Bulgaria: An Exhibition Experience of a Lifetime

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Cafe seating in front of the gallery door.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, for example, was nearby.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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There were lots more interviews and photographs and smiling at cameras.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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I also got to conduct portfolio reviews for some up-and-coming Bulgarian photographers!

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That night, we met Tsvetan Tomkchev, director of BG Press Photo, to watch the sun set over Sofia.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Denislav was representing BG Press Photo, of course. 

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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.

The Worth of a Day

January 15th, 2015

How, I wonder, does one even begin? My dear readers, it has been far too long. The past three weeks have woven hazily in and out of sickness; days upon days have piled, differentiated only by a different book, a different mood. Slightly different symptoms, pushing me down and spinning my head, ringing in my ears, confining me to a perceived lifetime of stuffy, indoor solitude. Outside the daylight grows and the temperature plummets into the -30s, and I hardly dare leave the house, should the relentless cold destroy the small victories I have painstakingly won over whatever illness is waging war against my body.

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And yet. Interspersed with these periods of bleakness have risen adventures of new heights. Connections have finally been forged that I had been looking for all along. Even inside, something has changed – the strange timidity and nervousness that plagued me in the beginning has dissipated. There is nothing to do but to plunge ahead. Today, for the first time in a week, I can taste my morning coffee. Today, I will take a photograph again.

I thought it appropriate timing to compose a summary of sorts, for those who know little of my life aside from my lyrical ramblings, Facebook statuses, and stories shared by my mother. This is a time-space utterly removed from anything in my life experience. Sometimes its pace makes me restless, when my hard-won conditioning for efficiency and achievement crops up, a foreign and anxious reminder of the world I left behind. Yet this rarely happens anymore; I have succumbed to the flow of time, and sometimes wonder if destiny sent me here in an act of salvation, to literally force any dangerous degree of busyness to a shuddering halt. How do you measure the worth of a day?

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Each day is what you make of it, but the way I think about that idea has changed. I have been a person with an alarm set for 6 AM, every minute of the day planned in a frantic jumble of multiple work commitments, school, workouts, cooking, writing, studying, still attempting to be creative and, sometimes, have friends. I would deny I was wearing myself into the ground, time and time again, and my to-do lists spiraled off the pages of my precious day planner. Each day is what you make it! I would tell myself reassuringly, comforted in the fact that I was constantly achieving the maximum possible.

The time has come to seriously reconsider that statement. What is value, really? How is worth measured? Weeks have now passed that my former self would have regarded as utter failure; a betrayal to myself and my capacities. The thought is not jarring, as it sounds. I think, perhaps, I am learning to see clearly. Real value is enjoying your life, learning new things, taking care of yourself and others, and spending time with the people you love. Listening. Seeing. Of the days I have been forced to remain in my room, very few have been losses. Every day is different. Subtle variances are richer than we care to acknowledge. While I will undoubtedly return to being a busy person with a lot to do, I hope that this period of calmness, this clarity, can somehow leave its mark.

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Okay, done reflecting. Time for an actual summary. Perhaps what I mean to say is that a lot of the things I actually do here in the Arctic don’t sound so exciting written down. It is dark outside, and cold. I sleep a lot. I play with kids, when I’m healthy. I sew things that Sheba teaches me how to make. I read books I always wished I had read – books on English language writing, polar exploration, philosophy, poetry, academic ponderings on nordicity, joyous fiction. I write. I go to the grocery store, because going to the grocery store here is inevitably a social event, and everyone knows everyone. There, I purchase expensive fruit and vegetables. I take naps. Sometimes I cook; most of the time Joe cooks and we all eat together in front of the TV with plates on our laps, on the couch or on the floor. After dinner, Sheba and Joe usually take the kids to visit a family member or a friend, and often I go. There, we sit, talk, share food, and often stare at the screens of the television and our mobile devices. The kids can play together and get their energy out. When I am healthy I try to exercise, running laps around town in the cold, past the rumbling trucks delivering drinking water to houses, billowing steam as they pass. When there is an event at the community hall, I go, and slowly I get to know people. Sometimes I go to church, although I admit I’m not particularly religious. Sometimes I watch people playing sports, or go to square-dances, or youth and elders meetings. Sometimes I meet people to photograph them. This is how the majority of the days pass.

In between periods of this existence, however, are tremendous experiences of what I call magic. I love going out on the land here more than I can possibly convey, but it has been exceedingly difficult for me to find people to take me with them. Yet now and again: magic. I feel that I live for it, here, for the few-and-far-between instances where some kindly soul, after my persistent badgering, has finally agreed: yes, you may come with me. Who would have known that I – who love animals and had never been hunting before – should find seal hunting to be the most wondrous thing in all the world?

