What was supposed to be a short trip of only a few days to the Arctic, turned into me spending over 2 weeks there. I initially went to spend time with a couch-surfer, and do the usual winter touristy stuff, such as dog sledding and ice-caving. But after meeting some more local people, I was invited to stay at one of their houses with them.
This gave me time to experience life in the middle of winter in the Arctic. A good opportunity, and will always be grateful to my hosts and new friends for it. I was located was the small town of Longyearbyen in Svalbard, with a population of around 2000 people.
So here is what I thought about my time in the Arctic winter.
1. It’s Cold!
Ok, you could classify this one under the title: “No shit Sherlock”! But I wanted to explain just how cold it can be.
When I was there the temperatures would regularly drop to -20 celsius (-4 fahrenheit) and lower, although I was told it can get a lot worse than that. You eventually get used to what I called “Life in the freezer”, but it took some time. The problem was when the wind got very strong, which was often, the real feel temperatures would go down into the -30’s.
When spending any length of time outside in the cold it feels like hundreds of needles being inserted into your face. Just breathing the air becomes painful after a while, and wearing some kind of mask on your face is essential. Indeed when standing still on a dog sled facing into the wind, it can get brutal.
It’s amazing how quickly people adapt to new extremes in climate. I will never again complain about it being -2 outside!
2. There Is A Good Sense Of Community.
Whenever you visit places that are a little remote and have a small community, you will get to know people very quickly. Visiting such a place in the Arctic, the word remote is certainly valid.
It was easy to meet new people, and especially around the bars it was fun hanging out with new friends. The bars are one of the best things about the place, as there is not a whole lot to do otherwise.
Naturally not everyone will get on with each other, and in a small community it felt like living there everyone would get to know your business, and not easy to escape from it. But at the end of the day I got the feeling that people look out for each other, brought together from living in such a tough environment.
Now I’m not saying that if a polar bear was chasing me someone would politely step in and take my place, but I am sure they would try to help somehow. Perhaps by telling me to run faster! Actually if a polar bear does get to curious, you are supposed to stand your ground and make yourself as aggressive as possible. Easier said than done.
3. Polar Bear Paranoia.
It’s one of those things I guess you get used to when living there, walking around where polar bears could easily come. I was constantly told that the bears don’t like coming to town and it’s safe, only to hear from someone else that bear prints had been found near the university in town.
Yes whenever you hear a helicopter, the chances are they are out trying to scare a bear away from town. Attacks are rare, but people have been killed in the past just on the outskirts by the mountains.
I had what I like to call the ‘polar bear paranoia’. When you walk by yourself, late at night, on one of the more remote stretches of road, you can’t help but get the slight sense that there could easily be a bear out there. I was glad that it wasn’t just me when some people living there told me they felt the same!
4. You Can Feel Stuck.
I was there in winter and the activities are obviously different from the summer, but I am guessing the same sense of isolation still exists. That’s part of the charm, to escape into the wilds, right?
The problem with that is you need to be equipped to appreciate anything outside of town. Most visitors would come up and spend the money to go dog-sledding, ice caving, head out on snow-mobiles, try and see the northern lights. Indeed I did a whole bunch of stuff as well.
But then most people I am guessing would come for a few days, do the things they wanted to do, and then leave. I ended up staying for 16 days, and after a while I started missing just being able to go for a walk outside of town, without having to worry about being munched on by a polar bear.
You see if you want to leave town for a walk, you need to carry a gun for safety. It is serious, and like I said before people have been killed by polar bears. The only way to do that as a visitor is to be on a paid trip where the guides carry a gun, or go out with a local who has a gun. As people tend to be busy working, and in winter there is almost no daylight, your chances for getting out and about are small.
If you go there with lots of money to spend then you would have no problem, as you could just do paid trips everywhere. But I travel on a long term backpackers budget, so only treat myself to a tour every now and then. And in winter walking wouldn’t get you very far anyway, as most people would go any distance on a snow-mobile, and that can get expensive.
If you live in the Arctic you would get yourself a gun, a snow-mobile, a car, a boat etc. Or at least in such a small community you would get to know someone you could borrow one from, allowing you much more freedom.
5. I Will Go Back.
I loved it in the Arctic. The people, the climate, everything about it was interesting (well except for the few days I got sick from the cold). Although I didn’t manage to get out as much as I would have liked due to the conditions I mentioned before, the few trips I did do were amazing, and hanging around town with friends, going for dinner, drinks down the bars, was great fun and worth it just for that.
Experiencing what everyday life was like for the people there, and getting to know there stories, was one of the best things about the place.
6. Could I live There?
If I got a job I would enjoy such as guiding people around, and the fact that living there would involve me getting my own gun for freedom of movement, I could. It’s the kind of place I could go to for a year to pass through the seasons, to see the extremes of 24 hours of summer daylight, and 24 hours of winter darkness.
I could do a job that I didn’t really like just to live there for a while as well. At the end of the day if it helps you live in such a unique place, then it would be worth it.
One thing is for sure though, and that is I will be back again to Longyearbyen, and hopefully in the summer to get what I have been promised is a different vibe.
I look forward to my return!
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