Out in the Cold: Tundra Tales

outinthecoldcoverrightsideToday is a big day here on the farm. My third book, Out in the Cold (cover, left), is now in the publisher’s hands, and coming soon.

Out in the Cold reports to you from Svalbard, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and maritime eastern Canada – including a curious artifact – the last remaining French colony in North America, a tiny pair of islands off Newfoundland called Saint Pierre and Miquelon.

In gathering stuff for the book we had the complete thrill of witnessing the total solar eclipse of March, 2015 in Svalbard, an archipelago about 800 miles from the North Pole. That’s where today’s excerpt comes from. We’re about to set out, a troop of strangers, on a snowmobile trip to the Russian mining settlement of Barentsburg:


They suit us up and put 22 strangers through our paces on how to drive a snowmobile. It is only a five-minute lesson because there really isn’t much to learn. Push this to start the engine, pull that to go, wiggle your body with the curves. And supervision is close at hand.

This outfit is all about moving along, sportsters through and through. They run us through novice moves, herding us in a tentative straight line. We ease out along a coastal plain, the Isfjorden to our left, just a little ice bobbing in the water, shuttered and abandoned coal mines on our right, busy with the pylons of old coal-carrying cableways, stacked up along the hill that hems in Longyearbyen to the east. Just minutes, the buildings along the Longyearbyen waterfront still visible, a shakedown cruise, then we stop for final questions.

The propriety of handing unfamiliar go-fast machines to anybody who shows up, I’m not sure about that, but I’m glad. Over the course of the day I race up to 70 kph briefly and it is a pure thrill.

Now we are firing across capacious plains ringed by snow-laden hills. From here to Barentsberg we run for forty, fifty minutes between stops. We buckle in, adjust our balaclavas and goggles to cover our faces and plunge into an extended run the length of Adventdalen, the valley behind the ridge east of Longyearbyen.

Clean, dry and bitterly cold, the beauty of the route utterly unmediated by man save for snowmobile tracks. Beauty no one sees. Bits of moisture not quite snow, not hail or rain, evanescent, suspended, rise as often as they fall in the monochrome. The air is alive but the earth is stone still.

Somewhere along the way we come upon the most unexpected spectacle – the launch of a hot air balloon. A team from the Connecticut-based Slooh “community observatory” is practicing for their video coverage of the eclipse from the air. When the balloon disappears behind a fell, one snowmobile towing another sets out to follow it and pick up the crew wherever they land.

It tickles me, the grim military bearing the leaders wield like a club to bring all these unsteady novices to a stop. Up front Hans Peter leans forward and opens up a little space between him and the pack so that he can hop off his mount and guide us all in for a rest stop, forming up in rows four or five abreast. He moves to each spot and rotates his forearm down from the elbow with a stiff wrist flick and I imagine a scowl of doom behind his helmet.

We stop on a low rise called a pingo for a random geology lesson. Dome shaped mounds like mini-volcanoes, pingos form in permafrost when artesian groundwater forces its way up, freezes under the ground and rises under pressure from the water below. Pingos grow vanishingly slowly and take decades or longer to form, often at the base of fells (fell, “fjall” is the Old Norse word for mountain), as has the one on whose summit we sit frozen to our seats this morning, between two ridges.

Interesting in a textbook maybe, but you don’t read textbooks on a lump of frozen tundra that shows all the vitality of a mound scraped off the runway at Boston Logan. It is not unlike the landscape as far as the eye can see. With the temperature firmly, stubbornly below zero, I use Hans Peter’s lecture as an opportunity to dab ineffectually at my nose and balaclavas with my mittens, and readjust my goggles.

In short order I have run into the indelicate problem of a very runny nose under my double balaclavas. I have reassured myself since that I was not alone with deficient hygiene.

Your nose is meant to prep the outside air to meet your nice warm, moist lungs. Cold air is usually dry, so when you breathe in your nose is preauthorized to add moisture, and will automatically produce more fluid. Then when you exhale, the outside air can’t hold all the moisture in the nice warm air inside you, so it condenses right there on the tip of your nose. Cold air gets you coming and going.

