Arctic Adventure: Norwegian Archipelago

Visitors unwilling to wait for days on the ice for polar bears are more likely to photograph stuffed ones on display or roadside "polar bear warning" signs. The bears have been totally protected since 1973, and cannot even be tracked for sightseeing.

People have been coming to Svalbard ever since Dutch explorer William Barents charted the treeless islands in 1596. It was first used as a base by whalers and walrus hunters, then coal was discovered in the late 1800s, and in 1906, John Longyear of Boston opened the American Mine.

However, tourism is relatively new. Until 1990, these dazzling scenes 300 miles north of the Norwegian mainland were off-limits to sightseers, including cruise ships.

Tourists are now welcome. And they are coming. Official figures say overnight stays nearly doubled in a decade to about 83,000 in 2006, as did the number of passengers on cruise ships, to 43,000.

The United Nations warns that the Arctic is heating up faster than the rest of the planet, so Svalbard's attractions could start melting due to global warming.

But the Svalbard tourism officer, Stein Tore Pedersen, said there does not yet seem to be a climate change rush.

"It's still too theoretical. There isn't a sense of people coming here because they think the glaciers are going to be gone next year," he said. Rather, he said, with interest in the Arctic peaking, "Svalbard has become a hot spot,"

Svalbard seemed anything but "hot" when harnessing a dogsled team in the bitter early morning cold. Nor did the glaciers seem an oasis of silence, with 80 or so excited Huskies baying in their compound for their daily trek. Novice mushers wrestled the big, friendly, exuberant dogs into harnesses and into six-dog teams.

Once on the glacier, silence did reign. Just the whisper of sled runners on snow and dogs seeming to float at a sprint out front. At times, visitors had to jog behind the sled as the dogs slogged uphill.

At the top of the Scott-Turner Glacier, dogsled guide Nerhus led the way into an ice-cave under the glacier. Crawling under icicles and sliding on the ice paid off was rewarded by the stunning ice formations inside.

"I froze a bit," 18-year-old Ole Kristian Haug of Oslo said. "But it was completely different. It was great."

There are nosier and faster ways to travel: snowmobiles.

On a trip to Russian Barentsburg, about 37 miles each way, buzzing snowmobiles were joined by a reindeer herd and stopped to avoid stressing the wild animals. Once in Barentsburg, some tourists were stunned. The moldering town, once of 800 people, seemed stuck in Soviet times.

"It's like the 1970s," said Thomas Honnemyr, 23, from southern Norway's Vennesla.

Modern and expensive Longyearbyen, by contrast, could be any prosperous Norwegian village, except for the snowmobile traffic and pilings driven into the permafrost replacing foundations for buildings.

Signs outside local businesses remind customers to check their guns at the door. And local tradition, from coal-mining days, demand that you take off your shoes before entering buildings.


If You Go...

GETTING THERE: The airlines SAS and Norwegian have regularly scheduled flights from Norway's northern city of Tromsoe to Svalbard. Frequency depends on season. Cruise ships and Norwegian coastal steamers also call on the islands in summer.

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