ON A MORNING in early January, I depart from Tromsø, Northern Norway’s largest city, on a 90-minute flight to Svalbard, a cluster of glacial islands halfway between the mainland and the North Pole. Behind me the horizon is a fiery line and ahead, though it’s barely noon, the sky is already dark.
Svalbard is so far north that in winter the sun doesn’t rise for more than three months, and in summer it never sets. It’s a constellation of extremities: the darkest, the lightest, the wildest, the most desolate, the northernmost. Almost 90 years ago, Christiane Ritter traveled to Svalbard to visit her explorer husband, Hermann, chronicling the experience in her diaries, “A Woman in the Polar Night” (1938). Then, the islands were a place for transient workers: whalers, trappers and miners. Ritter endured all manner of hardships during her time there — blizzards, predators, hunger — though the greatest challenge she faced was psychological. The sunless winter caused extraordinary disorientation; her imagination conjured phantoms from the dark. As the season drew closer to the end, she reflects, “Perhaps in centuries to come men will go to the Arctic as in biblical times they withdrew to the desert, to find the truth again.”
T’s Travel Issue
Three writers go to extremes with journeys to the driest, darkest and cattiest places on earth.
– Hello, Kitties: In Japan, cats are revered, adored and sometimes seen as actual demons. What’s at the root of their mythic power?
– Darkness Visible: After the sun vanishes in Svalbard, Norway, one starts to see strange things in the polar night.
– Dust to Dust: What a road trip through Chile’s Atacama Desert — one of the world’s driest places — reveals about life and death.
I wondered what truths and demons glimmered in the polar night, and what that night might reveal to a visitor. When the pilot announces that we’ll be landing shortly, the full moon appears suddenly in the middle of a window across the aisle, but the horizon has disappeared. I imagine the sea and sky as different shades of dark to orient myself, to correct the sensation that I’m falling.
The view from Adventdalen, just outside Longyearbyen, Svalbard’s largest settlement. With only 27 miles of road in Svalbard, residents travel mostly by snowmobile in winter.Credit…Scott Conarroe
IT ISN’T ONLY the polar night but also Svalbard’s strangeness that prompts the imagination to fill in gaps. In May 1596, a Dutch navigator, Willem Barents, set sail from Amsterdam looking for a northern sea route to China, one that passed through the Arctic Ocean. On his journey, he struggled to distinguish between what was real and what was not: He saw three suns and three rainbows in the sky, as well as swans that turned out to be drift ice. After five weeks and an epic battle with a giant bear, he spotted an island that was “nothing more,” as he wrote, “than mountains and pointed peaks”; he named it Spitsbergen, or “pointed mountains,” for its jagged hills.
Now, Spitsbergen is the name of the largest island. The name of the archipelago itself derives from 12th-century Icelandic annals: In Old Norse, svalbarð refers to a cold coast. Until 1925, Svalbard was terra nullius. There was no native population, and those who had successfully navigated the treacherous journey there found fjords teeming with baleen whales and mountains seamed with coal. After World War I, the Allies granted Norway sovereignty over the archipelago, with a proviso: that all nationals named in the Svalbard Treaty should have equal right to live and work there. As a result, the islands are extraordinarily diverse, with 55 different citizenships represented by the approximately 3,000 residents, many of whom are environmental scientists, biologists and other researchers, people servicing the growing tourism industry and those in search of adventure and low taxes.
The taxi driver who takes me to my hotel is Ukrainian. I ask him what he likes about living here. It’s safe enough to leave your keys in your car, he says. We pass an unmanned coal-loading dock. The last mine on Spitsbergen was due to shut down this year but, because the war in Ukraine caused energy prices to spike, operations will continue until 2025. The road turns a bend and a town shimmers in the crook of a valley. Longyearbyen, named for John M. Longyear, a businessman from Michigan who began mining here a little over a hundred years ago, is the largest of a handful of settlements on Svalbard, with approximately 2,500 residents. There are only 27 miles of road on the islands; depending on the weather and season, residents travel by snowmobile or boat.
My hotel is surrounded by low apartment blocks and what look like prefab homes, all with a similar air of modular impermanence. Permafrost makes construction in the Arctic challenging; most buildings are raised on wooden or steel stilts. Those that aren’t require cooling mechanisms in their basements to prevent the active layer above the permafrost from getting thicker and the building from warping. It takes about half an hour to walk from one side of Longyearbyen to the other. On a bleak, icy pedestrian street, there is a shop selling animal hides, a cultural center, a grocery store and a couple of bars and cafes. It’s early afternoon, and still the sky is black when I meet the deputy mayor, Stein-Ove Johannessen, in the lobby of Svalbard Hotell, of which he is also the chief executive.
