With dramatic landscapes, the northern lights and, at times, absolute silence, Svalbard offers a rare chance to feel like a first-time explorer, says Connor McGovern
“Last week, a polar bear and her two cubs walked past the lodge,” says Maaike, her face childlike with excitement as she recounts her memories of Svalbard’s most notorious resident. “It’s exciting even for us.” Smiling, my host returns to her steaming pot of reindeer stew — a tempting waft of what’s to come later this evening. We’re sitting around her dining table, surrounded by hunting paraphernalia and bearskins in a faithful replica of one of Svalbard’s old trapping stations, once used by hunters who’d been out in the bitter wilderness with just their trusted rifle. It’s snug and cozy with an old heater in the corner and miners’ lamps hanging from the beams.
It’s so snug, in fact, that I’m almost reluctant to step back outside into the dark. But Piotr, our guide, has reappeared with a face flecked by ice and beckons us outside. There are no polar bears, he assures us, but we’re about to meet some other furry beasts. He leads us to the dog yard, where rows of wooden kennels stretch out before us, their four-legged residents curled up inside.
“There are about 90 of them,” he says, “but we’ll just meet 24 tonight.” To my left is Dropbox — brother of Google and Skype — a fluffy Greenland dog whose wagging tail is hard to resist. Before I know it, I’ve roused the attention of his neighbors, tugging at their leads to get a stroke. But there are more pressing matters at hand — harnessing.
Piotr makes it look like child’s play. He slips Dido into her harness in no time. Now, the others have realized what’s going on — one by one, they emerge from their kennels and burst into a din of barking, whining and howling. It takes me several attempts to harness Nunatuq, who insists on licking my face, and even more attempts to get dancing Sierra through the loops in the harness.
After much patience — and intervention from Piotr — our sled is ready to go. “The sleds are simple to use,” he explains, perhaps forgetting how much of a hash I’d made of readying the dogs. “You stand on this pedal to brake and keep hold of the handles with both hands. It’s simple.” With a few other lingering pieces of advice, the dogs soon charge downhill to the valley. They’re fast; much faster than I’d anticipated. I have to muster all kinds of arm and core strength just to stay upright and quickly become familiar with the brake. But as the ground levels out, I find my groove and drive the dogs onwards, letting the polar air tickle my cheeks as we glide across the snow.
‘Avalanche risk. Keep left’ reads a hand-painted sign. With a fleeting glance up the mountain beside me, I keep going. It’s eerily dark; the tiny beam from my headlamp is lost in the black canvas of Svalbard’s landscape, and there are almost no landmarks to guide us. No trees, no houses, no signposts. Somewhere behind me is the faint glow of the trapper’s station, and on the hilltop, one of Svalbard’s last remaining coal mines, its cranes and containers twinkling from above.
But down here in the valley, we’re tiny and helpless as our sleds slice through the Arctic silence, leaving a furrowed trail in our wake.
Where: Located high in the Arctic Circle, about halfway between Norway and the North Pole
When: Go in winter for the snow sports and a true Arctic adventure, and in summer for the flora, fauna and midnight sun
How: Scandinavian Airlines flies to Longyearbyen from New York, with a layover in Oslo. Norwegian flies from Los Angeles, also with a layover in Oslo