Sailing North – Part 2 – In search of Ice

So I was headed north.

In search of Polar Bears.

In search of Roald Amundsen.

In search of Ice.

In imagining my Arctic trip from the temperate comfort of my Oakland studio, I did my required due diligence and read as much as I could prior to setting out. There is no shortage of literature on the Ice and there is a considerable body of research exploring how our imagination frames our experience of the the Arctic (and Antarctic). On the trip north my constant companion was the wonderful treatise by Francis Spufford “I may be some time” which deals in detail with how Victorian and Edwardian literature influenced the expectations and experience of Polar explorers. I was also rereading Barry Lopez’s “Arctic Dreams”. Lopez dwells at length on the characteristics of Arctic ice, listing many of the innumerable forms it can take (the English language has an incredibly rich and diverse nomenclature for ice and snow). Lopez says, the pack ice  “holds a different sort of attraction because of its constant motion, varied topography, and the access it provides to certain animals. But to venture out there on foot is, to put it simply, to court death. Pack ice moves irregularly before the wind, and the change in orientation of an individual piece of ice is unpredictable…. To be at its mercy in a boat or small ship however, is to know an exhausting, nerve-wracking vulnerability.” He goes on to describe  the famous whaler William Scoresby’s experience of being entrapped in the pack off the east coast of Greenland in 1814. “Scoresby set out on foot to reconnoiter the final mile of maneuvering that he hoped would set him free. Like many men caught in such circumstances, Scoresby was terrified. But he was mesmerized as well by the ice, by its sheer power, its daunting scale, the inexorability of its movement. The sound of its constant adjustment before the wind was like “complicated machinery or distant thunder,” he wrote. Even as he sought a way out, he marveled at the way it distracted him. He lost the sense of plight that spurred him, the pleading whining that came from his ship’s pinched hull; he became a mere “careless spectator.” It was though he was walking on the back of some enormous and methodical beast.”

Lopez goes on to describe the destruction of ships in the pack ice, collapsing “like a grand piano caught in an industrial press” and “of a final image of devastation: the remnant of several whaling crews found in a frozen stupor behind a sea wall of dead bodies, stacked up to protect them from the worst of the heavy seas in which their small floe rolled and pitched.” Gruesome!

This imminent threat haunted all who voyaged north, even in imagination. It was so much a part of the Ice that contemporary painters couldn’t imagine the ice without it. Frederic Church’s largest painting of his career originally lacked a human element, but after a poor reception at its first showing he added the cross-like wreckage in the foreground in the hope that it would add to its human appeal when shown in Europe.

The Icebergs  Frederic Edwin Church, 1861

The Icebergs
Frederic Edwin Church, 1861

Ten years later that other master of Arctic light William Bradford added what appears to be the exact same element of foreboding and loss to his painting of Melville Bay.

An Arctic Summer: Boring Through the Pack in Melville Bay William Bradford, 1871

An Arctic Summer: Boring Through the Pack in Melville Bay
William Bradford, 1871

It came as no surprise then that when the Antigua sailed into the pack ice our captain was very wary. Antigua was only permitted to enter a ships length or two into the ice where we tied off to a large floe with ice anchors.

Antigua, moored to the pack ice.

Antigua, moored to the pack ice.

We were able to wander around on the floe (about the size my studio!)  and savor the “enormous methodical beast”, while the guides kept a sharp eye out for  polar bears who might surface nearby unexpectedly.

Feeling the floe

Feeling the floe

Thankfully we were all kept safe. The only creatures we saw were some local walrus who were also taking advantage of the relative calm and safety of the floes.

Sitting on a corn flake Waiting for the van to come

Sitting on a corn flake
Waiting for the van to come

We were able to lower the two zodiacs and meander out through the leads in the pack to listen to the sounds of the ice grinding and melting (like deep frying chips) and to the sounds of harp seals navigating the soundscape under the ice. You can see my hydrophone in the foreground of this image and listen to a section from one recording to give you an impression. Can you hear the descending siren-like whistles of the seals behind the popping of melting ice and the motion of the floes in the waves?

Deploying the hydrophone on a nearby floe

Deploying the hydrophone on a nearby floe

This marked the furthest north we reached on our voyage – 79º51 N 11º12 E.

Furthest North amongst the pack ice!

Furthest North, at the edge of the pack ice!

The bergs really look like that - intense aquamarines of compacted snow/ice against the muted grays and violets of the sky and water

The bergs really look like that! Intense aquamarines of compacted snow/ice against the muted grays and violets of the sky and water

The captain only allowed us a single day of adventuring in the pack ice and then he set sail for safer waters further south.

Here is a time-lapse recording of our 9 hour trip south to the safety of Trinityhamna in Magdalenafjord, accompanied by a recording from an accelerometer attached to the mainmast.


Sailing North – Part 1 – Life aboard Antigua

After having wandered the decks of Fram and envisioned the Arctic and Antarctic tribulations of Roald Amundsen, I was prepared to step aboard Antigua for three weeks of Arctic adventure. She first hove into view the day we were to board her, sailing up Adventfjorden to the docks of Longyearbyen on the island of Spitsbergen.

