Today 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:
SVALBARD BY SNOWMOBILE
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.
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.