Welcome to the top
of the World Life’s different in the world’s northernmost town, where residents are asked to leave their guns at the door
b y ro b e rt k i e n e r photogr aphed by sigurd fandango
fjords . This page: It’s the law— outside town, people must arm themselves against polar bears. Opposite: The town is tucked in among glaciers, mountains and
F o t o / i l l u s t r at i o n c o p y r i g h t
map: © 5w infographics
been killed by polar bears and many more have been attacked near Longyearbyen. As my guidebook noted, “… you can meet a hungry polar bear almost anywhere and must reckon on it being extremely aggressive.” By law, For most of my three-hour flight from anyone who ventures outside of LongOslo to Longyearbyen, Norway, the yearbyen’s town limits must carry a remote arctic outpost that bills itself rifle—and know how to use it. As the pilot began his descent into as “the world’s northernmost town,” I’d been reading about polar bears. I’d Longyearbyen I looked out at the discovered that Ursus maritimus can desolate but majestic sharp-ridged, weigh over 1500 pounds, is able to snow-covered mountains, glaciers sprint up to 40 miles per hour and, and fjords below, what many call given the opportunity, would eat me. “the Kingdom of the Polar Bear,” and I also read that polar bears outnum- reminded myself that I’d never shot ber people in the Svalbard archipelago a rifle in my life. And I’d be here for (3000 polar bears to 2500 people), the a week. town’s kindergarten is encircled by a steel bear-proof fence, and each year Within minutes of landing I saw my a dozen or so hungry bears are spot- first polar bear. It was ten feet long ted by residents and shooed away by and had vicious, pointed incisors that helicopters or, as a last resort, shot could easily crack a skull in half. It and killed. They’ve been a protected was also stuffed and confined to a species since 1973. glass case a few feet away from the In the last four decades four people airport’s baggage claim area. But it have looked fearsome. Much less forbidding was a t-shirt I spotted in the airport gift shop. It featured a cartoon of a polar bear chasing a person. The caption below the scene read: “Quick Lunch.” Who said Norwegians didn’t have a sense of humor? Driving into town with Mona Helene Barlien, the affable secretary at the region’s tourism off ice, we passed the triangular [[1L]] readersdigest.de XX/XX
who was swaddled in a red red and white polar bear Kristin Jaeger down parka and woolen cap “warning” road sign that is Wexsahl leads to ward off the -10C chill of unique to Longyearbyen. dogsled tours. In summer the sleds the November day, “We’re “This is a reminder that all are on wheels. the guests here; it’s the of us here are living in the polar bear’s home,” she told me as we bears who own the place.” To our left is the 3000-foot-high drove four miles along a blacktop tarmac through the flat, treeless, barren smooth-topped Hiorthfjell mountain that shelters Longyearbyen and tumtundra into town. As if on cue, we passed a lone bi- bles down to the crystal-clear Advent cyclist pedaling toward the airport. fjord. The fjord will not freeze over He had a large-caliber rifle slung for a few more weeks, thanks to the over his shoulder. “As I was saying,” warming Gulf Steam. Between June said Barlien, nodding at the biker and August, after the winter ice has readersdigest.de XX/XX [[2R]]
remnants of an early mine. Man is a relative newcomer to this rugged bit of Norway, which at 78 degrees latitude is only 600 miles from the North Pole. Hunters and whalers have visited Svalbard since the 1600s, but it wasn’t until the early 1900s that coal and gold miners discovered it. Prospectors gave a Gold Rush atmosphere to it; it was said to “belong to no one and everyone.” Norway gained sovereignty to the area via the 1920 Svalbard Treaty, which granted the citizens of all parties to the treaty—a wide range of nations from Afghanistan to Japan to the USA—the right to come to Svalbard to work or acquire mineral rights. Because of the treaty’s liberal regulations, no tourist or resident visas are required, and there is an eclectic mix of 35 nationalities among the region’s populace, almost all of whom live in Longyearbyen. Coal is still being mined outside of town and is the biggest money earner, followed by tourism, which feeds off the few streets of neat, color- Tony Skarheim 60,000 visitors each year. ful, new-looking buildings, and Joakim Myrvang Summer activities include many of which boast work at the hillside hiking, regional boat trips, triple-glazed windows coal mine closest to town. kayaking, birdwatching to ward off the cold and are built on stilts to keep them from and even sledge trips (fitted out with sinking into the permafrost. It has wheels) pulled by rugged polar dogs. dropped to -46C in the winter. The More adventurous types visit during town, named for John Longyear, an the winter to go on guided ski, snowAmerican who helped develop coal mobile and multi-day dog-sledding mining here about 100 years ago, is excursions. Because of its extreme nature, tucked neatly into a steep glacial valley. High on the hillsides and dotted Longyearbyen is attracting more throughout town are wooden trestles; and more adventure travelers, few [[1L]] readersdigest.de XX/XX melted, ships disgorge thousands of tourists at the town pier here to explore tiny Longyearbyen before they continue their arctic cruise. Barlien and I soon arrive at Longyearbyen, which is comprised of a
Name tktktktktk and son Name tktktktkkt in front of the school (bear-proof fence behind)
Marthe Helli Sørli tends the stove at Basecamp Trappers Station, which is built to look like a trapper’s cabin.
