An American named John Munro Longyear started the Arctic Coal Company in 1906 in Spitsbergen (German: Spitz= Peak, Bergen= Mountain), now Svalbard. The settlement of 500 people, formerly known as Longyear City, is now called Longyearbyen (Norwegian, byen= city).
There are no indigenous people in Svalbard. Everyone is a migrant from another part of the world. Established as a mining town, now most of the mining facilities are closed, except for Mine 7, which takes care of the local needs.
At 78-degree north parallel, the sun sets at 3:20 pm and rises at 10:13 am in October. The sun stays below the horizon for four months after October 25. Common sense is to hire guns to protect against polar bears if you travel outside the fortified settlement. Warning signs are all over Svalbard, including on paved roads, asking people to watch out for polar bears. An adult male can weigh up to 800 kgs.
We heard stories of polar bear fatalities and attacks on tourists. The most recent one was in May when a British tourist was dragged from his camp. One of our guides also narrated how a polar bear, who he named Genghis Khan, ate so much dog food that he could barely move. It had to be airlifted and translocated to another part of Svalbard, miles away from the city.
Since snow boots can be messy, most establishments (like hotels and church) ask you to leave your shoes outside. The permafrost melts and uncovers graves, pushing the dead bodies to the surface. Also, the cold prevents the bodies from decomposing. Hence, it is forbidden to die in this Arctic town. The dead are transported to other parts of Norway or their home country to be buried.
During our hour-long day trip around the island, we also learned that pregnant ladies are sent to Tromsø three weeks before delivery. The local hospital deals only with emergencies and the doctors from the mainland are usually tele-connected during the procedure.
330 ft above sea level and 550 ft inside a permafrost mountain is the global seed vault - an insurance against doomsday for humanity. All nations have their own seed repository, but this is the safest given the location and low-temperature conditions which make it a natural freezer. It has the capacity to store 4.5 million types of seeds.
We were also told that all the buildings came pre-constructed to Svalbard from the mainland and are a stacked reconstruction of the modules. It takes maximum 5-6 months to reconstruct an average building. Piping is insulated and above the ground.
Camp Barentz in Advent Valley is about 10km from Longyearbyen. A bus took us to the camp site, away from the city lights and into the Arctic wilderness. The hosts served a rustic reindeer stew cooked over a camp fire in a pot, coffee brewed over the open fire, Akvavit (typically ~40% alcohol by volume) shots to keep us warm, and brownies named 'polar cakes'. The evening concluded with a presentation on the northern lights.
The expression norõrljós (northern lights) first appeared in Kongespeilet (King's Mirror), a guidebook on how to be a king. It described the phenomenon of northern lights so the king could explain it to his subjects. The Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei named it after Aurora (Roman goddess of Dawn) and Boreas (Greek name for northern wind).
The Inuits of Greenland believed that the lights were the spirits of their children, playing in their afterlife. The Saamis of Lapland believe that they were the energy from the souls departed. The Japanese consider it is extremely auspicious to see the lights and a baby conceived under a sky with northern lights is truly blessed.
The tale of Aurora starts in solar storms when plasma from the Sun blows into space. After 18 hours, they reach Earth. The Earth's magnetic field deflects the storm and funnels it into the daylight side called the daylight aurora. The southern hemisphere experiences the Aurora Australis.
At higher altitudes, red light is visible, followed by green. The ionized nitrogen produces the visible blue. There are also infra-red and X-ray northern lights that are not perceptible to the human eye.
Dog Sledding with Green Dogs
When we went to the dog yard, most of the dogs were yelping, 'Pick me! Pick me'. The handlers said that they are elated to see tourists because they know it is their time for a run. There were 150 dogs total. Half of them run for a week and are then allowed to rest in a yard in the mountains. A sled team can be of 5-8 dogs.
First, we picked the leader of the pack, who was a quiet, blue-eyed male. Soon, the rest of the team joined in. They love to run. The moment the handler says, 'Aha' signaling them to start, they start running with all their might. Initially, the dogs are full of energy, and they want to run fast, but the handlers don't let them do so to conserve their energy for the way back when they have to run against the wind. In summer, the handlers stop occasionally to give water to the dogs. In winter, the dogs eat ice when they are thirsty.
Our team was a group of seven Alaskan Huskies, which is not a pure breed but a mix of Siberian huskies and Alaskan malamutes. They are very efficient sled dogs, and even the breeders can not predict what kind of puppy will be born. A second-generation trait might resurface in the fifth generation.
Later in the evening, we attended the Dark Season Blues Festival at a local pub where people were dancing to the tunes of live bands who come from all corners of the world for the festival.
It is surprising how warm these people are in spite of the cold weather. Most of them choose to live their entire lives in Svalbard. The hotels usually give perks to those who work in tourism- like a hot shower or discounts for the breakfast buffet. How little you really need to be happy!