Svalbard Bound: A Trip to Norway’s Far North

By Ross Wollen

I should probably explain why I wanted to go to Svalbard at all, because it is such an unusual destination. When I met Mr. Steves in Oslo, and told him that we were going there, he called me an "odd duck."

I think I was proud of being an "odd duck." I travel as often as I can, and have recently realized that fewer of my best memories are linked with the major tourist destinations. The highlight of a trip to Greece was arriving off-season in the island of Tilos — my girlfriend and I were the only two tourists on the island and were given the penthouse suite for $20. The highlight of a roadtrip through the US wasn't Mount Rushmore or Yellowstone but an isolated two-lane highway through Nevada dubbed "the loneliest road in America." The modern tourist machine often dulls the sense of exploration that one should feel while traveling.

Reading about Svalbard, also known as Spitsbergen, I got excited about going somewhere that nobody I knew had ever even heard of, but that offered as much beauty and fascination as anywhere else I could find. The fact that it was at the top of the world, as far north as anyone could possibly travel in comfort, added a whole sense of adventure to the destination. My interest began with a stunning photograph in a Rough Guide book, and was stoked by the descriptions in the Lonely Planet guidebook, which touts Svalbard relentlessly. Lonely Planet even suggests that visitors consider Svalbard in their one-week itinerary!

Upon landing I was somewhat disappointed, however. I expected it to be a place of jaw-dropping beauty. It is attractive, but its sights don't initially stand up to the impressive western fjords, which I suspect most travelers, visit immediately beforehand, as I just had. I was a bit depressed our first night, wondering if it was worth the difficulty it was to get there.

The major problem with tourism in Svalbard is that it magnifies the basic hassles of travel. The money is an issue: airline tickets cost as much as international flights, and lodging and eating costs are inflated above the already high Norwegian norms. The time involved in getting to and from Tromsø, the nice but unspectacular city from which all flights to Svalbard depart, will waste a couple days. Unseasonably cold weather necessitates extra packing. These impediments would make a trip to Svalbard prohibitive for any traveler. My mother was footing the bill as a graduation present, and had I been paying out of my own pocket I suspect that I wouldn't have even considered it as a destination.

Longyearbyen, the destination of all flights in, is a unique and curious little town. The influence of the arctic environment is obvious, resulting in some unusual engineering and vibrantly colorful painting, to combat the darkness of the winter months. It is also a surprisingly cosmopolitan town, with art galleries, long wine lists at restaurants, and an outstanding grocery store and mini-mall. The men and women working in the tourist sector generally speak great English, and all seemed like worldly, well-traveled people.

One of the single greatest aspects of Svalbard was the enthusiasm of its residents. Mainland Norwegians who I spoke to about the archipelago, most of whom had visited, said that it had an addictive quality. Many of the residents, especially those working in tourism, live there because they love it, and began their own experiences as tourists. They love to show their home to you.

The town itself is worth just a few hours of exploration. There is an interesting museum (where the caretaker refused to accept my entrance fee), a spooky little graveyard, abandoned mines, and a couple of glaciers visible in the distance. Tourists are cautioned not to leave the town limits without a firearm in case of polar bears (I suspect that the threat is exaggerated for effect), so there isn't much of an easy opportunity for scenic walks or hikes. The sights are such that our taxi driver who we hired for an hour tour ran out of things to show and tell us after forty minutes. The real attraction of Longyearbyen is the plethora of outdoor activities available.

All of the activities offered in Longyearbyen involve experiencing the arctic environment surrounding it. Snowshoeing, dogsledding, snowmobiling, and Nordic skiing make up the bulk of the winter activities offered, but these are largely unavailable to the summer traveler. Summer activities include hiking, glacier walks, rafting and kayaking. Tamer, more local activities include fossil hunts and mine tours.

The entirety of our first day was spent on the most popular day-long boat trip offered. About 15 tourists (nearly all of whom were Norwegian) were packed into a small old steamer that rumbled south down the coast of Spitsbergen, the largest island in the Svalbard archipelago. The coastline was an endless series of black, jagged peaks, dusted with snow. The centerpiece of the trip was an hour-long stay at Barentsburg, a small mining town populated entirely by Russian and Ukrainian workers that still ships coal back to the mainland. Aside from the Norwegian currency used it was quite impossible to tell that we were anywhere but Russia. It was one of the oddest and most fascinating places I've ever seen, and the residents seemed happier than you might expect miners at the end of the earth to be. On the way back, we stopped by a bay choked with pack ice and fed by a large glacier. This was supposedly the best area for polar bear sightings, but we only found a handful of seals. The trip, as a whole, was interesting but not much better than any of the days we had spent traveling on the mainland.

The highlight of our stay in Svalbard was unquestionably a two-hour dogsledding trip conducted on a plateau a few miles outside of Longyearbyen. I was given a team of dogs to drive, while my mother sat in the sled. We only had to go over one hill before we completely lost sight of all human influence — it was 360 degrees of mountain and snow, and nothing else. It was the quietest and cleanest and most undisturbed place I had ever been, and one of the most beautiful. Driving my own dogs was easy and tremendously fun, and, with the surroundings, I found it easy to imagine that I was sliding over uncharted territory, on a race to the North Pole.

This short trip rescued Svalbard for me — although the experiences I had leading up to it were interesting and worthwhile, they weren't as awesome as I had expected. Sledding in the mountains was the first time that I keenly felt that I was in the Arctic, and enjoying an utterly unique experience in one of Earth's truly unique places.

I don't know if I'll ever return to Svalbard — the cost and time involved make it totally unsuitable for a second three or four day trip. But if I do return, I know exactly what I'll do: another dogsledding trip, this time at least a week long. A number of guide companies offer much longer dogsledding treks that go across the islands of Svalbard and into the multi-year ice north of the island in the spring. Visiting for only a few days, as we did, is an inefficient and unfair way to see the archipelago. In western Norway, a short ferry trip will show you every inch and angle of an amazing fjord; in Svalbard, the attractions are neither distinct nor compact (nor well-labeled) enough to be revealed in a just few days' time.

Still, it feels good to look at the top of the globe and actually know that desolate looking chunk of land — and also know that it's a place Rick Steves will probably never go.

When Rick met Ross Wollen in Oslo in 2009, he challenged Ross to write about his foray up to Svalbard…and this is the result.