At the end of January I received an email with an invitation to be part of an expedition on Svalbard. It came out of the blue but was a surprise that got me really excited!
The email came from Matias, one of the newer instructors at Hurdal Verk Folkehøgskole, the school I attended in Norway in 2005-2006. There were some plans in the works to have one of the future courses take place on Svalbard so as a primer they wanted to open up the opportunity to the alumni for an expedition this summer in August, before the new school year. My year at Hurdal Verk was a turning point for me and carries an abundance of many favourite memories. I often think back to my time as a student there. As Svalbard has always been a dream travel destination of mine, how could I say no?
I already had plans in place to visit Norway this summer but in late May—to attend our 10-year reunion at the school. There was no way I’d be willing to cancel this nor my other plans to return to Canada later in the summer, so for the next six months I really had to stretch my resources to make sure this trip would happen in August.
Svalbard doesn’t show up on many travel itineraries. You might even be asking yourself where it is exactly. Let’s dust off that old globe and take a peek…
Now, if we look for Oslo, Norway, it sits around 59° north latitude and 10° east longitude. Go north from there and you’ll see a marking for the Arctic Circle at 66° north—almost at the top of continental Europe. Keep going. There’s a group of islands between 74° and 81° north & 10° to 35° east; that’s Svalbard. Home to about 2000 people, 3000 polar bears, and 4000 Ski-Doos!
The Svalbard archipelago covers 61,000 km2. To give you some reference, the country of Denmark only covers 43,000 km2. The main settlement is Longyearbyen, situated on the island of Spitsbergen (sometimes spelled “Spitzbergen”.) It’s located at 78° north—2,313 km from Oslo, and only 1,338 km from the North Pole. At such a high latitude, the midnight sun lasts for 99 days and the polar night for 84. Longyearbyen first sees the light at on the 16th of February when the sun pokes his head over the horizon. By April 17th the midnight sun is in town right through until August 24th—but make sure your flashlight batteries are charged by October 26th because that’s when the cold dark winter is in command whether you like it or not.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault
You may have heard about the Svalbard Global Seed Vault before. It made big news when it became operational in 2008. The mission of the vault is "to provide a safety net against accidental loss of diversity in traditional gene banks." Great. So what does that mean? Well, it's basically a real "Noah's Ark" for all types of seeds from around the world. But to be more accurate, while popular press has emphasized its possible utility in the event of a major regional or global catastrophe, it will be more frequently accessed when gene banks lose samples due to mismanagement, accident, equipment failures, funding cuts, and natural disasters. Believe it or not, these events occur with some regularity. War and civil strife have a history of destroying some gene banks. It's a backup for the world's seed banks and storehouses of agricultural biodiversity, but interestingly, by request of the Norwegian government, no genetically modified seeds are stored in the vault. Sorry, Monsanto, you'll have to wait outside. *door slams*
The vault is built 120 metres inside a sandstone mountain, just like some kind of secret base from a James Bond film. You can actually see the entrance to the vault from the runway of the airport. They chose Spitsbergen as the ideal location because the island lacks tectonic activity and has permafrost which aids preservation. Additionally, the vault's elevation at 130 metres above sea level will keep the site dry even if the ice caps melt. The locally mined coal powers the refrigeration units that keep the seeds cool at -18°C and even if the equipment failed, several weeks could pass before the facility temperatures rose to the surrounding bedrock's temperature of -3°C. Pretty smart, eh? Approximately 1.5 million distinct seed samples of agricultural crops are thought to exist and as of 2015, the vault houses 840,000 types.
