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Svalbard, Norway: Frozen Adventures at the Edge of Earth

KELLIE FLOYD takes her kids on a life-changing journey to the edge of civilisation

Kellie and her family in Svalbard. Beyond this sign you are required to have a polar bear protection gun with you at all times
Kellie and her family in Svalbard. Beyond this sign you are required to have a polar bear protection gun with you at all times

Svalbard is, without doubt, one of Europe’s hidden gems. Home to the world’s most northern permanent settlement, the archipelago lies about halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole. Here, it snows in summer and the skies only go dark between October and February, when it’s pitch black 24 hours a day. But despite the region’s remoteness, it’s surprisingly easy to get to — just a three-hour flight from the Norwegian capital, Oslo. Amidst the frigid cold and icy landscapes, our family of four lived out a dream of adventure manifested during Melbourne’s COVID-19 lockdowns, discovering a profound warmth for the locals, the wildlife and the land.

Longyearbyen: Exploring Svalbard's enchanting main settlement

Longyearbyen in Svalbard. Image Marcela Cardenas Visit Svalbard
Longyearbyen in Svalbard. Image: Marcela Cardenas / Visit Svalbard

We begin our journey in Svalbard’s main settlement, Longyearbyen. Staying in an Airbnb near the town’s main street, we have easy access to restaurants and attractions like the Svalbard Museum, which is filled with fascinating artifacts from the archipelago’s discovery in the 16th century to more recent times.

Thrilling dog sledding adventure

Donning woollen layers, our guide drives us from Longyearbyen through the Advent Valley. There’s only 15 kilometres of road on Svalbard, and snowmobiles outnumber cars. The kids encourage a make-believe race with one as it zooms past us on a frozen river. Upon arrival at the dog yards, we bundle into snowsuits and boots and listen to our guide Cara explain how we manage the sleds. As she does, the energetic dogs bark louder, sensing the imminent adventure – these working dogs and love to pull!

Harriet and William on the dog sled, we are traversing on a frozen lake
Harriet and William on the dog sled, we are traversing on a frozen lake

When Cara gives the signal, the huskies burst forward, and the kids simultaneously shout “yippee!”. Pulled by eight dogs, our sled glides over the icy tundra, while the crisp air kisses our faces. My 10-year-old son William assists Cara in mushing, while seven-year-old Harriet snuggles on my lap. Reindeer nibble the snow-covered grass, occasionally pausing to glance our way. Only the rhythmic sound of paws pounding the snow and Cara’s calls break the silence of the frozen surroundings. Our smiles persist, even when our toes start to chill. After a two-hour journey, we return to the cabin and warm up on hot drinks, waffles, and cuddles with seven-week-old puppies.

Exploring Svalbard with a private guide

William, Kellie, Harriet and our guide Masha, hiking in the mountains
William, Kellie, Harriet and our guide Masha, hiking in the mountains

We discover early in our stay that there are around three thousand polars bears across Svalbard, and just two thousand humans. To venture beyond the settlement, it’s essential to carry a firearm and flares. Locals and guides undergo comprehensive training to ensure their safety, and the safety of tourists. With this in mind, we decide to hire a private guide so we can venture beyond the settlement.

After Masha provides us with a pair of microspikes (similar to crampons), we’re ready to hike the icy terrain, with hopes of seeing the elusive Arctic fox. Although our encounters are limited to reindeer and birds, reaching the ridge’s summit rewards us with spectacular views. The kids navigate the snow and ice impressively. Masha captivates them with tales of wildlife encounters and patiently answers their endless questions. Meeting someone who lives at the edge of civilisation sparks a lot of curiosity. With the flexibility to choose our destinations, Masha drives past the famous “doomsday” Global Seed Vault and old mining sites before we head back to town.

Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Image Haakon Daae Brensholm Visit Svalbard
Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Image: Haakon Daae Brensholm / Visit Svalbard

Walrus spotting in Isfjorden

Next, we board a small but comfortable, closed RIB boat and venture out into Isfjorden, the second-longest fjord in Svalbard. Excitement fills the air as the kids eagerly anticipate spotting walruses. Cruising through the icy waters, our guide shares the vital role walruses play as ocean caretakers, lovingly referring to them as vacuum cleaners for their diligent skills in foraging the ocean floor.

We see the large marine mammal both in the water and on the ice. Harriet, with her love of horses, adores them once she hears their nickname, “walking tooth seahorses”. William, meanwhile, is quite taken by their versatile tusks; used for fighting, hauling themselves onto the ice and creating breathing holes when underneath it. The highlight of the day is an up-close encounter when a walrus grazes against our boat with his hypersensitive whiskers — an intimate gesture revealing his curiosity about our presence.

Café Huskies

Harriet visiting Cafe Huskies
Harriet visiting Cafe Huskies

After the day’s adventure, we return to the settlement and discover the perfect place to relax and get warm with a nice cup of hot chocolate, Café Huskies. As soon as we step inside, a couple of dogs happily trot over to greet us, energetically wagging their tails while leaning into the kids as if to say, “come on, hurry up and give me a pat!”. There are a couple of dog beds scattered around the venue, but they clearly prefer the couches or lying under our feet.

An unforgettable adventure

Our trip instils a deep appreciation for the raw power and delicate balance of nature, and is hard to compare as a family travel destination. It provides our family with an unforgettable adventure that will forever be etched in our memories as a place where the extraordinary became a reality.

Huskies ready to go sledding in Svalbard. Image Marcela Cardenas Visit Svalbard
Huskies ready to go sledding in Svalbard. Image: Marcela Cardenas / Visit Svalbard

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