Great White, Big Blue

It’s sunrise in New York. I’m looking west out the window and the buildings lining 15th Street are bathed in soft pink—the same rosy light that illuminated white mountain crests in my field of vision such a short time ago. There is some comfort that the same kind of beauty can be found in Manhattan as it is in Svalbard, cutting through the honking of horns and wailing of sirens.

It’s only a matter of time until crowds and concrete and capitalism become "normal" again. For the moment, however, everything intangible that could be considered me is still far, far north in a place that transformed me forever.

Inevitably, any verbal articulation I attempt to attach to the time passed in the Arctic sells the experience severely short. I have said to many people that I feel as if I have been told a secret by the earth in a language only myself and the others who were on the ship can understand. It’s a language I can’t speak; I don’t know how to share this secret with you. But I will try.

 

I wrote a journal each day during the residency. I will share an abbreviated version of that here (though likely still an epic length...), and perhaps a whisper of this secret can be communicated in images.

Svalbard, an arctic archipelago just 10º latitude south of the North Pole


"In the North, people's desires and aspirations are as much a part of the land as the wind, the solitary animals, and the bright fields of stone and tundra—and at the same time, the land itself exists quite apart from these." —Barry Lopez


2 October
Oslo —> almost Longyearbyen

“It’s a good start when a plan must be thrown to the wind.” —written today on the forum by Aaron O’Connor, Director, The Arctic Circle Residency

At the airport early in the morning, a group of Arctic Circle artists was amassing. Most of us were given away by the wellies we were requested to bring—worn out of place on a dry-ish day to make space for more materials in luggage. My give-away was the two rolls of paper I had lugged all the way from my storage unit in Connecticut, too large to fit into my suitcase.

There was a full plane and a hopeful spirit as we lifted off the runway in Oslo and made our way north towards a stopover in Tromsø. Approaching the city, I was riveted by the drama of the landscape. Colorful little civilizations rimmed the abundant water, always water, and such an inexplicable blue, from which imposing mountains exploded up from sea to sky. (I don’t know why those places where the earth has been to war with itself—either crashing into itself violently like the first clash of battle or pushing, pushing up against itself gradually over time like a cold war—make something stir in me like nothing else does. A rise, a bulge, an eruption in the landscape widens the eyes and the smile and calls out, “Come! Be a part of me! I challenge you!”). The light, which gave everything an ethereal glow, was diffused by dense clouds (always water!) that were a sailor’s beard for the sky. There was a part of me that wished I could spend more time in Tromsø despite my anticipation of things farther north, but walking the tarmac from the little airport to the plane, where the crisp air nipped at my cheeks and whipped my hair, was as close as I would get, or so I thought.

As we lifted off again, the islands in the water and the clouds in the sky mimicked and mirrored one another in infinite perfection and for a moment we were suspended in between.

Svalbard. An archipelago about halfway between the northernmost tip of Norway and the North Pole, about the size of Ireland or West Virginia. After an hour and a half, we pointed slightly toward the earth and I caught my first glimpse through the dense clouds: a tiny oblong window of vertical rocky surface patterned with snow. Simultaneously, I was depressed back into my seat by a gentle force that indicated that we had stopped descending and were indeed again pushing back up through the clouds. It was too foggy to land; the captain could not see the runway. After circling in futility for an hour, we headed back to Tromsø, where SAS would put us up for the night. Be careful what you wish for.

But actually, don’t. Don’t be careful. Throw caution to the chilly northern wind and wish away, because misadventure is always more interesting, and I got to stomp around the charming, rain- puddled streets of Tromsø in my wellies. 

Somewhere above Tromsø

Tromsø, and a sign of hope for a successful landing in Longyearbyen


3 October
Tromsø —> Longyearbyen

This place is unreal. Approaching Svalbard today, it was actually possible to see the landscape. I’ve never seen anything like it; I thought my heart would explode in my chest for the beauty. White mountains burgeon directly from the sea. Deltas spread out into the blue like lichen on its surface. The imperceptible roll of glaciers populates every crevice in the wrinkled surface of the archipelago. Longyearbyen is like a town you’d see in an old Western, but with dwellings the colors of roasted vegetables surrounded by snow and sea. Like you could fold it up and put it in your pocket. And there is life. Little children in puffy one-piece snowsuits and reflective orange vests frolic in the playground of a tiny school. University students meander back and forth from the campus to the village center. Miners bounce up and down the single road in their pickup trucks.

