Longyearbyen is not a pretty town. This tiny, near-Artic outpost, tucked as it is in the inner belly of the Svalsbard Islands very close to the North Pole (and home to some sixty percent of the world’s polar bears) is remarkably unattractive. That, however, doesn’t keep tourists from pouring in at all hours of the day and night, given the sun’s dogged propensity to stay above the horizon in summer.
I landed at 1:30 am to bright sunshine. I was bleary-eyed and mugged from a long day’s travel and multiple long layovers in Copenhagen and Oslo. By the time I stumbled out of the bus to make my way to my hostel I was nearly crossed-eyed. I did my best to try to break into the wrong building (the instructions said it was red, but it had since been painted white). I was damned lucky one of the owners didn’t blow my head off with one of the rifles they all keep handy in case of bears- a very common occurrence here.
I did find the hostel. Several rooms were left open. I found one that had been inhabited, the beds still messy. I didn’t care. I collapsed, and hailed the surprised Russian attendee the next morning who cheerfully plied me with dense cappuccino and led me to my real room down the hall. I know one Russian word: thank you. It came in handy.
The view frankly stinks. Ugly buildings. Ugly snowmobiles up on mud. Flying in, you see snow covered islands, ice everywhere. Those are what I came to see. The town and its outposts, a leftover from coal mining, blasted by the Nazis during WWI, still produce masses of coal and gold as well, are now a tourist trap.
A short walk downtown felt like an out of body experience. I needed the exercise after a day in airports and plane seats. Summer up here means a lighter down jacket, but down jackets just the same. As I hit Main Street any semblance of being on a real adventure dissipated. Kids on fat bikes, plenty of tourists sipping coffee, expensive shops selling polar bear and wolf skins, pricey Norwegian sweaters. Polar bear claw cufflinks.
People taking selfies with the stuffed polar bear in front of the souvenir shop.
It’s getting harder and harder to find a genuinely isolated spot for an adventure these days.
I can smell Disney a mile away. I worked there in Orlando on Opening Day 1971. Once a Cast Member, always a Cast Member. Which is why I try to steer clear of such places.
However, I am going kayaking on icy waters, which is not everyone’s cup of tea. A dog mushing outfit, run in part by a woman from Rio (yes, that Rio) is letting me investigate the whole place for a story. That sounds like fun. No tourists.
A girl from Rio and hundreds of dogs. Now that’s an adventure. Let’s go get dirty.