My plane from Oslo arrived in the town of Longyearbyen after midnight. I was seated next to a weathered Frenchman and an American girl who chewed her gum with oblivious passion — all of us were awake and celebratory after the three-hour flight.
I had come to this Arctic island, Spitsbergen, part of the Svalbard archipelago, mostly on impulse. After I decided to go, I planned to note the effects of the extreme cold and majestic whiteness while living as an artist-in-residence at the world's northernmost art gallery, Galleri Svalbard.
When I stepped off the plane to wait for Andreas, the guide who would drive me into town, the cold hit me hard. I staggered backward, sputtered, and coughed. During my five-day stay there, the temperature never rose above 5 degrees Fahrenheit (the low was negative 20). The cold was so severe, it could best be described as lethal.
The Svalbard archipelago is located at 78 degrees north, 12 degrees from the North Pole. Shaped like a uterus and home to the world's northernmost civilian population, the archipelago, which have belonged to Norway since 1920, are cold, kind, and human. The local inhabitants are outnumbered by polar bears, and for everyone's safety, people are required to carry flare guns and rifles or travel with an armed guide if they go outside the populated areas, represented in pink on the map.
My first morning, Andreas picked me up for a snowmobile safari. I learned that while he was originally from Thüringen, Germany, he was one of the first tour guides on Svalbard; there was no one more knowledgeable about the islands.
We drove up the mountain behind Longyearbyen; from this vantage point, the town and the fjord plunged into the Arctic Ocean. The land was vast and pristinely white — alien and surreal. The wind twisted the snow into ghostly wisps, but underfoot, it was so compact it could make a snowmobile buckle. I saw a Svalbard reindeer, the archipelago's eponymous subspecies, for the first time. They are an odd, hunching product of this extreme environment: small, with dirty white coats and comically short legs, they're surprisingly able to outrun polar bears.