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Perhaps it is because I am an outdoor person and connect easily with others who are, and that the majority of people who go outside in the winter here, do so because they are hunting. But there is something almost spiritual about it, in the poetic way I see things. Combing the ridges and cracks of a frozen sea, hunting the stillness for the subtle breath of something utterly invisible. Bringing life upwards, beyond this frozen border. You go out; you are engaging with the landscape, with the animals. You are breathing it in and tracing the patterns of life. You are alive.

These have been, without question, the radiant highlights of my time in Arctic Bay. I absolutely love it. I try to photograph it, and often I have to resort to digital, because what else are you going to shoot in the dark on the back of a moving skidoo or dogsled at thirty degrees below zero? At first I perceived this as a failure of some sort, on my behalf. Now I can see it is actually a miracle. That the ISOs of digital allow us to capture images that never could have existed. The best camera is the one you have with you. There will be photographs.

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In Glenn Gould’s radio piece The Idea of North, someone says that you can’t talk about the North until you’ve gotten out of it, and I think about that almost daily. Sometimes I speak on the telephone with people far away from here, who ask with breathless exhilaration how it is going, this adventure of mine, as if I were some pioneering explorer. And to be honest, I don’t know what to tell them. You’re so brave, Acacia. Brave? It may have taken courage to come here alone, initially, but now? I’m chatting with my Inuit friends on Facebook and walking to the grocery store.

These intentions are good, yet I can hear in their voices the way that the Arctic evokes these exotic ideas, this Otherness, this notion of danger or primitivism or who knows what. This exasperates me.  I’m living normal life, I tell them. Just like anywhere else. Of course people will live somewhat differently based upon culture, environment, their experiences – these are not differences worthy of judgement. I wish to live in a world where people do not other-ize each other, even subconsciously – where people can see past differences, past stereotypes, and recognize only the human qualities that tie us all together. On a large scale, this is perhaps impossible, but at least we can all do a small part to spread compassion and understanding. These are things I think about.

This Arctic world has become home to me now, and it is impossible, while still immersed in it, to evaluate what might be of interest, or educational, to readers elsewhere. In time, I will see these things, and I will write in detail of my experiences, but as of yet they remain out of reach. This is a time for me to live here, now. Time spent writing, now, is experience lost, and with that in mind I will now strive to make the very most of my last weeks. Until later!

Wind (Pole Stars At Noon)

(Contains Graphic Imagery)

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A Wednesday, December: The First Day of Stormy Weather

I awake too early. I awake too early on a couch in a house with a polar bear skin on the wall, in a sleeping bag that has been with me as long as I can remember. I awake too early to the sound of something moving around the outside of the building, hitting, scraping. Timidly I stumble to my feet, move the curtains from the window.

Wind. Telephone lines bouncing, tarps whipping, a river of airborne snow snaking down the street like a slithering, ephemeral mirage. There is no glow today, no faint tinge of twilight painting the outlines of the mountains. Only darkness, only indigo. I put on my parka, the one Tootalik made me, with a surprise ruff of luxuriant silver fox fur when I had been expecting dog. It is impervious to the elements. It is dark blue, like everything else.

Outside the blowing snow pulls me in its current, drawing me forward under the glow of the streetlights. I say the word aloud: December. I think that the sound the ‘c’ makes gives the word a magical edge, like an incantation, or a myth. The darkest month. The darkest day races towards us. I break from the snow-river’s drift, into the shadows. I think that without our presence, without our artificial illumination, no one would see this, and no one would know. Perhaps this visual phenomenon would not even exist, in December. It would just be, the Arctic, as it is, and those who traveled it by night-vision or starlight would draw pictures in their minds of how the wind moved, based upon the way it blistered their faces and tore at their clothing; on the patterns that emerged at something that could scarcely be called daybreak.

Yes, the darkest day races towards us. The darkness saps your energy and erases time; days blur, as in summer. I have often found myself restless, anxious for the outdoors, but today finds me contemplating the meaning of the word “hibernation,” startled at the strength of my desires to eat too much and sleep for eternity. Instead I run a few precious inches of hot water into a bathtub, lay on my back and stare at the yellow glow of the shower curtain (pattern: flowers). I think, I am so tired. It is probably because of the wind. But maybe, it is because of the seal.

