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.