Ice Memory

Arctic Adventures and Artistic Inspiration

From Process to Performance

Arctic Adventures and Artistic Inspiration

I am honored to have been awarded a residency spot for the Arctic Circle’s summer solstice expedition in the waters around Svalbard in June 2017.  Along with 29 other artists and scientists from around the world, I had the amazing opportunity to explore the far North and engage with international colleagues while sailing in a Barkentine tall ship along the coast of Spitsbergen in the waters of both the Greenland Sea and the Arctic Ocean.  Upon my return, I created an interdisciplinary multi-media performance based on my research, which premiered in February 2018 at Saddleback College (Mission Viejo, CA), as well as a photography exhibit and lecture series, entitled MELT at the Potocki Art Center (opened January 20, 2018 with an afternoon of lectures on climate change, and with photos on display through mid March 2018).  Throughout the process, I blogged about the creation of these works, starting with my travels to the end of the world…

June 5- July 10: Journey to the Far North...

Random Travel Statistics 

Selected books read pre-trip to prepare: 
Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez, The Magnetic North by Sara Wheeler, A Naturalist’s Guide to the Arctic by E.C. Pielou, The Arctic:  A Guide to Coastal Wildlife by Tony Soper, Insight Guide to Norway, and Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

Vessel for Arctic journey:  S/V Antigua

Number of artists and scientists participating in residency:  30 (including me!)

Number of crew members:  8

Number of expedition guides:  4

Number of dogs aboard:
1 (Nemo, Sarah’s fantastic husky, who accompanied us on every shore landing and always kept watch for polar bears.  Nemo’s favorite pastime:  spotting ringed seals when they surfaced near the shore to inspect us.)

Selected arctic fauna sighted during voyage: 
 Polar bear, arctic fox, walrus, ringed seal, bearded seal, blue whale, minke whale, Northern fulmar, barnacle goose, Eider duck, snow bunting, Atlantic puffin, arctic tern, black guillemot, kittiwake, arctic skua, purple sandpiper, Svalbard reindeer

Hours of daylight:  24

Number of times attacked by arctic terns:  4

Types of ice and snow seen:
icebergs, ice floes, frazil ice, grease ice, open ice, young ice, old ice, brash ice, ice cake, hummock, floebit ice, ice breccia, ice shelf, tabular berg, bergy bits, growler ice, hoarfrost, graupel, air hoar, calf ice, needle ice, cygne ice, drift ice, firn, glitter, heavy ice, ice fall, ice fat, kannik, outlet glacier, rafting ice, rotten ice,

(For more info on ice: )

Number of hats worn throughout trip: (no more than 2 at a time, haha):  10

Most essential items of clothing:
insulated muck boots and waterproof pants (indispensable for daily zodiac landings and trudging through ice, snow, and frigid surf!)

Item of clothing I wish I would have brought:
warmer gloves ( I should have brought a pair of waterproof ones!)

Total number of flights:  8

Movies watched during flights: 
Moonlight, Get Out, A Monster Calls, Personal Shopper, Beauty and the Beast, Passengers, The Book of Life, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Assassin’s Creed

Times luggage was lost: 
 2 (and luckily, total number of times luggage was recovered and delivered by courier service: 2)

Types of transportation utilized during trip:
airplane, train, tram, bus, ferry, tallship, zodiac, taxi, gondola, car, hiking boots!

Museums visited:  14

June 7

I arrived late afternoon yesterday in Oslo, Norway—still can’t believe my journey to Svalbard has finally begun! My heart jumps and my stomach leaps about in excitement every time I think about it…each day on this journey brings first—laying over in Stockholm—so gorgeously green and forested from the air—arriving in Oslo, surely the furthest north I’ve been (until the 10th, that is!), my view out the airplane window as we flew across Sweden and Norway was beautiful—thick stands of tall trees, lush green grass, and swirling, curving rivers that shone like molten silver as the sunlight bounced off of them.  I lugged my gear through the airport, the Flytoget train, and up the cobbled city blocks to Smarthotel Oslo—my room is so cozy!  Small, like a little nest. 


 Today it is grey and rainy, so I spent the day at museums, crossing the Oslofjord on the ferry, thrilling at the wind on my face and the gentle feel of the waves beneath me, like an old friend after so many years away from the sea—even the mingling of diesel fuel on the salty breeze was nostalgic.  I visited the Polar Fram museum, gasping audibly when I realized that THE Fram ship itself was on display and accessible to the public—I wandered the exhibits, reading about these hardy explorers, marveling over the items they carried, examining photos—it made me even more excited about the opportunity to be part of this upcoming artist residency—every time I see a map, I stare with wonder at Svalbard, so far north, so unimaginable, so mystical!  Alone, I walked the deck of the Fram, imagining the bitter cold conditions, the teams of dogs, supplies, scientific equipment and ice that accompanied each expedition.  The museum was three levels, with the ship in the center, so I could see the Fram from many angles—I was astounded that the huge wooden curving hull could survive the crushing passage through the ice…and Nansen intentionally lodged her in the frozen landscape, to drift with the polar pack ice, such pressure grinding on that ship—a crucible of Nature! 

I recalled the Nansen bottles we used to take samples for oceanography labs on the R/V Sea Explorer, and suddenly made the connection—the museum had a beautiful collection of the bottles used on the Fram expeditions…I pictured them dropping  overboard in the frigid seas.  I wished someone was here with me to share that observation; while I am happy to explore and wander on my own, experiences are so much more meaningful when they are shared…it’s as if the presence of someone else affirms and heightens the memory, and even if one never speaks of it, the knowledge that two minds have recorded it makes the memory of it that much richer.  I imagined Nansen and his men, and all the “firsts” on their voyages, in terms of both science and exploration.

When I left the Fram museum, the downpour continued, so I spent a nautical-themed afternoon browsing through the other two nearby museums on the island:  the Kontiki museum and the Norwegian Maritime History museum.  Both were incredibly interesting—both the Kontiki and the Ra were housed inside the first museum, and I especially enjoyed learning about the adventurous undertakings of Thor Heyerdahl in his pursuit of experimental maritime archeology!

Towards late afternoon, the rain let up and I took the ferry back to Oslo, stopping to tour the Nobel Peace Museum, where again, I saw Fridtjof Nansen’s name in the displays, this time for his great humanitarian efforts, including the creation of the Nansen Passport to resettle refugees…truly a great and accomplished man!


June 8 - 9

It is already my last night in Oslo—the eve before my great adventure truly begins!  I am filled with excitement—the world map will spread wider for me tomorrow as I fly into new territory—landscapes yet uncharted by me.  I am looking forward to meeting the other artists and scientists, and am humbled and honored to be among them!  Several are on my flight, so introductions will begin at the airport.  Hopefully the rain will pause for a few hours so I can haul my luggage to the train station (I realize now why it is called luggage)!  The skies have been deeply grey throughout most of the last three days; I can imagine how beautiful and beckoning all the city parks must be in the warm, sun-drenched summer, but I spent my time inside the many museums of the city (a prefect way to pass rainy days).  Despite the drizzle, I also walked Karl Johans gate this afternoon, as I’m sure every tourist must, and am quite glad that I am staying a few blocks from the madness of the shops, tourists and street hawkers.

I have loved the purple pansies that overfill each flower bed—the lilac and vivid purple blossoms such a lovely contrast to the wet grey of the stones and asphalt, and the lush green of broad leaves and thick trees.  The colors of the Oslofjord have mirrored the sky—appearing almost liquid black yesterday as I leaned over the pier to watch three jellies pulsing, barely seen right beneath the surface—like gelatinous yellowy egg yolks.  I hope to see much more marine life in the weeks ahead!  Likewise the strong maritime themes of so many of the museums I visited make me eager to set foot on our tallship (and a bit nervous)!  Certainly Norway is a nation deeply connected to the sea, from Vikings to polar explorers, and experimental marine archeologists like Thor Heyerdahl; I have enjoyed seeing examples of these historic vessels from so many periods.  Now I await the journey to our vessel, and towards new acquaintances…and especially towards new landscapes and inspiring adventures yet unimagined!

It is already my last night in Oslo—the eve before my great adventure truly begins!  I am filled with excitement—the world map will spread wider for me tomorrow as I fly into new territory—landscapes yet uncharted by me.  I am looking forward to meeting the other artists and scientists, and am humbled and honored to be among them!  Several are on my flight, so introductions will begin at the airport.  Hopefully the rain will pause for a few hours so I can haul my luggage to the train station (I realize now why it is called luggage)!  The skies have been deeply grey throughout most of the last three days; I can imagine how beautiful and beckoning all the city parks must be in the warm, sun-drenched summer, but I spent my time inside the many museums of the city (a prefect way to pass rainy days).  Despite the drizzle, I also walked Karl Johans gate this afternoon, as I’m sure every tourist must, and am quite glad that I am staying a few blocks from the madness of the shops, tourists and street hawkers.

I have loved the purple pansies that overfill each flower bed—the lilac and vivid purple blossoms such a lovely contrast to the wet grey of the stones and asphalt, and the lush green of broad leaves and thick trees.  The colors of the Oslofjord have mirrored the sky—appearing almost liquid black yesterday as I leaned over the pier to watch three jellies pulsing, barely seen right beneath the surface—like gelatinous yellowy egg yolks.  I hope to see much more marine life in the weeks ahead!  Likewise the strong maritime themes of so many of the museums I visited make me eager to set foot on our tallship (and a bit nervous)!  Certainly Norway is a nation deeply connected to the sea, from Vikings to polar explorers, and experimental marine archeologists like Thor Heyerdahl; I have enjoyed seeing examples of these historic vessels from so many periods.  Now I await the journey to our vessel, and towards new acquaintances…and especially towards new landscapes and inspiring adventures yet unimagined!

June 10

At the gate in Oslo, about ten of us met for the first time—shaking hands and making introductions, everyone excited about the journey ahead.  On the first flight from Oslo to Tromso, I sat next to a Welsh gentleman whose son worked for the Norwegian Polar Institute; we talked about ice and snow, and the shifts in seasons and warming weather in recent years.  After proceeding through customs in Tromso, a much smaller group of passengers reboarded for the flight to Longyearbyen; I got my journal out to write, but ended up talking with Robert about his work, and then excitedly exclaiming about the wondrous sea ice with Lynne, our noses and foreheads pressed to the cool windowpane, peering down at the deep turquoise sea with fractal-like patterns of fractured sea ice, stretching in vast floating spirals from land…and what land indeed!  We followed the sea ice as it curled towards Svalbard, and it was awe-inspiring to see the thick white curves of snow, the deep furrowed paths of slow-moving glaciers, the rich brown of the earth—mountains and valleys and reaching fingers of the sea carving through this surreal landscape of the north—so alien and remote—truly sublime and beautiful!  Upon landing we congregated in the small airport, exchanging further handshakes and introductions in a flurry of names as we retrieved luggage and took inventory. 

We piled onto the bus and within minutes spotted the light tan summer coat and bold antlers of a male reindeer!  By the time we reached the Coal Miner’s Cabins, we had tallied six, including a female with two calves.  After stripping off shoes and jackets, we padded into the bar/restaurant, all dark woodsy tones and thick with conversation and huddled groups nursing deep amber pints.  Our group filled the tables along one side as introductions and handshakes went round again, this time with the full group of thirty, many of whom had arrived on earlier flights, and everyone squeezed into tables; outside the tall windows the light was a hazy gray, bouncing off the bright white snow against the deep muddy brown of the revealed earth underneath.  After dinner, Pablo, Adam and I donned our heavy coats to walk around, our boots squelching in the fresh mud, meltwater and soft shaved-ice-like banks. The tang of the cold air felt so refreshing and pure, the only sound our footfalls and the steady melodious trickle of snow melt dripping into a gently rushing streamlet. 


June 11

My roommate is still sleeping but I have not yet shaken off all the clasp of jet lag—wide awake at 4:30 AM(which looks the same as 4:30 PM, or 10 PM or 2 AM—a soft-grey-late-afternoon-cloudy light that has been constant since our arrival).  I lay in bed til 7:30 AM, filled with anticipation about the adventure that has begun, listening to the running meltwater right outside the window…the window!  Such a view!  We threw wide the window last night, filling the room with that electric, enticing, revitalizing air, marveling in the sloping snowy hill right outside, packed with a slightly menacing blanket of snow on its flat top, the scree slopes slanting sharply towards us.  Our cabin, and in fact the majesty of the location, reminds me a bit of the alps, except this is so much more remote!  One feels the closeness of the far North, the stirrings of excitement and newness felt by the polar explorers, the isolated rawness of nature—stark and sublime.  Today with breakfast in our bellies, we will gather for formal introductions with Sarah, our lead guide, and then, a day to explore!


My mind and heart are filled with images from our arrival yesterday—my words do not even begin to approach the breathtaking peaks and valleys of Svalbard as we flew over them, the wings of the plane seeming to just skim over the deeply snowed-in mountains—and the spread of the sea ice was indescribable—it looked as if we were flying high above a sky dotted with clouds, like the wild wide broken-up bits of water vapor that diffuse and spread across a high cloud ceiling, but this was an entirely different state of matter—deep, cold liquid and shattered bits of solid frozen water—almost the opposite of the sky vision one imagines it might be—a quite different reflection of shades of blue and white.  So difficult to get a sense of size—how massive were these bergs?  How recently had they fractured?  How deep beneath the surface might they reach, or were they just floating upon it—the scientific classification of solid, liquid and gas is certainly not enough to represent the range of water in this environment, nor are blue and white adequate color descriptors.  I imagine in the weeks ahead I will encounter hues of turquoise, cobalt, teal, sapphire and white as yet unseen by my eyes!



Midnight.  And the light is as bright as noon, with a strong sun high overhead, legs and feet aching from the long walk back from the beach beyond town where we had a crackly bonfire on the black gravel sand, with the waves gently sluicing into the shore mere meters away.  The warmth of the fire chased the cold away, and the sun brightened as the evening wore on.  I walked the beach photographing beach wrack—bits of greenish kelp and sea grass—colorful against the pebbled hues of the shale beach, crunching delicately underfoot.  The afternoon spent in town writing postcards (with polar bear stamps!), and exploring an old stilted abandoned mining facility, full of rusting machinery and coal “buckets” hung from conveyor belts, the old windowpanes revealing the white and brown mountains and colorful prefab houses beyond.


