Putting on sunglasses, I glanced at my watch, and noted that it was 1:15 AM.
The midnight sun came as no surprise. After all, this was mid-July, and, from Tromsø, at the top of mainland Norway, we had flown due north for an hour and a half – another such flight, and we would have been at the North Pole.
Outside the terminal a bus awaited us for the 20-minute drive to Longyearbyen, where passengers were let off at three hotels. Ours, the Spitsbergen Hotel, came last, and proved to be a long red wooden structure, sitting on a hill on the outskirts of town. From there, after a quick shower and a few hours of much-needed sleep, we would breakfast and lunch, and go sightseeing. Then, at 5PM, we are to board the MS Nordstjernen for a 4-day cruise in the Svalbard archipelago.
A classic passenger/cargo ship, Nordstjernen is part of the Hurtigruten fleet, the famous coastal steamer line, which, for over a century, has kept communications open with the often difficult-to-reach communities along the jagged coast of western and northern Norway. Over the years, Hurtigruten has grown into a leading cruise line, and, using its unique competency to sail in high latitudes, now operates cruises in the Arctic and Antarctic regions.
Built in 1956, Nordstjernen is Hurtigruten’s oldest ship. Come summer it heads for Spitsbergen. Before boarding this veteran vessel for what had been described as a soft adventure cruise, I explored Longyearbyen.
Who really discovered Spitsbergen?
Doing a little research on the islands’ history, I ran into a familiar pattern. As Columbus is the discoverer of America, so the Dutch explorer Willem Barentsz is credited, in 1596, with finding Spitsbergen. Like Columbus, he was looking for another place: India – not by way of the Atlantic but the Northeast Passage – and like America’s official discoverer, he was almost certainly beat to it by the Vikings. In Icelandic texts, as early as 1194, there is a mention of the name of the archipelago, Svalbard, “land of cold coasts,” indicating that Norsemen were here first.
After Barentsz’ visit, Svalbard became a base for international whaling, and, at the turn of the 20th century, coal was discovered by the man who gave Longyearbyen its name.
He was John Munro Longyear, an American banker and business tycoon. In 1901, he and his wife Mary took a luxury cruise to Spitsbergen. While other passengers played shuffleboard and drank hot toddies, John explored the island and noticed coal deposits. Four years later he returned, bought up some Norwegian land claims, and started a mining company. Others followed, and coal became the major, if not the only, industry in Spitsbergen.
A stroll in the world’s northernmost town
Uncanny and barren - those words came to mind as I walked around in Longyearbyen, the largest Norwegian settlement and the administrative center of Svalbard. The houses were, I noticed, almost all simple, two-story structures, built in rows and painted in rich, earthy colors. They looked deserted, and later I found that most of the inhabitants were on a four-week vacation. Skies and kick-sleds were stacked neatly outside most doorways, and snowmobiles in impressive numbers filled the yards. In the direction of the harbor, some great rusty towers rose into the clean arctic air: remnants of a conveyor system that once carried loads of coal from mine to processing plant and dock. Until recently, most mining took place right here in Longyearbyen, and one can only imagine the noise that went with it, and the black dust that must have settled everywhere.
Scanning the horizon, I wondered in what mountain the Svalbard Global Seed Vault was to be found. I had recently read about it, and knew that it was an icy steel and concrete bunker storing millions of crop seeds. Better known as the “Doomsday Vault,” it serves as a form of insurance policy should anything go seriously wrong with the world, such as catastrophic climate change or nuclear holocaust
I walked on. Not one tree. Just silence, and a chill in the air. Then, as I reached Longyearbyen’s commercial center, things got a little livelier. Here, along the main street, were several shops, one of which I entered, looking for a knit cap. The salesman shook his head. “You came at the wrong time of year,” he said. It was about 35 degrees Fahrenheit – a heat wave, presumably, by Svalbard standards. After all, this is a place where 60% of the land is covered with glaciers, and the average temperature during the 4-month long polar night is about ten.
The big shoe rack at the entrance of the hotel had been a reminder of the practice of removing your dirty shoes before entering a home or a public building. There was a scramble on the floor as in-coming guests adhered to this time-honored custom. And throughout the hotel – which exuded an old-world charm with its deep leather chairs, dark wooden walls, and framed portraits of Norwegian and Swedish royalty – there had been the soft patter of stockinged feet.
Barentsburg - a slice of the U.S.S.R.
