By Aaron Spitzer
In a land of superlatives characterized by exaggerated grandeur and extreme conditions, there are a handful of communities claiming the title of “northenmost.” Some of the claims are dubious, at best. Find out which ones have legitimate claims, and which are mere pretenders.
Up North, life is good. And the farther up you go, the better it gets. At least, that’s the impression I got recently after doing a Google search on the word “northernmost.” Turns out scores of places boast northernmosts: Masoy, Norway claims the world’s northernmost windmill park. Pechenga, in Russia, has the northernmost railway station. There’s a northernmost whiskey distillery in Kirkwall, Scotland; the most northerly truck stop in Coldfoot, Alaska; sailing regatta in Severomorsk, Russia; totem pole in Barrow, Alaska and, lest we forget, McDonald’s restaurant has reached its farthest north in Rovaniemi, Finland.
In fact, whole communities brag of being northernmost. Sound silly? It’s no laughing matter. It seems a few years ago a rhubarb erupted on Norway’s North Cape when the village of Honningsvaag tried to steal the motto “World’s Northernmost Town” from neighbouring Hammerfest. Fearing lost tourist dollars, merchants in Hammerfest levelled death threats at Honningsvaag officials. Eventually the national parliament waded in and protected Hammerfest’s title.
Wondering which was more Northern, I turned to my atlas and found that neither Hammerfest nor Honningsvaag fit the bill. So, what is the world’s northernmost community? At risk of receiving death threats myself, I endeavoured to find out. First, I discounted obvious frauds like the Arctic metropolis of Murmansk, Russia (no farther north than Cambridge Bay, Nunavut), as well as the self-proclaimed “Top of the World” in Barrow, Alaska, which is more southerly than Northwest Territories’s most Northern community of Sachs Harbour. I was also forced to cross off the Canadian crowd favourite: Grise Fiord, Nunavut, whose 160 residents dwell up on Ellesmere Island, too far north for most maps. What remained were five places, all farther-flung even than Grise Fiord and each of which has a legitimate claim to be the northernmost settlement on Earth.
(77 47’ North)
Wedged between the frigid waters of Greenland’s Robertson Fjord and the talus slopes that hold back the inland ice, Siorapaluk is the world’s highest-latitude Inuit village. From here the Arctic Circle lies 1,250 kilometres south, and even Grise Fiord is 152 kilometres more tropical. Winter is a near-constant companion here and during its depths, the sun drops away for four months.
Despite that, the community is a busy jumble of sleds, dogs, shacks and drying racks, plus 80 people, almost all of whom are Inughuit, the legendary Polar Eskimos whose forefathers assisted Robert Peary during his fanatical quest for the pole. A century later, Peary’s descendents still live here, surviving like most residents from the bounty of the land. Yet in a settlement of hunters, among the best, and certainly the most unlikely, is 57-year-old Ikuo Oshima.
Born and raised in suburban Tokyo, Ohshima-san has lived in Siorapaluk more than half his life. In the early 1970s, during a university mountaineering-club expedition to Greenland, he fell in love with the place. He is an avid hunter and Siorapaluk offers a diverse menu: birds, foxes, reindeer, seals, walruses and beluga. His accent mixes English, Danish, Inuktitut and Japanese, but his point is clear: “I like very much to eat delicious fresh meat.”
Oshima is revered for his high-quality hides and for his succulent kivioq, a creamy local delicacy made by netting chubby, starling-sized birds called Little Auks from nearby cliffs, sewing them into a seal gut and letting them rot for a few months. Northern Greenlanders are said to be just as fussy about kivioq as Roquefort fans are of their favourite cheese.
Siorapaluk residents are also fussy about being recognized as the world’s northernmost authentic community. All of the world’s higher-latitude outposts, they point out, are planned settlements, artificially inhabited within living memory. Siorapaluk, boasts 4,000 years of human history, back when it was a gateway through which the ancient Dorset people migrated from Nunavut to Greenland.