The beach bonfire was magical—such a different experience than a SoCal beach—wrapped up in parkas and hats, the hot fire and nighttime sun bringing balance, served dahl and rice out of giant silver pots by the smiling guides, while Sarah’s dog Nemo roamed gleefully (what a happy life for a dog)!  Tomorrow we set sail; we glimpsed the Antigua from the beach, anchored further up the fjord—such an air of anticipation as we prepare to transfer our gear and climb aboard our new home tomorrow.

June 12

We are at sea!  It is difficult to write while wearing gloves, and it is exhilarating and very cold up on deck with the cold arctic wind and the salty sea spray, but I would feel like I was missing out on something truly unique and spectacular if I were to go into the warm dark-rich-mahogany-wooded and brass salon.  The landscape that we are passing is rugged, raw and wild—so stark and silent.  The only sounds are the swishing of waves, and the hum of the motors—the sea has progressively darkened from a frothy cool teal to a deep matte sapphire, and the blue sky has quietly closed to drifting fog and thickening clouds.  My fingers, beneath my thin gloves, burn with the cold, and despite my layers, a cool chill settles across my spine and down into the toes of my boots, but I am content to remain in the thralls of the sea, as each moment the landscape shifts—a deepening of fog, a slanting bit of sun, the angle of the snow-scarred cliffs—each glance, each perspective, entirely new!


**brief note:  as I transcribe this entry into my laptop, I am sitting in the afore mentioned salon, and through the old speakers wired through this room and the kitchen I hear a B-side song from Roxette…my favorite cassette of 1989 (who could forget The Look?), but definitely not heard in the U.S. since!**


Small gulls and terns wheel and dive lazily about us, and everywhere are the textures of tradition and nautical adventure: twisted tan ropes and stretched taut lines, the clean slatted wooden deck, the shiny deep forest green metal hull.  Overhead the lines ascend to meet the masts and rolled canvas sails, vantage points merging and melding, with the fog-shrouded sun piercing through…as I write, the texture and sound of the wind shifts slightly, the ship moving gently beneath us, almost like the supple smooth gait of a horse.  She, the Antigua, is a beautiful and proud host to us.  Many people have moved inside, chased in by the cold, huddled with mugs of hot tea in the salon, bent over their journals–we just saw a seal!  He popped his head up off the port side—what a gift to see!  I feel ten degrees warmer with the exhilaration of the pinniped sighting, but soon will have to give in and join those inside.  There are just a few of us out now—seated in deck chairs, lounging in the zodiac on mid deck, watching from the bow—the sea continues to darken, taking on deeper hues of grey, and the clouds settle in over the mountains, sinking lower and settling into our bones and flesh, inducing runny noses and shivers!  The waves move slowly past, transitioning from blue to grey as we move towards the open sea ahead…


Evening.  I am nestled in my bunk, the ocean swishing and sloshing against the metal wall, like waves against a shore, only the shore is the hull beside me.  Our cabin is tiny—difficult at first to maneuver (we were both initially skeptical of how our luggage would fit), but like precise puzzle pieces, we squirreled everything away.  It is such a feeling of comfort to crawl into the bunk, wrapping the blanket around me, lulled in the cradle of the sea and the steady lullaby-hum of the ship’s engine.  Uncharted territories lay outside…fog-settled vistas of rolling blue-grey seas frothed by wavelets, cutting smoothly past furrowed mountains sloping to the sea with snow-edged scree, rich shades of brown (who knew how diverse and expressive brown could be).  Stirring to think that beneath my body and the underbelly of the ship lay fathoms-deep icy-cold water, sinking down into darkness and unknown depths—full and black and expansive, the fingers of midnight sun filtering only so far before being swallowed up by the depths.  The summer sea here supposedly nutrient-rich and warmer than its winter counterpart—we have already glimpsed one beautiful seal as he surfaced—imagine the life that swims beneath us!


We browsed the bird guide after a delicious (!!!) dinner, deciding that we have so far seen glaucous gulls, Northern fulmar, barnacle geese, arctic terns, purple sandpipers, and in Longyearbyen, the beautiful white and black songbirds were snow buntings!  In summer, they probably still play in the skies all night, a night where there is no nightfall.  Somewhere hangs the moon—but where?  Has the emboldened sun chased her from the sky, or does she delicately lay hidden by blue skies and seeping fog, or perched behind cliffs and flat-topped peaks?  Perhaps we shall spy her on the open sea–the sun and the moon, ancient lovers who dance an intricate slow duet in the heavens, with the stars cast between them like a sparkling net, perhaps in the land of the midnight sun these two celestial bodies briefly meet, or maybe spin just out of reach of one another—the light of one dimming and chasing away the other in an endless game of hide-and-seek while the sea watches from below.  The sea…up here the cold makes everything seem more raw, more wild, more infinite.  What possibilities and vistas will tomorrow bring as we sail north, like the great explorers before us…

June 13

First landing!  And I am first to step out on the shore from the zodiac (besides the guides of course, who have been here scouting out the location, and are stationed like sentries at the edges of our field of vision, like rocks carrying rifles).  The vista is incredible—a massive furrowed glacier with deep brown and turquoise grooves, an eon-cold slow-moving river of ice, carving a path to the sea, and shedding tumbling, dense chunks of ice with thunderous crashes into the deep, cold waters of 14th of July Bay.  The National Geographic Explorer is in with us, situated at the other end; our tallship looks beautiful against the backdrop of the glacier and a tall green-tinged rock face housing hundreds of small crying birds, nesting safely in the high cliffs.  On the beach the sea has tossed up small bergy bits—diamond-like glittering chunks of ice that slowly crackle in the air—on close inspection I can see the tiny spreading crystalline fissures forming lattices in the glassy clearness—snapping, popping, hissing.  The shapes of the sea are stunning—some look like clear spiraling bodies, or pock-marked quartz, twisting and reaching fingers, with welling drops of meltwater blooming and falling, blooming and falling, the shapes ephemeral and shifting, laying exposed upon the khaki sand, smooth and pillow-soft, wet save for the etched footprints of our Wellies, and the spreading webbed feet of water fowl.  Beyond the reach of the wet sand and the slowly disappearing crystal castles, lays a blanket of beach wrack, evidence of past higher tides and rougher seas: a jumble of dried kelp, assorted grey pebbles, delicate bleached white bird bones (so fragile and tiny!), a few dashes of shades of green—more recent upheavals from the sea, with the life still fading.  As I crunch slowly across the beach, I encounter a treasure—Svalbard saxifrage—lovely magenta blossoms nestled into the rocky shore!  Nearby orange lichens radiate out from rocks—strong survivors in a harsh environment, brilliant splashes of color among the greys, browns, blues and whites!




Afternoon landing:  I am sitting beside a glacier on an ancient rock smoothed by the passage of time, between the sturdy face of rock-meeting-ice and the calm mirrored waters of the bay. Beneath my feet are a beachful of rocks, their sizes and shapes squeezed by the glacier and the rough weather, crunching under my feet as I walk, whispering their lengthy stories in shards.  The only other sounds are the lapping wavelets (growing fiercer when pushed by the abrupt calving of the glacial face, breaking open with resounding crashes to reveal startling, shocking blue veins), and the continual running waters of the glacial melt, the inevitable end of its centuries-long march to the sea; waterfalls run swiftly out of the crevices, sliding and curving through the soft sand, little rivulets with long histories.  The starkness of this place defies words and pictures—each shot more stunning than the last, and equally inadequate to describe.  Snow and ice lay scattered across the beach, like forgotten or cast-aside scarves of a goddess—perhaps Freya herself rested here, delighting in the roaring thunder of breakaway ice, conducting and calling the resultant waves across the bay towards her.  The sun pierces weakly through the heavy clouds and fog—but really it is the damp grey air that heightens the sense of the sublime, the weight of isolation, the immeasurable grandeur of this place.  The newly exposed face of the glacier gleams a vivid and fragile blue, the fractured angles of ice too numerous to count—a cubist sculpture of nature in constant shift.  The water is glassy-still, each small ripple can be traced clear across the bay and the small bergs in the water drift lazily.  Close to the calving face, the water tries to reflect up the same oceanic turquoise: a blue bathed in white, fed with minerals, and oh-so-cold.  So many textures everywhere—the veins in the ice, run-thru with silt and sand, bursting blue when opened; the scarred and smoothed rocks—hidden hues and patterns that emerge as one peers closer; the sea itself—transitioning from the brilliant blue of a husky’s eye to the dark steel blue of cold, deep water; the infinite patterns of ice forming hollows that drip into non-existence, grooves and traces that deepen with each passing minute and whisper of long journeys across these islands; the muddy, silty sand, ground down by the harshness of ice, an unforgiving lover, such fine grains and long pasts…Tim, one of the guides, said that a lot of the mountains of Svalbard have been a billion years in the making, thrown up by tectonic shift.  I could write for hours and not capture any of the majesty of this place!  A growing groaning sound crescendo-ing into thunder  heralds explosions of white powder and spikes of dashing blue as a huge piece of the glacier falls into the sea, the spreading wave moving out in the aftermath, the bay resettling into silence after a restless sleep, knowing that more violent upheavals lay ahead…




Retrospective, added once back on the ship:  I decide to put away my camera and journal, and really take time to look; instead of continually documenting and reflecting, to really BE in the moment, in this place, in this extraordinary environment, and indeed, as soon as I put my journal away on the shore, I saw a sleek rounded head emerge from the sea—a beautiful ringed seal popping up to observe us along the beach—he swam up and down the bay, silently rising and sinking beneath the glassy surface.  I sat and watched the sea, listening to the sounds of change—states of matter in transition.  Louise, one of our rifled guides, called me over and offered me her binoculars, pointing out an extremely fleet-footed reindeer very high up the sheer cliffs beside us, while above, the birds wheeled and turned, coming and going from their nesting colonies…




                                 Happens (again, a lavish beautiful affair of lovely vegetables and savory flavors!)

I peer out on deck as we sail up along the northwestern coast in the late evening—the water is like glass, with long slow undulating waves cresting lazily away from us as we sluice through the ocean.  The fog has closed in, deep soft hues of grey—one can easily imagine Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or other such romantic myths and monsters looming in the mist—but instead, a seal surfaces, and Northern fulmar birds glide besides us.  The dove-grey shroud closes in on the land, but the contrast with the pristine-white powdered snow piled on the beach is almost blinding, and up ahead, visible in the next groove in the coastline, the vibrant blue of a glacier appears.  Sarah tells us that through the night we will sail past the seven glaciers, numerically named.  She also tells us the sad tale of four lives lost in this region a hundred years ago, reminding us of the treachery of this environment, and the thin line between life and death, salvation and sleeping an eternity in the snow…


I finger-paint with a melting bit of this afternoon’s glacier to bring the saxifrage and glacial seams to life in my journal, and while on deck, sight two puffins tussling in the water–tumbling rotund white glossy bellies, sleek black backs, and bright orange beaks!  Imagine what dwells beneath the surface here—a whole world unseen…throughout the day I was reminded of the saying: draw a circle around yourself and within it find 300 things to be noticed (paraphrased, of course).  Indeed, from the micro to the macro, innumerable treasures wait to be revealed if only we take the time to look properly—the natural world unfolds spectacularly from multiple perspectives, and as the sun’s reign in the sky creeps towards summer solstice, and the landscape slowly warms from its winter spell, each day, each hour the islands renew—glaciers sliding to uncover new land, ice dissolving to reveal stones and tenacious green growing things, snow sliding and dripping down, down, down to the sea, carving a unique path behind it, migrating animals molting, nesting, birthing, fighting, mating, dying—so much life within a place of seeming silence and solitude…

June 14


Smeerenbergfjorden: we are at the northern tip of Spitsbergen, where the whaling boom was centered in the 17th century.  The vista that met us, when we emerged from the warm and cozy salon from breakfast, was truly stunning—the frozen sea lay before us—the water under the hull a deep, dense mineral-rich turquoise-teal, smooth as glass, and a few meters from the ship the surface begins to shift towards solid, the water thickening and blanching to ice, first soupy than more and more bergy bits, ending against spectacular glaciers on one side, with tall craggy peaks rising out of the fog behind, and on the other side, the horizon melts away into ice; we take the zodiacs out (small groups of four aboard), slowly navigating through the ice, rather ominous crunches each time we pass over larger bits—the melting ice looks like diamonds containing starfields, suspended in an aquamarine-hued heaven.  Beneath the surface the ice hangs down, reminding us that size and scale are often not what they seem.  Indeed, from the deck of the Antigua, the glacier appears very close, but when we zoom towards it in the zodiacs, Antigua shrinks in the distance—I realize that the towering cliff of ice is more massive than it appears. 


 There is an enormous ice cave in its face, with hundreds of birds circling and flying in and out—every few minutes, the birds rush out, and a thunderous calving event follows—the cracks and crevices slowly widening to reveal vivid blue veins, until gravity and the melting friction of warming air inspire sections to take the plunge, falling away into the sea, large waves rolling out in their wake.  We sight purplish-magenta ctenophores, like thick undulating strands of hair in the water, and one tuxedoed guillemot, looking quite regal—when our zodiac came too close, he kicked underwater, revealing his bright orange feet.  Everywhere is ice, and everywhere there are new shades of blue, never before seen!  As the fog shifts, and bits of sun slide through, the colors enrich and deepen.  It is difficult to think that up until probably a century ago, this gorgeous, serene, meditative place of beauty played host to haunted death and the bloodied greed of man; I gaze into the still blue waters and think about the horrors of whaling—in fact, ‘smeeren’, for which this fjord, glacier and farther spit of land are named, means ‘blubber’ in Norwegian—these gentle giants of the sea slaughtered to satisfy the greed of civilized society—for lamplight and corsets and perfume and fuel…here and now, it seems a sanctuary; the seal that swam around our ship, the birds that floated lazily near our zodiac are merely curious—they have not (yet) known the viciousness of man.  It is incredible to be in a place like this—almost as far from civilization, from “the things of man”, that one can get—it is hard to reconcile this with the ridiculous bustle of shopping malls, of the fume-ridden tangles of LA freeways.  It is such a gift to be out of connection with the rest of the world, no internet or email or pressing engagements, nothing but NOW.


