Vacationing in the endless Arctic night?
Crazy idea, but it doesn’t take long to fall in love with Svalbard in the dead of winter. Okay, there’s no sun (I mean really no sun—for more than four months), but instead of basking on warm beaches, I’ve spent the past two weeks bathing in moonlight, starlight, and the occasional glow of northern lights while dogsledding and snowmobiling in the mountains and trekking between pubs and restaurants in the Norwegian archipelago’s only incorporated town.
I haven’t been alone.
In the past few years, more and more dauntless travelers have veered off course for once-in-a-lifetime tours of these remote islands sitting squarely within the Arctic Circle during their epic period of polar night.
Dogsled by moonlight:
Spending time in a place where it’s pitch black out in the middle of the day requires some getting used to, but take a cue from the dogs.
Family-owned Green Dog boasts a crew of more than 175 working canines, mostly Alaskan Huskies, and their happy howling is deafening—and contagious. The company’s guides dress you like the Michelin Man in a puffy snowsuit and encourage you to get chummy with their dogs, which are as strong as they are friendly, jumping and yelping with excitement when it’s time for some mushing.
Then the guides show you how to assemble and harness a team of dogs, and before you know it, you’re swishing away under the stars like Nanook of the North, commanding your way through the Arctic stillness. I glimpsed only a few stray wisps of the aurora borealis on my run, but when I searched for the North Star and saw it directly overhead, I was reminded of how close Longyearbyen is to the North Pole (well, relatively so; it’s over 800 miles away).
Amazingly, the pole itself is as unlikely to exhibit northern lights as Kansas, meaning Svalbard is almost too far north as well. But that was just fine with me as I sailed silently past ghostly snow-covered mountains glowing under a full moon that, true to form at this topsy-turvy latitude, never sets.
Explore a coal mine:
Yep, that’s right: coal in the Arctic.
Long ago, Svalbard sat at the Equator until continental drift pushed it far to the north, transporting ancient, decomposing tropical forests along with it. Until recently, coal mining was the main source of revenue in the archipelago, but with the slump in demand, the economy has shifted to the business of research and, in the summer months, cruise-ship tourism (though, due to the fragility of the natural environment, the Norwegian government has limited the size of ships permitted to visit the islands).
The sprawling Arctic science institute called UNIS has transformed Longyearbyen into a college town, but understanding local history—such as the ubiquity of wooden towers strung with cables and aerial coal cars “downtown”—requires a visit to a mine. Basecamp Explorer offers excursions to Gruve 3 just outside of Longyearbyen, the last camp to abandon manual picking in favor of industrial cutting machines to remove coal.
Active extraction ceased there two decades ago, in 1996, but the place looks like the miners left yesterday, with ID tags, charging lights, emergency breathing equipment, and coveralls still laying where the workers left them. Donning our own hard hats and coveralls, we grabbed lamps, clocked in, and investigated the rustic machinery, coal cars, and rail lines outside the mine entrance. Truly surreal.
When I signed up for Spitsbergen Travel’s “Taste of Svalbard” walking tour, I thought I’d be stuck with a bunch of pub crawlers. But I had to tip my (wool) hat to the three hearty, middle-aged Norwegian couples and pair of young British honeymooners in my group as they cheerfully hiked the day’s longest leg, a couple of miles, in bitter winds and snow.
The new bride joked that her friends tried to convince her that Jamaica was the place for the just-married, but the Caribbean was too tame for her. And as our guide addressed us outside each of the five destinations included in the tour, diving inside to warm up around candlelit tables sounded plenty romantic.
Once a community center for miners, Huset Restaurant now boasts a coveted two-wine-glass rating from Wine Spectator, offering up 1,300 different varietals from around the world. And at the recently opened Svalbard Bryggeri, the northernmost brewery in the world, the brewmaster himself filled our glasses with a wheat-based ale and a porter-style stout as delicious as any I’ve tasted from the tap.
Spitsbergen Hotel, once the domain of upper-class mine administrators, served us champagne in its cozy cellar while our final stop, Karlsberger Pub—on the former grounds of a miners’ bathhouse—poured generous tastings of Svalbard’s very own Barents Aquavit, known for its slight anise flavor owing to a mix of angelica, golden root, and scurvy grass.
Where else in the world can you get samplings of reindeer and minke whale to complement fine wines and hearty local brews?
Snowmobile to “Russia”:
My tour of Gruve (Mine) 3 left me hungry for more, so I hired a guide and traveled a few hours by snowmobile through snowy darkness to the small Russian coal-mining village of Barentsburg.
Longyearbyen outfitters offer trips here, but the mining company itself, Arktikugol, recently unveiled a new fleet of snowmobiles to pursue its own visitor experience. Though the Barentsburg mine is a working operation, I snagged a sneak preview of the tour Arktikugol hopes to offer this spring.
No abandoned offices or equipment here. Everything is still in use, with miners risking their lives in tunnels about a third of a mile below sea level every day.
Even without the coal mine, Barentsburg is a fascinating step into yesteryear, with Lenin statuary, company stores, and a local brewery that churns out aptly named Red Beer. But be warned: Though Norwegian kroner are accepted at the hotel and souvenir shop, everything else is priced in rubles.
The visit was a good excuse to explore Svalbard’s backcountry by snowmobile. As I wended my way along ridges and mountain passes amid white-outs and ripping winds, I caught sight of kaleidoscopic polar stratus clouds with the sun still ten degrees below the horizon—a unique phenomenon in which hidden sunlight bounces off clouds onto the snow and ice and back into the clouds creating unusual hues of pink and blue.
When I arrived in Svalbard, night was endless, but since then a tentative dusk has been expanding by several minutes each day. As I wait for my plane at the airport and gaze at the mountains in the dim light of noon, I think about the sun finally rising in March and then refusing to set by late April before slipping away again in September.
And while many folks will come here to revel in spring and summer’s glories, few will ever experience the magic of the Arctic’s long, but certainly lovely, winter’s night.
Randall Hyman is an environmental photographer and freelance writer based in St. Louis, Missouri.