So if residents dismiss outposts north of Siorapaluk as mere pretenders, what’s their opinion on the southerly world? Oshima has no use for it, deeming it too stressful. “After I come back from Japan, for three weeks I must rest,” he says.
(78 12’ North)
In the world’s northernmost town, a weather-beaten man tromps down the main road, clutching a rifle in sealskin mitts. He passes rusting Ski-doos on the tundra, hunters gutting fresh-caught caribou and huskies straining at their chains. Entering the brick-paved public square, he sits at an outdoor cafe, orders a gourmet coffee and, like the dozens of European holiday-makers who surround him, begins chattering into his cell phone.
Such is the discordance of Longyearbyen, where Igloolik meets St. Moritz. This 1,800-person community, the administrative centre and largest settlement of Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, is a surreal blend of continental posh and polar extreme. As with most settlements in Arctic Canada, Longyearbyen is licked by glaciers and menaced by polar bears. The mid-winter darkness stretches from October to February. But despite that, or perhaps because of it, chic sightseers flock here, spending their mornings on lavish nature tours, their afternoons at tony boutiques and their evenings getting blitzed at such drinkeries as the Huset, where the wine-cellar brims with 25,000 bottles.
All of this makes Longyearbyen quite possibly the world’s highest-latitude tourist trap. But it wasn’t always so. Just 15 years ago this was a hardscrabble, company-owned coal town not unlike the erstwhile mining outposts of Pine Point, NWT, or Nanisivik in Nunavut. But unlike those places, whose residents packed up when the ore ran out, Longyearbyen dealt with its dwindling deposits by re-inventing itself with the help of millions of kroners from Oslo, which feared Norway’s Arctic sovereignty was at stake.
Thanks to government backing, Longyearbyen, unlike anywhere else so far north, remains a true community with children (more than 330, by last count), senior citizens, private homes, private businesses and an elected community council. Though most residents are newcomers, a third have lived here longer than a decade. To them this beautiful and terrible place, with its bears and glaciers and perpetual mid-winter dark, is home sweet home.
(78 55’ North)
More than 100 kilometres northeast of Longyearbyen, up in the nosebleed reaches of Svalbard, is the comeliest outpost in the High Arctic. Okay, so the post itself is no great shakes, comprised mainly of a clutch of high-gabled, boxy buildings. But the environs are something to behold. Facing the pole, which is just 1,232 kilometres away, this international research base juts into steep-sided Kongsfjord, an arm of the Greenland Sea. Across the bay sprawl three separate tidewater glaciers, behind which rise the 1,200-metre spires of Mounts Denmark, Sweden and Norway.
Oddvar Midtkandal witnesses this vista daily — or at least, for the months when there’s light. As manager of Kings Bay AS, Midtkandal’s job is to make Ny-Ålesund run smoothly, so scientists, the raison d’être of this settlement, can get their work done. Eight Asian and European nations operate research facilities here, studying everything from the ocean bottom to the aurora. Each summer the scientists arrive in droves, swelling the local head-count to 130. In winter, after the out-migration, a 23-person skeleton crew is left to keep the lights on. Why do they stay? “To experience the fantastic nature on Svalbard,” Midtkandal says, as if the answer was obvious.
Norway sometimes bills Ny-Ålesund as the world’s northernmost community, but Midtkandal doesn’t buy it. He points out that there are no homes or private businesses, and no children, old folks or families. All workers live in small apartments, dine in a mess hall and don’t hang around for long. Midtkandal is among the veterans, having lived here 19 months.
But in other ways, Ny-Ålesund is like many Northern towns. Take, for instance, its tourist trade. In summer, some 22,000 visitors spill from cruise ships here for whirlwind tours. If they’re quick, they can explore the world’s northernmost museum, buy a postcard at the northernmost gift shop and mail it at the northernmost post office. And though tourists seldom come in winter, by Midtkandal’s description it’s not a bad time to visit. Because the warm North Atlantic current washes Ny-Ålesund’s shores, the mean January temperature is minus-14 Celsius: a good deal milder than Winnipeg. For Midtkandal, it’s an environment that can’t be beat.
