morning coffee in spitsbergen
All photos by Sarah Gerats 

I Live Out of My Car, in the Arctic

Dutch photographer Sarah Gerats spent the past seven years in one of the world's northernmost towns.
03 February 2020, 1:00pm

This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands.

Growing up in the northern Dutch city of Alkmaar, photographer Sarah Gerats had always felt a pull to explore farther and farther north. Eventually, she stopped at 78 degrees north latitude, in one of the world's northernmost towns: tiny Longyearbyen, on Norway's Spitsbergen island.

Seven years on, the 36-year-old's day-to-day life is spent touring the Arctic and Antarctic by boat, running an artist residency on Spitsbergen and sleeping in her old Volvo. I spoke to her about what it's like to live in a place where the sun doesn't rise between October and February, and where you need to make sure you're armed every time you leave the house.

VICE: How does someone end up in a place like Spitsbergen?
Sarah Gerats: By coincidence. I was living in Helsinki and was supposed to fly back to the Netherlands. My flight was full and they gave me a travel voucher to make up for it. I looked at a map with airline routes for some inspiration and saw this super northern island that I'd never heard of before. I'd already become fascinated with the north while living in Iceland as an exchange student.

What were your first impressions?
The nature in Spitsbergen is overwhelming. The first time I stood alone in that landscape in between the snowy mountains, my heart was beating out of my chest. And the midnight sun – nothing but light! I immediately felt that I had to stay.

I used to only consider living in country capitals. But in a small town like this, with 2,000 people, all the practical stuff is so much easier. In the city, you're always on the way to something; an exhibition, the store. Here, there's only one store, and no ads anywhere. On Spitsbergen, very little comes your way, really.

But the opposite of the midnight sun is the long polar night.
The sun goes down in October and doesn't rise again until February, or early March. Still, I barely miss the sun. When it's always light out, you're working non-stop. When it gets dark, you finally have time. Further south, in the northern parts of Finland, or in Norway, you have just a little bit of sunlight each day. There, you feel like you've missed something if you were at work when it happened. On Spitsbergen, that guilt doesn’t exist.

I lived in a shack without power for a few months during my first winter here. Because I didn't have a clock, I didn't know if my daily routine had changed. One day, I was having breakfast when I saw this glow behind the mountains. Turned out it was midnight on New Year's Eve. During the winter months, I'll read until 6AM, fall asleep and wake up at noon.


You’re technically homeless, is that right? You live in your car.
I have a small studio space here, but the law prohibits me from living there. I spend about 300 days of the year out at sea, but at home, on Spitsbergen, I sleep in the back of my old Volvo. It's full of reindeer skins. It would be more practical to have a house, of course, especially when it gets so cold that the car windows freeze up on the inside, but I do wake up in the middle of nature every morning.

What kind of people do you encounter on Spitsbergen?
People who choose to be here. You don't need a visa; everybody is welcome. Five percent of all the inhabitants are from Thailand, because they can work here without a permit. The only ground rule is that you need to be able to take care of yourself. There is no social safety net, so Longyearbyen only attracts very independent people. Nobody will take care of you here, and everyday life is expensive – Norway seems cheap in comparison. A litre of milk costs €4 here.

Did you have a hard time making friends?
No. When I arrived I was working on an exhibition, and after I was done for the day, around midnight, I always walked to the bar. Because there is no tax, alcohol and cigarettes are just about the only things that don't cost an arm and a leg. So after going to the bar three times, everyone in town knows who you are, although you do need to prove yourself to the locals. Lots of people only stay for a short amount of time, so residents don't want to invest time in them.

You decided pretty quickly you were staying. How did family and friends react?
My parents were relieved that I had a place to settle down. Before I moved here, I was always on the road. No one could have predicted that I would end up living here, but looking back, it makes a lot of sense. My friends think so, too.


How did you make money? Did you have a job?
I spent the first two summers working at a campsite. After that, I became a polar bear guard. I worked at the bar, at the tourism office – I did all sorts of stuff. These days, I'm either a tour guide or an expedition leader on sailboats for tourists – on Spitsbergen in the summer, and also in Antarctica in the winter. I also manage the artist residence Arctic Circle. Twice a year we have 30 artists on board. I'm in charge of the daily programme, take the guests around once we're on land, and of course I'm always on the lookout for bears.

Sorry, did you say you're a "polar bear guard"?
Exactly. If a tourist wants to leave the town, they need someone to protect them from the polar bears. On Spitsbergen, I realised straightaway that I would have to learn how to shoot a gun. You don't really need [a hunting permit] here, because every resident is allowed to own a gun, but I thought I should probably learn as much about it as I can. With a hunting permit, you're allowed to shoot one reindeer a year. I did it once, just to see if I could.


Do you need to be worried about polar bears?
People think that all polar bears might just charge at you, but that's not true. Polar bears are curious, but they're also cautious. A bear distances himself as soon as my dog runs towards him. The gun is there as a very last resort. You have to always be prepared to encounter a polar bear, especially now that the ice is melting and the animals are searching for food in new places. I've started to see them in areas where they used to never go.

How do you experience climate change on Spitsbergen?
The landscape, which has always been stable, suddenly isn't anymore. It's starting to melt. Not just the ice, but the entire layer underneath – the permafrost. Spitsbergen was always considered to be an arctic desert, but these days it will sometimes rain for weeks on end. In the seven years I've been here, I've witnessed the glaciers retreating. Not just from year to year, but even from month to month. It's impossible to live here and say that climate change isn't a serious issue.

In Longyearbyen there is barely any space left to live, partially because an avalanche made 180 houses uninhabitable a few years ago. There have been lots more avalanches than there used to be. Houses are built on poles anchored in permafrost, but now it's starting to melt.

What are your plans for the future?
I've worked non-stop for seven years straight and my work took me all over Spitsbergen. But I've never had time to be alone, or to venture out farther. For example, it was always my job to make sure that people would be back on the boat in time for lunch. Now, I've bought a steel boat and I plan on working less and spending more time sailing by myself. I love being alone and making decisions that impact only me and nobody else. When I crave company, I'll dock at a harbour and run into people in no time.

In order to get to know Spitsbergen at an even deeper level, I need to be alone there. My big dream is to be frozen in on the boat in the wintertime. It will allow me to experience the dark in the most intense way possible and to be away from everything and concentrate on things I never have time for: the questions I struggle to answer, the books I want to read. A winter without distractions. Spitsbergen will always be my home.