Updated: Jul 24, 2019
Arctic Diary – June 2019
(thank you to everyone aboard the Augusta, especially Jake)
Longyearbyen, Svalbard, Norway, Arctic circle
The moment the bitter air touched the gold chain around my neck, I felt it freeze against my skin. The chill descended down each metallic link until it enveloped the winged disk in the middle. Temperatures don’t exceed two degrees Celsius this time of year. We are waiting for Tomi.
The Arctic breeze gently brushed a small cloud across the cyan sky towards a lone mountain. The sphere of soft, translucent cotton could not surmount the peak, and so froze below the summit.
“He’s running late.” Jake pointed out, looking down at his watch.
I met Jake last year when he was working as a ranger in Yellowstone. Luck would have it he was my guide around the national park. After spending a few days together appreciating the fine complexities of bears, bison and elk, we became friends. He was passionate about nature and admired it from afar, prioritising preservation. Jake spoke furiously about any incident that involved a tourist trying to pet a bison or attempting to approach a bear for a selfie. “Dangerous! Foolish!” he would exclaim, as he was far too proper to swear. Apart from his bouts of polite rage against reckless adventurers, he nurtured a soft patience in his pale blue eyes that never seemed to fade. It complemented the slight, crooked curve of his lips that veered off to the left when he smiled, which was almost all the time. I don’t know how old Jake is. He once completed a lengthy course on animal and marine biology in Alaska, including two years of field study and a hefty thesis on the salmon run, so he must be older than me. But from his optimism and energy, I’m guessing he’s not yet thirty. A peppering of freckles under his eyes and across his straight, angular nose added a dash of boyish charm to his permanently clean-shaven face. He was tall and athletic, with a hearty appetite. He rarely ate meat, but had a compulsive fondness for eggs. When I asked him, he revealed his favourite food was pickles and this furthered my theory that all Americans secretly love pickles, but will never talk about it unless provoked.
Jake Matthews is a grateful and content man, one you could instantly trust and over time, your fondness for him only increases. From him radiates a gracious serenity, the tranquility of a man who is at peace with himself, his place in the world and his duty towards it.
“If Tomi’s not here in five minutes, I’ll give him a call.” Jake added before stepping back inside the café. I continued to observe the town in the valley.
Here in Longyearbyen (capital of Spitsbergen, the largest island of the Svalbard archipelago), many residents keep huskies as pets. But because these snow dogs are too noisy to be kept in the residential area, they have to mostly remain in large outdoor enclosures, closer to the docks. The working dogs are kept a few miles north, closer to the fjords. The male and female dogs have to be separated into two opposing complexes. Precautions had to be taken after too many puppies were born in previous years, despite owner’s protestations that the dogs are neutered or spayed. They ceaselessly howl at each other, so I understand why the dogs remain here and not within the settlement.
Between the two large kennels, dozens of barnacle geese nest on the ground. Over the years some geese have deduced the dogs are fenced in, so cannot disturb their chicks. And geese aren’t as bothered by noise pollution as humans. The snow foxes, nemeses of geese, haven’t figured out what the geese know. They’re still afraid of the dogs, so don’t come stealing goose eggs.
“Hey,” Jake opens the door and calls out to me, “Tomi’s here, we’re ready to go.”
Thomas Børgstroff is a climatologist, appointed by the governor of Svalbard to regularly collect weather data from all the un-manned station points across the archipelago. Each trip takes about two weeks to complete and requires a small sailing crew. Tomi is a very pleasant and polite Norwegian man. He is tall, broad, blond, with plain, regular features and a firm handshake. His cheeks are ruddied from the cold, and I can see a strict tan line on his exposed neck. I’m guessing he’s in his early thirties.
As we all sit down with hot drinks in this café by the docks, Tomi began to talk about his mission and the general plan for the next two weeks. It’s clear and endearing how passionate he is about the environment and conservation.
Tomi and Jake met this time two years ago, under this exact circumstance. Jake’s uncle Bernard is the captain of the ship Tomi uses for his summer expedition, the Augusta. Jake joined the crew as the resident ranger and since then fell into this seasonal pattern. Along with the core staff on board, if any other scientists, naturalists, or simply enthusiasts, can pay for their resources, they are welcome to a cabin.
When Jake first invited me to spend two weeks in the Arctic, as a cynical Londoner, I immediately thought this offer must be a scam or a joke. But on second thought, and after thorough investigative research, it dawned on me I was going to miss out on a beautiful opportunity. I replied I would be delighted to join his company of researchers on this expedition. The crew is as follows:
Our captain, Bernard Cartellier, a towering, French man from Lyon, looked to me a little like Hugh Jackman. Bernard is married to Jake’s aunt Elizabeth. They live in Alaska and, as I gathered, the families spent a lot of happy times together when Jake was younger.
Bernard oozed charm and swagger that he consistently referred to himself as ‘le French touch’. His aide and our resident doctor, Nathaniel, was a humourless Tahitian man, who spoke perfect English, French and German, yet preferred silence. Even though Na-ta-nielle (as Bernard pronounced it) was only just below average height, next to the captain he seemed half his size, so tall was Bernard. They seemed to enjoy each other’s company. Rarely seen apart, the only times I noticed Nathaniel smile, even break into a chuckle, was when Bernard was reminiscing about something in a hushed tone, leaning over to Nathaniel, or loudly cracking wise with one of the kitchen staff. Jake tells me they have been sailing together for almost a decade.
Gunter and Anne are a middle-aged German couple without any children and vocally delighted about it. Both professors of natural sciences at different universities in Germany, they seemed to share a passion for nature and adventure. They frequently wore very similar, if not coordinating, activewear. They would only be with us for a few days, we’ll be dropping them off in the research town of Ny Alesund.
Two French brothers – Etienne and Christophe Drouis – both biologists, both casual wildlife photographers and both absurdly competitive. Sibling rivalry aside, they seemed to be great friends and we visibly content to be here together. Unfortunately, their English and my poor French didn’t leave us much room for conversations longer than politesse.
