Sublime Svalbard

Longlisted in the Bradt New Travel Writer of the Year Competition 2023.

“This will be groundbreaking, literally and metaphorically.” Came Felicity’s voice from below deck. 

We arrived in Longyearbyen, the largest town on Svalbard, alongside the tourists that came for the polar bears, the wildlife and the snowmobiling, but we weren’t your average tourists. The six of us hoped we would not see any of these things, especially the bears.

Longyearbyen is a place of day or night, where cats are banned, and dogs pull sleds. The primary colours of painted houses clash with the illumination of the northern lights, and in turn the midnight sun. Suicide and depression are commonplace, but crime does not exist. History is shackled by exploration and endurance. There is no circle of human life, no baby is born, and nobody is buried; it is too remote for birth and too frozen for decomposition. It is a multinational place of impermanence. The harshness and need for survival are palpable in the air, the bars, and the street, and its soul is free and fervent. The wildness is all-consuming, but the limit of extremes eliminates everyday anxiety, this freedom bubbles under the surface of this Norwegian Archipelago, the northernmost inhabited place on earth. A town on the edge of the world. 

Aboard M/S Farmer, we sailed south to start our expedition. The town of Barentsberg, where we were to continue on skis, revealed itself to us like a painted Russian doll. Previously a soviet stronghold, this coal mining settlement lies benign against the Barents Sea and embedded in a seemingly infinite treeless, soilless landscape. In the lee of the hill lies the port. There is no welcome, so like uninvited guests, we wrench kit and ourselves onto land.

The day is drawing in, but the midnight sun is deceptive. We attached sleds and venture only minutes from the town; we camp close to civilization under a blush sky that envelops the black sea.

A five-pointed star lies above our camp, an angular expression of communist control. Chimneys rise from the ice, chugging potent smoke into the crisp polar air and turning the clouds to mottled grey. The snow around our tents, our usual bountiful supply of drinking water, is visibly contaminated; black particles fall freely from the sky and entomb themselves amongst the crystalline snowflakes. We walk into town and buy water, water in plastic bottles. The irony is not lost on us.

The town holds a discontented silence, five hundred Russian and Russian-speaking Ukrainians, now in a global conflict but still living side by side on Moscow time. Homes lie in straight lines like blocks of Lego. Closed doors host a school and a hospital, boundaries that seem to both contain and exclude. An empty saloon bar, with a snowmobile parking area and gun locker, borders the deserted street. A hotel selling four types of whale steak and Russian chocolate shows no signs of guests. The post-industrial decay is incongruent with the freshness of the frigid air and seemingly eternal landscape. 

This settlement of Barentsberg, situated between Norway and the North Pole, lies in wait, warming the ice with industry as if willing the ocean to open, to give access to the now-frozen shipping lanes to those who wait in the wings. The sign ‘” Peace to the World” is emblazed on the star, a reminder that this is a place where propaganda rises from geology like the pointed mountains, which give the islands their historical name. 

It was dawn, or so it seemed under the Midnight sun, and we, the six of us, gathered to walk onto the sea ice. An arctic fox, unaware of the beauty of his home or that his future is under threat, follows our trail as we leave the intolerable towers behind. Under the April sun’s unnerving warmth, we find our purpose and stockpile samples. Led by Felicity, we dig down, core and gather tubes of thick ice. We are searching for microplastics and black carbon, the first data set of its kind. We are not scientists but tourists trying to find a way to contribute, to understand the secrets beneath the diminishing ice, because in this apparently timeless place, the clock is ticking.