It is late September and in the Advent Valley outside Longyearbyen autumn and winter meets. The tundra is deep red, the mountains have a new layer of powder on top. The seasons at Svalbard live their own lives. It’s winter, followed by another winter, a moment of summer and then autumn. That is how the days, weeks and months at 78 degrees north are dancing away and if you like this dance, it is difficult to stop. Hard to leave the Arctic.
On a hilltop in the Advent Valley, about 10 km outside Longyearbyen, Karina Bernlow lives with the entire Green Dog family. The husband Martin, the children Styrk (7 months), Saga (2), Storm (9) and Freja (11), 275 sled dogs and 12 guides. It’s a big company this family runs, but there is incredibly little that reminds of just that. Here, first and foremost, a family with children is living; here there is a climbing wall, trampoline and toys lying scattered. Bicycle, skis and dog sled in child size. There are week-old puppies and some a bit older. On a roof, Daddy Martin has built a pirate ship and now, this summer a piratecastle. From the roof there is a view into the dog yard and on into eternal Arctic wilderness, mountains, snow and tundra. A 12 meter long roller coaster will bring you down from the pirate ship in a hurry. It is a children’s paradise and a splash of color in the barren landscape. In the middle of all this, the family welcomes around 10,000 tourists a year – their own patio is the starting point for dog trips all year round.
As we visit early Saturday morning, Karina stands in the courtyard and cradles the stroller with 7 months old Styrk. There is snow in the air and unusual windstill. We look forward to hearing more about Karina and the family’s life in the Arctic. Nor should Karina avoid the question Guro and Monings ask everyone: What is the meaning of life? But first of all, we have to see the latest puppies that little Saga proudly shows off and then we have to greet a few more dogs (here is plenty of them). There is wagging tales and barking on all sides and in the middle of it all Karina stands and looks so incredibly beautiful. We wonder a little about just that: how she can be so incredibly beautiful in a basic outdoor outfit! There, we probably have a trick or two to learn, we think before we find the camera. When Guro and Monings are traveling, it is so that we prefer to bring just a single camera with us and then we swap, since none of us actually really want to take pictures, we would rather just talk! Maybe it is a little strange that two photographers are working like that, but this is the way it works: talking always comes first and now we want to find out how exactly the family ended up here. We sit on a bench next to each other, next to the house wall and watch the snow periodically hitting our foreheads. A few tourists comes by on their way to warm themselves in the cabin with a cup of coffee, but otherwise here is incredibly quiet. Styrk sleeps in the stroller next to us.
The story of Martin and Karina, both originally from Denmark, started in Greenland. Martin was part of the Danish Sirius patrol, which is the presence of the Danish military in Northeast Greenland. Six months a year, Martin was on patrol with 11 dogs, skis on his feet and a mate. At the age of 15, Karina was tired of school, so she packed her bag and moved up to her father, who then served as district manager in a small, isolated village on the east coast of Greenland.Karina went back to Denmark to take her bachelor’s degree, but Greenland had done something with her. She wanted to return! Karina got a job as a cook at a wilderness station, once again she packed her bag and traveled back to Greenland. One day, Martin came by and lightning struck them both. A one and a half feet high bunch of love letters and two years later, they moved together in the small village, Ittoqqortoormiit. We were certain that we would stay there forever, Karina says.
Then came the kids, Freja first and then Storm and with their arrival, the end of the family’s time in Greenland also came. – Unfortunately, conditions were such that we had to look around for another school. We started looking around for other places to stay. Living somewhere else than the Arctic was never an alternative. Martin had previously lived at Svalbard, studying at the university, so it became a natural choice to move to here. Karina looks up and points around –
When this place came up for sale, we understood that, yes, we are going to Svalbard.
In the beginning of November seven years ago, Karina and Martin stood outside what was going to be their new home, each with a young child on the arm. 50 dogs was living here from before, but otherwise the place was not very similar to what it has become today. It’s dark, November is the start of the almost 4-months long polar night. The furniture hadnt arrived, there was no water supply and the house barely had enough electricity. Karina describes the first time on Svalbard as a mild shock.
-It felt like I was living in a bell jar, the first few months. Some of the neighbour cabins I didn’t even discoverer, until the spring came. However, I am a personality who thinks, that “Its going to work out – one way or another”. Suddenly I had new friends and everything literally became brighter. I think we have created a really nice place here – I’m incredibly proud of what we have achieved. It has been hugely important for us to create a place where everyone is welcome, a place where there is much life.
Karina grew up with a lot of forest around her. After 20 years in the Arctic, she is not so excited about forest anymore.-But I simply love the nature up here! Some people finds it brutal, the simplicity of the Arctic. I think it’s so wonderful! On a good day we can see 100 kilometers away. There’s nothing man-made here. And the silence. It is fantastic.
