Norway’s northernmost frontier
The air is a brisk -28˚C today and tears freeze solid on eyelashes. Even so, zipped up in a hi-tech thermal suit, it is possible to be plunged into a snowdrift and feel no more than refreshingly cool. The snowmobile is soon dug out and back on track. Skimming over the drifts once more at 50mph, it would be easy to assume that this wilderness has been conquered.
It has not. Our guide, Martin, calls for a break by an abandoned mine, an eerie collection of deserted buildings on the side of a deep valley. Parents in Spitsbergen tell their children that this place is home to Yule Nisse, a gnome from Norwegian folklore and local variation of Father Christmas. Martin takes out a large, high-calibre rifle. He loads it carefully – it’s not magical Christmas gnomes that have him worried. ‘I like to keep the gun ready,’ Martin explains, ‘because often you don’t see a polar bear until it’s too late.’ Tragically, Svalbard made the news in August 2011 for exactly that reason. A polar bear attacked an expedition camp, wounding four people and killing 17-year-old British student Horatio Chapple.
Poignantly, Chapple was named after Admiral Horatio Nelson, who, legend has it, attempted to hunt a polar bear in Svalbard in 1773. Nelson, then a 14-year-old midshipman, was armed only with a rusty musket. He fired at the bear, but the gunpowder flashed and the bullet stuck in the barrel. ‘Never mind,’ he cried, ‘do but let me get a blow at this devil with the butt-end of my musket, and we shall have him.’ The ship’s captain fired a shot into the sky, one version of the story goes, and the bear fled.
As the awful events of August proved, the danger of bear attacks has not gone away: as long as there are bears, they will never be completely avoidable. Yet Svalbard’s guides are never blasé about the risks – like Martin, they are all armed. Despite its breathtaking beauty, the Svalbard winter is hostile. Aside from the bears – which outnumber humans by three to two – residents and visitors must contend with enormous distances, poor means of communication, strong winds, frozen seas, ice storms and, of course, the extreme cold. The temperature in the largest settlement, Longyearbyen (the world’s northernmost town), falls as low as -46˚C, and only remains steadily above freezing between June and September. Nonetheless, a couple of thousand people choose to call this archipelago home. You do not need a visa or even a passport to live here and, as a result, the human population is diverse, comprising 26 different nationalities – from Russians to Indians, Swedes to Chinese. There was an Iranian here until last year, too – a refugee from political persecution in his own country. After Norwegians, the biggest group is Thai. ‘Thirty years ago, a Norwegian from Svalbard fell in love with a Thai woman,’ explains Lisa, a guide in Longyearbyen. ‘I guess word got around.’