Jake is, of course, our resident ranger and bear expert. He is the only person on board who is licenced to carry a rifle, and is an experienced shot.
Tiana – Jake’s girlfriend. She is a beautiful, slim, young American woman, whose beauty is unfortunately tarnished by her overbearing personality. Quick to harsh judgement, stubborn and self-centred, she is the unhappy kind of person who could enter an empty room and start an argument. A self-proclaimed New Yorker (though it later transpired she lives upstate, not in the city) she is an aspiring actress who couldn’t answer my opening question about who her favourite film director was. Thus, she interpreted our first conversation as a personal attack. In reality she’s a veterinarian, but believed herself to be destined for the front cover of Vogue, albeit, making no tangible efforts to achieve this goal other than praying every night to be ‘discovered’ on Instagram. I was perplexed with her conflicting existence. Between you and me, I wanted to be a vet when I was younger, so hearing an actual vet dismiss the profession as harshly as she did, upset me a degree. However, Tiana’s life choices are none of my business, so I shall comment no further.
Even though we were in a company of mixed languages, I was happy the common denominator was English, and thus we agreed to speak in my native tongue.
At 4pm we boarded the Augusta. Apart from the Captain’s and Nathaniel’s cabins, we were all located on the lower floor. My cabin was next to Jake and Tiana’s and opposite Tomi’s. It was small. It was minimal. It was lovely. We set sail as soon as possible. After rearranging my personal belongings, I spent the next hour staring out of the window, in awe of the arctic desert. The sky was clear and the sun was still high. In fact, the sun won’t set at all while we’re this far up north. There will be uninterrupted daylight for the next two weeks. Suddenly, time lost meaning to me. It could be any hour right now, any time of day. Before slipping into an existential crisis about time, my train of thought was interrupted by muffled yelling from the next cabin. Jake and Tiana were having an argument. Rather, I heard the subdued yells of Tiana, I don’t think Jake was arguing back. There was a knock on my door. It was Tomi.
“We are going to do a small briefing before dinner, will you come upstairs please?” he asked politely. Before I could answer, more muffled yells came from next door.
“What is this about?” Tomi heard and enquired. I shrugged my shoulders. A few paces to the right, he knocked on their door. The room fell silent.
“Hi.” said Jake abruptly, swinging the door open.
“Hello Jake. We are going to do a small briefing before dinner, will you please come upstairs?”
“I’ll be with you in a minute.” Jake replied amicably, catching sight of my head poking out of my room, eavesdropping. He flashed me a polite smile, tinged with embarrassment. I too, felt embarrassed.
I followed Tomi to the upper deck. The crew and the travelling members were sitting round two parallel tables. As I took a seat next to Anne, who graciously shuffled closer to Gunter, Jake appeared and sat next to me. No Tiana. Tomi did not want to delay.
“I will now take you through the Svalbard safety guidance.” He began his briefing. “Rule of thumb is to avoid altering the behaviour of the animals as a result of our presence.” He looked around the room. “This is very important.” The paused to distribute a leaflet called ‘Polar Bears in Svalbard: a leaflet published by the Norwegian Polar Institute’.
“Please study this information when you have a moment.” He added. Tomi continued to cover the basics of health and safety of this expedition, along with the abandon ship drill. Afterwards, we were served our meal and began to talk amongst ourselves.
“Is Tiana not joining us for dinner?” Tomi asked Jake.
He shook his head. “I think she’s jetlagged, so just wants to sleep.”
A strained silence followed and I decided to break it by asking Tomi more about his work. He was technical and thorough in his explanations. Jake quietly ate his meal.
After dinner we talked for a bit longer about our various other expeditions that we’ve been on and soon after I decided to see myself off the bed. It was still daylight. The daylight will never cease. I began to read ‘Polar Bears in Svalbard: a leaflet published by the Norwegian Polar Institute’. It went as follows:
· Prepare to meet polar bears – at any time, in any place.
· It is illegal and dangerous to hunt polar bears. Do not hunt polar bears.
· Avoid polar bears.
· If you encounter a polar bear, if possible, immediately return to the settlement on land, or return to your vessel on water. Report the incident to the Governor of Svalbard.
· Do not cross the path in which the polar bear is heading. Keep your distance.
· Avoid camping.
· Avoid eating or bringing food on land, or outside the settlements.
· Always bring a gun for polar bear protection when travelling outside the settlements. Keep shots in the magazine, but not in the chamber.
· If a polar bear is moving in your direction, make yourself visible and make lots of noise, usually this deters bears. If this does not deter the bear, prepare to use your flare gun. Shoot flares to the ground between you and the polar bear. The first shot should be fired at a 150-200-meter distance. Repeat if this has no effect.
· If all attempts to scare off the bear fails, and retreat is impossible, prepare to kill the bear. Place the shot, using a big-game rifle in the shoulder or chest area. Heavy calibre revolvers may be used, but only by a skilled gunman. Never shoot at the head! Shoot until the bear is immobile. The killing of a polar bear must be immediately reported to the Governor of Svalbard. The bear carcass and the area surrounding it must be kept intact for later investigations.
I did not read further, I fell asleep.
Jagged, snowy mountains fill the whole horizon, flanking deep fjords. They plunge into the black waters and stand unwavering, unchanged over centuries. Calving glaciers rupture sapphire ice into the still waters, then turn to white ice further inland. Not a tree in sight. But what seems to be a frozen and baron land is full of life. Millions of geese, kittiwakes, fulmars, arctic terns and ivory gulls flicker like snowflakes around steep cliffs. Herds of wild reindeer stroll across the tundra, grazing on moss, grass and even flowers. Arctic foxes, grey in the summer, scavenge and stalk. Pods of whales patrol the fjords. Seals and walruses are scattered across ice cakes and pebble beaches. And far out there, polar bears roam.