After meeting the rest of the contingent, I walked the three kilometers into town from our guesthouse and visited the Svalbard museum, wandered a bit, and eventually ended up with several others in the impressive whiskey bar next to the supermarket. Yes, they have both of those here.

Dinner was at the guesthouse spent conversing with some other artists. My roommate, who will also be my cabinmate, is an artist who takes plants out of their usual habitats and brings them on holiday and uses a microscope to make her work. It’s going to be a good three weeks. 

Approaching Svalbard

Longyearbyen

The settlement is at the end of a long glacial valley that is hemmed in by high, anthropomorphic ridges

Longyearbyen's "Spider Building"

Looking up the valley from the center at twilight

Looking up the valley from the center at twilight


4 October (Day 1)
Longyearbyen —> Ymerbukta and Esmarkbreen

[Automated response.]
Subject: I'm on top of the world. Literally. Body: Hey, thanks for writing! I'm off the grid in the Arctic Circle, abandoning the virtual world for the unadulterated real. I re-enter civilization 20 October, at which time I'll get back to you. Take care down there.

I woke up early and hiked up to an abandoned mine high on the ridge above Longyearbyen. It was very much still intact and possible to traverse the lower structure in its entirety. Apparently, it’s called the "Santa Claus Mine", which I found funny, especially because it was lonely and creepy and dark with mysterious things hanging from the ceiling.

A few hours later, after a visit to the post office to provide the greater world evidence that I was actually here, we lugged our luggage (Huh. So that's why it's called "luggage"...) and equipment back outside and boarded the bus to the harbor. The harbor. The Antigua. A barquentine tallship, indeed tall, and draped with an ordered web of ropes cascading gracefully from its masts and ballasts, landing in coils on its smoothly weathered deck. That dignified ship. That backdrop of sea, the way it ended in abruptly rising ridges. That air, how it blew off the salty water and swathed everything in its trajectory. All of it, in that moment. Just that moment.

An assembly line of luggage and a trepidatious descent on narrow stairs later, and we were home (at least home for the next fifteen days). This ship is a cocoon of warm wood and velveteen and hunter green. It feels old-world luxurious. It's crew, beautifully, is mostly comprised of robust northern women, save the captain himself, the cook, and the bartender. We are served huge meals sitting down around big tables and our dishes are cleared and washed for us. There is a bar. Enough said.

It was clear immediately that the next two weeks are going to be a visual field of expanding and contracting landscapes. As Longyearbyen shrank, the mountains on the facing side of Isfjorden dilated. They were castles of perfectly punctuated patterns of erosion. After a session of learning to rotate ballasts and lower sails and a treacherous crossing of the Isfjorden (ok, not treacherous, but utterly nausea-producing), we made our way into Ymerbukta, a smaller sub-fjord that protrudes from the northern edge of Isfjorden. The light was barely there, but barely is enough to illuminate ice. Esmarkbreen, a massive glacier that crowded the coast in a frozen tumble to the sea, came into focus at the end of the fjord. It was mesmerizing. And it was calving. We glided silently among the floating blocks and slabs and lumps of ice until we were close enough to see a gradient of blue and white, and inky black in its deep fissures. I've never experienced anything like it. 

The Santa Clause Mine

View up the valley towards Larsglacier

Longyearbyen Harbor and the Antigua

Annick, Antigua's First Mate

The wheelhouse

Isfjorden

Isfjorden

Approaching Esmarkbreen

Ymerbukta at twilight 

Looking back toward Longyearbyen during a long eventide


5 October (Day 2) 
Ymerbukta —> Sea

The sea this morning was not the same glassy surface on which we were gently rocked to sleep. A strong southerly wind had forced us to raise anchor and move in the night, and I was all but tossed out of my top bunk when my cabinmate's alarm sounded at 7:20. It was still dark on deck, and actively gesticulating, but I was alone for the first time in two days, watching the face of Esmarkbreen illuminate slowly. I might have also taken the opportunity to do some squats, lunges, push-ups and sit-ups. Going on six days without riding my bike and my trousers are already tighter...

