We spend the night of October 3 in a lodge in Nybyen, Longyearbyen, paired with the artists who will be our cabinmates for the duration of the expedition. The rooms are on the small, spartan side—most of us have to go through a bit of dorm-style furniture wrangling just to keep the parallel twin beds from touching—but they will turn out to be palatial compared to the cabins on the ship. These, we discover when we board on October 4, are no more than 7 feet by 7 feet, and that space includes bunk beds, toilet, shower, sink, and closet. Things are so tight that the captain warns us against using the sink as a ladder to get into the top bunk. (The cabin size really does not matter at all, though. There's a cozy common room where most of us wind up working, and you do not go to the Arctic to stay in your cabin.)
The Antigua is a three-mast ship, a barkantine. Counting our expedition leaders, it has a crew of 11 in addition to the 27 artists. The expedition leaders are all stunning women glowing with Nordic health. An artist nicknames them the Valkyries. One, Theres, with her mane of blond dreadlocks and her casual way of slinging a Spitsbergen rifle over her shoulder, looks like the most badass comic-book character ever created. After we stow our bags and the anchor is raised, she tells us a few things we'll need to know over the next few days:
- Our shore expeditions will include hikes as well as time to stay in one place and work (this becomes known as a "stationary hike"). Armed expedition leaders will check out the area before we go ashore, to check for polar bears. For stationary hikes, leaders will stake out a safe area and stand guard at its corners.
- On land, we are not allowed to say "polar bear" if we are not alerting an armed expedition leader to the presence of an actual polar bear. Instead, we should say "PB" or "furry friend."
- Should we feel seasick, we should try the remedies of standing on deck and staring at the horizon, lying down in our bunks, or drinking ginger tea. No one wants to have to resort to Dramamine; we're here to sharpen our senses.
Annick, the first mate, tells us we'll be expected to help raise and lower sails, and she and Captain Joe teach us how to do that, complete with belaying the lines. Belaying! We are practically able seamen already.
As twilight deepens (a long process at this time of year), we start to hear alarming clunks and scrapes against the hull. It's ice. The pieces are small at first.