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.
This is my first in a series of posts on life on the island, describing my arrival at what was to become my home for half a year.
It was dark, of course. In the places far north in the world the sun grows weary after lingering day and night during the summer. On Bear Island it settles for a nap well below the horizon as the year grows gray hairs. So the vast darkness continued, for days and weeks and months. But I knew that already. I grew up in the Lofoten archipelago, north of the Arctic Circle, so my childhood winters were always dark. To me that’s the norm, and starry summer nights still catch me by surprise. There is a soothing quality to darkness that’s often overlooked. Details melt into shadow and our gaze softens. Our irises widen, the retina relaxes and sore eyes rest in the black velvet.
Darkness is a ticket to slow discovery. When you can’t see it all right away, you get to see it little by little instead. I’m grateful I arrived in the perpetual dark of winter, and got to discover Bear Island slowly. I got to see the veil of the polar night lift and the island unfold day by day. It was quite a sight. And let’s not forget the ribbons of absinthe coloured aurora borealis that would dance like a green fairy across the sky whenever the clouds broke apart … The lights of our cities swallow the aurora. Up on Bear she has free reign.
Hibernation seems the logical solution to surviving a cold, dark winter. On our little island a strange and rather paradoxical phenomenon unfolded. Several of the crew members had problems falling and staying asleep. We worked shifts and there was always someone on duty, observing the weather every hour, 24 hours a day. This cycle, combined with no daylight, messed with the circadian rhythm of quite a few. I got off lucky, I suppose, and slept pretty well. But I did have a few accidental rendez-vous’ with my coworkers in the gym at four in the morning. One such night, when half the crew had turned into insomniacs, a band of us did pull-ups and had a miniature pancake party afterwards.
Maybe that’s where the idea of Piblokto came up first. I’m not sure. This strange word is an even stranger condition alledgedly observed in Inuit communities and other isolated settlements far north. “Piblokto is an abrupt dissociative episode with four phases: social withdrawal, excitement, convulsions and stupor, and recovery.” according to Wikipedia.
It also goes under the name Arctic hysteria. It’s more prominent in the winter months and might have something to do with eating too much fish liver. The validity of these claims, and indeed of the condition itself, is disputed. I found my colleagues to be very harmonious people, and we had to stay off the local fish liver anyway.
A sad detail, that reflects the state of our planet, is the amount of PCB present in the Arctic char caught in one of the lakes here, Ellasjøen. The fish is deemed unsuitable for human consumption. Besides, any erratic behaviour, such as running around naked in the snow, was mostly carried out by the Coastguard. They would visit us with provisions every couple of months, and then go for a swim, witnessed by someone of the opposite gender, in order to become members of the exclusive Bear Island skinny dipping club. Above the door to the sauna by the harbour there is a plaque with a quote by a woman from one of the past crews: “I never thought I’d say this, but I’m actually tired of seeing naked butts”. When you get 20 at a time, it does grow old pretty fast.
I’ve joined the noble society of skinny dippers too, of course. I decided that midwinter, the 21st of December, would be a perfect occasion. The sea temperature was about -0.7°C and, needless to say, I didn’t swim around terribly long. But it is strangely addictive to get immersed in icy water. My final count was 12 dips in the sea, oftentimes with pancake ice floating in the bay. It’s a kick like no other, and with a sauna or toasty cabin within reach, there is really no danger of freezing any limbs off.
As you can see from this picture, my colleague Tomas still had his finger intact to phone home (even the smartest of phones were less likely to make any contact) or possibly to check the wind direction. Sure, we did have more technically advanced ways of observing the weather, but in order to keep a snow lantern protected from gusts, a moist finger will do just fine.
More tales from Bear Island will follow in the weeks and months to come. And 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. Tune in to NRK 1 every Tuesday at 20.15 or stream it here (depending on your region).
love this post – looking forward to the next installment! x