Making a Living, Making a Trip

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Northern Norway in a Nutshell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Behold, the luxuries of not camping in bear country.

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

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

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Great place for some mid-morning coffee, too.

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m Russian,” he said.

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

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

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

Notions of Paradise

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

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

“Are you coming or not?”

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spring in Sweden: Friends, Forests and Photo Shows

A few weeks ago, I got on a plane to Sweden.

Things had transpired quickly. I had returned from 4.5 months in Antarctica, purchased my first car in Oslo, and driven for three days to northern Norway over terrifying winter roads and mountain passes, white-knuckled and tense. I crossed the Arctic Circle at dusk, in a snowstorm, the purple glow of twilight pressing over the empty and windswept road. I drove 1,347 kilometers alone, successfully without incident, only to discover the car couldn’t make it up the gentle slope of my driveway. I left it as it was, stuffed with belongings, and walked the last hundred meters to the house.

I arrived, and I finally had a car, which is essential given the sheer distance of the house from virtually everything else. Some weeks passed, and I attempted to settle in, and settle down, and adjust to dry land after all the months at sea. Some weeks passed, Easter came and went, and then it was time to go.

For about a year, the plan had been to exhibit my photographs at Galleri Elf in Gothenburg, co-run by my artist friend Dan Isaac Wallin, with whom I shared a house during an artist residency at Villa Lofoten a few years ago. In the meantime, I had made another friend from Gothenburg, a polar wildlife photographer named Jens. We had worked together in Antarctica, and suddenly going to Gothenburg became a reunion, a collision of art, photography, and polar travel. Here are some pictures.

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I am the kind of person who enjoys interpreting things as signs and omens. This, at the Narvik airport, was a good sign.

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Jens picked me up from the bus station, dressed appropriately in a Svalbard sweater. (If you know what it is, you know what it is). He lived on a street that translates to “Seaman’s Way,” with a family who also spent a lot of time on ships. It was refreshing to be amongst the company of people who truly understand that lifestyle – the allure, the freedom, the joy, and the challenges. They also had a wonderful cat.

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The next morning, we loaded a massive quantity of artwork onto a bus, and then onto a streetcar, trundling clumsily over the cobblestone streets of Gothenburg with a rolling suitcase full of frames. We met Dan at his art studio, and set about framing my series Polaris for the exhibition two days later.

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It’s one thing to have an assistant when preparing an exhibition – borderline essential – but having assistants who know what they’re doing makes a world of difference. With two professional photographers tackling the frames, the process was as efficient and stress-free as I have ever experienced. We were done by lunchtime.

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Upon arriving at the gallery, the first course of action was to promptly sit down and have a fika, a relaxing coffee break with baked goods and friends. Got to love Scandinavia.

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With a whole team of people there to assist, the hanging of the show went flawlessly. I had had two new, large prints made in Gothenburg, and was very happy pleased with their quality and attention to color.

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With everything hung and ready to go, and advertisements hung in the windows, it was time to relax for a day before the exhibition opened.

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The recent arrival of springtime in Sweden called for utmost enjoyment of the decent weather, and we celebrated with two barbecues in one day. After grilling an astounding quantity and variety of meat with Jens and his friend Eddie, we took Eddie’s daughters for a walk in the forest, where flowers were blooming in thick blankets over the forest floor.

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It was cold and windy when we got home, but we put on all our clothes and went back to the barbecue, because it was spring, and because we could.

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The next day, Polaris opened at Galleri Elf. There was a steady stream of visitors throughout the day, including a handful of folks who also work in the Polar Regions! Worlds collide! The show looked great.

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After five hours of energetic small talk in Swedish (a language in which I was surprised to discover I am actually conversant), we thanked our friends at the gallery and left town. We drove immediately into the forest to grill more meat and drink beer with Jens’ family.

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Never did I imagine a world in which a fine-art photography opening ends with sitting around a smoky bonfire, toasting champagne and eating barbecue, and taking a sauna with three generations of a family one has only recently met. It was one of the most enjoyable opening days I can remember, full of warmth, inclusion and low-key good times. The sunset was beautiful, too.

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Then it was time to go, again, to pack bags and get on busses and planes, because time off work is scarce and you’ve got to make the most of it while you can.

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!

A Quarter Century

It is December 27th and a headache pounds through my skull, dull pain spreading down my neck and throughout my body. Hearing, moving, as if underwater, trudging through something slow and invisible and painful. Sick. I lie awake at night and sleep through the days. Outside the afternoon is glowing softly, at least the horizon. A faint pale orange.

The days are growing again. The elders say that it’s brighter now than it used to be. That the sun has shifted. It’s the universe, says Clare. Of course it’s always changing, but not at our level. Yet still the elders say that. Everybody says that.

A new year is coming, I feel it in the air, the excitement, the anticipation of it. You could say that there is no difference, that it is only time continuing its unstoppable and indifferent course, but to me it is magic, a new beginning, full of promise and mystery. Outside my window as I write, someone sets off a single firework, pink and green, that explodes joyously above the dark ground. Nothing more.

I have begun reflecting upon the year that has newly passed – almost, at this point, completely. It is almost unfathomable how much has transpired, how profoundly my entire life has changed in the course of only 365 days.

I remember the New Year, when oddly enough, I was also sick. In a cabin in Alaska with family and friends and Tor Edvin and champagne and jambalaya and I had long long hair that froze white in cold weather and frayed at the ends and together we all stood at the base of a mountain in a huge gregarious crowd and watched a parade of skiers wind their way down from the summit carrying luminous blood-red torches. I felt my elation tinge with fear as they loomed behind trees, growing ominously closer, as if the apocalypse itself neared our snowy village, descending from the sky. Yet there was only celebration, and my illness, not so dissimilar from today. I wondered if anyone else felt the fear, too. We took pictures. The entire town was glare ice.