-What if someone came and told you to pack everything and move to Copenhagen in a week, what would have scared you most about that thought? We wonder.-My Mother in law! Is Karina’s immediate answer. We laugh, so the tears sheds, all 3 of us!”Can we write that?” Wesqueeze out, while we are still laughing so much that we almost wet ourselves.-Yes, laughs Karina, she probably doesn’t read your blog anyway.But from joking to seriousity. Karina knows what she does not want from modern life in Denmark.-The traffic, the noise and all the people. I’m not comfortable with too many people around me, it’s stressing me out. What I like so much about Longyearbyen is that everything has its place, if you know what I mean. It’s small and easy to overlook. We don’t have to make so many choices, theres just a single grocery store, right? It’s enough. It is freedom not having to make so many choices all the time.
And right here, Karina hits a nerve at Guro and Monings. What makes that the joy of life and good health is inversely proportional to wealth? Do all the choices and prosperity make us sick?-Yes, I believe so. I think it’s about us daring to make life a little simpler, stress down, peel away. Living up here is a little easier, but only a little. Svalbard is, after all, a society with all modern facilities, even though it is desolate. Longyearbyen is top civilized and with that, stress has crept in. Even though we live out here in the wilderness, we feel a touch of stress inbetween, but we are aware that it should not get over us. It is a significant difference from Greenland, it was not like that there. People there lived one day at a time. I miss that.We sit in silence for a while all 3. A few dogs can be heard in the distance, Martin walks back and forth across the courtyard, Styrk still sleeps. It seems like it’s time for the big question.
The meaning of life, I think, is simply about making the most and the best of the time you are here. My big drive in life is to give. Making sure that the people around me are doing well. I believe in the Buddhist mindset that all the good you give will be returned in some form. If all people gave something good, the world would be a better place. Being a mother is also a great meaningful entity for Karina. Four children are not something you just get for fun, it is love and a deep desire for a big family that has brought them to the world.
We sit for a moment, staring into the air, all three. This place is so formed by the children – and by the dogs. There is no doubt that the little two-legged and all the four-legged helped creating this place. Karina talks about Storm, who has been a pirate since he was two years old. Now he is nine and still a pirate. Off course pirates must have both a pirate ship and their own castle! But it is not for granted to have a father who makes the dream come true and especially not in a place so desolate that the materials cannot be bought in a construction market, further down the road.”Living here without children running around would have been pointless,”Karina says. Some of the best things I know are children sitting and splashing in a mudpuddle, with mud from head to toe.
Guro and Monings think a lot about what kind of childhood we give our own children. We truly admire the life Karina and Martin have chosen for their family. The calmness of the children is overwhelming. They are so down to earth and present. So, what does Karina think of childhood in 2018 – and a childhood in the Arctic?- Here, I can raise my children a lot similar to the way I was raised as a child. But I feel I have to protect my children much more from outside influences than my mother had to, when I was a child. It’s kind of a struggle, actually. I think it is so unbearably sad that we are ruining our children – and their childhood – with all the digital stuff. The best thing I can teach my kids is to play. It is actually the most important task I have as a mother- to make sure, that my children have plenty of time to play. And not least give them time to be bored! It’s such a short time the kids are kids and it’s such a short time I actually get to see them, since they are in school and kindergarten like other kids, and that time overtaken by TV and TV games.
What’s the best thing about being a mom?-Oh, there’s so much! Karina smiles and her eyes are glowing of love to her children.-The very best is when the day has passed and it has been a good day and everyone has gone to bed. When I sit on the couch and know that everyone has had a good day, I am happy. And then I love watching my kids laugh and play with each other. It’s all worth it; the nights without sleep, the days when the house is completely bombed and the fridge is empty.
The kids belong here. Storm has already decided that he will take over Green Dog when he grows up.-Many things must go wrong before we move from here. We have everything we need and want. Nature. Light. Freedom. Time. The whole package. That’s what Svalbard is to us.
The time with Karina this Saturday morning has gone way too fast. We will continue on a boat trip to the Pyramid and the taxi, which will drive us back to Longyearbyen, teats in the horn. We hug each other and say bye and thank you – thank you for always feeling so welcome. What a gift, we say in chorus as the taxi rushes back to the city, what a gift to get to know such lovely people. Everyone has a story to tell, imagine that just in our small country there are 5 million of them. Five million unique stories. It’s something that makes us want to throw everything else aside and just meet people. It’s actually the best thing we know.
In March next year we will go on a dog trip with Green Dog Svalbard for three days. Just think about it! That only happens because we were so lucky to meet Karina. And then a thought strikes us: Think of everything that is going to happen, without us even knowing about it yet. Because ordinary people turn out to be extraordinary when we get to know them.