Condé Nast Traveller - Freeze Frame
January 2016

The raw wilderness of Norway’s Svalbard is one of the harshest environments on the planet but it’s a land where everyone gets along, because getting along is the only way to survive. This is real-life ‘Fortitude’, the Scandic-Noir that’s soon to resurface.

  The Arctic archipelago of Svalbard is a man-made construct without natives or roots. You have to leave when you are pregnant because there are no proper hospitals. If by chance you die here, your body is sent back to the mainland because permafrost makes burial impossible. In other words, as Herdis Lien of the thoroughly modern Svalbard Museum says, ‘It is not designed to see through a life cycle.’
  Sitting at a latitude of 78º N, Svalbard lies 800km north of mainland Norway. Its biggest island is Spitsbergen -- the destination for most travellers to this region -- reached in three hours by plane from Oslo.
  Many come and go. The first documented visit was by Dutch explorers, then English walrus hunters, Danish whalers, Russian fox trappers and American mining entrepreneurs. In the 1920s Norway magicked up a utopian idea for this lawless land: the Svalbard (or Spitsbergen) Treaty, now signed by more than 40 countries whose citizens, when they move here, have absolute equality with Norwegians, from owning property to opening a mine. The treaty also states that Svalbard ‘may never be used for warlike purposes’. There is no need for visas or work permits for anyone from a signatory country, whether they are from Afghanistan or Venezuela. Everyone who comes chooses to be here. There is no poverty nor crime, but also no social security and no nursing homes. It has a population of about 2,500 people and 3,000 polar bears.
  In spite of its northerly latitude, the weather is relatively mild because of the warm West Spitsbergen Current, which means temperatures often hover around zero. The cold may not be extreme, but the darkness is. There is no sun for six months of the year, which may explain some of the deadpan expressions I encounter along the way, a slightly detached lack of emotion.
  ‘I love living here,’ Jolinne Marlowe, who works at the restaurant of hotel Isfjord Radio, tells me joylessly. She is translucently fair, luminously beautiful, but she doesn’t offer the flicker of a smile. ‘I’m so happy in Svalbard,’ she adds glumly.
  After half a year of polar nights comes the light – from mid-April to mid-August – and people talk of ‘the sun coming back’ like a prodigal son. But it is between winter and summer that the light here is at its most tantalising. Hanne Andersen, who works at the liquor store in Longyearbyen, has lived here nearly 30 years. ‘Every February, I stand at the window and look at the light,’ he says. ‘It is blue and mighty.’ At these times there is an out-of-focus softness to life. Clouds smudge, like ink blots, before God-moment rays of sunshine blow holes in the sky.

