Making a Living, Making a Trip

For the fourth year in a row, alone on a hilltop facing the sea, I looked out over Ilulissat Icefjord in West Greenland. The tundra, browning and withered, was preparing itself for winter; the taste of snow alighted on the wind. Below, beyond, and in every cardinal direction, stretched an endless expanse of glacial ice, dense as land.

Ten minutes was all I got, this time, to listen the silence and to watch the ice. It was colder this year, the crowberry faded, the ponds frozen over, but the ice was still there, choking the fjord in an illusion of solidity and permanence. Clouds played and warped over the lunar world of spires, mountains and monuments, patterns of light dancing across it in slow-motion.

The sight moved me not for its magnitude (a startling awareness of human smallness, futile warmth), nor for the worlds I imagined within it (the depth of crevasses, the underwater ice labyrinth below). The view shook me because it was different every day. The ice was alive, unknowable, and constantly shifting. It was a world that humans could never know or traverse – and an overwhelming, visceral metaphor for the nature of life.

Every year, now, I had come, at the end of long seasons guiding in the Arctic, in what felt like a personal pilgrimage. In the moments before the Icefjord – the output of the fastest-moving glacier in the northern hemisphere – the full weight of the summer’s experiences could begin to sink in. My thoughts would return to the early summer, to the days of midnight sun, across frozen oceans and continents to where I stood now, at the cusp of winter.

This year I thought, first, about Svalbard, where we had begun, aboard the m/v Ocean Atlantic, our home for the season. (By we, I mean an expedition team working for Quark Expeditions – a tight-knit group of talented polar professionals who I already knew and already loved). Light and time had no relation to each other; daylight prevailed in every hour of every day. I learned to look harder. Use binoculars, better. Spend hours on the ship’s bridge, searching. Not that I ever spotted much – the competition was too great, other eyes better trained – but one day, I will.

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In the course of five expeditions to Svalbard this year, the island archipelago secured a firmer place in my heart. Nowhere else in the Arctic, by ship, have I had such incredible encounters with polar bears, walrus, reindeer. What’s more, as a guide, we visited familiar places again and again. The day arrived when I could wake up, look out my porthole, and know intuitively where we were. I grew confident leading hikes, navigating, carrying a firearm, interpreting in the tundra and on the sea. We had wildlife experiences that still linger in my dreams.

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We made five expeditions in Svalbard, back-to-back. Ice, tundra, glaciers, flowers, birds, bears, animals, light, sky, time. Again, again, again. I felt – and this is rare – that we could keep going, there, for a long time, following the season until it faded to fall. But there were more places to go, and the ship was headed west, and we, living aboard it, followed.

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In August, we sailed to Greenland. Crossed oceans, borders – to the places where I started, living this life, wide-eyed and new – and places that are still marked by that feeling of newness, of exploration, of discovery.

It can be difficult to convey why is it that Greenland, and the Canadian Arctic, exert such a hold on the imagination. Why these trips, more than any others we undertake, embody the idea of what I feel expedition should be.

Certainly, it is because the regions have been inhabited for nearly 5,000 years. Every thing one sees, experiences – tufts of cottongrass moving in the wind, a circle of stones, the movements of birds – everything is tied to human experience, full of meaning. I call traveling in these regions learning to see – reading into the subtleties in the land, the light, until the experiences become so powerful that you are lost for words.

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Our first expedition in Greenland and Canada was marked by incredible weather and warm air, fjord systems so overwhelming that one felt in danger of losing one’s sense of space. It was also marked, in the onset of autumn, by the return of sunrise and sunset, of watching days begin and end again. And so we ventured into uncharted waters, to land on unknown beaches at dawn, to witness sunrise.

These latter trips are also expedition, to me, because our travels are dictated by the place itself, rather than a set itinerary or pre-arranged schedule. The ice, the weather, the spirit of our companions, our teamwork, the ship, the season, and more than anything, the dreams – these are the things that shape the voyage. Plans are constantly in flux, changing as fast as the glaciers churn out their oceans of icebergs. By learning to live with this, by adopting a constant readiness to adapt and respond, you attain a presence of mind so rich that you feel no earthly event can ever shake you.

