What she found was, in her own words, “a million times more than I thought I would.” Along the way, she battled seasickness so intense she was unable to work for days, triggering panic that the trip would be a sheer waste of time and money. She experienced the sense of isolation and exposure that Barents and his team must have felt as storm after storm battered their ill-equipped camp. She oversteered — both at the vessel’s helm and emotionally — veering abruptly from starboard to port, despair to elation. And despite their lack of a common language, she and her fellow sailors found community as they navigated the splendors and perils of a world few humans have seen.
In “My Midlife Crisis as a Russian Sailor,” a longform story published in Outside magazine in August 2020, Pitzer brings those characters to life with very few of their direct words. Instead, she deftly sketches them through their actions, with memorable scenes such as Sasha, the archetype of a Russian sailor, playing his accordion for an audience of walruses, and Andrey, a tattooed boxer-turned-sailor, trying to mend all the boat’s — and by extension the world’s — constantly broken bits.
The story defies categorization, but probably comes closest to an odyssey. Pitzer begins her tale neatly by walking the reader from land, down the dock to the moored Alter Ego, and neatly winds it all back up with a reverse walk at the voyage’s end. But in the course of the narrative, she reaches back 400 years to Barents’ time and forward to the repercussions of those “heroic” polar explorations seen in today’s rapidly degrading Arctic environment. With telling details — often the result of an extraordinary amount of research — she binds the two worlds together. The same masterful weaving is seen in the interplay of opposing images and emotions — emptiness and abundance, grief and joy, hopelessness and wonder. And ultimately, Pitzer shows us, we can experience all this at the same time, because it’s all part of being alive.
Pitzer came to that epiphany when she realized that the waves crashing on the side of the boat brought a rush of delight, even while making her seasick. “It’s kind of this paradox,” she says of this metaphor for life. “There’s no pristine pure experience of joy. There’s usually some nausea that’s gonna accompany it.” And, she says, “it’s okay to have them both there side by side.”
Pitzer describes herself as a “journalist who loves to unearth lost history.” Her forthcoming book, “Icebound: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World,” on the three Arctic voyages of Dutch navigator William Barents, will be published in January 2021. In addition to “Icebound,” she is the author of “One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps” and “The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov.”
Her writing has appeared many places in print and online, from The Washington Post, The New York Review of Books, Outside, GQ, The Daily Beast, Vox, Slate, and USA Today to Longreads and Lapham’s Quarterly. Events and ideas that were once common knowledge but have fallen from public memory fascinate her, as does humanity’s tendency not to learn from history. She feels most at home in libraries or on a boat in the far North.
She previously worked as an editor of Nieman Storyboard, a freelance journalist, a music critic, a portrait painter, a French translator, a record store manager, and a martial arts and self-defense instructor (but not all at the same time). She grew up in West Virginia and currently lives with her family near Washington, DC.
I spoke with Pitzer about her experience spending nearly a month on a sailboat crossing the Russian High North, learning to accept the Arctic on its own terms, and why she considers this story the best thing she’s ever written. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
This strikes me as a story that morphed during the reporting. What did you conceive it as initially and how did it change along the way?
It was really a research trip for “Icebound,” the Barents book. Seeing the cabin where Barents and his men sought shelter, along with the other sites. I had pitched it to Outside, but I hadn’t actually heard back when I left. That honestly was kind of freeing because it meant that since the magazine hadn’t paid for it, I was free to focus on what I wanted. I just wrote down everything, took pictures of everything. What I ended up with was a 200-page journal, handwritten, that I carried with me everywhere. And there was a point halfway through the trip, before the engine broke down, where I just kind of had this revelation about what this experience was and what was happening on the boat. I turned to Sasha at one point and I said, “The thing I’m going to write about this trip is going to be the best thing I’ve ever written.” It was just this sense that this little community that we had formed out on the water was going to be a perfect thing to tell a story about.
You hardly include any quotes. Why did you make that stylistic decision, and what are some of the ways you tried to bring your characters to life without their words?
There were a couple of reasons that I didn’t use a lot of quotes. One of them was thinking of this almost being a fairy tale. It’s this strange quest trip to the ruins of something from hundreds of years ago. Including a lot of quotes can really start to make it feel like a news story instead of a narrative story. I wanted to keep that sense of almost repeating something… I wanted to not break that enchantment. And there also was just a very practical reason, which was that much of what was said to me was relayed via translation. I had an interpreter with me, because I couldn’t speak Russian and most of the crew couldn’t speak English.
I found that actually, the tone of the story for me was fine without those quotes. By telling you the things that they did — particularly Andrey, who was always fixing things on the boat, or Misha, who was so often at the wheel and explaining things to people — you start to get better sense of who they were than through what we could say in our distorted form of communication.
So much of what happened on the trip didn’t involve talking to each other. I wanted that experience of feeling like you’re in the place, and not the conversation about the place. The conversation about the place almost seemed one notch less real than actually being there.
What were you looking for on this journey? Did you find it?
There was so much going on in my life before I left that I was like, it’s fine if it happens, it’s fine if it doesn’t happen, especially with all that complicated paperwork that you have to get approval for to go to these places. It was almost like accepting fate — either I’ll go or I won’t go.
But if I do go, I’ll see the ruins of the cabin. From the reporting that I’ve done before, and the kind of reporting I’ve done for my books in general, I found that being in the place, even if it’s something that was from centuries before, just tells you so much in terms of the physical landscape and the setting that your characters have moved through. There’s a real value to being there. Other than that, I had no expectations. And what I got was really a million times more than I thought I would.
There was something about going to the Russian Arctic and being dislocated, outside my language, outside the geography that I knew, outside of where there’s a whole bunch of other tour boats and people milling around. It just kind of stripped it down to its essence and helped me to encounter the Arctic in a very different way than I had thought about it before. There were a lot of really generous moments, and a chance to re-envision the Arctic — not just as this research subject or just this place that’s in tremendous jeopardy — but sort on its own terms, because I didn’t have expectations other than that I hoped that we would be able to get to Barents’ cabin.
Do you think of this piece mainly as historical writing, travelogue, personal experience, or something else?
I don’t want a category on it. I know that that’s how people will think about it. But my whole goal is to write something that they don’t quite know what it is. My whole goal is to try to write outside those categories. If I’m wanting to do a really original piece of writing, I want people to encounter it where it is, to really receive it as its own thing that isn’t like anything else in the universe.
Why do you consider this the best thing you’ve ever written? What really makes it stand out for you?
It was partly because I had this very clear idea of what the story should be. And I came closer to realizing that vision than I have with pretty much anything else I’ve written.
In the last decade, I have tried to do things that take some important historical event, add to the knowledge about that event in some way, do an experiential thing, where I’m going to a place or talking to the people who were involved in that event, and then relating it in some way to what’s happening, right now, in the world. In this case, we have the opening of the High Arctic to Europeans, which had tremendous historical consequences. We have this dramatic survival story from 400 years ago. We’re recreating part of the adventure by sailing on, in our case, a boat, not a ship, but one which was exactly the same size as the one that carried my characters 400 years ago. Repeating that, which is a wonderful element.