  I fly from Oslo to Longyearbyen, Svalbard’s main town, where about half the population is Norwegian and the next biggest group of nationals is from Thailand. Go figure. It is said that a Norwegian man married a Thai woman, and her family and friends have since joined her, attracted by the high salaries and low taxes.
  This is undoubtedly a transient place – about a fifth of the population is replaced each year – but many others choose to make a life here. Many times I hear people say, ‘I came for a few months and stayed.’ And as I stare out at the Arctic blue and shining ice I wonder if I might never leave, too.
  Wearing a snowsuit, helmet and gigantic mittens, I take the keys to a snowmobile. I’d always thought of these machines as noisy, smelly and bad for the environment – a bit like jet skis. But here they are essential; it’s the only life-or-death way to get around. We load up supplies: a tent, ration packs, a half-loaded rifle and flare gun, a satphone, GPS and extra fuel.
  The guide, Steinar Rorgemoen, shows up. He is a bear of a man who wears a XXXL helmet and drives a tiny Toyota. We clamber on our trio of snowmobiles and leave town through a narrow valley before traversing frozen delta systems. Crisp, sculpted mountains rise abruptly from the brooding sea. In this grainy light, the landscape looks like a lithograph.
  I slow down to study a solitary short-legged reindeer. He raises his head, before bowing it again to nose at the ice for a strand of vegetation. It’s a tough life, no matter how shaggy and stocky you are. Reindeer here reject living in a herd because there’s too much competition for the limited resources.
  We stop at Svalbard’s second biggest settlement, Barentsburg, where signs are in Cyrillic. The town is built around a Russian-owned coal mine and we are suddenly catapulted back to Siberia circa 1970. Here there are lurid Communist-era flats, onion-domed buildings, rusting heavy machinery, murals of chisel-faced workers, forests of fir trees and billowing wheat fields. In the restaurant here -- catering for some of the mine’s employees, hungry scientists and the odd tourist -- I order a bowl of Borscht from a stony-faced Ukrainian. ‘Spasibo,’ I say. She glares back at me like a henchwoman in a Bond film.
  We move on to Isfjord Radio, a former barracks and radio station facing Greenland Sea, which is now a clapboard hotel surrounded by disused satellite dishes, antennae and a lighthouse. Food is brought in only twice a year: by boat in summer and snowmobile in winter (when ingredients can get frostbite and eggs are carried inside sleeping bags). ‘We pickle a lot, like my grandmother used to, and dry things in salt,’ the hotel chef tells me.
  I wish I could say I chewed dried Arctic char with calloused hands but in fact I feasted like a polar princess: Kobe seal prepared with soya sauce and sesame washed down with Bøgedal beer, followed by reindeer blood sausage and lingonberries accompanied by Crozes-Hermitage. This is proper, Copenhagen-style sophistication. Remember this chef’s name: Søren Jørgensen. We’ll be screaming it from the rooftops before long.
  I ask Steinar if we might pop in on the trapper who supplied the reindeer meat. There are only three full-time trappers in Svalbard, all of them legendary, who live by odd rules such as if you set five traps you can only take home five arctic foxes but if you set three traps you can take as many as you like. Steinar rules out a visit. ‘We can’t “pop in” on trappers,’ he says. ‘They don’t do “popping in”. One of them does not like to talk. Ever.’
  Outside the window, the sea is darker than slate flicked by textured white surf, as if added by a palette knife as an afterthought. It seems there is always a squall threatening.
  I walk out into the wind. Two men go by, nod at me, throw off all their clothes and leap into the sea. A walrus with giant tusks swims past behind them and a seal raises its shiny head.
  We backtrack north. A storm blows in. The GPS is down to 30 metres. Steinar says visibility is zero. It’s hard to fathom what that even means in this colourless landscape. There is no perspective or definition. We plough into deep, soft snow. For the next half-hour we’re digging out. As we sweat and scrape and shovel, I glance around for polar bears.
‘Not necessary,’ Steinar says. ‘They’re not aggressive.’
  I am skeptical. ‘Really?’
  ‘Polar bears are only curious – and always hungry.’
  But polar bears have a reputation as being the most dangerous mammals in the world. Even Steinar admits they’re ‘totally unpredictable and very sneaky’.
  Everyone here has a polar bear story. When a seal pops out of its ice hole, one swipe from a waiting polar bear lands him 40 metres away. They break into cabins, smashing down doors and crashing through glass windows. One Danish guide was kayaking around Spitsbergen when a bear destroyed his boat; he holed up in a cabin, hewed a backgammon set from reindeer horn and waited 12 days to be rescued. Another guide has seen 300 in her 15-year career, including one harrowingly close encounter: she saved herself by shooting the animal in the shoulder with a rubber bullet when it was a metre away.
  At Tempelfjord we spend a night on a 100-year-old steel-hulled schooner. In summer, the vessel navigates the fjords and during winter, she is deliberately frozen into sea ice. The captain tells me that in her first, untested season they could only hope the hull would take the pressure. As I curl up in my cabin, I imagine the ice bearing down on the other side of the wall. Huskies howl in the distance. The next morning, as I rev my snowmobile, puffins fly overhead.
  We stop at Pyramiden, a Russian mining town abandoned in the late 1990s. Apparently the entire population left in the dead of night leaving behind plates on tables, sheets on beds and a film rolling in the cinema. The hotel has recently reopened and it looks like something from The Shining. Only five people live in this ghost town. One of them, Sasha, a near-Russian cliché in his felt Valenki boots and high papaha fur hat, tells me his wife left him when they were passing through Istanbul so he thought he’d come here.
  We cross the sea ice towards the Nordenskiöld Glacier, with its textured, ruched surfaces and startling Bombay Sapphire-blue hue. In the distance I make out a young woman on skis pulled by a roped husky, a rifle slung across her back. She’s looks exhilaratingly free, not trying to prove anything to anybody. It turns out to be Ingebjørg Schrøder, the woman who singlehandedly looks after the cabin where we are spending the night. A hundred metres after our encounter there are polar bear tracks in the fresh snow.
  That evening I ask her if she is ever afraid.
  ‘It’s healthy to be alone,’ she says. ‘I listen to the wind and notice its direction. I hear the waves under the sea ice. I picture myself on the very top of the globe and life feels perfect.’
  Her cabin has a whistling chimney. There is no electricity and water is sourced from glacier ice. They say this is the world’s most northern lodge for commercial use. It may also be the final outpost before oblivion. The governor of Svalbard is considering halting all development beyond Longyearbyen’s city limits.
  On my last day I harness six dogs to a sled that looks like it might have been leased from Santa Claus. Pulling me are Gagarin, Nansen, Putin, Yukon, Tundra, and Ruger with his mismatched blue and hazel eyes. Working together these creatures can reach speeds of 18km per hour. I love their haste, almost a panic, to pull, and the fact they are clever enough to poo as they run.
  On return, the dogs are tired but there are no treats. Dead seals hang from a teepee-like structure (out of reach of polar bears). My dogs will eat with the others later in the day. There is no soft touch out here.
  The Arctic environment hardens you. I meet at Italian who has been here 20 years. He says he stays ‘for the distance, for the light, for the horizon’, and vows to remain ‘as long as I am nervous. If you stop being nervous, it’s over. You feel a mistake here very fast.’ When I ask another explorer if the rawness and risks make life cheaper, or more expendable, he breaks down without explanation, muttering ‘sorry’. Svalbard is a tough, mysterious and beautiful place.
  I never see the aurora borealis. Neither do I see a polar bear. But it’s no matter, really, truly, not through clenched teeth. You come here for the remoteness; for the silence; to feel the air whooshing into your lungs; for the shifting-slanting light; for the instant immersion into wilderness, and above all, to remember your unimportance.

Michelle Jana Chan travelled with Natural World Safaris (