Svalbard, Norway: Life at the Top of the World
By: John Z. Buckley
In the far north of the Arctic Ocean, halfway between Europe and the North Pole, lies a cluster of jagged, barren islands lost at the top of the world — deathly silent and hauntingly empty. Here the sun never sets — or never rises. It is a place where only the hardiest of mosses and flowers grow, and only for a few brief weeks each year; where ancient mountains crumble into brackish seas as grinding glaciers calve and shatter.
This is Svalbard.
A territory of Norway, Svalbard sits high above the Arctic Circle and is one of the planet’s last great outposts. It boasts an unspoiled polar environment home to whales, walruses, reindeer, polar bears, and rare birds — as well as the earth’s northernmost permanent settlements.
Despite its hostile environment, Svalbard is home to 3,000 people, 2,000 of whom live in the colorful coastal town of Longyearbyen. A tiny collection of painted buildings overlooking an icy fjord, Longyearbyen is a cosmopolitan corner of nowhere, with over 45 nationalities represented. Originally started as a coal mining settlement, Longyearbyen successfully transformed itself into a jumping off point for the rest of Svalbard, a magnet for scientists and adventure tourists. The city attracts a unique mix of environmentalists, geologists, Greenpeace workers, international lawyers, wildlife experts, and botanists, all drinking together at the world’s end. It’s immediately apparent that these are the intrepid, the brave, and the mad.
Svalbard has always drawn this demographic. After its discovery by European sailors in the sixteenth century, Svalbard became a magnet only for the most fearless of whalers and trappers. In time, the Industrial Revolution brought a new kind of journeyman to Svalbard: the coal miners. Dense layers of carbon still lie packed in the sedimentary rock of this lost world, remnants of ancient forests that covered this land in the age of Pangea. The desolate mountain coasts of the main island of Spitsbergen are littered with ghost towns of failed coal mining settlements — empty cabins and mine shafts looming in silence over eerie dark waters.
I set out from Longyearbyen to one of these abandoned settlements — Pyramiden, a Soviet mining town that was abandoned literally overnight.
The journey from Longyearbyen to Pyramiden is a long one, nearly ten hours roundtrip. The ship I boarded, the Billefjord, is a typically Svalbardian exercise in intersection: a vessel from Finland, owned by a Norwegian company, flying a Faroese flag, and manned, incongruously, by a crew of Filipinos. The menu of the day: potato salad, rye bread, whale meat, and steamed rice with Kikkoman.
The Billefjord made its way through a series of interlocking fjords to its destination. It was an unusually still day. From my vantage point the sea stretched on like black glass to rings of distant mountains, perturbed only by the winds of a polar summer. Arctic terns wheeled around the Billefjord — delicate, fearless things darting like kites in the endless calm.
Ages of adaptation have suited them for this environment, our Swedish guide told us. Some of these birds produced pear-shaped eggs resistant to rolling in the fiercest winds. Others had beaks that filtered saltwater into fresh, while still more could dive as deep as 60 meters beneath the waves in search of fish.
The Swede was a stocky blonde bundled in layers of winter gear, despite it being July. Sitting with legs spread wide on the side of an inflatable life raft on the ship’s prow, he seemed effortlessly comfortable in this ecosystem.
“In winter when the fjords freeze over I make this trip by snowmobile in only a few minutes,” he said sniffing the icy air. “But I usually try to get out of Svalbard by then. The girlfriend isn’t always happy about me being away. But when I’m here we barbecue together once a week, no matter the season. It’s our ritual. Even when it’s negative 20 C.”
For him, as for many other locals, wildlife expeditions like this were everyday affairs. He took regular trips into the mountains and glaciers to escape the “big city” of Longyearbyen.
The Billefjord made its way toward one of these glaciers — the wall of ice called Nordenskjold. Kilometers long, Nordenskjold stands nearly 60 meters high at its base and several hundred further inland at its source. From the prow of the Billefjord it glowed an unearthly blue — an illusion created by the reflection of light against millions of tiny bubbles of compressed air.
