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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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.

Twenty-Seven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Return, Balance

Every time, it is striking – the return, inevitable, to what could be called “civilization.” A connected world, alive with the pling of devices, the rush of traffic, the immensities of urban populations, bewildering onslaughts of urgency, humanity, values, time. For a while, I called it “real life.” I don’t use that term anymore. What is real? Who is to determine what, if anything, is any more real or valid than anything else?

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I no longer have answers when people ask me where I live. I reply: I live here, now. Most often, now, here means on a ship, an expedition vessel, sailing the Arctic or the Antarctic, where I now work most of the year. These frozen seas, their vastness and their magnitude, the mountains and the ice, wildlife elusive or abundant – it comprises the world, most of the time. From our floating home we watch the polar seasons pass: the return of life with the melting of the sea ice, cycles of birth and growth, migration and desertion, the onset of cold. The sun, both summer and winter, skirts the horizon in its tightly wound circles, round and around again.

“You’ve been bitten,” a family friend remarked recently.

“I was bitten a long time ago”, I told him. “Some of us call it being bi-polar.”

It used to be – when all this was still so new – that returning, coming home, shocked me. Moving, anonymous, through airports and trains stations and crowded streets, I would stare in bewilderment at the civilization I found myself amongst. Advertising, consumerism, the whole structure of it seeming designed to constantly remind people of what they don’t have, how they are somehow not good enough. Left and right rushed suit-clad professionals with extra-large coffees and briefcases and beeping devices. Do you know what I have seen? I would think, feeling the experiences must be visible, I must be marked, somehow people must know. Don’t you realize that this isn’t real? Don’t you know what the earth is?

That feeling, of the astronaut’s return to a wayward and confused planet, may never go away, but it has balanced. The world will not change. Coming home is coming home in a way that does not confuse. I jump into taxis with confidence and walk streets like I’ve always been here. Smell flowers, shop for groceries. But inside you know it’s temporary, you know it’s building, you know we’re leaving again soon, the ships are provisioning now and people are packing their bags, we’re going, going, the sea is there, the animals are migrating, the ice is fracturing and starting to melt.

To travel in the Polar Regions is a gift, and to have arrived at a greater understanding of them imbues life with a richness of meaning and purpose. Yet these regions are so vastly, widely, misunderstood. Maybe you should write about them, someone said.

Maybe I should write about them.

It Has Been Some Time

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

Readers, it has been some time.

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

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

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

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

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

In the Wake of Flight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Then the Stars Aligned: Arrival in Arctic Bay

The magic of expedition travel is how it invites the possibility for serendipity into people’s lives. When you remain open to change, stay flexible, and make the best out of what you have, truly amazing things seem to materialize out of thin air.

We were on a ship, where I was working as an expedition guide. The plan was to sail from Resolute through Fury and Hecla Strait, down the west coast of Baffin Island to Iqaluit. The sea ice, however, was one step ahead of us, and our optimistic attempts towards Fury and Hecla were unsuccessful. For the first three nights, our ship froze into the ocean’s surface in the middle of the night, barely making forward progress during the day. It was another world out there, and the nilas – the new-forming ice – wasn’t visible on our radar. The sight took your breath away; several mornings in a row I was the only person awake on deck at 5:30 AM, staring out at that ice forming along the horizon, surrounding the ship. You knew it meant winter when you saw it, felt it in your bones. The ice was a different animal altogether than the majestic sculptures of glacial ice I had grown accustomed to, somehow carrying more emotional weight. And where there was ice, there was life – as the sheets of ice creaked and groaned around the edges of our ship, we stood attentive out on deck, distant polar bears visible in every direction. It was magic like I’ve never seen. After a few days, however, our dreams of Fury and Hecla began to fade, and we realized we would have to reach Iqaluit another way.

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Now, I knew where we were. With great anticipation, I had been watching the map day by day as we grew closer and closer to the community of Arctic Bay, where I had been planning to spend the winter photographing as a part of my Fulbright project. Having committed to the winter without ever having set foot there before, the whole idea of the place was still enshrouded in mystery. I didn’t have a place to stay arranged yet; in moments of insecurity I had begun to wonder if they were still open to the idea of having me come there at all, as I hadn’t heard back from my affiliate there in several months. I watched on the map as we approached Admiralty Inlet and skirted the south coast of Devon Island instead, heading onward to Resolute and then into Prince Regent Inlet. We were so close. I would stand out on deck, breathing the cold air, staring in awe at the mountains so similar to the pictures I’d seen of Arctic Bay. Almost there, I thought, dreaming.

And then it happened. As we began to avert our course – now moving towards the east coast of Baffin – Alex, our expedition leader, called me unexpectedly into his office. He was smiling. I sat down.

“I’ve just called Arctic Bay on the satellite phone,” he informed me. “They’ve agreed to host us all tomorrow afternoon. They asked if by any chance Acacia Johnson was on the ship.”

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Words fail me here. Shocked. Overjoyed. In total disbelief? The man on the phone was Clare, my Fulbright affiliate who I had been in contact with for over a year. Not only would I get to visit the community in the summer, but my mother was also on the ship, and would now be able to understand just why I had been dreaming about it for so long. I still had to pinch myself when I saw the daily programs on the wall the next morning. Arctic Bay!

We approached land through dense fog, which dissipated as we arrived, forming a spectacular arc of fog like some mystical gateway. Through the mist, the bright red mountains and picturesque town of Arctic Bay loomed in glorious sunshine. I took it as a good omen, and we landed.

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So it was that everything simply fell into place, or rather it had been in place all along, unbeknownst to me. Clare was there to greet us with a smile as we landed our zodiac on the beach, with genuine warmth and instant great news – he had found me a place to live! After so many months of long-distance communication, the only world to describe my first encounter there is surreal. Wandering the sunny, warm streets in amazement, I experienced every aspect of it as a new and future home, overwhelmed by the warmth and generosity of the community.

My perceptions aside, it was a phenomenal day for our guests as well. On the outskirts of town, a group of performers gathered to demonstrate seal skinning, the use of sealskin lamps, throat singing, ayaya singing, and traditional clothing. It was a beautiful, golden autumn day, with cottongrass glowing in giant fields along the roadside. The people were some of the friendliest I had met, arriving every which way by truck and four-wheeler to partake in the festivities.

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For me, perhaps the most important part of the whole experience was meeting the wonderful family with whom I will live for the four months of darkness this winter, from November to February. The chance to meet them in advance was a luxury I never expected; the peace of mind that comes from knowing I will have such kind people to share a home with is difficult to convey with words.

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I found myself nearly speechless for most of the day, amazed that this would be my home for the winter. The mountains around us shone every variation of red and orange; the beauty of the place was staggering. As I walked the streets, beaming children kept stopping me, eager for a hug or a high-five. It was hard to feel anything but sheer optimism about the upcoming winter, despite knowing that the landscape would be totally transformed under snow, ice and darkness. The fact that I had somehow chosen Arctic Bay intuitively, site unseen, still bewilders me. Yet there we stood.

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As dusk fell upon the world that evening, the sky burned brilliant magenta, the full moon rising orange above the landscape. We invited our hosts back aboard the ship for dinner, the least we could do for them after such an outstanding day. We would meet again so soon, in November! Until then, though, we had a voyage to complete, I had research to do in Toronto, and a full season of autumn would come and go before I returned. Yet the immense serendipity of our visit, of being able to arrive in person before my project this winter, was remarkable beyond description. The stars had aligned.

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The next day, we saw 500 narwhals.