On these voyages, a reason to go somewhere might be a story you heard. An idea you had. A legend of an amazing place that spreads amongst the collective imagination of your group until you have to go, be the waters charted or not. It is an amazing feeling to arrive in a place of legend, like a myth coming to life, and find it to be real, whatever it is. Hundreds of whales. A Greenlandic music festival bustling in a remote fjord. A pair of polar bears on a jagged island in the middle of the sea.

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These experiences, every one of them, are irreplaceably unique journeys that will live on in our imaginations forever. But this is also how we, polar guides, make a living. I’ve been reflecting a lot on that phrase, making a living. What does this mean to each of us? There is more than the money one earns to literally survive. There are, also, the experiences that imbue your life with richness, purpose, and reverence. To have these things combined is something that fills me with endless gratitude.

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So it is that another Arctic season has drawn to a close – not without challenges, of course, but full of so much beauty and wonder that I scarcely know where to begin. If there was time enough for reflection I could write endless articles on the encounters we’ve just had, out there, on the sea. But this I know of life: like the ice, it is always changing, always moving, and so are we all.

The next months will be full of travel, full of change and stories, and I am running towards all of it. I hope there will be time for sharing. I hope to write things down.

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Northern Norway in a Nutshell

I’ve been thinking a lot, this spring, about Norway. Ever since I got back from Antarctica, it doesn’t feel the same as it used to. On one hand, things are easier: I am finally a resident with a car and a place I can live and a (relatively) firm grasp of how all the systems work. Living here provides me with healthcare, and free education, if I choose it. The taxes are high, but I don’t have to worry about much, because important things are covered by them. This is the country that repeatedly ranks #1 in the world for quality of life and happiness, and now, after significant effort, I am a legal resident. Border guards don’t even question me anymore, simply tell me “welcome home”.

And yet. Home. They say home is where the heart is, and certainly, it was the deep friendships I had here that drew me in the first place. Now those friends have moved, spread out, to big cities and foreign countries, for school and work and all the places that young adults need, to grow and blossom. Circumstances have changed. Now – staying alone in an empty house 40 minutes from the closest grocery store – I can’t say that any feeling of community or belonging grips me in the way that it used to.

More and more (and to my great surprise), I find myself thinking about Alaska. Some people say I’m just growing up, that your roots become more important to you at a certain age. Maybe this is true, maybe it isn’t – maybe this is just a phase, and I should consider relocating to Oslo or another Norwegian city, or just stop thinking about it altogether and embrace the nomadic life. Who knows. Regardless, I’ve decided to make a trip home, later this summer, to feel things out.

With all of these thoughts swirling around in my head, and innumerable travel plans on the horizon, I decided to make the most of these last weeks in Northern Norway before the summer guiding season begins. Plus, I had a visitor – Vladimir, my dear friend and colleague in the Polar Regions, had come to see the place I raved so much about. We embarked, here in my “backyard”, on a best-of-northern-Norway whirlwind trip. Here are some pictures.

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He arrived on undoubtedly the most beautiful evening so far this year.

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Within two hours of Vladimir’s arrival, we immediately went fishing in the Arctic nighttime light and encountered instant results. Fresh codfish would be on the table for nearly every meal for the next two weeks, thanks to his fishing skills and perseverance.

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It had been 9 years since I had had an international visitor, to introduce to all things Norwegian. What is typical here? I pondered. What do we have to do?

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Naturally, we had to go on a hike, pretty much first thing. At the top, we had to eat a Kvikk Lunsj, a Norwegian hiking chocolate bar (like a better Kit-Kat. There is a trail map on the inside of the wrapper). It was cold, and windy, and Arctic, but fresh.

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As Vladimir slept in exhaustion after the hike I insisted upon, I whipped up the next item on the Mandatory Norwegian Experiences menu: warm waffles with brown cheese, sour cream, jam, and coffee. If you travel in Norway and haven’t tried this delicacy, you must – it is widely available in cafes and on the road, but also hugely enjoyable as an at-home, all-you-can-eat extravaganza.

What do you know – the next day was May 17th, Norwegian Constitution Day. The weather forecast called for freezing rain, but we drove into the town center to see the parade and all the people wearing the Norwegian national costume, which is called a bunad. The different colors and styles represent the different regions of Norway they are from.

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Ballangen, the small town closest home, was surprisingly full of life that day. I spent most of our time in town visiting with a class of international students (mostly refugees) who I have been teaching a photography workshop as a way to learn Norwegian. For some of them, it was their first May 17th as well. I don’t think our table could possibly have been more international on such a nationalistic day!

