Smeerenburg, the Dutch Whaling Settlement

We spent a couple of days in the thrall of the astounding Smeerenburgbreen, the glacier named for the nearby 16th century Dutch whaling settlement of Smeerenburg. This was possibly the largest glacier we saw during our trip but it certainly had the greatest presence; muffled thunder and sudden cracks sounded out a few times an hour, and calving ice rocked our ship all through the nights.

 

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The Antigua at Smeerenburgbreen. For scale, the ship’s mainmast is 31.5 meters tall and the face of the glacier is ~60 meters

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Being such an active glacier meant stunning blue ice and water full of icebergs and littler bergs, hissing and crackling like effervescent soda pop in the ocean. The contrast between the quiet, still moments where you could hear the soft lapping of the water at the edges of the ice and the sudden cracks and crashes of the calves… it was really a magical place.

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Two of our guides and Nemo at one of our landings

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A sunset at Smeerenburgbreen

The area provided several great spots to land, lots of floebergs (beached icebergs) for the art residents to work with, and some quiet time where we got to stay in place for more than a day. After our stay at the glacier, we visited what was left of the settlement of Smeerenburg, which translates to “Blubber Town”. Located on the little island of Amsterdamøya, not much remains aside from scattered logs and bricks. A single whale vertebrae, a couple decrepit blubber ovens and the yellow, fat-saturated ground still oily with the remnants of the whales.

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Leaving Smeerenburgbreen in the fog and clouds

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Smeerenburg whaling settlement

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What’s left of the blubber ovens

Here’s an updated map of our trip so far! Coming up, some epic mountains and equally epic disappointment when the weather turns against us.

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Farmhamna, Respite After the Night of the Waves

Our first night out to sea was a truly epic experience. We sailed from the sheltered, mirror-still Isfjord and headed north, sailing from the later afternoon all through the night to arrive in Farmhamna the following day. As we passed the small mining town of Barentsburg, twinkling in the distance, the swells from the open sea finally hit the Antigua. Turns out what can be described as a “small swell” in the context of the ocean is, in the context of land-lubbers like myself, a massive upset. Three-meter swells hit our little boat, and while many of my comrades head below deck to their bunks I joined a small group on deck. The boat was rocking so violently you simply had to hold on to something unless you felt comfortable sliding around uncontrollably! Waves crashed over the front of the ship, once choice swell drenching a few residents who seemed to quite enjoy the authenticity of the experience. After a while, the waves got the better of me (and most others onboard, including the crew and wilderness guides and even the poor dog Nemo). I got sick overboard, and then felt worlds better.

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Our trip from Longyearbyen to Farmhamna, roughly

As a reward to those of us toughing it out in the misty, cold outdoors, an outstanding aurora came out! Green with a red band at its bottom, the aurora wrapped around the ship from east through north to the northwest, and at one point a separate band flashed into the south (quite rare!) A group of towering, electric-like white shards shot out right above the ship, dancing above the mast. It was staggering in its beauty. Unfortunately, it also kept me out on deck long enough to become quite ill a second, and then a third, time! Definitely worth it, though at a high cost. Late in the night we switched from the motor to the sails, which meant everything on board smoothed out substantially. The peace was overwhelming.

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The Antigua under sail

While I didn’t get to take any images of the aurora, there appears to be one taken of it from the International Space Station! The date is correct and the station was over northern Europe at that time, able to record a pretty staggering Kp7 aurora. Though I can’t 100% verify that this is the exact aurora I saw, it certainly looks familiar!

 

Landing at Farmhamna was  a super beautiful but deeply haunting respite from the ocean. The area was an abandoned (for a few years) trapper station, and as such was absolutely littered with animal bones, knives, sleds and other trapper necessities. There was also a tall wooden structure used for hanging animal carcasses from as they were processed by the trapper, under which the earth was saturated in a greasy brown mixture of fats and blood. The low golden light of the arctic autumn made for some difficult but breathtaking photo ops, accentuating the colorful tundra and the contrast between it and the dark, heavy clouds on the horizon.