Like the other members of my zodiac (Adam, Lynne and Brandy, with Benja at the helm), I snap dozens of photos, squirming and exclaiming and readjusting as something new reveals itself, a sudden gem in a landscape that already defies attempts at capture…yet I know each of my images will be inadequate, each digital rendering of the shifting blues in the ice will be lacking, each distance shot will not express the sheer magnitude of this place, the vast silence of the icefield, the indomitable magic of this environment…my words do not–


Case in point: suddenly while I am writing about this morning’s experiences, outside there was a tremendous rolling crash that kept growing in volume—everyone rushed back outside to see the façade and roof of the large ice cave collapse and crumble into the sea—although it happened quite fast, time seemed to slow—the rumble, the crumbling and fracturing of the great slabs of ice, as the cave face just fell away, the ice creating huge plumes of powder and surf as they slowly somersaulted into the sea.  The momentous wave rolling and building, moving past our ship as we swayed side to side.  Reflections dance on the surface of the water, teasing spectres of mountains in the mist, curving ledges of frozen time, exposed veins of boldest-blue, carving time and space out of the looming peaks behind.  Small clouds nestle in the valleys of the blanketed mountains, floating sculpted cities of ice moving with the current in the foreground, seemingly still until one notices that the perspective has changed.  Antigua slowly drifting round her anchor chain, shifting fluidly with the waters…and such waters!  The blues of the sky exchanging tones with the sea, like a game of dress-up that the land joins in playing as well, two sisters trying on each other’s clothes.  The mountains gleefully throwing their image into the water, letting the currents and the wake of the zodiacs sluice through, fragmented just like the glacial face, leaping to join its lover, the ice collapsing and melting into the arms of the ocean, telling stories through shifting states and sculptures that soften and change each moment, expelling glimmering diamonds and exchanging crystal clarity for aquamarine escape, joining the waters that travel the world, after centuries locked in the ice.  The world has changed a dozen times over since last these shards of ice glimpsed the sky…


Afternoon landing:  We have made landfall in the zodiacs on a tall, rounded island overlooking Smeerenberg glacier.  It is very remote; Sarah says that people hardly ever come here, and our bootprints trod on virgin snow, untouched but by eider ducks, some of whom are nesting on the island. The delicate origami-like arctic terns squeak and wheel on the wind overhead, nipping at one another in games of chase.  Other than birds and the erratic thunder of the nearby calving glacier and waves lapping gently on the snowbanks, it is silent here.  The only unnatural sounds are our boots crunching in the deep snow.  Bits of messy soil with timid tiny growing things are revealed where the snow has melted away, shying away from the rocks, but Sarah says a footprint here will mark forever, so fragile is this earth–we walk only in the hard-packed snow or hopscotch our way across exposed rocks.  I am uneasy just walking in the snow—I don’t like the traces all our meandering criss-crossing boot trails leave; it makes me sad that we have marked the snow in such a manner, even temporarily.  The view, however, is remarkable.  Antigua sits below on the glassy bay, backed by the startling blue glacial face.  Fingers of the glacier ooze out between each hill and mountain, edging in on the fjord, which appears dwarfed by the monumental frozen rivers.  Before me, a mountain across the shallow water has a tail that curves down to the sea like a sleeping dragon; one can certainly imagine myths of sea monsters and deities taking hold of sailors from every era!  And the whiteness (!!!)—my eyes begin to squint when I gaze out over the snow—the blued glacier seems softer to look at, even though in actuality, it is hard and strong and violent and tenacious…and it is the snow that softens and melts under pressure. 


 The ice behemoth is the physicalization of pressure—squeezing, shaping and reforming its surroundings as it crawls to the sea, pushing obstacles from its passage.  The air is clear and cold against my skin; I have hardly any skin peeking through my layers, but I feel the vulnerability in my flesh when the glacial breeze touches me.  To my right, the glacial field has a stripe of deep brown, like a spine through the landscape—the armored ridges of sapphire might be the back of some ancient beast, lumbering across the island.  This place is both harsh and extremely delicate, and I feel the importance for action against  climate change, action to keep places like this moving at the pace of nature, not mankind.  I remember again the reason for the naming of this fjord, where legend says that during the height of whaling, one could walk across the slaughtered bodies, so thick was this bay with blood and death.  These now still and serene waters were the site of great fear and chaos and suffering—the snow would have been deepened to crimson, and the fresh pure air dense with rot and decay.  If a place like that can recover, and return to a sublime and breathtaking place like this, then perhaps there is hope for man, and for nature.  Although the irony is that often we must see or experience something to truly understand, or care, about it, yet as ecotourism increases, how many careless footsteps will it take to scar this land forever, to push it past the point of return?  This place transforms hourly, as we have seen here today with the dramatic calving events and the slowly melting reveal of earth on this island—what will next week, month, year, decade or century bring…or worse, what will it reap?


June 15

Last night the captain sailed Antigua right up to a shining-bright glacier, with a spreading shelf of ice projecting out.  They tried to anchor the ship by nestling it up into the ice, but a strong wind blew down from the length of the glacier, pushing us seaward, and so this morning when we woke, we were at the farthest northwestern corner of Svalbard—a series of tiny snow-capped islands above Fairhaven Bay, which look out to the Arctic Ocean.  The zodiacs made landfall at a rocky outcropping, frosted with slags of icy snow and looking up towards a low hill blanketed with beach wrack; the temperature is too low for proper decomposition, and these tangled webs of kelp have clearly frozen, thawed, refrozen, thawed many times—they are almost ossified, a weird consistency between slimy and frigid.  Our boots sink into the mounds of half-rotting sea weed as we walk, and it starts to snow, beautiful tiny flakes drifting down, blown from the northern dark foreboding waters between two outlying islands. 


The snow makes soft pattering sounds against our Gore-tex, and the white flakes look ethereal against the rich reds, oranges, rusts, browns and mustards of the knotted kelp.  I decide to focus on capturing texture images, hesitant about bringing my Sony camera out in the light arctic snow.  I use my iPhone, keeping it nested and warm in my jacket pocket in between each image.  Bleached white brittle bird bones, tiny and delicate; a long cream-colored whale bone, curved and revealing its lattice-like porous end; slick maroon seaweed, more recent arrivals to the island, as evidenced by the still malleable fronds; tiny crushed pink sea snails, adding a new hue to my arctic collection of colors; apple-green algae, smelling strongly of sulphur; holdfasts still tightly gripping mottled rocks, uprooted with home attached, now sharing a beach with halved sea urchin tests, spiraling white shells and blooming black and orange lichens.  I walk across the small island towards the northernmost point, treading carefully on the rocks to avoid the lichens and the mossy green mounds of earth underneath the kelp blanket.


I sit facing out to sea, my ears tuned to the gentle to and fro of the wavelets that lick the rounded rocks of the coast, which are elegantly crusted with miniscule barnacles—here growth is a luxury, and small means efficient energy use.  The snow continues to fall for the two hours we are on shore (and indeed, the whole day), and today I feel the elements; my fingers, toes and face slowly chilling and numbing—I don’t mind, the snow is so special here at the literal edge of the world, and the thought of the luxuriously warm salon and cabins that we will all return to on Antigua make the cold bearable. A pair of Great Skua birds circle overhead, their shrieks rending the air every few minutes.  I hear a sharp exhalation, and turn towards Fairhaven Bay, thinking it was a whale blow…even better!  A large walrus is swimming past, two breaths at the surface each cycle, his large head breaking the water and then the long, slow view of his broad brown back and his flippers as he dives.  We track his progress across the bay, surfacing every five minutes or so—it is easy to see how myths of mermaids were seeded, with his graceful spreading tail (although quite a tusky and whiskery visage)!  I could see that legends of sea hags and sorceresses perhaps originated with creatures like this.  The view from the top of the island is stunning—far to the north there are several large (they must be quite large) gleaming white ice bergs in the distance, as well as a glowing brilliant bit of blue—new ice floating free, no doubt, but monstrous in size!  A wide flat berg floats swiftly south past us—I follow its progress past our island, past Antigua, two dark-feathered skuas perched on top, and the wider turquoise mass of the berg visible underwater (in addition to shore waves, I can hear waves breaking against the ice, wearing smooth a circumferencing-groove at the waterline).  The snow slants diagonally across my field of vision, adding an extra layer of magic to the experience of this arctic island.  By the time we pile back into the three zodiacs, everyone is cold, hunched together in the black rubber boats against the salt spray and crystal flakes.  When we climb aboard, clean our boots and struggle inside, we are greeted with the warm, fragrant smell of lunch in the making!


After lunch, when we have all thawed a bit, the engines are humming as we move further north, beyond the land masses of Svalbard, and out on the open sea towards the pack ice.  Larger and more exotic looking bergs float by and it continues to snow—a large walrus hauls out on a nearby berg, causing all of us to rush out on the mid-deck in our cabin slippers and quickly-gathered coats to photograph him; his long curved tusks a yellowed-white, and his thick skin a deep dull brown.  He glances at us, and slides into the water, surfacing frequently and swimming around, resting on the underwater ice shelf of the berg.  The prow of Antigua faces due north, sailing further and further into the Arctic Ocean…




…According to Jessamyn’s latitute and longitude app, we are now at 79.59 degrees—we have sailed steadily north from Svalbard, the islands jagged in the background, lit by a dawn-like candle-yellow glowing light seeping out below a heavy dark grey stormy cloud layer—it has been snowing lightly since morning, and the bergs are more dramatic with each passing minute.  The captain and the crew move hurriedly about deck and there is an air of something tremendously exciting to occur.  Soon, to our amazement, Antigua stops, grounding carefully against a large stable ice floe, the middeck ramp is opened and Tim jumps down onto the ice with a large manual drill—he bores into the ice and then jams a tall log in upright.  Alwin also jumps overboard and marches through the shin-deep snow, throwing a line from the bow around the log, then a second line from the stern.  The procedure is repeated about ten meters over, and voila—we are anchored firmly to the ice!  Sarah then announces that we may disembark onto the ice, and everyone scurries like children to their cabins to don our warmest clothes (and our life vests).  It is a remarkable feeling to step onto the sea ice—truly untouched (by humans) powder!  It crunches satisfyingly underfoot, and I sink down to nearly my knees.


I stand in one spot and dig the hard-packed snow away, exposing the strong clear-blue ice beneath (and under that is of course the sea, some meters down)! What a striking vista–Antigua anchored in the ice floe, behind us the rugged northernmost islands of Svalbard, ahead of us in the distance, the massive front of the pack ice, and around us on all sides, the dark, dark grey still waters of the Arctic Ocean, dotted with powerful roaming bergs with shining white-teal underbellies.  Another walrus and ringed seal surface to check out what we are doing, and birds cavort in the air.  All four guides stand guard against polar bears at the edges of the ice, taking their task very seriously.  The snow comes down thicker and faster, and the cold seeps into my bones—sharp and biting until the lure of a warm indoor porthole view is irresistible (also, the berg, virgin when we arrived, has now been adorned over and over with chaining patterns of boots, crossing and circling, and I wonder where the limits of this strong-but-fragile berg are…true, here there are enormous walruses and polar bears—the iceberg next to ours is marked with a purposeful crossing of polar bear prints (!!!)—but thirty excited artists tromping about for two hours on its surface might be a bit too much, so I head indoors to warm up)!  If the anchor holds, the captain plans to keep us here overnight, sleeping spooned up against the body of the berg, adrift in the northernly sea, the last vestiges of land to our stern…


Tim comes into the salon and informs us that in a mere two hours anchored we already drifted 2.5 kilometers west with our iceberg!

By the time dinner is finished, the ice has closed in around us and the sun is peeking out, casting glowing light on the bergs and making the ocean look like a mirror.  Sarah assures us that if any polar bears venture near in the night, we will be woken!

June 16

This morning we are still anchored on the port side—throughout the night I was awakened by ice gouging and scraping past the metal hull up against my bunk; I am on the starboard side, and my bottom bunk is just below the water line—the sounds of bergs bumping in the dark were quite exciting!  The mass of the ship has pulled our berg in a large, slow circle of several kilometers overnight, and the ice floe keeps shifting, closing in around the ship and then diffusing out—I remember the gorgeous fractal patterns that we glimpsed from the air when we first flew to Longyearbyen a week ago, and realize with a start that we are part of those oceanic designs right now!  The snow has stopped today, but the sky is a dark pensive grey, thick and close to the horizon, and the sea is almost black.  I lean over the deck railing to photograph the ice—so many textures and colors in all the layers—porous spectacled powdered snow, thinning borders dissolving to clear at the edges, subsurface platforms a toothpasty-light-blue, tiny bubbles like shooting stars streaming away from the ice into the blackness . The ice varies in color from stark-blank-canvas-snow-packed-white to blackish-bluish-clearish liquid, and every tone and texture in between…some surfaces have collections of snowballs and hardening chunks, where bergs have collided and tumbled down like blocks, spilling across their neighbours’ territories, day-glo turquoise seams gleaming out, like a polar version of lava.  There are robin’s egg blue arches, polished and layered like sandstone, and large flat white palettes tinged with red at the edges, evidence that birds or seals have lunched and left.  The air is cold, and after two hours sitting on deck watching the fluid floating vista, my fingers and toes are numb—it takes several mugs of steaming hot chamomile tea to thaw me out.  The bergs are strewn to the horizon in all directions, in some places like stepping stones and in others they mass together like a frozen puzzle.


The ice varies in color from stark-blank-canvas-snow-packed-white to blackish-bluish-clearish liquid, and every tone and texture in between…some surfaces have collections of snowballs and hardening chunks, where bergs have collided and tumbled down like blocks, spilling across their neighbours’ territories, day-glo turquoise seams gleaming out, like a polar version of lava.  There are robin’s egg blue arches, polished and layered like sandstone, and large flat white palettes tinged with red at the edges, evidence that birds or seals have lunched and left.  The air is cold, and after two hours sitting on deck watching the fluid floating vista, my fingers and toes are numb—it takes several mugs of steaming hot chamomile tea to thaw me out.  The bergs are strewn to the horizon in all directions, in some places like stepping stones and in others they mass together like a frozen puzzle.