There may be an avoidance technique the accomplished snowmobiler knows but I have no idea. In long stretches of snowmobiling there is no opportunity to clean your balaclava, so the problem … accumulates. At occasional stops, wearing mittens with only thumbs, it is a challenge to, ah, clean yourself up, especially in the midst of your 21 new best friends.  At least we are anonymous. I hope all those standard issue balaclavas they handed out in duplicate came from the island’s best laundry.


My fingers have formed to the shape of the handlebar grip, my shoulders are frozen high and tight to my neck. Blood sinking toward my center, I think. Careful. We thunder into Grøndalen, green valley, that leads to Grønfjorden, “Green Fjord,” a liquid icicle intruding perhaps fifteen kilometers inland from the larger Isfjorden. A track along its eastern shore provides our entrée to Barentsburg. The top of the ridge on the far side of Gronfjord provides visual drama, dipping in and out of cloud.

Driving conditions into Barentsburg village are good because late-in-the-season snow is compacted, not too fresh, and snowmobiles work best on compacted paths, where their tracks find and naturally slide into the grooves made by those who came before.

Opening the snowmobile up to modest speed for a sport snowmobiler feels secretly heroic for those of us with more timid ambition. Blazing along at seventy kilometers per hour I find myself grinning under all that headwear, holding on tight, very, very tight.



If, as Sylvain Tesson suggests, the art of civilization is combining the most delicate pleasures with the constant presence of danger, then Norway has not civilized the archipelago, but only the little settlement at Longyearbyen.

For outside of Longyearbyen, on the other side of those Beware of Polar Bears signs, there is only ice. None of the perpendiculars of carpentry, no angular form fashioned by man. Just snow, ice, a horizon that undulates, and sky. No sound but snowmobile engines and the wind in your helmet.

No evidence of life extends beyond us and the sound of our engines. No animals, no birds, no roads or road signs, no cables carrying power or pipes pumping water. An entirely inanimate place, or at least one whose only animation, the glacial movement of ice, evades our perception.


Stephen J. Pyne, who spent months as a member of a party of twelve near the center of Antarctica, writes “… the self can only exist — can only be felt and known — in contrast to an Other.”  In much of the polar regions there is no Other, only a constricted, inanimate, frozen world. And that is a challenge for mental hygiene.

Admiral Richard E. Byrd tried to spend an Antarctic winter alone in 1934. Byrd had parlayed a respected naval career into $150,000 in cash contributions (during the Great Depression!) for his expedition. Among other things Byrd’s team of 56 men meant to build a meteorological base where a team of three would record the weather conditions daily. (Also on this expedition was an American named Paul Siple, who developed the “wind chill factor.”)

Construction of the weather hut began too late in the fall, on 22 March, amid appalling conditions in temperatures as low as -60F. Water condensed and froze in the fuel lines of the tractors. The dog sled teams pulled out after three days and the tractors after three more. After just six days of camp construction, Admiral Byrd remained alone inside the 9×13, eight-foot-tall prefabricated building. When the last tractor left the hut was already buried, with only the radio antennae and the instrument shelter visible.

The sun set for the winter on 19 April. Byrd maintained regular weather and aurora observations and a three-times-a-week schedule of radio communications until he fell ill on 31 May. His erratic manner on the radio eventually prompted a rescue – after two failed attempts – as three men reached Byrd’s hut by tractor on 10 August. Byrd was too ill to leave the hut until finally spring weather allowed a flight in on 12 October.

The conventional explanation for Byrd’s illness is carbon monoxide poisoning caused by poor ventilation in the hut. Water froze in the ventilator and stove pipes and the exhaust pipe of the engine that drove the generator.

Stephen Pyne has a different theory: “The truer answer might be the folly of trying to simplify existence amid what was already so simple as to belong on a moon of Saturn.”

Pyne isn’t surprised things went awry for Admiral Byrd.