Johannessen worked at a Michelin-starred restaurant in London and moved here on a whim for a job. He intended to stay for a season but has remained for 23 years. His children were born on the mainland and brought here when they were days old. Births and burials aren’t permitted on the archipelago, because of limited health care services and permafrost, respectively. Why do people come to Svalbard, I ask. Why do they stay?
Freedom and the wilderness, he says. Svalbardians have claimed this landscape out of the relentless dark and fashioned from it a utopia, where they hunt and sail, where there are few roads and few rules to constrain them.
The changing light keeps him here, too. “Look at the full moon today,” he says. “How bright it is outside. In a month there’ll be a dim blue light, an endless twilight.” The findings of the health psychologist Kari Leibowitz — who conducted a study in Svalbard, Tromsø and Oslo in 2015 as part of a U.S. Fulbright grant to Norway — are part of a growing body of research that calls into question the relationship between seasonal affective disorder and the sun’s disappearance. Instead of depression brought on by lack of sunlight found in other parts of the world, she found that in Norway a positive wintertime mind-set appears to increase with latitude.
Johannessen recommends that I dine at Polfareren, his hotel’s restaurant, and that I try the seal tartare, which was hunted by a dog-sledding team. In her diaries, Ritter complains about eating seal for every meal. “Whether I boil, bake or roast it — the meat is always black as coal … the taste is still the same, something between hound and fish,” she writes. Despite Ritter’s warning, the blackness of seal flesh is startling. It’s slightly firmer than raw tuna, with the meadow-sweet tang of lamb. I can’t help picturing the seal who gave its life for this dish, with its doleful eyes, long whiskers drooping over its downturned mouth; the disappointment that its existence amounted to this.
Josh Wing, the head chef, moved here from Montana. “I cook differently in Svalbard,” he tells me. “Because of the permafrost and being so far north, almost nothing edible grows. I cook with local meats — reindeer and whale, in addition to the seal and cod — and keep portions small. I can get hundreds of portions out of a seal. These animals have hard lives. That they’re able to survive in this harsh environment — you have to respect that.”
The sky is dark when I go to sleep, of course, but also when I wake the next morning. Outside, it seems so late that the sound of children screaming nearby is chilling at first. But it’s from a local playground, and they’re scampering after a ball.
I’VE BEEN PROMISED that the gentlest introduction to the outdoors here is by dog sled, and so I arrange to go out with the pack that hunted the seal I ate the night before. Daniele Scopel, my Italian guide, drives me out of town, past a sign warning of polar bears. The last fatal polar bear encounter was at a campsite at the edge of Longyearbyen in 2020, but a French tourist was attacked within the past year. At the time of my trip, the most notorious bear here was the 18-year-old Mother Frost, who, along with her cubs, broke into as many as eight cabins last year in search of food.
Scopel indicates a helicopter’s flashing red light over the valley. “It could be a rescue or training operation, or they’re searching for a polar bear,” he says. “If a polar bear tries to approach the town, the police department will try to scare it away.”
The dog-sledding camp is on a desolate hill near a kindergarten, where children learn to hunt. At the kennel, I am given mittens, a snowsuit, boots and a headlamp. The dogs are crossbred from sociable huskies and hardier Greenland dogs and are baying and pawing for attention. They are cabled six to 12 to a sled, the alpha typically at the back; at the front, he or she could turn too often to check on the others. The sleds have slatted wooden beds covered with reindeer skins, with a ledge for the driver. Our group consists of a pair of French retirees and three older Poles wearing fur hats and oversize costume jewelry. We can all take turns driving, but the most important rule, Scopel says, is that the driver must never leave the ledge unattended.
The dogs are barking and tugging so hard that the sled, though fixed to a post, bucks and wobbles. The instant we are unanchored and the dogs begin to run, there is silence but for the whisper of the runners on the snow. It is late morning. The moon is hidden by clouds, and I can see only as far as my headlamp allows, as though we were skating into a void and the snow were materializing beneath our sleds the moment we reached it. The night sky gives this outing the air of an adventure, making explorers out of us, conjuring landscape from the dark. The wilderness is mighty but I, at the helm of this sled charging through it, am mighty, too.
At the top of a slope, we speed around a bend and suddenly, ahead of us, the sky is the color of fire, with streaks of clouds like purple smoke, as if beneath the horizon, the world were burning and we were hurtling toward the blaze. It’s a startling sight, an atmospheric light display from a sun we cannot see.
We cross a river. The moon reappears, silvering the tundra. Scopel points toward a nearby peak. “It’s the perfect place for an avalanche,” he says.
After we return to the kennels, we gather in a Siberian wood cabin much like the kind used by the trappers who overwintered in Svalbard in the 19th and 20th centuries. It has a low, sooty ceiling, reindeer pelts on the walls and benches, a glowing stove. We drink syrupy glogg and eat hot, floppy waffles. The fire, the warm food, the company seem precious, bulwarks against the ever-present threat of danger outside. This is another gift of Svalbard’s extreme environment: It makes an occasion out of what might otherwise seem ordinary and instills gratitude for a fleeting moment.