And then unexpected things happen that I couldn’t control, but it ended up working out really well for the story. It’s all about what’s happening now. So part of it was the personal side, what’s happening in my life right now; all these family tragedies. But it’s also what is happening to the Arctic, what is happening to the world.
You and I have both spent a fair amount of time in the Arctic. I think we may both have what is sometimes called “ice fever” in the old books about the Arctic explorers — we just can’t get enough of it. What does the Arctic mean to you, and what keeps you going back there?
I think it’s important to say that historically, the Arctic has been a place of enchantment for people who don’t live there. It’s been this kind of tabula rasa onto which all kinds of colonial and imperial and personal dreams are projected. It can be used as a blank canvas in a way that I think is really unhealthy. For indigenous populations, it’s a terrible thing to act as if this place where they are is nothing, just a blank thing for you to come and put something on top of. So in my prior Arctic trips, I’d always tried to avoid that and not to have this sort of romanticism about being there. And what I found was that this time, I felt like I had a way into that feeling. That’s the valuable and useful and legitimate part of feeling what the Arctic is presenting to you, rather than what are you trying to sort of paste on top of the Arctic. It was the first time I felt successful in sort of capturing that sense of enchantment.
Annotation: Storyboard’s questions are in red; Pitzer’s responses in blue. To read the pitch without annotations, click the ‘Hide all annotations’ button, which can be found below the contributors list on the right-hand side of the web page, or at top of your mobile screen.
My Midlife Crisis as a Russian Sailor
July 27, 2020
For a book project about 16th-century polar explorer William Barents, Andrea Pitzer needed to reach the remote Arctic island where he and his men came to grief. She booked passage on an expeditionary boat out of Murmansk, then headed north on a trip marked by unforgettable scenery, unexpected loss, and wild magic that changed her life.
Lying facedown in the top bunk of an overnight train inching from Saint Petersburg toward the Russian port city of Murmansk, I have a berth waiting for me on an August expedition sailing north.
I’m working on a book about Arctic explorers, and that means swimming in a sea of sorrow. In my train compartment, dead adventurers haunt me: Faithful sled dogs eaten by humans or swallowed by chasms in the ice. Sailors devoured by polar bears or their own shipmates. Even when no animals or people are stalking them, polar explorers have a tendency to starve or freeze or succumb to disease.
I’ve come to Russia at age 51 to re-create parts of William Barents’s third voyage to the Arctic from 400 years ago. Crossing and recrossing the sea northeast of Scandinavia, Barents, a Dutch navigator, went looking for a passage to China, but he and 16 men were trapped by sea ice during the summer of 1596. For nearly a year, they were stranded hundreds of miles above the mainland on Novaya Zemlya, a pair of large islands extending all the way to 77 degrees north. Five sailors died, including Barents himself, who perished at sea after they abandoned their ship and he and the remaining crew tried to get home on small boats. His quest to find the lucrative route to China was a brave but dismal failure. What made you interested in telling Barents’ story? Two things. The first, in terms of how I encountered him, was that where their cabin was 400 years ago was a critical part of my first book. It’s what the Russians call Novaya Zemlya, and that’s how I refer to it in the story because it’s Russian territory today. But the Dutch called it Nova Zembla. That was a really important plot point in my first book, which was a sort of literary biography of Vladimir Nabokov, and Zembla comes up as a Magic Kingdom in one of his novels that is narrated by a madman. So I read the entire history, the little that we have, and I found a lot of things that have been forgotten, some pretty incredible things. So this story (Barents’ journey) shows up in a very short passage in my first book. And I thought, how do we not know more about this voyage? It’s incredible that 400 years ago they went up there, got stranded and tried to survive the winter. The more I read about it, the more fascinating it became. What intrigued me was that these people, who were so manifestly unfit to do the things they did — how did they do it and just wake up day after day and keep doing it? And how did they fit into their world at that time? What would make you do that? What would be the value of doing that? It also was also intriguing to me that it wasn’t well-known. We know all the big stories of the 19th and 20th century explorers, because there are photos and letters, and there are messages, and we have all these narrative tools. I really liked the challenge of figuring out how to tell a story from 400 years ago. How do you reconstruct that? How do you make that possible without making anything up?
Once we leave Murmansk, our boat will sail the same formidable waters. Setting out with a Russian crew aboard a yacht called Alter Ego, I’ll follow in Barents’s wake over the sea that now bears his name.
But Barents isn’t the only thing on my mind. Other grim news is preoccupying me as much or more. Arctic sea ice is collapsing, with few signs of reversal. I’ve been to the far north twice to report on climate change, and in the meantime it’s only gotten worse. I can see the change from year to year in my own trips to the Arctic — glaring differences like glacier shrinkage, declining ice cover, fewer and fewer birds. What are some of the personal ways you’ve observed this over your repeated trips up there? I’m always careful because despite any individual thing you observe, there’s such fluctuation in Arctic climate that it could always be just an individual anecdotal event that you’re witnessing. But we went into an ice cave on my first expedition in 2018, a dog-sledding expedition to the interior of Svalbard, and part of the ice cave had collapsed because they had rain. In January. They had mudslides. They’d never had mudslides before, because they’d never had mud. I was reporting a story for the Washington Post on climate change in Longyearbyen, the world’s northernmost town, and I interviewed the mayor. He talked about how literally every pipeline, all the roads, everything that made it possible for people to live in this harsh environment was not built for the things that it was going through. They were having to reinvent their whole way of being in the Arctic.
My family seems equally vulnerable. The night before I left home, my cousin Joe messaged me about the trip. As kind a man as I’ve met, and a traumatized veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan, he had checked himself in for alcohol rehab earlier that summer at the age of 47. By the time I was packing my bags, he’d been sober for more than a month. On the last day of July, I sent my love and told him to hold down the fort while I was gone.
But I’m wondering if the fort will be standing when I return. Weeks before, my father and stepfather were diagnosed with cancer; my mother is now deep in the throes of paranoid dementia. My two teenage children are fine, but I feel bad about leaving my husband parenting solo for so long while he’s working full-time. Meanwhile, the contract I signed before all this happened says my book is due by Christmas. How did you cope with all that on your mind, being so far away? I had some practice with that because I like to do geographically immersive journalism. For my first book, I went to Russia, Germany, Switzerland, France. For my second book, I went to four continents to research concentration camp sites all over the world. So this was not the first time that I had things about which I might feel stress or guilt or anxiety. I just had to set it aside so that I could do the work that I’m doing. Of course, to do it when people’s lives are on the line, with the cancer in my family, my mom’s dementia and things just getting worse… But I also realized that on a practical level, if I’m not getting work done and paying the bills, I’m not in a position to help other people in my family. So I’m going to put it in a silo and not think about it for this time so I can get other things done. I won’t pretend that it’s a smooth thing.
I feel both grateful and ashamed to have a chance to go off the grid to focus on research. I’m running from looming family mortality into the arms of historic—and historical—tragedy. Part of me thinks I shouldn’t go. But I know it might be the journey of a lifetime.