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We then continued on to Smeerenburgbreen in the afternoon after landing in Famrhamna. Awaiting us up there was a massive glacier at the very tip top of the archipelago. All told it was quite a haul! The greatest blessing though was that from that night on, which we liked to call “the night of the waves,” the sailing was a lot of sailing rather than motoring and we managed to avoid any more “little swells”.

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I’ve returned, with all my digits, to an exceedingly autumnal New York City. My time in Svalbard was everything I had hoped but nothing like what I had expected. I’m going to write a few posts over the next weeks telling you about the trip itself, where we went, what we saw and learned, and hopefully after some time has passed and the experience has sunk in a bit more I’ll start to process my photos and impressions into some more eloquent and interesting pieces.

Despite my laptop dying at the end of the trip and one pretty epic bout of seasickness, the trip was a total success. I’m really looking forward to getting film processed this week and to brainstorming with my friend and collaborator Emilie Lundstrøm as we bring a show together.

View from the Antigua

View from the Antigua

So, here’s a little intro to what my trip was like! I lived aboard a barkentine sailboat with about thirty other people, including a wonderfully funny crew and four passionate, kind wilderness guides. Oh, and don’t forget Nemo, our guard dog! He was so good at his job we didn’t see a single polar bear during our trip. The ship, the Antigua, was a beautiful place to call home for a few weeks. We even had the weather in our favor a few times and were able to help the crew hoist the sails so we could sail rather than run the motor!

The view from my bunk's porthole

The view from my bunk’s porthole

Our very first stop was at a glacier, which met all of my highest expectations immediately. The glacier, Sveabreen, was fairly active but also had an inactive end that we could land right near, allowing us to touch the glacier in safety. It was a spectacular way to start the trip.

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Nemo and the Antigua at Sveabreen

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Touching a glacier for the first time!

I’ll write more about our following landings and travels soon. Again, I simply must give thanks to all of the people who supported my trip, including those who helped get me to Svalbard as well as the guides and companions who helped make the experience so wonderful.

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Sveabreen glacier

Gearing Up, Heading Out

We’re finally here, go-time for my participation in the Arctic Circle Residency! I fly out in just a few short days, and can’t thank you all enough for the love and support I’ve received over the last year. I will be posting a little update from Stockholm and possibly Longyearbyen, but once I am on board the beautiful Antigua. I will have no internet connection until we’ve come back to Longyearbyen at the end of our journey. You will hear from me again upon my arrival to Oslo after the sailing trip.

Until then, here’s a little summary of all the necessary stuff I am taking with me. Although I’ve managed to keep it pared down, you still need a lot of good winter clothing and shooting with both film and digital equipment can really add up.

Wondering how to put all those clothes to good use in cold weather? Check out the video below on how to dress for arctic temperatures!

Email subscribers, go here to watch the above videos!

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Special shout out to my good friend Claire, who has given me the most amazing wool scarf for this trip! I tested it out last winter, when temperatures in NYC reached 15°F. You can check out more of her scarves, all crocheted by hand, at her Esty. Thanks Claire!!

The Intrepid Photographer

I am unbelievably excited to be the caretaker of a beautiful new Intrepid 4×5 camera. The Intrepid Camera Company got its start with an incredibly successful Kickstarter campaign, and now they are in the throes of production, pumping out lightweight, folding 4×5 cameras for photography enthusiasts all over the world.

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I’ve been asked many times, Why shoot 4×5? Isn’t it expensive? And slow? And frustrating? And the answer is yes! It is very expensive, clocking in at about $2-$3 a pop for a single shot of film (not including processing, which brings that up to $5-$6 per shot!) It is also super time consuming, sure! Loading the sheets of film into film carriers, setting up the camera and taking measurements to align a shot, loading the film, firing… the whole process can take an hour or better. On top of the expense, both financial and time wise, there’s an incredibly high chance that your photograph will not come out, compared to shooting roll films. Even the most seasoned Large Format photographers will nod along to this fact; so much more can wrong, but the risk of that is totally, totally worth it!

