Friday, 30 September 2011

Last Night On Land

The final modifications are made to my equipment: testing the camera, the camera rig, the film, streamlining my bag so I can move easily but have everything I need with me at all times.

Our ship pulls into the harbour, and we can see the sails towering over the low buildings around it. We aren't allowed to visit the ship yet - she's like a bride before a wedding. But some of us climb the hill behind the harbour and look down on it.

The clarity of distant mountains is unimaginable. They look hyperreal. You can see every rock, every crack, every piece of ice, all details in such sharpness you could close your fingers around them. But they're miles away.

I buy last-minute supplies:
Cling film: one roll
Chocolate: four different formats
Bitter strawberry gelatine sweets: quarter kilo
Jameson Whisky: half-bottle

Tomorrow we set sail. No telephone, no internet for two weeks.
You will read everything I have to say on my return, please be patient.

I pass a graveyard while on my run, a dozen uniform white crosses scattered across the rock slope:

I believe in ice
I believe in memories
I believe you didn't mean it  
I believe you wanted to explain everything, but never found the time.
Remember, kids: running with tears in your eyes makes it hard to breathe. And zero degrees is not cold enough to freeze them.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

First Snowfall...

In Svalbard Museum, a stuffed Polar Bear crouches ready to attack.

I'm still only wearing two layers - trying to resist the third until it gets really cold. So far, Longyearbeyen has only reached zero degrees.

A freezing fog falls over the town, and every sound is muffled. I walk with Ben and Wyn-Lyn as far as we can see, past the school, in the direction of an art gallery we've heard is perched at the edge of town. But the fog is too thick, we can't see far enough ahead to know where we're heading. The fog spills into the valley, and reminds me of Heart of Glass.

I run 7 miles, down to the Eastern edge of town, as far as I can go before the "Polar Bear Warning" sign that marks the town limits. You should go no further without a gun. I run past a Husky kennel - all the dogs are standing on top of their dog houses, looking around to see where the sound of running is coming from. Their heads flit curiously from side to side, scanning the horizon. One dog sees me and starts barking, and all the others join in.

At around mile three, a light snow starts falling. It sails horizontally, slowly collecting on my eyebrows, in my hair and in the folds of my shirt. It hits my eyeballs and melts instantly, blurring my eyesight for a moment.

The rest of the team arrives on the daily flight from Oslo. We all shake hands like the first day of university. Tomorrow is our last day in town before we set sail.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

It Gets Colder

Coming in to land in Tromso, the air is so clear everything looks pin-sharp, the ridges of the mountains below so clear, even from 15,000 feet, that it looks more like a projection than the surface of the earth getting closer. We have to get off the plane at Tromso, walk through immigration, and walk back onto the same plane for the second leg of the flight to Longyearbeyen.

There is a greyness to the town of Longyearbeyen. It has no pretense to anything other than a depot into the Arctic. Pipelines run above ground into the centre of town. When I ask the receptionist at the lodge where I can find food, she says "just follow the pipeline." The mountains around us and the fog falling calmly over the water insinuate the landscape you would expect of the Arctic, but in this town it's only 4x4s, corrugated metal hangars and heavy machinery. This is where things (and people) come in and go out, nothing more. It's a town only to serve the transportation of supplies. Look out over the water and you can see vast whiteness ahead, ice and mountains. But not here. The hills that surround the town are all cut across by a road, a pipeline, an electricity pylon. This place is about functionality.

The sun never rises here, it only skims above the horizon, no more than 45 degrees. It doesn't rise in the East and set in the West. It doesn't go up and down, signalling morning, noon and night. It doesn't do what you expect. It hangs there, just above the mountains that peak over the town. The sky is covered in a translucent gauze through which the sun has trouble breaking.
Few people go outside. I walk around town to explore, but I rarely see anyone else on foot. A woman is walking her dog - a husky, of course. I run a two-mile loop around town three times. Dressed in thermal underwear and running shoes, I try to get the right balance between sweating and freezing, and after around two miles I reach an equilibrium: heat in, cold out. I feel like a well-balanced, efficient machine. I think I look like a biathlete. But I probably look more like someone running outside in zero degrees in my underwear.