It was 6PM, and Roxie, my wife, and I had just settled in on MS Nordstjernen. Our cabin was small, or should I say cozy?
No frills, just bunk beds, and barely enough space to squeeze past one another. The ship had been modernized and refitted, but retained a 1950s aura, with traditional step-up-and-over watertight doors, solid planks of varnished wood, and a deck with open lifeboats. The dining room was quite luxurious, with generous rows of windows, so - as we feasted on reindeer and other local fare - we would have a view of the arctic landscape.
The cruise had begun. Sailing out of Adventfjorden and into Grønfjorden, we headed west toward Barentsburg, a Russian settlement, with about 500 inhabitants. Established by the Soviet Union in 1932, this was once a thriving mining community - a poster-child for communism in the far north.
At 9PM we docked at an empty, rather shabby-looking pier, which had a rickety wooden staircase leading to the town above. There was a climb of about 250 steps, and suddenly (a little out of breath), we were in the midst of post-Soviet decay. A bust of Lenin stood in the town square; faded murals on rundown cement buildings depicted happy workers; and, in memory of the Moscow Olympics, Olympic rings festooned the sports hall. It was pretty grim, but also oddly moving. Many of the houses looked abandoned. The only sign of life was a cluster of pigeons, resting on some moldy old windowsills. Had everyone left town?
Not so. In the communal theater, a group of Russian mine workers were about to entertain us with an amateur folklore show. Colorful costumes, singing and dancing, and, all at once Barentsburg burst into life – passionate and very Russian.
Hot-rodding in Magdelenfjorden
The next day, as we awoke, Nordstjernen was making its way into Magdelenefjorden, one of Spitsbergen’s most spectacular fjords. Icebergs lay scattered all around, and beyond rose the snow-streaked, jagged mountains, after which Spitsbergen, “pointed mountains,” presumably was named.
Anchor was cast, a gangway fixed to the side of the ship, and, in anticipation of a shore landing, everyone donned a lifejacket. Assigned to an English-speaking group called “Puffins,” Roxie and I took our places in a Polar-Circle tender. The pilot turned out to be something of a hot-rodder, running the tender full throttle. Not until we seemed doomed to crash into the beach, did he, with split-second precision, slow down for an exemplary smooth landing.
“This is Gravneset,” Ingrid, our Norwegian guide, said as we walked ashore, pointing to a difficult-to-make-out cluster of stones, “the place where the Dutch whalers, hundreds of years ago, came to bury their dead.” Ingrid was young, blond, and petite, and carried a rifle and four rounds of ammunition to protect us against polar bears. Polar bears are popular in these parts – in Longyearbyen they had been depicted everywhere and the souvenir shop, not unexpectedly, was full of miniature stuffed polar bears – but they’re also feared. I recall a sign that read: “Don’t leave town without something to shoot with.” In fact, everyone is required to carry a weapon when venturing beyond town limits - hence our gun-toting blonde.
Walking along the beach, Ingrid told the history of whaling on Svalbard, and showed the remains of ovens, where blubber from the whales was melted and distilled into oil. Mostly, we just enjoyed the panoramic view of ice, tundra, and towering mountains. Before returning to the ship, passengers were invited to take an arctic swim in Magdelenfjorden. Twenty-six courageous souls rose to the challenge, and would, for their bravery, receive a special diploma at the end of the cruise.
“Polar bear sighted!”
The announcement of a polar bear sighting came over the ship’s loudspeaker, and produced a wave of excitement. As Nordstjernen slowed to a stop, everyone rushed out on deck with binoculars and cameras. And there, in the far distance, was the bear, jumping from one rock to another, enthralling us all. The location: Klovningen, a small island in the northwestern corner of Svalbard.
Drift ice began accumulating as we continued north. Would we be able to cross the 80th parallel? The question remained open until about midnight, when the Captain announced that we just did. By then everybody had gathered on the afterdeck. Champagne corks popped. Toast followed upon toast. All around, in the soft sunlight, floated icebergs, and never had the sky seemed so clean and so high – it was quite magical.
