Women Who Travel

Meet the Women Protecting Travelers From Polar Bears in Svalbard

With rifles and flare guns, these guides show travelers the rugged Arctic beauty of Svalbard.
Polar Bear in Svalbard Norway.
David Merron/Getty

While shepherding hikers across Esmarkbreen glacier last summer, Kaisa Rebane caught a glimpse of movement out of the corner of her eye. At a closer look, she saw a huge, lumbering polar bear—less than 500 feet away, by her estimation—making its way toward the group.

As she’s been trained to do, Rebane pulled out her flare gun and began firing toward the shaggy marine mammal, all the while instructing her guests to carefully walk backward. The bear at first seemed undeterred by the loud bangs and flashes. But after a few more shots, it slowly turned around, sniffed the air, and wandered off. If the bear hadn’t, Rebane may have had to use her rifle.

A view from Hurtigruten's MS Bard ship

Courtesy Hurtigruten

In Svalbard, polar bears outnumber humans.

Kevin Schafer/Getty

Rebane, 35, has been leading travelers across the Arctic tundra since 2019. After what she describes as an unsatisfying career as a physical therapist in her home country of Estonia, she moved to Svalbard—the remote, mountainous, sparsely populated Norwegian-governed archipelago not far from the North Pole—for a total change of pace. At 78 degrees north latitude, all supplies must be shipped or flown in (there is only one grocery store), and the region plunges into 24-hour darkness during the winter, then endures 24 hours of sunlight in the summer. Based in Longyearbyen, the northernmost town in the world, Rebane is introducing visitors to this harsh but exceedingly beautiful environment, where avalanches tumble down the sides of towering mountains and gaping crevasses threaten to swallow hikers and skiers whole.

But the most unique and unpredictable danger locals face are polar bears. There are 3,000 bears in the region versus 2,500 inhabitants. Anyone venturing outside Longyearbyen’s boundaries must carry polar bear protection. While visiting for the first time this fall with Hurtigruten, I spotted signs all over town warning travelers about the powerful animals. Svalbard authorities go to great lengths to prevent human-polar bear interactions and, as such, attacks are extremely rare. But when they do happen, they often result in injuries or death, for either the person, the bear, or both. In August, for example, Svalbard made international headlines after authorities euthanized a bear that had injured a tourist at a campsite.

That’s why travelers who venture to this otherworldly place book expeditions led by experienced guides. And though the polar regions—Svalbard included—have long been the domain of adventurous men, women like Rebane have now staked their claim, too, protecting travelers from polar bears and other hazards while hiking, backpacking, dog-sledding, snowmobiling, camping, kayaking, skiing, and cycling.

“It’s always scary to meet a bear,” says Rebane, who works for tour operator Svalbard Wildlife Expeditions. “You never know how the situation will end. You never know how a polar bear will behave. Every polar bear is different and they can change their behavior within half a second.”

Vilde Erikstad moved from mainland Norway to work as a guide with Svalbard Husky. 

Vilde Erikstad

Until somewhat recently, when scientific research and tourism became Longyearbyen’s main economic drivers starting in the mid-1970s, men made up the bulk of its population. Dutch explorers accidentally found the archipelago in 1596 while trying to plot a northwest passage from Europe to Asia. After a period of intense whaling, hunters and trappers began arriving to profit from the region’s many Arctic foxes, polar bears, and other animals with valuable pelts. Then, in the early 1900s, industrious male entrepreneurs discovered the area’s abundant caches of coal and began mining its natural resources. 

“Svalbard wasn’t a place you went to live, it was a place you went to work and earn money,” says Haakon Unhammer Kvaale, the archivist and historian at the Svalbard Museum. “More normal society—with a more normal gender balance—that’s actually fairly new in Longyearbyen.”

Today, Longyearyen attracts residents and travelers from all over the world—people from more than 50 countries live and work here. Travelers can fly to Longyearbyen from Oslo, Norway’s capital, or Tromsø, a city in the far northern part of the country. There are also a handful of cruises that sail to and around the fjord-laden archipelago, including Viking’s new Iceland & Norway’s Arctic Explorer voyage, a handful of Holland America Line itineraries, and several Ponant journeys, to name a few. Starting next summer, Hurtigruten—the storied 130-year-old Norwegian travel and transportation company—is bringing back its historic Svalbard Express route, which will ferry travelers up and down the Norwegian coast, as well as transport them across the Barents Sea for a stop in Longyearbyen.

Cruise ships sail to the southernmost point of the polar ice pack.

David Merron/Getty

It's Svalbard's unparalleled landscape that continues to draw an increasing number of visitors. “It’s different here because the wilderness is so unlimited—I can go out my door and travel for miles without crossing a road,” says 28-year-old Anja Wied, a dog-sled guide for Arctic Husky Travellers. “There are a lot of places where you feel like you’re the first one to ever reach that area. It’s quite overwhelming.”

Longyearbyen’s present-day female guides are following in the footsteps of women like Wanny Woldstad, who became the first female trapper on Svalbard in the early 1930s. But they’re also carving out their own path—in part, because the place is ripe with opportunities for scientific research and discovery. French scientist Cécily Noaillac, 24, moved to Longyearbyen to study the Northern Lights at the University Centre of Svalbard (UNIS) in the spring of 2021 and immediately felt at home among the mountains and glaciers. To break up the process of writing her master’s thesis, she took up guiding—first on boat trips, then on hiking and e-biking tours for Hurtigruten Svalbard. “I like to do science and guiding at the same time,” says Noaillac. “It’s amazing because science is mostly an inside job—you’re in front of the computer alone while you work on your data—and then guiding is outside and talking with people, showing them how beautiful it is.”

With enough time, guides eventually become comfortable navigating the rugged terrain and its myriad accompanying threats. They also undergo rigorous training on first aid, firearm safety, polar bear behavior, weather conditions, and many other relevant High Arctic topics. But some amount of fear never totally goes away—and that’s a good thing, says Vilde Erikstad, a 26-year-old from mainland Norway who works for Svalbard Husky

She hasn’t encountered a bear in the nearly two years she’s been guiding on Svalbard, but she worries about the possibility constantly—as her sled glides around each turn and boulder, she mentally walks through how she’d react if a bear suddenly appeared in the snow. “Feeling a little bit scared and small [means] you listen more, you’re looking around more,” she says. “And that’s how it’s supposed to be when you’re in nature. You’re not bigger than it, you’re actually tiny and you should feel humbled by nature. You feel your Stone Age instincts a little bit stronger up here.”