It was our first landfall. The Zodiacs brought us to a pebbled beach, where a trifecta of guides stood facing out with rifles, creating a triangle with its longest side about a 200 meter stretch along the beach: the Safe Zone, whose imaginary lines we were not to cross at the risk of Polar Bear attack. It's incredible, the things that make their home here, from such ominous (but deceptively cute) ice beasts to the tiny yellow flowers pushing up through the frozen ground. I studied the earth carefully, macro to micro, milling around this little triangle with 26 other artists. We were all looking at the same things, but we will all see them differently.

The afternoon brought us out of Ymerbukta farther north along the west coast of Spitsbergen, the largest island of Svalbard (which, I learned today, means "land of cold shores"). It was insane. Being exposed to the open sea sent dishes and equipment and laptops and bodies and vomit and really anything not fixed down sliding and flying until it was stopped by the next inert object. It was all I could do just to stay on my bunk, clutching the little rail in front of the porthole and trying to keep my insides inside. But eventually, thankfully, we entered into the protection of the Forlandsundet, a channel sheltered from the wrath of the open Arctic by the long narrow island of Prins Karls Forland. We will enter Krossfjorden around midnight then anchor in smaller Fjortende Julibukta ("14 July Glacier", to honor French Independence Day) around two in the morning.

Guide and polar bear protectress, Sally

First Landfall

Sarah, guide and Program Coordinator

Leaving Isfjorden, there is an inconsistency in the sea floor that creates a perpetual wave

Along the western side of Spitsbergen, there is a line of seven glaciers that were important navigational landmarks in whaling days. 


6 October (Day 3) 
Fjortende Julibukta

Second landfall. A sweeping peninsula rimmed with beach, flanked by indescribable blue and contained by high moraine arms reaching out in an embrace from a dignified glacier-body. Glacier babies everywhere—cracking, tumbling, splashing, floating, and finally beached. No need to make "art"—they already are.

In the afternoon, some of us went for a hike and saw the glacier from above. Parallel crevasses made their way toward the sea and black stripes made tire tracks where two glaciers had become one, pushing up earth in between. Closer, hearty little plants bloomed from mounds of dirt bloomed from piles of gravel bloomed from humps of rocks bloomed from masses of boulders bloomed from mountains all bloomed from traveling ice. There were birds! And seals! And there was me, surrounded by it all. 

The Antigua and Fjortende Julibukta

Nemo, our guard Husky

Fjortende Julibukta

Theres, guide and expedition leader

Some scale for the epic landscape. The Antigua is a little black dot.



7 October (Day 4) 
Fjortende Julibukta

Today is too overwhelming. It will have to be lists:

  • Blue, green, and orange string
  • A weather balloon
  • Peel from half an orange
  • Many bits of plastic
  • An orange hard hat
  • A Suave bottle
  • The tip of a WWII fighter plane wing
  • A Philadelphia Cream Cheese lid
  • A Hellman's mayonnaise lid
  • A Russian milk carton
  • A full can of Coke
  • A large sheet of stiff plastic
  • A green rope that resembles one of Theres's dreadlocks
     
  • A frozen lake that was a topographical map
  • Dawn, all the way up until dusk
  • Lichen, more orange than the orange peel or the orange hard hat
  • A seal rolling to and fro on a rock, posing almost
  • Galaxies, universes, imbedded in ice
  • Glaciers giving violent birth to big and small ice infants, releasing them into the wide sea-world
  • A "tsunami" created by giant glacier ripples
  • Finally some blue sky breaking through
  • Zodiac puttering among brand new icebergs spreading out, out, out
  • A veneer of ice creeping up and passing by Antigua
  • The fullest moon over the whitest peaks over the Fjortende Julibreen 

In the midst of calving

After a calving glacier comes a "tsunami"--a wave that is the result of the giant ripples made by mammoth chunks of ice toppling into the sea.

Peering directly into the face of the glacier


8 October (Day 5)
Fjortende Julibukta —> Magdalenefjorden and Waggonwaybreen

We sailed all morning, providing a little time to get my hands dirty with actual projects. It was nice to have a break from the perpetual photo-snapping and feeling like I'm always missing an image. In the afternoon, we landed on an old whaling beach where the sea was heavy-laden with ice freshly calved from Waggonwaybreen at the end of the fjord. I'm still not used to the incongruous sight of ice on sand.