My traveling companion on the train, Tatiana Ponomareva, spent nearly two decades as director of the Nabokov Museum in Saint Petersburg, until political machinations pushed her out. She helped me in 2011 with my first book, a biography of Vladimir Nabokov, and I invited her along this time as my interpreter. The year before, Tatiana connected me with Vicaar, the Russian polar-expedition agency that matched me with this boat and crew. I’m using my book advance to cover passage for Tatiana and me. We’ll set sail with ten people aboard. Your first 10 paragraphs are in close-in focus and mainly about you. How did this approach shape and possibly constrain your storytelling? I was thinking that I want to be the proxy for the reader. I want to bind them into my life, so that they’re going to see the story through my eyes. I want them to have some emotional investment in me. And I was setting the stage so I don’t have to come back and talk about who Barents was, who I am, how did I get there. So the goal was, in the first section, to have all the outside things that aren’t involved with people in the boat laid out before you. And of course, in the foreground is the family stuff, because that’s what I’m going to be coming back to at the end. Certainly, this is like a quest narrative, and you have to know who your journey person is before they step out, let them know what the stakes are.
Rolling into Murmansk, we’re met by a tall Russian whose dark mustache and beard are kissed with gray. He’s our expedition leader, Evgeny Fershter. Smoking cigarettes with the furious commitment of a French Resistance leader, he walks us out of the train station. We cross a footbridge over the tracks and make our way to the harbor. A single long dock stretches before us. On its left squats a black behemoth of an icebreaker, with blocky white Russian letters on the side spelling “Lenin.”
Directly opposite the nuclear-powered ship, which is now a stationary museum, a lone vessel is moored to the dock: the Alter Ego. Painted white and autumn red, it seems small from a distance, but I looked up its specs before the trip. At just under 60 feet, it’s almost exactly the same length as the ship that carried Barents and his men to Novaya Zemlya. Nice detail bringing the past and the present together, tying the narrative back to the Barents theme. If you’re somebody who wants to write this kind of story, to get that level of detail, it involves going and seeing the replica that they’re building in the Netherlands. It involves communicating with the person who’s in charge of that. It involves finding and buying a copy of the book he co-wrote about it, which has the architectural schematic for building the replica. That’s like 16 folded-out, large diagrams. And it’s me one night thinking: I wonder exactly how long this boat is, and measuring it, and looking at the specs of the Alter Ego, and realizing that they are almost exactly the same. That’s a lot of work for one little telling detail. I find that often the best details of a story are just like that.
To the right, past a flock of cranes hoisting cargo, the city stretches up into hills. On the summit of the closest slope stands an enormous statue of a soldier. This is Alyosha, a symbol of Russia’s Arctic forces, which suffered brutal losses holding this corner of the world against German onslaughts during World War II. This is an image you will keep coming back to. What does it mean to you? I laid out in the first section that I have this cousin who is a traumatized veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq, and that we’re in crisis. And Alyosha is a monument for when Russia was in crisis. Also, if I’m painting the picture of Murmansk, it’s the visual, recognizable symbol. When you look at the landscape of Murmansk, it has this huge, huge statue overlooking it. So I’m trying to do about three different things here on a visual level. I’m trying to give readers Murmansk in a nutshell. On the foreshadowing level, we now have a second soldier in the story: that is the memorial to a lot of lost soldiers. I’m starting to signal that soldiers are going to have a tough time in these situations in which we put them. And also this sense of history, that we’re traveling inside history — that we aren’t just going into the Arctic with some kind of blank slate, we’re going from a place that has a bloody history. We’re going from a country that fetishizes its soldier heroes. I am going as an American, with what I would call a soldier hero who is suffering from his involvement in these wars. With any strong visual element like that, the more roles I can have it playing in the story, the better. At this point, it’s just a throwaway sentence to sort of just give you Murmansk in a nutshell. I’m sort of winking at it being more like a travelogue here, but I’m also trying to plant a seed that I’m going to use later.
We cross a wooden plank and board. Mikhail Tekuchev, the ship’s captain, is clean-shaven and almost as tall as Evgeny. Greeting us with a smile, he warns us to fill up on food tonight, because we probably won’t feel like eating for a while once we head out.
We unpack our bags, finding the odd cabinets and crevices that are essential to life at sea. Our cabin mate, Olga Chumachenko, is the designated ship’s cook, but her real trade is photojournalism. She has already traveled to the North Pole and Antarctica.
Next we meet Andrey Ianushkevich, who makes a vivid impression with a full beard and a right-arm tattoo of Saint George killing the dragon. Nice detail. Formerly a boxer and a businessman, he’s also a licensed captain and will serve as first mate.
The last crew member, Alexander Bogdanov, nicknamed Sasha, has a salt-and-pepper crew cut and knows some English. In his striped shirt, he looks like the archetype of a Russian sailor. In fact, he’s the newest member of the crew, and spent decades as a professional paraglider before setting foot on the Alter Ego.
Feeling tense and overfed from lack of exercise, I go on deck to do push-ups and sit-ups. This might mark me as strange to my new companions, but it’s probably too late to kick me off the boat. Before long, I learn that others already have their own shipboard workout routines.
That evening, we leave the harbor without fanfare, abandoning Kola Bay and heading east along the coast. I meet two other passengers, marine biologists Marthe Larsen Haarr and Michael Pantalos, who work for the marine consulting group SALT and are joining the expedition with support from a Norwegian-Russian partnership. They’ll be mapping the amount of trash in the Barents and Kara Seas north of mainland Russia. I was on a research voyage across the Fram Strait last September where they were studying microplastics in the Arctic. They found enormous amounts in some places. Did you see much trash, and how did that impact your sense of the place? Plastic bottles, nets, just all kinds of trash in general, but particularly plastic trash. It didn’t surprise me because I’ve been to Svalbard before and seen even more along the western coast that had washed up there. But it was really dismaying. We have this huge, huge problem.
The last passenger, Alexey Neumoin, is a tourist. A Russian mystic as intense as any character in Dostoevsky, Alexey comes with some 21st-century updates: he’s also a web designer and martial artist. He intends to meditate along the entire route of our expedition and sees himself, quite seriously, as having a personal mission in the far north.
Before we can land anywhere up there, though, we have to cross the Barents Sea, traveling hundreds of miles to reach Cape Desire, a spot on the northeastern corner of Novaya Zemlya in the protected Russian Arctic National Park. There we’ll pick up the last member of our party—a ranger, whose presence is required on any expedition visiting the preserve.
I volunteer to help with the sailing whenever possible, and since I can’t speak Russian, I ask Tatiana to tell the crew that I hauled lines on sails during a prior Arctic expedition. I don’t have much experience, I say, but I’m strong. “If you’re so strong, why don’t you pull up the anchor?” Sasha replies. He’s a smartass, but he’s already impossible to dislike. When and where was this prior expedition? What did you do? The Arctic Circle residency program, in September 2018. We were at sea for just over two weeks. We sailed the west coast of Svalbard in a tall ship. I learned a good amount, although I knew very little to begin with, and for me to be on a tall ship, sailing the western coast of Svalbard — Barents is the first person in recorded history to have been there. He’s actually the person who named it Spitsbergen (the largest island in the Svalbard archipelago).