The Filipinos fished out chunks of ice from the water and chipped them into cubes, portioned into plastic cups and set along the bow of the ship. They poured hot spirits into each and handed them out to their guests.
“Whiskey on the rocks,” said the Swede.
There was a pause as the spirits warmed our chests — then a reverberating mechanical moan as the Billefjord’s rudder turned toward Pyramiden.
On the other side of the fjord lay the abandoned Soviet mining town, crouched in the shadow of crumbling peaks.
Approaching the docks, the sheer emptiness of this place became apparent. Rusting metal frameworks and mining equipment, left in place after decades of neglect; blocky Soviet apartments decked with fading paint and speckled with guano; Cyrillic street signs and directions, now used only by the wind.
A lone man stood waiting for us on the docks, buried in a black Soviet greatcoat, fur cap, and Rasputin beard. The Swede seemed to know him well.
The lack of social interaction, internet, and cellular reception seem to have impacted the Russian since his arrival to Svalbard from the Russian mainland years earlier. He recited minute details of daily affairs as if savoring every interaction in this listless place. He led us through the ruined town with shy smiles and self-conscious jokes, toting an enormous rifle to protect from polar bears.
The Russian tended to Pyramiden’s sole hotel, an isolated, lavishly provincial Russian affair. The Russian and his partners marketed it to foreigners searching for hardscrabble luxury cut off from the world. “It’s like The Shining in there,” muttered the Swede.
A polar bear had broken into the hotel once, the Russian recounted with one of his embarrassed smiles. It had climbed a ladder into the kitchen. It tried mayonnaise, but seemed more fond of beer. The Russian had to call a security detail from Longyearbyen to the scene. They’d helicoptered in at 2 AM with tranquilizers and rifles.
“They must have been very grumpy to come out so early,” the Russian said bashfully.
The hotel was only one of several dozen battered Soviet structures scattered across the valley. The feeling of emptiness extended to everything here, from the hollowed brutalism of the architecture to the endless stretches of slate and stone beyond the town limits.
Yet echoes of humanity remained. One abandoned Soviet apartment block allocated as a home for single men had been cheekily named “London” ; the locals had called a nearby block for single women, “Paris.” The inhabitants later re-dubbed the main avenue between them — the “Avenue Commemorating the 60th Anniversary of the Glorious Socialist Revolution” — as the “Champs Elysees.”
At the far north of town sits the community center. Pyramiden had been abandoned overnight — Russian authorities give its inhabitants mere hours to load their lives onto a transport boat after the town was deemed economically unsustainable. In this building the locals had left everything behind. Here, a room full of musical instruments — there, a closet full of costumes, probably for the stage productions advertised in the foyer. In the rear of the building I stepped through a black door into an empty room with wooden floors, lined with bars and mirrors. An old dance studio.
I paused for a moment, looking out the windows to the black peaks beyond. This point was the furthest north I would ever travel. This point, so full of memories of a lost community, so far removed from everything — at the mercy of a world so wild, so harsh, so hostile.
We crashed in the hotel lobby for a few minutes before setting off again. A cluster of Arctic hipsters who had clearly been here a while sat around the small bar opposite an elaborate samovar and trays of Russian biscuits. The Swede collapsed in an overstuffed lounge chair while the Russian excitedly ditched his Soviet costume to man the hotel gift shop. I’ve never seen anyone so eager to sell T-shirts or fridge magnets.
I wondered why I’d come to Svalbard. How I’d found myself in the company of the wild adventurers in Longyearbyen, in the sad smile of the Russian, in the haunted streets of a Soviet ghost town with a jaded Swede and workaday Filipinos.
Perhaps I’d traveled here in search of the human dynamic I’d found. Against the winds and seas and stones, where polar bears roamed and whales called, every human connection counted for something. Connection became essential in the face of the elements; in the face of loneliness; in the face of a land more harsh and ancient, more pure and unfeeling than any other. The alien world of the far north was kindling for the fire of human ties — in a place where ages and ice ground mountains into dust and only the fiercest of life could survive.