As we were preparing to get into the Zodiac and head back to the Antigua, Waggonwaybreen shed a colossal slab of its face into the sea, sending a cloud of ice-powder up into the air. 


9 October (Day 6)
Magdalenefjorden —> Smeerenburgfjorden and Smeerenburgbreen —> Raudfjord

I was just outside on the deck, and big, juicy snowflakes are appearing en masse from the black. The light at the fore of Antigua is illuminating a perfect acute triangle between the sheet lines where a screen of snow appears to be panning up, infinitely. It is so beautiful.

Today was Wonder. This is where words fail so completely, if they haven't already. We took Zodiak tours in the morning and approached Smeerenburgbreen to where it was possible to see interminable blues, the ice blooming toward the water. There was newly-revealed land, previously entombed in ice—smooth, brown rock islands like great lumps of clay—that no foot, except that of an Arctic gull has touched. There was a world of ice under the surface, a world that is unimaginable until seen from directly above, mere centimeters from the water, and then perhaps not unimaginable but simultaneously beautiful and frightening: sublime. There was clacking and tinkling and chattering of ice, and bumping up against it with the Zodiac. There was landfall in the afternoon, which required navigating three colossal, curious walruses that arched and spiraled in the water as if weightless and poked their ugly-cute tusked heads up to investigate the strange cousin Zodiac. There were piles of walruses on the shore that looked a lot like those untrodden clay-islands. Sometimes, one or two or three would dramatically whip their heads into the air, tormented by an invisible something. And the smell of those exquisite beasts! Whoooooah.

Thankfully, there was a hike this afternoon. We hopped on the tops of rocks through the snow in a serpentine line. Our line skirted the shore and curved along the edges of frozen lakes that stretched out like sheets of paper that begged to be drawn upon by our feet and bodies. I walked "BART" on the surface of one, which I converted to "BARF" afterwards. I ate gummy bears. Everything was gradients of white. Clean, pure, perfect isolated white. 

"New land" exposed by glacial recession

Smeerenburgbreen

Åshild, guide and shy storyteller

Jennifer, my cabinmate and bio-artist

These guys were frolicking alongside the zodiac on our way to shore, as much as something so massive can frolic...


10 October (Day 7)
Raudfjord —> Hamiltonbukta —> Alicehamna

I went to bed after 3:00 this morning after dancing for hours in my socks on the slippery wood floor of Antigua. I really needed that.

There was a blanket of white covering the deck when I woke up and it continued to grow throughout the day. The landing area was exquisite in its snow cloak. Huge, anthropomorphic chunks of dimpled ice decorated the shore. I tried to assimilate.

Bumping up and down in the Zodiac on the sea's pancake ice, I watched the most perfectly, exquisitely formed snowflakes fall onto my sleeve. They were worlds. 


11 October (Day 8) 
Alicehamna

This morning was an other-planetary world of white, and so, so cold. The landing incorporated a not-very-tall but long hill that I walked up and down multiple times, letting the wind bite my cheeks and make them rosy. In the afternoon, we ventured out into the white and walked up a tall mountain in the distance. It was sunset the whole time. We hopped on patches of moss and conglomerate rocks over rivulets of ice and kicked our toes into crusted snowfields. On the way down on the other side of the mountain, we pretended to ski down the deep powder slopes or sat on our butts and slid down the ice patches. I've hardly known such joy.

After the evening's artist presentations, Will collected our headlamps and wrapped them in color gels or put them in colored Nalgene bottles and hung them all over the saloon on their flash functions. I stayed up until four DJing and dancing and talking and finally fizzling out. 

