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Also see A Spitsbergen Crossing

Map of Svalbard

The Svalbard archipelago lies in the Arctic Ocean, about midway between Norway and the North Pole.  The principal islands are Spitsbergen, Nordaustlandet, Barentsøya, Edgeøya, Kong Karls Land, Prins Karls Forland, and Bjørnøya, which have a total area of about 62,160 sq km (24,000 sq mi).  Coal mining is the major industry, and the population (1991) is 3,309.  Conventional wisdom has it that the Dutch seafarer William Barents discovered the Svalbard archipelago in 1596 and named it Spitsbergen.  He was probably unaware of ancient writings that indicate that Svalbard, the Land of the Cold Coasts, may have been discovered by the Vikings as early as 1194.  Ancient Icelandic writings relate that the land 'north of the ocean bed' lay four day's voyage away, and was part of Greenland.

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Barents's discovery was followed by intensive whaling activity, mainly on the part of British and Dutch, though Norwegian, French, Basque and Hanseatic whalers also joined in.  In the busiest seasons settlements were established on land, where whale blubber was boiled in massive copper cauldrons.  The Dutch settlement of Smeerenburg (Blubbertown) was the largest of these communities, with 1200 inhabitants at the height of the season.

Although the most of the coast was well charted by the late nineteenth century, there had been little exploration of the interior.  In 1896 the adventurer Sir Martin Conway carried out the first crossing of the main island of Spitsbergen, from west to east.  Exactly a hundred years later I joined a small group which trekked across the island, mainly following his pioneering route.  An account of this trek has been published in 'The Great Outdoors' magazine and is reproduced here....  A Spitsbergen Crossing.

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