here. So, what to do?

Why, go north, of course! Which is how we ended up in the Svalbard Archipelago on Spitsbergen, in a town 814 miles from the North Pole.

No, we didn’t spot any jolly guy driving a reindeer-sleigh across the sky, although, there is a mailbox for him. Yes, it was cold, but not too cold at all (10 to 30 degrees). And, yes it was dark (24-hours). But, boy, was it AMAZING!

Thanks to warm air coming from the south and an offshoot of the Gulf Stream (West Spitsbergen Current) it’s not that cold, or not as cold as one would think.

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Compared to other Arctic lands, the relatively mild climate offers sustenance for marine life, birds, and land mammals in spite of half being covered by glaciers and the other half pretty barren. We couldn’t really see the landscape it being dark and all, but we read the view is similar to what it had been at the end of the last ice age.

Having friends who sailed here during summer months we have toyed with the idea of doing the same; but, the vast distance to sail would require wintering over in Tromsø or some other Norwegian port due to the short cruising season.

Visiting here in the winter came about thanks to our Swedish friend Michael’s enthusiastic description of his time here last January. Flying in seemed a lot more practical (and easier) than traveling by boat, and a wintery wonderland for Christmas appealed to our interest in exotic locations. Which is how we became two of the roughly 600,000 annual visitors to Spitsbergen with 50% of those passengers arriving on summer cruise ships.

With backpacks stuffed with warm outfits but no sunglasses (I reminded Max he didn’t need his after he packed them) we flew from Amsterdam to Longyearbyen. We had to overnight in Copenhagen due to limited, connecting flights to Svalbard. Fortunately, we decided to book a hotel room as otherwise this would have been us (which has been us in the past)…

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and, could be us in the future for as Max observed “doesn’t look too bad because you can actually stretch out”…

Because the Svalbard Archipelago isn’t part of the Schengen agreement* (or EU), we had to go through passport control when entering and leaving.

* The 1985 Schengen Agreement–named for where it was signed in Luxembourg–removed the European border checks for those citizens whose country signed this treaty. Almost all the EU countries signed (with Great Britain being one which didn’t). For citizens of non-Schengen countries, you’re only allowed up to three cumulative months in Schengen countries after which you must leave for three months. We’re allowed to stay due to our application and acceptance for temporary Dutch residency under the Dutch American Friendship Treaty (DAFT).

With growing tourism over the past 15 years the plane was packed with excited folk like us,  and, when we landed in pitch black we joined them snapping shots of our winter destination.

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The airport crews joined in the fun

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and locals welcomed arrivals with hot glogg (Glühwein) and crisp cookies.

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Another greeter was a vision in white and one I never wanted to be this close to:

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Svalbard Hotell & Lodge, Longyearbyen’s newest accommodations, became our home over the next six days, and what a great place to enjoy what the area offers.

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Due to our assigned room’s reading lights not working, Jason upgraded us to a suite (!), which included our own Nespresso machine :)  We always felt welcomed by the reception manager Ana and her staff, several of whom we met such as Christiana from outside of Newcastle, England and Alexander from Russia.

Ana moved here from Tromsø with her family when she was seven and told of being in elementary school where she was one of two classmates in her grade. She was helpful, friendly, and extremely patient -as were all of her staff- as every hotel guest, us included, asked about the likelihood of seeing the Northern Lights. This obviously was THE question as we gazed at the board right above their heads, displaying the real-time strength of the aurora borealis.

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One aspect of our trip did surprise us:  the excellent meals at the hotel’s restaurant. As Max commented “Who would have thought to come here for the food?!” The breakfasts were superb with an a la carte spread of yogurts, power shakes, fresh-cut fruit, cereals, cheeses, meats, lettuce & tomatoes, pastries, breads, eggs, bacon, and plenty of condiments and spreads as well as juice, coffee, tea and water. And, yes, we did make sandwiches for our lunches a few times.

Luckily we reserved a spot for Christmas Eve dinner here; and, we feasted on a mouth-watering buffet compliments of Christian’s husband, Grace, who hails from Oban, Scotland, and is the hotel’s chef.

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For Christmas Day dinner we opted for another restaurant, the Nansen (named after Fridtjof Nansen, 1862-1930, a famous Norwegian polar explorer), located at the Radisson Blu Hotel, and the only other eatery open that day. Max ordered the “Arctic Special” consisting of whale, seal, and reindeer meat, not a particularly PC meal (and, sorry about the seal, Andrea!). No, none tasted like chicken, and, yes, the seal tasted a bit fishy.

