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The people of Svalbard

Our guide to the tough, resolute and fascinating people who call Longyearbyen, Svalbard, home. Part of our Svalbard special.

The people of Svalbard


the all-action heroine since 1968

We meet Freia Hutschenreuter on her daily visit to Huset, shooting the breeze with old friend Anne-Lise Sandvik (see right). Freia arrived in 1968 and Anne-Lise in 1973; both have been trailblazers for women on Svalbard.

“Since I was 12, I’d wanted my own boat,” says German-born Freia. “I always wanted two things: to work at sea and to go as far north as possible. But everyone said, ‘You’re a girl, you can’t get a job on a ship.’” She was finally accepted by a navigation school in southern Norway. “They said, ‘This German girl is extreme, but not dangerous,’” she giggles. Then, she says, “I bought a boat and just went north. I don’t know why.” She worked, often on ships, in the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Greenland, spent summer holidays in Siberia and made audacious solo sails, like a journey from Hammerfest to Kirkenes. Svalbard was “just the next island north”.

Aside from being the first female guide on the island, Freia’s also known for her technique to scare off polar bears – most people here go out with a rifle or at least flares, but Freia’s protection is a handkerchief with a dab of salmiak ammonium chloride. Does it work? “I’ve no idea!” she laughs. “I’ve never asked a polar bear what they think of it.” Still, if a polar bear were to attack Freia Hutschenreuter, they should expect a fight.


the cultural force

Wry, witty Anne-Lise Sandvik is a force of nature. She arrived from Bergen in 1973, working as a waitress and cleaner. “I immediately joined a choir and a folk dance group,” she remembers. Today, she’s behind a lot of Longyearbyen’s cultural life – she leads a local choir, and writes and organises the annual town cabaret revue, which pokes fun at most of Longyearbyen (“No one’s safe,” she says with a smile). With two children in town, she was one of the first women to get a family house after a divorce. “You have to support yourself and do things on your own terms,” she says. “But I’ve made it my home. If they come to carry me away, they’d better make sure I’m dead.”

Meet Jason Roberts, the polar bear man

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