It’s zero degrees. Today the sky is clear and the water is illuminated a deep blue. Snow-covered peaks bask in the sunshine. Upon landing on the pebble beach, we are greeted with a wall of noise. Nesting arctic birds swirl around the high, sheer cliffs of Alkhornet. Unceasing, peculiar and urgent calls echo all around.
Jake scans the terrain for polar bears with his binoculars. He gives us the nod and the rest disembark from the zodiac. Tomi remains on the coast, in the small, black Governors cabin, collecting his data. He’ll be at least an hour, so the rest of us are allowed to hike around with Jake.
Best to find caribou tracks in the snow to figure out where it’s safe to walk. A grown deer will weigh 60kg in the summer, 90kg in the winter (hopefully, if it finds enough to eat). It’s safer to follow caribou tracks as an indicator of where the snow is firm and shallow. We follow the path. Every so often, on accident, the snow beneath will give way and you disappear up to your knee with a loud crunch. Very important to dress appropriately for this expedition. We continue on the path up to the cliffs. The noise gets louder. About half a mile into our caribou-trodden path, Jake decides it’s a good time to mention that this trail may be snow-safe, but we’re not the only creatures that will follow it. Polar bears also utilise the deer’s tracks. I look at him hesitantly.
“But don’t worry, I’ve never had to use this,” he lightly taps the rifle strapped over his shoulder. “Or the flare gun.” He adds.
I nod amicably.
“Polar bears are extremely rare now anyway.” He shakes his head. “A real shame.” “And they mainly follow the sea ice.”
We continue on the path. After surpassing a mild incline that would have been a cake walk in normal clothes, but felt like an ordeal while swaddled, we reach the plateau beneath the sheer cliffs, home to thousands of seabirds. A small group of deer raise their heads and stare at us. Not in distress, but in curiosity. After a split-second decision that rendered us un-threating, the deer bowed their heads once more and continued to graze on sparse mounds of stale, yellow grass, exposed by the summer sun, that melted away the top layer of snow. Jake explained that because caribou don’t encounter humans often (or ever), they don’t know what we are, so don’t know that we’re dangerous, hence their apathy.
‘That’s nice,’ I think to myself, hoping it will stay like that.
They continue to graze monotonously, systematically, without missing a patch of exposed soil, trying to excavate the most nutrients possible. They pay no attention to us as we pass by, nearing the cliff.
The Drouis brothers station themselves as close to the cliff as Jake believes appropriate. The noise is almost overwhelming here. They carefully assess the best angles for photography and begin to lay out their lenses on a shared waterproof sheet, splayed out on the snow. Etienne, in full pride of his collection, pauses to admire it, secretly hoping to catch Christophe’s eye. How he’d love a comment. Christophe, blinkered by his admiration of his own ensemble of tech, continues to unpack his lenses from his backpack. Then, shooting his brother a gratified look, pulls out a lens about an inch longer than his brother’s. A kerfuffle in French ensued, followed by some light shoving.
Gunter and Anne didn’t come as close as the brothers to the seabird cliff, they were more interested in the reindeer. Respectfully, they admired the cluster of deer from a distance, occasionally taking a photo on their phones.
Jake was watching over all of us from a distance. He saw me take a picture of him against the view and waved to me innocently. I waved back.
“Dinner is ready, if you want to join us,” Tomi knocked on the window pane above me. I looked up from my book and turned towards him. He stood in the frame of the middle deck entrance, still in his bright blue ski pants, smiling broadly.
“Great.” I place my bookmark between the pages and lift myself off the sofa. I ask about his day and he gladly tells me in detail about all the data and what it might mean. We are the last to join the others in the dining area and take the two seats on the end, opposite each other. Our meal is steamed vegetables, rice, soup, bread and meat if anyone wants some. We pass around the dishes and help ourselves.
“Tiana, are you feeling better?” Tomi begins in a friendly way. She was sitting between him and Jake. She flashes him a cold look from the corner of her mascaraed eyes and tucks her blonde hair behind her ears.
“Fine, thank you.” Tiana announces, crossing her arms, resting her elbows on the table.
“She was just a little tired is all,” Jake adds, leaning forward to smile across at Tomi.
“Jake, I can speak for myself.” Tiana snaps, tilting her head towards him without looking at him. Jake leans back, embarrassed. The muttering around the table muted. Only the sound of me ripping apart the stiff bread crust filled the room. The silence lingered. I proceeded to tear the bread.
“Would you like some bread?” I asked Tiana.
“No, I’m on a diet.” Tiana retorts.
“You do not require a diet, you are very trim.” Anne speaks up, smiling at Tiana. Bless you Anne.
“Thank you,” Tiana nods, “but no.” Anne and Gunter swap glances in mild confusion, probably wondering if something got lost in translation.
“If I eat bread, I have to go to the gym. And there’s no gym here.” She declared with a frown.
“Ok then.” I say plainly, and place a large piece of bread in my mouth. Tiana looks at me with evident vexation.
“Well,” Tomi says between mouthfuls of soup, “You could come for a hike with all of us tomorrow? It’s great exercise.”
“No, it’s ok.” Tiana rests her chin in the palm of her propped hand. “The air is too fresh here.” She announced.
I notice Jake cringle slightly to her left. Tomi’s eyes narrow in confusion.
“I just miss New York, you know. I miss the pollution, the noise. I love it.”
I decide it’s best for me not to comment on this. I suppose someone else will instead. The silence hovered for a few seconds.
“Well,” Tomi straightens out his face to its regular pleasant outlook, “if you change your mind, do join us.” He reverts back to his soup. We continue to eat in silence.
“Hey,” Jake turns to me, “do you have a spare pair of waterproof pants that Tiana can maybe borrow?”
“Jake!” Tiana exclaims, shooting him a mortified glance. Jake continues to look at me.
I pause mid-chew and swallow. “Um, sure.” I clear my throat. “Yea, I actually do, you can just pull them over your leggings and you’re all set.” I nod.
