A few years ago I journeyed to the northernmost accessible town on the planet: Longyearbyen located on the island of Spitsbergen – the largest of the Svalbard islands – a territory of Norway. It’s a tiny town of less than 1,000 people. With daily flights from Norway, it is located just a couple hundred miles from the North Pole. I had hopes of spotting Arctic wildlife – of which I found some – but what I primarily found was mildly surprising: coal mining, and lots of it.
Founded about 100 years ago, by an American named Longyear who owned and operated the first coal mine here, Longyearbyen is a proud coal town with remnants of seven old mines and equipment sprinkled around the town – cultural artifacts protected by law.
The town is colorful and walkable, but if you decide to venture outside of the main area you should be armed and prepared for potential polar bear encounters. I had hoped I might witness a polar bear during my time in the far north, but the timing wasn’t right for bears.
A visit to the Svalbard Museum offered a glimpse into the island’s proud coal heritage, culture and history. It offered insight into some of the current climate science taking place here, as well as an array of educational materials dedicated to the wildlife residents which range from bears and seals to reindeer, foxes, puffins and other Arctic creatures who call this region home.
The Svalbard islands are called Arctic deserts because of their extremely harsh and barren conditions. In mid-summer the temperatures hung in the mid-30s with harsh gusts of 20 – 25 miles per hour. We experienced the Midnight Sun: 24 hours of daylight. While this can prove challenging for some, the Vitamin D overdose resulted in a refreshing burst of boundless energy for me that at times the tiny town was too small to quench.
While the endless sun was a delight, the Norwegian cuisine wasn’t the highlight for my tastes. Dishes like fish pudding and reindeer tongue were some of the offerings at the hotel. I gave them a try if for no other reason than to say that I did. Enough said.
An opportunity to explore other parts of Spitsbergen were offered aboard an Arctic vessel called Polar Girl where we took a 10-hour journey to see fjords, glaciers, wildlife, and stop for a visit at an abandoned Russian village called Pyramiden.
The journey was a feast for the senses, with crisp, delightful fresh air brushing our cheeks and filling our lungs. We witnessed showy puffins cruising by the vessel. A lonely bearded seal was spotted on an iceberg, and a glacier glowed a remarkable blue.
The ship pulled into port in Pyramiden. Founded by Sweden in 1910, and sold to the USSR in 1927, this town at one time was home to as many as 1,000 residents. The primary industry here was, of course, coal mining. The remains of the mining operations are extraordinarily evident, leaving an ugly scar of human activity on what was once a pristine environment.
But the most remarkable aspect of this town, when I visited in 2007, was the apparent hurry in which the residents seemed to have fled. I peaked into windows and saw rooms in near perfect order as if waiting for their long lost residents to return any moment. Books were stacked on desks, linens covered beds. It looked as if the residents merely vanished into thin air one day. At the very least they seemed to have been given little warning of their impending departure before having to say their final farewell. It was difficult to not let my imagination get the better of me as I strolled through this ghost town, imagining what the final days must have been like for the people who once lived here.
Nature has made itself at home in this place that people abandoned. Windowsills have become perfect nesting sites for gulls, covering many abandoned buildings with hundreds of nests and decades worth of guano.
Since my visit there, I’ve read about efforts to restore Pyramiden and make it a tourist destination. A hotel and other amenities for longer term visitors is being created. Personally, I’m glad to have visited this gem of a ghost town prior to the restoration. Its whispers of Soviet history were mesmerizing and haunting.
Back in the town of Longyearbyen, I was delighted to have had the opportunity to see reindeer up close. I did, however, have a less-delightful close encounter with an Arctic tern. Apparently these guys are extremely protective of their nests, and I inadvertently ventured too closely. The bird was sure to let me know I was not welcome by swiftly dive bombing my head. Thankfully, we all escaped the encounter unscathed – just a little rattled.
Overall, Svalbard offers a unique landscape that is both breathtaking and intriguing. Perhaps next time I’ll see the polar bears I went all that way with hopes of seeing…
Below is a video of some of the sights and experiences of Svalbard.