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Vladimir even found a May-17th ribbon to wear. We fished on the way home, and were met with more success.

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The next days called for More Fishing, and the perfect May-17th weather arrived a day late. Northern Norway seemed, in radiant sunshine, like heaven on earth.

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After that, I decided that we had to spend a few days in Lofoten, a nearby island archipelago featured spectacular mountain landscapes, beaches, and quaint fishing villages. My vision of an idyllic road trip was slightly dulled by the cold, grey spring weather, but we went anyway. After about 5 hours on the road, we found a place to pitch a tent by the sea and fried up some of our fish, which had grown plentiful.

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Behold, the luxuries of not camping in bear country.

So, what did we do? We drove around, we took pictures. We went to the Lofotr Viking Museum at Borg, which provided a welcome, warm break from the dreary weather outside. It’s a very hands-on place, a replica of an old Viking building where you can touch and test everything yourself. Even battle gear. We couldn’t resist!

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We also got up early one morning and hiked over a mountain to Kvalvika Beach, where a friend of mine overwintered a few years ago to surf and live in a hut made from trash.  The place is awe-inspiring regardless of the weather or season, and the hike easy enough for all ages.

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Great place for some mid-morning coffee, too.

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We then had some days around Svolvær, staying in a fisherman’s cabin. We admired the countless stockfish hanging to dry near our place.

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We also optimistically tried this relaxed style of fishing from the local pier. No luck.

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This window display pretty much sums up what it’s all about.

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After that, we returned home for a few days of fishing (obviously) and catching up on work. At that point, Vladimir only had a few days left, so we decided to pack in one last adventure: spending the weekend at my former host family’s cabin in the mountains, where winter was still in full swing. To reach this cabin, one must cross-country ski for about 2 kilometers with a large backpack full of food and clothing.

“Do you know how to ski?” I asked Vladimir.

“I’m Russian,” he said.

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I wasn’t quite sure what this meant, but we off we went. It turned out that he probably hadn’t skied in about 30 years, but it didn’t matter – conditions were still good, and the trail easy to find. Up we went to the cabin.

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The cabin, and the weather, was pure heaven. Warm sunshine, total silence, good skiing, a wood-burning stove and sauna made for a perfect weekend. The chance to unplug, to spend a few days without Internet – just listening to Norwegian radio – was deeply rejuvenating. Often, I think, we underestimate the healing power of such technology-free time.

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A few days later, Vladimir returned to Russia. The house feels empty, and quiet now, but I smile knowing that we made the most out of our time in this wonderful northern place. From here, time will fly, with the workshop I am teaching and the Arctic season approaching in just two weeks. Until then. Here we go!

Notions of Paradise

“It’s a warm place,” he said. “Will be good. Get some sun.”

“That’s in five days,” I said. “Isn’t that kind of soon?”

“Are you coming or not?”

I hung up the phone and stepped outside. The mountains were still draped in wet, heavy snow, the rain pooling in shallow lakes around the house. Breakup, we called this season, back home. Lakes fractured, ice melted, old snow ran in dirty rivers down the roads. The earth revealed beneath winter’s fading illusion was grey, dead, as if uncovered too soon. What’s more, the wind had been howling through the walls at night like a creaking ship, keeping me uneasy, keeping me awake.

I paced in the old, old house, past the faded photographs of ancestors, past the photographs of fishing boats, weddings, embroideries gathering dust. I thought about how many months per year I spent wearing fleece pants, and wool sweaters, and shivering in the daytime. Outside the same group of wandering reindeer meandered by the seashore, through the same transparent sheet of precipitation.

Oh, what the hell, I thought. You lucky, lucky girl. 

 

Arriving in Thailand was like falling into a warm, tepid bath. You lolled in it, sinking into an enchanting concoction of relaxation and lethargy. Your muscles loosened. All the cold, hard wrinkles of your dry skin filled out; your hands looked, suddenly, like children’s. Your fingers began to prune. You would become a water-creature, a fish maybe, or a hermit crab.