That night, as we sail along the shoreline, I step out from our skylit cabin into the dark coffin of the hallway just as the ship rolls in the trough of a wave. I brace myself against the wall. Nausea drives my lurching stomach up into my skull. Perfect description! I get seasick and I know how miserable it is. But could you really will it away? That’s some tremendous willpower! I had never at any time before been seasick, so I had foolishly assumed that I never would be. I remember that physical reaction very strongly because it was completely unexpected. I’m trying partly to take the reader with me in that moment. And in that moment, I don’t know if I’m going to spend the next four days seasick. What I found later, was when I was on deck, was that it was much, much better if I had the line of horizon in my eyes. Then I could tolerate it. Now I have great empathy for those people who routinely suffer.
I will my internal organs into obedience and go up to the deck. First mate Andrey is at the wheel, and he tosses me a piece of an orange. He speaks little English, but there’s no need to talk. I notice that the compartments on deck are filled with bananas, apples, oranges, leafy greens, and carrots. Whatever else might go wrong, we won’t die of scurvy.
Mist and clouds linger above the long plateau of an offshore island that we pass, its rocky surface glowing mossy green in the predawn light. As waves break along the sides of the boat, I feel a rush of delight. I know exactly that feeling, too. I get it whenever I’m sailing. What was it for you? There was actually a line that in the story that we cut because there was so much more. When I first wrote the story it was 20,000 words. I did not give that to my editor. I cut it like down to like, I think 8,000 words, and it ended up being 7,000, something like that. But in terms of the line that came out, it was my recognition that in that moment when that rush of delight happens, that is the same thing that’s making me seasick. It’s kind of this paradox. It’s part and parcel that, like there’s no pristine pure experience of joy. There’s usually some nausea that’s going to accompany it. I think that’s a theme that comes out in the book — pleasure and pain, agony and ecstasy. That you can have pure joy and pure misery, all mixed together. That afternoon, Captain Misha hands me coveralls to wear. We go on deck, where he leans in close to the long boom that nestles perpendicular to the mast. Inside one end is a set of levers.
“Look,” he says, pointing to his eyes and then to the levers. After he adjusts something, he holds up three fingers and has me find the third metal ring in the sail, which sits accordioned atop the boom. After leveraging the ring, called a cringle, onto a nearby hook, I haul the sail into position. I’m not prepared to captain the boat just yet, obviously, but if the entire crew becomes incapacitated, I think I have a fighting chance to reef and hoist the mainsail, on which I could scrawl an SOS.
As we prepare for the open sea, all passengers get basic safety training. If we smell smoke at any time, we should alert the crew immediately. We must always wear a life jacket on deck. We practice putting on our flotation suits and learn what to do if we encounter a polar bear.
At the end, Evgeny tells a joke about a new expedition member who’s advised that, if he comes face-to-face with a hungry bear, he should smear shit on the animal’s nose. “Where does the shit come from?” the trainee asks. “Don’t worry,” the instructor replies, “there will be plenty.”Sailing in the season of the midnight sun, we see daylight around the clock for most of the trip. The temperature usually hovers just above or below freezing.
Our last hour close to shore, the waves are a vivid teal, the color of some alien gemstone. Sasha appears on deck, cradling a Russian button accordion, and starts playing Eugen Doga’s haunting waltz “My Sweet and Tender Beast.” We sail between two long spits of rock toward the horizon, a thin, blurry line that becomes more indistinct in the days that follow. Below us, the water darkens to slate blue. Above, the clouds sit like some pale country, as if the sea is a shadow of the sky. The blurring horizon — another unique and wonderful thing about the Arctic. And I love the mood you create with this song! Is the “shadow of the sky” a foreshadow of the mirage at the end? The sky in the Arctic feels so much livelier than it does where I live. It seems so changeable, and you have one kind of sky over the top of the landmass, and right next to it, it’s a totally different kind of sky. There is something about it that either the light filters through it differently, or the weather is literally more changeable there so that you have different systems sort of building up together more often. I wanted to capture that sense of the sky becoming more real in some way sometimes than the plane that we’re on now. The sky became this kind of thing.
We leave land behind on the morning of August 8, two days into the trip. When we hit the open sea the going gets rough, and nobody shows up for breakfast the first morning, not even Olga the cook. I spend the next three days thoroughly nauseous, with my body rejecting food and sleep. I’m able to keep tiny meals down only by constantly reminding myself not to throw up.
Taking the edge off my misery, Captain Misha invites me on deck to learn how to steer. The wheel is almost as tall as me; it looks like an oversize steering wheel on a toy dashboard.
Pointing and demonstrating, Misha tries to show me how to use a gauge to maintain our current bearing. It quickly becomes apparent that steering a boat is just like driving a car—that is, if wind regularly blows you off the road, and the road moves up and down like a roller coaster. I have a tendency to oversteer, waiting too long to correct the course, which leads to sweeping turns that necessitate corrections of their own, slowing our progress. Great description of sailing. You really convey what it’s like learning to handle the helm. People have read this story and seen it as self-deprecating. And if that’s true, maybe I went too far with it. I wasn’t trying to make myself look bad. I think I’m pretty badass, sailing in the Arctic. I’m proud of myself for being somebody who jumps into things and tries things and takes chances. But I don’t like the kind of narrative that jumps in and pretends to an expertise that the reporter just does not have. And since this story is written in present tense, I’m taking readers along, literally as it happens, moment to moment, with me. I wanted to bring the eyes of the beginner to the reader. I messed things up, I learned a lot of things. I got some new skills. But I didn’t want to pretend to be really good at things that were really new to me that I made mistakes at.
With more gestures and a handful of English words, Misha explains that the gauge and digital map of our course are lagging indicators. He shows me how to watch the “little magicians”—short plastic strips fastened to the sail and a cable securing the mast. Like tiny windsocks, they provide instant feedback on whether the boat is really catching the breeze.
While we’re at it, I learn that we have other vessels on board. One is a bright red boat called Mikhalych, attached to the back of the Alter Ego and lowered into the water by a motorized winch. (It will ferry us to shore on Novaya Zemlya, if we live long enough to get there.) The second is an inflatable raft, Pchyolka—“bee” in Russian—which is folded neatly and strapped to the deck before the mast. The captain’s drone, nicknamed Zhuzha—“buzzbuzz”—makes regular circuits to survey the sea and sky when Misha isn’t at the wheel.
During this sloshy ride I keep trying to take notes, but my aggrieved stomach makes writing an ordeal. Others have it worse. Apart from Michael, no one even sees Marthe for several days—and it’s not easy to vanish completely on a boat this size. I watch with wonder as Andrey, when he’s not on duty, manages to sit quietly with his e-reader, devouring a historical novel set in the time of Peter the Great. Among the passengers, Tatiana alone floats unperturbed through the unsettling waves.
