As the sun came back to Longyearbyen on the 8th March, friends turned their baby carriage towards the light. I felt the rush of warmth across my face and tried to imagine that experience for the first time. A murmur of elation crossed the the crowd, as the magical invocation of sunshine appeared to result from teenagers singing the Beatles classic ‘Here comes the sun’, after the traditional trumpet call and mass chanting of ‘sun sun, come again’ had led to a less satisfactory and cloud covered outcome. This provided a tuneful, culturally inclusive and strangely moving element to proceedings, especially, as the previous efforts had seen some people filter away towards the warmth of the Church and the awaiting cake and coffee.
There’s a presumption that living at the top of the world might imbue a wildness in people, in a reflection of the place. It certainly encourages people not to take themselves too seriously. ‘Next we sacrifice a virgin’ – was whispered in my ear during the chanting, before somebody else declared loudly ‘we’ll be cursing it in a few weeks, when we can’t sleep because of the damn thing!’.
There are competing stories about the ‘Sykehustrrapa’ – the (old) Hospital Steps where the community gathers to mark the return of the sun, and some discussion as to who rebuilt them after they were destroyed by German bombardment in WW2. The first sunrise takes place in mid-February on Svalbard, but the mountains surrounding Longyearbyen shield the community from direct sunlight until the beginning of March, and the story goes that patients were wheeled out to greet it and so the hospital marks the point at which the sun’s return is heralded. In this version the steps were left to remain when the hospital was moved to the centre of town, both as a reminder and focus for this tradition.
However, another story suggests the coal company sought to end a system of annual pay rises for Miners that occurred when the sun returned, with management arguing that as the steps were no longer present, so the automatic nature of the pay rise could no longer be guaranteed. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this led to an overnight return of the steps with planks and pit props replacing those that had been removed. Whilst this might be apocryphal, it’s a story that speaks to the nature of a company town and the imagination, wit and resilience of the mining community. Either way, the free Solboller (‘sun buns’) and coffee in the Lompen centre or Church afterwards were warmly appreciated and it was easy to spot those who were present by their Soldagen (Sun Day) badges, the design chosen from a yearly competition amongst the town’s school children.
Changes and Transitions
Movement between dark and light comes quickly here, with just six weeks between the return of the sun and the beginning of twenty four hour sunlight. Transitions are sometimes fast, change is relentless and everywhere that change is evidenced in land and seascapes. Whether its the pancake drift ice that gets blown in to Adventfjorden, only to disappear in days, rolling back in to the wider waters of Isfjorden, or the strata within the ice caves of the Scott Turnerbreen Glacier, documenting climate change through trapped bacteria, algae blooms, or in air bubbles that preserve atmospheric information from years past.
In this seemingly slow moving environment it’s easy to imagine an icy permanence, but this is quickly betrayed by evidence of meltwater ingress, which can lead these Glaciers to slip at faster speeds than might be expected, a process accelerated by reductions in glacial mass. Change is a constant, but when looking outwards from an ice cave, or squeezing through its narrow confines, the idea of such mass moving at speed has to be quickly put to the back of your mind. It’s winter after all, and there’s that incredible phosphate blue ice echoing the sky above, or the burnt amber algal patterning deep within a meltwater tunnel. For a photographer it’s fortunately easy to find distractions in such an environment.
The transition from coal and the rising impacts of climate change continue to animate identity seeking and meaning-making within the community post-pandemic. ‘Adventure’ tourists are coming back in numbers, climate research is continuing to expand and soon the last mine will close and the last miners will depart for the mainland or other occupations on the island. Making sense of these changes often occurs through the arts, whether that’s in the work of artists visiting, performing and exhibiting at the Spitsbergen Artists Centre, or those travelling to Longyearbyen to create cultural experiences that echo and reflect upon their surroundings.
On February 26th the Arctic Philharmonic co-created a classical music performance, in the northern most and last remaining mine in Norway. The performance finished on a resounding, and acoustically context dependent tribute to unionised workers, inside Mine 7, amidst coal wagons, safety jackets and belted machinery. It was difficult to know what was more inspiring, classical excellence, or the courage of the audience who were ferried to the mine by coach. The long and precipitous single track road that weaves its way up the mountain, covered in ice and driving snow. The following morning the same musicians performed Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, and ended their four day odyssey with a performance of the legendary Svalbardtema from the Norwegian film ‘Orion’s Belt’ at Kulturhuset. All before setting off for the lunchtime flight back to the mainland. Less than a week later, the all female glam-rock-punk band Cocktail Slippers were opening Solfestuka at the same venue, with a significant overlap in audience.
