When you live 78 degrees north, there are some things that might differ from your life back home. For example, the temperature in March can be –20 ºC one day, and –2 ºC two days later. Winds can go from a gentle 20 km/h breeze to a wild 65 km/h gale. Icy tracks line the roads and avalanche dangers lie in wait on the mountains beside you. Three thousand polar bears roam the archipelago with some roaming beyond the outskirts of Longyearbyen, the largest settlement of Svalbard. The Arctic can be a dangerous place.
That is, if you venture forth unprepared.
When travelling outside Longyearbyen, you are required to carry a rifle at all times. Students studying in Svalbard must undertake a weapon handling course, regardless of their previous gun experience. This was the first time I had ever fired a gun before, so it was really something new to me. The use of a rifle is especially important when it comes to polar bear threats. Firearms are only to be used in self-defence, and if and only when a polar bear threat is unavoidable.
This means that any hiking trips outside town require one trained person to carry a rifle at all times. In Svalbard, it is usually not possible to rent a rifle without a police permit, but the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS) will host a rifle lottery if winners can demonstrate safe weapon handling. This grants students the right to carry rifle and ammunition for up to one week. It felt rather uncanny entering the lottery, winning and lining up to receive my ‘prize’.
At the very least, I’ll be able to go hiking this weekend!