Most days have been a bit grey and windy recently, but full of joy and good experience outdoors, so time keeps flying. After a long period of abstinence, forced upon me by the pandemic, I enjoy being outside and that’s definitely the focus these days, rather than spending time on the computer. There would be more than enough to write about, stories and pictures from Spitsbergen’s stunning nature, so many beautiful impressions …
But that has to wait right now, we’ll get there later.
Things keep happening also up here in Spitsbergen, and it would be quite out of place to write about being in the outdoors, with stunning scenery, wildlife encounters and interesting “discoveries” of phenomena such as fossils and others, without having written about certain other events first.
Mark Sabbatini left Spitsbergen involuntarily
Especially when it is about someone who had to leave the island after more than 10 years (13, to be more precise). Someone who didn’t have plans to leave.
The power of the Sysselmester, the Norwegian government’s highest representative in Svalbard, includes to expel someone from the islands. This is something that happens rather rarely, for example in cases of persons repeteadly found to have used or even sold illegal drugs, something considered even more dangerous to a relatively young community in the far north, with several months of polar night, than elsewhere in the world.
Also tourists who arrived without any means to support their stay in Spitsbergen have already been sent back on the next flight. The authorities don’t want people to sleep in the streets or to camp wild in or near Longyearbyen, something that is a) forbidden and b) dangerous (polar bears).
So far, so understandable. But someone who has lived here fo 13 years?
Mark Sabbatini: 13 years of Spitsbergen, 13 years of “Icepeople”
The American Mark Sabbatini, per default a newspaper- and media person, had already spent considerable time in places including Antarctica when he came to Longyearbyen 13 years ago and started publishing his free, English newspaper and website “Icepeople”, an alternative media platform next to the local newspaper Svalbardposten and language-wise certainly more accessible to an international public. Since then, Mark has been part of Longyearbyen’s inventory, sitting at a table in a corner of Café Fruene and focussing on his computer while live is busy around him, keeping his newspaper and website updated.
But economically, “Icepeople” never became a source of wealth (something that its editor and author had never primarily intended): paper edition (the “fishwrapper”, as Mark himself calls it) and the website are fully accessible for free, and advertising has never brought much business. The hardest of several economical blows that Mark had to suffer, however, was the Gamle Sykehjem (“Old hospital”) story. This is a long story in itself (click here read more about it). In short words: Mark was one of several who bought a flat in this house which then showed structural damage due to melting permafrost, so it had to be evacuated on short notice and those who had bought a property there suffered more or less a full loss (some more than others, depending on circumstances). Other blows that Mark had to suffer affected his health, including falling and getting hurt badly in times of clear ice on the street in Longyearbyen. This all is well-known local gossip and Mark has never made a secret of it.
Economical and health-wise downhill development
Finally all reserves were used up, and Marks economical situation in the northernmost settlement (if we exclude Ny-Ålesund, which does not have a normal population) of the rich country Norway reached a point where he had increasing difficulties to fund his daily spendings. So it went on for a while. Many did this and that to help, and it went on, with better and more difficult times.
It is one of the consequences of the Spitsbergen Treaty that there is no network for social security beyond what is provided by everybody’s home countries. And as the Norwegian authorities do not accept people living in unsettled situation in Spitsbergen, they reserve the right to expel people from Svalbard who are not economically able to take care of themselves on a level accepted by the authorities.
New Sysselmester Lars Fause has a different viewpoint on this whole question than his precursor, and he decided to “take responsibility” as soon as he came into power recently.
Mark himself has told his view of this story in public a number of times, including Svalbardposten, his own website Icepeople and social media and in personal communication, also to this author. He emphasizes that he does not only understand and accept the Sysselmester’s decision, but he also considers it to be the right decision, in the light of the development in recent years.
Back to Alaska
Mark left Spitsbergen last Wednesday, headed for Juneau in Alaska, where he wants to recover health-wise and economically. Then, he wants to find himself a place in Alaska’s media landscape, preferably with a focus on remote communities.
Mark Sabbatini during his goodbye in Longyearbyen last Wednesday. Photo: Icepeople.
Mark wants to continue with Icepeople, so the page will be active and updated also in the future, supplying an international public with interest in local matters with all sorts of detailed information, presented in Mark’s own way, often with a touch of humour and written in a style that may occasionally be slightly challenging for non-native English speakers.
By the way, Mark has contributed with proofreading to a number of texts used in various publications, print and online, by this author, including shorter texts such as quite recently in Svalbardhytter or longer ones including updates of the English version of the guidebook Spitsbergen-Svalbard. According to Mark, he will be happy to make similar contributions also in the future, something I’ll be happy to make use of (as a paid service, as before)
If you want to read more about the circumstances of Mark’s departure, then you will find plenty of stuff on his own site, Icepeople.
To start with, the answer to the question in the last blog. It was about this photo:
A corner in Svalbardbutikken, Longyearbyen’s refurbished supermarket.
$64-question for Spitsbergen-nerds: what’s wrong here? 🙂
So, what is wrong? Obviously, it wasn’t really obvious 🙂 the photo on the wall is mirror-inverted. They say they will get a corrected version at some stage.
Adventure Oslo airport
Spending a couple of hours in an airport is pretty much the most boring thing that I can think of. why write about it? Because it can go wrong if you expect it to work as normal.
