A few photos from a scenic flight around Anchorage, Alaska, this November – reflections on growing up with aircraft, the importance of bush planes to Alaska’s culture, and the onset of winter.
A few photos from a scenic flight around Anchorage, Alaska, this November – reflections on growing up with aircraft, the importance of bush planes to Alaska’s culture, and the onset of winter.
What do you tell them, when they ask you? That when you go home, you live inside a painting? That when you approach, the endless peaks appear as if from a dream, their contours glowing into horizon, ridges like teeth, snowless valleys carving rivers into the earth? That every time you press your face, your lens, to the window, trying so hard to catch it? That feeling?
Earlier this winter, I stopped through my hometown of Anchorage, Alaska, for a few weeks. I did a number of things while there – visited family, edited and launched some new bodies of work, fundraised for a new project (more on that later), skied, prepared for Antarctica, and visited my brother in Fairbanks.
It was there, in Fairbanks – at the Museum of the North, on the university’s campus – that I first laid eyes on an original painting by Rockwell Kent. I was drawn to it as if by magnetic force – the color, the richness, the way the canvas breathed forth the peculiarities of Arctic light that can only so fleetingly be glimpsed. He caught it – that uncatchable thing. I’d seen reprints of his work, read his books, even – but seeing the work in real life was another story.
The painting made me think of a lot of things. The image itself struck me, of course, because of the parallels it drew to my own daily reality (aboard ships in the Polar Regions), but it struck me also because of the color, that luminous quality and color of light. That single painting made me feel, instantly and forevermore, deeply connected to a community of artists and thinkers, past and present, engaged in ideas of North and northernness. The community had always been there, of course, but it took the painting to wake up to it.
It was a turning point. Since then, the more I consider it, the more important that community feels, and it’s everywhere. No matter what you are passionate about, somewhere out there are people who feel the same, who are driven by the same forces. You are not alone.
I’ll tell you this – as whimsical as Kent’s work may appear, it is in many ways astonishingly accurate. After seeing the painting, I saw it everywhere, in the mountains, the fjords, the sunrises.
On the flight home from Fairbanks, descending over Anchorage at dusk, I was suddenly gripped. Shooting in the dark, through the thick layered plastic of a jet window at thousands of feet, I gasped yet again at the vastness of this wilderness I’d grown up with, the Chugach mountains extending as far as the eye could see. Anchorage, when it finally appeared, seemed so inconsequential – a handful of glitter in the deep.
It was a beautiful November – not much snow, but properly cold, and by the time we returned from Fairbanks, the ocean had begun freezing in its myriad of formations. I’d just gotten a brand-new digital camera, and promptly took it to the sea ice to test it out.
The frozen sea of Turnagain Arm, only a few minutes from my childhood home, had been a source of artistic inspiration for as long as I could remember, but that day on the ice was challenging. No snow had fallen on the surface, and the ice was both slippery and brittle. I moved slowly, cautiously, outwards from the shore, while the moon rose above.
This was it: home. I’d been thinking a lot about sea ice, too, and our relationships to it. Here was a new camera, destined to tell these stories. Here was the first thing it saw. Here are the first pictures it took.
While I couldn’t get as far as I would have liked, alone on that new, fragile ice, it was a beginning. A beginning of something new coming, something more connected. I hope to move forward with a greater receptivity, now, to connectivity – of the things, in these polar realms, that draw us here; that shape us, and ultimately unite us.
Setting foot onto dry land near the end of September this year, I had a feeling things were going to be action-packed. Long field seasons in the Polar Regions, typically, are followed by one of two phases: desperate rest and recovery, or sudden flurries of activity, during which one attempts to cram 4 months worth of activities and errands into a few crazed, busy weeks. This time around, my goal was to somehow fuse the two – but where, when, and what this would entail, were all yet to be unveiled.
First, a bit of backstory. In the early spring of this year, whilst on a ship in Antarctica, I received a peculiar email through our satellite communications system: an invitation to travel to Bulgaria for a solo exhibition of my photography. First I shrugged it off – spam, probably – but then I took a second look. Surprisingly, it seemed sort of real. It looked cool, actually. With a degree of skepticism, I hesitantly accepted the offer – but promptly made a back-up plan, just in case.
Fast-forward six months or so, and I was back on a ship, in the Arctic this time. Although the opening date of the exhibition had been set, and Jens had agreed to join me, we had no plane tickets. The date drew closer: One month to go. Three weeks. Two weeks, in which to somehow get from a ship in the Arctic, to Canada, to Sweden, to Bulgaria.