“Thanks, but no thanks.” Tiana glared first at me, then at Jake. “I doubt they’d even fit me, you’re so much bigger than me.”
A deeply uncomfortable silence followed. No one knew where to look, so they all looked down at their plates, apart from Tiana and I, who were locked in awkward eye contact.
“Right.” I finally mutter, and continue to munch through my bread crust. I fear my facial expression betrayed my true feelings towards her.
“Tiana,” Jake nudges.
‘No’ she mouths back to him. She rises. Tomi shuffles out, letting her pass, then shuffles back in again. We hear her footsteps descend, followed by an audible slam of the door.
“And how long have you two been together?” Tomi looks to Jake.
“About seven months,” Jake doesn’t look up at him.
“Riot.” Tomi mutters, turning back to his food.
The company changes the conversation to wildlife and we enjoy the rest of the meal. Jake flashes me a sorry glance, but it’s not me who I feel sorry for.
I hear a knock on my door. I rise from my bed and walk over, hoping it’s Tiana with an apology. It’s Jake.
“What have you got there?” I glance at the box he’s holding up.
“Chocolates.” He smiles at me. “I bought them for Tiana, but she’s on a diet, so says she doesn’t want them. Do you want them?” He offers me the box.
“Regardless of circumstance, if you intended to gift something to your girlfriend, don’t give it away to another girl.” I answer neutrally. “Even if she rejects it.”
“Oh.” he withdraws the box.
“Trust me, I once made a similar mistake and got constantly punished for it.” I cross my arms and lean on the door, holding it open.
“Oh, sorry to hear.” He shrugs. “How did it end?”
“Ok.” He nods.
The door opposite swings open and Tomi steps out.
“Couldn’t help but overhear this conversation,” He begins. “Are you going to eat these chocolates?” he queries.
We both shake our heads.
“Great!” Tomi beams, “I love chocolate.” And helps himself to the box, shutting the door behind him.
“Problem solved.” I nod at Jake.
“Yea, I guess.” He lingers at my door.
“Ok, goodnight.” I give him a wave and close the door.
This is the arctic desert. This is where silence dwells. This is perfect tranquillity. Then the silence turned ominous. It began to snow. Lightly, softly, tiny snowflakes descended from the heavenly mist and came into focus around me. I was standing on the top deck, observing an adolescent minke whale, frolicking in the still waters of the fjord. From either side, towering mountains appeared out of the mist and loomed into view as we got closer. We sailed north towards Lilliehöökbreen glacier in the gentle snowfall. We slowed down on approach, since freshwater ice that broke loose from the glacier was abundant, aimlessly drifting out, wondering, melting. It crackled and snapped in the lapping waves coming from the hull. Each lick of water caused great distress to the little icebergs, disrupting their water-logged slumber. They’ve only ever been used to the tranquil waters of their frozen lagoon, they hate to be disturbed. In a cumbersome dance they spin away from the ship, dipping and ducking in and out of water, flailing and gasping for breath.
Bearded and ringed seals embellish larger ice cakes, in pairs or on their own. They are resting, recovering. Some as large as two metres in diameter, they barely nod in acknowledgment as we pass by, cruising on the water. Occasionally, they stretch or roll over, preferring overall to remain still and slumber. Fulmars rest on the water too, along with kittiwakes and guillemots, ornamenting the drifting ice.
The glacier – an amalgam of dazzling, frozen merengues, densely packed and stretching over twenty-two kilometres. Forged over centuries, shaped by the strongest of natural forces, the glacier stands forty meters high above the serene waters. Exposed sapphire chasms are reflected perfectly, the water acting as a mirror, a mysterious double, a bright shadow from below. This glacier once began its journey to the sea from miles inland. On its way down it has cut mountains, shaped the land, filled the estuaries. Now, retiring from its silent odyssey, it collapses into the sea with a roaring thunder.
And here there is peace like nowhere else I’ve felt. Here time stands still and nothing but the present matters. And I wondered how much of this is ours, how much of this is mine.
It’s minus 2 degrees Celsius. Overnight, snow settled on the railings around the deck and as the top layer perspired, the little drops of water slid underneath the lacquered wood and froze into icicles. This fragile garland framed the whole ship.
Gunter and Anne are disembarking at Ny Alesund, the research town of Svalbard, and will remain here for the rest of their trip. This is the only trace of living human presence on the archipelago apart from Longyearbyen. Tomi and I are on the top deck, waving them goodbye from the docks. Slowly, they make their way into town.
“Did they forget a suitcase?” I point to the leftover on the pier.
“Hmm,” He puzzles over it, leaning over the railing.
Suddenly, we see Tiana disembark, grab the handle of the suitcase and wheel it away from the docks in a hurry.
“Oh.” I say.
“Oh.” Tomi echoes. We look at each other quizzically.
We knock on Jake’s door.
“Come in.” We hear from inside. Tomi pushes the door open but we remain at the threshold. Jake is sitting on the bed in a slump, staring at a graphic wall poster entitled ‘Birds of Svalbard’, but I doubt he even noticed it.
“Hey buddy.” Tomi starts amicably.
“Yea, she broke up with me.” Jake interrupts, guessing correctly what we were curious about.
“She broke up with you?” I repeat.
Jake nods. His eyes are red. Tomi and I exchange glances.
“Hey how about we go into town for a little bit?” Suggests Tomi. “We have to wait for the ship to refuel anyway.”
Jake nods reluctantly.
“Ok great, we’ll all go.” I nod along. “I’ll get the brothers.”
“Sure,” Tomi remarks. “We can all go send a postcard. From the North Pole!” He exclaims. “Pretty cool.” We look back to Jake, hoping to infect him with our enthusiasm.
He’s still sitting on the bed, sulking.
“Ok, we’ll give you a minute, bud.” Tomi softly closes the door.
