Entries in The Arctic Circle (8)


Fishing and Hunting the Arctic

Walrus, protected since 1952Reading polar literature for someone who loves the natural world is a challenge. Every journey involves a fair amount of brutality, of killing. On most expeditions the dogs are at once loved and needed but also overworked, often killed, sometimes eaten. That was the case with Amundsen heading to the South Pole. He feeds the dogs to the remaining dogs, but he also eats them: “we have now had three splendid dinners out of our good Greenland dogs,” writes one of his shipmates. Yet Amundsen loved his dogs (at times it seems more than the men) and in writing about them is at his most philosophical. Killing the dogs is a horror: “It is my only dark memory from down there, that my lovely animals were destroyed.” The treatment of the dogs is also something that Nansen feels keenly “It was undeniable cruelty to the poor animals from first to last, and one must often look back on it with horror. It is the sad part of expeditions of this kind that one systematically kills all better feelings, until only hard-hearted egoism remains.”

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Arctic Silence

Arctic TernWhat I missed most while on the ship Antigua was not fresh food or a comfortable bed. What I missed was silence. Music played over the boat speakers in the main room. Someone was always talking, laughing, wondering about what day of the week it was, what was next or what was for dinner.  The galley looked like a Starbucks on a Saturday afternoon: dozens of open computers, everyone at work writing or managing photos or sound or videos. There was the hum of creative busyness that seemed to stretch long into the endless light. 

I had been anticipating, even looking forward to the Arctic silence. In my life at home, I equate silence with peace. With steadiness. But I knew that silence could be varying, unpredictable. When I travelled to the Antarctic in 2005, I felt ambushed by the silence. It stretched the length of the Ross Ice Shelf, and swallowed me (my essay, “The Secret of Silence” is about this Antarctic experience). I wanted to compare the silences of this world, the tame silence of home and the untamed silences of north and south.


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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.

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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.


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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

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