of whom would agree with an ear- world’s northernmost kebab seller.” lier explorer whose quote is featured In the nearby Fruane coffee shop I in the local museum: “This place is bump into Mark Sabbatini, an Amerabandoned by God and ought to have ican journalist who was lured to been abandoned a long time ago by Longyearbyen by the chance to realmankind as well.” ize his dream of starting and running It’s only early afternoon on this late his own newspaper, Icepeople, “The October day but the sun has already world’s northernmost alternative disappeared and the sky is an eerie newspaper.” He did just that in 2009 charcoal gray. And it’s bone cold. and says he hasn’t looked back since. “This is the beginning of what we call He admits that his quirky weekly the ‘polar night’,” explains Barlien. In newspaper—the masthead includes a a week or so the sun will disappear staff “psychiatrist”—has yet to turn a completely and won’t reappear until profit but the slim, black-haired SabMarch 8. “It’s different, isn’t it?” the batini doesn’t seem to care. Sipping tall, slim Norwegian asks me and adds, coffee and scanning the Internet via “You either love it or you hate it.” Be- his notebook computer, he explains: fore I can ask, she tells me, “I love the “I love it here, the people are fun and dark. It’s quiet, it’s cozy and no one they love to party. You have to unbothers you.” derstand; everyone who lives here chooses to live here. And we know It doesn’t take me long to discover how to have fun.” Inside the Svalbar bar a coal miner that Longyearbyen, like other frontier towns, attracts more than its share of buys me a Guinness while he pours interesting characters. Walking down down shot after shot of cognac and the main street I am lured by a pun- Coca Cola. “We work two weeks on gent aroma pouring out of a former and two weeks off,” he says as he orU.S. military field kitchen truck ders another cognac. “It’s hard work painted red. I meet the owner of “The but the money is great.” Half the town’s residents rely on Red Polar Bear,” Kazem Ariaiwand. As he serves piping hot kebabs to anx- the coal industry for their living. Two ious customers, he explains how he mines, both owned by the Norwegian came to Longyearbyen from Iran, company Store Norsk Spitsbergen Kulkompani, are operating. Salaries seeking asylum. “I first lived in mainland Norway are generous. Miners can earn about but the government made me move 63,000 euros a year, while experienced on. This is the only place I could go teachers earn nearly 50,000 euros. But without a visa or permission.” While vegetables cost some 20 percent more unsure of his future, Ariaiwand tells than the most expensive store on the me he is proud to be called, as the As- mainland. Chili peppers go for 149 sociated Press has dubbed him, “the kroner/kilo, grapes are 84 a kilo and a [[1L]] readersdigest.de XX/XX
liter of milk costs 25 kroner. American Mark Longyearbyen’s economic However, reindeer steak is a Sabbatini arrived base. Because of the eversteal at 284 kroner per kilo. two years ago and present threat of polar bears, The Co-Op grocery store, started a quirky every student is taught how weekly newspaper like the bank and the post called Icepeople. to shoot a rifle. office, has a sign at the enThe average stay is five trance asking customers to leave their years but a few fall in love with the rifles in lockers. One shop features a place and settle permanently. Well, sign saying, “All the polar bears in this sort of… shop are already dead. Please leave “This is not a place for old people,” your weapon with the staff.” Birger Amundsen, editor of the local Almost all the residents in Long- newspaper Svalbardposten, tells me. yearbyen work on fixed contracts in “Have you noticed how few senior citimining, tourism or the local univer- zens you see here? It’s almost unheard sity, UNIS. The university specializes of to retire in Longyearbyen.” Indeed in arctic studies and lures faculty there’s no old age home and although and students from around the world. there is a health clinic, anyone who It was started and funded by the falls seriously ill is advised (some say Norwegian government to broaden “ordered”) by the governor, Odd Olsen readersdigest.de XX/XX [[2R]]