At one week left until the opening, I wrote Jens over the satellite email.
“Forget about Bulgaria,” I wrote. “I don’t think it’s going to happen. We can stay in Sweden, read books and stuff. Rest.”
No sooner had I sent the message than plane tickets appeared in an email from our mysterious Bulgarian hosts. With 5 days left until the exhibition opening, we decided to drop everything and go. As snow began to fall on Greenland and storms descended upon Svalbard, two weary expedition guides boarded aircraft on opposite sides of the Arctic and started the course towards eastern Europe.
Neither of us, I must admit, knew anything about Bulgaria. The whole of the Balkan region was, in my imagination, shrouded in mystery; the little I knew of it was a fantastical world shaped by photographers like Michał Siarek. We just went, operating in the same expedition mindset that defines much of what we do. You go, simply, to find out; and by traveling without expectations make yourself receptive to a potentially endless stream of surprise, delight, and amazement.
Bulgaria pretty much blew our minds. Not only was it real, it was beautiful – far less Soviet concrete (why had I imagined that?) and instead, lush, mountainous, and the city of Sofia full of warm colors, a meeting of East and West. More importantly, we were met at the airport by none other than Denislav Stoychev. All I knew about Denislav was that he was a talented photojournalist and member of the Bulgarian Press Photo organization which had invited me there. What I didn’t know was that he was only 25 years old, hilarious, and probably one of the friendliest and most talkative people I’ve met in years. He would instantly become our best friend, translator, tour guide, and agent throughout our time in Sofia.
“I hope you like interviews,” he said as we rode the subway from the airport. “You’ll be on Bulgarian National Television tomorrow, on the morning show. Local television at noon, National Radio the next day. Maybe some newspapers.”
How does one respond, after three months in the Arctic? The blur of the subway whirred around us, Cyrillic characters flashing by. Jens and I just looked at each other and laughed. What was this dream? How did we get here?
“Why are you laughing?” asked Denislav.
Sure enough, the next morning I was live on the morning show, promptly after breakfast and before actually having seen the exhibition I was speaking about. You can check out the interview here – it was my first experience speaking with a simultaneous translator, but I think it went as well as it could have. As we spoke, the wall of screens behind us displayed a slideshow of my work from Alaska, Iceland and Baffin Island. I imagined these pictures, and these spoken thoughts about the Arctic, glowing from television screens in living rooms across Bulgaria. “Surreal” does not begin to cover it.
The exhibition poster outside the gallery. Loving seeing it all in Bulgarian.
After the National Television experience, we went to see the exhibition that Gallery SYNTHESIS had kindly prepared in advance. The gallery adjoined PhotoSYNTHESIS – a cafe, camera store, print studio, and photo book library, all in one. It was a stunning example of how to make the documentary and fine-art photography worlds accessible and engaging to a wider public, by creating an inviting and multifaceted cafe atmosphere.
Cafe seating in front of the gallery door.
In the spacious upstairs gallery, the exhibition was already installed, combining images from my projects Polaris, Origins and Under the Same Stars. It was refreshing, for once, to have such a large exhibition curated by someone else – and novel, for me, to have all the text written in Bulgarian. The show was expansive, filling three rooms and two hallways, but here is a brief selection of installation shots.
No sooner had we taken a look at the exhibition than it was time for another interview, this time in English, with the local TV station bTV. Due to the amount of other news stories that day, the clip they actually used was very brief, but it was a fun and engaging experience. Here is the result.
With the exhibition opening that night, we decided to take a break from interviews and actually spend a few hours taking in the sights of Sofia. It was, after all, still less than 24 hours since we had arrived.
The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, for example, was nearby.
By some glorious accident, we stumbled upon an absolutely legendary restaurant called Made in Blue. Post-Arctic meals of dreams were enjoyed outside in warm sunshine.
We got dressed up for the exhibition opening and walked through a beautiful park right next to our hotel, full of locals taking in the late-afternoon light.
From there, it was straight to the exhibition opening! For being new to Bulgaria, there was a surprisingly large turnout of photography and art enthusiasts. Denislav and Nadezhda, the curator, introduced the show with a series of speeches in Bulgarian.
There were lots more interviews and photographs and smiling at cameras.
Some lovely ladies from the US Embassy, which had funded the exhibition, arrived to say hi and do some more interviews. (Here’s the one that ended up on their website.) After that, it was time for an artist talk about the Polar Regions, photography, and expedition travel.