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Before I move on from the food and hotels, an interesting fact is the Svalbard Hotell & Lodge’s link to another one of Norway’s polar explorers, Eivind Astrup (1871-1895) whose statue greets you close to the entrance.

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Unless you’re an avid reader of polar exploits, you may not be aware of how his pioneering of dogsleds and skis dramatically altered Arctic explorations. As you can see, the wooden version is a good likeness!

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The hotel’s founder is a descendent of Astrup, which explains why the restaurant is named Polfareren (polar explorer) and why Astrup’s framed mapping tools and diary hung on the restaurant’s wall. Couldn’t have been a more fitting place to stay considering Max’s keen interest in polar exploration.

The tales of this land fascinated me, which means the following is a brief bit of history about this area supplemented by our visit to the Svalbard Museum:

As a land of rocks and permafrost, Svalbard is an Arctic Tundra with no trees, no forests, no agricultural areas, and few species of flora and fauna; however, before its ground became permanently frozen, some dinosaurs did inhabit this land and these waters (Svalbard was submerged for millions of years). In the early part of this century, they discovered fossils of swan reptiles (plesiosaurs) and fish lizards (ichthyosaurs) in Svalbard.

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Those animals existed during the Jurassic period and were later replaced by  those more suited to an Ice Age.

Fast forward millions of years to 1194 when the name ‘Svalbard’ (‘Cold Coasts’) was first mentioned in Icelandic annals, although not necessarily meaning this specific group of islands. In 1596 when searching for a North-East route over Siberia the Dutch explorer Willem Barentsz formally discovered the largest island of this archipelago and named it Spitsbergen, Dutch for ‘jagged mountains’.

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During the 17th century these waters became whale-hunting grounds for Danes, Dutch, Norwegians, English, Germans, French, and Spanish with Russians joining in at the beginning of the 18th century thanks to Tsar Peter the Great’s desire to expand his realm. With no international restrictions, these nations harpooned the valuable Greenland right whales (or bowhead whales) to the point of extinction.

Graves provide proof of these early visitors and the dangerous lives they led…

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with display cases exhibiting some of the items found:

this wide-brimmed hat…

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woolen cap…

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and, leather shoes.

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With the decline of whaling, the 19th century brought hunters and trappers. Until the mid-1800s the Pomors (from Russia’s White Sea coast), familiar with Arctic grounds since the 1700s, focused on catching walrus during the summer. In winter months, when the weather didn’t allow hunting, they entertained themselves with games and handicrafts. At Svalbard’s Museum we saw some of the artifacts from their time here, such as these crosses.

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Arctic foxes,

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reindeer,

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and polar bears

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became the main quarry for hunters and trappers from the end of the 1890s to 1941.

And, they were some hardy folk. Imagine calling this ‘home’?

Posh tourists and adventurers also travelled to this northern land to enjoy the great outdoors.

In addition to the larger game, seals, birds, duck and goose down added extra income to the 400 or so inhabitants (6% being female) during the first half of the 20th century. With plenty of space and animals to hunt, Svalbard stayed a terra nullius or no-man’s land unfettered from any one-country’s domination. However, this changed due to the discovery of coal in the 19th century.

Between 1898 and 1920 coal miners registered over 100 claims. With the resource now in the land versus roaming around it, it became necessary to clarify ownership and settle disputes regarding these claims. The Spitsbergen Treaty was drawn up and signed in 1920 giving Norway sovereignty over Svalbard.

Since the original 14 countries signed the agreement [Denmark, France, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, United States, the UK (including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Newfoundland, and South Africa)] 22 more countries have added their signatures to the treaty, the most recent being North Korea in 2016.

Although Svalbard is under Norwegian administration and law, all citizens of the signatory nations have free access to live, work, and trade here. Taxes are substantially less than mainland Norway’s (16% vs. 40%) and collected for the sole use of Svalbard’s administration. Additionally, no military operations are allowed.

Currently Norway and Russia operate coal mines on Svalbard, subsidizing the operations to maintain permanent settlements on this arctic land. For a lengthy but fascinating explanation on Svalbard’s evolution from 1925 to the 21st century, click here.

We stayed in Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen’s largest permanent settlement with 2,200 population, about 70% being Norwegian with the remaining being multinationals. Due to tourism English is becoming the de facto language, which made it easy to visit this icy land.

