Norway’s northernmost frontier
Longyearbyen, the world’s northernmost town, is the adoptive home to a surprising number of nationalities – 26 in total. (Press Association)
In the Arctic blizzard, there is nothing but white. White above, white below, white in every direction. It is impossible to know whether the view ahead stretches for 10 yards or 10 miles. Into this void, undeterred, run the six huskies pulling the little wooden sled, tongues lolling and tails flailing wildly. No glimpse can be seen of the sled in front, but the dogs are following the scent of their pack. In this strange and unknowable land, they are not afraid.
The sled bumps and skids over an undulating sheet of ice, frozen thick over the waters of a fjord. The blizzard slows and, for the first time in hours, the distant outlines of mountain ridges can be made out: just a suggestion, like the first few sketches of charcoal on an artist’s blank canvas. Then, suddenly, out of the white, there is a mast. Two masts. It’s a lone sailing ship, frozen in the middle of a vast sea of ice, which promises warmth, comfort and the best hot chocolate north of Murmansk.
Travelling on a dogsled to a ship frozen in the ice is a journey with resonance. It echoes the beginning of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, in which an Arctic sea explorer gets stuck in pack ice near the North Pole and finds the exhausted Dr Victor Frankenstein pursuing his escaped monster. In real life, too, the great 19thcentury explorer Fridtjof Nansen found his way to these seas in his specially designed ship, the Fram. Expeditions would sail as far as possible towards the poles in the summer, then let the waters freeze around them, creating a supply base. Nansen later gave the Fram to Roald Amundsen, who used it to set out for the South Pole.
There is only one place in the world where it is possible to stay on an icebound ship now. That’s the Noorderlicht (Northern Light), frozen for winter in Tempelfjorden on the island of Spitsbergen, in the high Arctic Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard.
In the cosy wooden interior of the Noorderlicht, thick thermal suits are peeled off and the dogsledders’ extremities slowly defrosted with hot chocolate. Ted, the laconic Dutch captain, appears briefly. ‘I planned to retire on a yacht in the Caribbean,’ he says with a wry smile, gesturing at the iced-up porthole. A hearty dinner is served, with spinach pastries, meatloaf and deliciously moist apple cake. Then, at last, the sled team collapse into their bunks inside and the huskies collapse into their kennels outside for a night of much-needed sleep. Poor Dr Frankenstein could be hammering on the cabin doors all night and nobody on board would wake up to let him in.
When morning comes, the storm has gone. The sun will not rise over the horizon for several hours – but, in the first violet glow of morning, it is finally possible to see the whole sweeping expanse of Tempelfjorden itself. This is why people come to the poles: a 360-degree sight of bizarre, ethereal beauty like nothing else on Earth. It’s a landscape on the sweeping scale of the African savannahs or the deserts of Asia, but rendered in cut crystal. The ship is in the middle of an enormous winter plain created by the rippled ice, which is frozen solid across the seawater. A pale, hazy mist clings close. For a second, a black spot appears in the distance: a seal, popping its head up through a hole to take a look around. Barren mountains sheer up from the faraway edges of the fjord, their black crags softened by thick drifts of pristine white snow. And it is, of course, silent; silent in a way that only a windless place with no trees, grasses or insects can ever be. That is, until the huskies wake up and start barking for breakfast.
In the days of Norwegian explorers Nansen and Amundsen, ships and dogs were the only way to travel in the polar regions. A century on, snowmobiles are a faster option – and, though they do break down occasionally, they usually need less maintenance than six dogs. And it’s a relatively easy matter to climb a glacier on a snowmobile. The snow fills the mountain passes in meringue-like heaps, light sparkling on its smooth crust. Occasionally that crust crumbles under the snowmobile’s tread, and both driver and vehicle tip over and are buried. Beneath the crust, though, the snow is soft and powdery – making falling into it oddly enjoyable. It’s like tumbling into a pile of marshmallows.