Antigua sails into view

Antigua sails into view

The figurehead - I never did learn her name.

The figurehead – I never did learn her name.

Nice rope work on deck!

Nice rope work on deck!

Our first day aboard was extremely civilized – in fact every day aboard was extremely civilized. I was expecting freezing weather, heavy seas and a good dose of “rum, sodomy and the lash”. There was considerable amounts of rum (or equivalent) and perhaps some sodomy (but at least behind closed doors) and the lash when administered was rather mild. The weather was hardly Arctic at all – a mild 35-39ºF most days, the very occasional sprinkle of rain or snow, beautiful sunshine most days and only a few days of strong wind and heavy seas – and those were the days we got to sail, so it made up for the rocky and disturbed night’s sleep. The first day we got oriented to safety protocols, the “daily routine” (tricky when there is no night and every day is a new adventure), how to wear life jackets, and cake!

Captain Jo laying down the law.

Captain Jo laying down the law.

That night we anchored in Trygghamna (Safe Harbor) and went to sleep in the beautiful late evening sunlight after a long afternoon of sea and sky gazing!

Our resident scientist Tom with his sun prepped binoculars watching sunspots and waiting for midnight.

Our resident scientist Tom with his sun prepped binoculars watching sunspots and waiting for midnight.

Midnight in Trygghamna - day 1

Midnight – day 1 on board

Sarah and Nemo - sleeping on deck at 1am

Sarah and Nemo – sleeping on deck at 1am

Not all of us slept on deck! Here’s a two way view of the cabin I shared with my roomy, David Heymann. (David being a poet/architect I think I’ll refer to him as my Rumi instead.)

Top bunk or bottom bunk?

Top bunk or bottom bunk?

View from the bunk.  Toilet/shower on the left

View from the bunk.
Toilet and shower on the left.

Top bunk has the porthole!!!!

Room with a view.

Room with a view.

Much of our time was spent in Antigua’s spacious saloon. Here we ate 3 meals a day (plus cake!), met and discussed the days agenda and our projects, hung out and socialized, and recharged both ourselves and our digital devices. The saloon is where we gave talks on our work or listened to the other artists and guides on the boat reveal new worlds to us! And like all good saloons, there was a bar, so that’s where people lingered and talked and conspired late into the sunlit early hours.

Antigua's luxurious saloon with room for 30  seated at a meal together.

Antigua’s luxurious saloon with room for 30 seated at a meal together.

Every morning after breakfast we would get a briefing on the days activities and then get ready to go ashore or to go out on a zodiac project or perhaps stay aboard and write or draw or even snooze!

Sarah explaining "the plan"!

Sarah explaining “the plan”!

Being on Antigua was a rich and delightful experience – a heady mix of work, rest and play. Inspiration and exhaustion wrapped up intricately together. But going ashore was fab!! From the first climb down onto the zodiac, to the feel of the water (and sometimes ice) under the cushioned hull, to the crunch of gravel and the stepping off into knee deep icy water, to the untouched shore. Well untouched very recently perhaps, but with plenty of evidence of human occupation and activity stretching back hundreds of years. And then again very quickly touched by us! We stomped on the snow, crushed delicate plants underfoot (gently) and hugged chunks of ice. We looked like a bunch of deranged LSD experimental subjects – wandering up and down making strange footsteps, using telepathy to communicate to distant places, crawling on our bellies and taking hundreds and hundreds of photographs (mostly of the ground, sometimes of the sky, often of each other).

Sylvie engaging long distance telepathy.

Sylvie engaging long distance telepathy.

Charley Young's ice rubbings and icy toes.

Charley Young’s icy rubbings and icy toes.

The architecture of Prof. Jess Perlitz.

The architecture of Prof. Jess Perlitz.

At all times we needed to be guarded! We were clearly focussed and engaged but perhaps not on those things that we should have been. For that we had our three guardian angels – Theres Anulf, Sarah “Blue” Gerats, and Sara “Red” Orstadius. Well trained, deeply experienced and armed! Keeping a vigilant eye out for Isbjørn!

Saint Theres caring for her flock.

Saint Theres caring for her flock.

Sarah Gerats, always stylish and well armed.

Sarah “Blue”, always stylish and well-armed.

Sarah and Nemo watching our rear.

Sarah and Nemo watching our rear.

Sara Ostadius, getting distracted by artist's shenanigans.

Sara “Red” distracted by artist’s shenanigans.

Ok! We are warm, comfortable, well fed, well-guarded, we know how  to buckle a life vest and have been ashore. Our boots stay dry and the cameras and sound gear seem to be working fine, and yes I will endeavor to not make a mess on deck when I make ‘art’ and to stay within rifle shot of one of the guardian angels at all times. LET’S GO!!!

Oslo – In search of Roald Amundsen – Part 3 – the National Library of Norway

National Library of Norway

National Library of Norway

Getting closer and closer to Amundsen!!!!