“Freedom is relative: it requires coercion of various sorts in order to have meaning,” he says. But in his stay in Antarctica “there was nothing to rebel against. You could do whatever you wished. The catch was, there was almost nothing to do …. There is not enough on site to generate the contrasts that allow ideas to arc between them.”

The pilot and author Ernest K. Gann got round to the same idea in a different way. In the context of flying through cloud, he put it like this: “It would be better if there were something to relate to something else and so provide a focus for the mind.”


To the great Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, adventure was just bad planning, but to the poor lady in our improbable little Arctic tribe who inexplicably just suddenly drives off alone, so deep into uncompacted snow that her snowmobile finally judders to a halt in a bank she tosses up higher than she, snowmobiling is no adventure.

There is no reason why. It just happens. Our convoy pulls up to wait while they fish our errant snowmobiler out of the snowbank just below Barentsburg town. She is shaken and insists on riding pillion from now on. They tow her snowmobile.

While we wait the sun bursts through the clouds onto the opposite shore, just so gorgeous, so pristine, all the Earth silent but for our snowmobiles. We are thirty five miles of coastline toward the Greenland Sea from Longyearbyen and we might as well be alone in the world.


Two previous excerpts: Here from the Faroe Islands, and this one, naked and freezing, from Iceland.

Click the photo for a larger version on EarthPhotos.com. Out in the Cold will be ready for purchase this spring. My previous books are Common Sense and Whiskey, Modest Adventures Far from Home, and Visiting Chernobyl, A Considered Guide.

New Ancient Continent

If you’re geographically inclined you’ll enjoy this eight page pdf claiming to have discovered a new continent, titled Zealandia: Earth’s Hidden Continent from the Geological Society of America, from which this map comes:


Interesting in its own right, but also it’s not often you get to read about Kerguelen.

Out in the Cold: Book Excerpt

outinthecoldcoverrightsideMy new book is just about ready to share. It’s called Out in the Cold (cover, left), and as we run up to publication I’m sharing some photos and excerpts here on the blog. In Out in the Cold we explore up north: Svalbard, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and maritime eastern Canada, including a curious artifact, the last remaining French colony in North America, a tiny pair of islands off Newfoundland called Saint Pierre and Miquelon. Today it’s winter in East Iceland. Hope you enjoy it.



Reindeer break at once across the hill above the road – a herd of forty – and kicked-up snow gathers speed rolling our way. No apparent reason for their stampede. These beasts, magnitudes more hearty than the dispirited troika that pleaded for handouts in Russian Barentsberg, appear to run for pure joy.

In the world of Icelandic reindeer, the ladies are both the fairer sex and the tougher. Females and males alike shed their antlers annually, but bulls shed right after the rut, in autumn (and it must be a relief, because reindeer antlers represent the fastest tissue growth known in mammals, up to two and a half centimeters every day. They can weigh ten kilograms).

Cows fight, physically, for the best feeding spots in the winter when they are pregnant, so they keep their antlers through winter. Collectors fan out across these hills as soon as the snow melts searching for shed antlers that soon after appear carved into every kind of bauble in the boutiques of Reykjavik.

The day of the eclipse Agnar was guiding a group. “We were standing on that hill there,” he says, pointing, and for a few minutes at maximum eclipse “the reindeer all got into a group,” as they do at night. “For the reindeer it was a very short night.”

The Arctic fox (that they reckon has been around for 10,000 years, turning brown in summer and white in winter) is Iceland’s only native terrestrial mammal. Reindeer, Iceland’s entire cadre, were introduced from Norway. Unlike the Lapps of northern Scandinavia, Icelanders never took to domesticating reindeer, so they live up here in the eastern highlands in winter and come down toward the shore for better grazing in summer.


Agnar parks the Super Jeep in front of a completely improbable guest house built for twenty or thirty, perched at glacier’s edge and across a road marked only by reflective yellow poles along one side. Truth is, the glacier looks the same as the mountains it lies between this time of year, undifferentiated, everything bathed in white.

