Svalbard – Confined to Freedom
This was my first interaction with the locals on walking into Longyearbyen’s hip and happening watering hole. All I wanted was dinner. “I’m sorry?” I replied. “No.”
I’ve heard stories about surly Swedish girls, but I was sure she must be joking. “But it’s 6.30 and the place is empty,” I said.
“They are all reserved”.
“They are all empty.” Work with me, I was thinking. “Can I eat at the bar?”
She considered this for a long while, then said finally, “fine.” I sat down at the bar ready for my first literal taste of Svalbard and, if this is any way to start my adventure at 78 degrees latitude, I might as well be back in NYC at whatever high-profile, guest-list only hotspot my friends in fashion PR might care to name.
The cold air was as expected, but the desolation was striking. People walking along the empty streets were curiously antisocial, but I could handle that, seeing as this was me-time to the nth degree. It wasn’t my first time in the arctic and the traveler in me always assumes a cleverly orchestrated agenda will end up much like all the others before it. I felt proud, and experienced, for bringing an eye mask just in case the midnight sun broke through curtains that fail at keeping a room dark, and I felt I had a head start. It didn’t take long to be proven very wrong. The arctic is a savvy lady whose shopping list of tough-love experiences will make sure you don’t leave as you were when you arrived.
I’m not much of a driver – I take cabs instead. I can’t ride a bike, but I do have a metrocard. So admittedly this city slicker was a little dubious of his talents on a snowmobile, but when my blonde, tough-as-nails guide told me before our ride to the Russian mining town of Barentsburg that I’d be a pro in the first 15 minutes, I wanted to believe her. I started out a little wobbly, but we progressed through the Todalen Valley, and the realisation I wouldn’t be able to shoot pictures as I drove forced me onto the edge of my psyche: just see things with your eyes for a change. It’s a radical concept for any photographer. However, as we hit the first steep hill, I realised the mental capacity it took to drive that fast, noisy thing without toppling over far outweighed the momentary notions of justifying my career.
By the time we got to Barentsburg, we might as well have driven to Siberia. Though now mostly Ukrainian, we embraced the Rodina, glad to be on silent ground. A traditional lunch was served by a young girl whose demeanour oscillated between tormented and terrified, and who started us off with borscht missing one key ingredient – beets. With a bust of Lenin gazing down at our restaurant from atop the hill, who were we to ask questions?
Zooming back to Longyearbyen was terrifying. The undulating landscape made staying upright on a snowmobile barely feasible. Each time I tried to gain control to avoid a tumbling mountain wipeout, I prayed to Norse Gods I didn’t even know the names of, convinced that if I did something magnanimous like overlook the lack of beets in a remote mining town light-years from the nearest outpost of civilisation, just maybe they’d give me a hand.
The cold air was as expected, but the desolation was striking. People walking along the empty streets were curiously antisocial, but I could handle that, seeing as this was me-time to the nth degree. It wasn’t my first time in the arctic and the traveler in me always assumes a cleverly orchestrated agenda will end up much like all the others before it.
The point of my travels is never to reach the top, or be the best, or to prove how far I can go. The destination is the experience, and as I stood completely alone on almost the top of that mountain, I felt as vulnerable to the landscape as I did a part of it.
There arrives a point on any trek when the meditation in motion becomes one of realising you’re human. Step by step, during a steady climb towards any summit, thoughts get replaced by breath, breath gets replaced by muscle burn, and muscle burn travels full-circle back to thoughts. Inexorably, before the final steps were reached, the wind picked up and the snow whipped our faces. The sun vanished into a blanket of grey. There was a bridge of snowy rock to cross which measured 12 inches wide and 20 meters long and held a conveniently sheer drop down on both sides. Would I prevent my ego from dictating the importance of going that extra hundred meters – after all that way, was I really going to abandon the conclusion of our hike and allow simple fear to win out? Absolutely, and I’m glad I did. As I strayed from the group and found more solid footing, I experienced what no one else in that group was aiming for. The point of my travels is never to reach the top, or be the best, or to prove how far I can go. The destination is the experience, and as I stood completely alone on almost the top of that mountain, I felt as vulnerable to the landscape as I did a part of it. I was frozen to the core and unsure when, and if, the rest of the group would rejoin me, but in that 20 minutes of pure solitude, the dance between ever shifting wind and light helped me to understand how the arctic protects herself and ensures an honesty between man and nature.
