By Kitty Pilgrim • Photography by Will Croxton
“How’d you like to go to the coldest darkest place on Earth?”
That was what I asked my son William when I invited him to go to the Arctic with me last winter. Yes, winter, not summer. Anyone can go in summer. In June, July and August, cruise ships plow through the slurry of melted ice all the way up to the North Pole – a luxury trip where tourists stand on deck and drink champagne.
No. We would not be doing that. My February trip would involve temperatures of 20 degrees below zero, and the rosy twilight of polar night - a real expedition. The purpose would be to film video for my thriller novel, THE EXPLORER’S CODE. My son Will, an accomplished cameraman agreed to arrange his schedule to come with me. So we collected our gear and headed off to the Norwegian Island of Svalbard.
This is literally the top of the earth. Flying to this region takes days. First there is a transatlantic leg from New York to Norway, then Oslo to Tromso, then on to Longyearbyen. From the plane window the landscape appears bleak. We see jagged snowy peaks the size of the Alps with no sign of civilization, and the daylight gets dimmer and dimmer.
Then finally we arrive. The tiny settlement of Longyearbyen is the last bit of land, right on the verge of the polar ice cap. It is a historic place, where many explorers once made their final provisioning stop before setting out on a quest to reach the North Pole. Now Longyearbyen is a small village, which also serves as a base for scientific research.
Stepping off the plane, we get a glimpse of an immense barren landscape. There is only ice, snow and mountains. The sub zero temperature punches me in the face, cracking my nose, and bringing tears to my eyes. It is too cold to linger here on the tarmac. We hurry to the airport arrivals building, trying not to slip on the ice.
In the blessed warmth of the terminal I am reminded of the other danger in this region – polar bears. An enormous ursus maritimus eyes the luggage carousel with a glassy stare. Caught in Svalbard in a previous winter, the female polar bear now greets visitors upon arrival. It is the size of a large cow; with a wide body covered in coarse blond hair. As I stare at its lethal paws, I am fully aware that polar bears are just waking up from their winter hibernation and we will have to keep vigilant at all times.
A short ride to the hotel by van is exciting. Will cranes out the frosty window, trying to see. The snowy road takes us past an abandoned coalmine, which was once the main industry of the area. Suddenly I spot the modern structure of the Global Seed Vault glowing eerily on the side of a mountain. It is a repository of all the world’s food crops – these are reserve supplies of seeds, should any natural disaster occur that would destroy crops. Functioning like a giant refrigerator, the vault and its large cavernous storage rooms have been dug deep into the arctic mountain. Later, we will traverse long dark tunnels into the vaults to photograph the interior.
Soon we glimpse the lights of the town of Longyearbyen, but we are not going to stay in the village. We will bunk up on the mountain, in an old coalmining lodge that has been converted to a hotel. The Spitzbergen Hotel is a no-frills place, solid, clunky, painted barn door red. But inside is cheery and warm. The ground floor is an enormous pine-paneled room, lined with benches. Here guests disrobe the many layers of clothing and footgear, and hang their parkas and snow pants on pegs to dry.
Walking upstairs in our socks, we enter the hotel lobby. There are comfortable leather couches and a concierge desk with old-fashioned keys slots on the wall. After check-in we are invited to help ourselves to blackberry tea. To our delight, there is a pancake griddle and bowl of batter to make a crepe-like Norwegian concoctions filled with lingonberry jam.
We make our pancakes and tea, and settle in to look out the enormous picture window. Before us is the panorama of the tiny village of Longyearbyen. The lights of the village are a huddle against the jagged arctic peaks. There is one main street flanked on both sides by shops and restaurants. The glowing streetlights march in a straight line down to the harbor were the polar cap begins - a stretch of frozen sea ice that extends all the way to the North Pole.
In January and February, the tiny arctic settlement of Longyearbyen is cloaked in semi-darkness. The sun never rises above the horizon and the moon whirls overhead in a tight circle, as if lost. All normal points of reference are erased by the absence of light - time is indeterminate, colors are muted. By mid March, the first rays of the sun touch the mountaintops, and the landscape is bathed in the rosy glow of dawn for several hours a day.
After warming up, we decide to walk into town. There is 30 minutes of clothing layering – double snow pants, silk underwear, sweaters, double gloves, and three layers of socks - making sure that no skin is exposed. Frostbite is a serious concern.
We waddle along the pristine landscape in our bulky polar boots. Snow squeaks with the dry crunch I remember from childhood. And the stars are brighter than I have ever seen. Sometimes in spring the Aurora Borealis lights the sky like arctic fireworks. The air is so pure with oxygen, I can almost drink it; ingesting the cold leaves a sharp burn, so I take shallow breaths.
We walk into the village and explore the stores. Shopkeepers are delighted to meet new visitors. One massive structure serves as the general grocery and department store. As we finger the sealskin vests, and thick Norwegian sweaters, we are tempted. But then realize that in our coddled Manhattan lives we will never again need this kind of gear.
The town café serves as the hub of the village. It is steamy and warm as we enter and the luscious smell of food peaks our appetites. Within minutes we are greeted and asked questions about New York. English is universally spoken, and we are made to feel right at home.
Svalbard boasts several excellent restaurants, all serving local fare. Reindeer stew, hearty root vegetables, and soups. Deserts tend to feature tart lingonberries and rich chocolate. We wolf enormous portions of food at every opportunity. Calories are an asset in this frigid environment.
A dogsled expedition is proposed and accepted. A truck collects us and we travel about ten miles out of town, picking up the handsome huskies and malamuts at a kennel along the way. The dogs bay and howl in the back as we drive, excited to be off and on an adventure. Our guide explains we will sled along a glacier about 25 miles out into the wilderness. He will carry a rifle. By law, anyone venturing outside the village is required to carry a gun to protect themselves from the polar bears. As he drives, he casually mentions that a dog was mauled last night in the village and a helicopter has been dispatched to hover over the main street to chase stray polar bears away from the town, out onto the sea ice. With that sobering information we start our expedition.
I soon find out how difficult it is to drive a dog sled. Controlling half-wild dogs takes strength, and balancing on the runners has all the challenge of snowboarding. The most difficult part is trying to stop the sled with a snow brake – a maneuver that requires great dexterity. I must drop a steel claw into the snow and stomp on it while the sled is in motion. That jerks the harness on the dog-team, forcing them to stop. They don’t like it, and buck and yowl every time they are halted. But they need to cool down every half hour by eating snow. When we start up again, I must bend over, pull up the brake while keeping my balance on the sled rungs. Incredibly, I manage without falling off.
As we travel many miles from the village I am struck by how small I feel compared to this landscape. There is only the sound of the dogs baying, and the sled runners on the ice, and the metronome of my breath, cautiously drawn in, then exhaled in a mist of water vapor. I feel so small, yet suddenly so very much alive.
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