Agnar sets about digging places to make footfall in the snow, a spadeful per step, from the vehicle to the door. Just several meters away but over the snow horizon, he claims heat glows beneath the snow and that we should shed our clothes and jump into a hot pool.

At minus eight degrees it sounds like an act of dubious wisdom, especially since we can’t even see that such a thing exists.

“Most people,” he smiles, take their clothes off and run with their coat and boots on, maybe a towel.”

He points to the changing rooms, leaves us towels and sets off with his spade digging a path.

No one within twenty miles. We do as he says.


We imagine that once we commit we will see the tail lights of the Super Jeep driving away down the hill, Agnar cackling with evil, the two of us locked outside and naked.

Shedding my clothes, I read a sign on the wall that explains the water in the pool stays at a constant 48 – 53 celsius degrees. Stand at the edge and the snowy rim reaches above your private parts, not that there’s anybody around. You jump in – quickly – and find a place not too near the hot vents, and your feet float up like in the Dead Sea except it’s not salty.

Whoever made the pool rimmed the water with stones and today nature has laid fresh snow around the pool so that when you get down low in it to expose only your head to the cold, you can’t see above the snow rim. It’s quiet as a scared kitten, so quiet I imagine hearing individual snowflakes land on the glacier. This tiny mote of space is all that exists in the world. It’s snug in the water and morsels of ice tickle your face.

Refreshing, renewing. And like so many other things around here, utterly incongruent. Elsewhere on this island, with heat so near the surface Icelanders bake Rúgbrauð, or Geysir Bread, buried in a pot two feet underground to cook overnight.


Guides the world over fix on their favorite landmarks. For our Burmese guide it was factories. “That is milk factory,” “That is rice factory,” “Do you want to see brick factory? Take photo?” Kemm on Streymoy Island liked churches.

For Agnar it is power stations. He shows us all of them (and there are many) big and small, and tells the tale of a farmer and his own personal power station. Power shed, really. It seems that one summer, when there was no snow, the electricity went out and the farmer went to investigate.

He found the door blown off and snow tumbling out of his shed. Failed electricity led to a burst pipe, turning the shed into the farmer’s own personal snow machine. His neighbors snickered that he could hire himself out to ski slopes.


Agnar’s tires are straight-from-America and too big for him to carry a spare. Only America, where bigger is always better, he says, would make these tires. He scoffs at an Icelandic company that has 38 inch tires made in China and imported. They won’t do in EAST Iceland.

And since they are too big to carry a spare, what do you do if you have a flat?

“You have to fix it.”

He glued his tires right to the rims and the mechanic who helped him told him he was crazy. But he didn’t mean for them to come off. Ever.

I was wrong about Agnar at first. All this derring-do makes Agnar’s fine company on the side of a glacier beat that of any neurotic city boy, or gentrified psuedo-farmer like me.



Back to Egilsstaðir, one of Iceland’s few inland towns and the transport hub for the east. It is the first proper town if you arrive on the Norrona ferry and home to an airport with multiple daily flights to Reykjavik. Population, about 2,750.

There is a cafe in the red house (they just call it the red house) in the middle of town. Tonight maybe thirty people socialize in a light, Egilsstaðir way, gathered in groups around laminated diner-style tables like the Hvonn brasserie in Torshavn.

(Most people on the island are related at least at the 8th or 9th remove. To avoid striking up a relationship with your cousin when out at the pub, there is an “incest prevention” app based on genealogical data that allows people to bump phones and determine how closely they may be related. Just in case.)

An Indian fellow in the kitchen serves up tandoori chicken dishes, Gull Icelandic beer in big mugs and ‘wood fired’ pizza, surely exotic in a place with no wood. People come for the food and the free wifi, or to play chess.

Icelanders play a lot of chess. It is one of the ways to pass the long winter. In the off season fishermen carve chess pieces from whale bones (wood being more scarce) and people knit. There is a fine selection of yarn in the store. Families, friends, the community, everybody nods closer in the winter.