June 17

When we crawled into our bunks last night we were gifted with a surreal symphony that was occurring right beneath Antigua; we could hear the male bearded seals singing in the waters close to our ship—beautiful siren-like decrescendo-ing wails that seemed to undulate and shimmer as waves of otherworldly sound.  Around midnight, there was a great commotion, and someone ran up and down the narrow corridor knocking on each door…the signal for polar bear sighting!  We all hurriedly threw on sweaters, coats and hats over our pajamas, grabbed our cameras, and rushed up on deck into the bitter cold air.  The light, of course, was unchanged—still a flat foggy grey even in the middle of the night, with the blinding brightness of the white snow shining up.  In addition to the sleeping older male bear we sighted earlier, there was now a female bear walking through the landscape (you can see her in the distance in my photo below)!  We all took turns looking at her through the ship’s sighting telescope and the pairs of binoculars that were handed round.  Through the larger magnifying lenses, I watched her walk, ambling through the snow, head forward and sniffing—beautiful!  When we finally returned to bed, it was joyous to think that nearby, polar bears were also dreaming. 


In the morning we sighted another bear on the ice (or perhaps the same one), and watched her padding across the frozen white plain—we also glimpsed an arctic fox bounding across in the opposite direction—quite fast, and already wearing his summer brown coat, despite the snow and ice!  I was reminded of the Little Prince and his fox…


After breakfast we took the zodiacs across to the northernmost island of Svalbard—we had photographed Ytre Norskoya from the backside the other day when we were in Fairhaven Bay; after gingerly wading through the bouldered beach, we hike up the steep snow-blanketed rocky hill for a spectacular view:  the open ocean, with the pack ice up against the horizon and the ice bergs scattered across the deep blue expanse, Antigua anchored in the bay, layers of snow-covered craggy mountains behind us, and colonies of birds arcing everywhere in the air as they dive between their cliff face nests and the sea.  The place is silent, save the crying birds, and the air is very cold.  We pass several whaler’s graves on our long hike up—Sarah explains that the cyclical freezing and thawing of the permafrost and the passage of time have pushed up the coffins, despite layers of massive stones lain on top of them, and the splintered wooden planks (and bones) are visible among the mossy rocks and lichen-edged boulders.  I do not take any photos here, wanting to honor the sleep of the dead in this faraway and forgotten place.  Many of these whalers were young men who succumbed to scurvy…Tim later tells us of the extreme irony of this, since their graves are literally carpeted with mountain sorrel, rich in vitamin C…if only these arrogant men from faraway lands had bothered to learn about their environment instead of rushing to rape it, or studied and respected the ways of the indigenous arctic peoples, they would have known about the vast medicine cabinet of nature that was quietly growing between the rocks here.  We hike on, boots crunching in the snow—the layers of white can be deceptive, and one time my foot breaks through suddenly and I sink almost up to my hip—needing Robert to give me a hand to pull me back out! 


The two peaks are marked by cairns of grey stones piled high, and we all spread out to find meditative places to sit and look out to sea, drinking in the magnificent vista.  My skin, hot from the hike, quickly cools and before long, despite putting all my layers back on, I feel the cold sinking in—we are all very chilled by the time we gather for the hike back down, skidding and slipping on the quickly icing remains of our tracks up, as it starts to lightly snow.  We arrive back on the ship for a delicious vegetable gratin, as we sail further along the northwest coast.  Suddenly the Antigua slows and stops—another bear!  This one is closer to the shore, sleeping in the snow—I gleefully look through the binoculars at the shaggy yellowed coat.  The snow starts to fall harder and faster—flurries of white, like we are within a magical snow globe!


Sarah announces a change in plans—with the bears and snowfall and fog, we will instead cruise along the coast and the fjord inlets for the afternoon…we slowly cruise back up Fuglefjordet, the fjord of birds, where we sailed in briefly a few nights ago hoping to anchor overnight to the ice (but were pushed back out by the wind coming off of the glacier).  Now it is quite still, and the steady snowfall is breathtaking—the soft rustle of the flakes upon our coats, the still waters—almost a jeweled jade-blue color, with ice patterns slowly blooming and drifting on the surface as the snow falls down, down, down, disappearing into the sea.  The shore is close—so white and icy—even though there is no sun, I must shade my eyes to look at it.  Small guillemots and eider ducks glide on the surface, or fly to the three tidepool-like rocks in the middle.  Jessamyn and I lean over the deck railing on the bow for quite a while, just watching the snowflakes tumble into the sea.  It is almost trance-inducing, such an unnamable marine blue, dense and cold, with swirling, diagonally slanting ice crystals floating down. The bowsprit of the ship juts out over the icefield ahead—the weather-bleached wood and dirty canvas rolled sail such a sharp color contrast to the brilliant frozen white below.  Each passing day brings such unique and stunning scenery; I can see the irresistible lure of the far north for explorers, and I understand now why people say that once the arctic is within your heart, it will call to you forever; there is something so visceral, so incomparable, so magnetic about this untamed and unspoiled place—truly one of the few wild spaces left on our little globe, spinning through the vast cosmos.  There is such a sense of wonder in everything here—the tenacity of a shriveled small black colony of lichens, looking crisped and charred upon the island rock faces; the surprise of shades of green in unexpected places if one looks closely—lichens, mosses, even miniscule leaves—I think I may create a color palette of this arctic adventure, and see how many distinct hues I have captured!  On the island this morning I found teeny-tiny shocking pink saxifrage, much more diminutive than those on the first beach—and even mounds of scarlet-tipped curled green leaves cozied up between rocks, looking almost like little mountain anemones!  The spirit of survival feeds the fauna, and the flora here is adapted to deal with the harshest of conditions; every glance is new here—even places we have visited two days ago, like Fuglefjordet, look completely different—changed by the light, the falling snow, the shifting ice, and by us, as we carry new memories of our time on the sea ice, and view the world with new eyes that reflect the sea as we have seen it.


After dinner, we sailed past a colony of walruses, lounging on a spit of sandy beach, their tough brown hides sun-dried and swollen after gorging on a feast from the sea.  As we watched, several more popped up in the water closer to us—bobbing round heads and tusks disappearing underwater, their skin now shiny and glistening wet as they dove and splashed.  Their antics reminded me that we had also seen a ringed seal this morning in the bay, who curiously swan back and forth, watching us from the water as we disembarked from the zodiacs and shed our life vests on a pile on shore.  It is incredible to see so many seals on this trip—and especially, to hear them!  Two nights in a row while we were anchored in the sea ice, I could hear bearded seals singing, their eerie siren songs echoing through the metal hull next to my bunk—these are the sounds that perhaps inspired the legends of selkies!  I never imagined that I would actually be able to hear seals vocalizing from the ship (even though since my bunk is right below the water line, it does make sense), such a rare and special treat.  In fact, right now we are moving at a good clip, the ship gently rocking, and the water sloshing against my wall—such a wonderful sound to fall asleep with, while I’m snuggled in my bunk!

June 18

We have continued to slowly move south, sailing into Kongsfjordet where we anchored early this morning behind Blomstrandhalvoya island, named the peninsula of flowers (in the past, this land mass was connected).  When we awoke we were greeted by a glassy bay ringed by magnificent mountains and bookended by two massive glaciers—the one to which we are closest, named Blomstrandbreen glacier, is raw and wild, with a thousand angles tinged with turquoise, and furrowed sides ground into the muddy earth in great wrinkled edges—I can picture those folds piling up over time.  We take the zodiacs to shore and hike up beside this glacier—the earth is spongy—a strange mix of mud, rocks, snow and ice that gives way beneath my feet.  My boots’ tread over the rocky terrain sounds like I am walking on shards of porcelain, sharp and crunching.  The steady soft roar of the rushing meltwater at the base of the glacier contrasts with the staccato drip, drip, drip of intersecting angles releasing tears and the erratic crumbling and rolling of pieces of rock as they slide down the glacier and tumble into the rushing stream.  The air off the glacier is cold, much colder than the air down by the landing beach—I feel the tang of it sharply in my nostrils with each inhale.  There are so many colors in the rocks—so many minerals, so many stories!  Mustard yellow, rust red, olive green, chalky white, glittering mica and cloudy quartz…a lot of them are cracked all over like an eggshell, the slightest touch shattering them into pieces, made fragile by years of freeze and thaw, the ravages of time catching up even to stones.


I am awed to sit next to a glacier in this manner, witness to a scale of time and age measured so differently from my own.  The sounds of falling debris vary—next to me there is the skitter of tiny pebbles sliding into the snow, ahead of me there are viscous slow splashes of mud hitting the pools of meltwater, and every few minutes, I hear a widening crack give way inside, releasing a cacophony of pebbles and silt as I sit nearby in the narrow valley between the glacier and the mountain it has made.  Watching the glacier is a study in accumulation—the stacking of sediment, the narrow channels of water, the unearthed edges—cascading stones grow into piles as the icy giant slowly sheds the roof of rocks it has collected over the centuries, hitchhikers from faraway lands.  The bite of the frosty air intensifies here, as I observe halfway between the frozen marbled wall and the sea…




Back on the ship for lunch (pea soup—so delicious after the cold!), when I drop my gear in our cabin, I can again hear the seals singing.  They sound like a spooky 1950s sci-fi whistle, or the haunting notes of a theremin—amazing to think that those cries come from creatures in the sea, swimming around Antigua!  From shore we did spot some seals lounging on the nearby drifts—those might be their voices I am hearing now!


This afternoon the group divides:  some remaining on the ship, several on the ice-strewn beach, some take a lengthy hike up to the peak, and five of us accompany Tim on a hike up the moraine beside the glacier, so that we can take in a stunning aerial view.  Antigua looks small from up here, safe in the calm bay, and the view across the top of the glacier—scarred and marked, mottled brown to white like marble or folded saltwater taffy on the sides, and a gleaming powder-blue-white on top.  From our mountainside perch we can see the path of the glacier, snaking back like a dragon to the inland mountains, the icy furrows disappearing in the distance under a deep blanket of snow.  On our hike up we saw reindeer—first on the hill beside us, and then quite close along the path, their fur a shaggy warm white, their antlers looking fuzzy.  They appeared surprised to see us—not many humans venture here.  Tim tells us that the Svalbard reindeer have tough lives—they are smaller than the mainland reindeer, enduring harsher conditions and surviving on the scrappy small plants which manage to grow here; their lifespans are halved in comparison to their cousins—because they must subsist on flora in such rocky terrain, the majority of them wear down (and lose) their teeth completely by age 10 and then starve to death…a rather grim reality for Rudolph.  This is not a forgiving environment.

The sun has peeked out occasionally today, throwing spectacular light on the glaciers and drawing everyone out on deck earlier to feel the warmth on our faces for a few minutes—now the grey is closing in a bit and the temperature begins to drop. 


As we start to descend along the moraine, Adam points out strands of white fur in patches on the ground, perhaps where one of the reindeer that we saw recently spent a night—indeed, the earth is slightly depressed there, looking like a rather comfortable place to rest!  Once we have retraced our path down the slippery scree slopes, I walk along the beach, which is covered with large chunks of ice, shed by the glacier and floated across the bay to wash up with the tide.  Most are a porous white, crackling and fizzing, while several smaller bits are like gorgeous clear diamonds, their silent glistening wet surfaces dazzling against the brown pebbled shore.  They are like frozen sentries stationed by the sea, and behind them, across the bay and at the edge of the horizon, a golden-yellow streak pushes up at the grey heavens, sunset-hued (even though of course there is no such thing here in this season), the dramatic colors backlighting an arctic beach littered with ice sculptures—unforgettable.




Now it is night, and I am in my bunk, planning to download photos and transcribe this text from my journal into my laptop; being in my bunk makes me feel like Alice in Wonderland, when she enters the White Rabbit’s house and eats a biscuit that makes her grow until she outstretches the furniture and walls—that is a bit how I am now—folded at an awkward angle, since there is not quite height enough to sit up!  When the lights are out, it is pitch black, which also means that when the alarm goes off in the morning, it still looks like midnight…until we open the porthole and let the 24 hours of daylight back in!  One or the other:  midnight black or noon bright in this wonderfully strange and beautifully surreal land…perhaps the seals will sing again tonight…

June 19

This morning, with Tim and Benja stationed along the way, I hike all the way up the path carved by the glacier, taking time to look at everything.  There are so many tiny holdfasts of green hidden between the rocks, usually no more than a few centimeters in size—miniature plants that up close are worlds unto themselves.  There are several varieties of the bright magenta saxifrage, its hot hue proudly proclaiming its ability to flourish here—the flowers themselves smaller than my pinky fingernail.  Tiny dark green anemone-like mosses, wavy green grassy spikes curving up from beneath stones, exquisite little explosions of green, like starbursts of color against the harsh grey…the landscape is so alien, so remote—the sweeping lines of scrabble and snow reaching up, up, up the mountainsides, the hulking form of the glacier…as I sit here it starts to lightly rain—polka dots of water appearing on the grey rocks around me, the patter of drops dwarfed by the rushing meltwater of the glacier. 

There are lots of ominous creaks and shifts from deep within, and water and mud drip everywhere; despite the stoic silent white roof of the glacier, there is much happening beneath!  There are many layers of sound—the rustle of shifting snow, the cracking and fizzing of slowly shattering ice, the echoing drip of mud falling into puddles, the frenetic rushing stream, the tumbling of rocks like marbles or billiard balls being racked.  The raindrops cease, but surly grey storm clouds loom over the bay below where Antigua is anchored; the temperature is warmer here than up north, where the falling water would’ve been snow—today I am wearing only a base wool layer, a fleece turtleneck sweater and my insulated jacket, with one fleece hat, fleece leggings, waterproof pants and my insulated muck boots (with two pairs of wool socks)—sounds like a lot, but it is two layers less than a few days ago!  Still, the air is frigid, and I zip the neck of my jacket up higher, and pull my hat down lower, blocking the brunt of the breeze.  The rock upon which I am perched is cold—I feel its ridges as I sit, my feet resting on an oozy pile of mud and pebbled fragments.  The mud and snow have made the hike up here rather treacherous, sinking away unexpectedly—sometimes like quicksand, sucking and pulling my boot down, sometimes suddenly as the ice cracks beneath my feet—the glacial debris is certainly softening with the approach of summer…a large chunk (maybe half my size) suddenly breaks free near me, and is swallowed in the fast-moving muddy meltwater at the base, starting a new journey to the nearby sea.

