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.

 

Oslo – In search of Roald Amundsen – Part 2 – the ‘Fram’

The next stop on my museum tour and in my hunt for Roald Amundsen was the Fram Museum.

Set right on the water on the outskirts of Oslo, the museum was built around the wonderful vessel Fram. As Amundsen is an icon of Polar exploration so is Fram. It’s not just a vessel, it’s a character in its own right!

Fram (“Forward”) was used in  both the Arctic and Antarctic regions between 1893 and 1912 by a series of Norwegian explorers including Fridtjof Nansen, Otto Sverdrup, Oscar Wistig and Roald Amundsen. It was designed and built by the Norwegian shipwright Colin Archer for Fridtjof Nansen’s 1893 Arctic expedition in which Fram was supposed to freeze into the Arctic ice sheet and float with it over the North Pole. Fram has sailed farther north (85°57’N) and farther south (78°41’S) than any other wooden ship

The entire Fram is jammed into the museum!

The entire Fram is jammed into the museum!

She is as a three masted schooner with a total length of 39 meters and width of 11 meters. The ship is both unusually wide and unusually shallow in order to better withstand the forces of pressing ice. The idea was that as the ice formed and pressed close around her she would pop out of it like a squeezed olive pip and so would ride up on the ice rather than being crushed by it.

The smell of tar, oakum and engine oil when you enter the museum is wonderful. You can wander all over the ship and see how amazingly solid she is, and how comfy she must have been.  Nansen tried to make it as comfortable as possible for his crew as they would be staying aboard, fixed in the ice, for at least one winter, perhaps two. So it is heavily insulated and the kitchen is at the heart of the ship so that both food and heat become central. There are private cabins and a saloon and there were lots of entertainments on board – including a magic lantern projector and a piano! Being on Fram gave me a foretaste of life aboard Antigua – another 40m three-masted ship headed for the Arctic with a comfy saloon (more on that in an upcoming post).

Ice level view of the prow

Ice level view of the prow

Cross-battened hull for extra protection from the ice

Cross-battened hull for extra protection from the ice

Heavily reinforced hull

Heavily reinforced hull.

Cosy private cabin

Cosy private cabins

The displays that line the walls of the museum go into great detail about each of Fram’s expeditions. There are convincing reenactment videos of Amundsen’s crew working in their Antarctic base (the Framheim – the home of the Fram), based on contemporary photographs.

Working on the sleds in the wood workshop carved out of the Antarctic snow

Working on the sleds and gear crates in the wood workshop carved out of the Antarctic snow.

There are some wonderful large scale dioramas to guide our imaginations.

Diorama of preparations on the Antarctic ice

Diorama of preparations on the Antarctic ice

Many of the original objects used by the explorers are on display.

Amundsen's personal camera

Amundsen’s personal camera

Mysterious white 'stamina' tablets. I wonder if I can get some for the Arctic trip?

Mysterious white ‘stamina’ tablets. I wonder if I can get some for the Arctic trip?

I really started to get a feel for life on Fram. I can understand why Amundsen was so anxious to have her on his voyage to the Antarctic. She wasn’t a fabulous performer in the open ocean (her broad beam and flat bottom made her wallow and drag in heavy seas) but she was a major character in the heroic age of polar exploration. The first successful attempt on the South Pole wouldn’t have been the same without her!

Oslo – In search of Roald Amundsen – Part 1 – the Viking ships

Donald & Roald

Donald & Roald

I was on the hunt for Polar Bears while I was up North, I was also on the trail of Roald Amundsen.

As you might recall from high school geography or history classes, Amundsen was the first man to reach both poles. In fact, he was the first man to reach each of the Poles independently. The South Pole in 1911 with four companions on dog sled and skis, the North Pole in 1926 aboard the Italian airship “Norge” (created and captained by Umberto Nobile). On both trips he was accompanied by his fellow explorer Oscar Wistig so technically he shares the honor. Though Wistig is mostly considered  an historical footnote (along with the first African American polar explorer Matthew Henson who accompanied Robert Peary on 7 voyages over 23 years including Peary’s now disputed first arrival at the Geographic North Pole in 1909).

Amundsen is a great hero in Norway. Which is hardly surprising for this great seafaring nation. I spent a day enjoying four great nautical museums on the outskirts of Oslo. The Viking Ship Museum, the Kon-Tiki Museum, the Nautical Museum and, the icing on the cake, the Fram Museum. All of them provided important clues for my understanding of Amundsen.

The Viking ship Museum was the obvious starting point and a pilgrimage in its own right. I have wanted to view the Oseberg and Gokstad ships since I first saw images of them (in National Geographic perhaps?). What incredible works of functional craftsmanship. They still provide the most revealing evidence of what viking ships were actually like. Prior to their discovery in the late 19th century, the only clues came from the oral sagas, carvings on a few extant standing stones and the Bayeux Tapestry (AD 1077?).

