Who doesn’t love a polar bear? Although, as the world’s largest terrestrial carnivore, with a healthy sense of curiosity and an enormous pair of front paws, it may not be a wise idea to think of it as a cute, cuddly creature. To the indigenous people of the Arctic they are the great wanderers, embodying the qualities of resilience, tirelessness and adaptive intelligence. Other cultures believed that the bears were the keepers of magic, the givers and takers of power.
The Norwegian settlement of Hammerfest, at 70° 39′ 48″ North, lays claim to being the northernmost city in the world. It also adopts the polar bear as the symbol of the city.
Whilst polar bears are not encountered on the outskirts of town (a trip to Longyearbyen in the Svalbard Archipelago would be necessary for that encounter), it is an apt pairing as the history of the town is closely linked to the exploration, and exploitation, of the Arctic. The fortunes of the town, from an early fishing and seal hunting boom to devastation under German occupation during WWII, subsequent recovery and the influence of the oil and gas industry, reflect the polar bear’s tenacity and ability to adapt and thrive in trying circumstances.
There are other communities that lie further north, such as Honningsvåg, Longyearbyen, or Barrow in Alaska, but these don’t quite fulfill the requirements to gain city status. Hammerfest, for all its self-proclaimed northern remoteness, is surprisingly cosmopolitan, a result of both the historic fishing industries and more recently, offshore oil, gas and renewable energy developments based from the city. I really shouldn’t be so surprised coming from similarly-influenced Aberdeen.
The polar bear’s connection to Hammerfest is commemorated for visitors at the Isbjørnklubben (literal translation – Polar Bear Club), which revels in the grand English title of The Royal and Ancient Society of Polar Bears. An excellent little museum detailing the history of Hammerfest, the wildlife and ecology of the Arctic, and the impacts of the controversial hunting that threatened many of the species. It has a particularly good display communicating the threat of pollution in the Arctic, explaining scientific concepts like ecotoxicology and biomagnification simply and clearly, and provoking the reader to take action. I’d thoroughly recommend it to visitors, even if you only have a short time to spend in Hammerfest.
Entry to the museum is free, but the real incentive to visiting is to become a life member of the Society and receive a certificate, membership card and gold polar bear pin, unique souvenirs available only to visitors to the city.
There is a branch of the Society in Longyearbyen, which offers visitors an even more exclusive pin of a polar bear standing on an ice floe to commemorate their visit. I think that I might have to try complete the set. Who’s up for a visit to Svalbard?
If you’re interested in reading more about the polar bear I’d recommend checking out Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez, in the chapter Tôrnârssuk/ Ursus maritimus. A beautifully written and highly informative combination of natural history, travelogue and ethnography.