And Icelanders read. In the 1960s there were a dozen daily newspapers and forty bookshops in Reykjavik. There are more books published and more books read per head here than anywhere else. Every tenth Icelander is an author.

Meanwhile, in the Icelandair Hotel Herad across the way, mod furniture that may have found exile here from the rest of Europe after the 80’s swivels in place beside the overbearing silence of its restaurant. The Hotel Herad’s most notable feature may be ahead of its time. Its default TV news channel is not the advertising wasteland of CNN, but France 24 TV news.




I throw open the blinds the day of our flight from Egilsstaðir and flop back down on the bed, self-satisfied because I’ve built an extra day into our itinerary and this will be it, the day we are socked in with a full blizzard. The street is scarcely visible and the flags outside stand straight, towel-snapping in the wind. No plane will fly here today.

Snow-whipping wind bends the trees sideways while I imagine a day of amniotic calm in which I needn’t be kempt nor ept nor sheveled. I imagine ordering modest room service fare in the modest Icelandair hotel, never progressing beyond my underwear and soaking in the state of the world as France Vingt Quatre sees it, nibbling the admittedly graying grapes on the Herad’s fruit platter. Until the next time I look and blue sky and calm reign, and the occasional car makes wary time down the highway.

All flights lead to Reykjavik, four of them, at 8:55, 12:15, 12:55 and 16:10. They ask that you arrive thirty minutes before your flight but still you have to ring the bell on the counter for service. It’s a little whacky. There’s a video monitor on which Saevar the Reindeer Whisperer offers tours of East Iceland.

Americans have tried to convince ourselves since 9/11 that a more prominent display of intolerance, flags and belligerence by Homeland Security will take care of the security threat. Back home we have made the dour airport experience the new normal.

In Egilsstaðir, the old normal never left.  There is no security and there are no security personnel. You are hard pressed to find any personnel at all except the lady behind the counter at the coffee shop. And there are no bag scanners or x-ray machines. Just jump on and ride.

By this time we have had any number of alternating gales and lulls since that first look out the window. Three Caterpillar tractors with big blades race up and down the airstrip. In winter, I guess clearing that bit of land is a full time job. The 8:30 arrival, a Fokker 50, roars in ten minutes late and we are southbound within a half hour.

A pilot on the Savusavu air strip in Fiji once lauded the entire Fokker line to me, saying these little worker bees demand the air, and you have to hold them on the ground. So it was with today’s flight in a Fokker 50, as we roared down the air strip and out of east Iceland like lightnin’.

When I was a teenager my friend Jim and I found some of his dad’s money, paper bills that said “Landsbanki Islands,” and we scoured maps to find these islands. We couldn’t, and came to realize the translation would be something like the “National Bank of Iceland.” In fact, the failure of Landsbanki, alongside Iceland’s other two big banks Kaupthing (“marketplace”) and Glitnir (as we learned in the Faroes, Norse heaven), precipitated Iceland’s bankruptcy in 2008.

The word “Islands” works the same way here. The airline is Air Iceland when you book your tickets in English on the web; here it’s Flugfelag Islands in its livery, and in-flight magazine.

They keep Reykjavik city airfield busy with domestic flights to Isafjordur, Akureyri and then on to Grimsey in the Arctic, Þhorshofn, Vopnafjordur and Egilsstaðir, to Tórshavnin the Faroe Islands and to Illulisat, Nuuk, Narsarsuaq, Kulusuk (where we are bound soon) and Ittoqqortoormiit in Greenland.

From my seat 2A I lean forward and guess that if that propeller comes loose so will my head, because before they start it up and it spins too fast to see, I reckon it is maybe just a touch more than a meter from where I sit. Which might be just as well if the prop flies off, anyway.


Here is a previous excerpt, from the Faroe Islands.

