82°13′N 15°33′E

There is nothing further north of the North Pole. Perhaps this is what motivated me to go there. To take myself to the end of the Earth, lose my bearings, stripped of time and thoughts of day to day life. It was like confronting the extremity of the world, the extremity of the universe even.

My journey began in Longyearbyen, the world’s northernmost town; located in Svalbard, the mining settlement area of the Archipelago of Norway. At the end of the 19th century settlers discovered coal. Coal became a necessary resource, and indeed without the mines, life would not have been possible. However, the ruins of the coal mines are today a devastating reminder of lack of forethought. Gutted wounds on the earth’s surface that have been used, neglected, and forgotten. Of the seven former thriving mines in Longyearbyen, today only one is still running.

Despite the mines, Longyearbyen is a visually stunning area. There is only one road in Svalbard, a road that leads 46 KM to nowhere. A road that loses itself in the enormity of the surrounding mountains. During the icy cold winter months traditional roads aren’t the most efficient means of transportation. Locals use snowmobiles to travel from one area to another. The winter months are long and gruelling, as you can imagine. As spring approaches in Longyearbyen locals scan the face of the mountains for signs of the ‘Champagne Glass’. The rise in temperature melts the snow and reveals a symbolic glass of champagne: a sign that it is time to celebrate the end of the long polar night.

You don’t go to the North Pole and not expect to be abruptly confronted by the extreme temperatures. But along with the challenge of the cold comes the beauty of nature that thrives there. Polar bears outnumber humans in Svalbard. Because of this, the area has attracted explorers, trappers, miners, and as of late, scientists. I embarked on an icebreaker ship with a dozen of them.

The silence while at sea here is inescapable, awe inspiring and eerie all at once. The skin of the sea, like a silky drape hiding the depths of life beneath it, ripples beautifully as we pass through it. The salinity of the Arctic sea is quite low, making for a smooth fresh journey past the austerity of the mountains. There are many forms of silence here; austere mountains, enigmatic fjords, ice deserts, and bare beaches. The region also boasts the largest concentration of glaciers, each of which has a silence and mystery of their own.

As we travel, the boat must avoid obstacles. Icebergs and milky blue glaciers advance towards us, with a formidable beauty. One can immediately notice that masses of floating pack ice have retreated as a result of climate change.  

The atmosphere is translucent. In summer, the night never falls. The midnight sun sends delicate rays; exaltations of light. The passage of time becomes slower, welcoming introspection and contemplation. The concept of lost paradise inviting you to meditate. These moments of solitude are refreshingly interrupted by a breath of life. Springing from the depths of time, from the depths of the abyss come whales, walruses, and of course, polar bears.

Humpback whales pass in thundering troops, spewing light clouds. The blue whale have a naked body, thin, smooth. So immense in length that it is difficult to photograph the giant in its entirety. These whales can exceed 30 meters in length, making it the largest living animal of our time. People today risk their lives to defend the whales from the ignominy of the harpoon rifles.  From our vantage point on the ship it is clear that the whales are intelligent and sensitive. They put on a show for us and accompany us into the pack ice.

Half solid pack ice is disconcerting – floating continent or solid ocean? The naked eye can’t tell. When it disintegrates in summer, pack ice creates ephemeral islands, as if it were an ever-changing map of Africa. A symbol of climate change.  The pack ice, carried away by currents, harassed by winds , opens and overlaps. It becomes a broken territory, without unity, and is struggled through by both man and polar bears.

On this chaotic raft, an old bear looks with melancholy at the white, blue and grey of its territory. This white giant of the pack ice is a wanderer with remarkable flair. He walks towards us, cautiously sniffing.  

One morning while I stroll on the deck of the ship, I see a little white point jutting into the sea. A polar bear swimming towards me. Thrill yet tenderness; the moment is intense. We gaze at each other in an unspoken language. In his stare I saw astonishment, and I even think he smiled at me! This moment typifies the reason I longed to come to the North Pole. To be at one with nature, a universal awareness that we are just one species. One of many that occupy this vast and beautiful planet. And here I am, one living creature connecting with another in a surreal moment that is hard to describe in words.

Of course this isn’t the only type animal-human interaction that occurs this far north where humans haven’t taken complete control of the land. Bear trappers existed up here, hunting for the beautiful white creatures that once were free to roam fearlessly. Far off the shore of the bank, I saw a trapper’s cabin. To access this small beach, one must be equipped with a gun. It’s like joining the arctic ‘wild wild west’. If such a place were to exist. Not far from the cabin, up on small neighbouring hill, there lies a simple cross marking the passing of a bear trapper. One can imagine that in a man-vs-beast battle, the trapper would have been taken out by a simple yet powerful swipe of the bear’s massive paw. Claws digging through the flesh of the man, leaving him fatally wounded. Or so we were told. It was another sombre reminder that here life is played like a game of survival.

Today, the ice’s arrival is late, throwing off their natural rhythm of hunt and hibernate. The bears must shorten their hunting season and not all prey exists in natural abundance as before. If the females do not store enough fat for the winter, they can’t hibernate, leaving them to a deadly food shortage, and a slim chance of survival. Lucky are the polar bears that manage to hunt a seal. This is a sought after feast for bears as seals are fat enough to feed the whole family and a rich source of nutrients to store.

The spectacle of this polar night is unforgettable. Unfortunately not all polar bears are able to reach the ice. Some take refuge on Kvitøya, further south, also called the White Island. Though temperatures are too high for their normal hibernation it doesn’t stop them form a playful roll in the little snow that remains.

The wonderful serenity is contrast by the desperation of this increasingly warm land. Polar bears have in recent years resorted to hunting seagulls to survive. A devastating reality for these beautiful creatures. I saw this devastation. I saw their tears. If flowers were growing on the pack ice, the world would be upside down. The Eskimos would wear sarongs, Africans would live in igloos. We would all live in confusion of the ever changing and vulnerable world.


Francoise Gaujour