With humor, I recall a lyrical artist statement I once wrote: When I dream, I dream of cold wind, I had begun. Hah! What little I knew of cold, then. Welcome to the world of forty-below-zero, of ice-encrusted door interiors, of painful frost burns covering your palms from the forgetful grasp of a doorknob. My fingers crack and bleed, hurriedly sewing myself sealskin mittens. Seals are life; they are everything. Sitting in circles we share ulus and gulp seal broth and slices of raw meat. Only then can you see the veins in your hands thickening, strengthening, and feel the heat pushing out into your extremities. You feel relief. You feel how badly your body wants the seal. You will feel unspeakable gratitude as you haul its sleek and blubbery body onto the ice. You will be reminded that beneath us in this vastness is a rich and thriving ocean, teeming with life, and only the trained among us, listening for the gentle exhale at a seal’s breathing hole, sense its presence. Yet it is always there. The cold brings for us a thin and fleeting boundary between worlds which we skim everyday, yet never cross except at our own dire peril. You eat the seal and they say, you will not sleep, tonight.

It is December. At first there was a star at noon, a single gleaming point in the sky that hung with all the weight and magnitude of the sun, suspended. When your eyes found it in the periwinkle sky, they couldn’t let it go again. It pressed the world silent under its weight. It moved me more than I can speak of. The first time I saw it I said aloud: There are stars at noon. The sky is dark. The sky is so dark, the pole stars can be seen at noon. These are words from the I Ching. This I know. And here we are.

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Learning Winter: November in Arctic Bay

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We sat around a table in a little mountain cabin, warming up. The exposed skin around my eyes had been frozen, brittle when we arrived, painful to squeeze my eyes shut against the sting of ice-coated lashes. Here there was fire, laughter, bright blue walls that at a certain time of day must blend precisely with the vast landscape of Victor Bay outside the window. The entire cabin, down to the last detail – windows, flooring, matching curtain rods – had been found and salvaged from the dump. You would never have known, in this cozy, peaceful space, seals by the doorway and skidoos parked outside, everything sparkling intensely when you moved, as if alive, doused in a deep layer of glittering frost. Water was heated and passed around; I downed cup after cup of hot coffee, hot chocolate. I felt the heat sink down, down into my body, bringing it back to life. My discarded clothes grew into a mountain on the floor. I think people probably laughed at how much I was wearing; I couldn’t understand, but I wanted to. I listened to the women speak, watched their eyes light up, the soft tones of Inuktitut and huge smiles and calm gestures out the window.  I watched them attentively, guessing, piecing together the tiny bit I could understand.

Joe turned to me.

“She is saying that last night she saw a falling star. A giant one, bright orange, streaking slowly through the sky, with a huge tail after it, like a comet. It was right out there.”

The women smiled at his translation, turned to me for a moment. Then they looked out the window. I thought about what it must be to stand there under that vault of stars, in the silence of this place, and bear witness. I thought about how much I still do not understand.

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It has been three weeks now, and more and more it is difficult to find time to sit at the computer. It is strange; a different kind of busyness. Gone are the days of rampant achieving, doing, completing – frantically ticking boxes off my pages of daily to-do lists. Instead, the events in the in-between, the living, the getting the thing to happen, find you and sweep you away, fill the hours. Although sometimes, in the world where I came from, we might say I am not doing a lot – days here are full, rich, and memorable, a lot of time spent just being with people. Small things seem momentous. There is not even time to write it all down. At night sometimes I whisper the events into an audio recorder so I won’t forget. Even then I am surprised at how long it takes me to explain it all. You could never explain it all.

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It is getting colder, inevitably, and rapidly darker. I am, hopefully, getting used to it. It no longer seems strange to get dressed to leave the house bundled to the point of waddling; yesterday I pulled out my best, warmest down jacket and thought, quite matter-of-factly, hmm, this would be great for springtime! (Again, an immense thanks to Clare for the parka I am still borrowing). It is getting colder, but I am learning how to dress, how to deal, and how to accept it. Anyone can stay warm enough if they are moving; what gets me is hours on the snowmobile at high speeds, or a whole day on a dogsled, sitting still. But unlike heat, my nemesis, there is always something you can do. You can bring hot fluids with you in a thermos. You can hop off the dogsled and run alongside it until you are out of breath and panting, fling yourself back on. You can buy skidoo goggles at the grocery store. There are ways.

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Many things have happened. I have continued to accompany Joe to Nanisivik by skidoo; one time we stopped briefly at some people’s cabins, which was amazing. I hope to go back. We looked for polar bears, but never found any – just tracks. We went to the site of a summer camping place with the remains of old sod houses at the base of the mountains. I was a bridesmaid in Sheba and Joe’s wedding, an immense honor and remarkable experience. We all played bingo every Friday night. I played one night of floor hockey with the girl’s team here, and was so bruised afterward I could hardly move for days, but I will probably go again. Recently, I went dogsledding with a man who has a dog team here, out there all day in the silence, telling stories and drinking tea and waiting for him while he attempted to hunt a seal. The seal didn’t come, but he tried, and I got to witness. I learned so much that day. I learn so much all the time, just existing.

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Time to go outside, to make the most of the dwindling daylight! It will break twenty below zero this week – got to get out there before that number is doubled.