Polar Experience

Longyearbyen is the largest northernmost populated town (population: 2060). It's on Spitsbergen Island in the Norwegian archipelago Svalbard--within the Arctic Circle close to the north pole. It's an unusual town--in the winter, it experiences several months of polar night (days with 24 hours of darkness). And in the summer the opposite, 24 hours of light. In between, there's a three week period of what locals call "blue light." Pictures of this phenomenon are quite striking--there's a blue haze (for lack of a better word) everywhere that tints the snow, ice, buildings, people. I met someone here who visited Longyearbyen 11 years ago during the time of "blue light." He was an architect from Stavanger who was sent up here for 3 months to work on a building. But he became so enamored of the blue light that, 11 years later, he still lives here. He has a taxi/tour business and makes much less than when he worked as an architect. But he loves his life up here--the honest simplicity and generous community that he finds here--and he plans to stay for the rest of his life.

Coal Miner, Longyearbyen
Coal Miner, Longyearbyen

I've been here in Longyearbyen for three days now and have my own polar night experience to recount. Although I know I couldn't live here, it's been amazing to be in Svalbard. I'd love to come back two more times: once to see the blue light and another to see the midnight sun. I want to see what the fjord looks like and take photographs (so I want to return when I have better cameras and know more about photography). During this trip, I presented to students, went to an award winning museum depicting the history of Longyearbyen, took a tour of the town, and ate reindeer. I decided that I also had to do something "polar" while I was here, so yesterday I went dogsledding. There was a time when I was scared to death of dogs--and I don't much like speed (except when I'm driving). I didn't allow myself to think much about dogsledding because I could have worried myself into not doing it.

Kathee in Dogsledding Gear
Kathee in Dogsledding Gear

I met Sigurd, the dog sled guide, at Basecamp Hotel. There was only one other dogsledder yesterday, Renta, a medical doctor who is currently working on a master's in art history focusing on color and outdoor ornamentation in Longyearbyen. Sigurd gave us well insulated jump suits, boots, a knit face mask, an insulated face mask that covered the knit version, gloves, and a headlamp. Then, we drove out to the dog camp. Sigurd explained what to do, and Renta and I helped to harness the dogs. Of course, we only managed to do a couple while Sigurd quickly harnessed the rest. Renta and I decided to ride together and take turns driving. I told her that she could choose what she'd like to do first and she decided to ride. After Sigurd taught us the basics, we took off down a hill. I was worried about tipping us over, so I took it slow and focused on leaning in the right direction to keep us steady. Soon, we were in a valley where we could see the ghostly outlines of mountains on either side. We whisked through the quiet, deserted landscape hearing the crunch of the snow and the barking of very happy dogs. The dark blue sky overhead looked endless--and I absolutely felt the draw of the landscape . . . although likely just a small degree of what Arctic explorers must have felt.

Kathee and Renta
Kathee and Renta

There's something so exhilarating about dogsledding. I can't claim to have had a mystical experience where I felt one with the dogs. I knew quite well that the dogs had been trained to follow the lead sled, so it wasn't like I was guiding them. Still, I managed to stop them from overtaking the other sled, to help when we went uphill by kicking behind as if I were skateboarding, to brake and anchor, and to pick up the anchor when we resumed the ride. When it was time to trade with Renta, I was a little regretful we had decided to be in the same sled--but I was also excited that she got to experience what I just had.

The Dogs
The Dogs

At the end of the ride, we unharnessed the tired dogs and went into a candlelit, toasty warm cabin for a hot drink. We sat at the table talking; Sigurd told us a bit about what it was like to live in Longyearbyen and Renta talked about the research she was doing. After we were completely warmed up again, Sigurd drove us back into town. I'm so glad that I went dogsledding. I feel like it's probably one of the most adventurous things I will ever do.

I hope that this isn't the last time I come to Longyearbyen.

5 thoughts on “Polar Experience

  1. Lori

    SOLD!

    I would love to try it and your description of it sounds like you did enjoy it. Was it colder sitting in the sled or standing behind to "drive"? Josie's impressed that the dogs could pull the sled and wondered if they barked or made many noises? Do they relieve themselves during the pull or do they have a designated command to do that during a break? (that would be a Lori question)

    You must have felt so proud to actually DO the dogsled ride!!

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  2. Kathee

    You would love this, Lori! I was fine when I was driving, but got cold when I was sitting (the toes and the fingers). This may be because Renta tipped the sled over within minutes of driving (we were at a really uneven place) and I got dragged through the snow a couple of yards (and had to quickly grab the anchor to slow the dogs down since Renta got left behind). But I probably would have gotten cold anyway. When I was sitting, there was so much snow kicked back from the dogs, that my glasses were coated!

    The dogs did bark, but mostly when we stopped. And they were so excited to get started. At one point, Sigurd was trying to train his team to respond to verbal commands for left and right. The dogs just weren't getting it so we were stopped for a little while. One of our dogs took the opportunity to relieve himself--and I was happy (relieved!) it didn't fly everywhere when we drove through it!

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  3. Lori

    Hilarious!! Were you calm about being dragged or did you have to psych yourself up to grab the anchor? I'm imagining having the snow shoved in my face after the fall. I'm sure Renta felt badly that she tipped you. I'm sitting indoors where my house feels almost cold and yet outside, it's warm from the sunshine. (Do you remember those kind of Fresno days in our 'old' houses?) Still...your description and photos had me hearing the sounds of the snow under the sled and I could almost feel the cold air.

    I'm glad the poo didn't fly in your face, too! I wondered about that aspect.

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  4. Kathee

    I was a little nervous when we tipped over. The dogs really weren't going very fast, though, so it wasn't a big deal. It took me a minute to realize that I needed to grab the anchor--and then the dogs still kept moving because I couldn't get the anchor into the ground far enough. I had to tell Renta to catch up and step on the brake. She did feel bad--but she'd just barely started and we were in a rough place. It's possible I didn't lean the right way either since I wasn't used to being a passenger yet.

    I do remember those days in Fresno. I feel much warmer in Oslo! There's about 6 inches of snow here--just looked out my window and someone is trying to dig out his car. The snow is so beautiful!

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