Monday, August 1st: Meeting Day
We all arrived at the school on Monday, August 1st. I took the bus in from Gardermoen airport around noon. The others carpooled from Oslo. We were all in time for pizza dinner mid-afternoon. So, who are the others on this expedition? Since I’ve already introduced our guide Matias, that only leaves three fine ladies by the names of Elin, Anne, and Kjersti. When I was back at the school for the reunion in May I got to see Elin again. We attended the same year and had several classes together during that time, so we were friends already. She was enrolled in the Telemark program and their group was often on the same adventures with my Outdoor Life class in the fall and spring. She now lives in Oslo and works as an oceanographer for Nortek. Anne was also an Outdoor Life student. She’s the same age as me & Elin but attended the school three years earlier. Originally from the Netherlands, she now lives in Germany as a post-doc researcher at Potsdam University, helping the world understand language development in children. It had been a while since she last had a chance to use her Norwegian but it all came back to her quickly upon return to Norway. Last but not least there’s Kjersti who joined us from Duisburg, Germany, located just outside of Düsseldorf. She works as a lawyer and attended the school in 2000-2001 as a student of the sports/Telemark skiing program. Although she grew up in Germany she also speaks the Telemark dialect thanks to her Norwegian mother. All together we’re just a group of five—smaller than what we expected but in no way any hindrance.
Tuesday, August 2: Preparation Day
Breakfast was served in the dining hall at 09:00. It’s always a treat to have a Norwegian breakfast. My favourite: fresh bread with brown cheese & strawberry jam. Mmmm! We had half an hour of solitude afterwards to spend however we wanted. I wrote in my journal and arranged some of my luggage. For the remainder of the morning we were in the classroom discussing Svalbard and its history, geography, wildlife, trip plans, safety, and food & supplies. In the afternoon we drove to “downtown” Hurdal to shop for some food and ingredients. We had to pack our bags carefully as we’d have to take all our food (snacks not included) with us on the flight to Svalbard and still be within baggage weight restrictions. With everything we needed we’d be right on the limits!
Back in the classroom we put all of our meals together. Individually we made our own meals, that way we could decide how big our portions were and what they consisted of. Breakfasts were combinations of oats, raisins, cinnamon, sugar, coconut, chocolate, and whatever else could make up a nice oatmeal. Other options were muesli and cereal mixes. Include your powdered milk in the bag then once you add the hot water at camp you find yourself with heaven in a bowl. The lunches? Well, perhaps more exotic but definitely not something I looked forward to with as much delight. It was a mix of Asian instant noodles (beef flavour), couscous, a beef-flavoured bouillon, and Potetmos (dehydrated mashed potatoes). Not something I’d cook up at home but when you’re out in the wilderness burning calories like there’s no tomorrow, any carbs will do. Dinners were a treat. REAL Turmat is the freeze-dried product we had for a meal each night. Mix in the boiling water, let it sit for 8-10 minutes, and voilà!, you’ve got a steaming pouch of gourmet goodness. Chicken curry, spaghetti bolognese, creamed codfish curry, chilli con carne, and kebab stew.
After putting our meals together we headed out to the park to set up our tents. You always want to make sure you know how to put it together before you leave—and that you’ve got all the parts! Matias and I shared a three-man tent and the ladies shared a tent for five.
Once we were all dialled in with the tents we packed up then returned to the classroom to load up our packs and check the weights. They’d be heavy for everyone, no doubt about that. Matias and I were pushing 30kgs each and we still had to get more food and supplies in Longyearbyen!
One last project for the afternoon: homemade brownies. A secret recipe full of lots of butter, sugar, dark chocolate & more dark chocolate! We made a triple batch—enough so that we each could have one square a day. If lunch wasn’t great, one bite of this made up for it. We weren't sure how good they were going to turn out, but everyone was pleasantly surprised.
In the evening we walked to Hurdal to find Anne Marit's new house. Anne Marit is our Norwegian language teacher and she had invited us to her place for a nice meal all together before we left on our trip.
Wednesday, August 3: Departure Day
We started today with a hike up to the top of Rognstadkollen, the nearby mountain in Hurdal that’s a well known destination for a nice view overlooking the valley and Hurdal lake. Every year there’s a race from Hurdal Verk to the viewpoint at the top, roughly 5 km and a vertical gain of 400 m up to an elevation of 610 metres above sea level. We weren’t in any kind of hurry this morning though. It was going to be a big day anyway as we’d be flying to Longyearbyen in the evening. It was my third time up this year as I went up a couple times in May; once hiking with a group of school friends and once running solo. When we were going up there was a lady also on the path to the top. We spoke with her when we got to the lookout just a minute later. She lives in town and tries to go up almost every day. She's been up over a hundred times already! She was kind enough to take our picture at the top too.
