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.
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.
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.
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.
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.