Ten countries have research stations here. The houses look almost identical to me. As you can’t lay foundations in the permafrost, all the houses stand on metal stilts, about half a metre off the ground. They are all regular, pleasant little rectangles, with painted wood exteriors and small, double-glazed windows. To differentiate amongst themselves, they present their country’s flags by the entrance. This post office is the northern-most post office in the world. It also functions as a grocery store and a library. The Drouis brothers are flicking through some wildlife materials and Tomi and I are writing postcards to loved ones. Jake has a card in his hand, a pen in the other, but isn’t writing anything.
“Finished.” Declares Tomi and walks off to buy a stamp.
“Anything I can do?” I turn to Jake. He shakes his head and slowly puts the postcard back into its designated slot on the rotating stand.
“Thanks.” He mutters. “I’m going to head back to the ship with Tomi.” He flashes me a faint smile and puts up his hood.
As Jake left the post office, something in the corner of the store caught my eye. Alcohol. Beautiful, ambiguously-labelled alcohol. I have an idea. I call over the Drouis brothers, who are only too keen to help me take a crate of Lord-knows-what back on board.
“And the music?” asks Etienne, arranging the bottles on the table.
“Alors, we must have music!” seconded Christophe.
Before I could think, Tomi appeared at the door with a stern expression, holding a book.
“What’s all this?” he enquired, leaning against the frame. The three of us traded glances, caught red-handed.
“We want to cheer up Jake.” I begin diplomatically.
“He is, how you say, a downer?” adds Christophe.
“Maybe he just needs to blow off a little steam,” I interpret. “You don’t mind, do you?”
Tomi approaches the table to examine what we bought. He holds up a bottle to try and deduce if the label is in his native language.
“Well, I wouldn’t mind a drink myself,” he unscrews the bottle and gives it a whiff. “Strong!” he nods. Etienne punches the air in celebration.
“Mais, une problemme,” Christophe lowers his brother’s hand. “We need music.”
Tomi paused for a moment, then broke into a huge smile.
“Arch, I need to borrow your phone, come with me.” he set off towards the bridge, “I have an idea!” he shouted back in my direction.
“Bonjour, bonjour, this is your Captain speaking,” announced Bernard on the ships’ omnipresent public announcement system, rigged in every room. “This is a very special announcement por notre Jake, please could Jake make his way to the common area for a very important briefing. Merci bien.”
“And now,” Bernard pointed to me.
“Hope this works,” I shrug as I press play on my phone. We all hear the opening lines to ‘Come and get your love’ by Redbone boom across the entire speaker system.
“Oh la la!” Bernard exclaims, clapping, knocking into Nathaniel, who is, naturally, unimpressed. “We did it!” he elbows his aide. “Ok, bon, oui, now go, enjoy!” he ushered us out of the control room. “Don’t get too silly, uh.” He calls after us.
“What’s all this?” Jake arrived on the upper deck before us.
“Surprise!” Etienne and Christophe chant simultaneously, patting him on the shoulders. Tomi led Jake across to the drinks table.
“We’re sorry about Tiana,” Tomi slaps the side of Jake’s arm. “We wanted to cheer you up.”
“Bernard is going to let us play music for a few hours as long as we behave,” I explain, already bopping. “We’re going to get drunk. We’re going to dance. We’re going to forget all about our problems and feelings.”
Etienne and Christophe were pouring double shots into small glasses, handing them out one by one.
“To Jake!” Etienne announces, raising his glass.
“Liberte!” Christophe bellows, raising his glass higher.
We all look to the man of the hour.
“Guys, I don’t know what to say,” he broke into a beaming smile, the first in a while, crinkling the freckles on his cheeks. “Thank you so much everyone.”
“Cheers!” I yell over the music, as everyone joined in and we all downed our drinks in one. The fire that burned my throat was an intense awakening. Judging everyone’s faces, I was not the only one. Coughing and spluttering, Tomi signalled for another round. And so, rapidly, we all got immensely drunk, dancing, singing ‘come and get your love’ at the top of our lungs.
Hours flew by and after an escalating round of dares we found ourselves standing without any shoes on, outside on the lower deck, where the stern lay open on the lapping, icy waters. I know I’m supposed to be freezing, but I can’t feel it right now.
“You jump first.” I tell Tomi.
“No you jump first.” He echoes back at me.
“You’re so drunk.” I sway towards him, laughing.
“I’m not drunk,” he slaps me on the back, also in stitches. “You’re drunk!”
Out of nowhere, with the sharp yell of “Alle-op!” the Drouis brothers outflank us, and bomb-dive into the arctic waters with a thunderous crash. As they emerge from the water, only in t-shirts and long-johns, they give out stifled screams about, I’m guessing, how cold the water is. They quickly hurry out, lifting themselves onto the stern, then layer themselves in towels. Tomi and I breakdown in hysterics, watching the regretful brothers shake their heads.
“Oh you think it’s funny?” I heard Jake’s voice from behind and suddenly, Tomi tumbles into the water, prompted by a clean push from Jake.
Now the brothers laugh. Through drunk tears of laughter streaming down my face, I can see that the only thing above the water is a bottle, being held up with care by Tomi, who emerges soon after from the white foam.
“Now you,” Jake turns to me.
“No no no no no no” I back up from the landing, shaking my head.
“Come on now,” Jake grabs my hand, pulling me towards him.
“Do it!” the brothers chant, already dancing to a new song.
“Hold my hand,” he looks into my eyes in a sanguine moment, “we’ll jump together.” I take his hand and our fingers entwine. Suddenly the music fades away.
“Three,” he begins counting down, “two” he looks over to me, “one” he pulls me in. The water, ice cold, takes my breath away. Suddenly I feel very sober. I rise above the surface and gasp for air. In a panic, I scramble onto the deck. Now I’m freezing.
“Holy shit.” I mutter as Etienne hands me a towel. I wrap myself up tightly.
“Magnifique!” Christophe pats me on the back. Tomi helps Jake up and we all decide it’s best to get inside. The brothers, still in high spirits, march off to their rooms for a change of clothes. Tomi follows them.
