Travel November 2010

Don’t Shoot the Bear

Whale pizzas and polar bears: A man on a mission at the Arctic Circle
Johnny Mazzilli/Courtesy Visitnorway.us

Near the outskirts of Longyearbyen (population 2,000), the administrative center of Norway’s Svalbard archipelago and the world’s northernmost town, I noticed an attractive young woman pushing a pram. Nothing particularly unusual about that, except that the woman had a 30.06 rifle slung over her shoulder.

The rifle’s message wasn’t “Mess with me or my kid, and I’ll blow you to kingdom come.” Rather, the rifle was protection against polar bears. Unlike the armor-clad Svalbard bears in Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, the archipelago’s nonfictional bears have been known to include human beings in their diet.

Thus, it’s a good idea to carry a firearm if you’re venturing outside of town. But remember that the local laws favor wildlife—a reaction against four centuries of promiscuous harvesting—which means that if you shoot a polar bear, even in self-defense, you’ll be subjected to a legal process hardly less involved than if you shot a person.

Given my aversion to legal processes, and given the alternative (being eaten), I decided that it would be prudent to remain in Longyearbyen.

Accessed from Tromsø, Norway, and named for John M. Longyear, an early-20th-century Boston coal-mining magnate who tried to make Svalbard the West Virginia of the Arctic, the town was not your typical 78-degrees-north- latitude community. It had a large Thai population as well as probably the northernmost Thai massages in the world. (Thais started coming in the 1980s to work in the coal mines.) It had several excellent art galleries and remarkably high-speed Internet, courtesy of undersea cables from NASA. Frequently, I saw reindeer grazing in the middle of town.

There were also old tower trestles, carts, and pieces of debris from the coal-mining past. None of this could be removed, much less sold to a scrap merchant, for all pre-1945 objects are considered part of Svalbard’s cultural heritage and protected by law. Such “artifacts” made certain parts of the town seem like an exotic rust-colored sculpture park.

Another oddity: hardly any of the locals were local. An Iranian, Kazem, had converted an old military van to perhaps the world’s most northerly kabob wagon, and an Alaskan, Mark Sabbatini, edited a newspaper called Icepeople, and a blog that calls itself “the coolest news on Earth.” I asked Mark why he lived here. “Wi-Fi from NASA, people from heaven, and delightfully hellish weather,” he said.

I’d been in Longyearbyen for nearly a week when I got the urge to see what lies beyond the scree slopes surrounding the town. Over a specially ordered whale-and-mushroom pizza (yes) at the Radisson Blu Polar Hotel, I planned a hike with a Norwegian friend who, it goes without saying, owned a firearm.

The following day, Sven-Erik and I began climbing a nearby mountain, Platåberget. As we climbed, I could see the aerial tramways of the town’s defunct coal mines in the distance. I could also see the giant golf balls of the satellite station SvalSat; Norwegian leftists do not appreciate the fact that the U.S. used data from this station to track sandstorms during the Iraq War.

On the mountain’s flat summit, I could see only tundra interrupted by patches of snow. Certainly, there wasn’t enough snow for a snowmobile—an infatuation for most residents, my friend included—so why was I hearing one? Turns out I was hearing Sven-Erik’s cell phone—he’d programmed its ringtone to sound like the roar of one of these machines. “Yes,” he told his wife, “I did bring my rifle.”

Polar bears were seldom far from my mind. “Why do people in Longyearbyen keep their doors unlocked?” I asked my companion. “So they can make a quick escape from a bear?”

“We keep our doors unlocked because it’s very hard to get a key into a frozen lock,” he said.

On we hiked. I pointed to what looked like an old archaeological site, only to have Sven-Erik tell me that it was the site of a barbecue party from a few years ago. Then we arrived at a stone cairn, the so-called Ninavarden, or “Nina Memorial.” At this spot, in 1995, a young Norwegian woman named Nina was killed by a bear. She hadn’t carried a firearm, because she loved wildlife, and she thought that wildlife would love her.

Our own trip was less eventful. We climbed down a crevasse, hiked along a valley, and at last came to Huset, an upscale bar and restaurant. It looked hardly different from any other establishment of its kind, except for the gun rack in the vestibule.

Sven-Erik and I toasted each other with glasses of Gilde, a Norwegian aquavit, then he went home, and I decided to do a little more exploring. I was walking toward the burial ground for victims of the 1918 flu epidemic when a large white form emerged from a culvert.

My heart skipped several beats. But the white form was only one of Svalbard’s reindeer, still in its winter coat. Unperturbed by my presence, it trotted away in a leisurely manner. Later I saw it grazing beside one of John M. Longyear’s tower trestles, its white fur positively radiant in the non-setting sun. Indeed, the old tower trestle was radiant too.

Presented by

Lawrence Millman’s books about the North include Last Places and A Kayak Full of Ghosts.

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