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Walker Evans with a large format camera by Peter Seker

The slowness and size of shooting a 4×5 is exactly why some photographers love it so much. Not only is the final product more high-resolution, sharp and crisp than any digital camera out there, but the slowness is a great boon to some of us who have a tendency to rush. Just as oil paints allow a painter to work over the canvas for an elongated period, the large format process draws out the act of photographing from a snapshot moment to a thoughtful 20 minutes or more. The medium simply dictates a different mode of working, and that choice can have a massive affect on the final product (just as the choice between oil and water color would).

The Intrepid Camera is going to be the perfect 4×5 for this residency in Svalbard, and probably for a lot of work thereafter. I’ll be sure to report back on its performance upon my return, and I look forward to sharing some of the great images I take with you all, too!

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Collaborations and Valkyries

I’m incredibly pleased to talk a bit about the work of one of my MFA classmates and dearest friends, Emilie Lundstrøm. A native of Denmark, Emilie grew up on a tiny island, sailing to school every day and living deeply in tune with the natural world around her. Working with a repetition of shapes and organic materials, her work reflects her nordic heritage as well as her profound curiosity for and love of nature.

A sculptural installation by Emilie Lundstrøm

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Little fox made by Emilie Lundstrøm

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My Valkyries

Emilie and I had many opportunities to work together during our time in the MFA program at ICP-Bard, from books to symposiums to installing our thesis shows back-to-back. I’m super pleased to be working with her again on a big project, bringing her heritage and norse mythology into conversation with my experience in Svalbard and the history of exploration in the arctic. We’re hoping for this collaboration to produce at least a show, if not books in addition.

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Sculpture by Emilie Lundstrøm

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Sculptural installation by Emilie Lundstrøm

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Sculpture of handmade ceramic flutes with tubing and artist, Emilie Lundstrøm

I can’t wait to fill you all in on more details, but that will have to wait for a while yet! Until then, peruse some of Emilie’s amazing work and maybe get yourself a Valkyrie for a little extra luck and protection. Worn into battle by the Vikings and found in ancient burial contexts, the Valkyrie is a symbol or protection, fortitude and luck. Emilie has given me some of her handmade ceramic and porcelain Valkyries for my journey north!

Svalbard and the War

Preface: You may not know this, but I take a great interest in military history in addition to my interest in polar exploration and aviation. My particular sphere of amateur expertise is The Great War, also known as World War I, but I dabble in World War II as well. I was recently asked if there had been any action in Svalbard during either of those wars, and the answer turns out to be yes!

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Svalbard’s location, though remote, has made it a strategically important bit of land to control over the years. Notably in World War II there was a fair bit of fighting over the archipelago, for it acted as a gateway to the arctic regions of Russia in addition to having some pretty excellent coal deposits and other natural resources.

In 1940 and 1941, Germany invaded Norway amongst many other sovereign nations in Europe. Concerned that the Germans would try to make use of the rich coal deposits in Svalbard, the British and Canadian forces raided the island of Spitsbergen with help from the Free Norwegian Forces with the aim of destroying as much of the coal as they could. Called Operation Gauntlet, the combined forces were able to set many mines to destroy the coal supply, after of course they packed away 450,000 tons of coal and 275,000 gallons of fuel and grease to take with them. They also took a few thousand Russian coal miners and a handful of French and Norwegians off the islands to unoccupied territory. As they left, the Allies also managed to blow up the few radio stations on the archipelago. This was in late August/early September 1941.

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A radio station in Spitsbergen being destroyed

According to the memoirs of Phillip Vian, an Admiral in the British Royal Navy, the only casualties during this operation occurred when the rearguard at Barentsburg had accessed the vodka stores and had to be carried aboard.

During the war, an enormous amount of naval activity took place in the arctic, mostly in the form of convoys.This meant ships carrying troops and goods, more ships trying to sink those ships, submarines, mines, and airplanes and aircraft carriers, too. The conditions, even in the summer months, were pretty appalling.

