Svalbard - A Short Visit to Longyear Town
Research and fun on Spitsbergen
I gripped the arms of my window seat, riveted by glimpses of rugged terrain. The jet blasted in and out of the clouds, wings juddering in the rough air. Craggy mountain tops gave way to a vast glacier that was behind us in moments as we lined up to land.
The smell of kerosene, the tarmac, and the baggage carts were universal elements but the land surrounding the airport was unique. I'm from Alaska originally, from an island south of Anchorage. Svalbard felt familiar but also very different. I scanned the mountainside and spotted the reason for my coming to this distant place, only 650 miles (1,050 kilometers) from the north pole. A concrete trapezoid jutting out of the permafrost, the entrance of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. I had come here for research, to get a feel for the place where my first novel ends.
The seed vault is meant to be a backup for all world seed banks preventing accidental loss of diversity. Spitsbergen was considered ideal, lacking tectonic activity and having permafrost, which maintains temperature in power outages. Its height above sea level will keep it dry even if the polar ice caps melt and locally mined coal powers refrigeration. Not to give away my entire novel, but my character has to get from Iowa to the seed vault to make a "withdrawal."
The author at the entrance of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.
A place of many names as well as many polar bears, Svalbard is an archipelago about halfway between Norway and the North Pole and north of the Arctic Circle. I had just arrived on the largest island, Spitsbergen, a Dutch name meaning "jagged mountains." Longyearbyen, the locale, was also known as Longyear town or city, named for an American who started mining coal there in the early 20th century. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Svalbard
Fjord and glacier from Longyearbyen.
The cheap (by Norwegian standards) and cheerful Spitsbergen Guesthouse is a 15-minute walk up the hill from the snazzier hotels in "downtown." Simple dormitory accommodations included breakfast. A map in the guesthouse marked a pink bear-safe zone that included the walk to central Longyearbyen's bars and restaurants.
Spitsbergen Guesthouse reception and dining hall.
My dorm away from home. Note snøscooter parking sign.
The view from my window: A brightly-painted guesthouse/bar and dramatic cliffs.
Old frames from a cable system are frequent reminders of Longyearbyen's mining past and present.
In the morning I had a call from a tour company saying the hike I had booked was canceled. He asked if I could handle a rifle. I said yes so he offered to bring me a rifle and a map so I could take the hike on my own. I agreed but thought it sounded pretty dodgy. I'd read that shooting a polar bear in Svalbard was frowned upon and unleashed an unholy amount of paperwork. I had no interest in shooting a bear but would defend myself if attacked. I wanted adventure and here it was!
The tour company 4x4 skidded to a stop in front of the guesthouse. The guy jumped out.
"Forget the hike. I have something so much better for you! Great fun! Jump in," he said, catching his breath. "You can swim?"
My mind swam with images of frigid arctic water. I said I could.
"Kayaking in the fjord. You will love it!"
We sped down to the shore where I met my Russian guide, Vladimir, and a Norwegian couple. I tugged on a drysuit and flotation and we were handed brooms. Arctic terns were nesting on the containers that formed the route to the shore. We were instructed to wave the brooms over our heads as we walked to ward off the aggressive birds. I escaped injury but bird shit spattered my shoulders. We launched our two-person kayaks and paddled out onto the fjord.
I had been kayaking many times but only in single-seat open ocean kayaks in California. We wore elastic skirts that sealed the openings on these boats. It took a few minutes to get used to balancing with another person on board. When Vladimir moved at first, I counterbalanced, thinking we were going over. The water was very smooth and it was a balmy 41 degrees f (5.5 c). On the far shore was a picturesque and nearly abandoned mining settlement.
Old coal offloading shed.
I wanted to tell the crazy tour operator from that morning that kayaking had been great fun and I did love it but he sent someone else to pick me up. Maybe the main character in my book would kayak, instead of hike or ski to arrive in Longyearbyen. I was starving so I hiked downtown in search of dinner.
I found it. Fine dining in the middle of nowhere. The reindeer meatballs, lingon berries and mashed potatoes were traditional and delicious.
After dinner I stumbled upon Longyearbyen's grocery store and met my first Svalbard polar bear, above the entrance.
The next day it rained. I was able to interview the chief of police. It was incredibly useful and relevant for my story but did not make up for my inability to tour the seed vault. Luckily though, there is plenty of footage of the seed vault's interior. Nothing could replace visiting Longyearbyen and getting a first hand feel for what makes it so unique.
If I had it to do again, I would spend a lot more time. I expected it to be even more expensive than the Norwegian mainland. Due to subsidies, it was often more affordable. I recommend Svalbard to anyone looking for adventure. A saying I heard in Alaska is a perfect fit for Svalbard:
It's not the end of the world, but you can see it from there.