History / Svalbard

5 secrets from old Svalbard

Nearly a century ago, Martha Phillips Gilson published “A Woman’s Winter on Spitsbergen” in National Geographic. The article describes the year she spent on Spitsbergen, the largest island of the Svalbard archipelago, with her brand-new husband, who was carrying out a geological assignment related to coal mining that Gilson never clearly explains.

Old Svalbard

“We would be frozen in on Spitsbergen for nine months,” she recalls in her 1928 article. “It was one of the experiences I wanted in my bag of memories.”

Gilson not only got a veritable grab bag of memories, both good and bad, from her winter on Svalbard, she also discovered five secrets about Svalbard that shed light on the conditions of this mysterious land of ice and isolation during the early 20th century.

Svalbard: home to northernmost city in the world

“The opportunity to winter on Spitsbergen does not knock at everyone’s door, nor would many people open the door if it did. … All the cold countries I had ever heard of were south of us. We were 78 degrees north, and the North Pole only 12 degrees away.”

– Gilson

Gilson was just 20 years old when she journeyed to Svalbard. If The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a random gun-enthusiast are to be believed, she spent the winter of 1916-17 on Svalbard (in National Geographic, she neglects to clarify precisely when her adventure in the frozen north took place).

After being discovered in 1596 and juggled between countries, including Portugal, England, Sweden, Russia, and Denmark, Svalbard was finally awarded to Norway in 1920. The Norwegians didn’t take official possession of it until 1925, however.

At the time, Longyearbyen (Longyear City) was (and still is) the northernmost city in the world. To reach it, Gilson and her husband spent 18 hours inching their way through an ice pack in a small wooden boat—and that just got them to the coast of Spitsbergen. No mail or fresh food was available in the winter. The last boat off the island was in early October. Ships and life-saving supplies would not return to Svalbard until late June or early July.

Once the last boat left, the number of inhabitants of the “city” could be counted on two hands.

Environmental threats to the arctic are not just a 21st century problem.

“In the early years of the 17th century, Dutch and Danish whalers divided [Amsterdam Island] into two settlements and anchored their tubby vessels opposite their blubber cookeries on shore. At the Dutch settlement, Smerenburg, or Blubbertown, sometimes as many as 300 vessels lay at anchor. … By 1635 intensive fishing had driven these mammals away.”

– Gilson

Before Gilson’s arrival, the area around Longyearbyen was a vast hunting ground. In 1906, 136 white whales, 296 polar bears, 135 walruses, 6,000 seals, 2,888 reindeer, 61 blue foxes, 80 white foxes, and enough eider ducks to yield 1,000 pounds of down feathers were killed.

But just 10 years later, in lieu of hunting camps Gilson found mining camps. At the time, the extent of Spitsbergen’s coal deposits was not accurately known (possibly the reason for her husband’s company-sponsored trip to Svalbard). There were estimated to be 8,750,000,000 tons underground, with seams eight feet thick in places. Whether the coalminers repeated the excesses of the whalers and the hunters is a subject that will be considered in a later post.

Svalbard will not only kill you, but also cast you from the grave

“One day I walked to a spot where a few Russian hunters had been buried many years before. The frost had heaved the bones and rude coffins up out of the ground and they lay strewn about a weather-beaten cross of wood. It was a sad spectacle.”

– Gilson

Svalbard summers in the early 20th century were either damp and foggy or dry and cold. The ground never melted more than two feet below the surface. But when it did, it disclosed terrible surprises.

Summer was short. Snow typically began to fall in September. Gilson watched uneasily as the snowline crept farther down the mountainsides with each passing week and debated leaving the increasingly cold island for the winter.

Zombies are real

“No sun at all by the first of Octoberjust twilightand a very depressing light it was, hard on the nerves. One looked in vain for a sunrise that would not come for several months. … How awful we looked! We were a pale and sickish yellow color. It was rather a shock to glance in the mirror by daylight. We were bleached out and dead-looking. But I was not the only hideous one at the camp. We resembled a colony of corpses.”

– Gilson

Gilson, her husband, and just five other people were alone in Longyearbyen all winter. Her husband and the other five men were obliged to stay because of their jobs. She, however, remained on Svalbard voluntarily. After she and her husband watched the last boat of the season struggle out to sea, “we did not sleep very well that night, wondering if we had made a foolhardy mistake in staying behind.”

Winter was spent in mind-numbing repetition. They “played cards, read, and sewed; sewed, read, and played cards. … One felt as if a tight black cap were being pulled slowly over one’s head.”

The Gilson couple’s Christmas was so depressing that the gift of an old corporate folder from exotic Duluth made them nearly delirious with joy. One of the few remaining workers to stay behind dropped it on their doorstep on Christmas Eve. It had images of Minnesota’s picturesque coal and iron ore docks on it, and “Good wishes for the season” written in Norwegian. They were so homesick that this dubious present transformed their Christmas Eve from a dark night of the soul into a tolerable evening.

Six months later, on June 8, the first boat of the year arrived stocked with fresh food and mail, some of which had been posted to the Gilsons back in September.

Once you go to Svalbard, you won’t be able to resist “the call of the cold”

“When the moon was in the heavens we had moonlight the full 24 hours. The scenery was indescribable during these times. The snow on the mountains sparkled as if the heights were inlaid with diamonds, and the sky was a deep blue, full of mystery.”

“The northern lights were magnificent…like a giant handful of different-colored chiffon scarves being shaken across the sky. As each one changed shape and position it changed color.”

“I promised myself that I would return to Spitsbergen if ever the opportunity presented itself. The ‘call of the cold’ was in my blood.”

– Gilson

Don’t go to Svalbard. In spite of the cold and the dark and the corpse-spewing earth, you might long to return for the rest of your life.

the delve