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With the coal mostly destroyed and the miners mostly gone, the Germans set up a weather station in Svalbard to help them with their navigation of the arctic naval situation. The Allies made a failed attempt to dislodge the Germans during Operation Fritham in April 1942, resulting in the loss of two ships and twelve men (thirteen if you count a wounded man who later died of his injuries). In September 1943, the Germans launched Operation Zitronella and were successful in destroying the last remaining Allied weather stations.

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A crash wrecked German Junkers Ju 88, which landed in Svalbard in 1942 and has never left

The most famous moment of note in Svalbard during WWII is right at the very end of things. Actually, after the end of things! The last Germans to surrender, officially ever, was a group of Germans posted at the end of the earth, in Svalbard. Although Germany had officially surrendered as of May 1945, these last few germans didn’t formally surrender until September 1945! The story goes something like this:

“…apart from poor transmitting conditions in Svalbard- the entire communication apparatus of the German army was fast falling apart from the seams. On May 8 their superiors in Norway told them that the war was over, but that was the last mesage they ever received. Being stranded on the island with nothing but a rowing boat, they kept on broadcasting weather forecasts (albeit uncoded, presuming that a world at peace also needs to know from which way the wind blows) and eventually tried Allied distress channels. But no replies were forthcoming until finally, in September, a Norwegian seal-hunting vessel anchored at Svalbard. The captain invited the Germans over for a hearty meal (which they must surely have enjoyed after living on canned goods for over a year) but then “we had this situation where no one seemed too sure what to do”. Finally, the German commander said “I suppose we should surrender now”, took out his pistol and placed it on the table in front of the ship’s captain. The Norwegian stared at it and asked “can I keep this then?”. He could and this made the eleven soldiers of Operation ‘Haudegen’ the last German troops to surrender -in somewhat surreal circumstances- on September 4 1945, three months after the war ended in Europe.”[1]

So there you have it, Svalbard in World War II. Four weeks until I set off for the archipelago myself, please feel free to let me know if there are any questions you have about Svalbard, Polar History or my residency (or the World Wars!!)

The Moon and Other Questions

One of the most dramatic and unique parts of the environment at the poles is the unusual cycle of the sun. We all know about the 24-hour darkness and the 24-hour sunlight experienced in those areas, but I recently was asked a very interesting question: what about the moon?

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At ~80° North, the archipelago of Svalbard experiences roughly 141 days of polar night and 128 days of midnight sun every year. During the month of October while I will be in Svalbard, the Sun will be above the horizon about ~15-30 minutes less every day. At the same time, it will be rising to lower and lower apexes at its highest during the day. The affect is sort of like slipping from a recognizable day/night cycle to a slowly drawn out sunrise/sunset cycle with no true “day”.

The moon is a bit more complex an issue. As it waxes and wanes, the moon at the poles has a much longer cycle of rise and set than anywhere else on the planet. At the poles, and in high latitudes like Svalbard, the moon will rise and stay up for days at a time, generally about a week but it can stay up for much longer. Then it goes into a rise/set cycle for about a week, and then stays set for a week. Mystery solved!

Longyearbyen at night

Longyearbyen at night from Kairo Studios

Do you have any questions about Svalbard, prepping for cold weather travel, photography, my upcoming project plans, the history of polar exploration, or anything else? Let me know! I’d love to do a post answering your questions.

When Tourism Meets Science

I had the pleasure of meeting with fellow Explorers Club member and Polar Expedition photographer Lauren Farmer recently. Lauren lives her life between multiple tourist vessels that travel to the North Pole, Antarctica, Greenland and Svalbard. She takes amazing photographs of her trips, which you can check out on her website.

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Lauren just set out on an Explorers Club Flag Expedition, a distinction you have to apply for through the club for the honor of carrying one of their many flags on a groundbreaking journey. She is carrying flag #69, which took its first expedition in the total solar eclipse of 1937 to the Andes. Since then, it has explored the Raikot Glacier, Antarctica as part of a whale song study, South Georgia and the shipwreck of the Titanic.

