At the top of the world, and gateway to the North Pole, lies the Svalbard Islands.
Covered in snow and ice in the darkness of winter, the midnight-sun shines here from mid April until mid August.
Come during late winter, put on your warmest clothes, harness your six mushing Husky dogs and go polar bear spotting. It will be an adventure you will never forget!
Ever dreamt about being, geographically, on top of the world? You have a few choices: northern parts of Canada, Greenland, Norway, or Russia. These are the only four countries which will take you close to the top of the world, and thus close to the North Pole.
While a North Pole expedition would be the cherry on the cake, many of us can neither afford nor successfully complete such an activity. Getting to the most northern reaches of Canada, Greenland, or Russia will require a substantial amount of money, preparation, and determination. The best option is Norway, and we’re not talking about Norway on continental Europe. We are talking about Norway much further north!
Welcome to the Svalbard Islands.
Formerly known by the Dutch name Spitzbergen, the group of Svalbard islands (Spitzbergen being the largest), is a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean. The name Svalbard means “cold coasts” which was first mentioned in Icelandic texts in the 12th century.
The location of the islands ranges from 74° to 81° north latitude, and from 10° to 35° east longitude, and just more than 1,000 km (621 mi) from the North Pole.
Following fierce claims of sovereignty by several nations, full sovereignty was granted to Norway in 1920 at the signing of the Svalbard Treaty.
The islands have a long history which includes the Norse, English, Danish, Dutch, and French, walrus and whale hunting, and lots of coal mining. Nowadays Svalbard is best known for scientific research, polar bear spotting, North Pole expeditions, and a few tourists who want to be close to the top of the world.
The current permanent population of the islands is about 2,100 people, of which 500 live in the Russian settlements with the majority being in Barentsburg and a few others in Pyramiden. Among the people living in the Russian settlements, the majority (75%) is Ukrainian, but there are also Russians and Tajiks. The rest of the population lives in Longyearbyen which is the largest settlement of the archipelago. Most (76%) of the residents in Longyearbyen are Norwegian. Other nationalities living here are Thai, Swedish, Danish, German, American, and others. The population of Svalbard has been on the decline since 1990, in particular at the Russian settlements, as people are emigrating to Europe. In 2013, 22 babies were born in Longyearbyen while just two people died.
Longyearbyen is a lively town, in particular during the warm but short summer months. The town features a medical clinic, a primary and secondary school, a small university, sports centre, a shopping mall, library, culture centre, cinema, public bus transportation, hotels and guesthouses, a bank, and a few small museums. Most of the people living in Longyearbyen are involved in scientific research, the tourism industry, or supporting services such as retailing, banking, education, etc.
Svalbard is an all-year around destination. Nearly 65 per cent of the surface of Svalbard consists of protected areas, including three nature reserves, six national parks, 15 bird sanctuaries and one geotopical protected area.
During the warmer months of April to August there is much less snow and more land, with the result that it is easier to spot many of the animals such as polar bears concentrating on the few ice patches around the islands hunting for leopard seals. This is also a good time for hiking, kayaking, and walking on the glaciers. Svalbard is home to Norway’s largest glacier, the Austfonna which is the world’s third-largest icecap after Antarctic and Greenland, with a circumference of 200 km (124 mi). Located on the Island of Nordaustlandet it is 560 m (1,837 ft) thick and the dome reaches an elevation of 783 m (2,570 ft) above sea level.
Since Svalbard is located far north of the Arctic Circle, it experiences the midnight sun which lasts from mid April until mid August. This means no darkness for about 100 days. Winter, on the other hand, is bitterly cold when the polar night of darkness starts towards the end of October and lasts till mid February. In February the temperature at Longyearbyen varies from -30°C to -15°C (-22°F – 5°F) while the windchill could drop the temperate down to -40°C (-40°F).
Svalbard is an amazing sight during winter. Everything is white, covered in snow and ice. The best time to visit during the winter period is from late February to late March when winter is still in full force but the total darkness has given in to some light on the southern horizon. Then it is time for fun!
Among the popular winter activities are walks through glacier caves, snowmobile riding, cross-country skiing, and dog-sled safaris.
Polar Bear Spotting
The most dangerous, yet the most exciting activity on Svalbard is polar bear spotting. In winter there are at least 500 polar bears on the main islands of Svalbard and another 2,500 in the wider region. However, in winter the polar bear roaming area is very large and with the entire surroundings covered in white snow, it is difficult to spot them. Most likely they will have long spotted you while you are still trying to find them.
During the summer months, with 24 hours of light, there is much less ice and snow so the bears congregate around the icy regions along the northern shores Svalbard. This is the best time of the year to spot them, which is best done from a boat cruise. These boats cruise around the islands and icebergs in search of the bears. From the boat you and your long tele-focal lens can take awesome photos of the lovely white bears!
Polar bears are a real danger all year round. When you are travelling out of town you must be with a qualified guide who, by law, must carry a shotgun. Take this warning very seriously. Don’t even wander a little out of town without someone carrying a gun. Even be careful around town at night. Some tourists have been eaten by hungry bears right in Longyearbyen, and also on the hills surrounding the town.
Dog sledding is arguably the most exciting winter fun activity that Svalbard offers. Booked at a tour company in town, you will be taken about 5 km (3 mi) out of town early in the early morning to where the kennels are located. There are many beautiful Husky dogs here, each living in its own small wooden doghouse with its name displayed above the entrance.
Your guide will help to pick six dogs and quickly train you on how to harness the dogs. This is tricky as the dogs are overly excited to get running. Hold your dogs firmly, one at a time, and place the harness around them and then clip the leash to the main rope. Once all six dogs are in place, you better quickly jump into your bucket-sled before the dogs leave without you.
With two people to a sled, one is sitting in the bucket while your sledding partner (the musher) stands on the back of the sled with the main purpose of controlling the speed by stepping on the snow-brakes. It is crucial to control the dogs as they go as fast as they can down the slopes. Without controlling the speed of the sled it is bound to travel faster than the dogs which will turn out to be catastrophic.
If, and when, the sled over-turns, the dogs won’t stop, so the two passengers must cling to the sled for life or be left without the dogs. You will then have to walk all the way back to the kennels where the dogs will be waiting. Fortunately the sleds are equipped with a hand-break so when the bucket flips over, just throw the hand-brake into the snow so the sled and dogs will come to an abrupt standstill.
As temperatures go down to -40°C (-40°F) and much lower with the windchill, it is essential to dress very warmly. The adventure travel operators in Longyearbyen are fully equipped so whether you go on a snowmobile, dog sledding, or any other adventure, they have the right jackets and overall jumper suits to guard you against the extreme weather. On a cold day, throw up a cup of boiling hot water and see it drifting away as snowflakes to realise just how cold it is.
Cold winter nights is also time for spotting the spectacular aurora borealis, or the northern lights, dancing across the skies. As winter nights are bitterly cold, you are in for a cold night outside while waiting for the lights to flare up. However, once they start to dance across the night skies, you will realise it was worth the long cold wait. GR
From Norway’s capital, Oslo, the daily flight stops at Tromsø in northern Norway to pick up a few more adventure travellers. From Tromsø it is a 60 minute flight to the small airport outside the town of Longyearbyen on Spitsbergen Island, Svalbard. An airport bus will be waiting and drop you off at your hotel or guesthouse.
Further Reading: Globerovers blog post on Svalbard