The Angry Corrie 33: Sep-Oct 97

TAC 33 Index

Svalbard: Portrait of an Arctic Summer

James and Sue Fenton, Footprints, 1997, #10, 56pp, ISBN 0 9530069 0 5

Reviewed by Grant Hutchison

First, some background. The Svalbard islands are a Norwegian Arctic territory, lying at around 75° - 80°N. The largest island of the group is Spitsbergen, and that name is sometimes applied to the whole archipelago. Regular scheduled flights from Tromsų have opened up the area for tourism - trekking, bird-watching, polar bear and walrus viewing. The permanent population is less than four thousand, concentrated in three Norwegian settlements and two Russian mining towns, scattered around the coastal fringes of a heavily glaciated, mountainous area just a little smaller than Scotland. We're talking big Arctic wilderness here, and one that you will generally visit as part of an organised party, for both convenience and safety. James and Sue Fenton have been involved in leading expeditions and lecturing to parties visiting Svalbard, and they've put their experiences together to produce this book.

It's a slim, soft-covered volume: around 9000 words, and 90 captioned pictures. It's not a guidebook - a fact that's stated up front in the introduction. If you want details of access and practical travel in Svalbard, you'd be better with Andreas Umbreit's Guide to Spitsbergen, and Vidar Hisdal's Geography of Svalbard gives a more detailed dissertation on the landforms and wildlife of the region. Instead, the main text of this book consists of a series of more-or-less linked reminiscences on the glories and discomforts of Arctic travel. Next come the photographs, grouped by topic: ice, vegetation, animals, so on. In the main, these are of good quality, occasionally spectacular, and they are this book's advantage over the others I've mentioned, which are only sparsely illustrated. Some of the photos are too small: the purple saxifrage and the Svalbard poppy are almost invisible in picture 27. Others seem to have reproduced rather muddily: my memories of Svalbard are dominated by the brilliant, rhapsodic blues of ice and sky, and these are sometimes unfairly muted - but probably only a projected transparency would do them real justice. The extended captions to the photos contain the real meat of the book, for my money: good basic information on the physical processes of glaciation, the habits of polar bears, and other such stuff. I could have done with more of this.

So why buy the book? Well, not for serious reference. But if, like me, you've been to Svalbard and love the place already, then you'll find yourself nodding and smiling your way through all 56 pages. Yep, that's what it's like: the endless spotting of polar bears that turn out to be lumps of ice, culminating in the sighting of the real, by-god animal itself, padding insouciantly across an ice-floe, miles from land.

Buy it, then, for the simple pleasure of the smile and the nod, or if you have yet to visit the Arctic, buy it as a wee taster of the chilly delights that await you.

TAC 33 Index