More of the team arrives from Canada, Singapore, London. We walk down to the sailing centre to arrange for my dry suit, and at the edge of the water, two sounds are mixing: the waves repeatedly stroking the shore and the hum of the factory churning out electricity for the town.

 At night, I run outside in a t-shirt and trainers when Aaron says he can see the Northern Lights. Two ribbons across the sky, they elegantly loop into each other and flare around the edges. They move faster than I was expecting. Each flare falls slowly to earth; they look like curtains of powdered sugar.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Secrets Of The Museum

The ferry to Bygdoy leaves from the quays at the south end of Oslo, just below City Hall. It's a water taxi, sailing through the gray mist of the bay. A few drops of rain fell earlier today. I'm packed for snow and freezing wind, but not for rain. (The upcoming weather doesn't look like rain...)

I film on the ferry with the F3, and a Nikon prime 35mm lens. I am enamoured with this camera already. I want to go back in time and re-shoot all my old films with it. Return to the slow, deliberate style of fixed lenses.

I've only met Karina once before, never met her husband Nils, but as I step off the ferry at  Bygdoy island they greet me like old friends. Nils has offered to show me around Thor Heyerdahl's Kon-Tiki Museum, because Nils was - not so long ago - a marine archaeologist. (Is there a more adventurous kind of archaeologist?)  But before the Kon-Tiki, Nils has a surprise for me.

He walks with me through the vaults of the Maritime Museum. The shelves of material not on display, unidentified. Some pieces are of unknown origin - shards that can't be put together. Some pieces just don't have enough resources or money behind them to reconstruct. In one corner is an entire ship, laid out in indistinct strips of wood like a drying carcass. "Imagine trying to put that back together..." Karina laughs. I remember that my mother was an archaeologist, and once had the patience to sit for weeks piecing together clay jars from hundreds of tiny fragments.

There is a pile of bones. Broken pipes. Bottles, shoes, dozens of shoes. Nils jumps excitedly from shelf to shelf, recounting fragments of history and anecdotes as they spring to mind. He opens a box with pieces that he found, cleaned and categorised in the early 1990's. They're still in good condition, "It's good to know my work has survived."

There is a team of archaeologists here, wading in waterproof boots through a huge vat of polyethylene glycol. It smells like darkroom photo fixer. The vat held the longest canoe made from a single piece of wood ever found in Norway, and the team is soaking the wood to preserve it. It looks like an oil slick, fragments of flotsam floating on the thick surface.

Nils and Karina drive us up to Frognerseteren, a Dragon hut at the top of Oslo's ski slopes. We peer over the edge at the city's newest ski jump, an angle so steep it scares me just standing here. I imagine the open mouth of Herzog's ecstatic woodcarver Steiner. We look out over the view of the city, now glowing gold with the sunset. Nils remembers his childhood spent up here, drinking hot chocolate after a day's skiing, dancing drunk on the tables after the school prom. Karina and I lament the exploitative, abusive and ruthless industry that television "entertainment" has become. I promise to bring them back pictures from the far north.

On tonight's six-mile run through the city, I have to remind myself this is the warmest I'll be for the next 19 days.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

To Oslo...

Idrees was my taxi driver to the airport. I tried carrying my luggage onto the train, but my gear weighed 25kg, my backpack around another 10kg. Just walking to the train station from my flat was a challenge.

(North Face, you make a great expedition bag, but carrying it on your back is too painful to be practical...please redesign the straps. I'm happy to help...)

Half-way to the train station, I ducked into a side street and asked Sam's Cars to take me to Terminal 5. Idrees walked me to his car. I was so tired after only 4 hours of sleep the night before, I was ready to fall asleep immediately. I always fall asleep in cars. But Idrees' conversation was too involved to fall asleep to.

