On the flight from Oslo to Svalbard, the sun gave way to night as we crossed the Arctic Circle; for one magical moment, the plane’s wing bisected light and dark perfectly. This would be the last natural light I would see for a week. For half the year, Svalbard, the northernmost inhabited place in the world, is lit by the midnight sun. The other half of the year, the Norwegian archipelago is plunged into the purple darkness of polar night.
Few people have heard of Svalbard and even fewer have seen it. The isolated group of islands is an old mining settlement turned glacial adventuring outpost located 1,200 miles north of mainland Norway, one of the closest landmasses to the North Pole, along with Greenland and Nunavut. The approximately 2,200 inhabitants dotting the desolate tundra are itinerant, a mix of climate scientists, miners and globe-trotting explorers mostly from Russia, Scandinavia and Canada. There are more polar bears than people.
Historically, this archipelago was the isolated purview of turn-of-the-century airship explorers obsessed with finding the Northwest Passage; more recently Svalbard served as the fantastical setting for Phillip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy. Today, it is poised to be the next extreme vacation destination for tourists obsessed with climate change, wilderness and chasing the Northern Lights.
Svalbard is an Arctic desert. Its permafrost makes it the ideal home for the Global Seed Vault, an underground repository for the world’s most vital crops (and likely Svalbard’s most famous tourist attraction, though no tourists are allowed inside). But this permafrost also means nothing can take root, giving the place an eerily lunar landscape, with no trees and few animals.
The extreme isolation and hardness of the landscape is what drew me here, too. I took the trip with my partner Noah. Both of our marriages had recently ended, and in our 40s, we were suddenly rootless, dislocated in a way neither of us had expected. It was as though we’d sat on the shoreline, watching a glacier crumble into the ocean. We’d found each other, but our relationship was still new and untested. Perhaps we’d been drawn to the Arctic to see if anything permanent in the world still existed.
And so, at the end of December, after spending a few days in Oslo exploring Grünerløkka’s record shops and the Viking Museum’s ships, we took a direct morning flight to Svalbard. I imagined stepping off the plane into a sea of phosphorescent green aurora, but when we arrived, the sky was cloudy. Noah had seen the Northern lights many times, mostly in Iceland, but this would be my first experience. I loved the idea of the sun setting off a solar flare 92 million miles away, and having it appear here in all its eerie ectoplasmic beauty, like some ghostly atomic postcard.
A set of stairs was rolled up to the plane’s exit door and along with everyone else we wrapped our bodies in our serious coats and hats and mittens before stepping out into the icy air. At the bottom of the slippery staircase, a woman in a reflective flightsuit directed us toward the airport with hand-held lantern flares. A silver foil tiara spelled out Happy New Year on top of her white-blond bun. It was 10 in the morning on New Year’s Eve and pitch black.
Scarcity and opulence
Longyearbyen, Svalbard’s main settlement, is essentially two roads in a giant T. This once untouchable frontier has evolved into a study in contrasts, a balance of scarcity and opulence, some of the world’s roughest terrain inexplicably mixed with luxury. For a long time, Svalbard was reserved for the tourist elite because of the difficulty and cost of travel, not to mention the expense of outfitting yourself with the right boots, parka, layers and more to withstand the cold. Visitors tend to be either young adventurers working their way across the world or high-end travelers checking off their bucket lists, and most of the lodging and restaurant options fall into either the budget or splurge category. There is little middle ground.
We booked a room at Funken Lodge, a modern hotel with clean lines and Scandinavian efficiency, where we were welcomed with drinks by the fireplace at the hotel bar (rooms are currently about $150 to $180 a night, breakfast included). We’d made New Year’s Eve dinner reservations at Huset, the highest-end of the handful of restaurants in town, and that evening took a taxi to the unassuming building tucked dramatically at the foot of a towering glacier, where the row of snowmobiles parked out front made it look more ski-lodge than fine Nordic dining. The building has, at various times served as the island’s post office, church, school and airport terminal, as well as a miner’s boardinghouse. Today it is also the understated home to one of the largest wine cellars in Scandinavia with 15,000 bottles and a Two Wine Glass distinction from Wine Spectator magazine.
