He parks by a replica of Willem Barents’s cabin, and we descend into the snow. In some places, I sink past my knees. Our headlamps illuminate only a few feet beyond us; there are no other lights. Mother Frost could be anywhere. She and her cubs — or any of the other roughly 300 polar bears on Svalbard — could be stalking us, ravenous for a meal. A bear can run up to 25 miles per hour and weigh as much as 1,600 pounds. Every few minutes, I swing desperately around to scan for signs of movement. In the beam of my headlamps, there are suddenly two beads of neon green — a pair of eyes. Prokofiev raises a gloved fist to stop us. “Reindeer,” he says. I push my way into the center of the group. The eyes follow us warily. Prokofiev shows us a patch in the snow, scattered with frozen pellets of dung and a few matted stalks. “This is the food it lives on,” he says. “In the summer, the reindeer eats as much as it can. It puts on as much as 10 kilograms of weight. And in the winter, there’s almost nothing, so it preserves its energy and moves barely at all. If you startle it and it runs, it may not survive the season.”
I have entirely lost track of time and distance, and worry has exhausted me. Our phones have no reception. When the tires of the van appear at the periphery of my beam, I clamber up the escarpment as though being pursued.
THE SCANDINAVIAN ARCHAEOLOGIST Povl Simonsen describes Svalbard as beyond the “edge of the possible.” Its remoteness, its cold, its dark have always attracted an unusual inhabitant. The wild allows for a pioneer kind of lifestyle, the individual in commune with nature, building the world around her, governing herself.
With its tightknit community, its many freedoms and its closeness to nature, Svalbard is indeed a kind of utopia. But I see no one old, sick or disabled here. Its extreme environment demands self-sufficiency — a requirement written into the laws of the archipelago. Those who cannot look after themselves are deported, no matter how much of a home the islands are to them. And nowhere is beyond the reach of global politics. Before the war in Ukraine, relationships between the Russian and Ukrainian populations were good. Now the local tourism council has barred the Russian-owned company Trust Arktikugol from its organization.
The friends I’ve made here insist I cannot leave without going out into the wild on a snowmobile, like every other Svalbardian. But the warning light of a helicopter still flickers low over the valley and, though I’ve evaded danger so far, I wonder whether my luck is running out. I agree to an excursion on my last day to Eskerfossen, a waterfall, only to discover as I’m being kitted up that we’ll be out for seven hours. But it’s too late to change my mind. My snowmobile suit, boots, mittens, balaclava, goggles and helmet are so bulky that I move as if I’d landed on the moon. Arve Alvestad, our young Norwegian guide, is equipped with a rifle, a flare gun, a satellite phone, a personal locator beacon, a GPS navigator and a glacier rescue kit. His vehicle pulls a sled with a blanket and bivouac sacks in case of “emergency,” a word that jags in my mind. We drive in a convoy. I make sure I’m neither at the front nor the back. If bears are roaming the valley, let someone else be their meal.