Ingerø, to return to the mainland for transported into another world; a land treatment. If you lose your job or quit of mountains, glaciers and fjords. The you’ll also be asked to leave. “Unlike ice sparkles like diamonds and a thin the mainland, we don’t have a social layer of snow blankets the mountains. ‘safety net’ to help out if people are Nothing stirs; it’s a wonder world of unemployed,” says Ingerø, as we sip stone-cold silence. coffee in his hilltop office. As I pass another polar bear warnAnd don’t even think of dying in ing sign, my eyes scan the horizon. Longyearbyen. Burials have been Yesterday the news buzzed around banned for some 70 years, ever since town that a polar bear had been it was discovered that bodies weren’t spotted across the fjord from Longdecomposing in the town’s graveyard, yearbyen. I’m driving in a sturdy and had a spooky way of rising out of four-wheel-drive truck through this the permafrost over the years. Bodies barren moonscape with Kristin Jaeger are shipped elsewhere for burial. Wexsahl, a local guide and an experiI am only a few miles outside of enced dog musher. She has her loaded Longyearbyen but it’s as if I have been rifle in the back seat.
Travel Tips SAS Norway has daily flights in summer/high season from Tromsø (1h40m) and some direct flights from Oslo (2h50m), with fewer flights in winter. From June to September cruise ships visit the region. The midnight sun returns April 19 to August 23 . Where to Stay: Longyearbyen has a surprisingly wide variety of lodging choices. The Radisson Blu Polar Hotel has views of the fjord and mountains, a sauna and a pub. (tel: 47 79 02 34 50, www.radissonblu. com) In town, Basecamp Spitsbergen features rooms furnished in unique old trapper’s style and in winter offers stays in a ship frozen into the ice a halfday’s journey from town. (tel: 47 79 02 46 00, www. [[1L]]
basecampexplorer.com) Mary-Ann’s Polarrigg has cozy rooms with either private or shared facilities. (Tel: 47 79 02 37 02, www. polarriggen.com) Dining: There’s both elegant French cuisine and café offerings at Huset and “the world’s most hidden wine cellar.” (www.huset. com). Many of the hotels have restaurants but the real action is in the town’s lively bars, most of which also serve food. Try the
Karls-Berger Pub, Barentz Pub in the Radisson Hotel, Kroa, and Funken Bar at the Spitsbergen Hotel. The coffee shop and deli Fruene has home made-baked foods and free wireless internet. Don’t Miss: Experiencing the outdoors, from kayaking to glacier trekking and dog sledding, is what lures visitors to this Arctic outpost. For a list of expedition firms in town, contact Svalbard Tourism Information, (tel: 47 79 02 55 50, www. svalbard.net) —R.K.
with a stuck cartridge still firmly jammed in its chamber. He’d been eaten by a polar bear. As I looked at Nilsen’s rusty rifle I remembered what Barlien had told me a week earlier, “We’re the guests here; it’s the bears who own the place.”
Suddenly I see something The residents of moving in the fields to our Longyearbyen “know right. “Bear?” I quickly ask how to party,” says one resident. The town’s Wexsahl. She slams on the bars are lively brakes, looks and smiles. gathering places. “It’s a reindeer,” she says as she rolls down the window to give me a better look, “Polar bears are white.” Like many visitors to Longyearbyen I never did encounter a (live) polar bear during my stay. I realized how lucky I was when I stopped in the Svalbard Museum and Mona Helene Barlien told me the story of the Norwegian trapper Georg Nilsen. In December 1921 he set off to celebrate Christmas with three friends at a remote geophysical station. “But he was never seen alive again,” said Barlien. It wasn’t until 1965 that hikers found his skeletal remains and solved the mystery of his disappearance. Barlien pointed me to Nilsen’s rifle, which is now exhibited in the museum. It was found alongside his remains readersdigest.de XX/XX
Welcome to Longyearbyen, a Norwegian town at the top of the world