Living at the top of the world has its challenges, but diverse cultural engagement isn’t an obvious one.
Travels in the Arctic Winter
Travelling outside Longyearbyen in winter involves skis, snowmobiles or dog sleds. In some valleys even those options are reduced, with snowmobiles restricted during certain parts of the year. After last year’s meeting with Tommy Jordbrudal, a local dog-musher, polar guide and climber, a visit to his cabin in Tvverdalen seemed inevitable, both as a means of experiencing wilderness and because of the challenges and possibilities posed by managing a dog team. Travelling with dogs across mountain passes, glaciers and on high Arctic plateau seemed both romantic and curiously necessary, a step outside the settlement, no engines, no easy amenities, a small expedition in to a simpler way of being, an appeal that still motivates many people who come to Svalbard.
Having expert tuition always helps, and Tommy and Anja (another guide) were endlessly patient in explaining how to manage an eight dog team, feed and care for them in the cold (-20c plus wind chill), and ensure we could drive them in a whiteout over steep terrain. It was fairly clear from the outset that the dogs would be our lifeline throughout and we quickly fell in love with all of them, including our slightly deranged lead, Steena. She was our cheerleader, corner cutter, and fearless down hill racer, a dog whom when resting would seem the quietest and most unassuming creature, but who became a demon as soon as we were ready to depart.
Fortunately encounters with polar bears are less common in the mountains than by the Fjords, and most stay close to the extensive sea ice on the east coast. Still, wandering out of the cabin at 4am for a pee, knowing there’s a chance you might bump in to one, remained a sobering thought. I took photos of the pee stick, and they look much better in monotone. It’s an important reference point when you are melting snow for water, and helps ensure you don’t boil up something unpleasant for morning coffee, fortunately these didn’t live up to the sight of the aurora borealis dancing above sleeping dogs outside the cabin.
Returning after three days, coming off the high plateau and descending at speed, the dogs in rhythm, the weather whiting-out and creating a significant avalanche risk, there were moments when I recognised Tommy’s description of the ‘magic carpet ride’, the elusive experience of deep snow and silence, the dogs at full flow, every fibre alive, and a sled floating on the surface of the snow like it was polished air.
I have what seems like a thousand photographs of these dogs, I suppose that’s suggestive of my gratitude and admiration for their abilities.
Conflicts and Geopolitics
On our return, we discovered Longyearbyen had mounted a solidarity demonstration with the people of Ukraine. A demonstration I was sorry to have missed and one which caused deliberation regarding a planned trip to visit Barentsburg, arrangements for which were first made and postponed in March 2020 during the onset of the pandemic. Outside the research stations at Ny-Alesund and the largely abandoned Russian settlement of Pyramiden, Barentsburg is the only other sizeable settlement on the Island. It’s also a Russian coal company town that has its share of both Russian and Ukrainian residents. After some discussion our guide thought it important to make the trip, but not to spend money in the state owned Russian hotel where it’s usual to get something to eat. Instead he suggested we take some soup to eat outside and quietly, yet publicly, make a point of boycotting the premises, particularly as other snowmobile trips might be headed there.
These are fine lines, and the discussion of the relationship between the two settlements had already animated discussion in Longyearbyen, with the Governor reiterating that all of Svalbard remained Norwegian territory. However, wider geopolitical reasons, including the potential opening of the high arctic to trade and development due to climate change, have dictated a Russian need to maintain a presence on the island, and many doubt the mining operation there is making any money. More likely, it’s subsidised to maintain a presence, much like the many formerly abandoned research and military outposts across the Arctic that are now being re-populated.
There is also the balance between dissident voices in Barentsburg, some of whom have relocated to Longyearbyen because of their opposition to Putin, and the significant number of Ukrainians, for whom employment there is crucial and for whom a return to ‘home’ is not an easy possibility. Local knowledge and understanding can be key in navigating these narratives and the deep connections between the two communities are well established. Dialogue and expression of the conflict is currently being provided for through the Spitsbergen Artists Centre in an especially curated space for people to explore the trauma of conflict and war. It was in this context we set out on a nine hour snowmobile trip to reach the town and to very carefully manifest our little protest. There is a perception that snowmobiles are an easy way to travel, and of course they are significantly faster and easier than maintaining a dog team. What they are not, is easy on your back, and whilst they can outrun a polar bear if needed, the noise of a 600cc engine becomes wearingly monotonous over a few hours.