Huset’s staid interior was in stark contrast to the decadence of the plates. Our five-course meal (1,200 Norwegian krone each, or about $131 per person) started with an appetizer of woody chanterelles that had been foraged locally. Glistening cuts of Isfjord cod and roe were nestled atop beds of lichen and ptarmigan feathers. The main course showcased local reindeer two ways (tartare and made into hearty sausage), accompanied by strands of salty kelp harvested from the island’s shoreline and microgreens provided by the island’s sole greenhouse, a pink geodesic dome visible from the main road. The structure’s neon blink was the only colored light on the island, like a pair of neon Wayfarers in a sea of mirrored Aviators.
The waiter told us that the restaurant turned into a local’s nightclub after dinner, so we stayed in our corner, sipping from our many half-glasses of wine as the demure dining room changed over to flashing lights and techno. A few minutes before midnight, Noah and I pulled our coats and boots on and half-stumbled, half-skated to the edge of the parking lot between the restaurant and the high wall of the glacier. Some of the kitchen staff lit off fireworks, holding the cardboard containers as the flares launched into the air, refracting off the towering wall of glittering ice until everything was bathed in flame. They were not Northern Lights, but these man-made sparkles of color had their own kind of otherworldly beauty.
To the dogs
We woke to the first day of the new year and nursed our hangovers, grateful for the dark. Months earlier, we’d booked a Northern Light Safari with Dog Sled (2,780 krone for two). In the safe glow of a computer screen at home, this had sounded whimsical and romantic. Now, it was mildly terrifying.
Our guide picked us up in a cube van from the hotel, and as we drove farther out of town the streetlamps disappeared, replaced by polar bear warning signs. From a distance, Green Dog Svalbard looked more like a maximum-security prison than a dog-sledding outfit, but the guide explained the chain-link fence and floodlights were needed to keep the dogs safe from polar bears. This was comforting, until I realized the point of our trip was to take the dogs from camp out onto the glacier.
Before sledding, we hung up our fancy parkas and shouldered into bulky jumpsuits that smelled like dog and hooked oversized sheepskin mitts on a string around our necks. This reminded me sweetly of a child’s mittens, until the guide warned us that unguarded our hands would get frostbitten in less than five minutes.
From the hut we followed the guide into the open-air kennel. Names were painted onto each of the dozens of doghouses, and dogs whimpered and leapt with excitement, pulling on their chains staked to the frozen ground. Each sledge held two people and the dogs were organized into teams of six. The guide shouted some general directions over the deafening howling; I tried to listen while wrestling our dogs into formation, sweating profusely under my layers, goggles completely fogged. “Here is your anchor!” He held up a heavy ball of spiked metal attached to the sled. “Make sure you secure your anchor, or it will flop around dangerously and claw you in the leg!”
Noah and I got our bearings on the sledge, essentially a roughhewn Flexible Flyer with a high back, which I sat against and he stood behind. With no fanfare, the guide’s whistle pierced the night, and our six huskies were running, the lights and safety and noise of the kennel disappearing behind us.
Even with a hood, balaclava and goggles, the wind froze my breath in my chest. We were racing through the Bolterdalen Valley, but we could have been on the moon, and I felt like an astronaut floating in space. Our path was lit only by my headlamp, though the dogs clearly knew where to go, and although Noah held reins in his hands, we were just passengers. A few minutes in, we were so completely alone on the ridge of the glacier, so completely in the middle of nowhere, that I began to feel panicky. I concentrated on the dogs’ rhythmic breathing echoing into the icy silence and tried to calm down.
By the time we returned to camp more than an hour later, I could not feel my jaw or feet. Noah and I worked at unhooking our dogs and returning them to their doghouses, and suddenly I was a sweaty mess again, jaw and feet tingling back to life.
In the van on the way back to the hotel, Noah cracked a handwarmer to life and slipped it between our palms. “Did you see the Northern lights?” he asked, flushed. Apparently they’d appeared in the middle of the trip, but I’d been so focused on the dogs, and keeping my balance on the sledge, I’d completely missed them.
