Barentsburg Ahoy!

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Svalbard has many names. ‘Svalbard,’ roughly translating to “cold shores,” was first mentioned in Norse (Viking) reports, though they aren’t sure if they specifically meant that land mass or Greenland. But the Dutchman Willem Barentsz gave it the name Spitsbergen (“pointy mountains”) when he landed upon it in 1596.

As our boat bobbed up and down in the rolling waves of Isfjorden, I peered out the steamy window, not much more than a porthole. Our guide, a quirky tatooed girl with a shock of blonde hair falling in her face, told us the story of Willem Barentsz.

“He wrote back home that in this bay there were so many whales, you could walk from one side to another on their backs.”

Arctic Fossil-hunting

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When Svalbard was young and verdant, he left his home below the equator to go explore the northern seas. He made his way past other floating continents, and then he met Greenland, and things did not go well. He left a piece of his heart with her, and she a particularly jagged, pointy piece of hers with him. He subsequently traveled almost as far north as a continent could get, but his youth and lush beauty didn’t last. The leafy ferns and trees that had thrived in his hometown began to wither in the cold, and eventually they turned to stone, covered with blankets of silt and soil and then ice and snow, until they were hidden from view. Then the icy chill receded, as did the snow, and the rocky remnants began tumbling down the mountainside, just south of Longyearbyen.

78 North

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From the top of Platåberget, Longyearbyen looks small. In the late summer evening fog, a few lights are on, but the sun won’t “set” for at least a few more hours. The bare, greenish hills and mountains close in around the village, and we can hear the ships horns and a helicopter somewhere, but the only vehicles we can spot are a few trucks and beater cars far below us.

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