As I return to the landing beach, I am stopped in my tracks by the most beautiful fragments of ice I have ever seen—like crystal shards strewn across a frozen field—perhaps this is truly the first day above 0 C, as evidenced by the sprinkling raindrops—the face of the glacier seems a bit softer than yesterday, and the ice sculpted beach is naked now, all the magnificent frozen boulders have melted away, such a stark contrast to a mere 24 hours ago!  Maybe I have witnessed the arrival of summer today in this place, and the abrupt transitioning of the seasons.  As I continue towards the beach, I pass more unbelievable ice formations—bursting seams of clear gemstones with jagged edges, that tinkle like crystal chandeliers when I scoop them up in my hand; glowing pale blue ice uncovered by the snow, hardened crisp white fields starting to transform into shaved ice as I walk across the surface.

After lunch, Antigua repositions, sailing further up Kongsfjorden, the scenery becoming more dramatic with each stunning glacier that we pass.  The rocks and cliff faces were beautiful—one massive craggy cliff was a soft mossy green and rich brown, with hundreds of nesting birds, so high up they appeared just as white wheeling dots.  This was followed by a long slanting mountain that looked rather like the Roman coliseum, full of slicing sediment layers and jagged caves.  After two more magnificent glaciers, the rocks transitioned to a pale rust red, ending in an otherworldly blue-faceted behemoth—this glacier has receded half a mile since 2010, and the evidence is visible in the surrounding red rock, where the retreating giant has gouged long layers into the earth, leaving scattered small white icy remnants, like prehistoric shark teeth in great rows near the base.  The bay is full of icebergs, shed by this massive sentinel—some of the bergs are an unbelievable sapphire or topaz blue, and others exactly mirror the blue of the sky; I feel that the dozens of photos I snap in every direction do nothing to capture this vista.  The terra cotta-colored earth is such a sharp contrast to the polar blue, these cerulean ice sculptures look like frozen bits of atmosphere, floating on the glassy water.  We take the zodiacs out and I get to sit in the bow—delighting in watching the bergy bits swallowed up underneath us with satisfying crunches as we crest through the water.  We follow the surface of the glacial face; it is so high—shining white and blue with caves and crevices.  At the base, flocks of kittiwakes whirl and dive, while closer to us in the water, grey glaucous gulls bathe in the sea.  Arctic terns, northern fulmar and guillemots dance about as well, gliding over the bergs and diving in to scoop up fish.  As we float through the bay, the ice around us snaps and hisses—such a range of colors, sizes, shapes and sounds!  From vivid blue to bubbled clear glass, opaque white and crackled crystal, they slowly dissolve into the sea.  Between the gentle tide and the occasional calving fragment, the water is constantly in motion, and the bergs very slowly exchange places like creatures on a giant carousel.  Before returning to Antigua, we search for clear ice for Jessamyn’s particle detector experiment, threading the zodiac carefully through the icefield, all of us peering into the water looking for crystalline treasures, which we heave into the zodiac, like fishing for diamonds—great sparkling sea gems, some with liquidy round edges, some with slicing sharp angles.  We fill the center of our raft with them, and hand them up to the crew of Antigua when we pull up alongside, laying them out on the wooden deck where they shine in the weak sunlight, already looking diminished—a gift from the sea that will not last—by tomorrow their clear complexions will be cracked, blushing to white with the heat, their sculpted bodies shrinking and sliding away.

Once we have climbed back onboard, a furry brown fat bearded seal—the species that serenades us so beautifully at night—floats past our ship, sleeping on a big flat ice chunk, waking to peer up at us, yawn widely, and then resettle into slumber.  As we get underway, two blue whales travel along with us—breathtaking!  Antigua slows to their speed, and one whale surfaces immediately off our port side, with powerful, audible blows and a graceful fluking (in fact, I pull out my phone and take what I think is a truly epic video…only to realize that in my excitement I forgot to switch from photo mode, and instead of the amazing video footage of the entire experience, I have two lame photos.  Sigh).  We drift and watch the whales for a few more breath cycles, taking in the gorgeous scenery of Kongsfjorden with the sunshine; the glaciers to our stern are now a brilliant white, glowing in the rare light, the snow-capped mountains the same brightness as the voluminous cumulus clouds rising up behind them.  We dock for the night at Ny-Alesund, the northernmost settlement in the world (with the northernmost post office—the actual North Pole mail station!  Tomorrow I will certainly send a few more postcards).  It feels strange to walk off the ship, rather than clamber aboard zodiacs wearing waterproof gear; Sarah tells us that this will be the only place on the voyage that we may go ashore unescorted by rifled guides—every building in the small settlement is kept unlocked 24/7 in case of polar bears, so that people can run inside if needed.  We go ashore and stroll through the settlement at about 10 o’clock at night (with the sun shining brightly of course)—we hear dogs howling and birds calling—there is a large enclosure with arctic sled dogs at the edge of the settlement, and it seems that arctic terns are nesting throughout the area.  There is a dilapidated black and red steam engine with the remains of a track disappearing into grass; until 1963 this was an active coal-mining settlement, and was the starting point of several arctic expeditions, including a few aeronautic attempts (successful and unsuccessful) to fly to the pole—a bust of Roald Amundsen sits prominently at the entrance to the town, looking towards Nome, Alaska, where he made landfall after successfully flying over the North Pole in a zeppelin.  There is a collection of brightly colored buildings, including one shop, one café, one post office and a museum (all of which we hope to visit tomorrow).  Jessamyn and I walk up towards the small post office—painted a peeling pale blue with a jaunty red and yellow sign—and are instantly assaulted by angry and persistent terns, with sharp screeching red beaks and strongly beating wings!  Further down the road we see our shipmates in similar predicaments, everyone with their arms waving madly overhead, while the birds scream and dive—so far the most stressful moment of the voyage!  Jessamyn sadly inherits my ‘bird luck’ and returns to the ship with a white splattered jacket sleeve—battle scars from our encounter.  When we finally go below to our cabin, we are delighted to hear the strong waves pushing against the hull—what a fabulous lullaby for our slumber tonight.

June 20

This morning after breakfast we walked into the Ny-Alesund settlement to visit the museum, which had exhibits detailing the establishment of the community for mining; after a devastating accident in 1962 in which 22 miners lost their lives, the mines were closed, and the settlement began to slowly transition to scientific study and polar research, including a focus on climate change.  When the shop opened at 10 AM, we all rushed in, wandering around looking at souvenirs (many festooned with polar bears), and of course postcards (with stamps…with polar bears on them)!  These could then be hand carried to the post office (being mindful of the attacking arctic terns), and ink-stamped with Ny-Alesund and Svalbard designs.  Once all our cards had been mailed, some of us gathered to walk outside town with Sarah (and a joyous Nemo) to see the mast from which Amundsen’s airship voyage over the North Pole was launched.  We also saw the memorial sculptures for Amundsen and the other explorers who were ultimately lost a few years later in a subsequent air expedition.  Several shaggy reindeer foraged quite close to us, not at all bothered by our presence, and from the seashore, paralleling our walk, two ringed seals surfaced and watched us for a few minutes, seeming to play a game of hide and seek with Nemo, who delightedly ran up and down the beach in front of them.  Sarah pointed out the glacier, Kongsbreen, where we were yesterday afternoon, and behind which rise three grand peaks with sharp triangular tips—these are the Tre Kroner, the three crowns, representing Norway, Denmark and Sweden; Sarah says we were quite lucky to see them, since usually the peaks are lost in the clouds.  Once we have returned to the settlement, we witness the daily launch of the 1 PM weather balloon from the shared German and French station (I am sad to see that there is not a U.S. science station here); the scientists tell us that the accumulated data will be used to look at climate change, and that they have certainly noticed an increase in the average winter temperatures here.  We watch them inflate the cream-colored balloon, and then track it in the sky as it goes up, up, up out of sight.

The weather is shifting from a calm, sunny morning to a grey stormy afternoon as we move out of the fjord and towards the open, unprotected ocean to sail south—water crashes against the portholes and spray splatters the deck—our breath is frosty in the air and the ship is rolling beneath us.  The crew tells us to put on our warmest windproof gear and be up on deck in 20 minutes to help set the sails, and everyone is very excited—we haul lines and coil ropes, and probably are in the way more than we are helping, but eventually, they are all up—great canvas sails, full of wind as we cut through the water.  We are outside of Prins Karls Forland, the long stretch of land that forms an inside passage, which we had previously traversed—now we are on the open Greenland Sea, sailing through the rest of the day and night and tomorrow morning (at about 5 knots) down to Bellsundet, the fjord below Longyearbyen; we will spend the summer solstice there, as it is tomorrow, although with the grey weather, on the cold dark sea with snow-covered land to our port side, it seems unlikely that tomorrow is the first day of summer in comparison to places like Southern California…but I am very glad that we have experienced such beautiful chilly snow-touched weather thus far!

After dinner (a rather rocky dinner), Sarah announces that we will continue with the presentations (we are each giving talks about our work), which is met with some unease—everyone is a bit uncomfortable with the new experience of rolling on the open ocean under sail, and as soon as the four presenters (all of whom were excellent) finish, most people immediately retreat to bed!  We have a fabulous ocean symphony to lull us to sleep, and once we are tucked in our bunks, the heaving sea is like a cradle.


June 21

Summer solstice in Bellsundet.  We arrive in the fjord mid afternoon, and after taking down the sails (lots of pulling and releasing lines, folding canvas, and coiling ropes), we take zodiacs to a long but narrow rocky beach, named Camp Bell (with a weathered grey cabin—a cultural heritage site), under an impressive line of quickly-sloping-upwards cliffs.  There are still patches of snow, and across the fjord there is an unbroken line of dramatic white peaks, haloed with soft grey clouds.  The pebbles crunch under my feet as I walk up the beach—at first glance, it seems like this could perhaps be an isolated stretch of beach in Northern California, until one looks closer…there is scat from reindeers and barnacle geese (and polar bear prints further up), and the mossy grasses that form mounds and fields are very delicate and spongy under my feet.  I come across several sun-bleached whale vertebrae, and photograph the contrast of the great mammalian bones with our ship anchored in the background; Sarah says these bones have probably been here for several hundred years.  More bones are half-buried in the earth, mixed with moss and mud.  The beach is strewn with bull kelp and seaweed that have dried into twisted brittle spiraled shapes—still too cold for quick decomposition.  There is a gentle swell, and the waves roll in and out with a soft shushing sound (and the clatter of tumbled rocks echoes underneath).  The sun is out today—bright against a vivid blue sky; this is the most sunlight I’ve seen on this trip so far, and it is well-timed for today, the summer solstice.  Vs of barnacle geese fly overhead, silhouetted against the sky, their squawking carrying on the wind.  A herd of pale brown reindeer graze on the grassy lower slope—foraging looks good here—much more plentiful than where we have been up north. 

I find a heart-shaped piece of shale, sparkling with mica, and it reminds me of the heart-shaped bit of granite that my mother found near the tidepools in Pacific Grove when I was a little girl.  I remember her plucking it carefully out of the mosaic of sand and stones, as a souvenir from the sea.  She painted a beautiful gold-leafed shadow box to hold it, framing it against a bold magenta background, very similar to the color of the saxifrage here, and it hung in my parents’ bedroom until her death; I used to like to go into the room to look at it—the sea was special to me as well, and seeing that heart reminded me of our annual visits to the Monterey peninsula in our beloved avocado green Volkswagon bus.  After her passing, that granite heart is one of the artifacts that I have kept, so many childhood memories circle that heart, and the image of her collecting it from the beach and transforming it with her eye into a unique treasure, is something I carry in my heart—I know she would have clearly seen this heart as well.  I photograph it, nestled in a tangle of brittle brown bull kelp, and then walk on, leaving it behind.  Adam walks past and asks me how this experience in the Arctic will change me when I return to civilization; he films me silently writing the heart-memory above, and when he walks on, I think some more about his question.  In Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez talks about the two types of responses to the harsh environment of the poles that visitors have, and how some people find it isolating, desolate and grim, while others are captivated by the sublime spaces and expansive vistas, finding beauty in the bitterness.  I am definitely in the second group of individuals, and like Barry Lopez and many of us on this voyage, the Arctic will remain in my heart and I will dream of returning, of making my way back north…

As I continue to wander the beach, I search for more heart shapes in the rocks, finding and photographing several more (and fashioning a heart out of small stones), carrying that childhood memory of my mother as I walk.  When I retrace my steps towards the landing site, I stop and sit in the sun-warmed sand, feeling the contrast to the biting cold wind, and listening to the ebb and flow of the sea as the tide rises…


After dinner Antigua maneuvers a bit farther into Van Mijenfjorden and anchors close to Fridtjovhamnu and the Framm glacier.  The sun stayed out throughout the entire day of the solstice; we had a bonfire of collected driftwood on the beach, which was slowly migrated up the beach as the tide came in, which seemed very symbolic, the fire ultimately extinguished by the sea.  Justin organized a “blue nose” arctic circle ritual, anointing the tip of each of our noses with a dot of watery blue chalk, which everyone (including Nemo) wore throughout the evening.  The smoky warm smell of the bonfire will no doubt live in all of our clothes for the remainder of the trip!