Thus concluded one of the most amazing and intensive exhibition days I can remember, marked by the astounding hospitality, generosity, and kindness of our new Bulgarian friends. We ended the evening with dinner with Denislav, his friends, the curator Nadezhda, and the director of the Serbian photography festival Vizualizator, talking about photography, art, and all of its magic.
The days that followed, while considerably more low-key, were enjoyed to the fullest. There were more interviews, of course, at the National Radio and various newspapers, but there was also lots of time to explore and enjoy the city. Denislav tagged along with us, documenting fervently on Instagram as we went, showing us some of the highlights of Sofia.
I also got to conduct portfolio reviews for some up-and-coming Bulgarian photographers!
That night, we met Tsvetan Tomkchev, director of BG Press Photo, to watch the sun set over Sofia.
The next day, Denislav took us by train to the city of Plovdiv, where we spent the day enjoying the best of Bulgarian traditional cuisine, warm sunshine, and the beautiful cultural scene there.
On our very last day, the three of us joined Bulgarian photographer Vlad Donkov and his friend on a day trip in the Rila mountains! Like Jens and I, Vlad had also spent a significant amount of time photographing in the Polar Regions, and jumped at the opportunity to show us some of Bulgaria’s best wilderness – and swap adventure stories from the worlds’ cold places. After driving an hour or so from Sofia, we made our way up through the autumn landscape towards Malyovitsa Peak.
The trail was sunny, relatively warm – and tough! Jens and I could feel that we had been on ships all summer. It was heavenly, however, to feel our freedom of movement over the earth; to breathe mountain air; and to sense the wildness around us in every direction.
Denislav was representing BG Press Photo, of course.
While we didn’t make it quite to the top, our 8-hour trek took us through a host of alpine landscapes, past lakes and valleys, and finally up a steep scree gully up to one of the mountain’s saddles. From there, panoramic views fell away from us in every direction. We munched apples and chocolate at the top, feeling the cold evening air sweeping towards us as the sun sank lower into the sky.
Darkness fell over the landscape as we returned, exhausted, to the car. Denislav chatted rapidly into his cell phone in Bulgarian, hanging up and calling, hanging up and calling.
“Tonight we will eat at a traditional Bulgarian restaurant!” he announced happily. “Very, very traditional. Maybe with a singer.”
“Oh no,” said Vlad.
It is difficult to explain the full magnitude of what happened next. We arrived, sweaty with our backpacks, into a restaurant whose seating space also functioned as a dance floor; where a live band performed about 5 meters away from our dinner table, and lines of restaurant patrons wove around the tables in ongoing traditionally dance. Tsvetan awaited us enthusiastically, beaming in his BG Press Photo t-shirt under an assemblage of Bulgarian flags. We laughed and ate and yelled across the table at each other over the roar of the music.
“I love this song!” Denislav exclaimed suddenly, as the jubilant tune changed melodies.
“What’s it about?” I asked.
“Our uprising from the Ottoman Empire.”
It was a cultural dinner like no other. Suddenly, Denislav snuck across the room to speak to the singer, gesturing towards Jens and I with enthusiasm. The next thing we knew, we were asked to come on stage, where the singer gave a dramatic speech in Bulgarian encompassing our life stories – the Polar Regions, the ships, the animals, the exhibition, the photography, Antarctica, the Rila mountains from where we had just arrived – and promptly urged us to dance. The band burst into vibrant song.
What do you do? You dance. Everyone else, it turned out, danced with us too.
Thank you, Bulgaria. Thank you Denislav and Tsvetan, for inviting us; thank you Vlad, Nadezhda, BG Press Photo, the US Embassy, and all the others who made a 5-day whirlwind trip an experience that we will never forget. I came to Bulgaria thinking it would be an exhibition and nothing more; I left with an overwhelming sense of the warmth of humanity, feeling that we have made friends for life.
Sometimes, you just have to drop everything and go.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
He arrived on undoubtedly the most beautiful evening so far this year.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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!
Vladimir even found a May-17th ribbon to wear. We fished on the way home, and were met with more success.
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.
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.
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!
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.
Great place for some mid-morning coffee, too.
We then had some days around Svolvær, staying in a fisherman’s cabin. We admired the countless stockfish hanging to dry near our place.
We also optimistically tried this relaxed style of fishing from the local pier. No luck.
This window display pretty much sums up what it’s all about.
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.
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.
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.
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!
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.