Yogini has gone Bear, quite literally. I am currently spending six months on Bear Island in the Arctic.
Combined with shift work at the meteorological station, dark days lead to a circadian rythm that would put any free jazz ensemble to shame. Waking up at three in the morning and staring at the ceiling for hours. Pancake parties at five. Bodies draped across furniture for impromptu naps at all hours. The presumably mythical state of “Arctic Hysteria” or “Piblokto” in inuit language does somehow not seem too unreasonable.
The darker side of life in the Arctic is the increased rates of depression all across the region during the winter months. It is no wonder, really. We are people of the sun. The sun gives us life. Spending too long in the dark is a bit like having it sucked out, slowly, slowly. Sleep deprivation is a strange side-effect of the polar night. Somehow the lack of light doesn’t always make us sleep more, rather the opposite. At least this is the tendency among those of us who work shifts. Rampant insomnia can mess with the soundest of minds, and I am no exception. After a sleepless or interrupted night my body is out of whack. And unless I make up for the lack of sleep my heart feels fragile too. We tend to live in a bit of a bubble up here, for good reason. During the winter months dealing with what goes on in the world can simply be a bit too much. Even thinking about the state of the planet can make my eyes start leaking. According to a recent estimate there will be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050. That would get to me on the best of days. On a sleep deprived, cold and dark winter morning it feels like my heart has taken a beating.
But it aint all bad. Feeling the hurts can be a good thing. This is the season to embrace vulnerability and to shed any layers of cynicism. Literally spending some time in the dark can be a great way of tapping into what really matters, of taking the time to feel the feelings. There is nothing wrong with that. The only danger is of succumbing completely to waxing and waning emotions, without the ability to step outside and just observe with non-judgemental compassion. Are you feeling the winter blues too? I believe practicing self-care and especially mindfulness can be a way of turning the tender ache of winter into something fruitful. My first recommendation – always – is to just sit your butt down and observe the breath and the passing thoughts and sensations with an attitude of compassionate, spacious awareness. Feel whatever is there to be felt. It is already here. Let it be. Also, try some of these winter survival tips.
Truly feeling the hurts of the world instead of turning numb is also the first step towards dealing with it. If we tuned out, became numb and closed our eyes and hearts to the not-so-ideal situations, would we care enough to actually do anything about them? I am spending a lot of time pondering alternatives to plastic these days. Because there has to be something we can do. There always is. Simple acts go a long way, and they start with awareness. If we are just aware of it, reducing the amount of plastic we bring into our lives becomes easy. If we tune in and really see and hear the people around us, lending a helping hand to someone who needs it comes naturally. I understand the paralysis often felt when facing seemingly impossible challenges, like the current refugee crisis. I guess one place to start is by not voting for people who deport asylum seekers to Russia in -30°C without the right to a hearing or an appeal. Just an idea … The sooner we realise that we are not seperate from one another, but parts of the whole, the sooner we can create a sustainable world.
Spending time in the dark makes me appreciate the return of the sun all the more. And it will return, inevitably. On February 4th, to be quite precise. Spending time in the dark also makes me feel the shadows more intimately, and thus get to know where to direct the light.
A reminder, for dark and sunny days alike:
“We must accept our pain, change what we can and laugh at the rest.”
The ghost of Christmas past did not revisit Bjørnøya this year.
Last time I spent the holidays up here it was stormy. Right now the breeze is gentle and light strato- and altocumulus clouds allow the full moon to shine a light on our existence. The powdery snow is shimmering in the moonlight and the sea sighs gently as it meets the shore. On Christmas Eve it was so quiet that three of us (“us” being a crew of nine, and the only inhabitants on the island) decided to make our Yuletime bath a salty one. Following tradition, the whole crew ate rice pudding in Hammerfesthuset, the oldest building in the Svalbard Archipelago. Afterwards we stoked the fire in our sauna and went tiptoeing down to the beach, clad only in swimsuits, woolen socks and a light fog. Risk of frostbite was low, because the sea temperature was a whopping two centigrade. The only casualties were a couple of the previously mentioned woolen socks, who made a narrow escape towards the horizon. We have notified the crew on Hopen Island, the next meteorological station (about 150nm away) to keep a lookout. In all honesty we were too full to swim in pursuit.
And the fullness continued.
I believe our chef Bjørn Ove must have studied at Hogwarts. According to the pork connaisseurs around the table he managed to create a perfect Christmas Rib out of salted meat not really intended for the purpose. It’s what we had in the stores, and there are obviously no shops around to get more supplies. So what he did was quite a feat. Everything that landed on my plate was pure magic too, especially the cloudberries he brought with him from Leksvik. Yum. Today the crew have been resting their bellies and skiing around the area, making space for more. This measure was highly necessary, as the “lutefisk” took on epic proportions this evening. There is a lot of poetry in a good meal. The poet of the night (Kristine the cook) also put a lot of care and imagination into our Christmas stockings. She hid them around the station, giving us riddles and hints in order to find them.
