The very first written mention of the group of islands known as Svalbard, meaning “cold coast” or “cold edge,” comes from a 12th century Icelandic Saga. “Svalbard fundinn,” it reads in Old Icelandic, meaning, in English: “Svalbard found.” After the Vikings came, discovered, and went again, the islands were left to the polar bears until the 16th century, when some explorers arrived. Next came whalers, and Norwegian and Russian trappers, and then coal miners. Then came the tourist yahoos and, eventually, Tamara and I.
Tamara (a Canadian based out of Denmark) and me (an American living out of a backpack) had a tough time explaining to friends why we’d chosen to take our vacation on this treeless, frozen island where you need to take a gun with you to walk out of the town centre. Human population: about 2,642. Polar bear population: more than 3,000. Depending on who we talked to, our plans were considered either an otherworldly adventure, or some kind of masochistic spring break.
The northernmost city
We arrived at midnight in Longyearbyen, the northernmost city in the world, and the lone city on the island of Spitsbergen within the Svalbard archipelago. After sleeping in the airport, we walked into the town under a sky beaming at least five shades of blue around the glowing orb of the sun. Deeper into the fjord, surrounded by rolling white mountains, our eyes widened with awe under the midnight sun. “This is what death must look like,” Tamara said dreamily. “Walking into a soft, white glow.”
After wandering the nameless roads of Longyearbyen and visiting the Svalbard Museum, the northernmost cemetery in the world, the northernmost art gallery in the world, and the northernmost ATM in the world, we decided to hike into the mountains. Having no experience with guns or polar bears, we logged into the Tinder dating app, explicitly hoping that a local would show up to our date armed to the teeth and ready to trek into the unknown.
Sure enough, a local university student swiped right. He was soon valiantly leading our hike up the mountainside to watch the sun kiss the horizon before ascending once again. We ate cookies and drank blueberry juice. It was the best (northernmost) date in the world.
Mines and caves
The next day, we hopped on a boat to the coal mining settlement of Barentsburg, built during the Soviet era. We stopped along the way to for a picnic of grilled minke whale at the foot of a glacier. Barentsburg has just two main streets, and feels eerily held in a bygone time. During the Soviet era, the town’s 1000 occupants received free food at the cultural centre, and exchanged coupons for libations at the canteen. Today, Barenstburg’s population is roughly 500 people, most of whom are Ukrainian coal miners who still use a sort of ration card.
The surreal experience of an 84-year-old coal-mining town in the Arctic could only be topped by venturing deep beneath the ice, so the next morning, following two Italian guides, we headed to a glacial ice cave. The entrance was a simple hole on top of the glacier, about the size of a manhole cover. We dropped in dressed in crampons, helmets and headlamps, and headed into the icy labyrinth beneath chandeliers of glassy, frozen spires.
We repelled down frozen waterfalls and shimmied through tiny crawl spaces until we hit the bottom, which had apparently only been reached by 25 people previously. In the light of our headlamps, the dark blue, plum purple, turquoise and white leapt from the ice. The silence was stupefying, and being human suddenly felt beautifully insignificant.
Using ice axes to climb back up the waterfalls, we emerged once more, hardly able to reconcile what we’d seen with the more earthly surface. We would never have imagined such a world existed beneath our feet.
On our last day, we decided to forgo Longyearbyen’s ubiquitous snowmobiles, instead opting for a dogsled ride with a local operator. In no time at all we’d bolted off in a six-sleigh procession pulled by Alaskan huskies, flying over the snow at a rate that felt much faster than our actual 12kph.
Tamara and I took turns driving, one at the helm and the other on the lookout for reindeer and arctic foxes. Cocooned in the seat, surrounded by snow-covered mountains and a wild, untouched landscape, I grinned like a slice of watermelon. Finally, sliding through this treeless, otherworldly landscape, we felt a little like those early explorers ourselves.