Spitsbergen: Remote and wild

By Mark Rowe

Mark Rowe travels to the largest island in Norway's Svalbard archipelago - a place of pristine landscapes and endangered wildlife.

Interested in other chilly destinations? Check out our Arctic section.

The island of Spitsbergen is the domain of polar bears and Svalbard reindeer. Photo / Thinkstock
The island of Spitsbergen is the domain of polar bears and Svalbard reindeer. Photo / Thinkstock

Perhaps it's because of all the Nobel prizes they dish out, or because they have utilised their reserves of North Sea oil so judiciously, but I trust Norwegians.

That's why when Martin, once a soldier, now a wildlife guide who passes the dark winter months on Svalbard reading books, invited me to walk on thin ice, I did so with all the trust of a horse being led by its owner to the knacker's yard.

The ice had a slushy crust - enough to wash over my boots - and you could see the water below, separated by what Martin reckoned was seven inches of ice.

Fortunately, there were plenty of distractions, not least the staggering scenery of Trygghamna, or "safe harbour", an inlet in the mighty Isfjord, which sweeps for more than 161 kilometres from the Arctic Ocean into the heart of Spitsbergen, the largest island on the Svalbard archipelago.

The basic rule for walking on ice is apparently to shuffle along in single file, in the footprints of the person ahead.

Backmarkers risk slipping unnoticed into the water.

We are watched by a bearded seal and a ringed seal, and then, of course, there are polar bears. Even before last year's fatal attack on a British student, local guides went to great lengths to stress the danger they present.

I've been on wildlife trips where guides clearly exaggerate the dangers, to create an artificial frisson. That's not the Norwegian style.

Martin carried a gun, as anyone walking on Svalbard must, but shooting a bear is a last resort and we would, he calmly instructed us, first clap our hands in an attempt to scare them off.

The inquiry into last year's attack identified "a number of unfortunate circumstances" but cleared those who laid the tripwire flares and shot the bear of any criminal negligence. The family of the teenager are appealing the ruling.

The reality, says the local tourist board, is that just three per cent of visitors to Spitsbergen will see a polar bear, at any distance. But bear attacks have even happened in the regional capital, Longyearbyen, albeit rarely, according to local guides. Everyone I met stressed that by observing basic safety and procedures you significantly mitigate those risks.

We never did see a bear, apart from skinned or stuffed ones splayed and mounted across the walls of hotels and airport arrival halls. But free-range walking requires that you can use a rifle, and have the expertise to set up trip wires and flares when you camp.

I opted, instead, for a series of walks based around Cape Linne, on the western edge of Spitsbergen, made possible by the 24-hour sunlight in high summer.

The venue was Basecamp Isfjord Radio. Having expected to subsist on berries and processed reindeer meat for four days, I was surprised - but not overly disappointed - to find that Isfjord Radio, once a meteorology, communications and Cold War spying outpost, had been converted into a boutique hotel.

The giant satellite dish remains, as do redundant telegraph wires and poles that punctuate the landscape and march away to the skyline. These and other incongruous features are in full view as you recline with a glass of chilled wine in surroundings of sea-spray shades of white and blue.

One of Norway's top chefs has been tempted away from Oslo, and the reindeer mousse and brunost - caramelised goat's cheese - were real highlights.

We were not allowed to leave our base, or even wander around the compound, without badgering staff to accompany us. And, although the Arctic has an extraordinary capacity to thrill and overwhelm, should you want to sit down and get all poetic about it you have to do so with a marksman waiting discreetly a few yards off.

Every day the bar for sightseeing was raised by encounters with creatures of the Arctic imagination.

Eider ducks, whose startled cooing sounds disconcertingly like Frankie Howerd from beyond the grave, nested all around. Arctic skuas whiled away the day with aerial dogfights in which competing males spectacularly bashed their breasts against one another.

Then there's the Svalbard reindeer, more stumpy and wind-pummelled than their mainland cousins, fetchingly doe-eyed in panda fashion, who graze around the equally unlikely summertime flowers of moss campion and pink saxifrage.

