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Arctic Revelations

By Maggie Shipstead

Sep 9, 2021

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Photo by Kiril Dobrev/Unsplash

Maggie Shipstead, author of the novel “Great Circle,” hadn’t written a word when she first arrived in the Norwegian Arctic seven years ago. Here’s how she found seeds of inspiration in the most barren of places.

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This story is part of Travel Tales, a series of life-changing adventures on afar.com. Read more stories of transformative trips on the Travel Tales home pageand be sure to subscribe to the podcast! 

The first morning on the ship, I woke to a light knock on the cabin door and a soft Scandinavian voice. It was one of the guides. “If you come outside now,” she said, “you will see walrus on the ice.”

I was in the Norwegian High Arctic, in the Svalbard archipelago. It was June 2014. The ship was a three-masted barquentine called the Antigua, and it was full of artists: 27 of us, to be exact, of varied disciplines and nationalities. We were painters, sculptors, writers, a handful of category-defying avant-garde folks, a cartoonist, an architect.

We would be on the ship for two weeks as part of a program that brought creative people into the Arctic to connect with the landscape and with each other. We would witness the beauty and fragility of the polar regions and bring that experience into our work. Twenty-seven artists on a ship. What could possibly go wrong? 

Strangely, what I worried about most was not the sea or the polar bears or the lack of phone service or intra-artist strife. I was afraid of not living up to this opportunity, this place. The trip was meant to have purpose. I wasn’t supposed to just have fun and see the sights. I was supposed to be working, gleaning something concrete.

But the project I’d applied with, my third novel, was still only an amorphous blob in my head. Something about a female pilot who would disappear while flying around the world over the poles. I’d come up with the basic idea more than a year before, but when I arrived in Svalbard, I still hadn’t written a word.

The previous afternoon, we had boarded the ship and sailed in sunshine from Longyearbyen, Svalbard’s main settlement. This is a place where bars have gun racks just inside the door for the rifles locals carry as a precaution against polar bears. In Svalbard, polar bears outnumber people. The first night had been stormy. The ship rolled so far that the porthole next to my upper bunk often dropped below the waterline, giving me a view into the sea’s dark depths. My cabinmate, a Canadian poet, had been horribly seasick.

Now, when the walrus alert woke us in the early morning, the water was flat and glossy black. Blue-white ice floes drifted under tendrils of silver fog. My cabinmate and I hustled into layers of wool and Gore-Tex. Though it was nearly the summer solstice, we were at almost 80 degrees north, and Svalbard was still thickly mantled in snow. It was cold.

We would witness the beauty and fragility of the polar regions and bring that experience into our work. Twenty-seven artists on a ship. What could possibly go wrong? 

Outside, a handful of artists were standing at the bow in silence. The Antigua’s sails were furled, her engine silent. On a nearby ice floe, two large and inert brown lumps reclined, occasionally grunting and lifting their long yellow tusks. Beyond, on the Svalbardian coast, the shoreline rose straight up into rugged mountains of snow and black rock, their peaks hidden in fog. Yes, yes, very nice, said a doubtful voice in my head. It’s sublime. But what are you going to do with it? What if you can’t write this book? Or any other book? What if your career is over? I gazed at the silent, indifferent Arctic, but no answers came.

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Our day-to-day routine was simple. The captain would anchor somewhere, maybe in a scenic fjord or near a historic site or a settlement, and we would go to shore and poke around and make art. The visual artists really went to town. One woman arranged vast fields of tiny flags in the snow. Another posed in a bag-like silver garment, making futuristic shapes with her body against the background of a glacier.

Another knelt on the ice and tried to communicate telepathically with an artistic collective in Antwerp. These efforts might sound goofy, but I was jealous. They were in it. They were experimenting, having ideas. If stuff didn’t work, they tried other stuff. They were playful. The best I could do was pretend to write in a notebook. For those wanting a break from creative work, hikes were sometimes an option. I went on all the hikes.

In Longyearbyen, the entrance to the Global Seed Vault sticks out of a hillside. It’s a wedge of concrete with a door in it that leads to a subterranean repository of half a billion food crop seeds, preserved by the permafrost. Basically, the idea is that after an apocalypse, we will use these seeds to replant. So much potential, buried and hidden away in such a stark and forbidding place. I had to hope there were seeds waiting in me, too.

The days passed, always light, blending into each other. We visited an international scientific research settlement called Ny Ålesund, where we watched a scientist release a weather balloon into the sky. An armed polar bear guard walked us beyond the settlement’s boundaries to check out a rusted mast. This had secured the airship Norge in 1926, before it flew over the North Pole to Alaska. There is some uncertainty and controversy, but quite possibly the crew of the Norge were the first men to actually reach the North Pole. Roald Amundsen, leader of the first expedition to the South Pole, was among them. 

Read author Maggie Shipstead’s Great Circle.