When we got back we had just enough time for a cold dip in the river followed by a quick shower, then it was breakfast. Afterwards, we had some time to get everything together and review the plans for our trip and our departure today.
In the afternoon we had lunch then at 14:00 we walked with all our stuff to the bus stop just a couple of minutes away from the main gate of the school grounds. We rode the bus in to Gardermoen and got checked in for our flight at 17:25.
We arrived at Svalbard airport at 20:25. Once we had all our bags we walked out to the parking lot where there was a rental van waiting for us with the key inside. There aren't any locked vehicles in Longyearbyen. People just respect the law. They wouldn't get very far anyway!
I read somewhere that Svalbard has four hotels, three hostels, and seventeen restaurants. Whether or not those numbers are still accurate I can at least tell you that we stayed at one of them. It was the Coal Miners’ Cabin. We drove there from the airport and found our rooms in Cabin #5. The "cabins" are essentially large dormitories. There's a custom in Svalbard that you take your footwear off at the door (in almost all buildings.) It's a rule that started back in the early days of the coal miners. To save them making a mess of the place with their sooty boots they would take their boots off at the entrance and eventually it became a general rule for everyone. You don't have to do it in the grocery store or such places but most other establishments have a shoe rack at the door.
After we got checked in we ate dinner at the lodge's restaurant. We all had burgers. They were fantastic.
Longyearbyen got its name from the American businessman John Munroe Longyear (1850-1922) a noted developer of timber and mineral lands in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. He was the central figure behind the Arctic Coal Company which surveyed and mined coalfields on Svalbard from 1905 to 1916. The mining operations took place in the community of the private "company town" then known as Longyear City. Later the name was changed to the Norwegian "Longyearbyen".
There are still some mines in the area. With our rental van we drove to the outskirts of town in Adventdalen to visit some of the retired mines. It was really interesting to look around. I'm not one to be buying tacky souvenirs on my travels but instead like to collect rocks from time to time, so I picked up a lump of coal to take home. I was always too good as a boy growing up so never got any from Santa in my stocking. He probably gets it from Svalbard anyway.
The Polar Bears
When you walk in the airport to collect your luggage you’re greeted by a large polar bear
There are approximately 3000-3500 polar bears living on Svalbard. Males can weigh up to 800 kg and females up to 300 kg. Polar bears rarely reach more than 25 years of age.
The bears feed mainly on seals. A polar bear needs approximately 50-75 seals a year to survive. They can also eat white whales, carrion, birds, and eggs. When meat is scarce they can feed on moss, kelp, or other plants. Meat-free Mondays, anyone?
But what would you do if you encountered a bear in the wild? After first soiling your pants, retreat calmly and slowly. If the bear has seen you and approaches, you want to make noise, jump and wave your arms and try to scare it away immediately. If that doesn’t do it, fire a shot with a flare gun or a warning shot with a rifle. You have the right to shoot in self-defence, but all shots against a polar bear must be reported to the Governor of Svalbard and will be investigated. A high-powered hunting rifle is an appropriate weapon of defence against the bears. We used Ruger 30.06 rifles. If you have to shoot a polar bear, shoot to kill and aim for the heart or the lung region. Take that mofo down.
Basically, it’s important you stay alert, be aware of your surroundings and keep to open areas. If you're in the wilderness on Svalbard it's mandatory to have a rifle with you.
Politics of Svalbard
Since the 1600's several nations have carried out various activities on Svalbard, ranging from hunting & trapping, to mining, research, and tourism. For a long time the region didn't belong to any state, it was a kind of international common land. This meant there were no laws or regulations, nor courts to settle disputes. In the earlier days before mining came into play, having no regulations was no issue, but the mining industry created the need for changes. It was important to have sole rights to land and mineral deposits, and there became a need for legislation and courts. So in 1920, an agreement was made on The Svalbard Treaty. This treaty recognizes the sovereignty of Norway over Svalbard, however this is subject to certain stipulations and not all Norwegian law applies. Taxes are allowed to be collected but only enough to support Svalbard and the Svalbard government. This makes for lower taxes than mainland Norway and duty-free shopping in many outlets on the islands. The residents of Svalbard must follow Norwegian law though Norwegian authority cannot discriminate against or favour any residents of any given nationality. The treaty also states that Norway must respect and preserve the Svalbard environment, and naval bases and fortifications are prohibited, along with the use of Svalbard for war purposes.