The island of Koh Samui was hot, and humid, an unsurprising mix of manicured tourism and organic, dusty chaos. I had never been planning to go there, so to be plunked suddenly onto the hot asphalt runway, straight from the Arctic spring, was shell-shocking and probably healthy. It was difficult to know how to dress, how to leave behind all these layers of habit and routine. It was too hot to do anything “productive.” Everything was heat and sun and water, plants and sand.

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I had never been to Southeast Asia before, or anywhere remotely like it. The colors, culture, and climate were dazzling to the senses: the vegetation was lush, the mountains steep, the water blue, like postcards. For once, it would be healthy to let go of the role of tourist guide and exist, enthusiastically, as tourist; to join in that joyous and carefree phenomenon we frequently provide but seldom seek.

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It was, you could say, paradise. In the mornings, when the heat was still bearable, we wandered sleepily outside into the sun’s glare, into cool water, into spectacular ocean views that stretched to infinity. In the day, we rested in the shade. Flowers bloomed. Birds sang. Palm trees, true to legend, swayed gently in the breeze.

Everywhere we went, of course, there were tourists. Hordes of brawny young men loitered down crowded marketplace streets, selfie-sticks recording, slurring wasted speech. Beer bottles overflowed from their beachside bar tables. There were backpackers, girls mostly: idle. Asleep in the sand for hours in neon bikinis, roasting with their iPhones. Sunburned couples spoke softly over $3 plates of Thai food and piña coladas. Russian fitness instructors, on FaceTime, holstered babies in swimming pools; groups of Australian college students partied; Chinese millennials shaped perfect selfies with the help of their friends. We wandered amongst all this, a Russian and an American, polar guides and photographers. Come to thaw.

As a professional guide, I often make a point of avoiding tourism in the off-season. As an Alaskan, I often make a point of avoiding crowded areas in general. Give an Alaskan a campground, for example, from which to choose a tent site: she or he will likely choose the site furthest from everyone else, furthest into the trees. Here, in tropical paradise, I was prepared for the overwhelming wave of humanity. It was an unexpected surprise, therefore, to discover parts of the island – the outer fringes of Lamai Beach, in this case – that were, at times, completely devoid of people.

Maybe it was the off-season, or maybe we were lucky. The first place we stayed on the beach, Lamai Bay View Resort, was idyllic and tranquil beyond measure. I’m not even a beach person, but it was stunning, with shallow water walkable for kilometers in every direction, and beautiful rock formations skirting the shoreline. We spent hours exploring there, in the afternoons, when the sun had sunk low enough in the sky to regain its benevolence. We rarely encountered another person.

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As the setting sun began to cast its pink glow over the earth, and the hum of insects grew to a steady drone, we ventured into town. We appeared to be the only human beings on the entire island traveling on foot. Motorbikes swarmed incessantly around us with noisy outbursts and raucous swerves, headlights and engines blaring.

Along this river of careening headlights, we passed vendors selling fruit, selling fish, selling street food. We passed row after row of empty massage parlors and empty bars with cajoling hostesses, populated by single, older European men. The shops, stands and restaurants glowed, bars neon in the night, beckoning and noisy, sweltering heat.

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One evening, having wandered out of the town center and down the coast, we came upon a bustling night market, fans spinning the hot air over fish, eels, frogs, crabs, clams, vegetables, insects, spices. Behind the marketplace, on a quiet stretch of abandoned beach, sat a young woman, a baby girl, and a puppy, playing in the sand. The pink sky was fading to purple over the calm sea. The woman, and her child, didn’t look up when we passed. We just kept walking, down the quiet beach with its dead fish and its occasional litter, away from the noise and on and on into the night.

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What is paradise? I thought, as we plunged bare feet into hot, dirty sand. Clearly, this is a highly individual question, and my thoughts are those of someone who usually travels for adventure more than relaxation. What motivates us to seek out this climate, this place, this overabundant hospitality? What qualifies us as deserving of such vacation, such lapse and departure from the lives we normally lead?

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I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I find it interesting to ask them; to ponder what draws together huge groups of diverse people to a remote location, and more importantly, to consider the lives of those who provide our touristic experiences. What is the daily life of the banana salesman, the bar girl, the women who scour the shallow waters for clams, day and night? What is life really like here?

We lived, for ten days, on the edges of these questions. We were a part of this vibrant tourist phenomenon, with its guided trips and its chaos, but we also sought out slices of wilderness and found them. We found places we could snorkel alone, we found apartments to stay in on mountains where families of monkeys crashed through the jungle around us. Places to awake in silence and breathe in hot, sweet air.

