By Greg Goudey, guest contributor
I came to Svalbard/Longyearbyen for the first time in June of 2013 and, just like I expect most first time visitors think, I thought I was so cool because no one I knew had been to the Arctic.
Here I was taking selfies and showing off on Facebook with posts raving about how great I must be because I’m a guy from sunny Southern California who is braving this Arctic archipelago alone, putting myself in reach of polar bear encounters and bla bla bla. I was one of these yahoo first-time tourists to visit this very special and one-of-a-kind location. I was exactly one of these people I now see as a bit of a nuisance around here in Longyearbyen.
Moving ahead to January 2014, I booked a flight from San Diego to Stockholm and stayed there for a week with a friend and then went to Helsinki for a few days again to visit a friend, but the main purpose and destination was again Svalbard. I wanted to witness the polar night in Svalbard where I knew the darkness would be at its most extreme. I intended to stay just one week at Guesthouse 102 and fully experience this type of perpetual darkness and how it might affect me. One week turned to two and I just really wanted to stay even longer.
During my two weeks of mostly isolation and aloneness in this amazing landscape under the dark sky, day and night I started to really travel deep within my psyche, with the help of some of my favorite introspective music (Tool, Neurosis, Fever Ray, etc.). I dug into some memories and emotions I realized I had been hiding and avoiding sorting out. I often spent entire days just holed up in my room at the guesthouse, laying in bed and at times feeling very confident and excited, and in other moments sobbing uncontrollably as I faced feelings of guilt and regret from my past. I had come to Svalbard in January to be awestruck by the natural surroundings and I left feeling enlightened, released, relieved, humbled, and with a new love of this stark, cold and challenging land that lies far above the Arctic Circle and just at the doorstep of the North Pole. Svalbard now more than I ever imagined has made a deep and lasting impression in my psychic core. This land is sacred to me and now I feel a connection with it that makes me protective of her well being.
I returned again to Svalbard on Sept. 1, 2014, this time with two friends I’ve met in my travels: Elodie is a well-traveled soul from France and my Polish buddy Darius who is now living in Norway. We all arrived the same day and set up camp at the Longyearbyen campsite to stay out the last days its open season, with plans to finish off the week at Guesthouse 102.
During my previous visit to Longyearbyen I made new friends in town, two sweet gals who work at the Fruene cafe, and thanks to keeping in touch with them through Facebook I was able to arrange a guided hike up one of the ridges overlooking town. Seeing the town from that vantage point was well worth my lack of breath several times on the way up. Again I just found myself humbled by this unreal but so real place in the Arctic zone. During our week-long stay I needed to isolate myself one or two days and kind of pick up where I left off from my January visit. It’s as if unconsciously I come to Svalbard to collect and organize my thoughts and emotions.
On March 11, 2015, I arrived yet again to my beloved Arctic paradise known as Svalbard. This time I had a dedicated mission. On my previous visit to Longyearbyen Camping I talked with the owner about volunteering as extra help around the campsite during the total solar eclipse of March 20. Well here I was, in the cold again, watching the dramatic weather changes daily and waiting for an optimal time to set up my one-man tent at the campsite. My originally planned four days at Guesthouse 102 turned to six days, but I managed to set my tent on the ice at Longyearbyen Camping. Still staying in the warm comfort of the guesthouse I get a text from Julie at the campsite saying I should come right away and move my tent. The storm from the night before (which took out power in town) brought wet snow and left my tent in a shallow pond. I managed to get it up and hung to dry which meant another night at the guesthouse and more money to spend (things in the Arctic are not always easy nor are they cheap).
But during my stay at the guesthouse I overheard several comments and conversations amongst many first-time visitors to Svalbard. Mostly I thought to myself “man are you people funny. You have no idea where you are – are you prepared for this place?” Some people seemed to have a bit of a clue, while others I thought might find it too dramatic and uncomfortable here.
I did meet a Swedish adventure tour guide who was here with other Swedes to set up a camp for about 20 guests who were coming to watch the eclipse. At the campsite I ended up helping them set their camp, and in return I had some free meals and they left me with a bottle of nice 2007 Italian wine (of a varietal I do not know) and their leftover food items.
As I’m finishing up this here chronologically ordered mini biography of my love and experiences to date at Svalbard, I sit in a local cafe reflecting upon all of my time spent at this magical place so far removed from the rest of the world. I’ve now been camping for four nights in my tent in temperatures in the the mid- to high-minus teens (Celsius), and after some changes and additions to my sleeping gear I finally can endure two more nights at camp.
I recognize that people who call Svalbard home are just different from people you meet in cities on the mainland; folks here are helpful and they look out for each other, and they even look out for non-residents such as myself. I feel now as a part-time resident, though as people here recognize me from previous visits and I think they can sense I’m not exactly a tourist anymore. I’m no Svalbard expert, but I’ve learned what this place means. I’ve learned to love and respect it, to appreciate and surrender to its raw natural events and realize I’m fortunate to be in this place and that I’m not in control of nature. She’s always the one in charge.
I’m torn between sharing the idea of how easy it is to come to a place like Svalbard and starting to keep it my secret. I’m not sure I like the idea of just anyone taking a short flight up here and tramping about like they belong just anywhere they want. Svalbard is a special place for people who understand what it means to be here. I’m afraid too many people who are not prepared and or ready to be here may slowly destroy all that is magical for those who call Longyearbyen home.
Maybe I just selfishly don’t want to see more tourism here.
One thought on “Column: ‘I was exactly one of those people I now see as a bit of a nuisance’”
Hi Greg, I met you at the campground for the eclipse. I appreciate your perspective and thanks for doing the ‘dirty work’ around the campground in that busy week. My two cents: Unlike most places on Earth, Svalbard’s extreme climate and remote location guarantee her community spirit and natural splendor for many decades/centuries to come. I really felt that I could return in 60 years and still find wilderness.
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