Entries in Spitsbergen (2)


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.


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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.

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