Here There Be Polar Bears

I have no idea what a one-horse town is supposed to look like, but I have a feeling it would look like Longyearbyen. Charming and compact, with a population barely pushing 2,000, Longyearbyen is that old saloon town you know from Clint Eastwood films where two gritty outlaws scowl at each other and rub their guns. (I’ve never seen any of these films.)

Settled in the early 1900s by gritty coal miners of the hardy Ernest Shackleton/Roald Amundsen stock, Longyearbyen is the epitome – egritome, if you will – of that lone rugged outpost on some wild frontier.

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On the main street in Longyearbyen

Entering the Svalbard Hotell, I noticed two other guys checking in before me, which was surprising because 1) I thought no one would be here and 2) they were removing their shoes.

“It’s a tradition around here,” the receptionist was saying. “Back when it was mostly a coal mining town, people had to take their boots off so they didn’t get the floor dirty.”

Maria, the hotel receptionist from the Philippines, pointed to a map on the desk. I found it mildly amusing that a town with one road needed a map, but Longyearbyen had the last laugh later when I got lost.

“Stay within the pink shaded area when walking around,” she told me. “If you want to leave that zone, you need to bring a rifle.”

Pardon? A rifle? Me? I stared at her for a moment before I realized she was serious. Why would I need a rifle, you ask? Here is why:

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She hastily added that one must have a license to carry a rifle, and though I don’t, everybody living on Svalbard basically does have a license. Polar bears don’t like Longyearbyen because 2,000 people is too much for them and it’s “too warm.” Still, walking to the outskirts of town later that evening, I felt a little less bold.

Maria had also mentioned that I’d need a reflective vest, so I strolled down the main street to the single grocery store to purchase one.

Along my walk, I noticed a few things:

  1. This is my kind of place. Outdoors stores selling carabineers and hiking boots on one side of the road, pubs selling beer on the other.
  2. Polar bears. There is a polar bear inside the leather and fur shop. A polar bear hanging out on the airport baggage carousel. A polar bear in the grocery store. I wonder if there’s a waiting list for who gets the next polar bear they find.
  3. It’s frigid and dark outside – a whopping -21C that night – but all golden and glittery and warm in all of the shops.
  4. I realized that I would never actually know what color the shops were painted.

I bought a reflective vest at the grocery store, which was more of a downscaled Walmart, then wrapped it around my neck like a scarf and kept on walking until I reached the end of the road.

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Welcome to Svalbard! I ate your luggage.

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Fun Fact: Polar bears are naturally curious and will check you out whether you want them to or not.

It’s funny that even in a town as small as Longyearbyen, with its modest string of streetlights, there’s often too much light to glimpse the aurora. As I reached the end of the main road, I could see a CAT shop ahead selling snowmobiles and the university to the left. That was all. Above, a weak aurora trailed across the sky.

At this point, I also realized that I could no longer feel my toes. I’d layered on two pairs of socks in my tight boots and was probably losing circulation, so it was time to return to the hotel and then warm up before hunting some northern lights.

Fortunately, my plans were foiled. Halfway up the road, I ran into the two guys from check-in, who were heading up to Svalbard Kirke, the northernmost church in the world. Despite the fact that my toes were rubbery appendages I could no longer feel, I decided to hike up anyway.

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Behold: The world’s northernmost church!

We crossed a bridge over the frozen and snow-covered Longyear River, and they told me about their travels. (Pause: How cool is it that you can meet people in a remote town in the Arctic Circle??!) Originally from India, Rahool and Sathya live in Germany and were celebrating recent degrees in various fields of engineering.

By the time we reached the church, I was certain I was going to need a foot amputated.

The road in front of the church was packed with cars and bicycles. One rugged father pedaled past, his child in tow in a three-wheeled stroller. And here I was griping about my toes being cold.

I wasn’t sure why the entire town seemed to be up here at the church, so I had to find out. People were trickling in, pink-cheeked and excitedly placing their shoes in cubbyholes in exchange for rubber Crocs to wear upstairs. A sign on the door notified us that something was being filmed that night.

We slipped into Crocs and galumphed up the steps, where a  group of men and women were tuning their trumpets in a small back room. It seemed like the entire congregation was there, packed into one small room with a small altar and stage at the front.

I felt like a gate crasher with my I AM A TOURIST camera dangling around my neck. We pushed into a small corner at the back, where a kind-looking gentleman was standing.

“What’s going on?” we asked him.

“It’s the church’s annual Christmas concert,” he said. I asked him if we could stick around and if it would be okay to take photos.

“I’m sure that’s fine,” he told us. “BBC World is here filming tonight. They’ve been doing a special about what it’s like to live up here.”

Right.

So here I was, on Svalbard for barely two hours, standing in the northernmost church in the world on the night of their annual Christmas concert, with BBC cameramen shuffling by in flannel shirts, waving boom mics around.

Of all the things I was expecting from Longyearbyen – isolation, snow-covered tumbleweeds rolling across the land – this was definitely not one of them.

The apex of the experience was when a woman got up and sang a Christmas song I’ve never heard before – but now know is by a Norwegian singer – and without getting sentimental, this was one of those moments in life where everything clicks into place for a few minutes and you are 100% there in the moment.

I left the church alone and walked back to the main street, a mixture of awe at this wonderful little community and terror of rogue polar bears.

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View of Longyearbyen from the church. That icy bit is the ‘bridge’ over the river.

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Cozying up to a polar bear

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