There are at least three ways to escape a marauding polar bear that's eyeing you for breakfast.
"You wait until he gets about five meters away, and then you shoot him with a gun," said mining executive Magnus Storhaug, who packs a Smith & Wesson .357 magnum, although most folks opt for a big rifle. "Then you run like hell."If that fails, rip off your clothes and fling them at the bear, which, being naturally curious, is supposed to stop and sniff. But if it keeps advancing, the only course left is to poke it in the eyes with your thumbs. That will stun the bear, and it'll run off whimpering.
Of course, once you've chased the bear off, you'd better recover your clothes pretty quickly. In the winter, the temperature gets down to more than 70 degrees below zero and the wild winds make it feel twice as cold. In the summer, it's a heat wave when the mercury hits 40, even though the sun stays in the sky round-the-clock from April until August.
This remote island chain, full of jagged, glacier-clad mountains rising above ice-choked fjords and tundra, is just about as far north as human habitation stretches.
Remote as it may be, the island chain suddenly has strategic value because the Soviet Union has chosen to concentrate its naval might, foremost its nuclear attack fleet, in the high Arctic. And the 2,400 Soviets and 1,100 Norwegians who do make the archipelago their home view each other with a degree of suspicion.
Traditionally, however, Spitsbergen has been known as the last stop before the North Pole, only 700 miles distant. Polar bears easily outnumber people - 6,000 bears vs. 3,500 hardy - some would say foolhardy - people.
It was from here in 1926 that the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen flew his airship, Norge, across the North Pole to Alaska. It was from here in 1982 that four Spaniards planned to ride motorcycles to the pole along the arctic ice, but they managed to make it only a few miles.
For a long time, Spitsbergen's 25,000 square miles (about the size of West Virginia) formed a no man's land - Svalbard, "the cold coasts," the Vikings called the islands. Only a few venturesome whalers, fishermen and trappers journeyed here, ever wary of the ghostly, terrifying bears that rode on ice floes and materialized out of fogs.
The name Spitsbergen, or pointy peaks, was bequeathed by the Dutch explorer Willem Barents, who sailed past its fearsome shores in 1596 and rapidly departed.
Norway gained sovereignty over Spitsbergen under the 1920 Treaty of Paris, but all 40 signatory countries retained the right to unearth Spitsbergen's resources. Only the 1,100 Norwegians, who live here in Longyearbyen, and the 2,400 Soviets, who cluster in the villages of Pyramiden and Barentsburg, are mining coal - at a whopping loss. (There are also a handful of Poles - doing polar research, naturally.)
The treaty specified that the islands were not to be used for any "warlike purposes," but the Norwegians wonder. For strategic reasons, the Soviets recently moved their ballistic missile submarines from the North Atlantic and the U.S. coast to the Barents Sea. And now the Norwegians are looking askance at the Soviet presence here.
"They mine the same amount of coal as we do, but they have twice as many people," noted Kjetil Braten, who works at the Yamaha snowmobile outlet. "What are the other half doing?"
"They (the Russians) are here to watch us, and we watch them," said Leif Eldring, Spitsbergen's cigar-chomping governor.
"It can't be for profit because we are losing 140 million kroner ($21 million), said John Utsi, the technical director of the Store Norske Spitsbergen Kulkompani, the coal concern owned by the Norwegian government that mined about 400,000 tons of coal last year at two sites near Longyearbyen.
The Soviet and Norwegian communities have little to do with each other, other than weekly meetings between Eldring and Soviet consul Andrei Romanov. But as the seagull flies, they aren't far apart. Barentsburg is just 55 miles south along the Ice Fjord.
There is no road linking the two communities, however. Aside from a few miles of gravel roads around the mining sites, there are no roads at all in Spitsbergen.
Eldring flies to Barentsburg in a helicopter. In the winter, regular Norwegians hop on their snowmobiles and rendezvous with Soviets, riding their own snowmobiles, at a midway point called Coles Bay.
The Norwegians swap transistor radios, Walkmen, calculators and nylon hose for cut glass, samovars, carved wooden trays, and vodka (liquor and beer are rationed in Longyearbyen.) There are also periodic soccer matches, chess tournaments and cultural events that bring the two communities briefly together. And half a dozen Soviets have defected over the years.
During the summer, the snow melts, the ground turns soggy and the only way to Barentsburg is by boat, a 21/2-hour trip through choppy waters that are clear of ice, and generally clear of polar bears.
Stepping ashore in Barentsburg is like entering another world. The clocks are all on Moscow time - two hours later than in Longyearbyen. The television sets pick up Soviet programming. Above his desk, the harbor master has a photo of Lenin.
In the town square, there are huge murals - one of Lenin and one of muscular, determined-looking miners exhorting their fellows to greater feats. All around are trash containers shaped and painted to look like big-mouthed penguins, a bird found not in the Arctic, but in the Antarctic.
The workers are paid double the wages they would make on the Soviet mainland, but they get it in scrip, not rubles, from the Soviet mining company Trust Artikugol.
At Longyearbyen, the company town atmosphere of the past has faded in the 1980s. When Utsi first arrived in the mid-1960s, it was a rough, male-only mining camp. There was no airport before 1975, and once the pack ice closed in and blocked the harbor, there was no escape.
Today, the old dormitories have been replaced by handsome, brightly painted wooden houses, all shipped up from the mainland for assembly on pilings pounded into the permafrost. The apartments are filled with modern appliances, and the rents are subsidized.