Arriving at the northernmost (they do love that term for a lot of things up there) airport in Longyearbyen I was struck by a snowstorm and complete darkness. It was noon, but since it was the dark season I could barely make out the city. The temperature stood at minus 25 Celcius and, according to the solar calendar I wouldn’t see the sun for about a month. Having only a small backpack with the essentials I was ready to work for just one season. But the issue with these islands is that you can get the “Svalbard bug” when a season can turn into years and for me, it lasted 3 years.
The days go around as in any other place in the world except for some small, but noticeable differences. My home was in a small staff accommodation located at road 13, which is just left off the Road. Even though some roads do have names, we don’t use them. There is one main road which connects the airport to the old part of the town, via the new part of town. A street that would take about 20 min-30 to cross with a car. There is a bank, an ATM, grocery store, and liquor store (all the northernmost of course). We do have seasons but it is generally either dark, blue, or bright.
In October every year, Svalbard has the Dark Season Blues Festival. This works as a cultural kick-off for the dark season that officially starts on October 26. It is a great festival to be seen and it works as an end of the tourism season when the locals get to enjoy the island more to themselves. When we say dark season we mean dark and the sun won’t be seen again until mid-February.
You can check out our Svalbard tour here
Living on the islands during this time is challenging to say the least and I remembered my first dark time and how the complete darkness hit me. So I and a friend hit the Pub (the northernmost such in the world). As I arrived at this time of the year I didn’t see the shape or colors of Longyearbyen until maybe a month after. Luckily the fact there is only one road makes it easier to not get lost, even when the snow is so thick that you can’t see anything in front of you. It is an amazing time to feel the tranquility of Svalbard. Not much is going on outside, except for the real outdoors nature lovers that go dog sledding. It is inside that most things happened. This is the time when the locals gather at each other’s house. We meet, play games, drink and step out from the dark and into the light. Another amazing thing about walking around in the cold, dark winter days is the possibility to see the northern lights. Even though I had seen that before, I never imagined seeing them so clearly. Many times it was like this big, thick green curtain just dancing in the sky, and since it is dark all the time you can wake up and witness this during your morning coffee. One morning my friend called me and said that he has got hold of a car. It was February, the sun was rumored to appear behind some mountains. After nearly 3 months of black days, we drove to catch the sun. Well, the roads are few and after barely 10 minutes of driving we found ourselves on top of a giant hill. We had reached the end of the line. But behind some peaks we saw, the sun. We knew that the dark season had come to an end.
During the dark season, the bars quickly became a place where more people came together. Not just for the alcohol but the company as well. There are plenty of bars in Longyearbyen such as the Pub and KB (which is the miners’ bar). But besides all that you can buy alcohol in the local (northernmost) liquor store. Now, buying alcohol here is not done traditionally. As soon as I got my address and “became” a local I got my alcohol card in the mail. This card allowed me to buy x amount of alcohol every month. Being a beer drinker this became an obstacle since I couldn’t buy more than 24 beers a month whereas the wine drinkers could enjoy as much wine as they could take. Wine is the only alcohol you can buy in the store that has no limit. Being an old mining town the workers often drank beer and to not have them drunk all the time, since it was not so much to do back in the day, they had limits on how much they were allowed to drink. But wine was for the wealthy, the CEOs of the island and therefore there is no limit on wine. Luckily I could drink as much beer as I wanted in the bars.
To read about Hakarl click here
WOMEN’S DAY, JAZZ, AND BLUE NIGHTS
Blues poetically start the dark season but jazz finishes it. Every February the jazz festival is held as a cultural end of the dark season that officially ends on 16 February. This is when the blue nights start and this is one of the best times to be on Svalbard.
After me and my friend spotted the sun behind the mountains we knew that little by little the sun will slowly move towards the city. At the same time the darkness starts to disappear, but since the sun is not fully up, nor fully down the sky turns dark blue at first, and towards the end of these nights the sky is light blue. Now you start to see the islands clearly, see the beauty of it all. The dogsledding is more frequent, and the snowmobiles are getting ready. Snowmobiles. You either hate them or you love them. You mostly love them when you drive yourself but they are prominent on the islands and since there are very few roads they are essential for getting to certain places like Barentsburg or the east coast. It is still very cold, but you can now start to enjoy everything more since you now actually can start to see everything.
