Catching the Arctic Illness in Svalbard

Are people nuts to love the high north? I go to (almost) the end of the earth to find out

Arctic Illness Svalbard
Photo: Elizabeth Bourne
A mural in Barentsburg with a portion of the poem “Arctic Illness” by Russian poet Robert Rozhdestvensky.

Emily C. Skaftun
The Norwegian American

“Why are you going to Svalbard?” was the most frequent question I got when talking about my summer travel plans. In the way of many adventurers, I had no very compelling answer to the question. Because it’s there!

I have a friend in Longyearbyen now (Elizabeth Bourne, whose name you may recognize from this paper), who was willing to let me crash in her spare room and eager to show me around the place that she loves to a suspicious degree. Mutual friends tasked me with determining whether Elizabeth was entirely insane.

Maybe she is, but she isn’t alone.

There is something intoxicating about the Arctic. It’s an extreme place, unforgiving, stark, and beautiful. The light is impressive almost all the time—in summer, when the sun never sets, and in the spring and autumn when it always sets, creating sunrise and sunset colors for weeks at a time. I personally can’t imagine living there in the winter, when it’s middle-of-the-night black at all hours, but Elizabeth assures me that the stars are incredible. Even before my plane landed at the tiny Longyearbyen airport I understood the appeal the place holds for a photographer—I took a few crummy phone shots through the window as our plane dove impossibly close to lichen-covered mesas.

Arctic Illness Svalbard
Photo: Emily C. Skaftun
The view from Elizabeth’s guest room is stunning in all weather.

One of the first things I did in Elizabeth’s apartment was to fill up my water bottle from the kitchen tap. The water, she informed me, comes straight from the glaciers. It is filtered but not treated. We joked about there being some ancient disease waiting in the ice to be unleashed.

On my one full day there, we took a boat trip from Longyearbyen to Barentsburg. It was a full-day trip for me, to Barentsburg and back and then out the other way to Pyramiden and back. There are a few companies offering variants on these tours, but we chose this one because Elizabeth had just returned from a weekend trip to Pyramiden. So she debarked after the midpoint.

Barentsburg is the other actual town on the Svalbard archipelago, a Russian mining town that is still inhabited and still engaged in mining. And though it’s Russian in all the ways that matter, it’s also Norwegian—if you send a postcard from Barentsburg, it’s Norway Posten that postmarks it. The town is small but colorful, set a few hundred steps up from the industrial harbor. The guides on our boat warned us about the stairs, advising that if anyone was injured “or just lazy” we could take a bus up to the town, but they’d have to arrange it ahead. Perhaps because of the totally nonjudgmental way it was presented, no one opted for the bus. The stairs, of course, offered tremendous views.

Barentsburg has just a tiny bit of everything needed to make a town for its few hundred inhabitants and the visitors it attracts. One bar. One hotel with a restaurant. A sports center. A school. Several impressively Soviet-looking apartment blocks. A gift shop, which our guide claimed was filled with only handmade crafts made either right there in Barentsburg or by other craftspeople in mainland Russia. One cat, named Kesha, who is officially on record as an Arctic fox because cats are forbidden in Svalbard. My biggest disappointment from the visit was not meeting Kesha, who our guide said “loves tourists” (she also told me that there are a few more cats in Barentsburg now, despite the ban).

The town has a brewery, Red Bear, that opened in 2012. Our tour guide told us, somewhat sadly, that it had been the world’s northernmost brewery for just three years, until Svalbard Brewery began producing beer in 2015. (In 2012, I visited Mack Bryggeri in Tromsø, Norway, which is still today, erroneously, claiming the title of world’s northernmost brewery—but perhaps it was true when I was there?). Red Bear was closed during our morning visit, but I was able to sample the beer later in Pyramiden.

Mining still occurs in Barentsburg, despite the fact that almost no coal is exported. The mine produces about the amount of coal needed to power the town itself. The continued existence of the town is most likely a political move, a tiny Russian foothold in a region becoming more strategically important as the Arctic warms.

Barentsburg—and even more so its sister city of Pyramiden, which Elizabeth has written about better than I could (“Visit a Soviet ghost town in Norway,” Oct. 5, 2018:—were built in the spirit of Soviet exuberance, and as such both have prominent busts of Lenin in their town squares. Barentsburg also has a marvelous mural that explained a lot of things for Elizabeth and me. It depicts a man who represents any Russian polar explorer and text from a poem called “Arctic Illness” by Russian poet Robert Rozhdestvensky. According to Elizabeth’s research, the lines on the mural translate roughly to:

…So wherever you end up traveling,

on the brink of any spring,

you will rave about the polar routes,

you will see snowy dreams

The poem goes on to say that there is no cure for the sickness, which has clearly affected Elizabeth. Now we know what’s in the untreated glacier water! We theorize that it’s a kind of toxoplasmosis that makes its host love the Arctic the way the cat version makes mice (and humans) love cats.

Or perhaps it is the Arctic itself that makes people fall in love with it. I spent the rest of that day watching puffins struggle to lift their ridiculous bodies out of the water; borrowing other passengers’ binoculars to look at sleeping polar bears on the shore (one of which we’d heard being driven out of Longyearbyen the previous night by helicopter—an Arctic police chase!); hearing and then seeing a chunk of ice calve off the magnificent—if retreating—Nordenskiöld Glacier, which the glowering bust of Lenin overlooks from Pyramiden; and then capping it all off back in Longyearbyen with a delicious minke whale steak marinated in local (northernmost!) Spitsbergen Stout.

After the ghost town of Pyramiden and the utilitarian Barentsburg, Longyearbyen felt like a bustling metropolis. Or, at least, like town enough. It may be small, but it has an unexpected coziness (dare I call it hygge?) that’s very comforting.

I get the appeal. Though I think I have been spared infection with the Arctic Illness this time, I also think I will return someday to the strange and lovely land of Svalbard.

Arctic Illness - Svalbard
Photo: Emily C. Skaftun
Elizabeth has a bad case of the Arctic Illness—just look how in love she looks while taking photographs of her ever-changing view.

This article originally appeared in the September 20, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.