I take to using bungee cords on the bedframe to strap my legs in at night, so I won’t roll onto her if I ever manage to fall asleep again. But sleep doesn’t come, and in my darkest hour on the longest night, I hear the rustle of cellophane. I look over the side of my bunk to see Tatiana calmly eating crackers and scrolling through pictures on her phone. But it’s early August and still nearly 24-hour sun, as you mention earlier. So what do you mean by “longest night?” I literally just meant the night of discomfort and distress from the seasickness. It was literally “night time” even though it wasn’t dark, but it was sort of the darkness of the soul, if you were, on the third day of being seasick. I really was hopeless in that moment, because I was in a new situation — I had never been seasick before. I was making these short notes at the beginning, but now I couldn’t even sit and look at a page for very long. I just thought, what if I have left my family in dire straits, spent so much of my book advance to be able to get up here, and then I’m so seasick that I can’t even get what little bit I needed to get for this book? Feeling like I’ve thrown this money in the trash can, that my mom might need for her care. I’m making a little fun of myself right now, but actually, there was a lot of anxiety. So the darkness of the darkest night there was entirely metaphor.
Hours later I sit at the dining table, feeling despondent. Expedition leader Evgeny sprawls in the seat across from me. It’s day four, and I realize I can’t remember ever seeing him eat. Like some 1970s supermodel, he appears to subsist entirely on cigarettes.
I ask him if he feels sick. He doesn’t answer but says that if I’m feeling bad, the best medicine is to take the wheel. I go on deck, where we’re still surrounded by endless water. Lovely description of being at sea. The sun has come through the clouds, turning stretches of the sea’s surface a milky white.
We sail all day and night for almost a week. Crew members take the helm in four-hour split shifts: two hours steering and two as backup. Tuesday morning we spot land. As we approach shore, the collective nausea begins to subside. Sasha makes blini for breakfast and lets me practice doing a stovetop flip. Nice job of building up tension with pacing, then releasing it with collective relief. The reader feels better, too!
Working our way around the same coastline that Barents mapped, we come to Cape Desire. Lowering Mikhalych off the back, the crew gets ready to take us ashore. Once we hit the beach, Tatiana and I, along with a ranger from the station, walk up the bluff and climb exposed lighthouse stairs to look at the sea. Birds wheel and scream, creating a wild melody of their own invention. Due north, nothing is visible but the Arctic Ocean. So evocative! The Arctic is the kingdom of seabirds, and you bring the cacophony to life with these few, well-chosen words.
The next morning, leaving Cape Desire behind, we cross into the frigid Kara Sea, east of Novaya Zemlya. As if recognizing that we’ve abandoned normal space-time, the GPS glitches and for a while shows the boat sitting off the coast of West Africa. Wow!
The ranger who’s joined us for this leg of the voyage turns out to be another Sasha, blond and quieter than the one we already have. The day after Sasha II’s arrival, we aim the boat toward a legendary place called Ice Harbor—home to the ruins of William Barents’s cabin, which he and his men named the Behouden Huys, or Safe House. It was built using driftwood and lumber from their icebound ship. And now we’ve shifted back to the historical, back to Barents. I really like the way you talk about the wheels that were set in motion then that eventually delivered us climate change, and how you connect the thread to the present. And bringing it back to a process abetted by the characters in your book. That’s a really powerful and significant connection. Thank you. It was important to me to not have this just be some picturesque story, but to sort of say, what are the implications, let’s bring in history. The truth is that a lot of the exploration that’s been done has been done in the name of the empire and colonization, and has had tremendous repercussions.
Barents wasn’t the first European to reach the high Arctic, but he sailed his ships farther north of Europe and Asia than any prior explorer on record. A journal narrating his discoveries—and his months spent stranded—was printed in five languages almost immediately after his death, becoming an international bestseller. Commercial European whaling soon exploded along the Barents Sea and points west, over time nearly driving the North Atlantic right whale to extinction.
Europeans never left the region. A similar push for trade routes and imports expanded worldwide and brought industrialization, which in modern times eventually delivered climate change. As we sail toward Ice Harbor, I brace myself to witness the bleak late stages of a process abetted by the characters in my book.
In the last hours before we arrive at Barents’s cabin, Andrey helps me modify a weak clasp on the GoPro I’ll use when we land. He will later fix the broken hinge on my glasses, the controller on a winch, and whatever is making a mysterious thumping sound near the engine. In his spare time, he sits grinding the rust off an old drawing compass with a dremel, cauterizing frayed ends of ropes, or regluing leather on a shipboard game, like some benevolent god whose gift it is to make the world whole again. Here you build on that tack again, Wonderful phrase, “some benevolent God who’s gift it us to make the world whole again.” Isn’t that just what we need right now? That’s the fantasy of the whole story, that that’s possible. And the recognition that it’s not possible is an important part of that story. Andrey is so good at fixing everything and so devoted to it. And yet, the engine can’t be fixed at the moment. The Arctic is in peril. Everybody on the boat wants to save it, and yet, you know, we can’t. I didn’t even realize how deeply, deeply in jeopardy Joe was. It’s our failure to be able to restore the world that’s so much of our sorrow in it, but we still move forward. I think that, in some ways, that paragraph is the heart of the story, because Andrey is always doing these small things to fix it. You can do these little things, and sometimes that’s maybe all you can do.
At Ice Harbor, we land in mist and fog. Evgeny, Misha, and I disembark with the ranger, then head up the slope and start hiking toward the ruins of the cabin. They don’t appear immediately, so I pull out a book that has a map of the site.
One more march over a low rise and a cross marker comes into view. The relics sit not far from the edge of a low plateau bordered on three sides by a rock-strewn beach. It’s terrible to imagine how lethal the conditions would have been in this part of the world during winter, exposed to the wind in every direction and the sea on three sides.
Now, 423 years later, we see the long timbers that formed the base of the shelter where Barents and his men spent months praying not to die. Blizzard after blizzard came, until more than an inch of ice built up in the cabin’s interior.
Pacing out its dimensions—roughly 36 feet long by 22 feet wide—I walk through the space where the crew huddled in fear as a polar bear rampaged on their roof, trying to claw its way in. I stand on the site of the fireplace that couldn’t keep them warm, at one point nearly killing them with toxic fumes from ship’s coal they burned. I wander along the beach where the men dragged makeshift sleds over ice and snow for miles, scavenging firewood. Nice weaving of historical and present time in this section. Was that hard to work out? Again, it’s about the value of repetition. Here I am repeating his voice. For me, that threw me immediately back to what it would have felt like for them. I had no idea, even though I looked at geographical maps of the site, what it would feel like to stand on that little rise just off the shore and imagine blizzard after blizzard, just completely exposed. I mean, there’s nothing you can do, there was nowhere to hide, nothing they could have built that the wind wouldn’t have torn through. To be so far from home or help, and nobody knows where you are, just standing up on that little rise and feeling how exposed it was — was just a real revelation in that moment that I don’t think I could have talked about without going there. Without having felt and imagined what they felt 400 years ago, because it was just so stark.
Wonders keep coming, day by day. A bird lands on Sasha’s head while he’s at the wheel. We spot a polar bear running on the beach. The Arctic makes itself known to us, though not always on our terms. So true! That really encapsulates the Arctic.
The trash-studying biologists have the most worthwhile mission of anyone on the boat: by scanning the ocean and exploring shorelines on foot, they’re using equipment to map where washed-up litter is and isn’t found in the Arctic. But ultimately, the sea and sky decide what they will allow. Plans for exploratory landings can blow up at the last minute. A bear sighting or fog can kill any chance to gather data from a particular spot. It becomes apparent that my ghost-chasing forays, Alexey’s meditation, and the natural challenges thrown up by the sea will make it harder for the scientists to get their work done.
