Located half-way between Norway and the North Pole, sits Svalbard. A Norwegian archipelago surrounded by the Arctic Ocean. The only way to reach Svalbard by air, is via Oslo. From there it's another three hour flight North. There are a few settlements on Svalbard, however, no roads connect them. Instead, snowmobiles, aircraft and boats serve inter-community transport.
I flew into Longyearbyen, the gateway to Svalbard. Although it was May, it was still snow covered. The airport in this tiny settlement is so small, everyone from the flight boards a large bus that waits outside the airport to take you to your lodging. The bus makes the rounds about the settlement dropping off all passengers at their respective hotels or hostels. I chose a pretty basic, but adequate place. My only beef was with the curtains. Why? In May, it's light 24 hours a day. The curtains were completely inadequate at keeping the light out. Sleep was a struggle. I had a couple days to explore Longyearbyen. It was cold and I bundled up before heading out. Since it’s so remote there are no taxis or Uber, so walking is the choice to get around town. I wandered the length of the town in awe of the awesome, Arctic scenery. The local houses were brightly colored, so could be easily seen in an all-white landscape. I saw local Svalbard reindeer, slightly smaller than other reindeer, grazing on whatever they could find.
After two days of wandering the small, beautiful Arctic gateway, I got ready for the reason I came to Svalbard. A snowmobile trip across the Arctic tundra! A few other people had signed up, and we were picked up from our hotels. Arriving at the Basecamp Explorer office, we headed upstairs to receive our gear. A huge snowmobiling suit was issued each of us as well as huge boots, balaclavas, gloves and helmet. Once all the gear was on, we all appeared about 200 pounds heavier than we were. We went out to the snowmobiles and soon after were on our way. Our itinerary was to spend 3 days on the snowmobile, spending the nights at a remote cabin with no electricity at the foot of the Nordenskiold glacier.
We headed out of Longyearbyen and it only took a couple minutes before we were in the wide-open tundra. It was a glorious, sunny day and was almost blinding due to the strong sun bouncing off the white landscape. Since the cabin was several hours away, we made several stops. We spotted local, white, plump Rock Ptarmigan birds. I would realize later that these would be dinner one night! We stopped for lunch which was a meal ready-to-eat. Open the top, fill with hot water, which the guide brought in a thermos, close the top for 10 minutes and viola, a hot, nutritious lunch! A great part of stopping for lunch was the complete silence of the landscape. We continued driving up the frozen fjord with mountains everywhere we looked. I was quite comfortable in my baggy snowmobiling suit except when the wind came from the side and the parts of my face not covered by the balaclava took a beating. It was almost unbearable. After several more stops for photos and several more hours at some points hitting 50 mph, we eventually made our way to the cabin located right next to the glacier. We pulled up and found two teams of sled dogs. After verifying they were friendly, I played with them. Some had little coats, some didn’t. All were adorable! The musher had brought them in as there were some travelers that wanted to dog sled a few days later. After getting some dog time, we all walked into the cabin. After shedding our gear, we walked into the main area which was surprisingly beautiful. Although the cabin looked rustic and basic from the outside, inside it was done in the traditional Scandinavian fashion, with lots of beautiful wood. My room was up a very steep staircase and included two single beds. Again, I took one look at the flimsy curtains and realized they would be woefully inadequate. There was no electricity and since it was light 24 hours a day, light was not an issue. My only concern was the heat, however, one look at the wood-burning stove and I realized that wouldn’t be a problem. The two caretakers of the cabin were great and attended to the meals and making sure we were comfortable. For water, they would daily chip ice outside and put it on a huge pot on top of the stove to melt for drinking water. The cabin even had a sauna in a small hut out back. The view of the glacier right outside the window could not be matched! Since the cabin was basic, the toilet facilities were outside, behind a rock. I laughed the first time I went as approximately 30 sled dogs stared at me while I did my business.
Once rested, we took off to see more of the area. If you love Arctic scenery, it’s heaven! Back at the cabin, our hosts were preparing dinner. The evenings meal, seal. I had never eaten seal before and quite frankly was a bit hesitant, but I know life (including cuisine) is different in this remote area. With few options, eating what's available is normal. I gave the seal and mushroom stew over rice a go and it wasn’t that bad. It reminded me of the texture and flavor of an organ, like chicken hearts. The following night we had the Rock Ptarmigan birds, we saw earlier. They weren’t bad, either.
The second day we drove the snowmobiles to Pyramiden, an abandoned Russian coal-mining settlement. Statues of Lenin could be seen as well as typical Russian architecture. In 1998, the last coal was extracted from the mine and the last permanent resident left. It has since remained largely abandoned, except for a few Russians that run the hotel which remains open. With heat, electricity and real toilets, it was a treat to stop for lunch. After eating, we were given a tour of the buildings of Pyramiden. As we wandered, we saw some arctic fox playing. Since the settlement has been abandoned for so long, and because most of the buildings sit in ill-repair, it reminded me a bit of wandering around Chernobyl.
One more evening in the cabin and it was time to head back to Longyearbyen. It was 5-6 hours across the frozen desert. At one point it became overcast and with a low ceiling we had to slow our speeds and follow each other very closely. It was like driving blind. It would have been easy to lose one another. With overcast skies while on a white tundra, the eyes play tricks. What looks like a huge valley, you realize in a minute, is actually flat. Luckily the low visibility lasted only 30 minutes or so, and we were once again flying down the tundra at top speed. Once back to Longyearbyen, we filled up the snowmobile tanks and headed inside to strip all our gear.
This island, that not many know exists, offers great Arctic wilderness beauty. I think it's stunning. The quiet peacefulness, not to mention the majestic Nordenskiold glacier and Arctic wildlife make it an outdoor-lovers dream.