Another day, we drifted in Zodiac rafts alongside a glacier, listening to it creak and groan. We saw a polar bear. (Word to the wise: Polar bears are fast.) We saw heaps and heaps of beluga bones, left behind by whalers, and we saw whalers’ graves, mounds of stones piled over bones that, after perhaps 200 years, were still dressed in wool clothing. Things deteriorate slowly in the High Arctic. They linger. Among the artists, we figured out who was annoying, who had been smart enough to bring anti-constipation pills, and who was inconsiderate enough to leave their dirty baselayers wadded up in the common area, which was called the saloon.

The saloon was where we ate meals prepared by a grumpy German cook who served big gloppy vats of Jell-O pudding for dessert every night. On the summer solstice, halfway through the trip, we had a party in there, loud and boozy. Because the sun was fully up even in the wee hours of the morning, we pulled tarps over the skylights and closed the portholes before we pumped up the jams. Club Antigua, we called it. A couple shipboard romances sparked. 

One evening, another writer led an impromptu workshop in the saloon for whoever wanted to join. I didn’t want to join. I wanted to sit on deck drinking beer with my buddies, but the other writer asked more than once. Reluctantly, I went inside. We would do a freewriting exercise, she said. She would give a prompt, and we would write for a few minutes and then share. No pressure.

She held up a plastic pen cap she had found on the beach. “Imagine the story of this object,” she said. Everyone hunched over and started scribbling. Except me. I sat there, mind blank, heart racing. It was just a lifeless pen cap, some plastic trash. I had nothing to say. For a writer, what could be more damning? “Sorry,” I whispered, as I got up to flee. “I’m not feeling well. I need to go outside.”

Strangely, what I worried about most was not the sea or the polar bears or the lack of phone service or intra-artist strife. I was afraid of not living up to this opportunity, this place.

Although Svalbard is a Norwegian territory, a 1920 treaty gives people from other countries the right to live, work, and run commercial enterprises there. Russia sees the archipelago as a strategic foothold and long ago established two coal-mining settlements. One still operates, and the other, called Pyramiden, was abandoned in 1998. Pyramiden was to be the last stop on our trip. The two weeks had passed, and I still wasn’t sure if I’d accomplished anything at all. Visiting a dead, depleted mine seemed only too fitting.

We tied up to a dock loomed over by decrepit gantries. A man in a double-breasted military greatcoat and a fur hat was waiting for us, a rifle slung over his shoulder. His name was Alexei, and he told us he had been profoundly depressed at home in Russia before he saw an advertisement seeking a caretaker and tour guide in Pyramiden. Improbably, this seemed to have been the solution to his problems.

He led us towards a cluster of massive, barracks-like yellow brick buildings cupped in a barren valley. At one end, from a high pedestal, the world’s northernmost bust of Lenin surveyed the empty structures. Seabirds nested in hundreds of windowsills. Sometimes, Alexei said, he liked to go inside these buildings when there were visitors and move the curtains or lurk as a silhouette, pretending to be a ghost.

Once, more than a thousand people lived in Pyramiden, and when they cleared out, they left almost everything behind. Alexei took us into the Palace of Culture and Sports. Papers spilled from drawers. Towels hung from hooks in a locker room. A balalaika leaned against an overturned drum set. On the stage of a dark theater stood the world’s northernmost grand piano. I walked on the bottom of the empty swimming pool. Everything was falling apart, but slowly. Paint chipped, tiles came loose. Hammers and sickles were everywhere and pleasingly retro cyrillic fonts. I felt breathless with excitement, captivated by all of it.

“Have you noticed,” said my friend Joe, a playwright, “that the writers are way more into this place than the visual artists? I think it’s because the aesthetic is already too fully formed for them. But the writers feel the stories here.”

He was right. The visual artists weren’t engaging with Pyramiden the way they had with the empty beaches. But, for the first time on the whole trip, I felt inspired. Everything in Pyramiden hinted at larger narratives. I sensed stories behind the fading snapshots tacked to the walls, the abandoned boot beside the dormant radiator, Alexei’s manic giggle. It wasn’t that I wanted to write about Pyramiden itself. It was that I felt the subterranean tickle of germinating seeds. I hadn’t needed to write in my notebook on a frozen beach. I needed potential. I needed belief.

Not long after I got home from Svalbard, I started my third novel, Great Circle. Six and a half years later, it was published. Svalbard makes a brief appearance on page 537, just a few paragraphs, as my main character lands her airplane there after flying over the North Pole.

Not everyone has reason to set sail on a ship of artists, questing for inspiration, but I think sometimes we all get wrapped up in fixed ideas about how we should travel. We might cling too rigidly to a certain preplanned agenda or get stuck in set conceptions of ourselves as wild party-animals or solemn museum-appreciators or rugged outdoorspeople. We might burden the places we visit with unrealistic expectations. We might hope that a trip will magically fix our lives. But, in the end, places are just places. The seeds of what we will take from our travels are already there before we leave home, planted in ourselves for safekeeping.

>>Next: Meet the Artisans Keeping Tuscany’s Bookmaking Culture Alive

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