Yesterday I was given @the_explorers_club flag we'll be carrying during our sea ice data collection program this summer. To be awarded a flag for your expedition means your efforts have been recognized by The Explorers Club as furthering the cause of exploration and field science. Flag #69 took its first expedition during the total solar eclipse of 1937 in the Andes. Since then, it has been to the Himalayas to explore the Raikot Glacier, to Antarctica for a whale song study, to South Georgia and even to the shipwreck of the Titanic. And now, @cowanalex and I will take it to the Geographic North Pole. It's an incredible honor and yes, I will be treating our flag like a baby! A very, very old and fragile baby. #Arctic

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Now, Lauren and her comrade Alex Cowan are taking the flag to the geographic north pole as part of citizen science project they are spearheading. Working on vessels in the far reaches of our planet for years, surrounded by the natural beauty and grace of those regions, Lauren began to wonder how she could help give back to the geographies that she loved so much. She knew that it can take scientists years of grants writing and planning to raise enough money to visit the poles for a few weeks at a time, whereas she had access for months at a time several times a year by working onboard tourist vessels. Wanting to help, she reached out to sea ice scientists and devised a plan. She and her comrade Alex were trained to take measurements for the scientists, and this current expedition of theirs will serve as a test run for the system they’ve developed along with the scientists. Should things go well, Lauren may be able to help crew (and passengers!) on touring ships all over the poles take measurements for scientists on an unprecedented scale.

Learn more at the project’s website and by watching the video below!

Svalbard: Breakdown

W_W_Svalbard_LandSat7_21.14475E_78.71545NSvalbard is an archipelago, a clumpy chain of islands in the far north of the arctic ocean. It’s made up of 11 sizeable islands and many additional small skerries. The area boasts many hundreds of rivers, fjords and glaciers, and has many eerie former settlements sprinkled across the islands, too. The islands also became the launching point for a number of Arctic explorers, including William Edward Parry, Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld, Otto Martin Torell, Alfred Gabriel Nathorst, Roald Amundsen and Ernest Shackleton.

Spitsbergen is the largest island in Svalbard and the only truly permanently populated settlement, Longyearbyen, is located there. Although some weather and research stations exist on the other islands, none of them have a population over 10 nor are they permanent communities.DeGeerdalen, SpitsbergenSettled in the 17th century as an ideal location for whaling and then coal mining, Spitsbergen is a cold, mountainous place. Besides Longyearbyen, with a population of around 3,000, Ny-Ålesund isa former mining town, permanently settled around scientific research. Ny-Ålesund has a winter population of 35 and a summer population of 180. 

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Longyearbyen

Barentsburg is the only remaining Russian settlement since Pyramiden was abandoned in 1998. All facilities are owned by Arktikugol, who operate a coal mine (operations have, however, been stopped since 2006). Pyramiden is a tourist favorite for taking creepy, ruin-porn photos of the abandoned town.

A scene from Pyramiden

A scene from Pyramiden

Nordaustlandet is more northely in the chain and is mostly covered in ice caps. Another island in Svalbard, it had previously been the site of walrus hunting, and to this day is still populated by reindeer and walrus. Edgeøya, an island further south in the chain, has within it the massive glacier Edgeøyjøkulen. Barentsøya, located in between Edgøya and Spitsbergen, has some truly incredible scenes of the beauty of the arctic desert.

A Nordaustlandet walrus

A Nordaustlandet walrus

Kvitøya is the island I am most excited to visit. Known as White Island, Kvitøya is the site of S.A. Andree’s death, where his and his comrades’ bodies were recovered forty years after he first set sail in a balloon from Danskøya, Svalbard in 1897. I’ve written about S.A. Andree and his failed ballooning attempt to reach the North Pole; his story, and that of his two companions, is amongst the greatest and saddest in the whole saga of Polar Exploration.

Andree sets off from Danskøya

Andree sets off from Danskøya

The ørnen, crash landed not three days after take-off

The ørnen, crash landed not three days after take-off

Memorial for Andree and his companions, Nils Strindberg and Knut Frænkel, on Kvitøya

Memorial for Andree and his companions, Nils Strindberg and Knut Frænkel, on Kvitøya