At 11:15 a.m. on March 8 every year, when sunlight hits the steps of the old hospital in Longyearbyen for the first time after the polar night, locals gather at the nearby church for the start of Solfesten, the sun festival week. They eat solboller, yeasted buns decorated with yellow custard, and sing out to the heavens. “At the end of the dark season, you feel a little ragged from lack of vitamin D,” Wing, the chef of Polfareren, tells me. “It’s a powerful experience when the sun returns, when you can finally feel it on your face.” Elizabeth Bourne, an American artist living in Svalbard whom I meet for dinner later, describes it as “a primal emotion.” She says that “a couple of years ago, [a friend and I] saw the sun streaking through one of the valleys, a sharp line of light, so we rode out there [on our snowmobiles] and took our helmets off and screamed like children — two middle-aged women screaming their heads off because we were in the sunlight.”
Emboldened by my experience sledding, I decide the next day to hike in the tundra. This time there will be no dogs to ward off predators. Vlad Prokofiev, a Serbian guide, drives a group of us, including a young Peruvian and a pair of older Germans, to the foot of Breinosa, a mountain to the southeast of Longyearbyen. Again, there is a flashing red light over the valley, but today our guide is more concerned. Prokofiev stops the car. “Stay inside,” he tells us, shining his headlights onto the snow. He fetches his rifle. Large tracks lead from the road into the tundra. “Imagine if we see a bear,” one of the Germans says, laughing nervously. “Poof, we’ll be gone.”
Prokofiev returns. “I don’t think so,” he says. “But Mother Frost, she comes and goes as she pleases. She isn’t afraid of people, of the town. She’s brought her cubs up the same. Murderers. Eight of them, and six shot in self-defense.”
He parks by a replica of Willem Barents’s cabin, and we descend into the snow. In some places, I sink past my knees. Our headlamps illuminate only a few feet beyond us; there are no other lights. Mother Frost could be anywhere. She and her cubs — or any of the other roughly 300 polar bears on Svalbard — could be stalking us, ravenous for a meal. A bear can run up to 25 miles per hour and weigh as much as 1,600 pounds. Every few minutes, I swing desperately around to scan for signs of movement. In the beam of my headlamps, there are suddenly two beads of neon green — a pair of eyes. Prokofiev raises a gloved fist to stop us. “Reindeer,” he says. I push my way into the center of the group. The eyes follow us warily. Prokofiev shows us a patch in the snow, scattered with frozen pellets of dung and a few matted stalks. “This is the food it lives on,” he says. “In the summer, the reindeer eats as much as it can. It puts on as much as 10 kilograms of weight. And in the winter, there’s almost nothing, so it preserves its energy and moves barely at all. If you startle it and it runs, it may not survive the season.”
I have entirely lost track of time and distance, and worry has exhausted me. Our phones have no reception. When the tires of the van appear at the periphery of my beam, I clamber up the escarpment as though being pursued.
THE SCANDINAVIAN ARCHAEOLOGIST Povl Simonsen describes Svalbard as beyond the “edge of the possible.” Its remoteness, its cold, its dark have always attracted an unusual inhabitant. The wild allows for a pioneer kind of lifestyle, the individual in commune with nature, building the world around her, governing herself.
With its tightknit community, its many freedoms and its closeness to nature, Svalbard is indeed a kind of utopia. But I see no one old, sick or disabled here. Its extreme environment demands self-sufficiency — a requirement written into the laws of the archipelago. Those who cannot look after themselves are deported, no matter how much of a home the islands are to them. And nowhere is beyond the reach of global politics. Before the war in Ukraine, relationships between the Russian and Ukrainian populations were good. Now the local tourism council has barred the Russian-owned company Trust Arktikugol from its organization.
The friends I’ve made here insist I cannot leave without going out into the wild on a snowmobile, like every other Svalbardian. But the warning light of a helicopter still flickers low over the valley and, though I’ve evaded danger so far, I wonder whether my luck is running out. I agree to an excursion on my last day to Eskerfossen, a waterfall, only to discover as I’m being kitted up that we’ll be out for seven hours. But it’s too late to change my mind. My snowmobile suit, boots, mittens, balaclava, goggles and helmet are so bulky that I move as if I’d landed on the moon. Arve Alvestad, our young Norwegian guide, is equipped with a rifle, a flare gun, a satellite phone, a personal locator beacon, a GPS navigator and a glacier rescue kit. His vehicle pulls a sled with a blanket and bivouac sacks in case of “emergency,” a word that jags in my mind. We drive in a convoy. I make sure I’m neither at the front nor the back. If bears are roaming the valley, let someone else be their meal.