Sally, guide who occasionally wears a reindeer onesie

The Antigua is the dot to my left


12 October (Day 9)
Alicehamna —> 79.5º North —> Magdalenefjorden

The crew of the Antigua is Jana from the Czech Republic who serves us breakfast and sometimes dinner and sweeps away our dishes the moment we scoop up the last bite, or sometimes before. I feel victorious when I make her smile in the morning. Nadine from Germany serves us lunch and dinner and fixes our showers when the smell of the septic system creeps up the drains, and she replaces our towels. She has very particular musical taste that I have yet to identify. Bart from the Netherlands serves us afternoon cake and tends the bar/ instigates ship parties between 00:00 and 06:00. He engages people in a way that makes them feel like they and he are the only two people who exist, and is so good at it that I feel a little upset when I realize it isn't so. Alex from Germany is the cook. Not the chef, the cook. He makes curious puddings that seem like what I imagine space food to be like. Linda from Germany is the Second Mate. She works in the wheelhouse, looks at charts, surveys the ship and drives the Zodiacs. She is a jolly barrel of a girl with an irritating voice and know-it-all character. Annick from the Netherlands is the First Mate. She's spry with a big smile and climbs ropes, and she's working on her doctorate in meteorology. I am envious of what a badass she is. Jo from Germany is the Captain. He works with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth and drinks whiskey like a fish. I have heard reports that he is reticent, but I think I've found special favor with him because he chats to me and asks me questions about myself. I think I must have impressed him with the two sentences I can say in German...

Our guides are Åshild from Norway whose boyfriend lives in Ny Ålesund, a scientific research village north of Longyearbyen. She shyly tells us stories about trappers and explorers whose lives have been claimed by various Arctic perils, and makes Power Point presentations about polar bears. Sally is from Denmark and finally moved permanently to Longyearbyen after several years of denying its magnetism. She is gentle and funny and has a reindeer onesie. Theres from Sweden is the Expedition Leader. She was 15 the first time she saw a mountain and it changed her forever. Her blond dreadlocks emerge from a permanent wool headband and descend to her waist. Sarah from the Netherlands is the Program Coordinator. She leads Arctic hikes in a denim miniskirt and sleeps in a sleeping bag on the deck with her Husky, Nemo. Her rosy cheeks always match the hue of her hair and her voice is like a church bell, only soft. Each one wields a giant shotgun with ease while standing for hours in sub-zero temperatures to protect this motley crew of artists from potential polar bear attacks. I am proud to know these extraordinary women and am enamored with each one of them.

Now that we have passed the halfway mark, the days are going very quickly. There is also 20 minutes less daylight each day, making time feel like it is slipping away faster and faster. Miraculously, there have been no conflicts or clashes among us, all 38 of us on this little ship in the middle of nowhere. It's remarkable. One of the best things about this residency (aside from glaciers and perpetual sunsets and icebergs and all that...) is the forced disconnection from the internet. I have not missed it for one single moment. Not one. Fuck you, Facebook. Go screw yourself, Instagram. The Antigua is all that exists, and it's at the center of the universe.


I have been completely sedentary today. I skipped the morning landing to make some melting ice experiments on the ship. In the afternoon, we put up the sails for the first time and were propelled only by the pure wind in the everlasting sunset. It powered us over the northwest curve out of Raudfjorden that brought us to the northernmost point of our expedition (79.5º),then we began to head back south. The white turned pink and the summits erupted flaming orange and yellow shafts of light. It was magical.

Tonight, we anchored again in Magdalenefjorden. After dinner, I went outside and my heart promptly exploded in my chest. It was so clear. It was a desert of flawless white. Summits were castles and fortresses and crisp serpentine contours separating sky from earth. The moon, buttery yellow, flirted, peeking in and out of the clouds. And the line between earth and sea! A more vast contrast between dark and light has never existed. Later, the northern lights made their first appearance in a gentle green streak above the mountaintops. 

Annick, First Mate

Sally and Åshild in the wheel house


13 October (Day 10) 
Magdalenefjorden —> Signehamna 

We traveled this morning into the afternoon, continuing to head south until turning back into Krossfjorden and laying anchor in Signehamna. I was happy—the travel left time to have a long nap after breakfast which helped the ferocious head/chest cold that has managed to develop between lack of exercise, lack of sleep, Alex's strange food, stripping down to a mesh bodysuit in the Arctic (part of a project being realized at each landfall) and intense and numerous hot-cold transitions. In the early evening, we made a short landing on a beach covered in deep snow. The mountaintops' contours were rimmed with pink which grew until they were completely lit up in a fiery luminosity behind the Antigua. And it was cold—the coldest it's been so far. When we got in the Zodiac to head back to the ship, we had to use the paddles to break up the ice in the sea and push it away from the propeller.