Suddenly it’s just Jake and I in the corridor, standing opposite each other, dripping wet, my black leggings and t-shirt clinging to my freezing skin.
“I think you might have my towel,” Jake said.
“Oh sorry,” I unravel myself, smiling.
“No no,” he cuts in, “it’s ok, you have it.” He stretches the towel around my back like a cape and places the edge of it carefully onto my shoulders. His hands linger. I don’t pull away. Instead, I take each corner in each hand and thread them under his arms, pulling us closer together. Softly, we collide. Our wet clothes blend. My chest pressed against his, arms wrapped around each other, together in one towel. All of a sudden, I feel drunk again. I lay my head on his chest to hear his heart beat. Jake wraps his arm around my shoulders, then places his other hand on my head, and gently strokes my wet hair off my forehead. I feel lighter. A lightness I forgot about. He took a deep breath and my body heaved in sync with his. After a moment I felt his cheek rest on the top of my head and I heard his heart beat faster. We both embrace each other tightly. The walls spin. Time unravels. I close my eyes.
Jake clears his throat. I pull away.
“You’re freezing!” he exclaimed.
“I should go warm up,” I look into his pale blue eyes. There was a tenderness there I haven’t seen before.
“Yes,” he whispers.
Neither of us move.
The music on the speaker system stopped. It must be midnight.
“Right.” I say.
“Right.” Jake says. “Thank you.” He adds. I smile. We walk down the hallway together. He goes into his room, I go into mine.
“Bear! A bear!” Tomi knocks loudly on my door. “Quick, a bear!” he repeats with urgency. I can hear the echo of his footsteps rush up the stairs. I could hear Jake stumbling about next door too. I quickly glance at the time, it’s about half past six. We are stationed close to Danskøya, surrouned by fractured ice. The clouds are thin enough to allow soft sunlight to pierce through and illuminate the snow, blanketing the landscape. The whole scene gleams with untouched brilliance, dazzling me, as I draw the curtain. It’s so bright my eyes can’t adjust quickly enough to distinguish between the snow and ice, land and sea. When I look away, my eyes also can’t adjust to the features of my dark room and I am left standing for a minute, blind in both directions.
“Come on, a bear!” Now Jake knocks on my door, rushing past.
“Coming!” I exclaim, keeping my eyes shut in frustration. As I regain my eyesight, I grab my camera and coat and join the guys upstairs.
The majesty! The king of the Arctic! The king is asleep. A young male, you can tell from the stubby tail, is napping about thirty metres away from the boat on a large, unbroken floe. His fur is tinged with a pale-yellow hue, due to the algae that flourishes between his fur hair, that are naturally clear. He stirs from his slumber. He looks up at the boat, unmoving the rest of his body, only raising his neck. The vessel softly creaks on the water, rubbing against almost-motionless slabs of ice. He knows we’re here, he just doesn’t seem to care. A true king. We pass round Jake’s binoculars to admire the beast one at a time. After a few minutes, the bear’s curiosity peaks into interest and he rises. But first, he stretches. He rolls over on his back, rubbing snow into his fur, cooling down. Then he sploots (a term I use to describe my dog when he ‘dives’ onto the carpet, and while keeping his hind legs upright, pushes himself along, rubbing his chest across the floor). It made me smile.
The bear ambles towards our vessel. Cumbersome, he’s not the most elegant of creatures, but he’s silent, and he’s fast. Even as he jumps over fractures and cracks, he doesn’t make a sound. He stops for a moment at the water’s edge, dips a paw in – each one large like a flipper, armed with spikes for claws – then decides the water is not to his liking and continues to navigate above the ice. He arrives at the boat and takes a seat on the flat, snow-covered surface, a few meters below where we stand, poised with excitement, not daring to make a sound. The bear scans the boat. He paces the length of the ship, assessing the foreign entity. He sits again. He rises, looking up at us, confused as to how we got up there, but now he can’t. He paces to the front. We follow. He paces to the back. We follow. In a final examination, coming as close to the boat as the ice will bring him, he stands on his hind legs and rests his front paws on the boat. He pauses for a moment in this upright position. Then he pushes himself off the exterior and, slightly defeated, sits down again. Disappointed, he decides ‘not today’, and begins to head back towards land. We continue to watch him on his journey towards the shore until he becomes indistinguishable against the fast ice.
I hear a knock on my door. I'm sitting in bed with a book. I check the time – it’s almost midnight.
“Come in.” I say.
“Hey,” whispered Jake, cracking the door open by an inch. “Are you decent?” He asks. I look down at my extremely conservative pyjama set.
“Yep.” I say.
He opens the door another inch without looking in. “I saw a pod of white whales, want to come see?” he continues to whisper.
“Obviously!” I whisper back, adopting his manner.
“Ok, dress warm.” He adds before softly closing the door.
Graceful, white giants, peacefully cut through the still waters close to the boat, circling around us. The midnight sun bathes them in dazzling splendour, they shine from within the black sea like diamonds. In the water, they spin and dance with each other, faintly grazing the surface with their fins as they swim along. They intertwine, diving deep, then weaving back up to the surface, first fast, then slow. I’m entranced by their delicate waltz.
“We could follow them out for a bit if you want?” suggests Jake, still whispering. I turn to him and notice a hopeful glint in his blue eyes.
“Just the two of us?” I ask.
He turns to me. “Oh,” he says, “I mean, I could see if Tomi…”
“No no,” I interrupt “let’s go the two of us.” I nod, smiling.
“Ok.” He smiles too, pulling his black beanie further down to cover his fair hair.
“For the belugas.” I remark.
“Yes, the belugas.” He confirms in a soft, but commanding tone.
We make our way down from the observation deck as quietly as possible, like teenagers sneaking out past curfew. Jake unties the zodiac and pushes it close to the edge of the landing. I watch him arm himself and check his radio frequency. He’s still smiling.
“Ok ready.” He gives me his hand and I step into the little boat. I give him a smile.