I remember January and February as fairly solitary, full of a fierce determination to make something incredible out of the bleak Alaskan winter that rained, rained, rained. Conditions were terrible but I have perhaps never been more focused. That is what I remember. Everything about the photographs. Taking one last portrait of Tor Edvin in the setting sun and driving him to the airport. No tears this time. See you soon. Then my sketches of photographs, my dreams of them. Reading. Running. Wondering if the bears would give up their hibernation. Trying to ski with not-enough snow. Adventures with my grandfather; returning to the military base where he was first stationed before Alaska was even a state. Walking with him on the frozen lake, shiny and reflecting the pink sky. My first car crash, how it felt to be home alone after that, for so many days. How driving became the most terrifying thing in the world, until it wasn’t anymore.

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Always that determination, that building sense of something monumental, approaching unseen. A vibrant, electric energy you feel with every fiber of your being. I returned to school and it burst, and I was scanning negatives and writing letters and applying for jobs, and there was falling snow and miraculous sunshine and the feeling of everything in its place, moving fast, a swift river, a whirlwind of light. I went for walks in the mornings before anyone else was awake and trees began to blossom with heavy pink flowers that dropped their petals into the streets. The photographs, it turned out, were good.

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I remember springtime, when everything changed. I felt aligned with every cosmic force in the universe. My thesis exhibition became a reality and I slept desperately at every opportunity – on the ferry, on the floor, on the bench, in a chair. I cut off most of my hair. And then the day before my final critique – was it the morning of? – the email. I burst into tears of joy. I couldn’t believe it.

I am delighted to inform you that you have been selected for a 2014-2015 Fulbright U.S. Student Award to Canada. Everything was going to change.

I remember May, when things fell into place. I bought a plane ticket to Norway and was hired for my dream job, aboard a ship. I finished college. I turned twenty-four. I moved out of my apartment. I graduated from an extraordinarily difficult university and went to Maine and slept madly and plunged into lakes.

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Then there was the summer, early June, returning. I remember wild road trips with Nic through Alaska, planting flags on his land and hauling salmon out of rivers with nets. Sleeping desperately in parked cars and cooking quesadillas in the open trunk. Reid getting married, the intermingling of Spanish and English and laughter and happiness, and all the old acquaintances saying, you’re doing what, now? As if they did not believe it possible. Taking photographs. Visiting Reid in a house on a a mountaintop with dogs running around at our feet. Leaving for Norway and flying over the pole, a pole that would become more familiar than I dared dream possible.

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June and July. Summer, golden summer, summer on fire – after a frigid midsummer dancing with Tor Edvin, with Eva, with everyone else, on a fog-enshrouded mountain. Northern Norway hot beyond measure under its relentless sun, and how we moved dreamlike through its dayless haze. Weeks of stressful, meticulous fundraising work intermingled with total utopia. The ocean. The mountains. Lofoten, Vesterålen. Fishing, swimming, running, driving, laughing and drinking in the magic of it all. Snorkeling at midnight, barefoot in the streets. Sun like you’ve never even dreamed it. Bathing in the sea.

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I left Norway on the first day that night even returned as a memory. Copenhagen, Greenland. A steep learning curve: Arctic everything. Drive boats, learn birds, animals, history, culture, language, teach photography, meet people, learn, learn, learn. How sleep felt during that time: a miracle, desperate. Cold rain and cold wind and rough seas; the first time hooking a zodiac to a hook as rollers threw the boat, threw me, everything up and down and dangerous. Someone pulling me into their boat – I have faith in you. That moment sticking in my mind; a thousand other moments, the closest encounters you could dream with white whales, with hundreds of thousands of birds moving around you in whirling sheets. Seeing polar bears. Speaking Danish, seeing Baffin Island for the first time. All these things and a thousand, thousand more. Perhaps it is still too fresh, all of it. My mother appearing in Resolute. Sea ice. Bears. Arctic Bay. A place to live.

September and October, living in a new place, enjoying city life. My parents visiting. Tor Edvin visiting. Wild dances barefoot on beaches and disappearing into the waves. Scanning, meeting, riding bicycles and piecing things together, drinking coffee, eating kale. Feeling departure imminent. Beginning to write.

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And now this. Baffin Island. Arctic Bay. Deep cold and time moving slower; learning and photographing and existing within something different than what I have known, before. Feeling where it overlaps and where it doesn’t. Listening to Inuktitut, playing with small children, traveling by skidoo and dogsled and purchasing the most expensive groceries in the world. Learning to sew. Accompanying men who build igloos and harvest the most nourishing food in all the world from this frozen land and sea. Playing the most inventive games imaginable with the entire town. Stars wheeling above. Making photographs, photographs that could never ever capture it, but that try. Photographs that try as hard as anyone has tried before.

Waking up this morning, and through sickness, thinking: I believe in photography. 

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And so a new year draws closer. I will turn twenty-five: a quarter century. I am in disbelief at how far I have traveled, what I have seen, all that has happened, within the tiny framework of one individual year. What lies beyond this time, this Arctic world, is impossible to say. There are ideas, sure, but if there is anything I know to be true, it is that it is futile work to plan too far in advance. Things change so rapidly, we can never know. We can only plunge forward with our optimism, our ideals and ideas and dreams, and all the confidence we can muster. Into something unprecedented, something unknown. What you’re looking for is looking for you.