The weather was perfectly calm and bright as we pulled into Isfjorden for our last couple of hours onboard. I grabbed a 5 am cup of coffee and headed outside for one more moment of solitude with the mountains, sky, and water.
As we pulled into Longyearbyen, we saw the Global Seed Vault on the side of a mountain just outside of town. After disembarkment, we hopped on a bus and headed up to the Vault to see it from the outside. Seed collections from around the world are stored here to protect genetic plant diversity on the planet in case a disaster strikes. While the vault is normally electrically cooled, the seeds are also stored under the permafrost layer so they will stay cold and safe even if the power goes out.
Along our bus tour we stopped at one of the famous “polar bear signs” on either end of Longyearbyen. These signs translate to “applies to all of Svalbard” – meaning one can possibly run into a bear anywhere in the archipelago. Outside the city limits marked by these signs, people are required to carry rifles with them at all times. At one point we came across a man walking without a gun, and our bus driver stopped to inform him that he was being incredibly stupid. Our guide had joked with us about the unofficial rule that “nobody is allowed to be born or to die in Svalbard,” due to very limited medical facilities and the permafrost making burials impossible, so perhaps our unarmed friend was gambling that the rule would hold for him.
Our tour continued on past sled dog yards, where the dogs were lying outside soaking up the warm 40 °F summer sun. In between two yards we spied a huge flock of common eider ducks, and our guide informed us that they hang out there because their main predator – the Arctic fox – does not dare go near the dogs. We continued on to Camp Barents, where we able to meet and greet sled dogs and see them perform their summer training – pulling wheeled wagons on dirt roads.
After the tour, we had a bit of free time. I chose to walk around Longyearbyen and try to get a feeling for local life, which was a bit tough on a sleepy Sunday morning. But I did see lots of snowmobiles, which apparently outnumber the residents. Many of the colorful little houses in town had skis, toys, warm weather gear and piles of reindeer antlers adorning their porches.
My time in Svalbard came to a close, and it was off to the airport for the trip back to Oslo. At the gate I grabbed a bottle of juice, and the science teacher in me was thrilled to see the volume of liquid was reported in deciliters – a unit I had never personally seen in the “real world.” I while I waited for the plane I planned some new unit conversions to talk about with my students – including perhaps some kilometers to miles to help us Americans relate to this sign:
My final glimpse of Svalbard was much like my first – peering down from a scratched up plane window at the snow-frosted mountains below me, with a tear in my eye as I considered how lucky I had been to experience this magical place.
If you’re up for more (lots more) photos, visit my Flickr site for my full photojournal.