The other towns are: Ny Ålesund, an international research station with about 40 people*; Barentsburg, a Russian coal mining town, population around 400; and, Sveagrua, a Norwegian coal mining town with an uncertain future. A few weather stations also are sited on Spitsbergen and other Svalbard islands.

*The famous Norwegian explorer, Raold Amundsen, explored the Arctic with airships in 1926 and 1928 using Ny Ålesund as his base.

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Longyearbyen is named after Michiganite John M. Longyear, an American businessman, who visited Spitsbergen on vacation in 1901 (back then this was a destination for the elite). He returned several years later after analysis of some coal proved it to be of the highest quality.  An astute business man, Longyear and fellow investor Frederick Ayer established the American Arctic Coal Company. The AACC began mining coal in 1906.

Just a side note… Longyear and his wife Mary moved to Boston in 1899, dismantling their stone mansion in Marquette, Michigan, and moving it lock, stock, and barrel to Massachusetts to please Mary. Mary’s interest in the Christian Science Religion resulted in her home becoming a museum dedicated to the teachings of Mrs. Mary Baker Eddy. The museum moved to a new location on Chestnut Hill in 1998 with the Longyear mansion becoming, what else:  condos. the_longyear_story_graphic

Longyear Brookline Home

Back to the Arctic tale… For ten years AACC mined coal until selling the company to a new entity, the Norwegian mining company Store Norske Spitsbergen Kulkompani (SNSK), in 1916. Store Norske became the dominant coal enterprise, buying other companies as they came up for sale and eventually becoming 100% state-owned. As this Norwegian company grew, Longyearbyen became a ‘company town.’ Store Norske even issued its own currency: ‘Spitsbergen money’ in the form of wage vouchers until 1980 (!).

A total of ten mines have operated on Spitsbergen between the early 1900s and today: Norway’s Store Norske owned eight; and Russia’s Arktikugol Trust (also state-owned), two. Currently only two of them are still operating: Norway’s Mine 7 and Russia’s Barentsburg. NOTE:  SNSG is a subsidiary of SNSK.

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During our visit we met locals who spoke of the current dilemma facing their community. With Norway going ‘green’ the politicians in Oslo want to close down the coal mining operations, temporarily leaving Mine 7 still operating. The coal is used by the local power plant as well as exported for energy usage and making high-quality steel parts (BMW and Mercedes use it in manufacturing their cars).

Locals, however, want to re-open one of the closed mines–Lunckefjellet, near Sveagruva. Originally Swedish, it was purchased by Store Norske in 1932, and irregular operations continued; but, as of 2014 this mine was only kept in standby mode. To permanently close it will cost about $1 billion; yet, with the rising price for coal, some investors say they can operate the mine for less than the cost to close it. And, this is the richest coal vein for Store Norske.

Ironically, one local told us the head of Longyearbyen’s Local Government drives a ‘green’ car, a Tesla, whose battery is charged by coal…

If Norway decides to shut down all of the island’s coal production to (a) stop subsidizing the operations and (b) go completely green, Spitsbergen would have to import ‘dirty’ coal. Actually, they’ll have to import coal in about ten years anyway because that’s the amount of reserves remaining in Mine 7 (unless they go re-open Lunckefjellet).

With the gradual closing of mines locals say the community has changed. They didn’t say how but I’m surmising the area feels less cohesive than one dependent on a single industry. The government wants to build up other economic activities including tourism, research and higher education. Regarding education, UNIS, The University Centre in Svalbard, opened in 1993 and currently has 759 students (50% Norwegian and 50% International) with all courses taught in English. Tuition is free and the focus is on Arctic biology, geology, geophysics, and technology with degrees from undergraduate to postgraduate. If you like snow (or ice), sounds like a great place to get a diploma (which is how Christina, who worked at our hotel, ended up here).

It will be interesting to see how Norway and Spitsbergen resolve this issue. Svalbard is an important strategic foothold in the Arctic, with both Norway and Russia having subsidized their coal operations for that reason. Although the 1920 Svalbard Treaty doesn’t allow any military activity, Norway views Svalbard as a military presence in the Arctic. Meanwhile, Russia has been expanding its military base in the nearby Franz Josef Archipelago.

Furthermore, if these two countries do end up closing down their mines, other countries may decide to move in. Case in point–in 1910 Russia bought the Pyramiden mine (closed in 1998) from Sweden, and the Barentsburg one, still operating, from the Dutch in 1932. Hmmmm, can anyone say “North Korea”?

Next:  why we enjoyed Longyearbyen so much :)