“Where are you off to?” A foreign voice breaks the silence. We both swivel rapidly. It was Nathaniel. He was standing on the platform above the landing, looking down inquisitively, dunking a teabag into a thermos.
“Hey,” Jake starts. We exchange glances. “Just going to see some belugas.” He says hesitantly.
“Belugas?” Nathaniel repeats, not breaking eye contact.
“Belugas.” I nod with confidence.
He pauses for a moment.
“Ok then.” Nathaniel nods. Pauses for another moment, then turns to leave. Jake turns back to face me and shrugs with shoulders with a smile. I shrug back at him. With a big push, he frees the boat and jumps in as it drifts onto the water.
We leave sight of the anchored Augusta. Weaving around the fractured ice, we float on the serene, dark waters, following the white giants as quietly as possible through the night. Alas, the engine must have spooked them when we got close. They retreated into the depths once more. Overboard, I watched their glimmer fade into the back mass. Just as mysteriously as they appeared, they were gone once more.
“Have you ever made a snow angel on the ice before?” Jake broke the silence.
I looked up from the water. “Can’t say I have.” I replied, shaking my head.
“Then tonight is the night.” He smiled.
With great care, he selected a level floe and mounted the boat on it, making sure it’s secured on the ice. He leapt out in a single movement. After adjusting the rifle on his back, he gave me his hand.
“My lady.” He joked.
I took his hand and climbed over the edge of the boat, onto the ice. He walked over to the centre of the even surface, the top layer of snow crunching beneath his boots. It was the only noise that fractured the silence of the desert. He looked over to me, signalling to come over with a nod. I followed his footsteps, savouring every crunch. As I neared the centre, the snow beneath me gave way and with a stifled yelp of panic, my right leg disappeared into the snow above the knee. Jake laughed.
“I got you.” He shuffled over through the snow and lifted me out as if I weighed nothing to him. But under our combined weight, the snow beneath him crumbled and he suddenly sunk to his knees into the white mass. I laughed. He laughed too. Defeated, he sat down on the snow and pulled out his legs, one at a time. I sat down next to him.
A peaceful, soft silence enveloped us once more. Side by side, we looked out onto the horizon. Far out there, in between the gaps of the serrated mountain landscape, lay dunes of soft powdered sugar, glowing gold in the sunlight. I leaned over and placed my head on his shoulder. And somewhere far above, in the real darkness, the stars are burning in the night.
“Do you want to dance?”
I lift my head off Jake’s shoulder and look into his eyes. He smiled, the freckles on his cheeks crinkling sweetly.
“Only if you sing.” I nudge his shoulder with mine.
He breaks into a chuckle. “Sure.” He lifts himself off the snow and extends a hand to me after taking off his gloves.
“Do you now the Shirelles?” I challenge him, taking his hand. He laughs again.
“I slow danced to that at my senior prom.”
“Really? ‘Will you still love me’ came out in the sixties.” I look to him as he lifts me up. “How old are you Jake?” I playfully shove his arm.
“I think the school principle was an old soul.” He explained, taking my hand in his, holding it up in symmetry so our elbows touch. “Bit like you, huh?” he raised an eyebrow at me sarcastically.
“It’s a classic.” I smile, placing my hand on his back, below the rifle.
He places his other hand on my waist – rather, guessing where my waist might be under my coat. He begins to hum the tune and we slowly sway to the rhythm in sync. The snow beneath us softly crunches and cracks. The water gently laps the ice float from all sides.
“Ok I lied,” Jake breaks the melody, but we don’t stop dancing. “I didn’t have a date to senior prom.”
I laugh aloud, knocking my head back.
“It’s Alaska!” He defends. “There were like, five girls in the entire school.” He grins, shaking his head.
“Well, I went to a girls-only school.” I look into his eyes, “And we didn’t even have a prom.” I squeeze his hand in comfort.
“So, I guess this is a first for the both of us?” He continues to hold my gaze, still smiling.
I take a look around, as we slowly spin together, hand in hand. We’re alone on the snow-covered ice, shimmering delicately in the faint sunlight. In the distance, a steel mist lingers over the dramatic landscape. And I felt this world was all just for us, and we were the only two souls in it. Jake continues to hum the melody. In the moment, he closed his eyes, still swaying with me in his arms. I carefully study his face. The shape of his eyes, the arch of his brow, how the tip of his nose has turned rosy from the cold. The way his full, red lips met the curve of his buxom cheeks, as he was humming with a smile. The little beauty mark punctuating his high cheekbone on the left. His pale, soft skin, aglow from the reflection of the snow. All these features, perfect alone, but ever more charming when brought together.
Suddenly, soft snowflakes, like feathers, begin to flutter from the sky. In the near silence they crash against us. They spiral gently down, enveloping us in a haze. Jake opens his eyes and gazing up, smiles delicately at the heavens. I saw the wonderment in his pale blue eyes. I saw the tender innocence of his soul. Time unravelled. I felt a needle plunge softly into my heart and a dull ache followed. A lightness, this unbearable lightness, filled my head. I held him tighter, pulling him closer, fearing letting go. I didn’t want to lose him, I didn’t want to lose this.
“Thank God there are people like you in this world.” I whispered, secretly hoping he wouldn’t hear me. He looks down into my eyes, tilts his head and smiles affectionately. He takes his hand off my waist and with great care brushes a small snowflake off my lower lip. We linger in the moment, holding each other close. And I felt like we were two waves in the vast ocean, together, yet apart; free, yet bound by the same winds and currents, destined to gracefully crash on the same shore, someday.
In the early hours, one of the kitchen staff, Martin, from the Philippines, age 26, died. After spending almost an hour trying to resuscitate him, Nathaniel and Tomi could not save him. Cause of death unclear. It was as if his heart just gave out. As we’re limited on space on board, Jake and Tomi moved the body outside, beside the zodiac, and wrapped it with a large plastic sheet from the kitchen. We all gathered by the panoramic window on the bridge. Snow started to settle within the folds of the heavy plastic. Bernard, still in the captain’s chair, began to cry silently. The chef came over on his left, also in tears, and placed his hand on his shoulder. Bernard clutched the chef’s hand. Nathaniel stood by the captain’s right-hand side in silence. Tomi and Jake returned from the deck, bringing with them a gust a snowy wind. They joined our ranks, standing in a row, looking out at Martin’s body under the great, white, open sky.