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Reflecting on it all now, these ten days in the tropics seem like some strange dream, a transit through some alternate reality. Its effect, however – the aftermath of a very vacation-y vacation – was surprisingly profound. I returned to Norway with new energy, revitalized and ready to go. This makes me think, that even for us polar people, perhaps we need pauses from the cold to remember its beauty. It is the wealth of contrasts in the world, after all – the contrasts of life, really – that allow us to marvel and delight in even the smallest of things, in every corner of the planet.

I marvel, now, at the fortune of having seen this place, but also at the fortune of being where I am now, back above the Arctic Circle, on the edge of spring. And soon, very soon, it will be time to return to sea. We are sailing, soon, to Svalbard.

Twenty-Seven

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On the morning of my twenty-seventh birthday, I awoke in an empty house in a remote fjord above the Arctic Circle where no one really lived anymore. The house, having stood there for over a hundred years, was beginning to tilt, its fences rotting, its water tasting like marsh and moss and the deepest center of the earth. Outside, a herd of reindeer grazed by the seashore, the same herd that came every year and foraged in the tundra surrounding the house. Sometimes they were asleep in the yard when I awoke, their silver bodies nestled in the dewy grass. There was a fox, too, huge and red with a tail that seemed to float behind it over the dead, brown fields.

I stepped onto the porch, and the cold, clear air was alight with tiny snowflakes, glittering in the sun, like powder. I wanted spring, and growth, and for the buds on the trees to unfurl into brilliant green foliage, but the people who knew me best laughed and said that the weather was singing me happy birthday in its own, sweet way.

I stepped into the snow, barefoot and sleepy, and realized that I was not going to live here anymore. I realized that at twenty-seven, a person needs more than the company of reindeer and magpies and gulls; that the allure of places stems often from the people we share them with. When the people are gone, they take their magic with them, and you cannot spend forever dancing circles around your memories, no matter how dear they might be. It is time, I realized, for a new chapter. Something, somewhere, is waiting, and soon it will be time to go.

For now, it was a good, quiet birthday, bright and shining with this new clarity. One of the highlights was a surprise email from a reader, who read this blog back in the days when I wrote often. I’ve gotten a number of these emails over the years, personal letters of gratitude, of inspiration, that the writing helped them see the positive things in life, or encouraged them to apply to art school, or that they miss it and wish I would continue.

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And you know? I want to write more than almost anything else. Every day that I am home, I get up and write for two or three hours – but now that project is a bigger one, a different one, and it may not be finished for years, but good things take time. All the same, I have missed this blog and the effortless way the entries fall onto the keyboard, the way it helps me process and document this beautiful life. For large parts of the year, it is hard – very, very hard – to find the mental space for things like this, but I think, maybe I will give it a try, again.

I’ve got a couple weeks here, now, to (hopefully) finish a photographic project I started a few years ago, while I’m still around. After that, it will be time to go back to the Arctic, aboard ships for the summer, amidst the ice and the midnight sun and all the animals of the sea. And after that, who knows? Time will tell.

For now, I know this: that spring above the Arctic Circle is a beautiful thing, that even in the past three weeks I’ve been away, the transition to summer light has come. When I sleep, the sky is full of the bright colors of twilight, the ocean still. In the morning the sun is already high in the sky. There is a profound tranquility and comfort in these Arctic nights that you’ll never know until you feel it yourself, and now, this season is upon us.

It Has Been Some Time

Outside the rain pours. Wind thrashes the house and roars in trees, waves tear across the lake, stars grin hidden behind veils of clouds and, across the earth, ships pull into port. Coming home. Journeys ended, journeys begun. And so it is time to write, again, as it often has been and often will be.

Readers, it has been some time.

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Often these days I see my life spread out before me as an long and unknowable journey, a vast horizon, for which my bags are only just now packed, a journey which, after all these travels, has only just begun. It is not weariness. It is a calm awareness that to truly see, to experience and learn, in this life, is to eventually understand how little one can ever know about anything, and how sweet it is that we ever thought we knew in the first place.

