PHOTO GALLERY: Sysselmannen’s Svalbard guardians

July 21, 2013

“We are the face of the governor’s office,” says Cecilie Sørensen, one of two regional field inspectors based in Ny-Ålesund. She and her field partner, Ragnhild Røsseland, hold two of six coveted summer positions for which more than 100 outdoorsmen apply each year to patrol the high seas and mountain wilderness of Svalbard making sure everyone, from scientists to cruise ships to yachtsmen to adventurers obey the laws protecting nature and cultural artifacts. These two women, tough as nails and expert in wilderness survival, work for Svalbard’s administrative governor, or Sysselmannen, an appointed position akin to a police chief and national park superintendent rolled into one.

“Thousands of visitors come to Svalbard each year,” she adds, “so it’s important that we are here for Norway, in the fjords, checking that everyone has permission and insurance from the Sysselmannen’s office.”  In an Arctic wilderness where 3000 polar bears roam and storms materialize from nowhere, helicopter rescues (when they are even possible) can cost $25,000.

Patrolling from mid afternoon till 3:30am this particular day and night, they catalog artifacts and GPS position of an old trapper’s hut, then discover another one miles away that even a helicopter had failed to spot tucked beside a glacier.  In between we visit a popular wilderness hut and come upon a grisly crime scene: a reindeer skeleton with its antlers inextricably tangled in a fishing net someone foolishly left uncovered.  It is clear from the pile of fur and broken pieces of antler that it suffered a slow, miserable death futilely trying to free itself. It takes three of us to carry the heavy net to our boat and prevent a repeat tragedy, but sadly we find another net the women also remove, washed up on shore near the glacier hut.

On the happier side, we get up close and personal with puffins so tame we can nearly touch them… and a polar bear so huge we’re glad he cannot touch us!  After a magical afternoon and night of mirror-smooth seas, mosaic clouds and midnight sunshine so brilliant that the landscape looks surreal, we stop our engine in mid fjord and sit in pristine paradise.  We bask in utter solitude in a place and time no one will ever witness again as a massive sigh breaks the silence on our port side.  Almost as a tribute to this rare moment and experience, a minke whale seamlessly glides past, intermittently spraying the seas with its breathing, and disappearing into the deep.



Regional field inspectors Cecilie Sørensen and Ragnhild Røsseland patrol the waters and coastline of Svalbard, Norway. © Randall Hyman