June 22

Lynne has loaned me her SD card reader so that I can download all my Sony camera images…because this afternoon we had an unbelievable encounter with a polar bear—probably as close as one can safely get, with a few minutes of high stress and adrenaline…but I’ll start at the beginning…


The bay is glassy smooth today, mirroring the mountains and the flat grey sky almost perfectly.  A small group of eight of us join Benja for a hike up the right side of the massive Fridtjof glacier—we are dropped off at the edge of the beach, around the backside near a little tidal inlet; there is a reindeer grazing on the other side of the narrow channel of water, and his tracks are imprinted deeply in the dark mud near us.  We shed our life vests as usual in a pile before starting our walk.  There are so many shattered stones, perfectly fractured like almost-assembled puzzles, and scattered infrequently throughout them are tiny bright yellow bell-shaped flowers—perhaps a species that only blooms in warmer weather or the southern part of the islands, since we have not seen it before today!  After about ten minutes, we emerge at a point beside the ice floe at the foot of the glacier—what a spectacular view!  There is a big bearded seal sleeping on a flat berg below us, and we stop to take photos.  Suddenly Benja’s radio crackles to life—the crew of Antigua have spotted a bear, quite close to where we landed.  We all turn around and see him—a white spot in the landscape that is getting larger quickly!  The bear, a young male, is walking directly across the faraway field where we had seen the reindeer, swimming across the little tidal inlet, and padding up near the pile of life vests—we are all of course taking photos, but everyone is growing nervous—how will we get to a zodiac since the bear is between us and the landing beach?  The Captain and Ludo zoom over from Antigua, coming behind the bear to grab all of our vests, as the bear continues to walk up the hill towards us.  Sarah (and Nemo) is watching from the nearby ridge, with her rifle and flare gun—she tells Benja to take us straight down the steep slope (Now! Go!) to the beach below us, where the zodiac is already maneuvering around to fetch us—it is very steep—we all slide and scramble down through the scree and snow, mostly just sliding on our bums, our hearts beating as we reach the base and slosh through the water to jump in the waiting boat. 


The captain pulls away quickly from the shore, but then slows to a standstill about 50 meters away, so that we can watch the bear—he has followed our path, and made his way down to the water’s edge—the sea is so flat that his reflection is visible in the water as he looks at us—his beautiful black eyes and nose a contrast to his thick white fur—he looks right into my eyes.  He sniffs the air, watching us closely, then lifting his head and slowly walking along the shore parallel to us—his paws so powerful as he steps across the rocks.  He climbs back up the ridge effortlessly and then sits up top, beautifully framed by the reddish rock and the light grey sky.  We float in the water, watching him, the adrenaline pumping through our veins starting to normalize again—we were all scared when we escaped down the steep slope–Sarah tells us now that we were right to be scared, and she was scared too—if the bear had started to run he could have reached us in less than a minute.  I had been both frightened of the possibility of attack (when we had seemed cornered on the ridge), and also very afraid of the chance that Sarah and Benja might have had to use their flares or rifles—that would have been unimaginably horrible.  When we are back on Antigua we watch the bear from the ship—he is now walking up the beach towards the glacier, and when he is parallel to the sleeping seal on the berg, he slides silently into the water and disappears—a few moments later, the seal makes a wild dive (and a quick escape) into the water, shooting away. 


The bear swims lazily through the icy water, eventually coming back to the narrow beach and starts to walk up onto the glacier.  I feel close to tears after such an incredible sighting, with such heightened emotions—fear and joy together, and awe for the power and majesty of this beautiful creature.  It seems particularly special to have seen the bear here, in a place named for the great explorer Nansen, the day after solstice.  I took many photos of him with both my Sony camera and my iPhone, and then put my camera away and just watched him from the zodiac, with no lens between me and him.  It was amazing to see him look at us, to see him move with such easy speed, with such grace and agility in his kingdom of the far north—arctic hunter, polar bear.  I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to see him so closely—it is something I will never forget. 


Evening:  I used up my first pen today with the story of the polar bear—the ink ran dry, cartridge clear and empty, after the final sentence above.  Armed with a fresh pen, I set out for shore with a small group for an evening expedition; we have sailed three hours further within Bellsundet to Recherchefjord, past deeply textured mountains of mossy green and slanted with snow, to arrive at a beautiful glacier, named for the fjord it has forged:  Recherchebreen.  The glacial has retreated about a half mile from the coast in the last two hundred years, leaving behind a wondrous carpet of rocks in every color, shape and size.  The land seems oddly striped—wide panels of lighter rocks, some a gorgeous jade green; dark muddy bits where our boots sink and stick with each step; patches of snow like glass beads, and gashes of dark earth.  Everywhere are miniscule holdfasts of saxifrage, at least three different kinds.  We walk up a little ridge and stop in our tracks—there before us is a wide lagoon pool with ice floes, reflecting the mountains and the sky back up at us—it is ethereal and magical.  The air is filled with bird calls from high up on the surrounding cliffs along with the fizz and crackle of ice, which tickles our ears.  The surface of the icy water is so calm—like liquid silver—and there are abalone blue hues from the projected sky.  So many textures everywhere, so much beauty I can’t possibly take it all in.  This glacier seems quieter than some of its brethren, blanketed with pristine white snow, yet the vast quantity of floating ice before us is a reminder that this is a sleeping giant who is restless and wakes often.

Far away, beyond the vast length of the glacier, a tall pointed peak rises—it looks as if it is rising from voluminous white clouds, rather than an icy behemoth.  It is very meditative to sit here, in the footprint of the glacier, thinking about the passage of time as the path we walked from the sea was slowly revealed, uncovering evidence of man in conflict of nature—there were plastic bottle caps, hydration straws, colorful bits of fishing twine, flaccid pieces of plastic bags—shocking to see here, in such a seemingly untouched place.  There were natural artifacts as well: a decomposing seal skeleton, bones not yet clean, half covered in a muddy basin; thick cream-colored clumps of reindeer fur; the sun-bleached exoskeleton of a crab, belly exposed; collections of bird feathers, artfully arranged by the wind; gnarled branches of driftwood thrown up the Greenland Sea…earth, wind, water and fire do not seem like enough categories to fit everything here.  It sprinkles on and off, pattering against our Gore-Tex and speckling the rocks.  Here, seated close to the icy lagoon, I hear the rain drumming gently on the water, underneath the melody of many birds…

It starts to rain harder so I put away my notebook and pull the hood of my jacket closer to me—I sit and watch the landscape, letting my eyes wander over everything.  Eventually, almost all of us return from our reveries at about the same time, and the group walks slowly along the icy shore with Benja, marveling at the multitude of colors in the rocks—salmon pink, amethyst purple, caramel yellow, fiery carmine veins against ochre, bold black and white lines, quartzy clusters of greys and crystal, stunning shades of green…Carleen, Carmiel and I pick up stones to look closer, feeling their time-worn-smooth edges and examining the rich textures.  We had been feeling chilled from sitting before the glacier for too long, but the rocks have rejuvenated us (I cannot wait to read more about glacier geology when I return to California)!  It is probably around 11:30 PM when we start the walk back towards shore, and the entire group (of eleven, plus Benja, Sarah and Nemo), are reenergized by an impromptu play in the snowfields—when we walked across the first stripe of snow, the texture felt strange underfoot—we bent to examine and found the snow was actually ice crystals—beautiful vertical chandelier columns, all stacked perfectly together and densely packed, like test tubes filling a lab tray; we delighted in pulling out the crystal shards, and running our hands (and feet and bodies) across to release bursts of crystals, with a sparkly-tinkling sound!  The edges of the snow have shorter, rounded crystals, like thumbnail-sized glass beads or shaved ice.  We are all laughing and smiling when we reach the beach to retrieve our life vests and clamber into the zodiac—bound for bed in our warm bunks!


June 23

Our morning zodiac landing returns to the glacial lagoon a few of us visited late last night, only today, everything is different, testament to the constantly shifting landscape of the north.  We have landed further down, looking towards the lefthand side of the glacial wall, where the lagoon melts out to sea.  Here we can walk to the water’s edge, which is decorated with a necklace of ice, like diamonds on the silty shore.  The sun comes out and everything crackles and sparkles; the water is the color of liquid sky.  The current slowly pulls the ice in a large lazy circle within the lagoon—it is stronger in the center, where I can see the bergy bits moving in contrast to the still ice washed up on the beach.  The glacier rumbles like thunder, and a large piece plunges down with a tremendous splash, its mass joining those moving seaward.  Great white colonies of arctic terns and gulls circle over the lagoon feeding, their flocks spinning round and round like a mobile, every so often the pattern broken when one dives into the water to carry away a small wriggling silvery fish.  The water suddenly and forcefully pushes against the beach—the echoing wave from the calving event a few minutes ago finally reaching the shore, demonstrating the power of this restless giant. 

The sun feels so warm today, warmer than any time on our journey so far, and indeed, today we are at our furthest southern point.  I take off my coat and sit in the sun, feeling it kiss the few bits of exposed skin—my nose, my fingers, the back of my neck—it is a satisfying contrast to the frosty breeze, like two opposing tastes at once that blend beautifully.

I do not know how I will be able to tell people about everything I have seen—no words or images seem adequate.  The scale of Svalbard cannot be described.  Everywhere we have been, I have seen no prior bootprints (and we as well have always tread very carefully to leave minimal marks).  When we walked through the silt and snow and rocks and cracked earth to sit by this lagoon, we walked beside the tracks of many birds (both webbed and spread feet), reindeer and even the pawprints of a polar bear—his marks were deep and heavy, and his claws gouged the front of each print.  I could picture him walking regally through the landscape–perhaps only yesterday, or late last night after we left…This place is so silent, yet so full of constant sound—bird calls, melting ice, whispering wind, the murmur of the sea…I realize that I have not spoken to the outside world for two weeks, nor been aware of the news—time here passes on a different scale, and makes everything else seem small and insignificant.  A great gurgling crash brings my mind back to the present—collisions in the ice floe add to the symphony, the bergy bits like bumper cards as they whirl and drift in the small currents, and everywhere the water shimmers like glitter when the sunlight hits it.  As I hike back to the beach, I notice that the tide is coming in—I walk across the mud flat, delighted by all the reflections of mountains in the puddles, and then horrified to see pieces of trash—thumbnail-sized pieces of hard blue plastic, shredded remnants of plastic, fishing line, hard bits of white curved plastic, a pink rubber glove, food labels in Russian—we take it all back to a collection bag on the beach to remove, and while we are stuffing it in, a sleek little harbor seal swims past, stopping to watch.


This afternoon, we sail into the third of the three smaller fjords that branch off inside of Bellsundet; this is a difficult place, the site of the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of beluga whales in the 1930s.  Whalers used to herd them into this narrow fjord, and drive them with nets onto this beach at the end, Kapp Toscane, where they were killed.  This is a haunted, sorrowful place, with thirteen enormous piles of beluga bones heaped up—tangled within these open mass whale graves are the implements of their killers:  rusted anchor chains, rotting planks from rowboats and unraveling rope.  The narrow beach between the bones and the sea is dirty, coated with black decomposing seaweed and piles of scat (maybe reindeer and arctic fox?).  There are fractured slabs of layered rock falling like dominoes into the sea, the closest thing to a tidepool that I have seen here, and I climb out among the rocks to the drop off at the edge of the water, desperate to get away from death, looking for life in these pools.  But they are quiet and empty, save for the scattered shells of abandoned acorn barnacles and slimy dark seaweed.  I peer down into the water, tinged green with algae at the bottom, and see more bright white whale bones on the sea floor.  I hate this place, and the insatiable greed of man that it represents, the insensitivity to nature and the callousness towards the world outside of capitalistic hunger.  The Anthropocene indeed. 

At the same time, I think it is important that we are here, this diverse group of artists and scientists from all over the world.  It is our job to make art that matters.  To make art that shows the world this perspective, the significance of this place, in this time.  It is the necessary mirror to the pristine natural world we have been obsessing over for this entire voyage—now, here, is the shadow side—the looming reach of man and the after effects of our actions.

Up on the hill beyond the bone piles, the valley floor stretches towards the horizon, snuggled by mountains.  It is a carpet of green, dotted with patches of bright flowers.  Such a contrast—life beyond this scene of death, beauty in the aftermath of tragedy.  I wonder if the plant roots have been nourished by the bloody past.

There are so many skulls in the piles, the large rounded domes of the beluga heads, the long jutting jaws, the empty rows of depressions from teeth.  Everywhere there are circular disks from spines, and vertebrae, with their distinct three points.  In one pile there are the bones of a fin, still partially constructed, reaching out, making the horror of the scene more tangible.  I look out over the calm blue waters of this inlet, and imagine them stained red with blood, the cries and struggles of the whales deafening the wind.  The snowy mountains—today majestic and pristine—were then silent witnesses to the arrogance and brutality of man.  I am reminded again of all the trash we collected in the tide waters of Recherchebreen this morning and last night—the garbage of people who have most likely never been to Spitsbergen, the evidence of man’s corrupting influence on this world.  Conversations about climate change and Trump have filtered throughout our days and evenings together, everyone worried about the state of the world, the path the future may take…how can we help but think about those things, when we are here, surrounded by ghosts–the scars on this landscape are the markings of man.

June 24


We have sailed through the night to arrive this morning back in Isfjorden, the long fjord in which we began our journey in Longyearbyen.  We awoke to a massive glacier—frosted blue and deeply hewn—we made landfall in turns in the smallest zodiac (which fits six plus driver); there was a perfectly-sized nook in the rocks next to the glacier where the nose of the zodiac fit like a puzzle piece, and we could also easily slide off, splashing to shore.  We are beside the glacier, and from here we can see the layer of rock upon which the glacier is sliding, and even how it buckles and bends with its momentum over the ages.  Every so often there will be a tremendous echoing crash from within, and once so far we witnessed spectacular calving of the front face.  The side, where we are, is much more ancient and sedate, allowing us to actually hike up the snow-covered side and sit on the slope, marveling at the view and the fact that we are seated on a glacier!  After quite a while laying in the snow, gazing out over the bay (Jessamyn, Natalie, Beatrice and I usurped Tim’s camouflage blanket), I return to the rocky slopes beneath—here too there is an incredible variety of vivid colors in the rocks, including many that are a mix of hues.  The breeze off the glacier is icy and the air crackles with the steady sound of slow movement—it is a bit like someone very slowly opening a piece of Velcro—over centuries!  Sarah says this is probably the last glacier of our trip, which makes us very sad.  We will still see it in the distance through mid-day tomorrow though, since this afternoon we will travel to Pyramiden, the abandoned Russian settlement across the bay.  Everyone feels the looming end of the expedition, and there is a sense of reluctance to leave this surreal place and return to our own real worlds.  Last night after dinner Lynne gave a lecture on climate change, followed by a roundtable discussion with all of us about how our artistic mediums, and our individual work, can intersect with environmental issues, and how we can be more active participants in our own communities.  I advocated for the importance of dialogue, and for building bridges between disciplines (urging everyone to remember how different our interactions were here because there was no internet, no connection with the outside world, and therefore we had to engage only with each other, and with the resources on this ship, rather than retreating to Twitter, Instagram or Google). 