On August 16, we head toward the Orange Islands—the Oranskys, in Russian—with a plan to visit the two main land masses, Big Oransky and Little Oransky, which together total about one square mile. Evgeny has heard of a memorial placed on Little Oransky more than a century ago, commemorating its discovery by Barents. Watching for bears, we go ashore amid thrashing waves and fan out to find it. Soon a memorial slab comes into view on the rocky ground, cracked but legible.
As we quickly discover, Little Oransky is also a wonderland of birds. Gulls and their aggressive cousins, skuas, shriek and cry their own improvisations—birdsong that Andrey will later call “merry and badass jazz.” They wing back and forth along populated cliffs like morning commuters in some vertical city.
Elegant murres with dark eyes and black feet nest in the rock face near the top of the island. They turn their sleek heads to look at us but don’t fly away. Puffins sit in vague wonder, their black and orange beaks just inches out of reach. They don’t seem to know that it’s wise to be wary of humans. Wonderful descriptive passages, really puts us at the scene. I’ve spent a lot of time around puffins myself, including a week with puffin-hunters on Grímsey Island, off the north coast of Iceland. I have to say that they are cute, but they’re actually very aggressive. Really sharp beaks and claws! They were not spooked by us at all. It made me wonder if they even had encountered humans before.
When the time comes to go back to the boat, Alexey is nowhere to be found. I run along the rocks above the water calling his name. After a while, he appears on one corner of the cliff, as if stepping in from another universe. He had been off meditating again.
The next day, the biologists land with their gear and get some surveying done before we head toward Big Oransky, a split stone slab rising out of the sea. Suddenly, we see walruses on shore and walruses approaching. They’re all around us. They’re huge.
We had dropped the anchor, attaching a bobbing, bright yellow buoy to mark its position. The walruses take up the buoy and start playing with it.
The crew has seen an anchor buoy stolen by playful walruses before, so it has made them harder to pilfer. But Andrey is worried that a walrus might get caught in the line. The buoy is exiled from the water and brought back to the ship. The walruses stare with what is surely disappointment.
But we aren’t done here yet. Sasha appears on deck with his accordion and begins the same Doga waltz he played before. Dozens of walruses swim to where he perches near the gunwale, on the port side of the boat. They listen, watching him. Occasionally, a small mosh pit forms, then dissolves. Mostly his audience floats before him, snorting and hawing with rapt intensity while we look back. The walruses swimming and listening to the concert — that must have been an incredible moment! I can’t say how amazing that was in the moment for them to just gather there and be staring at him and be so obviously fascinated. In fact, that was a whole scene at one point. And then there was no room for it because so many amazing things happened. But it was one of the neatest things in my life that I’ve ever experienced.
Eventually, we move on to run Sasha II back to Cape Desire. As we leave the Oranskys behind, the original Sasha calls belowdecks. He’s spotted a bizarre sight: buildings or smoke or something on the bigger island.
Baffled, we watch through camera lenses and binoculars, trying to understand the terrain shifting before our eyes. Someone asks if it could be an optical illusion, which reminds me that a polar mirage had amazed Barents and his men, too. Do you think it was a Fata Morgana, where you see upside-down images of distant cities reflected in the sky because of Arctic air inversions? The inversion layers actually bend the optical effects that you see over distance in the Arctic when you have variations in temperature at slightly different levels. This was one of those. Barents had, I believe the first recorded sighting of something that would eventually come to be called the Novaya Zemlya effect. It wouldn’t be truly understood until more than 300 years later. In fact, that passage in the journals from the trip is one of the things that made a lot of people say they were just making stuff up. But they knew their cosmological calendars well enough to know when the sun should be coming back after polar night, and it came back early. They couldn’t reconcile because they knew it wasn’t that day yet, but they also knew what they had seen. So they just recorded what they saw, and sort of left it to posterity and then hundreds of years later, it turned out that (Norwegian explorer Fridtjof) Nansen actually saw the same thing. Scientists have since figured out what it is. What we were seeing was parts of the landscape sort of being pasted and replicated on top of each other. But it was happening in motion. So it literally looked like buildings were going up. Even with the benefit of knowledge that we have, it was astounding how disconcerting and confusing that was.
When we get to Cape Desire, I jump out of Mikhalych, as I’ve done before, to drag it to shore. But today I leap too early and end up waist-deep in freezing water. I haul the boat in all the same, but there’s no way to ignore my gaffe. I slip off my boots to pour out water, standing barefoot outside the station in the Arctic air, stripped to short pants and wringing out my clothes in shame.
We leave the next day and keep following the beleaguered Barents route back along the coast of northern Novaya Zemlya. Meanwhile, it’s become a pleasure to eat again, and I do so continuously—fried cottage cheese patties, lard, dark bread, borscht, sour cream, and dried fish. Kasha—hot porridge—is a breakfast staple most mornings. Olga cooks a fish and tomato dish. Sasha flips more blini and leads the crew in singing Russian songs after dinner. He offers to teach me a sea shanty, but we’re hard-pressed to find one that isn’t about the problems caused by bringing women on a boat. The narrative takes an abrupt and distinctive tone and mood shift here. What precipitated that? I was so anxious about getting what I needed from the trip and then thought that I wasn’t going to get. That and all the loss and potential loss. Once we’d made it to Barents’ cabin, once we’d seen that and visited Little Oransky, which is where the memorial is because he discovered and named the Oranskys, I’ve hit all the Barents sites. So now my obligations to the book are done. There’s a real liberation in that moment. It’s funny, because I hadn’t thought of it particularly that way until you asked this question.
With visits to the Barents sites wrapped up, we leave the national park and go ashore near the Chaev glacier on the western coast of Novaya Zemlya. Nearly everyone heads out on a morning hike to see a series of tiny, exquisite waterfalls that reveal themselves from above, one after another, as we scramble along the rocks. Afterward some of us stay on shore to climb a low mountain, unnamed on our maps, that sits between the waterfalls and the glacier.
Surveying the coastline as we sail, Sasha has noted that the glaciers we see have retreated far from the leading edges shown on his map. I recall that in 2017, researchers found a new island near Chaev, made visible by the disappearing ice.
We raise toasts that evening and play a word game, going to bed around 2 A.M. Sasha and I wake up in the middle of the night. We ride Mikhalych back to shore, this time with Andrey along, and then climb the same mountain we’d climbed earlier.
In the quiet morning hours, the birds still silent, Sasha moves up the steep, smooth dome of the slope like a mountain goat, while Andrey chooses more ragged rocks that let him climb vertically for a stretch. I also head for the rocks, falling behind in my thick muck boots but catching up in the second half when the footing becomes simple again.
Prior to this book project, I spent seven years researching and writing a history of concentration camps. The work was a litany of grief. During that time, the suffering of the living and the dead never left my mind, and I think about it now.
My cousin Joe and I grew close in those same years, with our shared love of music and grim jokes, and a lack of faith that things will turn out well in the end. I worried about him the whole time.