On Svalbard, the Norwegian government is represented as "Sysselmannen", the Governor of Svalbard. They are not exactly police, although they do handle law enforcement, they also maintain all Norwegian interests in environmental protection, civil matters, and good working relations with the Russian community in Barentsburg.
Okay, enough politics. Let's get back to the story...
Thursday, August 4
Today we started with a nice breakfast at the lodge—bread with cheese, hard-boiled eggs, muesli, yogurt, cereal, etc. Afterwards, we drove to "downtown" Longyearbyen. The ladies went to go browse some shops while Matias & I went to his storage container out at the edge of town by the airport. We had to grab a few supplies, equipment, and ammo. Then we drove back to town to join the girls in shopping for the last of our needs and snack desires.
Following that, Matias had to sort out some things of his own so the four of us walked to the museum at the base of town. It's a great place to visit and very interesting to learn about so many aspects of the place.
After the museum we met up with Matias again for lunch at a nice café restaurant then headed back the lodge to check out and fire up our Primus stoves to test they proper functionality before we're out in the boonies with no way to boil water. It's imperative you boil your drinking water out in the wilderness. Not that you can't find clean sources of water but a long time ago there were some rats that probably hitched a free ride on a ship from mainland Europe. If the disease-toting critters expired in the water there's a risk that drinking the water could result in upset stomach or a case of eczema (no, thanks.)
A friend of Matias's also works as a guide up on Svalbard. She was able to drive us out in the rental van to drop us off at the edge of Bjørndalen, our starting point for the trek. At 16:00 we said our farewell and she drove off to return our van to the airport.
We started with only a short hike—only about three kilometres into the valley. There, we found a good place to set up camp and then had dinner. We made a plan for our Bear Watch schedule; we would take 90-minute shifts starting at 22:00 and finishing at 07:00. With five of us this meant one person would have a double-shift, starting and finishing the night.
Anne came to wake me when it was my shift at 02:30. For some reason, as soon as I was awake I had the song "Eye of the Tiger" playing in my head. Yeah, I'm a dork that way. No bears in sight though. Just a few reindeer wandering in the distance.
The Svalbard Reindeer
The Svalbard reindeer are a little different from other wild reindeer (on continental Europe.) For starters they don’t move in herds. They operate in small groups of 2-6 or sometimes even alone. Physically the Svalbard reindeer are small too. They have relatively small, rounder heads, and festively short legs. During the winter they have a long thick winter coat that makes them look short and fat. I don’t imagine the long darkness of winter helps much with their self-esteem either. They typically only live for 9-10 years. However, this short life span is often linked with starvation. Svalbard is only about 10% vegetation. No bountiful bushes or lush grass for these rangifers to feed on. Sadly, they’re stuck munching on barren plants so low to the ground they end up chewing bits of earth and sand that wear their teeth down over the years to the point where they can no longer eat. At least they can be thankful they don’t have to be on the watch for polar bears or other predators. Arctic foxes will come to eat them only after they’ve kicked the bucket. The reindeer graze almost constantly during the summers in order to build up their fat reserves for the winter. Sometimes the winter rains and wind can pack the snow on the ground with a hard plating of ice, making it impossible for the reindeer to reach the plants. Many reindeer die during such winter conditions and many of the does will not calve in the spring. This leads to big fluctuations in Svalbard’s reindeer population from year to year. The reindeer are quite tame so it’s easy to get fairly close to them. I managed to get about 10 metres away from one but you’ve got to be patient with them before they lift their head up from the ground for a photo!
Friday, August 5
We started the day with breakfast then got packed up to continue the journey southwest. This would be a reasonably tough day and it started with a steep ascent up Pilarberget. We zigzagged our way up the scree from Bjørndalen going 30 minutes in a stretch with a five minute rest in between. Once we got to the top it was mostly a plateau so we continued with our regular routine of 50 minutes hiking and 10 minutes resting. We crossed Fuglefjella toward Grønberget and found a spot for lunch on the lee side. The noodle/couscous/potato blend actually wasn't that bad, it's just when the noodles don't soften it has an unpleasant crunchy consistency. Lesson learned: next time take a bowl with a lid so the noodles soften properly and stay warm. Or just leave the noodles out and enjoy your couscous & Potetmos!