Out in the Cold: Book Excerpt

outinthecoldcoverrightside I’m excited to say that at long last I have the product of a couple years of really enjoyable work just about ready to share. It’s my new book, called Out in the Cold (cover, left), and over the next few weeks I’ll share some photos and excerpts here on the blog. Out in the Cold is an exploration of points north: Svalbard, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and maritime eastern Canada, including a curious artifact, the last remaining French colony in North America, a tiny pair of islands off Newfoundland called Saint Pierre and Miquelon.

Today I’d like to share an excerpt, about a tiny village on a tiny island in the tiny group of islands called the Faroes. Hope you enjoy it.


They built a tunnel to Gásadalur to keep the village from dying. They blasted it right through the rock and under the Atlantic Ocean in 2004. Up to then, Dagfinnur confessed, he had never seen Gásadalur’s famous waterfall to the sea.

And Gásadalur is beguiling, a captivating wind carved plateau of ten houses beside the waterfall overlooking the Mykinesfjøröur, with views to five basalt peaks, watchmen in the sea off Mykines, the westernmost Faroe island.

Walk to the viewpoint. Slosh down the ruts in front of Dagfinnur’s taxi. Breath air that slices like daggers. Sleet stings your cheeks. Biting whips of wind, nettles against your chest. The sun shines at the same time.

Like phonetics and Gaelic, weather and the Faroes don’t play by everybody else’s rules.

Stand at the viewpoint. Wind stirs the waterfall to a broad gauze, an aurora dancing between the peaks dusted white and the roiling seacaps. Past Mykines out there on the sea, it’s next stop, Iceland. Stand right here and you can just grasp that you are – almost – still in Europe.

It’s just beyond reach, Mykines is, and you can sail over to see the puffins and the kittiwakes and the king of all the Faroese birds, the gannett, on the ferry that runs from May through August as long as the weather cooperates, but lots of times it doesn’t. You should never sail to Mykines the day before you leave the Faroes because you may not be able to sail back.

Only a scattered few live over there now. Between the world wars 170 people lived on Mykines but now it’s the same as Gásadalur. Young people won’t stay. Houses and a couple dozen turf-roof sheds make like a village but only a few people stay year round. There is just no way to earn a living.

Mountains fend off the world from Gásadalur, each with its own snow chapeau. Before the tunnel you had to climb the postman’s walk over them, and they are some of the tallest in the Faroes (Behind Gásadalur, Árnafjall reaches up 722 meters), or arrive by sea, and peering down at the landing brings a jolt like jarring awake from the edge of sleep. Way down where sea smashes rocks, a handrail, rusted and twisting, leads up water-slick stones, a forlorn legacy of British occupation.

Gásadalur had a population of 18 the last Dagfinnur knew. The tunnel was meant to save it, or at least stall its dying.

The postman died three years ago. Before the tunnel he walked over the mountain three times a week, winter and summer. A man who knew him told me the postman had no neck. The postman was short and compact and carried the mail in a sack strapped around his head that over his career made his neck disappear.


The Waterfall at Gásadalur

Dagfinnur leads us to the viewpoint and no one is there because it hasn’t occurred to anyone to go there on a day like today and on the way, in grass slick as whale oil, the three of us make a mess of our shoes. When the sun isn’t shining, sleet gouges our faces.

Dagfinnur points down at the old British stairs over the edge (careful there!), hovers a moment in his city shoes, petitions for retreat and I can see him there now in his proper taxi vest, pushing hair back from his face, shirtsleeves flapping, doing a little keep-warm dance, just not flouncy enough to squish mud on his shoes. He waits using the taxi as a windbreak, smoking.

It is worth musing on the economics of a tunnel through rock to serve eighteen, but what are they going to do? You simply can’t have every single person up and move to Torshavn.

There are three new houses since that they built that tunnel.

The waterfall to the sea is magnificent.


More excerpts: This one, naked and freezing, from Iceland and this from Svalbard, 800 miles from the North Pole.


Click the photo for a larger version on EarthPhotos.com. Out in the Cold will be ready for purchase this spring. My previous books are Common Sense and Whiskey, Modest Adventures Far from Home, and Visiting Chernobyl, A Considered Guide.