For a moment, all that falls away. We stay awhile at the top of the cliff, looking out at the boat, the speckless sky, and the sea. I am filled with a happiness vast enough to break me. In just a few short paragraphs, you swing from a litany of grief, suffering and worry to “happiness vast enough to break me.” That’s a gorgeous line, by the way. But the whipsawing of emotions there is jarring. How did you decide how to handle that? It’s what happened, so I felt the need to reflect it. I felt whipsawed by it. And that’s why that word “break” is in there. This is a thing I tried to thematically develop throughout the article: the same thing that makes you seasick is the same thing you love rolling along the side of the boat. You can’t separate it out. And if you’re going to feel that tremendous joy standing at the top of the cliff in the Arctic, you’re going to feel that tremendous grief in the face of the history of concentration camps, or in the loss of your cousin Joe. You don’t get to pick and choose which parts to keep if you’re going to feel things in a real and vivid way. I wanted to communicate that those two things are sometimes right up against each other, and that it’s just part and parcel of being alive.
On August 20, we wind up at the old polar station of Russian Harbor, our last stop before we set out to cross the Barents Sea again. Evgeny warns us that polar bears are common; we have to keep a wide berth when we go around the corners of abandoned buildings. He hands me a small firecracker pistol to startle any animals I meet. Fresh tracks appear everywhere, but we see no more bears.
Andrey, who dislikes compliments about himself but is quick to praise others, has already told me that Evgeny has gone on expeditions that in recent years made crucial Arctic discoveries. The next afternoon, while we’re still sitting at anchor, I prod Evgeny into telling me stories about Novaya Zemlya and Franz Josef Land—tales of 19th- and 20th-century explorers saved or damned by their own choices or fate.
We take leave of Novaya Zemlya late in the day, most of us standing on deck to watch the shabby ruins of the polar station grow tiny with distance before the island itself vanishes.
I wake up that night to the smell of smoke. After lifting my head to scan the cabin in the dim light, I see that Olga is awake, too. Tatiana rolls over and, joking or still half-asleep, says, “Someone has burned the kasha.”
Olga hits the hallway and is intercepted by a crew member and sent back. I’m dying to know what’s going on, and after waiting a few agonizing minutes, I sneak out to the dining table in my long underwear. All four of the crew are sitting in grim silence; when they start talking it’s in Russian, and I can’t understand. After 15 minutes, Sasha turns to me. “You probably have questions,” he says.
Basically, the workhorse engine that powers our boat—designed in the last years of the Soviet Union—is running too hot. Over the next two days, I watch Andrey and Sasha try to fix it. Seals have deteriorated. Coolant has gotten into the crankcase, spoiling the oil’s viscosity and making the engine useless. We’ll have to travel from Russian Harbor on Novaya Zemlya back to Kola Bay—a journey that took us five days on our way out—using sails alone, just as Barents and his men did more than 400 years ago. How did you feel when the engine quit? At first there was a little sense of peril, like, okay, this isn’t good. This is a bad thing. Then they identified that it was overheating and that there was not an immediate emergency. Then the journalist in me took over. It became an intellectually interesting thing for me, like, what’s wrong with the engine? Will it be fixed? It wasn’t until it became clear, sometime between 36 and 48 hours later, that it wasn’t going to be fixed, that we realized we were going to be at sea quite a bit longer. For everybody else, that was a bad thing. But I was not ready for the whole thing to end, especially since I had come into this point of joy with it. I just wanted to keep going.
We have enough food and cookies for an army, so we won’t starve, but there will be a lot of time to kill. Misha gives me a book on sailing, and I practice tying basic knots. Those of us who are able to take shifts at the wheel do so, to spell the crew. We get one fast day of sailing, but soon the wind subsides and we sit, becalmed.
That afternoon, Michael, the marine biologist, looks out and notices a bird beside us in the water. It’s a gray and white northern fulmar, paddling with its feet. The bird, he points out, is moving faster than the boat.
With the trip unexpectedly extended, I’m in heaven. There’s no engine working at cross-purposes with the waves to make me queasy. No storms threaten. Because of the quiet, dolphins begin to appear in numbers, a dozen or more at a time. I whistle to them. Though they aren’t as responsive to our faces as the walruses were, they swim in sync with the boat and play for long stretches, the choreography of their splashing becoming the snare drum to the crashing cymbals of the sea.
The delay is bad for almost everyone else. The crew will likely arrive late for the start of their next trip, which means they’ll have to cancel it and lose income. Marthe will miss her daughter’s birthday. Olga will be gone past the window of vacation she has arranged at work. The crew, which has already tried to manage our conflicting agendas for more than two weeks, must stay on duty much longer than planned.
Somehow, everyone is becoming dearer to me. But I have the vague sense that, thanks to all my push-ups and sit-ups, off-key singing, restless enthusiasm, and the long hair I shed like a dog, I’ve gone from amusing to oppressive.
I worry about imposing, but I’m still freakishly happy about the whole experience. I spend more time alone on deck, perched out on the prow of the boat, where I watch for whales that never come and I sing to the sea.
Destiny arrives in the form of a tugboat. The vessel was assigned days before, and it looks as if we’ll get close enough to port for the tug to start hauling us on Friday.
It’s August 30, late enough in the season, and far enough south, that night has begun to move in again. But in the last hours of daylight on our last evening at sea, I hear Misha call my name and say “del-feen” in a musical voice from on deck. I climb up to look. I know this will be it—the final gift the sea will offer.
Dolphins soon surround us, arcing in groups of four or five to jump along either side of the boat, then splitting to chase one another ahead or dive under our keel. Several people are on deck now. I whistle and step from port to starboard and back as the creatures retreat. They disappear only to leap up before us once again. They have come to escort us home. Lovely!
A half-hour later they leave. Soon after that, tugboat lights appear in the distance. Once the tug is hauling cleanly, most of us go below. Alexey brings out a plastic liter bottle of moonshine donated by a local just before we set out to cross the Barents Sea. I figure that if the liquor hasn’t eaten through the plastic in three weeks, it’s probably safe to drink. They pull out a variety of shot glasses—ryumki—and we make toasts.
I set my alarm for 5 A.M., by which time we should be approaching Murmansk. As we draw near the Lenin again, I join in the work of moving our fenders from port to starboard. Andrey and Misha moor the Alter Ego, and I go back to bed. We’ll have one last day together on the boat.
A few hours later, I wake up to the first cell service I’ve had since we left. Scrolling through a month of messages with a mix of regret and nervousness, I feel pleased. There seems to be little I missed that matters.
Then I see a note with “Joe” in the subject line. Dread hits me like a wave, but I open it. My cousin has died—exactly how isn’t clear, but my mind goes to the darkest place. I’ve already missed the memorial service. Delivered like a punch to the gut. To know that something terrible had happened, while you were experiencing all this joy, did it make you feel guilt? I didn’t know what to do with all that joy once I sort of got swamped by the grief. There was guilt, that was a little part of it. But it was also more of even a fundamental reaction than that. I didn’t know how to feel those two things at the same time. And I was feeling both of them at the same time.
Standing up from the table, I go to the ladder and climb blindly up on deck. I can’t sit in my perch at the prow, which faces the harbor and anyone who might approach the boat. I go to the stern and hunker down near the trash and cry.