(82 30’ North)
Perched atop the planet, Canadian Forces Station Alert is the world’s northernmost permanent settlement. At this latitude –—just 817 kilometres from the pole, on the northeast tip of Nunavut’s Ellesmere Island — things get weird. For the most part, it’s too northerly for Northern Lights and too polar for polar bears. Compasses point southwest, toward the comparatively equatorial magnetic pole. Distance-wise, Warsaw and Dublin are closer than Ottawa, while Sanikiluaq, Nunavut’s southernmost community, is exactly halfway to Florida. Even Inuit think it’s too far north. Hence, the station’s motto: Inuit Nunangata Ungata — “beyond the Inuit lands.”
Indeed, this cluster of metal-clad huts, weather gauges and bristling antennae can seem beyond anyone’s lands. The truth is even odder: this is Canada’s foremost military listening-post, a super-secret espionage centre eavesdropping on enemy states opposite the pole.
Though Alert has been permanently inhabited since 1950, its inhabitants aren’t permanent. Even during the Cold War, just 220 people, the so-called “frozen chosen,” were deployed here, rotating on short-term hardship postings. Nowadays, with Alert largely automated, there are just 75 personnel. Following their six-month tours of duty, few come again. With no old-timers and no institutional memory, Alert is a community of transients.
Among them is Warrant Officer Helen Martin, a physician’s assistant normally of CFB Borden in Ontario. As Alert’s senior medic last winter, she was in charge of keeping her fellow soldiers healthy and, more importantly, sane. As the self-proclaimed “Minister of Fun,” she orchestrated such diversions as card tournaments and toboggan races. But despite her best efforts, she admits, “every so often you have to send someone home either because they become too disruptive, or they just can’t cope with being here.” For Martin, coping meant getting outside. On her starlit walks she about-faced toward her family in Ontario, 4,300 kilometres distant. For staff at Alert, she says, “there is only one direction: south.”
Ice Station Borneo
(About 89 00’ North)
At Ice Station Borneo, everything’s always different and always the same. Floating atop the frozen Arctic Ocean, flanked to each horizon by nothing but churning, drifting ice, this cluster of red and yellow wall-tents, roaring portable heaters, groaning bulldozers and Soviet-surplus helicopters arises each April after the sun comes back, and vanishes a month later, ahead of the summer melt. During its brief annual bloom, this is the northernmost encampment on Earth.
A collaboration between France’s Polar Circle Expeditions and a Siberian firm specializing in on-ice construction, the station, now in its 13th year, is built about 110 kilometres — one degree of latitude — south of the pole. It’s home to a dozen staff (including a full-time chef and doctor) and hosts up to 200 visitors, some scientists, but mostly well-heeled tourists. Of the latter, a handful of people are merely sightseers, making a pit stop before helicoptering north for caviar and champagne at the pole. Others, more hearty or hell-bent, depart from here for weeklong “last degree” ski trips to 90O North.
Working to keep them all warm, well-fed, safe and happy is Christian de Marliave, a co-founder of the camp who, in total, has spent a year of his life here. Despite the perpetual winter, constant cold (between minus-15 and minus-35) and shortage of wildlife (sometimes birds pass through), de Marliave looks forward each spring to escaping his Paris office and heading north for a month. “Ah yes, I am waiting for that moment,” he says. “Every year it’s always changing. There is no one year that’s like the others.”
Asked what he’s fondest of, he speaks of the Arctic at its most elemental: the low-angle daylight, the elaborate patterns formed by open-water leads, the terrific power of pressure ridges thrust up by colliding floes. He says that only by living, working and travelling on the polar pack at a place like Ice Station Borneo, can a person truly understand the Arctic. And from a man who dwells on top of the world, north of those other northernmost places, such as Siorapaluk, Longyearbyen, Ny-Ålesund and Alert, that’s saying a lot.