I was given the privilege of taking a close look at some of the holdings of the National Library of Norway. I have a long standing interest in the Polheim – which was the tent structure that Amundsen erected at the South Pole when he and his team successfully achieved the pole for the first time in human history.  The Polheim is an inspiration and central focus for some of my own current research and artwork and I wanted to learn more about its origins and history. The Polheim was one of several tents that were constructed aboard his ship Fram as they voyaged south, it was  smaller and of a different fabric to the other expedition tents. It was based on a prototype that had been developed with his expedition mate, the explorer Frederick Cook (soon to be discredited following his disputed claim to the North Pole) on board the Belgica during the Belgian Antarctic Expidition of 1897-1901 (when Amundsen was 25). This was the first expedition to overwinter in Antarctica and one of the several arenas in which Amundsen honed his skills and tool set, which he used with apparent efficiency and even pleasure on his trip to the South Pole in 1911.

The Belgica anchored at Mount William.

The Belgica anchored at Mount William.

When I made enquiries with a friend and expert on the cinema of Polar exploration Jan Anders Diesen about the development of the Polheim, he introduced me to Anne Melgård, the very helpful curator of the manuscripts collection at the National Library of Norway. She told me that they had Amundsen’s original notebooks from the Belgica voyage together with a very neat, hand-drawn design for the polar tent penned by Amundsen. Oslo immediately became a key location for my research!

Anne and her colleague Guro Tangvald agreed to meet with me and to curate a selection from their manuscript holdings which they thought might be of interest – recent published books, image archives which included postcards and other printed materials and notebooks and other handwritten materials. I had no idea what a delightful rabbit hole I was about to plunge into!

Firstly, I meandered through several recent books that were relevant to my topic, including the beautifully illustrated Race to the End by Ross MacPhee, published by the American Museum of Natural History. Which included the following tantalizing image.  The fragments of cloth overlaid resemble a map of the ice! Here I was looking for tangible evidence of the Polheim; souvenirs of it sampled by the very next (and last) group of humans who found it! Anne Melgård subsequently informed me that the fragments are in the collection of the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge.

Fragments of silk torn from the Polheim's seams by  Dr. Edward 'Bill' Wilson.

Fragments of silk torn from the Polheim’s seams by Dr. Edward ‘Bill’ Wilson.

The rest of the Polheim is now ‘lost’, buried under meters of ice somewhere near the South Pole, having drifted along with the ice from its original position a hundred years ago. There has been speculation and calculation trying to locate the Polheim but it is essentially unrecoverable – perhaps it will be imaged in a deep ice scan in years to come.

There were lots of wonderful photos in the Library’s archive. Including this gem of crew members whittling and spinning yarns on deck on their way South on Fram.

Polar whittling!

Polar whittling!

And delightful postcards!

Thorof Holmboe, 1915 Offset lithograph postcard.

Thorolf Holmboe, 1915
Offset lithograph postcard.

And yes, the hand-drawn design for the Polheim as developed on the Belgica.

Amundsen's tent patterns as used for the Polheim.

Amundsen’s tent pattern as used for the Polheim.

But wait!! There was more!!

There were the haunting images of Amundsen’s joyous team at the Pole. And the tragic ones of Scott’s party disappointed at the Pole a month later when they discovered that all of their effort and suffering had been for naught. The hardest part of their struggle lay ahead – a struggle none of them would survive.

Scott's disappointed party.

Scott’s disappointed party.

The B-side

The B-side

Then there were the original hand written journals in Amundsen’s impeccable, meticulous, tiny hand. Initially written in ink and later in perfectly sharp pencil. I can hardly imagine sharpening a pencil in the conditions they were working in, let alone everything else that they achieved. Accompanying the journals were the data books which record the readings and calculations to precisely locate the pole.

Amundsen's journal on the day they achieved the South Pole

Amundsen’s journal on the day they achieved the South Pole

Polar calculations and determinations.

Polar calculations and determinations.

But perhaps the most surprising and emotional documents in the archive was this single piece of paper!!

Amundsen's letter to King Haakon VII

Amundsen’s letter to King Haakon VII

I couldn’t believe I was holding it in my own hands. Amundsen wrote this letter to King Haakon after he had determined his location at the Pole and had ensured that he had definitely encompassed the Pole in a grid that he had his men laid out on the ice. It was the official notification of his discovery of the Pole. He left it in the Polheim along with other articles in the hope that Scott’s expedition would discover it and be able to return with it to Europe. In case Amundsen and his party were lost on the return route their discovery would live on. Ironically perhaps, Scott took the letter with him and it was Scott’s party that never returned to Europe. The letter was discovered along with the bodies of Scott and his companions 8 months later when their final camp was found. It was extraordinary to hold this piece of paper printed with the Fram Expedition letterhead that Amundsen had carried to the Pole, left behind in the Polheim for Scott, who in turn carried it back close to the edge of the Antarctic continent, where it lay beside his frozen body for months before being recovered and finally returned to Norway.

I am one of those people who feel that history gets inscribed on the things we use. Not that there is any totemic force at play, so much as a deep cultural overlay that gives some objects extraordinary value! I have only encountered one or two objects like that first hand.

Many thanks to Jan Anders Diesen, Anne Melgård,  Guro Tangvald and the staff at the National Library of Norway for guiding me to and allowing me to handle these irreplaceable documents.