One morning, two walruses barrelled about in the shallow waters offshore. These huge animals managed to look positively balletic.

The icing on the frozen gateaux was the spectacle of neither one nor two but three blue whales at least a kilometre out to sea. They spouted showers of air from their blowholes and then, obligingly, performed an about-turn and shunted back along our line of vision.

One walk of 4.8km took us below the Alkhornet, an Eiger-like, triangular rock-face home to nesting kittiwakes. These little gulls filled the air like confetti. Underneath the rockface our group slowly stopped, possibly just halted by the glory of the spectacle around us.

Pointy, icy peaks flanked the north coast of the fjord, 11.2km wide at this point, while more glacier-flattened mountains book-ended the view across the bay.

The clarity of the air made distances and heights hard to judge: those mountains looked to be 3000 metres high; I checked the map later and they generally came in at around 900m.

Perhaps I was just taken aback by where I was. Barely three hours' flight from Oslo, it felt like I was standing on a spinning top. The southern shores of Spitsbergen are where the Gulf Stream gasps its last, and neighbouring places at this latitude - 78N - have epic names such as Franz Josef Land and Novaya Zemlya.

By comparison, Prudhoe Bay at the northern end of Canada's epic Dalton Highway, is a mere 70N. Even Greenland's mysterious settlement of Thule - the ancient Greeks' embodiment of the edge of the Earth - lies further south.

The North Pole is a mere 1287km away, in global terms just around the corner. Anything you do up here - send a postcard, order a beer, answer a call of nature - comes with the inevitable tagline of being "the world's most northerly ..."

You can also manufacture other ways to get the adrenalin going. One evening, someone came up with the idea of a pre-breakfast swim in the Arctic Ocean. A little too much wine having being drunk, we all signed up.

I recalled reading how sailors often survived in icy waters only to die when hauled out as the shock of warming up hit them.

"OK, then it'll be a case of euphoria or death," one of our party helpfully pointed out.

In the event, it was no colder than the North Sea off northeastern England in February, and, of course, we were watched from the shore by a member of the hotel team, in this case the cook, with her gun slung over her shoulder.

Weather forecasts make for truly surreal reading. On our arrival, the forecast was for bright sun, light winds and 5C between midnight and 6am. It was the same all day round. There was no reason why temperatures should drop at night, for the simple reason that there wasn't any night.

For a few days it was exhilarating, but I suspected that you might tire of it. Svalbard effectively has two tourist seasons: summer, when the sun never sets, and winter, when it never rises.

It is easy to look at Svalbard as unchanging, but Arctic ice, typically about 3m thick, has thinned by more than 600cm in the past four winters, according to Nasa. The plight of polar bears as this ice contracts beneath them is well documented.

Predictions of just when the Arctic will become ice-free in the summer have hastily been revised from the end of this century to within a decade, according to Professor Peter Wadhams of the Polar Oceans Physics Group at Cambridge University.

A visit to the Svalbard museum in Longyearbyen shows how this elemental landscape still has traces of a dark passage in its history. Some whale and seal populations are only now recovering after the great slaughter that extended over three centuries as Europeans sought out blubber.

Norway gained ownership of Svalbard in 1925, but just before that the Svalbard Treaty was ratified, enabling anyone to declare an interest in the islands' resources. The bizarre list of signatories includes Venezuela and Afghanistan and, in reality, everyone is biding their time. Svalbard is reckoned to be oozing oil, along with deposits of gas, coal, even gold.

Given that Svalbard today is a remorselessly treeless, Arctic desert, this is ironic; the explanation is that the primordial Svalbard lay somewhere close to the equator and was covered by forest that later decayed to form today's tempting mineral wealth.

Mining goes on in a desultory, piecemeal fashion today. Russia even has a concession to mine at Barentsburg, a Soviet-era town of pastel colours. But it will take great resolve for Norway to keep the door shut as world reserves dwindle.

The advice for dealing with polar bears is no use in these circumstances. If you clap loudly, the miners are not going to go away.

That said, trusting Norwegians as I do, if anyone can keep Svalbard pristine, they can.

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