For as long as I can remember, I’ve enjoyed feeling scared. I used to love watching Are You Afraid Of The Dark at sleepovers. And reading Goosebumps books under my quilt. Ghost stories would have me terrified of bedtime. And I vividly remember watching my first Horror film. Fear was uncomfortable, but exciting.
Growing up meant my fears have obviously changed. I’m less concerned with ghosts and more likely to threat about work. Worrying about adult things is far from enjoyable. I never relish in it. And wouldn’t seek it out. But this is where my love of Halloween comes from. I love remembering those feelings.
Something which stood out for me in Svalbard, was serious nostalgia for those times. Hiding under my quilt, or too scared to repeat an urban legend in the mirror. Longyearbyen was a magical place. But some of the circumstances made the mind wonder. In the same way 8 year old me would have been frightened, I found myself genuinely scared. And I have to admit, I enjoyed it.
The Settlement Of Longyearbyen
There are just a handful of hotels in Svalbard, all situated along the same street. There are only a few roads, one of which goes to the airport (a 10 minute drive away). Besides that there’s wilderness. Glaciers. All covered in snow and only accessible by snowmobile.
In the settlement of Longyearbyen, there’s a university, the hotels and some shops. Some residential houses are dotted around too. But it’s truly tiny. Previously a mining settlement, Longyearbyen is now frequented by scientists, students and tourists. There are still mines but they export a fraction of what they used to. Still, mining stuff is found all around the town.
And even then, it’s not a guaranteed way to stay alive.
Stories From Locals
The -one and only- bus is driven by a local man named Viggo. Whilst the airport is within walking distance, it’s outside the boundaries of the settlement. So not safe to walk alone. Viggo had a huge grey beard, pipe and flat cap. In addition to driving the bus, to and from the airport, Viggo offers tours by taxi. So small is Longyearbyen, we bumped into him several times and he was such an interesting character. The locals are more than happy to tell stories of life in Svalbard. And I couldn’t get enough of it.
Sadly -although preventably- there have been tourist deaths. Pretty regularly. Although not in the settlement, usually on camping trips and expeditions. There are considerably more polar bears than people on Svalbard. But during the Winter months they go out on the sea ice to hunt, nearer the North pole. Whilst Svalbard is the base camp for such expeditions to the North pole, it’s a big country. Almost all untouched Arctic tundra and wilderness. So your chance of running into a polar bear in the settlement is low.
As the sea ice is declining, some polar bears are starving. Emaciated polar bears are far likelier to attack. Or come into the town looking for food. It breaks my heart to think of people shooting bears, when we’re in their World, not the other way around. And the authorities take this very seriously. However sadly as polar bears are such apex predators, if confronted with one and unable to scare them away, it’s the only option. And even then, it’s not a guaranteed way to stay alive.
I’m happy to admit, that fear did set in
Polar Bear Safety
I knew that in Svalbard you have to carry a gun, if you leave the settlement. Coming from the UK where thankfully guns aren’t a part of daily life, it was a strange thought. But given I have neither a rifle or a snowmobile, I didn’t ever plan to leave Longyearbyen unescorted. I didn’t realise how small Longyearbyen was, or that even the short walk to the airport was outside of this safe zone.
When we arrived at our hotel, in place of the normal activities leaflet was a polar bear safety card. Offering the rental of guns, trip wires and flares. I’m happy to admit, that fear did set in. And my pulse started racing a little.
We later saw posters in shop windows, explaining what to do in the event you a bear. Whilst unlikely, the hazard existed.
The sun didn’t rise the entire time we stayed. Nor would it rise for weeks after we left. Whilst we had a few hours of ‘the blue hour’, that extended twilight seen in the Polar night, it was very dark. The settlement had street lighting, but beyond that it was hard to make out anything but darkness. I knew we were surrounded on one side by huge tabletop mountains. But even they were hard to make out.
The wild whistled as it blew over these mountains. And I got used to the sound of things creaking and swinging in the silence. It was very quiet once outside the hotel. And the further from the main street we walked, the quieter it would get.