Following our lunch break we dropped our packs to detour down Grumantdalen, the valley leading to Grumantbyen—an old Soviet settlement that was abandoned in 1962. The first settlements were built in the Grumant area in 1910. Coal mining was carried out in the valley for many years and before that the area was used for whaling operations. It was very interesting to explore the forlorn buildings, imagining what they must have been like when in use.
From Grumantbyen, we headed 2.5 km back up the valley to collect our packs and cross the opposite ridge of the valley to find a spot to camp below Kolberget, a 485 metre high mountain. We had a nice flat spot with a beautiful view of Russedalen, a valley to the southwest draining into the sea south of Grumant.
This evening we did a test firing of the flare gun. We all knew how to use it in theory but it's always a good idea to see how it really functions so you know what to expect if you're pulling the trigger against an approaching bear.
By the end of the day we had hiked about 17 km and 1200 m in vertical gain, half of which was done with our heavy packs. We're all getting fitter & stronger. Yeahh!
In addition to the polar bears and reindeer, Svalbard is home to around 20 types of mammals including whales, dolphins, seals, walruses, and arctic foxes. 135 species of birds live on the islands as well. These include Atlantic puffins, arctic terns, ptarmigans, sandpipers, skuas, owls, and several types of geese just to name a few. Though we didn't see any live bears on our trip we did spot many of the birds, a couple foxes, a seal, and plenty of reindeer.
Approximately 60% of Svalbard’s landmass is covered by ice. That’s roughly 7000 km2 of glaciers, the largest being situated on the islands Edgeøya, Barentsøya, and Nordaustlandet. On these islands the temperatures tend to be somewhat lower than on Spitsbergen and there’s more precipitation (in the form of snow) thanks to evaporation from the Barents Sea. It is the balance between the summer temperatures and the winter precipitation that decides whether glaciers advance or retreat.
Svalbard is also composed of 30% barren rock. The geological exploration of Svalbard is an ongoing activity. In no other place are so many geological periods conserved in rock. Svalbard's climate allows for an unusual amount of exposed rock with little soil or vegetation cover, therefore allowing the rock to be studied uninterrupted over long periods of time.
For most of Svalbard's geological history, the land was submerged, so sand, gravel, mud, and lime, etc, were continuously altered into bedrock. Svalbard is one of the few places in the world that reveals representations of most of earth's geological history.
Saturday, August 6: A Wet Day In Coles Bay
I was on bear watch from 04:00 to 05:30 this morning. Not much on the horizon aside from a lone reindeer. It didn’t come too near though. I took some time to write in my journal and walk around to warm up again before it was time to hand over watch duty to Matias. There was a light rain on and off throughout the night so with wet boots and socks I was a little cold in the toes after an hour. However, I managed to get a decent sleep when it was time to get tucked into my sleeping bag again.
Today was a tough day with a lot of distance to cover. Coming down the valley side from Lindströmfjellet was no easy task with the weight we were carrying. It’s tough on the knees. My blisters were bothering me today too so it was nice to be able to have a bit of sunshine at lunchtime when we could take our boots off and let our feet breath as we ate. Everyone enjoyed a nice little nap after lunch too.
We dropped our packs at the corner of the bay and just went with cameras, snacks, and rifles to the old Colesbukta settlement area. There was an old Russian explorer’s cabin and more abandoned buildings similar to Grumant.
Perhaps the most challenging section of the day was crossing the marshland of Colesdalen. The base of the valley was about three kilometres of soggy marsh. With a heavy pack it is a slow traverse and every step takes extra energy as you have to pull your feet out of the mush as you move forward. Three-quarters of the way across the valley we were faced with a choice of fording the river. If we chose to go around it could add another 10km of marsh walking without any guarantee of finding a narrow spot to cross. Or we could just cross it like the tough bunch we are! It was time to go Lars Monsen-style and strip down to our underwear and walk through the ice cold, knee-deep water. Everyone managed to cross without falling in, so we were thankful for that. We all shared a laugh about the event and carried on with a shiver and a smile!
