21st of October, 08:00 a.m., Oslo airport. I remember being in great agony. I’ve just met this girl in the airport and we were going through the necessary introducing conversation: who are you? What do you do in your life? Why the hell did you choose a course in the far north? I was trying to focus and keep the conversation on but the main thing conquering my mind was ‘what if I cannot make it?’ I had no information about the place, no idea how is the life up there, hard core or manageable, I was totally unprepared with no woolen clothing and yet I was about to spend my next six weeks in the northernmost place in the world with permanent population, situated in Svalbard Archipelago. I had one last course to complete my masters and since I was free to choose whatever I like, I decided not to attend another course in Amsterdam (where my masters is officially based) but try something extreme like Arctic Marine Molecular Ecology in UNIS institute in Spitsbergen Island.
The moment that I faced the glacier beauty from the airplane with the gorgeous pink shades of the setting sun I knew that great moments would be unfolded. Stepping out of the airport I immediately bumped into the most famous traffic signs on Svalbard: be aware of polar bears! A smile burst on my serious face, a feeling that would stay with me for the rest of my polar experience. It took me only a couple of minutes to settle everything and meet amazing people that would enlighten the dark days in the Arctic Circle. Greek herbs, home-made honey and grappa from my cousin would perfectly create a cozy atmosphere with all these new fellows, so cozy that I completely forgot to contact all the worried ones back home that thought I was struggling with some outrageous snow menace.
The second day some colleagues and I took the 3km way to the institute; one of the few streets in the Norwegian settlement of Lonyearbyen, fully exposed to wind and snow storms, with a magnificent view in both ways. It was one of the last days that we had the opportunity to see the sun as we were heading towards the winter period and the polar night would soon be present. After our safety course at the shooting range we were able to borrow a rifle and a flare gun and hike the nearest highest mountain behind Nybyen to enjoy the last sunrise-sunset of the year. Or at least that was our intention before my clothing was proven inappropriate against the frozen wind, forcing me to terminate this adventure just before the last part to the top. The weather was getting bad and the light was disappearing fast so my group didn’t really curse me for destroying the trip. The way up was tough and definitely challenging for someone that had only hiked in 20˚C minimum. The scenery around was breath-taking, the whiteness of the surroundings and the mystic wilderness was blowing my mind. I had never ever experienced before such a peaceful place where all your worries can be drowned in the majestic landscape. In our way down, I was regretting for not pushing myself so I made a promise to return as soon as I could.
Next week the days were already really short and dark, but light residues from southern places were still offering some opportunities for excursions. Actually, if you are well equipped you can keep exploring the island even during the polar nights, hike up and ski down steep slopes carrying a strong head lamp and loads of adrenaline in your veins! The most intense experience that I had during the polar night was on a small research vessel in a sampling cruise for the needs of the course that I was attending. In our way to the sampling station the sea was quite calm but the wind started picking up by the moment that we arrived making our work enjoyingly difficult! The boat was rocked so bad that we actually had to hug each other while handling the equipment or crawl while carrying heavy stuff to avoid flying over board! The only chance of seeing what was going on around was when the lamp from the bridge was pointing at the sea, downwards on a wave. We could just feel the limitless power of the sea sweeping us up and down with no effort at all. Everything seemed so unreal; I had the sense that we were filming a Hollywood movie like the Perfect Storm, with the only difference that the special effects were actually REAL! Unfortunately, we couldn’t stay overnight due to logistics and probably because our captain didn’t want to risk having eight girls swept by the sea.
The rest of my weeks there were calm adventure-wise but full of social events and Northern lights. How memorable can be heading to school at 09.00 a.m. with full moon in the skies and aurora borealis dancing in the horizon? Every time there was aurora prediction on the radar it was like an alarm going around the barracks and you could see students rushing out of their warm rooms to gaze at the colorful curtains of the sky till they couldn’t move their toes from the cold. As for the social life, someone would expect very limited options and that’s true but the students over there are well organized with creative ideas, arranging events and gatherings as a daily routine. What truly amazed me in Svalbard was the spirit of the people, the positive energy and the kindness which make you feel welcome and safe, which embrace you as a part of the community even if you are a short term visitor. When it was the time to say goodbye they told me that everyone goes back and sometimes never leave again. I can understand why and I feel the urge to do so and there are so many things that I didn’t experience that sooner or later will drag me up there again. It is an absolutely magical place, a dreamlike one for adventurous minds and I’m thankful for never letting my fear cancel this trip.
Special thanks to: Markus Antonius Marszalek and Rebecca Roggentin for allowing us to use the photos!
Exceptional photography by Stuart Thomson, Svalbard’s personal photographer!: https://www.facebook.com/StuartThomsonFotografi