This past summer our friend Sarah, a talented illustrator and fellow Northerner, embarked on a 17 day expedition with The Arctic Circle, an arts and science expeditionary residency program.
Established in 2009, the residency brings together international artists of all disciplines, scientists, architects, and educators who collectively explore the high-Arctic Svalbard Archipelago and Arctic Ocean aboard a specially outfitted Barquentine sailing vessel.
Below is her firsthand account from this summer voyage through the Arctic:
It has taken me nearly three days to get here. I step off the plane and onto the tarmac. A stuffed polar bear guards the single-belt baggage claim. It is June 7th 2022. I have landed in Svalbard for a much anticipated and three-year-delayed, art and science residency. The residency will take place upon a barquentine vessel sailing North along the shore of the Archipelago for the next two weeks. There are 27 other artists and scientists from around the world that will share this experience with me, and all of this is made possible by the twelve outstanding crew members, including four sailors, four kitchen and cleaning crew, and four polar bear guides.
Sarah Gerats, a local, a masterful sailor, a legendary photographer, and a polar guide, is there to great us and take us to the Coal Miner’s Cabin where we will stay the night before boarding the Antigua in the morning. The coming weeks would be beyond anything I could have fathomed.
I have always associated our polar regions with a singular state: Winter. Yet, when I arrived, much snow had melted and the freshly revealed palette was vibrant, full of deep blues and turquoise from the sky and sea and rich varying greens of miniature flora and moss that grew between the black and golden rocks.
The Arctic is and feels very alive in the summer. Arctic Terns, Little Auks, Gulls and Kittiwakes, Guillemots, Kind Eider Ducks, and Barnacle Geese, along with many other birds, spot the sky and rocks. Reindeer roam freely shedding their winter coats and eating tiny greens. We spotted several polar bears, and one evening we came across a polar bear on a small island feasting on the eggs of shorebirds. Walruses popped their heads from the ocean waters and gave what I could only describe as a smile as we passed. Bearded Seals serenaded us with their haunting spiraling calls. To my surprise, I even stumbled on a jelly fish bobbing next to our zodiac while we were exploring a glacial lagoon.
The flora of Svalbard is unlike anything I ever knew existed. There are no trees. All wood is either imported or washed ashore as driftwood from other regions. Moss, lichen, small but vibrant flowers, and tiny greens populate the rocky permafrost. When we make our landings to work from the shore, we have to be especially careful not to disturb the brief lives of the delicate plant life that remains essential to the health of the ecosystem.
The sun circled but never left us. The passing of time was marked by different locations. Every day we would anchor, land, and create somewhere new. Everywhere we went was awe inspiring. We made our way to several glaciers over the course of the trip. Each one had it’s own name and a distinct personality. One afternoon, we sat and worked on top of a rocky island overlooking Dahlbreen, a glacier in the Ymerbukta Fjord. Every few minutes you would hear the thunder of a collapse. Sometimes it was internal, sometimes it was at the water’s edge. It was like lightning, by the time you heard it you had missed it. When a glacier calves, the giant ice that has separated appears like crumbs scattered through the water. I thought I would be lucky to witness a glacier calving in my lifetime, but here I witnessed so many that it turned from awe to a deep unsettled feeling. I remember feeling like I was in a time warp, where the ancient entity that moves at a speed invisible to me had swapped time with me. It was running and I was standing still.
A few days later we were at Hamiltonbreen. It felt like a mythical place. A rocky ridge between mountain and glacier reached into the ocean and towards our ship. I set up my little travel studio on a rock facing the spiked mountain and tucked glacier. The sun was out and there was no wind. The black rock with snowy accents met the deep turquoise water. As I panned to the left that vibrant water gained a mosaic of sea ice. It was a stunning view.
As I drew, my cabin mate, Hillary, who was sitting nearby kept saying, ‘I wish I could go for a swim.’ After hearing her casually muse about swimming for over an hour, she had me convinced: I needed to swim. Swimming in the Arctic can require a lot of safety measures. We had to be sure we could safely and quickly exit the water. Within seconds your entire body can go numb and sap your strength, so you need to be able to reach land without requiring a lot of physical labor. You need to strategize your dry clothing and you need to be able to enter the water without dunking your head. The water is so cold that a full submersion can be dangerous. You have to exit within a maximum of two or three minutes. In the wild, you also need a polar bear guide near by to keep you safe.
An Arctic dip was on my list of things I hoped I would be brave enough to do, and now it was time. Terhi, one of our polar guides, helped us find the perfect spot. In the midst of a sea ice lagoon on the other side of the rocky arm from the glacier, there was a boulder leading directly into the water. We undressed, and Hillary, the brave, went first. Then I lowered myself in.
The total plunge was no longer than 10-20 seconds. It was shocking and then incredible. My body was completely numb well before I got out. It was a perfect immersion into this place I was falling in love with.
Small huts line the coastal wilderness of the Svalbard Archipelago. They are mysterious and yet welcoming simple structures often created in the early 1900s. We came across one such hut, named Texas Bar. It was tucked into a fjord, near the egg-eating polar bear. Texas Bar would fulfill a summer essential: A live outdoor concert. During the residency, two musicians had become kismet collaborators and created an impromptu band: ¡Bang Klang!. Their sound was guttural and ethereal. One banjo built and played by Leander accompanied by the siren-like vocals by A.P. It was improvised and it was perfect. I turned my back on the performance to take in the glacier across the fjord and the stillness of the water as I listened. It was a short set and brought tears to every eye. It was profound to be a witness and participant in a region changing so dramatically. We all felt the grief knowing we were some of the few who would ever have this honor to see this region as it is today, while simultaneously celebrating its beauty with the resources we had at that moment: sound… and champagne. Eventually the polar bear became enticed by the singing and began to swim towards our festivities. We packed up and made our way back to the ship, leaving her to solve the mystery of the etherial sounds on her own.
Just before crossing the 80th Parallel and before heading back south, we explored the Arc-de Meridian remnants. Arc-de-Meridian was a Swedish-Russian expedition that set out to measure the curvature of the polar region, successfully discovering that our planet is not a perfect circle, but slightly flattened at our poles. It is one of the few non-disastrous Arctic expeditions from history. That evening we gathered drift wood that had collected along the beach near the remnants and held a bonfire under the midnight sun. We soaked up the gold along the skyline, enjoyed the warmth of the flames, toasting with boxed wine and local beers. It was a perfect summer farewell to the Northernmost regions that we would visit on our voyage.
Svalbard is a stunning archipelago. I am forever changed by the things I experienced, the beauty I was allowed to be immersed in, and the knowledge and wisdom gained from conversations with the crew. I hope you too, get to experience the incredible magic of an Arctic Summer.