Trekking in Signehamna, dodging icebergs in Lilliehöök
The next day we anchored in a place called Signehamna, and went on a long trekking tour. The walk, which stretched for miles of over what seemed endless tundra, is etched into my memory because of its charming little absurdities. First there was Ingrid, excitedly pointing at tiny moss-like growths , exclaiming, “If you just keep your eyes open, the world is full of lichen.” Then there was the discovery of some polar bear excrement. Several “Puffins” bent over the small mound with their cameras, enthusiastically snapping picture after picture. A major stop was the site of what, during World War II, had been a German weather station. Spread across the ground lay rusty fuel tanks and masses of whitened, dead batteries. “Don’t touch it,” Ingrid said, “It looks like garbage, but it is cultural heritage.”
In the afternoon we sailed to the Lilliehöök glacier, entering a world of shimmering whites and greens. Once again, anchor was cast: it was time for our small PolarCircle fleet to spring into action. Soon, the entire fjord reverberated with the sound of little boats darting back and forth, dodging icebergs. Our tender was named Mitra, and its pilot, adding a historic touch, wore a Viking helmet over a yellow wig. When he momentarily turned off the engine, we could hear a distant murmur from the massive, 26-mile wide glacier. “It’s ‘calving,’ the guide informed us, “just look at that green ice breaking away from it.”
From the vantage point of the Nordstjernen foredeck the show continued: a flock of kitty hawks resting on a small iceberg, a drifting floe that looked like some kind of cartoon monster about to crawl out of the water, and, on a strip of land in the far distance, a tiny animal that turned out to be an arctic fox.
The first thing we saw as we stepped ashore in Ny Ålesund was a rusty, toy-like locomotive with a few railroad cars, the remnants of an old mining train, frozen in its tracks for some 60 years.
Like Longyearbyen and Barentsburg, Ny Ålesund was once a thriving coal mining community. As such it came to a tragic end in 1962, when an explosion in a government-owned mine killed 21 miners. Not only were the mines closed, in the uproar that followed Norway’s prime minister was forced to resign. Since then Ny Ålesund has evolved into an international research center, with participants from as far away as India and China. During the summer the village flourishes, with more than 100 researchers from some 15 countries, working on a wide variety of projects. In the winter, however, when the port is iced in and most of the researchers have left, the entire population of this hamlet shrinks to about 30 people.
Our walking tour first took us to the Post Office, the world’s northernmost. Next we saw a couple of monuments to Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian Arctic explorer who, in 1926, left Ny Ålesund for a successful flight in a dirigible to the North Pole. His bust stood on a stone pedestal in the center of the village, and from a distance you could see the mooring mast that tethered his airship.
Using Spitsbergen as a jumping-off point for reaching the North Pole was not a new idea. In 1897, the Swedish balloonist August Andrée set out from nearby Virgohamna with the same purpose in a hot-air balloon. The Andrée story, which ended tragically with the death of him and his two companions, was the subject of one of the lectures given on Nordstjernen.
At about the same time that coal deposits were found in Longyearbyen, an Englishman named Mansfield managed to raise a good deal of money from wealthy English investors by convincing them that he had found a place in Svalbard full of high quality marble. Setting up a quarry on Blomstrandhalvøa – a peninsula across the fjord from Ny Ålesund – Mansfield named it, rather grandly, Ny London (New London). The marble, however, did not live up to expectations. It crumbled. And production was stopped after the first shipload had reached Europe.
Camp Mansfield is now one of Svalbard’s historic sites, and our last stop before returning to Longyearbyen. In utter desolation rose the rusty remnants of century-old ovens. Two weathered grey huts were still standing, and the ground was littered with debris. Nothing must be touched; everything was protected by Svalbard statues.
It’s the end of our Arctic venture. Tonight, in a farewell ceremony, crew and guides presented certificates to all passengers for crossing the 80th parallel, and handed out diplomas to those brave enough to have jumped into Magdalenefjorden. Dinner, as usual, was quite delicious: marinated reindeer, fried arctic char, and mocca mousse with cherry compote. The recommended wine, a Riesling, was a perfect match – just like the Amarone had been on the night we were served scallops and venison. The excellence of the wine came as a bit of a surprise, not what you would expect in a place where polar bears outnumber people by two to one. (Surprise turned to astonishment when I learned that there’s a restaurant in Longyearbyen called Huset that boasts a spectacular wine cellar of over 20,000 bottles.)
Now, reflecting upon our Svalbard adventure cruise, I often come back to that night when we had just passed the 80th parallel. The soft sunlight, the afterdeck full of happy people, champagne corks popping, the high clean air – everything conspiring to make it the natural high point of a memorable experience. We had been to the top of the world!
Text & photo: Bo Zaunders
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