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For a while, it was delicious to hold the experiences close, to let them go unpublished and unshared in the great flow of time, day in and day out.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.

A Monumental Experience: Bears, Bergs, and Brilliant Weather

Having spent a day crossing Davis Strait from the foggy, ice-filled wonderland that was Greenland, it was with much anticipation that we approached the Canadian Arctic. Our first stop would be Monumental Island, an uninhabited island where we hoped to spot some Arctic wildlife. Almost magically, the sea stood perfectly still, flat and calm far into the open ocean towards Greenland. With bright sun gleaming through a hazy sky, it was a perfect day to be out on the water.

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A glimpse of creamy white atop a rocky point alerted our attention. As we drew closer, our hopes were confirmed – a female polar bear and her second-year cub lay resting atop the hill, awaiting the arrival of the sea ice in a few months’ time. For many in our group, this was a first sighting of a polar bear in the wild, and it was with great awe and wonder that we spent a while idling offshore, observing the animals interacting with each other. After a while, they wandered slowly down to an ice patch to cool off, where the cream tones of their fur stood out against the blue of the ice. We watched the way the cub followed its mother, imitating her every move. Even the kayakers in our group were able to paddle past for an unparalleled view of bears.

After some time, we decided to leave the bears in peace and circumnavigate the island. As we rounded the first point, a churning motion in the water’s surface caught my eye. A large pod of walrus – 50 or 60, we estimated – rose and fell with great agility in a concentrated group, the details of their whiskers and tusks clearly visible through a pair of binoculars. Although fascinated by their gracefulness in the water, we decided to give them space, as walrus in the water are unpredictable and wary of humans.

As we came around Monumental Island full circle, we stopped at an iceberg floating in the eerily glassy water. A brilliant blue vein ran through the ice like a ribbon, traversing both the angular faces of the berg and the smoother parts that had been eroded by the sea. At a certain angle, as the sun illuminated the vein, the berg appeared to be glowing from the inside.

It was, all in all, a monumental day for everyone, and we left the island overjoyed with the weather and the day’s wildlife sightings. Not bad for a first day in Canada, eh? Back aboard the Sea Explorer, we sailed for Akpatok Island, where the adventure was sure to continue.

July On Fire

The cold of June moved on and July settled upon the land with a tremendous force of heat and wild winds and stillness, sparkling light around the clock, blinding sun. Wandering the deserted streets of Lofoten at night, floating amongst the kelp, laying in the tundra flowers you would think, this is all a dream, this is all a dream, this is all just a dream. The days ran together like water in a world without darkness.

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