He told me about how hard he works, sometimes doing two ten-hour shifts back to back. He doesn't take any chances when he gets tired, though. He doesn't do any of the tricks some people do - opening the window to get some air or drinking a cup of coffee. He just goes straight home to sleep. "I'm not going to risk my life for ten, twenty quid," he says.

He tells me about his boxing career. 30 wins in 40 bouts. Most of his losses were because he couldn't get his weight down enough to fall into lightweight - 60kg. He talks me through some of his losses, recounting exactly what it was that finally knocked him down. He says he likes boxing, but who wants to get beaten up all the time?

He has a child on the way - his wife should be giving birth in about two weeks. Idrees would like a boy. He'd like to teach him boxing, but he's not sure it's the right thing to do, teaching a child to beat people up. Sport is great, but maybe not boxing. He took his nephew to a fight once, but he felt bad when he got knocked out - he kept thinking "why should my nephew have to see me like this?"

We talked about the price of baby clothes, and all the accessories you need. He bought a pram for £400. "You could get one for less, but then it'll look cheap. You don't want to be walking around pushing a pram you're not happy with."

"You're Palestinian? Were you at the demo on Saturday?"
I don't really go to demos any more.
He lifts up his sunglasses and shows me a scar.
"That's from a riot shield. People started pushing, and the riot police just beat up anyone they could get their hands on. I had to get 12 stitches and my eye was black and swollen for two weeks. They didn't care who it was. There was a woman next to me, you could see she wouldn't hurt anyone, but they beat her up, too."

As I pay for the taxi, Idrees gives me his card, so I can book a taxi on the way back.
"Good luck with the baby!" I shake his hand as I heave my bags into the airport.
My bag is 2kg over the limit, but the woman at the checkout counter lets it slide. I wouldn't know what to do if she'd stopped me. I would have had to try boarding the plane with my snow boots, weighing 2kg each.

I call my sister to say goodbye. The call reminds me that my airport protocol has changed. I would always call my mother last thing before boarding a flight. She would say something about missing me, never quite sure where I was going or why. I would say something about seeing her soon, never entirely true.  

I fall asleep taxing out of Heathrow. I wake up in Oslo. I was so tired I didn't even notice take-off.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

How Will I Know When It's Cold Enough?

Day four of my cold shower routine. I'm preparing for the Arctic swim. I'm now comfortable standing under the shower for five minutes - I could do longer, but frankly it's rather boring standing under a shower once you're actually done showering, just counting every second for five minutes. After around 45 seconds I achieve a zen state where the cold no longer makes me shiver. At times it actually feels comfortable, sometimes even warm. You being to see how small changes in your position, movement and posture make big differences in your ability to retain heat.

Once I reach a comfortable equilibrium, I move slightly, let the water run over my head and suddenly the shivers are back and I have to start again. Breathing slowly and deliberately to find a calm, relaxed state.

On Thursday I'll be going for a cold swim in the UK's largest outdoor fresh-water pool.

In the Arctic, I'll be diving in a dry suit. I admire Lewis in his commitment:

Friday, 2 September 2011

There Will Be Some Who Will Not Fear Even That Void

This is my love-letter to the Arctic. From September 29 to October 16, I will sail around Norway's Arctic Svalbard Archipelago with The Arctic Circle "nomadic" residency.

There Will Be Some Who Will Not Fear Even That Void is an experimental, "psycho-ecological" project:
part expedition documentary, part exploration of mankind's relationship with nature.

The film is being Produced by Marie-Therese Garvey. Juan Carlos Farah and Newertown Arts
are heading an extensive programme of screenings, educational events and a travelling exhibition.

We're extremely grateful to the supporters of this project so far, including Polar photographer (and TED Fellow) Camille Seaman, The Arctic Circle, Patrick Hazard and the London International Documentary Festival, Hull's Maritime Museum, the Norwegian Embassy (UK) and Planet Agents - experts in environmental educational.

Please subscribe to this blog, and keep visiting regularly to read updates on the project....