Just one degree of latitude and 816 miles lays between Longyearbyen and the North pole. It’s almost impossible -unless you’re on a full on expedition or cruise- to travel further North. Or to somewhere more remote. We didn’t hear planes. Or cars. The only light I could see was that of the Global Seed Vault up on the mountain. And planes only came a few times, every couple of days. The lack of light and sound pollution was amazing to see. But it felt at times, almost eerie.
But it was darkness like I have never experienced.
Hunting For The Polar Bear Sign
On our last night in Svalbard, I still hadn’t seen the famous polar bear sign. A road sign with a polar bear, which marks the point at which you shouldn’t travel unarmed. There are a couple, marking the start and end of the settlement on the main road. I wanted to get a photo of the sign, so we decided to take a walk.
We passed the university. Outside were radar dishes, which were swinging madly in the wind. It was a creepy, creaking sound. But besides that and our feet crunching the snow, it was silent. As we headed further away from the main buildings, the wind whistled over the mountains to our side.
The street lights ran out and all I could see was as far as my head torch allowed. It’s quite a powerful one but the light felt pathetic. In comparison to the expanse around us we couldn’t see. We were still on the main road and as we hadn’t passed the sign, felt we were in the safe area. But it was darkness like I have never experienced.
Husky dogs are used a lot in Svalbard and as we ventured further into the darkness, we began to hear them howling in the distance. A truly horrible noise in those circumstances. Packs of dogs howling like wolves. Their sounds being carried on the wind. One of my favourite books is Dracula. And every hair on the back of my neck stood up hearing that sound and relating it back to the book. Fear was setting in.
“Listen to them, the children of the night. What music they make!” – Bram Stoker
I knew rationally it was a pack of working dogs. And tried to envision those cute husky faces. But I felt genuinely uneasy. All of my senses were gone. We couldn’t see further than a few metres. And I couldn’t hear properly, over the dogs and wind. It was bitterly cold (-20° at it’s coldest) and all my outdoor clothes felt weirdly restrictive. The slippery ground underfoot meant walking was hard. Never mind running.
Confronted with this, my mind began to wonder. Back to the stories from locals about tourists killed by bears. They were stalked for miles before being killed. One girl years back had jumped off the mountain in-front of our hotel, as it was her only chance of escaping alive. The thought made me shudder.
We walked from sign to sign. Bargaining with ourselves that if it wasn’t the right one, we would turn back. Every time I got to a new sign, I would see one in the distance and decide to go a little further.
Now fully creeped out, I kept looking behind me and into the water on either side of the road we were on. Somewhere in the distance behind me, in the water something caught my head torch and reflected back. It looked like a beady eye, watching me.
Enough was enough, unable to save face I decided no photo of a sign was worth getting eaten for. I was worried we had missed the sign and were now venturing outside the safety of the settlement. As we had been walking for ages in the darkness.
But there was no way I would have walked another step in that direction.
We turned around and hastily made our way back. With me looking behind constantly. I knew rationally we weren’t in danger. But unlike anywhere I’ve ever been before, there COULD have been a polar bear stalking us. Unlikely, yes. Impossible? No.
We power walked back at such a pace, I was dripping with sweat in my Winter clothes. Despite the sub freezing temperatures outside. As we walked we nervously laughed. It felt so silly. But there was no way I would have walked another step in that direction.
As we got back to our hotel, I breathed a huge sign of relief. We couldn’t stop laughing. As back in the hotel with the lights and sound of guests eating and enjoying their evenings. It felt absolutely ridiculous to have been so scared.
Like I was a child again, reading those Goosebumps books.
The next day, I took a photo of the first polar bear sign. Safely situated outside the airport, in a well lit area. It wasn’t the photo I wanted, but I have to admit it was a lot more straightforward.
We took four flights to get to / from Svalbard. So I had plenty of reading time. On the way home I ditched the baby book I was reading and re-read Bram Stoker’s Dracula from cover to cover. The sounds of the wolves and the wind now had a whole new realism. And I loved being able to feel so on the edge of my seat. Like I was a child again, reading those Goosebumps books.
Svalbard was an amazing place. And our trip there one of my all time favourites. It was very safe and I would never endanger us or a wild animal by being careless. But still, there was something so eerie in knowing we were on a remote archipelago with those amazing creatures.