Another crack of thunder reverberates across the landscape…the color contrast between the active glacial face—glowing blue and brilliant white, and the slowly traveling foot of the glacier where we are—with rippled layers like marble, is beautiful to see.  The foot of the glacier, slightly arched and poised over the rocks by the shore’s edge, reminds me of a giant keyhole limpet or a banana slug—only much more dangerous, especially with that ongoing ominous sound of languidly separating ice, as the crevices and wrinkles get infinitesimally larger over time…across the fjord from the ice giant, there are definitely manmade structures, barely visible in the distance, but too linear and disruptive to the landscape to be natural:  Pyramiden.


During lunch, Antigua repositions and moves across to moor at the dilapidated pier of the Russian coal-mining settlement that was abruptly abandoned in 1998.  Next to the pier are several severe Soviet-era block buildings, also in disrepair, and a gigantic scaffolding structure that connects to railroad tracks up the steep mountain for which the settlement was named.  We divide into groups (with our rifle-carrying guides) and walk into the ghost town—the plumbing systems had massive above-ground pipes, over which a boardwalk was erected to connect all the buildings (the flowing hot water in the pipes also kept the boardwalks snow-free in winter); Sarah tells us that when the Russians left in late 1998, they did not turn off the water, and when the next freeze occurred, all the pipes burst, ensuring that the town would not be habitable for future populations.  The boardwalk is now rotting wood and rusty nails (making me glad my tetanus shot is up to date), and we all walk very carefully over the creaking and warping wood, which occasionally gives way underfoot.  Up ahead there is a tremendous shrill sound:  nesting kittiwakes have taken over the largest building, which is now nicknamed the Crazy House (it had housed the miners’ families, full of children and bustling family units, and now is home to hundreds of bird families).  They perch on every available surface (including the playground swings and slide outside), and all the window sills and roofs are padded with grasses and branches.  The kittiwakes shriek and stare down at us—it is an eerie sight.  We continue through the empty town, which has grown tall with weeds and Siberian tundra grass, which the Russians had imported, along with the more fertile soil.  The buildings are deserted—peeling paint, shuttered or broken windows, a solemn bust of Lenin looking out from the other side of the central square.  After the fall of the Soviet union, this settlement, like many others across the great Russian empire, slowly failed—Sarah tells us that the town and mine had originally been built by Swedes in 1908, and then settled by Russians in the 1920s as part of the Badensberg Company mining operations.  It had been a thriving and lucrative community, an icon of what was possible for life in the far north, and in addition to a successful coal mine, the town had housed women, children and lots of families—there was a big school in the center of the town with cheerful but faded mural paintings outside.  We walk past the edge of town and out into the hills beyond to The Bottle House, which is literally constructed out of hundreds of clear, blue and green glass bottles mortared together; it was built in 1983, and had initially been built with the mouths of the bottles facing out, but it had apparently made such a terrific sound when the wind blew past that it was quickly dismantled and rebuilt with the bottoms of the bottles facing out instead!  Vodka, spirits, wine, milk and lemonade bottles make up the entire one room building, and they sparkled in the light.

We continue on our walk, up to the abandoned mine, where hundreds more kittiwakes are nesting.  There are lumps of coal, pieces of broken glass, rusted nails and twisted remnants of machinery everywhere in the weeds (and of course, lots of bird droppings).  The town’s decades-long history abruptly silenced, leaving all sorts of traces behind to decay.  In addition to the collapse of the Soviet Union, a tragic plane crash in 1996 that had killed all 141 people on board was the nail in the coffin for this community, all of whom mourned the loss of relatives and friends in the crash, which had occurred just a few kilometers from Longyearbyen.  Now there is only one active building in town—the recently renovated and reopened hotel, in the center of this dead city.  We enter the hotel, removing our jackets, hats and boots, and tromp through the lobby area into the bar—which is a surreal experience after seeing the ruined town.  It is bright red and warm wood, with a muted television playing a strange cartoon, and several small groups of people chatting and drinking (it is also surreal to see people who are not part of our group, since we have been isolated so much of the voyage).  Vodka is cheap and everything else isn’t.  We sit in the bar together for a while, until the guides say it is time to return to Antigua—they have all been mysterious about the evening plans, and as soon as we see the ship, we understand—the crew has planned a beautiful dinner and barbecue as a surprise for us on deck!  It is all set up when we get back—lots of wonderful salads, snacks, cheeses and fruit, and they even have a grill (which Sascha and the captain are lighting with a large butane torch).  The evening is mild, perhaps upper 30s (F), and we have a great time eating and chatting in our hats and jackets.  After the dinner party, the ship divides into two dance parties:  one outside on deck, playing a mix of rap and American pop from various iPhones, and one in the darkened and disco-balled salon (decorated by the crew) that Brett is DJing—most people stay outside and dance, but Jessamyn, myself and a rotating few others dance in the salon to Brett’s fabulously curated playlist, which is more to our taste (David Bowie, Iggy Pop, New Order, and of course, Bjork).  It is a satisfying yet completely bizarre experience to have a dance party here in the far north, moored at the edge of an abandoned city that was victim to political strife and systemic failure hundreds of miles away.  Also, it is the only time I have gone “clubbing” in a fleece vest and hiking socks.


June 25

I am sitting in the shadow of Lenin.  Literally, since I am seated in the deserted town square of Pyramiden beneath his bust.  This morning I have had the opportunity to wander through four of the buildings, which were unlocked for those of us who wanted to explore them by the local Russian guide.  The cantina, school, culture house and sports hall have been opened, and our guides patrol the perimeters with their rifles on the lookout for polar bears, so that we can freely cross between those spaces.  It is silent, save for the shrieks of the kittiwakes in the Crazy House, and the buildings smell sharply of mold and mildew (and who knows what else); there is a mausoleum-like scent—cold, damp and haunted.  Everything inside is in shadows, lit only by the sun that filters through the filthy windows.  In the cantina huge vats for cooking sit empty and exposed—the colorful paint and wallpaper are peeling away, and tables and chairs are rusted and overturned—victims to nineteen years of neglect and harsh climate.

The labyrinthine rooms and hallways of the school are the most disturbing—colorful but fading murals contrast sharply with the sadness of crumpled children’s drawings and school books—lessons left opened on each desk, teachers’ grade books waiting to record the next score.  In one room it looks as if a Christmas production was recently mounted—a festive painted backdrop and a small white-clothed Saint Nikolais still centerstage on a stool.  A narrow room is overflowing with books and music records, some on the floor scarred by bootprints.  Everywhere there is broken glass and rusted metal and flaking paint—and silence.  Old black and white photos of smiling children in gym clothes, a room filled with beds for naps—next to each wooden frame there are still chamber pots and worn pairs of shoes.  In many classrooms, artwork is still taped to the walls, and toys are jumbled in corners, and on a teacher’s desk a mildewing globe slowly gives in to the ravages of time—I peer closely and see that Svalbard has been wiped away by the peeling paper and deteriorating paint—a fitting representation for this town.  I wonder, where are these children now?  What memories do they hold of their time in Pyramiden, and have any of them returned, as adult tourists, in the last two decades?  I walk on to the culture house, in which there is a beautiful theatre with rows and rows of wooden seats, each with red cushions, looking up towards the wide proscenium stage which hosted both live productions and cinema nights.  It is very dark (I should have brought my head lamp), but I make my way backstage to peer through the wings, and also to find the green room—with sea foam peeling wall paper, and some entertainment magazines still laying about.  In many of the side rooms there are broken down drum sets, accordians, guitars, keyboards, and even a very dusty piano (I hear J and Brett sounding the notes to record samples).  In the very back, I find the ballet studio—its wooden floor now hopelessly splintered and warped, but with a beautiful view and barres running round three sides—I do plies at the barre in first position.  I linger in this familiar space, wondering what dancers stretched here, which companies toured to Pyramiden in its heyday as a Russian gem of the far north.  I scour the old black and white photos in the lobby—many Soviet and Norwegian dignitaries shaking hands and smiling, unnamed actors, hockey teams, ice skaters, medal ceremonies—but I do not see any ballet dancers immortalized here.  There are some folk dance photos, and I wonder if the Moiseyev Ballet visited.  I continue on to the swimming hall building, pushing open the heavy doors—the air inside is really cold and musty.  There are several levels, and I wind my way up the creaking stairs slowly, peering into each destroyed changing room and shower area.  There are two floors with enormous pools, now empty and eerie:  a shallow pool—probably heated—I imagine it all steamy like a Turkish bath.  The other is a long lap pool, the lane dividers still in place, laying across the dusty dry concrete.  There is also a gymnastics room, with an old sawhorse standing silently in the middle.


It is strange to see so many objects, and I wonder about their owners, about the subjects in the photographs, the people who swam in those lap lanes, sat in those theatre seats or ate everyday together in the cantina.  Were they happy to return to the Russian mainland?  Was it difficult to begin again, in the collapsed Soviet union?  Who did they lose in the plane crash?  Did the communities stay together, or were they spread wide to the patchwork of dissolving countries?  Were the pipes intentionally left open to explode, preventing people from staying or later claiming the place, and now that there is a great greed brewing for mining rights in the far north, will Russians return here and rebuild in the race for the Arctic’s oil and gas?


This afternoon we make landfall at the last new place on this voyage, since tomorrow we will return to Longyearbyen for the final two nights at Coal Miner’s cabin, to bookend our adventure and ease us gently back into civilization.  This is a long rocky beach nestled up against a tall cliff which rises in a extended slope and then dramatically ends in stacked sedimentary layers—evidence of accumulated ancient layers on the sea floor, and then the impact of this earth with the Greenland plate, pushing this one-time ocean floor up, up, up to its current place against the sky.  The upper peaks resonate with bird calls, and there is a beautiful snowmelt waterfall cascading down towards us, disappearing into green mosses half way down.  On the beach there is an old wrecked wooden rowboat, tilted to one side, its hull rotting away.  There are six reindeer on the beach with us, and they have no fear of humans, continuing to graze placidly about 10 meters away.  In the base of the mountain is a mine entrance, with the twisted remains of a mine cart track extruding from a black tunnel into the rock; this was once a gypsum mine, and there are huge piles of the white rocks still on the beach, next to an abandoned cabin.  Beside the gypsum, there are fantastically weird and wild rocks here, containing fossils and squeezed mineral layers, mottled with bright orange lichen.  I find some orange flowers as well, the same vibrant shade as the lichen, both of which I notice match the orange of my jacket!  The sea laps lazily at the shore and the breeze, while cold, is gentle.  Across the water are the more massive snow-capped peaks that we have seen across the west side of Spitsbergen, a purple-mountains-majesty sort of color in the distance.  Everyone works quietly on this, our final landing.  Now it seems surreal and out of the ordinary to be returning to the rest of the world.  I try to drink in all the beauty of this place, and to really remember all the amazing places we have been—so many experiences, each of them unique.  It is doubtful that I will ever have the opportunity or the means to return here, and I want this place to root in my heart, like one of those bold magenta saxifrage flowers—thriving and rooted in the land.  I am excited to cast Ice Memory in August and begin work on the performance (and I plan to continue publishing throughout the process)—I will get to continue working with the images, words, sounds, impressions, associations and memories of this expedition for many more months.


Tonight I give my presentation about my work, with the final dozen or so of us—it has been so inspiring and impressive to hear about everyone’s work and each person’s process throughout the voyage…

June 26

We are back in Longyearbyen, after docking this morning and a great deal of chaotic lugging of luggage throughout the ship, up the stairs and ramps, and across a sooty-coal-strewn parking lot to the waiting bus, which returned us all to Coal Miner’s Cabins; it was a homecoming of sorts, since this is a place that is familiar to us.  Of course, as soon as we had arrived in the lobby, most people (including me) pulled out their cell phones and tried to reestablish contact with the outside world!  After checking in with loved ones, we wandered the shops, and drank hot chocolate (at least I did—everyone else was keen to have a good cup of coffee, and I had craved the rich warmth of a nice mug of hot chocolate the whole voyage…something about the sea and the cold seemed so perfectly suited to it, but alas, there was none onboard).  We met for an early dinner at the Thai restaurant in town, and then trudged the 1.5 miles back up to the cabins; everyone tired and sore!  The Global Seed Vault apparently announced a week ago that they will not allow any more tourists to visit the site, so unfortunately, we will not be able to see it tomorrow, which is disappointing…but there have been so many amazing experiences on this trip that I can’t complain, and it is perhaps fitting that after all of our discussions about the limits of ecotourism and population load that we return to find the Vault can no longer accept visitors for that very reason. 


As a small group of us walked into town earlier, we compared our “top three” lists—like many people, the night spent anchored to the pack ice (and the opportunity to walk upon it) was an unforgettable highlight, as was the close encounter with the polar bear (with the small group of us 8!).  I also really loved the zodiac cruises through the ice floes near the glaciers and the pack ice—so special to be on the water, and so beautiful to see all the shades of blue.

Now we feel a bit like we are in holding patterns—still in the far north, but waiting for departures—the next two days will be sparse and open I think.  Since we are not allowed to wander beyond the outskirts of the town without a rifled escort, we will be confined to the few miles within the houses and shops of Longyearbyen; there are several museums that I would like to visit, and it will be nice to walk down to the beach and watch the fjord waters.

Last night, our final night on the ship, we finished our presentations; I was the first to speak, followed by a dozen or so others—all equally inspiring and impressive!  There was a flurry of panicked packing to follow, and perhaps Antigua herself was relieved it was the final night, as the ship lost power twice in the night, and the engine sounded rather odd and overworked on our journey back to Longyearbyen this morning.


I am eagerly anticipating my upcoming travel on to Switzerland, to meet up with Bentley and visit with his family—he has just informed me that they are having a record-breaking heat wave (with sweltering humidity), which I think will be a big shock, after temperatures between 15-35 F these last few weeks!  My thermal long johns and quilted down skirt will be quite out of place when I land!

