We had a skype-date with Ellen Simberg, the 27-year-old Swedish lady, ski instructor and certified outdoor guide who’s currently spending her days in Longyearbyen, a village located in the arctic desert of Svalbard. We were curious to hear what life could be like living in the world's northernmost city, and what better way to find out than to heat a cup of tea and dial her number.
It’s 2 pm and Ellen is standing in the workshop prepping her cross country skis for an afternoon tour with the sled dog Mitra as she picks up the phone. Apparently it’s a beautiful day in Longyearbyen, blue skies are cracking open while sunbeams are pushing through the morning mist. But how did she end up in a nowhere-land like this? That’s one of the questions we’re seeking an answer to.
So Ellen, how come you moved all the way to Svalbard?
I’ve always been a very active person with a passion for nature, especially in my childhood years. I think the path to Svalbard began somewhere back when I was doing my first ever winter-seasons in the French alps a couple of years ago. I got my first experience of riding off-piste in untouched snow and lived among amazing natural sceneries on a daily basis. This kind of reminded me of how much I loved being in that environment.
So you came back from the alps and went straight to Svalbard?
Almost. Before I went to the alps, I had two colleagues from Oslo (where I worked at the time) who spoke highly about Svalbard. It didn’t really strike me as a place I wanted to visit back then, but after coming back from the alps to Sweden that spring - I couldn’t get it out of my head. I was basically unemployed with a mission to continue to travel. With Svalbard on my retina, I started looking for any job I could find up there and eventually got one. The location being so far off from civilization made me very curious about it - and spending my summer there back in 2018 was the best decision I’ve ever made.
How come you left after the summer?
The job I got was temporary, and although a part of me wanted to stay, I realized it takes a lot more knowledge and practice to be able to experience everything Svalbard has to offer (compared to the Swedish nature). So, I went back to Sweden and took a gap year from traveling to study. I applied to an 18-month program focusing on outdoor activities and tourism at a school located in Klarälvdalen. This way I could go back to Svalbard more confident and educated than before, and now I’ve lived up here since spring 2019.
Wow, when you say it takes more practice, what does that really mean?
First of all, Svalbard is actually a huge arctic desert, with enormously rich wildlife and hilly frozen landscapes. The island is almost only covered in ice. Heading out for a mission in this practically undiscovered landscapes, you need to have some knowledge of how to get around. And then we have the polar bears...
Oh yeah, have you ever seen one?
Yes! Longyearbyen is located in a so-called “safe zone”, where it’s practically safe from polar bears. But even though they rarely get close to the village, it happens. One time, we had a polar bear strolling around on the main street in Longyearbyen. Which is not ideal. Another time, me and my friend was standing on the dock with our binoculars watching another bear from a distance as a helicopter was trying to herd it away from the area.
Speaking of polar bears, (we wanna know everything) how are they, really?
In Svalbard, we’re currently having more polar bears than people, mainly I think since the hunting prohibition was initiated. We also had one of the coldest winters ever this season, (with an average degree around -28) which benefits the polar bears a lot as it gives them larger haunting grounds. But, these beautiful beasts can also be very dangerous, so it’s highly recommended to carry an approved weapon while trekking in the areas outside the safe zones. It’s strictly forbidden to hunt polar bears though, and if you would kill one without being able to prove it was an act of self-defense, we're talking about penalties like a prison sentence.
What is the most amazing thing about living in Svalbard, according to you?
Svalbard is so different from any other place, and it has the most remarkable nature that I’ve ever experienced. There is so much to explore, and the environment and people who live here are so humble. I like the fact that you can find adventures right outside your doorstep - even if it’s hiking up a mountain in the morning, taking a snowmobile to someone's cabin for a day, go skiing, kayaking or exploring breathtaking caves of ice. Although it’s a small village completely relying on tourism, it’s a constant flow of new people. The community itself is also surprisingly well-functioning and up to date, and being this close to nature and like-minded people from all across the world creates an incredible bond.
Have you noticed any health-related benefits from living up there?
It’s hard to say, but I feel very at peace in both mind and body. It’s a bit like living in a bubble. You get kind of disconnected from the digital buzz and everything else happening in the world, and you pay so much more attention to the present moment and the people who're in it. I think nature brings people together, but also that living somewhere you can spend time doing the things you love the most, is very essential for everyone's personal growth.
Thank you so much Ellen, for taking the time to chat with us this lovely day, we hope we didn’t keep you too long from your outdoor adventures. And hey, we will definitely come to visit as soon as we can.