More northern lights appeared tonight, rising up in delicate streaks from mountain ridges. They undulated, unrolled, fluttered, quivered among the stars.

I am interested in the ways in which people receive and process fierce beauty. It seems crass humor often stands in for a genuine attempt at verbal expression. Mike said, "it's like beauty took a shit in the sky." Robbie said, "that's just disgusting." And someone else said, "praise baby Jesus!" I think it must be a way of coping with our outright incapacity to handle something as poignant and rare and exquisite as the aurora borealis without our brains exploding. Me, I cant help it; I just cry. 

Photo credit: Rob MacInnis. I could not be uprooted from my spot to go fetch my camera.


14 October (Day 11) 
Signehamna —> Ny Ålesund

Two collaborative projects transpired this morning, after which was a short hike. Even though a plume of cirrus clouds fanned out above a high mountain making it look like it might lift off in flight, I found it difficult to think about anything but the temperature of my toes.

We sailed throughout the afternoon, and our journey commenced with a few circles around the most spectacular iceberg, almost as large as the Antigua itself. It could have been a dozen icebergs, it looked so different at each degree of our circumnavigation. It made me think of the excerpt written by Louis Legrand in 1861 that George Philip sent to me before departing on this adventure:

Of all objects, an iceberg is the highest degree multiform in its effects. Changeable in its colors as the streamers of the northern sky, it will also pass from one shape to another with singular rapidity. As we recede, the upper portions of the solid ice have a light and aerial effect, a description of which is simply impossible. Peaks and spires rise out of the strong and apparently unchanging base with the light activity of flame. A mighty structure on fire, all in ice!

The rest of the afternoon was spent drawing, editing photos and finally clipping lint off the sleeves of Bart's wool sweater with Sally. This was actually amusing, indicating how little it takes to be entertained after a few days without the distractions of social media. As compensation, I got to wear the sweater for the rest of the day which is warm and smells like Bart.

This evening we arrived in Ny Ålesund, the northernmost human settlement in the world. The scientific research village has a year-round population of about 40. The closest thing we have seen to architecture in the last ten days has been tiny, abandoned sporadic trappers' huts, so seeing an entire settlement with cabins and pickup trucks and twinkling lights felt strange and disorienting. There is a public telephone and a post office here.

Tonight Liz, who is a different kind of artist than the rest of us, played songs. Bex touched the body of her guitar while she played so she could feel the vibrations of the music. She rested her left fingertips lightly on the wood and moved her right hand to the rhythm and it was one of the most touching things I have ever seen. She couldn't hear the music but she was feeling it in her body. 

Ny Ålesund


15 October (Day 12) 
Ny Ålesund —> Sea

I woke up this morning and jumped into the Arctic Ocean from the little beach in Ny Ålesund with Robbie, Will and Daniel. We ran and dove in (then immediately out) between huge chunks of ice. I felt alive.

The rest of the morning was spent wandering around the tiny village, invading the shop, and then I went for a jog. The simultaneous sensations of bitter wind on my face and sweat rolling down my body beneath my clothes felt incredible. We visited the French-German station to watch them launch their daily weather balloon. It tried to mimic the adjacent moon.

We sailed all afternoon (I edited photos, which I am convinced I will be doing for the rest of eternity) and tonight the ship is rolling from side to side. It feels different now, this rolling, than it did at the beginning. More like a comforting rocking than a turbulent invasion of bodily equilibrium. 

The launching point for our Arctic swim

There's Theres. What a badass.


16 October (Day 13)
Skansbukta —> Nordenskiöldbreen —> Mimerbukta and Pyramiden

I stayed up until 4:30 this morning making seismic drawings of the movement of the ship with Tamsin then laying head-to-head and really talking with Bart, who is extraordinary and has a special talent for keeping me from going to sleep. But I felt like a zombie when I got up four hours later and wandered aimlessly around the landing site at Skansbukta. There was a wrecked wooden ship, a hut and an old, twisted iron track leading into an ancient mine entrance. Though these artifacts of humanity are fascinating, I also find them limiting and am decidedly more inspired by unadulterated landscapes, or those that have been minimally invaded by people. But. I did find a series of many different bird feathers all standing up vertically in the snow, which was beautiful.