June 27

After browsing shops for souvenirs, I visit the Svalbard Museum with Carleen—it is small but exhibits a good overview of the natural and maritime history of Svalbard.  Jessamyn and I meet a small group for lunch, and after some more shopping at the few stores, go to the Svalbard Galleri, which is currently featuring three exhibits:  a collection of beautiful explorer maps of the Arctic Circle area from the 16th to 19th centuries, including an elaborately decorated one attributed to William Barents, perhaps the earliest known map of Svalbard; and exhibits of two modern impressionist landscape painters, both of whom capture the surreal grandeur of the islands’ glaciers in stark and minimalist canvases.  They are beautiful to see, reminding us again of how fortunate we are to have seen and experienced so much on this expedition.  We browse the gallery gift shop, featuring collectibles, knickknacks and postcards by many local artists…and see a lovely set of 8 postcards made from Polaroid prints taken by Sarah!  Her artist presentation the final night on the ship was quite inspiring, as is every aspect of Sarah.  Her work really places the physical body in dialogue with extreme environments of nature, and there is a sense of time passing, as well as the living landscape in the work she showed us; I can’t wait to look up more of her art and projects when I return home.  Tonight is the final group dinner at the elegant White House near the Coal Miner’s Cabins where we are staying, and a third of the artists are leaving tonight on the 2:30 AM flight to Oslo—the majority of those of us remaining leave tomorrow evening (including me), and a small number of people are staying on in Longyearbyen through residencies with the Svalbard Galleri to continue their work.  Goodbyes are always so difficult, especially since we have all lived harmoniously in such close proximity for these two and a half weeks, and had such dramatic and unforgettable encounters with the natural world in such a compressed block of time.  People are anxious about transitioning back to the everyday—some are relieved, finding the lack of personal space for an extended amount of time difficult, while others, like me, are sad to leave such wild natural beauty, and also loved the time at sea.  Some people are struggling with the thought of jumping back mid-stream into the speed and chaos of urban life, while others, like me, still have some traveling and adventures overseas to look forward to ahead of us…

June 28 - July 10

​I am sitting in the belly of a great silver beast, soaring out over the patchwork green of Sweden, with the mottled coastline and islands dotted between a sea of blue ahead.  I have run at full speed through the terminal to make it through customs and walk onto this connecting flight to LAX, and I am extremely delighted to discover that there is an empty seat next to me; I can comfortably curl up against the window with my feet up to write this entry. 

The last five weeks of travel have been extraordinary and wondrous, full of new experiences, inspiring people, and spellbinding places.  I return now to California with more of the world in my heart, and excited to begin work on Ice Memory.  I have written extensively about my time in the Arctic, and for the last eleven days have been in Switzerland with Bentley—it was a shock to arrive in Zurich during a heat wave—the hot and humid weather felt heavy and uncomfortable after the desert-dry chill of the far North!  My luggage, as luridly colored and flowered as it is, got lost somehow on the direct flight from Oslo to Zurich, and did not arrive for a day-and-a-half, so I had to venture into the chaos of stores to get some more appropriate clothes for this climate…also a shock after the peaceful and commerce-free sail around Spitsbergen!  After prowling around Zurich, and hiking along the Uetliberg (enjoying a delicious gemischter salat at the top, with a stunning view of the lake), Bentley and I prepared for our three-day trip into the alps, to retrace the beautiful hike we had done sixteen years earlier for our engagement. We traveled to Vrin, in the Romanisch section of Switzerland, and spent a rainy night in the one little hotel there, where we were treated to an amazing dinner of local specialties—I had sugary sweet dried figs and local cheese, with grated potatoes mixed with a simple applesauce—sehr fein!  We worried all evening about the weather—we had attempted this hike in 2012 and had to turn back because of snow (in early July); this time it poured until 4 AM, and then begin to let up, so that by our 8 AM departure (in our rainjackets), it was still oppressively grey but quickly lifting.  The hotel owner kindly drove us to the trailhead at Putzasch, and we began the long ascent to Pass Diesrut (2858 meters); by the time we reached it several hours later, the sun had broken through and we were met at the top by a gorgeous view of the green Greina valley.  We hiked down, marveling at all the lush grasses and vivid wildflowers, stepping carefully through the muddy and water-soaked earth after the deluge.  After several more hours, we found a picturesque log to sit on by the merrily-flowing river to eat our lunch (a banana each and a shared chocolate bar), and then continued on—everywhere we heard and saw marmots, their high-pitched cries sounding the alarm as we passed their sentry points.  We also saw cows and goats—their tinkling farm bells providing a lovely soundscape—we even managed to spot two newts and a jumping frog!  In late afternoon, we found the rock where Bentley had proposed to me 16 years earlier; quite a special and sentimental experience to sit upon the same stone and gaze out over the long valley we had just hiked, recalling our younger selves.  Clocking 13.7 miles for the day’s hike, we reached our destination for the evening:  Motterascio Hutte, a welcome site!  We told the elderly woman working there our story—that we had stayed here 16 years ago on the night we were engaged—and she showed us where the old hiker guestbooks were kept…and there we were!  Deidre Jenner and Bentley Cavazzi, August 27 2001 (the next morning when we left, she gave us two of the ceramic wine cups of the hut, a thoughtful and sentimental gift).  At dinner, we were seated with five locals, and enjoyed several engaging hours of conversation with them, in a broken mix of English and German.  We didn’t get much sleep, because the older gentleman who shared our bunk room snored majestically at an epic volume…ah well, that is to be expected when one stays in an alpine hut!  We left the next morning early to start the steep descent down to the dammed lake below—the snowmelt made little streams and waterfalls out of much of the trail, and we picked our way gingerly through the slippery rocks.  7 miles later we reached the start of the paved road, not relishing another 6-7 miles on hard asphalt, when amazingly, a bus roared up—a new mountain route had just begun, and we happened to be walking past the new bus stop at exactly the right time!  Thrilled with our luck, we climbed aboard and rode it to Biasca, the first little town to have a train connection, which we took to Locarno, our destination:  the Swiss “rivera” town on Lake Maggiore, where we enjoyed well-deserved gelato and pizza!

Another highlight of our time in Switzerland was a visit to CERN, near Geneva; my fabulous Arctic Circle roommate Jessamyn had put me in touch with her friend Joao, the director of the Media Lab at CERN, who graciously facilitated an incredible six hours of tours and talking (thank you again Joao)!  We took a photo together to send to Jessamyn, and both agreed how fabulous she is (-;

Back in Zurich, Bentley and I spent an afternoon swimming in the lake—the weather was hot and sweltering again, and the cool water was very refreshing.  We timed our swim day well, since the last two days in Switzerland were stormy—Alfredo and Mona made a delightful summer outdoor meal for us and there was a sudden downpour—spectacular thunder and lighting as we relocated the picnic under the patio awning and enjoyed front row seats to the storm!  Alfredo grilled me a round of Thom cheese (and even made vegi sausages for me—so thoughtful), and Mona’s salad and raspberry chocolate cake were of course fabulous.  A very nice final evening to my adventure, with a few hours of sleep, then up at 3:30 AM to go to the airport to catch the flight to Stockholm, bringing me back up to the present—now flying out over the blue ocean, ten more hours til LA…


Update upon landing at LAX:  sigh.  Luggage lost again!

August 12

I have been back in Southern California for just over one month, and already the Arctic seems so far away—a beautiful fairytale that is distanced from the everyday, apart from daily routine.  The hot sticky August weather is in stark contrast to the cold, dry air and the expansive vistas of ice and water; I miss the sensations of the far North, the icy breeze, the crunch of snow underfoot, the lulling sound of waves against the hull at night.  On hot afternoons I picture the glaciers—the innumerable textures of ice, and vivid hues of blue and white.  I have been preparing material for the start of rehearsals in a few weeks, sifting through glacial images for projections, listening to the recordings I made of waves and meltwater, developing phrases of movement…how do I tell this story to audiences—the fairytale of the far North?  It should instill a sense of wonder but also inspire action and awareness—I have been haunted by the trash washed up on the remote beach near the Recherchebreen lagoon…all those tangled webs of plastics, diaphanous bits of plastic bags, thick shards of breaking-down blue, discarded latex gloves and fragments of food wrapping—on a beach hundreds or perhaps thousands of miles away from the location those plastics were used. 


Recently I watched Sky News’ special on the Bergen whale, documenting the discovery of a large amount of plastic in the belly of a stranded Cuvier’s beaked whale in a West coast community of Norway; during the necropsy, piece after piece of plastic was removed—from large, twisted, sheer pieces to completely intact plastic food packaging—clogging up the digestive system of this majestic animal, a terrible byproduct of feeding in polluted waters.  This has been documented in many sea creatures, from great whales to majestic turtles.  I remember the glacial lagoon—evidence that if plastics are here, they are everywhere—demonstrating the unimaginable extent of the damage we have dealt our environment.  The day after watching the Bergen whale special I ran errands, noticing the persistence with which store clerks cheerfully pressed bags on customers, some of whom had only a one or two items to carry.  When I declined a bag, I was always pressured to change my mind and take one (“don’t you want a bag?  They’re free!  Are you sure you don’t want a bag?  It’ll be easier to carry stuff!”).  How casually we engage with the polluting of our world. I am reminded of this everyday as I add to our own recycling container at home—so many boxes, tubs, bottles and bags; the single-serving plastic packaging that perpetuates our daily lives is destined to end up on a far flung beach or in the body of another organism…and many of these plastics are NOT recyclable—I am tallying how many plastic-based single-use items are relegated to the trash (and then out of sight, out of mind for the vast majority of consumers).  I am determined to weave the story of these pollutants into my project, balancing the beauty of the Arctic with the reality of man’s encroaching influence.


September 10

In addition to drawing inspiration from the intricate layers of glaciers and the slowly unfolding of patterns and carving over time and space, I have been creating sections of choreography based on the ephemeral and organic ice fragments that covered the beaches and fjords of Northern Svalbard; the joyous soaring quality of sea birds, floating effortlessly over the ocean; the horror of accumulated single-use plastics washed ashore in the glacial lagoon of Recherchebreen; and the hypnotic and exhilarating rocking of Antigua on the Greenland Sea as we sailed south.  When I stood on the deck of Antigua, feeling the ship move beneath me, I imagined diving, rolling and running across the deck in concert with the waves–WaveForm, the section inspired by the motion of the sea, premieres at the Saddleback College WinterDance concert this week; below is footage from dress rehearsal (rather blurry footage–my iPhone was perhaps feeling seasick and having trouble focusing on the ebb and flow of the movement, and the contrast of costumes and lighting)!

November 15

In addition to drawing inspiration from the intricate layers of glaciers and the slowly unfolding of patterns and carving over time and space, I have been creating sections of choreography based on the ephemeral and organic ice fragments that covered the beaches and fjords of Northern Svalbard; the joyous soaring quality of sea birds, floating effortlessly over the ocean; the horror of accumulated single-use plastics washed ashore in the glacial lagoon of Recherchebreen; and the hypnotic and exhilarating rocking of Antigua on the Greenland Sea as we sailed south.  When I stood on the deck of Antigua, feeling the ship move beneath me, I imagined diving, rolling and running across the deck in concert with the waves–WaveForm, the section inspired by the motion of the sea, premieres at the Saddleback College WinterDance concert this week; below is footage from dress rehearsal (rather blurry footage–my iPhone was perhaps feeling seasick and having trouble focusing on the ebb and flow of the movement, and the contrast of costumes and lighting)!

January 20, 2018

Rehearsals have progressed smoothly for Ice Memory; the dancers are enthusiastic, inquisitive and hard-working, and our Sunday rehearsals are always a pleasure!  The entire 45-minute dance theatre work is now finished, and we are in the process of cleaning and preparing to move rehearsals into the Studio Theatre.  I have also been working on the parallel exhibit with the city of Mission Viejo; today marks the grand opening of the Potocki Arts Center, and  I have organized a lecture and photography series centered on climate change and Arctic ecosystems for the event, as a precursor to the upcoming Ice Memory premiere.  The five lectures we presented for the public covered everything from glacial geology and geographic markers of changing environments, to urban sustainability and human impact in the Arctic.  I am very grateful to Professors Dan Walsh, Irene Naesse, James Repka and Blake Stephens for contributing their time and energy to this event.  In addition, I was honored to exhibit some of my Svalbard images alongside artists Ryan Even and Jim Langford; their work gorgeously exemplifies the dynamism of nature and the contrast of desert and ice..

Polar bear puppet:  from concept to performance!

Whenever I reminisce about the Arctic, I remember the beautiful white bears, padding through the ice and snow–so graceful and powerful–global symbols of the far North.  I sketched out the bare bones for a five dancer-operated abstract polar bear, made from wood, wire and paper, and enlisted Bentley’s help to build it!  He spent many hours working on the bear, who was a beloved element of the performances; our polar bear enters under a glowing aurora borealis to start the show after the lectures, and returns to walk through the plastic-strewn stage after the climax of the pollution section.

Ice bears:  mold-making and melting bears

Special thanks to artist Laura Haight (pictured below!) who designed a silicone mold so that we could have melting ice bears lining the path to the black box theatre for each performance; I created a path made from tea-light-filled plastic water bottles, sobering statistics on single-use plastics, and melting 10″ bears, who slowly devolved into puddles by the end of each night.  Interestingly, when the audiences exited the theatre each night, NO ONE stepped into the puddled bears, instead choosing subconsciously to skirt the edge of the hallway to avoid treading in the accumulating water…

Ice Memory: February 6-10, 2018

We had five wonderful performances with enthusiastic audiences filling the three sides of the black box theatre each night; it was beautiful to see the dancers so close to the audience, who watched spellbound as the performers leapt, turned and gracefully danced mere inches away from them.  I snapped a few photos from the lighting booth (a video of the performance will be loaded soon on the Interdisciplinary page, in addition to being recorded and broadcast by Channel 39).  Tim Swiss, our lighting designer, did an amazing job loading all the images to project, and it was magical to see those icy images lighting up the back walls.  In Svalbard, I had spent quite a lot of time hunching over chunks of ice and peering into glacial crevices, taking close-up images with the goal of projecting them in this manner, so it brought back many wonderful memories when I sifted through all of them to select which would work best large-scale.  Michael McCormick and his stagecraft students painted the Studio Theatre white, heightening the illusion of the North, and providing a stark surface for the dozens of close-up ice and water images.