Readers, it has been some time, but it has not been without things worth writing about. Nearly constant adventure, whether grand or subtle, has marked these months with something comparable to fury. (Perhaps, I often think, it is the subtlest adventures, quiet and unseen, that change us the most.) I will only tell you that I have lived on the sea. To traverse cold oceans, to sail the realms that most closely encircle the poles of the earth, has become a way of life.

For a while, it was delicious to hold the experiences close, to let them go unpublished and unshared in the great flow of time, day in and day out. To sit, for example, on Antarctic mountaintops and savor the knowledge that no one knows I am here, no one, and no one needs to. But the words piled up and the pages all filled. Here I sit, now, renewed, six hundred days older, ready to write.

We shall not cease from exploration, wrote TS Eliot. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. 

And so the ships pull into port and the ships set sail again. On the other side of the world a new day has already dawned, tomorrow’s destinies already unfolding, somewhere, in the here and now. The earth turns and tides rise and fall, foliage begins to turn color towards autumn. As night falls I wash the salt from the weathered things that I own, and prepare, already, for inevitable departure.

In the Wake of Flight

Even from deep in the ship, the sound of the starting engine went straight to my bloodstream. The distant whine soared, rising, dull heartbeats of rotors pounding and pounding like thunder. My body, raised in aircraft, knew flight as freedom, light, exuberance. From its first escalating drone, the sound seized me by the heartstrings, drawing me up and out into a crystalline sky.

It was enough just to be there, to feel the wind, the force, the falter of a colleague’s stance in the face of it. It was enough to witness the precision of the pilots and their confident grins. It was enough to hear the muffled roar through headphones, to feel oneself moving calm in a sensory chaos, to recognize wonder in the eyes of those disembarking. To feel liftoff as sheets and sheets of wind; see the patterns playing on the water.

In pauses between flights, we stood in stillness, watching the machines rise as if weightless.

The day was born of a night born of a plan. Alex, and others, embarked at dusk into uncharted waters. Skies burned magenta, then blue, then the deepest black, while somewhere out there the depth sounders measured and measured. In the night I stood facing darkness, a void where the lights of the ship ended. Felt trust. Only in the sweetness of sleep were dreams broken by the crackle of the radio that signaled safe return.

The mountains, in day, loomed like silent fortresses, the Torres del Paine of a wild and unruly imagination. Clouds rose in vertical streaks from the summits, as if the mountains themselves breathed hard into the morning sky. We just stood there, looking. Took pictures. Felt awe.

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It was enough, to send the helicopters up, to be around them. It was enough to see them move over self-charted waters into an utterly uncharted sky. They glinted in sun and were gone. The air, late summer and sea salt, felt warm to the touch. It was enough, I thought, to die happy. But it was not enough for the day. The day was formed of flight itself.

From the helicopter the world fell away below, was pulled away. Away fell the ship, its mechanical hum and deep Russian chatter, its legends spanning decades, our fellow travelers, our plans, our journey. In the sky there was only now. Time was now was ended was everywhere was vibrating through the fibers of our bodies. The world fell away and you could see more and more, see our little ship, glassy green water, a fjord, a planet. Hearts spun with the rotors up and up and up.

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Mountains rolled beneath us, rose around us, a luminous world of altitude and air. They rose and fell like granite waves; or we swept over them like wind. Is this how birds know the world? Glaciers and icefalls revealed under the movement of cloud, rivers that snake and wind through valleys?

Below glittered endless wilderness. The sparse tents of visionary climbers studded a hillside; then there was only ascent, meltwater streaks gleaming on rock, the unforeseeable patterning of ice and stone, here for a minute and gone again. The pilots navigated a motionless sky, as if asking: what does it feel like to be wind, a system of currents? Over each ridge unfolded a new expanse of mountains that stretched towards every horizon.

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To look up at these mountains, to feel them suspended around you in air, was to know reverence. Between their peaks the light was falling.

In dreams still I can feel the gentle touch of a landing on deck. The muffled drone fading, drowned by elation; the crispness, vividness, as your hearing regains its strength.

In the wake of flight, in a quiet moment on the deck of a ship at anchor, you feel contentedness. Returned to earth, understanding it anew with fresh eyes, you can see as if for the first time our place in things – that the world, as it is and always has been, is enough.

This piece was inspired by a morning of scenic helicopter flights in Tasermiut Fjord, southeast Greenland, on an expedition aboard the icebreaker Kapitan Khlebnikov in August 2016.