Monday, August 31, 2009

Prins Karls Forland, Svalbard, Norway

Swimming up to the walrus didn't seem like such a bad idea. Clumsily approach an unruly marine mammal with flesh piercing tusks and bad temper. What could possibly go wrong.

I put on my drysuit, played the tough guy and went out to go hang with the big boys. But when the first bulbous and whiskered head popped up between my legs, I started having second thoughts. When he head-butted my camera, I was in full retreat, and wanted very badly to be somewhere else. Not that you do anything quickly in a drysuit, fins and mask. I swam in reverse and then thumped the walrus on the snout. He thumped back, much harder this time.

The walrus seem to be thinking, "So you like the rough stuff, eh..."

Every time I slapped my flippers swimming back to the boat, they swam up to investigate, checking out the fins and the wild-eyed mouth breather at the opposite end. Then they said something that sounded like "You want another piece of this?" before whacking me with another tusk.

The guys on the boat found it endlessly diverting and good for pictures. I was pretty much ready to call my mom on the satellite phone to come take me home, but they seemed happy for me to stay out there all morning.

With friends like these...

August 2, 2009 - Prins Karls Forland, Svalbard

Friday, August 28, 2009

Isjorden, Svalbard, Norway

Somehow, I hoped this year it would be different. We all managed to get here in one piece and nobody had thrown a punch yet, so that's a good start.

But provisioning for six souls on an arctic expedition? Three meals a day times twenty days. Enough food at least to avoid the Donner dinner party.

It's surprisingly hard to guess what all that entails, so we attacked the only food market in Longyearbyen like starving and well-funded refugees, hoarding piles of meat and pasta, frozen fish and fresh cheese and loaf after loaf of bread. We formed a small shopping cart parade by the end of it, and were $2500 the poorer for our efforts.

We had boxes filled with pasta, another with chunks of Jarlsburg, and pretty much an entire cow, frozen and processed into sausages, fillets, chops and luncheon meats. We've already decided the single pack of diced ham will be the final meal should we find ourselves drifting lost and doomed in the pack ice. The survivors shivering and starved, allowing one small chip of diced ham to dissolve on their tongue each day...

The liquor shopping is only slightly more proscribed, and that more by state alcohol rules than common sense. I splurge on a fifth of Glenlivet, some girlie Bailey's, half a dozen bottles of red wine and a case of Heineken. I'm not at all sure what I'll drink the second week though.

We pile all the food, then case after case of our gear onto the Heinrich's steel-hulled yacht. The boat settles visibly in the water and seems to sigh with the burden of it all.

We have one final burger and beer on shore and loiter back to the harbor, sleepy in the warm evening sun. Pulling away from the harbor, we set sail without fanfare. A group of five photographers, all American save Fanus who's more fun than any of us and Heinrich who's the only one who knows what he's doing. We're all guys and there are no discernible prima-donas or psychopaths among us.

On the other hand, as Fanus points out, if you can't figure out who the asshole on the boat is, that's because it's you.

By the time we depart, I'm sore and exhausted and wander off to my bunk to rest my eyes. I sleep fitfully most the way through the calm, sunny evening voyage. I toss and turn with back and leg pain, feeling miserable and overwhelmed and anxious. At one point, it settles on me like a thick dread that I don't want to be here. But there's no turning back, and when I wake at four, the pain is still with me, but most of the dread has gone.

The morning sun is shining on barren, ragged mountains covered with glacial ice and last winter's snows, all mirrored in the glassy calm fjord. I put on water for coffee, light the stove and wait for the fun to begin.

August 1, 2009 - Isfjorden, Spitsbergen Island

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Longyearbyen, Svalbard, Norway

The terns were waiting for me. It had been a year, and they'd had plenty of time to nurse their sense of outrage over the many times I sauntered along the edge of their nesting grounds, photographing them in dramatic wide angles as they dive-bombed me again and again.

Now it was payback time.

After an entire day's flying from Reykjavik through Oslo and Tromso and finally into Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen's sole population center, I was shattered. But a restorative walks seemed in order. So after a medicinal beer, I walked along the Isfjorden shore.

Arctic terns have migrated thousands of miles to nest of these barren shores, but it seems a poorly chosen spot, the only site of human activity in a thousand kilometers. But here they are, in the Polar Institute parking lot, by the boat rental shop, beside the sled dog yard, dive bombing any passerby with a ferocious maternal defensiveness.

I walked along, bathed in the warm glow are the arctic midnight sun, and was happy to see my old friends, their graceful swept back wings, the scree-scree call. Walking along the pavement, I wandered too close for their comfort. One tern fluttered for a moment, then dove and delivered a little pink payload of contempt, directly into my left eye.

I staggered, swearing and laughing in equal measure, trying to get the tern poo out of my eye, managing only to smear it all over my hands and face even more. I've never actually heard a Tern laugh before, but if this one had pants, he would have peed them.

After that it was like a some sick walk of shame, little showers of pink and white dropping from the skies as I made my way grimly down the road.

I read somewhere that having a bird crap on your head is good luck. If that's the case, by the evening's end I felt truly blessed indeed.

July 31, 2009 - Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen Island