After the landing, we approached magnificent Nordenskiöldbreen in the Antigua. Its face was more chaotic than others we have seen, less cliff-like and more like a steep and wild ice-forest. Then, in the evening, we sailed to Pyramiden, an old Russian mining settlement that was abandoned in 1998 save only two permanent inhabitants. We took a night-walk into the settlement, which could not have been more different from Ny Ålesund. It felt like we were the cast of some Hunger Games-esque distopian film. Huge, abandoned communist-style buildings cluster around a central "throughway". A select few yellowish lights form circles on the snow and others illuminate unoccupied windows. Arctic Foxes scamper under dumpsters. In a word: creepy.

Evening was wine and whiskey and a failed attempt at telephone pictionary (totally my fault...), then suddenly it was just me and the crew, dancing ridiculously and gloriously in the darkness of the saloon.


17 October (Day 14) 
Pyramiden

Last full day and I am full of conflicted feelings. Part of me feels like I could stay on this ship jumping from place to icy place for eternity, and part of me hopes there is something equally as fulfilling for me down there in the world where apartments and jobs and paychecks and student loans and the internet exist. That part of me knows that if there is something fulfilling in all of that, it is something I will have to create for myself.

Pyramiden in daylight was still the strangest place I have ever been. A convergence of beautiful, creepy, lonely, captivating. Full of ghosts. The ghost hands that laid the intricate parquet floors and gaudy wallpaper, the ghost fingers that played hammer dulcimers and fed the tails of film reels into movie projectors, the ghost bodies that lapped back and forth in the enormous swimming pool and maneuvered on the pommel horse, the ghost legs that traversed the soon-to-be-forsaken mine shaft. I was an invader in something unfathomable.

Later, we all invaded the hotel bar and were certainly the most people the few straggling seasonal inhabitants had seen for a very long time. A young, greasy Russian man slunk out just long enough to snap a photo of our mob on his mobile phone. We bought numerous bottles of Pyramiden Vodka and created a moment of chaos among amateur taxidermy.

And then, at midnight, the Northern Lights unfurled all the way across the sky and danced brazenly among an impossible amount of stars, and we, too, danced. 

Our only group photo


18 October (Day 15) and 19 October 
Pyramiden —> Longyearbyen

Packing was the utter chaos everyone expected it to be. Goodbyes were said, suitcases hauled back off the ship onto the pier and the bus, and then we were gone with the Antigua disappearing behind us. I knew I would see the crew later in Longyearbyen, but symbolically, that was the severing point of our weeks on the ship. It was over. Just like that.

I spent the afternoon walking around Longyearbyen and we ate dinner as a group at a Thai restaurant (there is, strangely, a small community of Thai people who have made their home here in the Arctic). After, most of our group went back to the guest house but a few of us meandered into the world's best whiskey bar and had drinks with the crew. Despite trying to leave three times and finally being persuaded to stay, I, true to form, was the last artist in the bar with the crew. I suppose assimilating is just natural at this point; it's just what happens. 

 

The next day was spent visiting the entrance to the Seed Vault and hiking to the glacier above Longyearbyen. Because this particular glacier ends on land instead of sea, we were actually able to walk into one of its crevasses and surround ourselves with the marbled ice that felt like it was living. For a long time, I ate snow from a drift hanging over the top of the fissure, trying to subsume this peculiar life into my body, trying to take it with me, to make it a part of me. 


20 October 
Longyearbyen —> Oslo

There is simply no way to articulate the experience I have just had. I am forever changed by Svalbard, the sea, the infinite landscapes, the perpetual sunrises and sunsets, my new friends. But it has left me suspended: I don't know how to transition back into the rest of the world, which seems crowded and corrupted. Maybe I absorb too much, feel too deeply, love a place too strongly and quickly, look for meaning in every little thing and find it. But how can one be any other way than to live with a heart wide open—one that can't help but live and love each moment with complete recklessness until it is spilling over with so much wondrous life that it's no longer possible to contain? It breaks. And then it must evolve, heal, grow bigger and stronger, because there is always another moment, another place, another person and another impossibly beautiful thing to experience. If I don't find it, it will find me. Again and again. It always does.