After yesterday, it's amazing how still the ship feels at anchor. We're in Krossfjord, near the July 14 Glacier (named in tribute to Bastille Day). We'll be here for at least a day. The morning is dedicated to exploration within a safe area, and we have the promise of a hike in the afternoon.
The glacier is quite active; you can tell from the brilliant blue of its ice. I'm not entirely clear on the chemical processes at work, but blue ice is freshly exposed ice. (This picture is from the afternoon's hike, when we get quite close to the mouth of the glacier.)
The wind is sharp, and the clouds are soft and low, carrying snow. The landscape changes around us with a swiftness that would be terrifying if we didn't have guides: at one point the clouds completely obscure a range of mountains beyond the moraine. The ridge behind the Antigua turns from dark gray to white over the course of the morning.
The bay is full of glacial ice, some of which makes it easy to see how legends of sea monsters and dragons got started.
The beach in an inlet across from the glacier is littered with ice. This is the literal truth, but the phrase "littered with ice" does no justice to the waist-high sculptures that suddenly surround us. Many are like huge alien vertebrae.
A pair of seals swim up to check us out. The guides say they look like either ring seals or bearded seals, probably on the young side. Their frank curiosity—and especially the angle of their heads when they pop out of the water to look at us—makes them resemble nothing so much as friendly, very wet dogs. One swims after the first Zodiac to return to the ship for lunch. It may be the same one that follows the afternoon hiking group along the beach by matching our progress in the water. (I am already very jealous of my colleagues with better zoom lenses.)
As the hike progresses, the snow turns the land more and more into a moonscape. It also makes hiking really challenging, since the stones of the moraine make for loose, uncertain footing even when you can see them clearly. Steepness, too, is difficult to gauge until you're scrambling up a slope. So the hike is a pretty good workout, and we are all ready for the tea and cake the ship serves at 5:30.
We begin the day with a shore excursion to the Esmarkbreen moraine. Getting to shore from the Antigua involves clambering down by smaller groups into a Zodiac boat (something like a steel-bottomed whitewater raft with an outboard motor), which a crew member then pilots to the beach. Everyone has to wear a life vest and wellies, piling our hiking boots into the boat; this is so you can wade ashore without soaking your feet, a significant hazard in Arctic waters. People also have to pile their art gear into the Zodiac: thousands of dollars' worth of cameras, tripods, drones, audio equipment, a laptop or two, even a 3D scanner powered by a snowmobile battery. Not for the last time, I am happy that my gear consists mainly of a notebook and a pocket point-and-shoot. Sitting on the inflatable edge of the Zodiac as it bounces along through the water feels precarious in the extreme. It's not until the last week of the voyage that I realize how comfortable I have become with the entire process.
On the beach we shed our life vests and change our boots (this, too, will require some getting used to) and then begin exploring. It's wonderful to be in a group of people who are all similarly prone to wandering off abruptly because they have just noticed a bit of beauty; no one ever needs to apologize for the awkwardness this can create in conversations. I get the sense that, despite all our different projects, everyone's afraid of taking the same pictures of as everyone else. Fortunately this feeling dissipates fairly quickly, as we get to know each other.
For my part I am already discovering that I have made some incorrect assumptions about the Arctic. The moraine here is curiously soft and spongy underfoot, the rocks ground fine. Tufts of moss, tundra grass, and saxifrage poke up everywhere in clumps of olive, rust, and yellow. The beach, like so many other beaches, is littered with bands of seaweed. The day is relatively temperate, a degree or two above freezing; the moraine hides many pools and channels of water. This is not, in short, the hard white blank land I envisioned when I began to think about setting a play here.
We are all beginning to realize that scale obeys different rules in the Arctic. The safe area that looked tiny from the ship is actually rather large. The glacier, from a distance, betrays no hint that it's at least 100 feet tall. This aspect of the Arctic is something to which my eyes never quite adjust; distances are still deceiving me on our last hike. I don't think I'm alone in this. One landscape photographer, shooting in black and white, captures images in which the mountains register as abstract patterns and textures as much as they do as mountains.
After lunch we raise anchor and head east and then north, leaving Isfjord, passing Daudmansodde (which translates to "Dead Man's Point," which is not ominous at ALL), and then traveling up into Forlandsund, the sound between Prins Karls Forland and the larger island of Spitsbergen. The wind remains unfavorable for sailing, so we're traveling by diesel engine again. This, it turns out, means that the motion of the boat is just terrible—not just dipping forward and backward with the swells but also, unpredictably, tilting from side to side. (Sails stabilize the motion, explains Geoff, an artist who grew up sailing in Nantucket, looks like an extra from The Perfect Storm, and is one of the few seemingly untroubled by the tossing about; he says it's actually pretty mild, which, Jesus.) About half of the artists pop Dramamine and vanish belowdecks. I venture downstairs, hear appalling noises of retching from behind cabin doors, and decide to try the horizon cure instead.
Here's the thing about the horizon cure: it does not work.
It's not until several weeks later that my sister, veteran of several research cruises, will tell me that she too has tried the horizon cure and it does nothing, and that one of her research ships was nicknamed the No Horizon because of the way it rode swells. For now all I know is that I am part of a grim knot of artists on the middeck, all of us clamping our mouths shut so firmly as to preclude conversation, all of us staring at the iron-gray swells in desperate hope of finding a horizon. We are like the world's most dismal English pointers. One artist, Chris, will say later, "I have never done anything in my life as hard as I stared at that horizon." A freezing drizzle thickens into snow around us. Water sweeps back and forth across the deck. I am pretty sure I am not the only one thinking, Fifteen more days of this, oh god, what have I done?
I have no idea how long we're out there. The group keeps shrinking. It's down to about four of us when Danielle (who has done things like sail around Africa on a replica of an ancient Phoenician boat and is therefore quite used to all this) kindly suggests that I try going to my bunk. She is 100% right. The vertiginous motion of the stairs is enough to get me sick again, but as soon as I'm in my bunk everything is completely okay. When you're lying down in a cocoon of blankets, waves are wonderful and soothing. Even when the cabin keeps going light and dark and light and dark as water covers the porthole. Even when you're hearing pots and pans and glasses smash upstairs in the galley and the common room. In fact, lying down works so well that I don't ever need Dramamine. Whenever we raise anchor or hit a choppy patch I go to my bunk for a little while, and that's all it takes. (In this I am exceedingly lucky. Several people are walloped hard for the entire voyage.)
Once the ship is well inside the sound, the water is calmer. Nonetheless, it's a pale, shaky, chastened group that assembles for dinner. Several colleagues confess that they were lying for hours on their bathroom floors. Crew members tell us that things were unusually rough. They may be humoring us, but I don't care.