When we arrived in Lailadalen we had difficulties finding a suitable place to camp. There were some areas that were relatively flat and dry but were all too far from sources of drinking water. We decided to continue on a little further as the map was indicating there should be another stream a few hundred metres to the west. We were glad we did because we came to a nice spot near the beach where we could pitch the tents and have a campfire.
It’s not often one can have a campfire on Svalbard as there’s not much wood to be found when there are no trees on the islands. There is plenty of old wood scattered around in some areas that could be burned easily but if it’s from some kind of man-made structure that used to exist there, it technically classifies as a cultural memory piece and is not allowed to be destroyed. So we wandered the beach to find actual driftwood that was dry enough to burn. We had more than enough for a nice fire all through the night.
Tonight was my turn for the double-shift on watch. It was raining throughout the night but having the fire made up for that. I was really hungry when I awoke this morning. During my morning watch I got the water boiling for everyones’ breakfasts. My oatmeal tasted better than anything else yet.
Sunday, August 7: Another Wet Day
Another wet day! It was drizzling rain on and off most of the time. I didn’t even take my camera out until we arrived at camp around 17:00. We’re all feeling our shoulders and feet from bearing all this weight such long distances each day. My heel blisters aren’t too bad. As long as I keep them taped up and as dry as possible they don’t weaken, but it’s usually not until bedtime that I can actually get properly dry feet, wearing my socks in my sleeping bag. Whenever we take breaks it’s good to rest our shoulders and backs, dropping our bags for ten minutes is a relief. I’ve been really impressed how well everyone is handling the challenges of the trip. We're averaging 15-20 km per day, managing blisters, cool conditions, and wet socks, but no complaints from anyone! :)
On our way to Hollendarbukta we followed the coast from Lailadalen around Colesbukta to Kapp Laila. Along the coast in Nordhallet we spotted a seal out in the water with the binoculars. Upon arrival in Hollendarbukta we found a spot not far from the sea to set up camp. We were all glad to have another campfire tonight so once we were set up with the tents we all went out collecting driftwood to burn. Everyone was happy to get a little warmer as we sat around the fire eating dinner and talking until it was time to sleep. The weather didn’t look like it was going to improve at all until late in the evening when there seemed to be some clearer skies in the distance moving our direction.
Monday, August 8: A Rest Day
Today we took a rest day. When I say rest day I don’t mean we lazed around doing nothing, just that we didn’t move the camp. We did however hike up the nearby mountain called Oppkuven. Its peak is at 398 metres so as long as you have clear weather there’s a nice view. Our weather today was mostly wet and cloudy but as the day went on the ceiling lifted. Finally by the time we returned to camp it cleared off enough that we could warm ourselves in the sun.
I took some time to explore the beach and take photos. One interesting thing about the geology of Svalbard is that many of the rocks you find are relatively “young”. This means that they haven't had the time to compress to the degree of older, more solid rocks. These young rocks you can just pick up and they will crumble in your hands. I got the idea it would interesting to see if I could capture images of these fragile rocks breaking into pieces. Matias helped cast the rocks down against the more solid ones on the ground while I did my best to time the shutter just right. It took quite a few tries but in the end we were able to get a few of the kind of pictures I was aiming for. We had fun.
On watch tonight the sun illuminated the beautiful scenery around us. It was nice to be near the shore, admiring the surrounding mountains, glaciers, and life.
Tuesday, August 9: Barentsburg From Above
Today we arrived at Selisbukta where we set up camp around noon. After lunch we departed on a day hike south towards the Russian settlement of Barentsburg. There’s a 230 metre high mountain called Bykollen just to the north that we summited for a great view over the town and surrounding area. From the top we could see some shapes in the water of the fjord—a large herd of whales we determined to be belugas.
We were back at camp by the early evening so could relax with our gourmet dinner. No campfire tonight though. It was a chilly night as there was a steady wind coming off the ocean the whole time. However, it was clear weather so made for plenty of sunshine. I watched the flocks of seagulls pass by the cliffs as I patrolled the camp on my watch.