Vikings invading the Bayeaux Tapestry

Vikings invading the Bayeaux Tapestry

Both ships are believed to have been functional (one a luxury yacht and the other a trade ship) prior to their use as funerary vessels. They had been looted and were shattered and degraded when they were discovered in the late 1800’s but thanks to an amazing restoration effort they now seem ready to sail again.

Sightseers at the Oseberg excavation 1904

Sightseers at the Oseberg excavation 1904

Oseberg ship

Oseberg ship restored

Oseberg lines - sweet!

Oseberg lines – sweet!

The carving work is beautifully restored and preserved and both ships have a wonderful patina that comes in part from their age but primarily from their preservation in tung oil and creosote – a finish that I might pursue myself!

Gokstad ship

Gokstad ship

Prow details

Prow details

Bed head details - the women found aboard were laid to rest in ornately carved beds.

Bed head details – the women found aboard were laid to rest in ornately carved beds.

I enjoyed savouring the long and culturally layered history of the seafaring vikings. I’m from viking stock myself, as are most folk who have Britain in their ancestry, and my family name was created for a Norman lord who was one of the invaders in the Norman conquest of England in 1066.

The Norman conquest was taught in my grade school books as an invasion from France but it was actually a mingling of related folk from across the English Channel. The “Normans” were named so  because of their northern (i.e. Viking) roots. And by the time of the “conquest” the vikings had been living  amongst the ‘native’ britons for almost two centuries.

I couldn’t help but imagine the fabled viking raider of Britain and France, Ragnar Lodbrok (“hairy breeches”) moodily perched on the prow looking out to sea for new conquests.

Ragnar Lodbrok as played by the hunk Travis Fimmel on the History channel's fab series Vikings

Ragnar Lodbrok as played by the hunk Travis Fimmel on the History channel’s delicious series “Vikings”.

My favorite vessel was one of the small tenders found with the Gokstad ship. I could imagine myself at the prow of this one!

A sweet and handy little vessel.

A sweet and handy little vessel.

Isbjørn – In search of the ice bear.

I have returned to civilization after my trek to the far north and I have many tales to tell.

Naturally, my true reason to head to the Arctic was to hunt Polar Bears. As I drew closer and closer to the Pole, they became more prevalent and, at times, I discovered them in the most unusual places where I was ill-prepared for the encounter!

My first close encounter with a ‘real’ bear was at the Fram Museum in Oslo. I think he’d stopped by to visit his old friend Fridtjof Nansen. He seemed docile but irritable – not surprising as he was in the cafe, waiting in line for a stale lamington.

Don't touch me!

Don’t touch me!

For some reason all the other customers had decided to leave.

Was it the bear or the stale laming tons?

Was it the bear or the stale lamingtons?

Some of his friends had decided to move into the museum too. I guess if Nansen was free to park in the drift ice for a couple of years, they felt free to return the favor and crash at his place for a while.

Looking for an inuit snack.

Looking for an inuit snack.

From Prof. Larsen's treatise on Polar Bear behavior.

From Prof. Larsen’s treatise on Polar Bear behavior.

Hanging out with the kids

Hanging out with the kids

One particularly hostile bear was to be found in the thrilling horror arcade next to the Fram. I entered with trepidation.

Icy tingles went up my spine.

Icy tingles went up my spine.

The atmosphere chilled and I could here the grinding of bergs.

The atmosphere chilled and I could hear the grinding of bergs.

The ice mummy!

The ice mummy!

Suddenly! There he was!

Suddenly! There he was!

I thought the Natural History Museum in Oslo would be a safer place for me to expand my understanding of Polar Bears. However even here I was in for a harrowing surprise.

Red in tooth and claw.

Red in tooth and claw.

He had some interestingly gruesome tales tales to tell. Mostly of the loss of his kin!

Tales of loss and woe.

Tales of woe – and the need for breath mints!

I found his brother bjørn upstairs stalking some rather moldy prey.

Waiting forever for the seal to make a fatal move!

Waiting forever for the seal to make a fatal move!

With my newfound understanding from encounters with the many  expat isbjørn I met in Oslo, I decided I was ready to head north in search of their more lively brethren. I was lucky. As soon as my plane touched down in the distant town of Longyearbyen on the coast of Spitsbergen, I encountered a noble specimen.

Don't complain about missing luggage in Lonyearbyen.

Don’t complain about missing luggage in Lonyearbyen.

Here the Isbjørn were more fearless than in the civilized cities of Norway.

This one was running loose in the supermarket.

"Where's the seafood section?"

“Where’s the seafood section?”

Surprisingly, they were even prowling in the Svalbard Musuem!

"These seals look stuffed to me!"

“These seals look stuffed to me!”

