Wild North Pole
Leave the Heat for Cooler Temperatures
The window side thermostat dropped to -25F as the morning snowstorm tapered. I zipped up my fourth layer, strapped on my snow boots, shook off my hang over, and headed towards the lobby at the incredible Radisson Blue Polar Hotel Spitsbergen (www.radissonblu.com/hotel-spitsbergen). There, I met Jonas, my guide and key to survival in the endless white terrain known as the Norwegian Svalbard Islands, isolated expanses of earth and ice totaling the size of Ireland, on the periphery of the North Pole. As we mounted our snow scooters and bid farewell to the only 16 kilometers of paved road, I could not help but marvel at the intimidating tiers of snow, fascinated how - even in the dead of winter - life still prospered near this polar extreme.
For the 2,572 brave souls residing in these remote islands far north of the Arctic Circle, life in the land of the Polar bear is a daily exhilarating adventure. Scientific research, tourism, and escapism entice transient populations, drawn towards the extremes of existence – climate, seasons, solitude, and silence. The robust personalities living in this Discovery Channel wonderland embrace individuality and the Norwegian mainland’s highly progressive views. Openly gay seal hunters and hotel receptionists alike can freely post their photos and sexual preferences on the national gay networking site (www.gaysir.no), obligingly entertaining the thousands of tourists who lose themselves in their Arctic adventure.
We rode past the last musher camp, the handsome huskies loudly acknowledging our presence. It was just yesterday that these cuddly canines were whisking me through Spitsbergen’s valleys. Jonas loaded his rifle, required protection against potential Polar Bear attacks. He tripled checked the GPS, and then completed a final inspection of our supplies. We were now entering the wild North Pole.
The mighty zoom of the snow scooter pulsated through my entire body as we gained speed. My heart raced as we pushed deeper into this unknown land, surrounded by 360 degrees of stark white. My vision blurred from the ice crystals forming on my eyelids while my breath froze mid air in the crevices of my balaclava. The dim March light reflected against the permafrost, delicately painting the colorless vista. The world of humankind felt galaxies away. Sexuality felt irrelevant.
We paused three hours into our journey, inhaling the fundamentals of life, at one with Mother Nature. We observed the majesty of the Svalbard reindeer, a bovid that bore more semblances to a creature from Star Wars than cousin Rudolph. I curiously looked around for Arctic foxes and perhaps a Polar bear, but again lost myself in the stark panoramas. The beauty brought me to tears.
I returned from my rebirth that evening and shared my experiences with friendly locals at the Radisson’s bar, Barentz Pub, coincidentally the most popular watering hole in town. The rugged gents empathized with my epiphany. We bonded over numerous Arctic Mack beers, somehow transitioning from a discourse on Norway’s wildlife to partying in Tromoso.
My new friends knew all about Tromso –
gateway to the Svalbard Islands, coined the “Paris of the North”,
the largest metropolis north of the Arctic Circle with cultural
offerings and a sophistication that rivals major big cities – but
they were unaware of the robust gay scene in northern Norway.
Given a student population of 10,000 and a large military presence, it’s no surprise to find over 1,000 of Tromso’s 67,000 residents cruising the web on “gaysir.no” and “gaydar.com.” In fact, Tromso’s relentlessly progressive vibe precludes gays from needing their own clubs. No bar in Tromso is gay per se; but none are straight either. Verdensteatret (www.verdensteatret.no), a 1916 cinema cum nightclub directly in the city’s glorious shopping district, definitely boasts a major gay presence. The mix of American pop, Scandinavian rock and Latin Beats intoxicates the young, energetic crowd. It’s pure entertainment watching the gays and straights pick each other out in the crowd and nervously approach the opposite or same sex, depending on the situation.
An hour after arriving at Verdensteatret serendipity led me to the city’s self-proclaimed official fag hag, frighteningly mesmerizing like Medusa with her tattooed eye brows, surgically raised cheekbones, Meg Ryan lips, and bright red, Bree Vandeecamp hair. Gjertrud lived in a nearby flat with four gay boys and naturally knew everything about everyone in Tromso. She took great pride in giving my waning gaydar a rest and answering possible doubts about prospective hook-ups. Gjertrud soon dragged me to her favorite places, beginning with the trendy and tasteful, Strut, and ending at Arthur, a gritty, butch rock bar, ironically serving the best girly cocktails in town. No sooner than 4am was she inviting her many gay friends back to her flat for a guaranteed scandalous party!
Portions of this article originally appeared in The Guide Mag, a Pink Triangle Press publication.