A quiet Saturday in Arctic Bay today. I made a new drawing, based off of Inuit legends surrounding the aurora borealis. Most stories I’ve heard across the Arctic say that the northern lights are spirits playing soccer with a walrus skull, but some – especially in Greenland – say that they are walrus spirits themselves, playing a ball game very much like soccer. There’s also a warning, given to children, never to whistle at the northern lights – as the spirits may come and collect your head for the game, instead.

Here’s a picture.

walrus_soccer_acaciajohnson.jpg
No Whistling, Ink on Paper, 2018

Advertisements

Alaska, November: Life in a Painting

What do you tell them, when they ask you? That when you go home, you live inside a painting? That when you approach, the endless peaks appear as if from a dream, their contours glowing into horizon, ridges like teeth, snowless valleys carving rivers into the earth? That every time you press your face, your lens, to the window, trying so hard to catch it? That feeling? 

Earlier this winter, I stopped through my hometown of Anchorage, Alaska, for a few weeks. I did a number of things while there – visited family, edited and launched some new bodies of work, fundraised for a new project (more on that later), skied, prepared for Antarctica, and visited my brother in Fairbanks.

It was there, in Fairbanks – at the Museum of the North, on the university’s campus – that I first laid eyes on an original painting by Rockwell Kent. I was drawn to it as if by magnetic force – the color, the richness, the way the canvas breathed forth the peculiarities of Arctic light that can only so fleetingly be glimpsed. He caught it – that uncatchable thing. I’d seen reprints of his work, read his books, even – but seeing the work in real life was another story.

Screen Shot 2018-02-12 at 10.13.01 PM

The painting made me think of a lot of things. The image itself struck me, of course, because of the parallels it drew to my own daily reality (aboard ships in the Polar Regions), but it struck me also because of the color, that luminous quality and color of light. That single painting made me feel, instantly and forevermore, deeply connected to a community of artists and thinkers, past and present, engaged in ideas of North and northernness. The community had always been there, of course, but it took the painting to wake up to it.

It was a turning point. Since then, the more I consider it, the more important that community feels, and it’s everywhere. No matter what you are passionate about, somewhere out there are people who feel the same, who are driven by the same forces. You are not alone.

november_alaska_upload

I’ll tell you this – as whimsical as Kent’s work may appear, it is in many ways astonishingly accurate. After seeing the painting, I saw it everywhere, in the mountains, the fjords, the sunrises.

alaska_uploads_nov_2017

On the flight home from Fairbanks, descending over Anchorage at dusk, I was suddenly gripped. Shooting in the dark, through the thick layered plastic of a jet window at thousands of feet, I gasped yet again at the vastness of this wilderness I’d grown up with, the Chugach mountains extending as far as the eye could see. Anchorage, when it finally appeared, seemed so inconsequential – a handful of glitter in the deep.

oeland_alaska_uploads_3

oeland_alaska_uploads_4

oeland_alaska_uploads_5

It was a beautiful November – not much snow, but properly cold, and by the time we returned from Fairbanks, the ocean had begun freezing in its myriad of formations. I’d just gotten a brand-new digital camera, and promptly took it to the sea ice to test it out.

alaska_uploads_nov_2017_3

The frozen sea of Turnagain Arm, only a few minutes from my childhood home, had been a source of artistic inspiration for as long as I could remember, but that day on the ice was challenging. No snow had fallen on the surface, and the ice was both slippery and brittle. I moved slowly, cautiously, outwards from the shore, while the moon rose above.

november_alaska_upload_4

This was it: home. I’d been thinking a lot about sea ice, too, and our relationships to it. Here was a new camera, destined to tell these stories. Here was the first thing it saw. Here are the first pictures it took.

alaska_uploads_nov_2017_5

While I couldn’t get as far as I would have liked, alone on that new, fragile ice, it was a beginning. A beginning of something new coming, something more connected. I hope to move forward with a greater receptivity, now, to connectivity – of the things, in these polar realms, that draw us here; that shape us, and ultimately unite us.

White Whale Wonderland: Cruising with Belugas in Churchill

Belugas2

On a beautifully warm day in Churchill, Manitoba, the Sea Explorer welcomed a new group of passengers aboard. After a long day of travel and sightseeing for our guests, we had initially planned a restful evening for their first hours aboard the ship – but nature had other plans. In the true spirit of an expedition, we decided to seize the opportunities that presented themselves, because outside, something amazing was happening.

Alongside the ship, in the Churchill River, thousands of beluga whales and their young calves broke the surface of the water as far as the eye could see. The water itself stood mirrorlike and calm, dazzling sun reflecting in all directions. We set immediately out for a zodiac cruise in the evening light. A few short minutes from the ship, we set our engines to idle, and we waited.

The belugas surrounded the zodiacs, skimming under the surface of the water and breaking through in short and frequent bursts. The grey calves splashed energetically, the pristine white adults sleek and elegant in their motion. I thought about how amazing it would be to listen to them underwater, as belugas are the most vocal of all whale species, with an incredible range of sounds they use to communicate. Some of the staff tried squeaking their boots against the zodiac pontoons to capture the whales’ attention; my closest encounters happened without any efforts whatsoever.

Belugas5

As I looked over my shoulder at the zodiac’s motor, my eye was drawn to the constant stream of water that keeps the engine cool. There, mere inches below the surface, was the face of a beluga whale, staring curiously up at the engine’s cooling stream. As I watched, it slowly spun around a few times, seeming to look right up at me as it did so. I laughed aloud in delight and called for my passengers to take a look. “It looks as if it’s drinking from a fountain!” exclaimed a passenger. “You’d think it hadn’t seen water for days!”

For most of that remarkable evening, there was little to do except intermittently laugh and exclaim from the sheer wonder of it all. Such a close and friendly encounter with wildlife was like something out of a dream. As the time passed and we moved slowly towards the ship to return for dinner, the whales gained a newfound fascination with the zodiac’s motor. Nearly the entire drive back to the ship, we were followed by a group of about five whales, only a meter or two away, porpoising curiously in the boat’s wake.

We could not have asked for a more stunning start to our trip to Kangerlussuaq. With the magic of the evening still lingering over us, we sailed east from Churchill, watching a brilliant orange moon rise above the sea as our voyage began.

Belugas6