A three hour flight from Oslo, Norway landed us in the town, no, just a small settlement of Longyearbyen in Arctic Svalbard. Svalbard, property of Norway, is an archipelago (chain of islands) situated between the North Pole and continental Norway. After looking out the window and seeing nothing for miles, Longyearbyen stuck out like a sore thumb, with buildings in the middle of nowhere. Longyearbyen is one of the most northern human settlements in the world.
My first footsteps on Arctic terrain were not as I expected. When I first planned on going north, I envisioned myself needing snow goggles, “boots with the fur,” and a heavy snowsuit, struggling to walk through several feet of snow and fighting strong winds. Nope! This was Arctic summertime at a warm 37 degree F.! Rather, I was ok to walk off the plane with a light jacket, tennis shoes, and jeans! In Longyearbyen, there were remnants of snow just high on the mountain tops, but not at sea level. Little snow, but also barely any vegetation. Depending on sun exposure, certain mountainsides had way more snow.
Before boarding the National Geographic Explorer ship, we toured Longyearbyen for a few hours. We had to stick to the tour group and not wander off. It wasn’t the reindeer roaming the streets that were of concern. Even the local school kids knew better – they were on a nature walk all wearing bright orange vests, while their teacher carried a rifle. This is polar bear country! The governor of Svalbard legally requires the escort of a guide with rifle training when walking past “city limits,” to ensure polar bear safety. The mindset here is to first avoid polar bear encounters, and only use a rifle in self-defense at last resort. The likelihood of a dangerous encounter is extremely rare.
It didn’t take long to tour all of Longyearbyen – a few snow dog kennel companies, a university center, a few museums, a restaurant, a hotel, a coal mine, an airport, a post office. Most of the residents are researchers or students studying The Arctic. I boarded- ok, galloped, onto the National Geographic Explorer, unable to contain my excitement for the adventure ahead!
I almost forgot to go to bed that first night. Why should I? It was still light out at midnight. It was light out 24/7. At this time of year that far north, it’s always light outside! I slept 0-4 hours a night on the Explorer. Maybe it was the light keeping me awake; maybe it was wanting to chat with many new friends; maybe it was wanting to stare at the raw, untouched beauty of the Arctic all night long… The fatigue that set in two weeks later was worth it!
Next up: Polar Bears!!!!
Edit June 18: Please “bear” with me (pun intended) as I collect and process my polar bear pictures to share soon!