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!!!

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!!