“We return to Longyearbyen.” Bernard finally said.
“No, we have one more stop.” Tomi looked over at the captain.
“But we must give him a burial.” Bernard protested.
“It’s illegal to die in Svalbard.” Tomi replied. “Bodies can’t be buried here, you’ll only be able to dig half a metre down and even if you do, the permafrost will push the body up and out over time.”
“Then what do we do?” Jake continued looking out onto the deck. “We can’t leave him on the ice, or on land, the bears will come.”
The cook and Nathaniel were in whispers.
“We will alert his family as soon as we get signal again. We take the body to Longyearbyen, then we figure out how to transport him to the Philippines.” Nathaniel and the cook agreed.
We continued to stand in silence for a while.
“Let’s pull up anchor, we have one more stop before we can return.” Tomi said.
“But…” the captain sat up, freeing himself from the cook’s resting hand.
“I need to collect the final data.” Tomi looked to him. “It’s one more day. The body will be preserved at this temperature and please,” He continued neutrally, “this is the mission. We need to finish it.”
We lingered in a moment’s pause.
“Ok.” Said Captain Cartellier. “Please clear the bridge everyone.”
Besides Nathaniel we all shuffled out one by one.
I didn’t know what to do with myself. Suddenly everything felt so trivial. It seemed stupid to eat breakfast or make tea. It seemed odd to resume life as we were before we lost a soul. I returned to my cabin but didn’t know what to do. I stared out onto the brash ice from my window. Snow fell faster. I heard the anchor being pulled up and thought it lucky the chain didn’t get frozen overnight into the breccia surrounding it. The ship began to navigate slowly through the ice field, gently nudging and pushing small floebits away from the hull. The snow-covered hummocks would occasionally splinter and break part, fragmenting out in all directions. Suddenly I didn’t want to be alone.
I went over to Tomi’s cabin and knocked twice.
“It’s open,” he said from inside.
“Hey,” I began, opening the door. He was sitting on his bed, neatly arranged, also watching the ice patch. His laptop was open onto an excel spreadsheet beside him, but he was clearly unengaged from it. His room was neat and minimal. There was a pile of books on the little table beside his cot, on top of which rested a photograph of him and his family in a tropical location.
“You want to play gin-rummy?” I shake the deck of cards in their worn-out jacket.
He turns away from his window and I can see his eyes are red from exhaustion and tears. I doubt he slept overnight. He shuts his laptop and moves it from the bed to the table, pushing back the pile of books, being careful not to knock off the photograph.
“Sure,” He repositions himself to face me, “but I don’t know that game.”
“It’s ok,” I say, coming over to sit on the opposite edge of the bed, “I’ll teach you.”
I explained the rules to him and we played a few slow rounds until he got the hang on it. We didn’t talk about anything else. We must have played for an hour until another knock came.
“Come in,” Tomi said, not looking away from his cards.
It was Jake. He wanted to join us, so Tomi suggested we all play in the little common area on the upper deck. There we found Etienne and Christophe, talking in hushed tones. They joined us. I explained the rules of a game I once unofficially called ‘king of kings’ and we played a few slow rounds while everyone learned the rules. We played for hours, still not really talking about anything other than what cards we had, until we got hungry. We all sat down to eat together, just like before. We ate in a numb silence. The captain joined us for a little bit, then swapped with Nathaniel, their regular shift. Tomi retired to his room early to finally get some rest. We were scheduled to reach the data collection point around 6pm that day, then we were to spend the next day sailing back to Longyearbyen.
As we reached Magdalena Bay it stopped snowing. The troop climbed into the zodiac sombrely and we remained in silence for the slow ride to shore, weaving around the low shelves of first-year ice, gently bobbing on the water. Tomi pointed to the distant orange triangle that rested on top of a low incline hill, the weather station. We waited for Jake to un-sheaf his rifle, check it thoroughly, then perform his systematic scan of the surroundings.
“Looks ok.” He announced. We filed into our line behind him and Tomi, making our ascent. We walked slower than usual.
We reached the station and waited for Tomi to complete his work. Etienne and Christophe weren’t taking any pictures. They just stared at the beach below, not too far from where we dropped anchor. Beneath us the water glowed black in cloudy weather, no colours to reflect. Freezing mist covered the tops of the Alpine mountains. It seems as though they were endless, towering into infinity, looking into the beyond. Their silence was resounding.
Tomi re-joined the group. Jake and I were standing next to each other, watching the French brothers scan the horizon.
“What’s over there?” enquired Christophe, pointing with his mitten.
“Gravneset.” Tomi replied. “Hundreds of years ago there used to be a whaling station. Now there only remains a few empty graves of sailors from the 18th Century.”
We all stood quietly, looking out towards the ancient cemetary.
“You should say a few words about Martin.” Jake turned to me. The rest nodded.
In reality, I didn’t know him. In truth, death is real and everywhere. I took a moment to remember a few words I found comfort in many years ago, when death and I first got acquainted.
“Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there, I do not sleep
I am a thousand winds that blow
I am the diamond glint on snow
I am the sunlight on ripened grain
I am the gentle autumn rain
When you wake in the morning hush,
I am the swift, uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circling flight
I am the soft starlight at night
Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there, I do not sleep”
Cascades of tiny, soft snowflakes fell. With grace the mist descended, at first translucent, suddenly opaque, and within minutes we couldn’t see the cliff edge. Best to return to the boat. We stood still for a moment longer, in awe of this magnificence. In between the silences, I heard the snowflakes gently tapping away at my hood. This perfect tranquillity.
In memory of Ryan, 1993 – 2019 (5th June)