Reconciling Arctic Expectations with Modern Realities

arctic street sign photo

Image courtesy of Bob Davies/Cape Farewell.
This guest post was written by Bob Davies, principal at Montgomery Sisam Architects in Canada, as part of the Cape Farewell project.

I left Canada a few days ago to come to this remarkably remote place at 78 degrees north to join Cape Farewell's global Climate/Culture Expedition. A group of 20 scientists, writers, visual artists and musicians; a delightfully odd collection of souls from around the world, will be boarding a 135 foot sailing schooner, the Noorderlicht, for a 22 day sail around the Svalbard archipelago, a kind of roiling, boiling think tank on climate change.Leaving Canada I was feeling excited to be going to a place that I thought would be beyond the reach, or at least just ahead of the curve, of the global eco-tourist trade. Having spent the summer hearing news of the sheer number of tourist boats cruising the Canadian Arctic, including the embarrassingly staged photo-op of Prime Minister Harper balancing on a little piece of polar ice (having personally banished the Russian Air Force) I was feeling pleased to be going to the far reaches of the polar planet, halfway around the world, away from the madding crowd.

cape farewell arctic ship photo

Image courtesy of Bob Davies/Cape Farewell.

Fifteen of us gathered in London and flew north to Oslo where we met our five Russian compatriots and continued further north to Tormo. Changing planes, we left Tormo in the darkness of night and flew ever further north to Longyeaybyen—and into the midnight sun. To bed with light in the sky at 3 am we awoke at 8 am, had breakfast and walked to the wharf, the boat and, as it turns out, a new awakening! Contrary to my expectation, eco-tourism has arrived and is alive and well in Longyearbyen too!

cape farewell arctic town photo

Image courtesy of Bob Davies/Cape Farewell.

In the past three years, 200 tourist beds have been built in a variety of hotels; mostly to accommodate the cruise-ship trade from the south, but also to provide for climbers, hikers, kayakers and the odd scientific-cultural polar expedition to sea. In addition, Longyearbyen hosts a small university, complete with students on bicycles and a very fine local museum to illustrate the history of a once-thriving but small coal mining town and northern outpost.

cape farewell arctic animals photo

Image courtesy of Bob Davies/Cape Farewell.

But never mind, it is still a spectacularly beautiful and very remote place and I have been assured that as we sail further north to the edge of the polar ice cap, we will see no signs of other humans and are guaranteed to see lots of whales, walrus, seals, manitou, and of course polar bears. And this I do believe to be true as we will be packing rifles as protection whenever we go ashore. Will keep you posted.

Follow the Cape Farewell voyage on the 2010 expedition blog.
Bob Davies is a Principal at Montgomery Sisam Architects in Canada. He is also President and Chair of the Board of Environmental Defense, a Canadian ENGO. As an architect and an environmentalist his primary focus is on how architecture and the environment affect human health.
Read more from Cape Farewell:
DJ Spooky Tells the Political Tale of Two Poles
DJ Spooky Sets Sail for the Arctic Ocean
DJ Spooky Channels Arctic Amplification into Song

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