The whole trip, which had filled me with such happiness just a few hours before, turns to ashes. Joe is gone, with his PTSD, his alcoholism, his terrible jokes, and his love for so many people. He’s already been gone for more than a week, while I was out in the Arctic, heedless of his disintegration.
I’m suddenly sure the crew is sick of me, and that they regret our whole voyage. Why did I need to see where Barents and his men had suffered? I’ve wasted everyone’s time. All my delight in these people and this place dissolves. I know I’m oversteering emotionally, just as I did with the boat, but I have no defense against this news.
After a visit from Tatiana, who wants to know what happened, I pull myself together and go downstairs. Sasha offers to make me fried eggs, but I can’t think about eating. If I lie in my bunk, I’ll inflict myself on Olga and Tatiana while they pack. I stay put while we work out new airline reservations. It takes hours and gives me something to focus on.
As we finish, Sasha again offers to make fried eggs. Throughout the voyage, he has continually tried to find the one thing that might make each person happy in the moment. I still don’t feel like eating, but I say yes to his kind offer. He comes back shortly with an exquisite open-faced omelet that the phrase “fried eggs” can’t begin to represent.
Soon, however, I feel myself running back to despair. Tatiana needs to mail a package to Saint Petersburg. I realize I have to do an interview the next day in Moscow. I have no shoes with me but my muck boots.
I’ve bragged about how much I loathe shopping, and in truth I would rather clean the deck with a toothbrush. But shopping will get me off the boat and give others some peace. If I don’t go buy boots, I might end up in a bar. I head for the mall.
Later, Tatiana and I return with a pair of ankle boots so femme that the idea of me wearing them makes the crew laugh. Olga has already left for the train station. The scientists are in a cab headed across the border to Norway. Out of the blue, Alexey asks if I want to go on a hike before dinner to see the Alyosha statue, with its eternal flame that marks the sacrifice of countless dead. Physical activity off the boat sounds perfect. While packing, I discover that my passport is missing, but surely I’ll have time to find it when I return.
On deck, as we’re about to leave, Andrey laces up his shoes and comes along. During the voyage he has become friends with Alexey, and he’s good company. I feel the stirring of the same deep pleasure I felt on the mountain, one for which I don’t have a good name. An electric, unsettling joy.
My new boots are too dressy and high for the climb up to Alyosha. It’s a hot summer afternoon—a day for tank tops and T-shirts, even here in the lower reaches of the Arctic. I’m stuck wearing my knee-high muck boots through town.
Not far into our two-mile ramble, we’re away from the crowds. We’ve begun what novelist Walker Percy called the painful process of reentry, the bumpy ride from transcendent experiences back to daily life. “The bumpy ride from transcendent experiences back to daily life.” So well-described!
We climb the hill that leads to the statue and reach the top. Then, flashing his palms in the universal gesture for wait, Alexey runs off. He’s left us to go meditate again. Our story has not quite ended. Andrey and I wait for Alexey one last time.
When he returns, we walk down the long hill, stopping at grocery stores to gather vegetables for dinner. Back at the boat, Sasha weaves his culinary spells. I finish packing and strip the linens from my bed. I find my passport. I’ll have to leave after all.
At some point, they call me for toasts. I missed the first round, but the second is for those who are not present, wherever they may be. I bring my hand up to chime our ryumki together, but they stop me. For this toast glasses don’t touch, they explain, and there are no jokes.
I think of Joe, but I don’t know if they’re thinking of him. We begin to eat. Beautiful — simple and aching. I still don’t know if they were thinking of Joe or not. I suspect that they were, but some of this I wanted to leave, like, it’s okay not to know everything.
Andrey talks about going partridge hunting with a friend. When he found out that it was mating season, and realized the birdsong he’d heard was a mating call, he quit the hunt. He couldn’t bring himself to kill anything singing a love song.
Eventually, we start toasts again. Alexey has gone off to sleep. I present the crew with a wild scheme: a second, future expedition next August for a different project. In some mix of fantasy and seriousness, we begin to shape an idea of what it could look like. I’m already thinking of how things will have to be different. It’s not possible to re-create whatever wild magic just took place.
The crew brings out another bottle, and I am helpless before all of it. I have no more way to gird myself against the wonder of these people and this boat than I do Joe’s death. A little after one, we gather our bags to leave. Tatiana and I will go with Evgeny to get on a 4 A.M. flight to meet a Russian explorer in Moscow. Though Evgeny was a stranger before the trip, he has set up this interview for my book and invited us to stay at his house.
Sasha and Andrey carry our luggage. Back we go over the gangplank, down the long dock, out the locked gate, and through the park to a waiting taxi. A dead soldier watches over us from a distance, now finally cloaked in darkness.
I hug Sasha and Andrey goodbye. Evgeny, Tatiana, and I climb into the taxi. A few hours later we’ll be airborne, vaulted away on the wind in a mechanical bird with functioning engines, leaving the Arctic behind.
If there’s something I could have done that might have saved Joe, I didn’t do it. And I won’t find a way to save my parents, either.
The future we’re digging for ourselves is at the bottom of a cliff that grows higher every day. But that’s not the same as saying nothing can be done. There are eggs to fry. There is history to remember and glaciers to measure. There is trash to count.
So much is already going or gone. But what’s still there is vast, stupendous.
I’ve come back to say that this place is singing a love song. It may be shot through with grief and danger, but if you’re listening and you can hear this, it means we’re not dead yet.Beautiful and bittersweet closing section. “The wonder of these people and this boat.” “A dead soldier watches over us from a distance.” Braiding grief and joy, helplessness and resolve, death and life, the past and the future. Bound with the reminder that while so much is already gone, what’s still there is vast and stupendous. That’s a vital message for the Arctic. And for all of the natural world. Please walk me through your process of figuring out how to conclude your odyssey and wrap it all together. Somehow at that moment when we were going up to see the Alyosha statue, the joy came back. And that’s when I began to realize it’s okay to have them both there side by side, the joy and sorrow. I knew I wanted to come back to Alyosha at the end. And I wanted to bring Joe in and I wanted to bring climate change in. And I wanted to bring the joy of the trip, which was all the adventurous things, the walrus concerts and getting to the Barents site and all that. But as much as anything, it was Andrey fixing things on the boat, and those guys working on the engine, and Misha teaching us how to steer. It was the small advances in understanding and caring about the world that just can happen on a daily basis through frying the eggs and measuring the trash. We look for these big mystical answers, but really so much of it is in attending to daily life and the things that we’re capable of doing right now. The challenge for me at the end was less how to situate it, because it was so clear, we were unwinding the arrival. Back down the long dock we go, unspooling… In terms of what information I was going to convey within that moment, I wanted to keep that tone of fairytale enchantment, but also mention these really practical things. One of the things that helped me keep that enchantment was that Andrey just happened on the last night on the boat to tell the story of the partridge hunt. Music and singing and the bird songs and walrus concerts and all that had been such a leitmotif of the whole story that I felt like I could use that to bring it home. To say: this place is singing a love song.
Cheryl Katz is a Bay Area-based independent science and environmental journalist. She has a special interest in the polar regions, and has reported from both Antarctica and the Arctic.