And so it was finally time to climb aboard the good ship Antigua and set sail for the drift ice and glaciers of the Svalbard Archipelago to see if I might  find a truly wild and free Isbjørn – one less familiar with the ways of humans. We sailed for days. Cruising through the ice floes, searching along glacier tongues, listening to the walruses and seals to see if they had any news.

On and on through the fog and ice…

We came to the fabled abandoned Russian mining town of Pyramiden, where we had heard that there had been a recent sighting by a vigilant local hunter.

Comrade Alexander on his endless vigil.

Comrade Alexander on his endless vigil.

Our trusted native guides found nothing!

Saint Therese, the far sighted.

Saint Therese, the far-sighted.

Eventually we heard the alarm call that a bear had been sighted in the local bar! Imagine our disappointment on arrival. I thought the Russians knew their bears!

A Red Herring!

A Red Herring!

We set sail once more upon the open seas and icebound fjords.

We sailed further south, away from the pack ice, looking for lone bears who had decided to risk the warmer weather in search of prey.

After days of hunting, finally, we were rewarded. We bravely landed in our zodiacs and mounted a montane rise to spy a solo bear among the growlers and bergs calved from the nearby glacier. He was comfortably munching on what appeared to be a seal’s noggin’ but at that range and in my heightened sense of fear it was hard to hold my spyglass steady.

I calmed my nerves, took aim, crossed my fingers and took my shot!!!

At last, a living Isbjørn!

At last, a living Isbjørn!

At last, after thousands of miles and many (very) dead ends we had seen the majestic Isbjørn. Striding powerfully through his native habitat, confident in his position as apex predator (almost!).

We took our leave. Returning to the trusty Antigua we set sail for a safe harbor and a well earned reward!!

An icy cold Isbjørn.

An icy cold Isbjørn.

Stay tuned for more tall tales and true from the Arctic soon!!

New York – Tara Donovan and Hiroshi Sugimoto

Continuing to explore the New York galleries, I headed to Chelsea with my old Icelandic comrade and superb photographer Mark Hartman.

Icelandic comrades re-united on a Vespa

Icelandic comrades re-united on a Vespa

By far the best work was at Pace Gallery. Two outstanding exhibitions by two of my all time favorite artists – Tara Donovan and Hiroshi Sugimoto. Both end on June 28th so get going!!!

Tara Donovan

Tara Donovan

This amazing geological work is composed of millions of of white index cards stacked on top of each other in sedimentary layers. The structures remind me of those dribble sand mounds you make at the beach. The textures when you get up close belie the scale and I found myself imagining scaling the cliffs of paper.

Getting lost in the detail

Getting lost in the detail

The detail reminds me of my friend Stephen Hilyard’s seductive Rapture of the Deep  photo series created from images of diving in the crystal waters of Iceland.

Dougal, Leysin 1977 from Stephen Hilyard's Rapture of the Deep series

Dougal, Leysin 1977

Going deeper.

Going deeper.

In the adjacent gallery was another of her hard to define, but oh so evocative large sculptures made from thousands of narrow square section rods of acrylic.

Tara Donovan Untitled

Tara Donovan
Untitled

Detail

Detail

As if that wasn’t delicious enough, in the adjacent gallery space was a huge showing of part of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s ongoing series of diorama photographs.They were presented beautifully. Huge black and white prints with immensely rich tonal range and detail,  mounted in fat black frames but with no glass, so there was nothing between you and the surface of the print – an open window onto an illusory landscape. They were all mounted high on the wall so that the I felt dwarved by the works. Almost as if I was a kid again peering over the lip of the dioramas at the Museum of Natural History (in Sydney, New York, San Francisco,Oslo, etc.). I’ve always loved dioramas and I feel already that they are going to be an important part of this trip – deja vu in hindsight – if there is such a thing.

Sugimoto in the woods

Sugimoto in the woods – c. 10 ft long!

Detail

Detail – luscious warm tones

Sugimoto on ice

Sugimoto on ice

Lone gull on the otherwise empty diorama.

Lone gull on the otherwise empty diorama.

Sugimoto and the Isbjørn

Sugimoto and the Isbjørn

A preview of travels and dioramas to come! Next stop Oslo……

Unfortunately, I won’t have internet access again until the end of June.

So stay tuned…..

Northward Bound

I haven’t posted in a while. Too busy and not much to share with the wider world.

All that is about to change.

I’m hectically packing (and repacking) my gear for my next field trip.

To the Arctic Circle with the Arctic Circle Residency.

Flying to New York tomorrow morning. On to Oslo late next week and then off to the Svalbard Archipelago. To pootle around the islands aboard a 125ft three-masted barquentine sailing vessel with 20 other artists and scientists. I’m crazily excited and nervous.

More posts to come!

Bound for Svalbard

Bound for Svalbard