Test or no test, that is the question
The question keeps coming up wether or not corona testing is required on a trip to Spitsbergen. The current situation is that immunised travellers (fully vaccinated or recently recovered, documented with an acknowledged document such as a digital European vaccination certificate) do not have to show a certificate for a negative test upon entering Norway or checking in on a flight to Spitsbergen. That may change at any time, as everything these days; authorities including the Sysselmester have already demanded to re-introduce the test obligation.
In my experience, it is an increasing risk that you can’t necessarily rely on governemt decisions especially when things are changing more or less every week. Then it’s whatever the airport official you are dealing with thinks. What use is in being right if you don’t get any further with is? An non-Corona-example: legally, as a EU citizen you don’t need a passport to travel from Norway to Spitsbergen, an ID card will do. But at the airport they demand a passport from non-Norwegians. Additionally, machines like automatic check-in machines or automated passport control machines can only read passports and not ID cards, so you are well advised to bring your passport anyway.
Digital EU-vaccination certificate: makes the process more efficient in Oslo Gardermoen.
But not necessarily efficient.
So, back to the initial question: currently, testing is not required under the above-mentioned conditions. But it may still be a good idea to have enought time to get one, just in case. There are testing facilities at Oslo Gardermoen airport, but you may need a couple of hours until you get the certificate, depending on traffic. And, according to Svalbardposten, the corona test station at Tromsø airport accepts only travellers coming in from international flights, but not outgoing ones destined for Svalbard. Those have to use equivalent services in Tromsø centre. Next to the extra time, expect costs of 1500 kroner (plus transportation) unless you are a registered resident in Spitsbergen, then it is free.
Adventure Oslo airport: travel information
The usual two hours from arrival at Oslo Gardermoen airport until departure may be enough when it’s early in the morning. Or maybe not. It is bizarre how rapidly the queues are getting longer and longer until they reach amazing dimensions. Last weekend, one could get the impression that they are discussing testing requirements in detail with every single passenger before you could continue to the actual check-in area. For us, with destination Longyearbyen and fully vaccinated, it was a very short conversation – “have a good trip” was the only comment as soon as we had provided our information. But getting that far is the point, and it takes much, much longer for many other flight passengers, and you may have hundreds in the queue ahead of you. From then on, the process was actually reasonably efficient (security check, passport control). Luckily.
An empty airport Oslo Gardermoen: that’s history!
According to Norwegian media, travellers have recently spent up to 8 hours queuing up in the airport of Oslo Gardermoen, missing their flights and everything that comes with that (forget about social distancing!). In the interest of all travellers, we can only hope that they improve the logistics significantly soonest. Anyway, if you plan to travel through Oslo at any time soon, make sure to have extra time.
And make sure to have even more time if you are not fully vaccinated or don’t have an accepted document for this.
It has been a long process, hence it did not come as a surprise when the new Van Mijenfjord national park was established by law on 18 June. The new national park includes the northern part of Van Keulenfjord and adjoins the South Spitsbergen Nationalpark. As a result, the whole southern part of the main island of Spitsbergen from southern Nordenskiöld Land (the land area between Isfjord and Van Mijenfjord) is now protected on national park level.
Inner Van Mijenfjord in late May: now a national park.
Successor of the Nordenskiöld Land national park
The Van Mijenfjord national park is the amplified successor of Nordenskiöld Land national park which was established in 2003, but restricted to a land area on the north side of Van Mijenfjord. There have been changes since 2003 that have made the adjustment necessary, including the large clean-up of the former mining settlement of Sveagruva. Another aspect that needed proper regulation were the regular requests by the Sysselmannen (now Sysselmester) who asked the public to stay clear of certain sensitive areas during the late spring and eary summer, but without a precise definition of the area and time interval in question and the legal bindingness, leaving room for doubt for those who were operating in the area. This is now regulated beyond any grey zone potential. Yet another aspect is motorised traffic (snow mobiles) on fjord ice. Also here, the Sysselmannen has spoken out bans on such traffic on a regular basis. Including these bans which were spoken out on an annual basis in a permanent law makes it easier to know what one has to deal with. The details of some of these regulations are of course at least in part controversial; the government has chosen a very extensive and strict approach to the ban on motorised traffic, something that not all local tour enthusiasts in Longyearbyen are happy with as the opportunities to visit the south part of the main island are now strongly restricted. It is definitely important to some people, but their number is actually limited as even in Longyearbyen there are not too many people adventurous (and interested) enough to venture on long trips into these areas, far from the common routes. There were no snow mobile routes of relevance for tourists in the area in question.
Three new bird sanctuaries, snow mobile traffic strongly restricted
Generally, the new Van Mijenfjord national park law includes the same regulations that apply to all national parks. Beyond these, following rules of practical importance for locals and tourists include the following:
Midterhuken, Eholmen and Mariaholmen are now bird sanctuaries and it is forbidden to approach these areas or to move within them from 15 May to 15 August. Click here to access a map that shows the exact locations of these new bird sanctuaries.
Snow mobiles and other motorised traffic on the fjord ice of Van Mijenfjord and Van Keulenfjord are now largely restricted every season from 01 March. Only registered locals are allowed to cross the fjord ice of parts of Van Mijenfjord on the shortest safe route, while other areas are now completely off limits for this kind of traffic from 01 March. Click here to access a map that shows the areas in detail. Non-motorised traffic (ski, dog sledge) remains legally possible within the usual legal framework.
The core area o the former mining settlement of Sveagruva is excluded from the national park. Here, extensive clean-up works will continue for another while until most of the settlement is removed.