Wednesday, August 10: Welcome to Баренцбург
Entering Barentsburg is almost like something out of a strange dream. It’s a slightly eerie feeling to all of a sudden feel like you’ve come to Russia… 20 years ago. The place has a set system of blocks of flats and streets. Many of the newer buildings are surprisingly colourful but still maintain a distinct Soviet-flavoured design. Beside the town square they even have an old bust of Lenin. There’s also a sign further behind it that reads “Communism is our purpose!” I think they just leave it up for the tourists.
It’s such a fascinating place. Walking into town you pass by the old cow sheds, a soccer field, and different sorts of buildings up on the hillside, one of them being the Russian consulate; apparently the northernmost diplomatic mission of any kind in the world. The town relies on mainland Russia for food. There have been instances in which not enough food was sent and aid packages had to be provided by Longyearbyen. In the centre of town you find the entrance to the mine, the coal storage area, and the shipping quay down by the water. There’s also a souvenir shop, sports hall, medical centre, and school. The settlement is also home to a research station for archaeologists, geophysicists, glaciologists, and meteorologists. Barentsburg is about 55 km away from Longyearbyen but there are no roads connecting them. Most contact between the settlements is by boat, snowmobile, or helicopter. The heliport is four kilometres north of Barentsburg. We saw the Russian Mil Mi-8 helicopter flying to and from the base a few times.
There is cellular phone service provided by both Norwegian and Russian operators, so sometimes after arriving in Barentsburg your phone will show the “enjoy your stay in Russia” text message. It just adds to the experience of feeling like you’re actually in the Mother Russia and not Norway.
Answers differ depending on which source you ask, but I've gathered the community has a population of around 450-600 residents; a mix of Russians and Ukrainians. The population peaked during the 1970’s with around 1000 citizens when the mine was in its heyday.
Barentsburg, named after the Dutch explorer Willem Barents, started as a Dutch mining town in the 1920’s but was sold in 1932 to the Russian state-owned Arktikugol Trust. The company carries out the mining activities, providing coal for local power and export to Northern European buyers. I imagine that’s a declining market...
We walked through town to the hotel, passing by some of the locals on the way. They all kept to themselves but I managed to get a “hi” response from a few. Arriving to the hotel felt a little strange—after a week in the great outdoors we had come back to civilization! (sort of) It seemed odd to have a toilet to use, a sink to wash your hands, and a light switch on the wall. The hotel staff were welcoming. There was a pretty girl working at the front desk and they allowed us to store our bags in the office and we put the rifles in a locker. When we came back from the restaurant the packs had been moved to another room—they probably gave off an unpleasant odour! In the restaurant we all ordered coffee and tea. There’s also a little souvenir shop and post office in the hotel. Kjersti and I went in to look around. She bought some post cards and I talked with the man working there. He was my age and had been there a couple of years. He enjoys living and working in Barentsburg because he said he earns good money (there’s extra pay being stationed in the arctic) and he doesn’t have to live with all the political troubles they have back home in Russia. If he wants to do something fun for the weekend he can take the boat to Longyearbyen free of charge then find his way to the pub or cinema.
Afterwards we gathered up our things and hiked back through town and down to the quay where Matias would stay with our stuff and the four of us could explore the place some more.
It was really interesting just to walk around the little industrial town, to pass the people on the streets, and to enter some of the buildings. We stopped in the tiny little church for a quick photo and had a visit to the main souvenir shop when it opened around midday. I’m sure the lady working there had the heat cranked up to 30°C. We didn’t stay too long! We've gotten quite used to our daily average of 3°C.
I was also curious to take a look in the sports hall. It was a big facility and Matias told us that they have a swimming pool there that when he saw it last time the water was green! Well, my visit there was no disappointment! The swimming pool’s water is now black, no exaggeration! I have my doubts as to whether people actually use the place, it’s all so disgustingly dirty. However, in research after returning home to write this blog I found there’s a film called “Dream Town”, which is part-documentary and part-fiction, that was made by some Americans in 2014. I watched the trailer for the film and there’s a very short cut of some people in a pool. It could be the lighting but the water looks black… and the people are bathing in it! I could be wrong but I don’t imagine there are any other pools in town.
