Svalbard or Spitsbergen? Most English speakers use Spitsbergen. The Norwegians call it Svalbard. If you want to be geographically correct, Spitsbergen is the term for the part of the archipelago where most of the people live. Together with Bear Island it makes up Svalbard.
The far, far north. Longyearben, the administrative capital and site of the airport, is at 78°N, 1100km from the North Pole. The only land mass further north is Novaya Zemla, off the northern coast of Russia. In practical terms, the easiest way to get there is by plane via mainland Norway.
Politics and History
Historically, Svalbard never had an indigenous human population. The earliest written reference to it is in an Icelandic text dating from 1195. However, when the Dutch navigator Barents arrived in 1596, he had, unlike with most of the 'discoveries' that were being made around that time, a genuine claim to having disembarked on empty land. It was, however, full of whales, walruses, seals, polar bears and the other animals that live on the archipelago. After Barents left (to die even further North on a subsequent expedition to Novaya Zemla) most of the visitors to Svalbard for the next 350 years came to hunt the local animals and turn them into fur, oil and other useful commodities at the time.
By 1920, there wasn't much left, and this led to the Spitsbergen Treaty becoming one of the earliest examples of an international treaty covering environmental protection. However, the main aim of the treaty is to organise the political situation. Under the Treaty, Norway has sovereignty over Svalbard but all of the signatory countries to the treaty are allowed to dig mines, undertake scientific research and so on. No one, including Norway, is allowed to put a military base on the archipelago.
What Do the Locals Do?
Many of them work in either the Norwegian or the Ukraino-Russian coal mines. These don't make much money what with being so far away from the nearest market but have been maintained in the past for political reasons. In a post Cold War world you have to wonder how long the subsidies will keep coming in. Despite the difficult living and mining conditions, the trip to Svalbard is popular with Russians and Ukrainian miners as unlike on the mainland, the pay arrives regularly.
The rest make their living from tourism which has really taken off recently. This is not necessarily better for the environment of Svalbard than the coal mining but fortunately most of the visitors explore a relatively limited area of the archipelago, leaving the rest to the original habitants.
Visiting Svalbard is a fantastic experience. The fascinating wildlife, the Arctic scenery, the midnight sun (or midday winter if you come at the 'wrong' time) all make it a good place to visit.
Most visitors arrive in Longyearben which as well as an airport has a range of facilities including shops, restaurants, hotels and a campsite. The Russian mining town, Barentsburg is about an hour away from Longyearben by boat and is well worth a visit. A local guide will be happy to show you around and the museum is quite interesting.
Realistically, unless you are an Arctic veteran, you will be visiting Svalbard with an organised group. There are two main ways of seeing Svalbard. You can travel on a large boat, go round the fjords and look at the scenery and the animals (you'll need good binoculars). Alternatively you can explore on foot or by kayak. If you're fit enough for the latter, this is likely to be a more satisfying experience.
Going into the Wilderness
The wilderness and the animals that inhabit it are what most people come to Svalbard for. However, you do need to take a few precautions and have the right kit. Firstly, and obviously enough for the Arctic it's cold, even in the summer. The wind comes off the glaciers and really cuts through you. The water is even colder – the survival time in the water is a few minutes if you fall in without a drysuit and not much more than 15 minutes even with a drysuit. This means that if you are using kayaks to get around you need both a drysuit and the ability within the group to rescue someone if they capsize.
Secondly, moving around the tundra and the glaciers has all of the risks that this kind of terrain normally involves but with the added complication of the remoteness. If you wander off from your group and fall in a crevasse, it is quite unlikely that someone will walk past and hear you yelling...
Thirdly, Svalbard is home to 3000 examples of what is arguably the world's most efficient carnivore, the polar bear. For this Researcher, seeing a polar bear in the water 200 metres from his kayak was the highlight of the trip. However, meeting one in the wrong conditions and without the right equipment could be a low point. It is said that of the 3000 polar bears on the island, only about 30 are what could be termed as 'nasty' but you do need to be careful. It is obligatory to have a gun in the group and to have some less radical means of scaring off a bear in the shape of rocket flares. You must also either have some kind of trip wire system to alert you if a bear comes calling while you are asleep or take turns in the group to stay awake and keep an eye open.
What to Do if You See a Bear?
Hopefully you will see it a good distance away. If so step one is to alert the rest of the group. Even if it doesn't get any closer they will want to see it! If the bear comes closer you should fire your flares at it. Even if you should hit it with the flare its fur is far too thick for you to hurt it. Firing the flare in the air is also apparently useless. The bear may admire the pretty colours but won't be persuaded to go away. You could also try banging pots and generally making a racket. If it comes closer still then firing past its ears with the rifle may do the trick as they are sensitive to the noise the bullet makes. If the bear comes within charging range you may have to shoot it. Under no circumstances try and run or (even worse) swim away from the bear. If it wants to catch you, it will. Fortunately, this kind of incident is rare - most of the time the bear will see you and amble off.
Other Animals and Birds - A Personal Perspective
We saw seals, reindeer, Arctic fox and several types of bird. You would have to go to quite remote areas to see walruses although there are several walrus cemeteries, dating from when they were hunted, scattered around the archipelago. Finally, like all Arctic areas, Svalbard is a fragile environment. The indigenous fauna already suffer from the chemical and biological pollution that drifts up to them in the air and in the sea so if you do get the chance to visit this amazing place try to have as little impact on the local environment as possible.