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.