Tuesday
Jul292014

Ny Ålesund

Ivory GullAn Ivory Gull greeted the ship when we docked at the town of Ny Ålesund. It had a few head feathers out of place, but otherwise it was the perfect white bird that it is.  I almost missed the bird in my excitement at reaching Ny Ålesund. Ny Ålesund is where the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, the millionaire American pilot Lincoln Ellsworth and the Fascist Italian Umberto Nobile launched their dirigible the Norge to fly over the North Pole in 1926.

The history of explorers attempting to fly over the pole is a long and elaborate one.  I spent hours looking at photos and film about it in the marvelous airship museum in Longyearbyen. The first attempts to fly over or to the pole begin with the American journalist Walter Wellman in 1907. His three-hour attempt cost over $100,000 and was an unqualified disaster.  If you look at the size and clumsiness of a dirigible—which is really a huge sack of hydrogen— it’s easy to understand why this was a disaster. What is harder to understand is why people continued to attempt this feat.

Click to read more ...

Monday
Jul212014

Little Auk

PuffinI left the narrow, gravel beach and walked across the layer of snow, uphill, toward the side of the half green mountain towering above us. From time to time the grainy snow collapsed under my weight and I punched through to thigh level. At one point, my foot came up without the Muck boot; I dug down to liberate my boot.

At the top of the short hill stood Sara Blue with her husky dog Nemo. I wondered if, standing there scanning into the distance for bears, she was bored or content. Did she want conversation or to be left with the silence of the Arctic landscape?

That silence was punctuated by the calls of the Little Auks (known in the States as Dovekies) on the mountainside above us. I could see the flurry of activity of the auks, skimming left and right in small flocks. Their busyness was dizzying, dots disappearing against a craggy mountainside, or landing on a flank of the mountain, like pepper sprinkled to season to the snow. They seemed to know what they wanted, where they were going.  Self preservation and propagation—that is the whole story.

 

Click to read more ...

Thursday
Jul172014

Arctic Birding

Northern Fulmar in flightI often tell people that if they want to learn birds, start in the winter (at least on the East Coast). There are but a few birds about. Learn them well and in May, the height of migration, you’ll notice a song or color different from what has become familiar. Another option is to start birding in the Arctic.

There are few species in the Arctic—and often lots of what is there. You can see hundreds of Little Auks, Kittiwakes, Black Guillemots, Arctic Terns. There is time to memorize the shape of each of these birds at a distance, to love the orange-red feet of the Black Guillemots, to marvel at the grace of the Arctic Skua. If you memorize those birds that come to the Arctic in the thousands to breed, you will then pay attention when something new comes along, like a Long-tailed Skua.

Long-tailed Skua

Click to read more ...

Thursday
Jul102014

Life on Board

Antigua in the iceI did not grow up around boats or water. I have never lived on a ship. But I have read a lot of narratives of ship life, of exploration. No matter how much I have read, I was not ready for the round porthole that opened onto my top bunk bed, letting in the relentless northern sun. I could not have anticipated the sense that living on a ship must be like joining a cult, all of us koolaided out on the vast and incomprehensible landscape. I could not have hoped for cake—cake!—every day at four to go with the constant cups of tea and coffee.

This trip on the Barkentine ship Antigua was not exactly a cruise, and not exactly an expedition, and not exactly an artist’s residency. It was a bunch of creative people—sculptors and painters and writers and sound artists—put on ship to sail north along the coast of Spitsbergen and create something: a painting, some music, a moment on the ice, an essay. We were sort of spoiled and often yelled at (who didn’t sign back in after going on shore? Who wore sandy shoes on deck? Who left their life vest on deck?).

I loved my traveling companions for all they showed me. I saw the land differently through the photos of the sun taken by Irish physicist Tom McCormack, or the sewn images of the Arctic Skua made by Australian artist Suzi Lyon, or the sound recordings of Donald Fortescue. In the evenings I read the comic books of Ursula Murray Husted and had conversations about sadness and shyness with the performance sculptor, Jess Perlitz. Of course I was focused on birds, and enjoyed the moment of separating out the Iceland from the Glaucous Gull with David Heymann, the architect from Texas who had designed George Bush’s house. This was all far from the experiences of my polar explorers.

 

Click to read more ...

Friday
Jul042014

PB

Find the bear on the berg!In the Arctic, PB is not peanut butter. It’s a polar bear. Like crying fire in a movie theater when there is no fire, you don’t want to say the words polar bear in the Arctic—unless there is a bear. So as we floated from one fjord to the next on Spitsbergen, we would ask each other: “Seen anything interesting?” Anything could be a Beluga or a Walrus, or a Seal or a Minke Whale or any number of wondrous birds. But always, what we all wanted to see was a big white creature, a PB, a “furry friend.”

We had sailed into a beautiful fjord. Our three guides, Sarah Red, Sarah Blue and Therese went ashore to mark off a safe area. The scan and set-up was taking longer than usual. We stood on deck and strained toward the shore to know what was happening. The radios crackled. And then word came back: a bear was there, floating on a small iceberg. We could say those two words: Polar Bear.

Click to read more ...