A Journey Into Norway’s Endless Night

After we return to the kennels, we gather in a Siberian wood cabin much like the kind used by the trappers who overwintered in Svalbard in the 19th and 20th centuries. It has a low, sooty ceiling, reindeer pelts on the walls and benches, a glowing stove. We drink syrupy glogg and eat hot, floppy waffles. The fire, the warm food, the company seem precious, bulwarks against the ever-present threat of danger outside. This is another gift of Svalbard’s extreme environment: It makes an occasion out of what might otherwise seem ordinary and instills gratitude for a fleeting moment.

At 11:15 a.m. on March 8 every year, when sunlight hits the steps of the old hospital in Longyearbyen for the first time after the polar night, locals gather at the nearby church for the start of Solfesten, the sun festival week. They eat solboller, yeasted buns decorated with yellow custard, and sing out to the heavens. “At the end of the dark season, you feel a little ragged from lack of vitamin D,” Wing, the chef of Polfareren, tells me. “It’s a powerful experience when the sun returns, when you can finally feel it on your face.” Elizabeth Bourne, an American artist living in Svalbard whom I meet for dinner later, describes it as “a primal emotion.” She says that “a couple of years ago, [a friend and I] saw the sun streaking through one of the valleys, a sharp line of light, so we rode out there [on our snowmobiles] and took our helmets off and screamed like children — two middle-aged women screaming their heads off because we were in the sunlight.”

Emboldened by my experience sledding, I decide the next day to hike in the tundra. This time there will be no dogs to ward off predators. Vlad Prokofiev, a Serbian guide, drives a group of us, including a young Peruvian and a pair of older Germans, to the foot of Breinosa, a mountain to the southeast of Longyearbyen. Again, there is a flashing red light over the valley, but today our guide is more concerned. Prokofiev stops the car. “Stay inside,” he tells us, shining his headlights onto the snow. He fetches his rifle. Large tracks lead from the road into the tundra. “Imagine if we see a bear,” one of the Germans says, laughing nervously. “Poof, we’ll be gone.”

Prokofiev returns. “I don’t think so,” he says. “But Mother Frost, she comes and goes as she pleases. She isn’t afraid of people, of the town. She’s brought her cubs up the same. Murderers. Eight of them, and six shot in self-defense.”

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