It is with great anticipation that we watch the sun every day to see it more and more clearly. Then on 8 March, the sun is about to rise over Longyearbyen. This is the sun-day, this is the day when we officially enter what normally constitutes spring and head for the summer. When this occurs the locals, among many curious tourists gather outside the school building. It is like a small festival after three months of darkness anyone would celebrate a sunrise. Here we do it with pastries, called sunbuns.
We do have a lot of bars where anyone can get a well-needed drink, but if you want to experience the nightlife of Svalbard it is one place you have to go, and some nights you hear it. Sitting in one of the bars it is not all too uncommon for a person to call a big taxi and then scream out loud HUSET! (which translates as the House). This is the nightclub and when that person screams Huset people are running to get to that taxi. The bars are closing but Huset is open.
This historical building used to be the social gathering point for the workers. A place to take a relaxing day off, maybe a beer (if your quota allowed so), or watch a movie in the cinema. Now, on a Thursday night, this is not what Huset is for. This is the one and only (and northernmost) nightclub on Svalbard. When the bars close at 2 am, Huset is open until 3 am so it’s a fast pace run to get there, get drunk, and get out. The hour is short but the people are dancing and living their best.
Then when all the lights turn on the show is over. People are cramming to get out, get a taxi or walk the long 10 min walk home. If you can’t manage to walk and just fall in a ditch somewhere, don’t worry. You have two options; Get up and continue or stay where you are and sooner or later a taxi driver will find you and take you home.
WHERE THE SUN NEVER SETS
There is no music festival to get the summer season going but as soon as the sun pops up for the first time it stays longer and longer up in the sky. One morning you wake up realizing that the sun won’t come down. The summer has begun and with that approximately 3 months of constant sunshine. It just won’t go down.
This is a time of joy (and to some extent panic) amongst us locals. With the sun up the day never fully dies, and it is not uncommon to find people wandering, hiking, canoeing, drinking, etc every hour of the day. In the early, and later part of this season the snow is still very prevalent, and with this many people take out their scooters and/or skis and go out in nature. Many people go hiking mountains or play soccer at 3 am. We start competing in marathons, summit running, and venture far out in the landscape. The islands transforms from being a winter paradise to a place for a summer nature adventurist.
But the summer also comes with a price. It is the boating season and many fully loaded cruise ships are entering the harbor and the tourists with them. The feeling for tourists is always good but it is something with the cruise ships. The capital, Longyearbyen (the northernmost capital) is a small city of maybe 2000 people. With every cruise ship entering the population grows rapidly. Sometimes you find a tourist in your backyard, mistaken your backyard for a small exhibition, or peeping into your window, believing it to be a museum.
There is a mountain across the fjord that is somewhat referred to as the Wineglass. Here the snow on the peak forms as a wineglass during the end of summer and when you see the wineglass starts to “fill” up, then you know we are heading towards winter.
BRING A RIFLE
When you do go out of the city limits, as you should, it is mandatory to carry a firearm. This is strictly for protection, a little for you, and a lot for polar bears. Because Svalbard is the land of the polar bears and they rule. They can be roaming outside, or sometimes inside, the city, and thus a firearm is needed. But, before anyone gets trigger-happy, it is to be known that you can’t shoot a polar bear. They are heavily protected and the firearms are mainly for noise in hopes of scaring away a bear. Only if the bear is very, very close (i.e. 25 meters or less) can you fire at the bear as a last resort. But make sure you kill it for should you not he will most likely hunt you down. Should you survive though, the authorities will do the bear’s job since they now have to shoot the wounded, scared and angry bear and that will cost you money. This is the only place on earth I have been where everyone is casually walking around with their rifles like it’s nothing.
But it’s never a fight for your life up here. It is one of the best times you could have whether you love living outdoors in a tent for a year or you like sitting inside a nice restaurant, eating an amazing 7-course dinner. We all know each other and we all help each other. Up here we are so far away from any other place that we live in our own paradise.