Going inside the glacier
The next few days blended into one long night. We ate elaborate meals of Arctic char and gravlax at our hotel restaurant and handmade chocolates from Fruene, the world’s northernmost chocolate shop. We slept late and took long walks through town, wary of bears. Everywhere we went, our snow pants made a shush-shush sound.
One night, we layered up for an evening glacier hike. Our guide Martin drove us to a cluster of miner’s cabins at the edge of town where he handed out headlamps and springy-teethed crampons for the bottoms of our boots.
Martin was tall and trim and he secured his rifle to his back with an embroidered strap of red and green and gold. He cautioned us to stay together — our group of six could only go as fast as the slowest hiker to stay safe from polar bears since he was the only one with a gun. His husky, Tequila, joined us on the two-hours of precarious ice trekking, until we arrived at an unassuming hole the size of a sewer grate on the top of the glacier. We took turns sliding down a tunnel into the dark.
The ice came alive under our headlamps, and the glossy gray ribcages of stalagmites and stalactites made me feel like Jonah inside his whale. The swirls of sediment made wavy marbled ribbons in the wall, and the clicking of our crampons echoed through the tunnels. It felt like walking on teeth and bone and glass.
Summer snowmelt created these caverns. We’d been hiking above a network of underground tunnels. Martin passed around cookies and cups of syrupy blackcurrant juice, leaving purple stains on a makeshift ice bar, and after an hour of wandering inside the tunnels, we crawled back out to Tequila and into a snowstorm. We trekked downhill in an ebullient line, giddy despite the icy crevices and drop-offs that lurked beyond the pale light of our headlamps under the cloudy night sky. There were no Northern Lights, but as we hiked back, a small triangle of light appeared between the glaciers. Town.
I spied the strange pink glow of the geodesic dome, the island’s unlikely greenhouse. As my crampons gripped the ice, I thought about the beds of tender green leaves that I imagined populated it. Why try to grow something in an Arctic desert, a place that by nature is uninhabitable to anything with roots? No one can be born in Svalbard — pregnant women are required to leave the island weeks before their due date — and you cannot be buried there because of the permafrost. And yet, this neon dome pulsed, a pink heart on an otherwise blank slate, offering the promise of new growth where none was expected, roots where otherwise there were none.
Hot dogs and the aurora
Noah’s birthday arrived on the final day of our trip, and I packed our hotel towels and slippers into a bag and told him I’d arranged for a surprise. I’d reserved space on an excursion called “Sauna Meal & Aurora Borealis,” and soon, after driving in a cube van to an isolated campsite on the tundra, we were helping our guide Misha stretch a canvas cover across the crisscrossed spines of a tent frame over a portable sauna. Misha made hot dogs over an open fire in a steel caldron on the ice while we waited for the sauna to heat up. This was the least glamorous meal we ate in Svalbard, and yet it managed to still feel extraordinary as we sat together around the fire, drinking tea and eating hot dogs in the Arctic.
After the barbecue, we stripped off layer after thermal layer, scuttling the 20-foot distance between tents in just a towel and slippers. Once the sauna tent’s flap was securely zipped, we sat in lawn chairs on the ice in the small dark space, listening to the hiss of the water on the rocks. We sweated, luxuriating in the heat, pawing snowballs from the floor and running them against our bare skin. This was the strangest but perhaps most fitting way for our time in the Arctic to end, I thought, huddled together with full bellies on the tundra, Misha patrolling the perimeter for polar bears.
After some time, I wiped the fog from the small slice of clear plastic in the side of the tent and realized the stars were ablaze in the sky, and as I scanned the edge of the glacier I saw something forming: like a cloud, but more ghostly. I grabbed Noah’s arm and we ran outside.
We stood, staring, in slippers and towels on the tundra, as the milky wash of the aurora sparkled across the sky. The lights weren’t green; they weren’t any color, really, but I’d never seen anything like it. My sweat felt like all the stars in the sky were wrapped around my body in a blanket, little spears of heat and ice, and when I turned to Noah his skin was bathed in silver, as if his body was part of the aurora itself.
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