They also have an old gymnasium, some billiard tables upstairs and even a lounge area with chess tables. Downstairs on the main level there's a weight room. It’s old and dingy but I liked it—the kind of gym where it’s not about making a fashion statement, only the hard work you’re there for. There were some tough-guy locals in there working out; Marilyn Manson blasting on the stereo.
As I was putting my boots on to leave there was a Russian guy who works as a guide in the area that had come into the lobby. He had arrived to Barentsburg the day before and had kayaked from Longyearbyen. He said it took him eight hours. I don’t imagine it was an easy paddle. On this trip we also learned that there was a group of people who once kayaked around all of Svalbard; that trip took an impressive 81 days!
We went back down to the quay to meet up with Matias and board our ship to Longyearbyen. It was leaving mid-afternoon and would get us there for the early evening. It's about a three-hour journey. Once we got onboard it was time for hot chocolate and waffles. We all felt so tired. Elin & Matias both nodded off but Anne, Kjersti, and I managed to stay awake. It wasn’t easy though. It's a tempting invitation with that afternoon sun coming in the window, the gentle rocking of the boat, and steady murmur of the diesel engine below—a pleasant nap is almost a guarantee. The only thing to save me was when we came upon Grumantbyen, I wanted to get out on deck to see the landscape from the sea. Anne & Kjersti joined me to take in the amazing scenery and get some photos. We turned into popsicles standing out there but I couldn’t help but stay out on deck for the rest of the voyage back.
After landing in Longyearbyen, a tourist bus took us back to Coal Miners Cabin. We were all looking forward to a good, hot shower. Unfortunately for us, it seemed all the hot water had already been used up by other guests of the lodge! Even though it was chilly it still felt nice to rinse off after six days without a shower. We dressed into some clean clothes and drove to a restaurant in town for delicious pizza, celebrating our successful return to Longyearbyen.
After our well-deserved supper we drove around town to see a few more areas and also take some equipment back to Matias’s storage container. Back at the hotel we packed up for the flight home. I had enough time for a half hour rest before we drove to the airport at midnight.
I was lucky to get a window seat for the flight to Oslo. It gave me a chance to see the landscape from above before we made our way south and into the darkness of night. Our flight departed at 02:35am. I tried sleeping on the flight but didn’t get any quality rest. I had an earache that worsened during the descent. Normally, it’s not a problem for me to swallow and relieve the pressure change on the way down but this just wasn’t releasing. It was quite painful. I did have a bit of a cold, just from the last 24 hours of near constant cold wind and chill, but once we landed on the ground I was able to clear the blockage and feel at little more at ease. We collected our bags and were met at the airport by the school’s caretaker, Atle. He lives nearby so was able to pick us up on his way to work around 06:30am.
We got back to the school and all crashed in our beds. It was nice to get a few hours of sleep in. It was also a pleasant feeling to be back at the school. Here we could actually get a hot shower too! It was a nice way to start the day. We spent the morning sorting & tidying the equipment, visiting with the school staff who were happy to have us back, and then after lunch, finished off with a short course in river kayaking. Matias is an experienced kayaker so was able to give us a run down on the basics. My kayaking experience is limited to the ocean, so there were some new skills for me to learn. Unfortunately for me, I took a fall and injured my shoulder. I was able to keep going for the day but I think I tore something because here I am three weeks later and it’s still not back to 100%. It’s getting there, I just have to be patient and give it the rest it needs. Injuries aside, we had fun and after packing up and getting warm & dry again we finished off with a barbecue. Elin, Matias, and Kjersti drove back to Oslo together in the evening and Anne & I stayed for one more night. We played a round of frisbee golf in the evening then I played the school's grand piano in Hvitesalen one more time. The next day, Bodil, our music teacher invited us to her house in Hurdal for lunch so we spent the afternoon with her then got a ride to Gardermoen with Atle on his way home. Anne flew home to Germany and I went to Bjørkelangen for another day before returning to Oslo and later Gardermoen for my flight back to Dubai.
The new school year at Hurdal started up on August 20th. This year, Matias is one of the instructors for the “Explore South America” program—a “holiday” class as his wife likes to refer to it! I’m sure they’ll all have a great time. For more info on the school, you can visit http://hvf.no
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