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The Last Shift

Odd Olsen Ingerø is stepping down after 10 years as governor of Svalbard. FOTO: Geir Barstein

The Last Shift

After ten years as the governor of Svalbard, Odd Olsen Ingerø, 65, is turning off his telephone, feeling at peace and preparing to be a farmhand for his family on the mainland.

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Translated by Mark Sabbatini

"I have to hand in a couple of these cards now," he says, flipping through the contents of a card holder around the neck.

"I can keep the grocery dicount card, but not the alcohol card."

Last Saturday, Odd Olsen Ingerø had his farewell dinner with colleagues at the restaurant Huset. After ten years divided into two periods, this was his week last as Svalbard's governor.

"Now it is final. Now it is over," says Ingerø, who hasn't yet had time to think through completely how it will be leaving his office at Skjæringa for the last time.

But he is looking forward to properly reacquainting himself with tranquility. It's been a long time since the last.

"I've been a police chief for 30 years and it will in a sense be good to go off duty," he says. "The job is with you 24 hours a day, year round, and you are never allowed to turn off the phone. It's good to be able to do that."

"I'm try to use minimal energy thinking that my time here is over, and looking forward and being glad that I got the opportunity," he says.

Grandfather and farmhand

His plan for the future is simple: No book writing, but a lot of time being a grandfather and farmhand on the farm owned by his daughter and son-in-law in Rakkestad. Where he looks forward to driving the combine harvester and doing small fix-it work around the house.

"Now I will be retired full-time," he says. "When you've been on the road for so long, it will be good to settle down and catch up on a few things you've neglected by being at work."

The job has consumed most of his life As a regional governor and police chief of an archipelago with a coveted, but ruthless nature, high strategic value, political focus, and many strong voices at home and abroad, there have been plenty of overtime hours since he first took the position in 2001.

Not all experiences have been nice.

"As head of the rescue service, there have been many sad experiences through such a long period," he says. "Accidents that have taken their toll."

"There is a big difference between going home after an operation that has a tragic outcome and one that went well – when you know you've saved a human life," he says. "That is a great experience."

In particular, he mentions a rescue in April of 2011 when seven Norwegian skiers were surprised by a terrible storm in northern Spitsbergen.

There was no guarantee they would survive.

"That operation could have ended tragically, but they were saved," Ingerø says. "It was a good day to go home."

Dreams of Svalbard were ignited even as a young confirmand, by Erling Johan Nødvedt who had worked as a priest in Longyearbyen in the 1950s.

"He constantly showed images and short films of here," Ingerø says. "Then I realized this was a community I would experience."

"And so it was, although it would take time," he adds with a chuckle.

Law studies and several police jobs followed until 1983, when he applied for a job as police chief lieutenant for the governor.

But he was turned down. He instead went to Sør-Varanger to become chief of police, where he sharpened his teeth on issues in Kirkenes, an old mining town close to the Soviet Union.

In 2001, he began his first term as Svalbard's governor and felt as prepared as it was possible to be.

"I did not know so much about Svalbard then, but if you are going to have a training camp, Sør-Varanger was good," he says. "I have benefited from that, even if things are never quite as you envision in advance."

"Had I known what the life would be, I would have spent a lot of time learning Russian," Ingerø says with another chuckle. "But for me it's not easy to learn languages and now time has taken me."

Tired of 'the experts'

He describes the relationship between the powers in Skjæringa, Barentsburg and Russia as mostly unproblematic.

"Clearly, there have been episodes, but it has really gone incredibly smoothly," he says. "There have been many positive experiences."

On April 18, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin set foot in Longyearbyen. He is on the European Union's list of undesirable persons, but could not be denied access to Svalbard because of the Svalbard Treaty.

A debate raged and predictions were grim. A month later, Ingerø used his final May 17 speech to reassure the population that Norwegian sovereignty in the archipelago is not threatened. Not because he was afraid of the Russians, but because he was tired of the "so-called experts" in the incident's wake.