Up on a mountain are the lights of Mine 7, the last functioning Norwegian coal mine, and once we leave it behind, what we can see of the vista is only what is lit by our headlights: the other vehicles, their tracks in the snow. There is no road and no apparent speed limit. We could race as fast as we please and in any direction, it seems. Unexpectedly, the convoy halts. It appears as though the snow ahead has collapsed beneath Alvestad’s vehicle and that it’s listing to one side. Though he revs the engine, it remains where it is. The seven of us are entirely alone, not a sight but for the whirling snow, nor a sound but for the howling wind. We cable another snowmobile to the stuck one. Its engine races, the belt at the back churning up snow and ice. How long will we last out here if we can’t come unstuck? How long before our locator beacon or satellite phone can summon help?
There are afflictions of the mind that humans may be particularly susceptible to in the Arctic. Ishavet kaller (“the Arctic calls”) is what the Spitsbergen hunters say, “A Woman in the Polar Night” tells us, “when one of their comrades, for mysterious reasons of his own, throws himself into the sea.” According to Norwegian folklore, the polar night began on winter solstice with Lussinatta, the night evil spirits were unleashed on the world. As terrifying as it is to be alone on this remote and frozen tundra, the moon shrouded by clouds, the thought that we may not be alone frightens me more. But Bourne, like so many others in Svalbard, finds comfort in the relentless dark. “We’ve forgotten what it was like to live in the natural world, and you are forcibly reminded of that here,” she says. “It connects you back to who you are in the world.”
Eventually, with some digging and offloading, one vehicle tugs the other loose. But then another snowmobile in the convoy becomes stuck and we go through the same process again. We journey on, a blizzard reducing visibility so that I can see barely a foot ahead of me. Are we in a valley now? Is the hard, uneven surface beneath us the frozen riverbed? The wind becomes fierce, shoving me first from the right, now from the left. The snow whirls in my face, needles of ice find gaps in my goggles, beneath the edge of my balaclava. We climb a shallow hill and turn a corner, and at once the blizzard stops and the air stills. We are in a canyon. A wall of black rock curves around us. In its center, bright white in the beam of our lights, is a foaming, rushing waterfall, frozen midflow. That such a dynamic moment may be suspended seems impossible. Up close, it is coursed with rivulets, beaded and pearled with droplets. It has the translucence of glass.
These tricks and distortions of time are a feature of the archipelago. The endless night conceals the passage of time, as though we were remote from time’s effects, too, without Emily Dickinson’s slant of light that heralds death. Where better than this frozen earth, far from the ravages of human conflict and heat, for an international seed vault and the Arctic World Archive, both of which are just outside of Longyearbyen. The former, sometimes described as a doomsday vault, contains 1.2 million seed samples deposited by seed banks around the world for safekeeping. The latter, housed in a decommissioned mine, is a similar repository for data, which is stored on photosensitive film for museums, national archives and tech companies.
But in fact, Svalbard is in some regards more susceptible to the passage of time. Doomsday may not be so distant. Withdrawals from the Svalbard Global Seed Vault — by a gene bank formerly in Aleppo, Syria — have already been conducted. And the climate on Svalbard is warming five to seven times faster than the global average. Almost all the glaciers are losing mass every year. A Canadian-led research team trying to identify the cause of the Spanish Flu came here in the late ’90s to exhume bodies of victims but found that, after thawing and freezing multiple times, the bodies had become, as described in a National Geographic article, “soft-boned and gooey,” and the viral data was, for the most part, broken. Climate change is likely to be particularly hazardous to bears — lack of sea ice means less access to seals. Three months after my trip, Mother Frost was found dead in a fjord northeast of Longyearbyen. According to a local report, she and one of her cubs were seen near a cluster of cabins and then chased toward the water; the cub was later euthanized. The bears, original inhabitants of the archipelago, may have more to fear from us than we from them.
Though it could be midnight, it is a little after 1 in the afternoon. Alvestad sets up a makeshift lunch station with a hot-water canister and packets of freeze-dried food, the kind provided to the Norwegian military on expeditions. I choose the salmon with pasta. The moon has appeared from behind clouds. The sky is enormous. Beyond the canyon, there may be blizzards and bears but, in this eerie oasis of calm, the broth is perfect, meaty and rich.
Svalbard demands constant vigilance to danger and constant alertness to beauty, to life. Its extremes shake us out of complacency. Bourne tells me, “My entire life here is unimagined.” But in its unyielding environment there is the kind of certainty that orients the gaze inward, too. Ritter writes, “One can go out of one’s mind from loneliness and terror, and one can certainly also go mad with enthusiasm for the all-too-overwhelming beauty. But it is also true that one will never experience in the Arctic anything that one has not oneself brought there.” The gift of Svalbard’s perpetual night is to show us how inconsequential we are, how little we matter to the world — and how much we matter to ourselves.
Local guide: Svalbard Adventures