Where in the World is Peter Schurke?
Well, he’s in “Rhapsody,” United Airline’s luxury living magazine, where he shares full-page photo status (see Wintergreen ad below) with cover boy Owen Wilson, actor of Zoolander, Meet the Fokkers, Marley & Me and Starsky & Hutch fame. But he’s also in Svalbard ...(continue reading below)
But he’s also in Svalbard, the Arctic Islands that lie halfway between Norway & the North Pole. There he’s engaged in an Arctic Studies program at the world’s northernmost university, plays kayak polo in the world’s northernmost pool, and sends letters from the world’s northernmost post office – all in the world’s northernmost town.
Despite its locale near the top of the world, it’s a very chic, Euro community of 2,200 – home to an opera house, 5-star hotels, Europe’s largest wine cellar (20,000 bottles), and Bill Gate’s “doomsday” global seed vault. Daily flights from Oslo bring nearly 150,000 tourists each year to enjoy the surrounding Arctic realm by ship, snowmobile or dogsleds and revel in mountains, glaciers, icecaps, polar bears, walrus and whales.
And it has some great quirks:
- It’s dark there now; the sun does not rise for 4 months each year. But when the sun returns on March 8, all the school kids line up to greet it with song while wearing sunbeam hats. (Peter says the October transition to darkness was dismayingly abrupt, but now he sides with those who “look forward to passing the long winter night with cozy candlelit scenes around board games.”
- A half dozen outfitters house over 500 sled dogs but you can’t own a cat – they’re prohibited because of the toll they take on rare Arctic birds.
- Reindeer roam through town. They’re harmless but the 3,000 polar bears are not, so you’re required to carry a rifle outside the settlement.
- Cool as this place is, you can’t be born there and you can’t die there. Pregnant women are shuttled to mainland Norway for birthing’s and the town’s small graveyard stopped accepting burials over 70 years ago. Why? Because the bodies never decompose in the permafrost. So if you’re going to die, go elsewhere. It’s the law!
But it’s quirkiest feature? The town is named Longyearbyen after mining magnates, the Longyears, who made their fame and fortune just down the road from Ely, Minnesota. E.J. Longyear pioneered diamond drill boring for mineral exploration on the Mesabi Range. A state historical site near Hoyt Lakes commemorates his 1890 drill site, the first of 7,000 test holes he would bore here. Meanwhile, his cousin John Longyear, who was said to have ‘a nose for ore,’ developed iron mines from Michigan to Minnesota.
Then in 1901, while enjoying an Arctic vacation cruise, Longyear spotted an enticing coal seam on the mountainside of an Arctic fjord on an island then called Spitzbergen. In fact, it’s proved to be the finest anthracite ever found (and is now used to smelt bronze for casting church bells in Germany!) Longyear launched the Arctic Coal Company, mined it till 1916, sold it to Norway, made a mint of money and left behind his name on the world’s northernmost town, capitol of the beautiful high Arctic chain of Svalbard islands.
What an amazing legacy! The Longyear clan cracked open both the world’s richest deposit of iron ore in the heart of our continent and the finest bed of coal near the top of our globe.
At Wintergreen we’ve done our best to keep the Ely-Svalbard connection alive by leading dogsled & ski treks there since 2006. It’s also been our jumping off point for North Pole treks associated with Ice Station Borneo, the ‘top of the world’ floating base camp that the Russians set up near the Pole each spring. We hope to return to Svalbard in spring 2018 for another great dogsled adventure with our son Peter, whose University program in Longyearbyen will soon make him an accredited Arctic guide. Join us for dogsledding fun in land of the midnight sun. Don’t forget to bring your sunbeam hat!