Arctic Adventure: Norwegian Archipelago

LONGYEARBYEN, Norway - One disconcerting thing about sightseeing on these frozen Arctic islands at the edge of the polar ice pack: the biggest tourist attractions might be returning your stare. And to them, you're a potential meal.

There are an estimated 4,000-5,000 polar bears on or around Svalbard, an Arctic archipelago as far north as you can fly on a commercial flight. At about 78 degrees north latitude, it is less than 620 miles from the North Pole.

Polar bears are so elusive that British researcher Tony van Eyken, a two-year resident of Spitsbergen, the largest island, cited a local joke: "You can either carry a rifle or a camera, because if you have a camera, you'll never see a bear."

Later, apparently worried, he sent an SMS warning that polar bears should not be taken lightly. "Don't seriously encourage anyone to carry only a camera and not a gun," he wrote.

Tourists and residents venturing outside Longyearbyen, the main settlement of 2,000 people, are urged to carry rifles. The bears can weigh 1,000 pounds, fear nothing and, though they prefer seals, see anything that moves as food. A bear last killed a human here in 1995, local officials said, and they do sometimes approach or enter town.

The Svalbard experience is also the sting of minus 40 degree winds on a pinpoint of skin left uncovered while snowmobiling across a glacier; wrestling boisterous sled dogs into harnesses; crawling like clumsy seals into an ice grotto; or hearing disturbing creaking of the overhead rocks deep in a coal mine.

But you don't need to be as fit as polar explorer.

"We get all kinds of people, from all over the world," said Sigurd Daniel Nerhus, a local dogsled guide.

The vistas, like the cold, are stunning: icy glaciers, snowy mountains that seem to burst from the frosty sea, spectacular Northern Lights displays in the darkness of winter's Nov. 11 to Jan. 30 polar night. During summer, the Midnight Sun rises on April 20 and doesn't set until Aug. 23.

"We thought we would try something different from going (to the warm beaches) of southern climes," said Odd Gunnar Haug, of Oslo, on a bitter cold March day with his wife and two sons. "I'm not sure the boys knew what they were getting into."

Many attractions on the 23,550 square miles of islands are as wild as the bears: whales, walruses, seals, reindeer, Arctic foxes and birds. In addition, coal mines can be visited all year.

Winter activities include dogsledding, snowmobile, ice-caving, cross-country skiing, or an overnight stay aboard the sailing ship Noorderlicht, which is frozen into the polar ice.

In summer, adventures include cruises to see glaciers calving into the sea, kayaking, trekking, and visits to other settlements. The scenery bursts into life as wildflowers and animals rush to make use of a few mild summer months and the sparse vegetation that covers less than 7 percent of the islands' rocky surface.

You can travel to Russia without leaving Norway by visiting the Soviet-era outpost of Barentsburg, by boat in summer and snowmobile in winter. The 1920 treaty giving Norway sovereignty over Svalbard allows nonmilitary activity by other countries. That includes the Russian coal mining town of about 400 people, where a bust of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin still stands.

On a mountain near Longyearbyen is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, often called the "doomsday" seed bank, which opened on Feb. 26 to house millions of the world's agricultural in case of catastrophe.

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