Coles Bay is an abandoned Russian mining settlement that can be reached as a detour from the more usual route to Barentsburg. Magnificently desolate on a snowy overcast March morning, it’s evidently a shelter for summer excursions, with many of the old dormitories still remaining and replete with Soviet era newspapers used as additional insulation on walls and as floor linings. It contains all the atmosphere of a Stephen King horror novel, with cut-outs of ‘creepy’ kids stuck to the side of an old fridge and a shelf full of useful items such as flour, soy sauce and live rounds. Eli, our guide, said he’d prefer to take his chances outside in his tent, with the polar bears. I pointed out a sledge hammer propped against a wall and he told me not to speculate.
It’s a peculiar, breathtakingly remote and beautiful place, where snow gathers outside the windows that shelter rusty iron bed frames, and a gap in the window frame is filled with a pair of old underpants. Yes, definitely better not to speculate. The ‘guest book’ records Polish, Canadian and Italian visitors, an ‘Alexander the Great’ reminding both Eli and I, of ‘Alexander Supertramp’, the sad story of a traveller’s lonely death in an abandoned Alaskan School bus. It felt like a moment to re-boot the scooters and head further West and we left the dormitory to find my windshield had been dismantled by the Arctic wind, propelling both it, and my helmet and gloves someway down the hill towards the Fjord. With no means of drying or de-frosting the snowy interior of the helmet I pulled it tight over my balaclava and drove the next few miles with a numbing brain freeze, which somehow elevated the experience in a narcotic manner, creating a suitably spaced enjoyment of the drifting ice fronts and blue black clouds that threatened snow.
We were the first to arrive in Barentsburg that day, and as we sat eating goulash from Thermos flasks a few more visitors arrived by snow mobile, either climbing past us up the Hotel’s steps or quietly chatting about the new conflict that was dominating everyone’s thoughts. I listened to a conversation about the support provided for a Ukrainian guide by his Russian neighbours and the deep sadness, anxiety and fear that had become a daily reality for the significant Ukrainian community here, compounded by their location in what some regard as Russian territory. Yet they are also neighbours and friends and as always need to rely on the informal acts of solidarity and mutual aid that are second nature in the high arctic, and without which few could sustain themselves. Our lunch boycott over and fortified by hot blackcurrant and goulash, we walked across to the statue of Lenin, still silently observing Gronfjorden, whilst surrounded by the lego-like dormitories and public buildings whose colours and confidence now appear untimely, echoes of a grander vision that must ultimately meet its limitations in both people and place.
Our long journey back was broken by a further stop for hot blackcurrant and coffee in an old trapper’s cabin. Here Eli told stories about a different way of life. About navigation, travel and survival in the high Arctic, and about the importance of reading nature’s signs given the proximity of disaster to any such undertaking. In a context where the drama of the narrative is matched by the grandeur of the location, it’s possible to feel the hostility to human presence that the landscape sometimes projects, and yet feel comforted in its proximity. A solemn but joyous reminder of mortality, of the fragility and change that draws people in, to the inhospitable.
As we drank warm blackcurrant from Kuksa, Eli lit a pipe, which seemed fitting, and he finished his story, everyone in it died.
People and places
There’s a very long story to be told about some of the people we have met here, and I’m saving it because I know it won’t end and there will be far more to write about in future. I want to tell it through portraits and sketches, and comments and quotes, and I’m working on a project to make that happen. For now it includes some of the people whose presence already populates this piece, in description or inspiration, the dog-mushers, polar explorers and climbers, the artists and guides, scientists and miners, teachers and bus drivers. The population here changes though and turnover is high, without three years under your belt it’s unlikely you’ll be taken too seriously.
Those above that line, well they’re the Svalbardians of international heritage, the community of choice that provides the distinctiveness and perhaps the character of the place. Arriving here from England, inevitably we stumbled across others reportedly from the UK. Amongst those we met were a markswoman, artist and explorer with the northern most Border Collie in the World. A guide, climber, dog-musher and adventurer who transitioned seamlessly to work as an artist during the pandemic, and finally over a late night ‘pic-n-mix’ our three friends from the south of England, whose colleagues still believe they’re ‘working from home’. One of whom pretended the dark season was their Grandma’s basement during zoom meetings, another who invents fictional shopping trips and weekends away to be more convincing in small talk before meetings start. Both have a close eye on the weather apps for their home towns and try to dress accordingly before the cameras.
For now, the sun is starting to dominate the sky, building shadows and washing out colours, soon Longyearbyen will become the land of the midnight sun, as birds and walruses return, whales will be spotted and the snow will slowly recede, stranding the snow scooters for another few months and in the back of some minds there will be the desire for darkness again, just as the energy of the land and people make rest a more difficult possibility and minds turn back to the quieter moments before the sun returned.