The huskies are playing and cuddling and seem very happy these days. They certainly appreciated it when we girls dug out a cave in one of the snowdrifts. We are currently adding touches to the interior in a tasteful, Arctic style to make it more inviting for the polar bears. There is no ice, and thus no bears around for miles and miles and miles. At the moment it seems evident that our little cavern will be used by glühwein enthusiasts with bear hats rather than real bears for quite some time. When we’re not eating we will spend the remaining days of the year composing music for the crew at Hopen Meteo. Following tradition, the crews on both stations will perform a song for (and about) each other over MW radio on New Year’s Eve, most likely on 1757kHz. You are free to listen in. Myself and Ragnhild (a bona fide meteorologist) will also train for our big performance. We are putting on a show of tandem kickbike acrobatics down the longest corridor of the station, lovingly called “isbjørngangen” (it’s basically a 76m long hallway connecting two buildings so we won’t get eaten by polar bears on our way to send sounding balloons). Stay tuned for viral youtube videos or pictures of bruises.
A Merry Yule to all of you, and I wish you a sparkling year to come!
Last winter I spent six months on Bear Island, isolated in the Barents Sea. There is no settlement there apart from a meteorological station with a rotating crew of nine. I was lucky enough to be one of them.
Believe it or not, dogs can be impressively effective guards against curious, hungry or aggressive polar bears. Throughout the history of the island there are plenty of examples where the dogs have not only notified the crew of an approaching bear, but also actively chased the bear away. Nowadays, with a decline in sea ice, bears are a rare sight on the island. The dogs, however, are still tremendously important to the crew. They are trusted hiking companions and someone to confide in.
The Nine, as I chose to call the crew last winter, didn’t go all the way to an isolated island in the middle of nowhere to hang out with other people all the time. Sometimes we needed to be apart, not because we weren’t friends, but just because solitude was part of what drew us there in the first place. And sometimes the unconditional joy and love of a dog is the purest and sanest thing on the planet. All of us grew fond of the dogs, and a few took extra responsibility and care of one each (or two in the case of Eerkki and Aki – they are always together). It had to do with interest and simply with connecting, finding a buddy. For me it was obviously going to be Laban, the youngest and most unruly of the bunch.
A recurring favourite moment happened every time I put on my anorak and a knapsack, picked up my rifle and walked out the front door to load. In a split second Laban would jump up on the roof of his house and go into a frenzy. He’d whine and wee himself from pure excitement and joy. Getting him to stand still long enough to get the leash and harness on could sometimes be a challenge. But one of the great pleasures of getting to know a young dog is to watch him learn and develop. Laban changed so much in the six months I was there! He went from a gangly teenager to a young stud. He learned to skijor (pull a cross-country skier) and quickly grew to understand that running in circles or making quick turns was a really, really bad idea when attached to a person with skis. Well, the one that had to suffer through those experiences was actually me, and I did aquire some interesting bruises and battle wounds along the way. Still, he didn’t want to hurt anyone, and pretty much got the technique after my first major fall. Or it might have been that one of the others is more apt at training dogs and taught him the ropes while I was at work. Who knows?
My worst moment during the whole stay also involved Laban, but it was all my own fault. We went skiing to a cabin, just me and him, and had a great time. Two days of exploring, playing in the snow and cuddling. On the way back I let him run loose because I wanted to take pictures of the old, ruined mining town at Tunheim. Bad idea. We were close to Brinken, the cliff that plummets into the sea around most of the island. It is the home of thousands of sea birds, and Arctic fox hunt along it, even running down the cliff itself. As I was skiing along, Laban disappeared out of sight. I stopped to call him, but couldn’t see him anywhere. I kept going, and stopped intermittently to call for him and take some photos here and there. The landscape wasn’t entirely flat, so I expected him to pop up from behind a rock or come sniffing one of the rusty train carts at Tunheim at any moment. Only he didn’t. I started looking for tracks, and called for him some more. No Laban. That’s when I got really nervous. Being so close to Brinken, and seeing plenty of fox tracks left me anxious. What if he had run after one? Being so young and eager (a.k.a. stupid), he might even try to follow it down the cliff. Horrible images of Laban tumbling down into the sea or smashing against the rocks entered my mind, and I got really scared. I went along the edge of the cliff, searching for tracks and calling, calling, calling. I made my way back in the direction of the cabin, painfully slowly, to search for him. If he had fallen, the least I could do was find him and make sure he wasn’t in pain. No matter what that might involve, it was my responsibility. I had a gun, after all. Tears and snot froze to my faux fur hood. The north east started to blow and the clouds loomed above me. The last thing I needed was a complete whiteout. Finally, after two hours, I saw the cabin in the distance. And guess who was sitting politely in front of the door, waiting for me to come back? There he was! I guess he was just enjoying cabin life so much that he wanted us to stay. When we finally returned to the station I had missed the birthday dinner of Mikael, our cook, and I was a complete wreck. My throat and voice didn’t recover for days from screaming my heart out. But that really didn’t matter. Laban curled up in his house like nothing had happened. And, well, nothing had. Except me being a stupid, stupid girl.
Right now you can watch our adventure on TV! The National Broadcasting Corporation sent a team up and the result is a documentary series in six parts. NRK 1, every Tuesday at 20.15. You can stream it here (depending on your region).
Photo credit: Tomas Eliesen & Kari Finstad