Finally on the descent, I asked a fellow hiker how her legs are feeling. She looked at me puzzled. It was quite a workout, and surely she’d be sore.
No? Here we go again. She gazed at me as if I had just told a leopard it has spots, and elaborates, “I’m Norwegian”.
Still humbled from the snowmobile, and with sore calves from the great white hike, the following day was to be my turn in the passenger seat. When in the arctic, you should do as people on the top of the world have done since the great migration. My first task was to put a harness on ‘Jimmy’, who was big and black, and very patient, sensing as he did that it was my first time and I was a little shy. But before this sounds like the opening monologue to an adult film from 1985, let me clarify that my new friend Jimmy was a dog. Dogsledding is as synonymous with the arctic as the snow which blankets the landscape, and joining those two elements together resulted in an unexpected education. To be a dog in this cold white world is to be certain of your karmic destiny. You know you’re not living in a warm house and will probably never experience a lazy Sunday morning under the covers of your master’s bed while he reads the paper and sips his Nespresso. You know that when you’re chained to a sled and heaving your master uphill in a snowstorm, there’s no wimping out, but the honour and love which follows the duty of a sled dog disregards material desires and solidifies a bond that can be felt even in zero visibility. But despite all the precision involved with shifting a dog into first gear, the time often comes when one unfortunate trip in the snow means 4 legs and a tail go scrambling in the air while your 5 co-pilots drag you nose first in deep white powder, my intuition tells me the bond between man and beast is replaced by choice words disguised as barks and grunts. The chorus of howling, moaning, and sounds for which adjectives don’t exist, assaults the ears like a symphony of wind instruments which have been chewed up and coughed out by a tyrannosaurus rex. Onward mush! My two leaders Raska and Snooten got the job done, and as our guide instructed, the most important thing is to show them love and say thank you. I remain convinced they would have preferred a cookie.
When all animals were created, polar bears were given the edge. White on white plus one black dot means power. It means you’re highest on the food chain. A lot of people and animals alike vie for the title of Boss on this island at the top of the world. A bear’s hunger versus man’s rifle; a lone hiker versus a deep crevasse; and, on the final day before my departure, mother nature versus the snowmobile. Our engines started at 9am and across flat valleys and frozen lakes we sped towards the east coast in search of the “other” great white. The expanse of snow-covered glaciers and sea ice met an open sky of dark clouds, joined in a frigid balance of yin and yang.
“NO! You need to keep up, we have NO time to stop!”, she dictated firmly.
Puzzled as to why time was an issue when the sun shines for 24 hours and we’re clearly not chasing daylight, a series of no’s on this trip meant one more didn’t matter. As humbled as I was from the authority figures of both Mother Nature and man, I learned that when nature turns against you, she’s really just bringing you along for the ride. The fears which surface only assist in becoming a deeper part of her force. And once I gave up on my own struggle for who’s boss, I rode away with the image of that polar bear gracefully stepping towards me, just as regal as he was unaware of the storm of global warming politics that define him to the rest of the world. Perhaps that image, frozen into my mind, was Mother Nature’s way of patting me on the back and saying, Yes.
Jonathan Pozniak is a NYC based photographer, with fashion, portrait, and travel commissions from L’Oreal, Maybelline, Vogue Russia, Travel+Leisure Asia, and Random House. For the past 4 years he’s been shooting a project on icebergs and glaciers which has led him all over the Arctic and Antarctic. Bringing awareness to the complex and layered issues of global warming is his goal and he counts himself among many image makers currently traveling to the ends of the earth to document these ecosystems before they’re gone.