"They expressed that Svalbard is hanging by a thinner thread than the rest of the country," he says. "I do not like that because I think it is wrong."

"There are certainly differing opinions on this, but I've lived with the Russians as neighbors for nearly 40 years," he adds.

Not afraid

Unlike many others, it was not the cold cabins and long expeditions that lured him to 78 degrees latitude north. It was primarily the job, in a small community with resourceful people, unique issues and little – if any – serious crime. He says he has not missed the latter from his everyday police life on the mainland.

"One becomes calmer over the years," he says. "It's fun to play police and thief when one is small, but not in reality. Then it is agonizing and rescuing people who have made fools of themselves. I have met many criminals in life. When you get close to those, you realize that there is not much difference between them and you, but some of us have been luckier in the draw than others."

But that hasn't intimidated him from making unpopular decisions in a place where most people have strong opinions.

"Nobody goes in to be unpopular, but I have first and foremost gone in to do my job," he says. "I am basically fond of people and do not want to strike any more than necessary."

"But I've gotten some scolding throughout my career," he says.

Imposing the death sentence

Ingerø has decided to euthanize polar bears pestering settlements numerous times. That has not always been received favorably.

"Those have been difficult decisions," he says. "For most it is an experience when a bear comes to town, but for me it has meant trouble. I know what the danger there is. In 2004, we had 42 call-outs on polar bears. It takes several minutes for an anesthetic to work, and to shoot with ammunition between the houses is no fun."

That year, at 4 a.m., he pronounced with a heavy heart the death sentence on a 229-kilogram male who refused to be intimidated away from Longyearbyen.

"That was not popular," Ingerø says. "I remember I was in a debate and received significant criticism from an environmental organization. In a way, I could accept some of the arguments. But the difference between this person and me was that I was responsible for the safety of people in the city."

"I may well be an animal lover, but for me people must always be put in front," he says, admitting there was a time when he probably was looser on the trigger than he is today.

"There are other solutions and then you need not go into the most brutal action," he says.

Optimistic about the future

The Svalbard community has changed dramatically during his ten years here, first from 2001 to 2005 and then from 2009 to 2015. Even greater upheaval may be on the horizon with the collapse of Store Norske.

Ingerø says he doesn't consider himself an unconditionally optimistic person, but he believes Longyearbyen will persevere.

"In this case there is much to suggest that in the long term the town will become stabilized again. I believe that," he says, suggesting he thinks highly about opportunities for growth in the tourism sector.

"The legislation is the same for the entire archipelago, but the main point of the Svalbard Environmental Protection Act is to preserve the unique wilderness," he says. "But just in this vicinity, where we have already left footprints, it's a question of whether we can make some adjustments to increase the possibility of earning from tourism."

These are questions Kjerstin Askholt now must deal with after she officially took over the governor's office on Oct. 1.

Ingerø has no advice for her.

"No, I'm not some 'Seventh Father in the House,'" he says with a smile, referring to a Norwegian folk tale that's a parody of bureaucracy. "I'm sure there are other ways to do this than I have done. I am quite sure that it will go well."

Ingerø promises he will make a comeback to Svalbard, but in a completely different role.

"I have both children and grandchildren here, so I'm looking forward to coming back and strolling around town as grandfather."

Se bildet større

Odd Olsen Ingerø is looking forward to leaving the office and spending his retirement as a farmhand on his daughters farm. FOTO: Geir Barstein

Se bildet større

Odd Olsen Ingerø especially remembers a rescue operation i 2011. Seven people were caught in horrible weather on northern Spitsbergen. All of them got home alive. FOTO: Svalbardpostens archive

Se bildet større

Being governor also means taking unpopular decisions. In 2004 he ordered the killing of a male polar bear that was harassing Longyearbyen. FOTO: Torbjørn Pedersen / Svalbardposten

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