Ice is not silent. It has its own vocabulary, its own grammar. Plok as a piece lifts up out of the water. Crrrkshhhhh as a sheet separates into two, one piece dropping slowly underwater. Plok plok plok as water ripples beneath a pocked sheer. Thock when sheets meet. Shudderthud when the boat meets a particularly unyielding object, like a mistake of depth perception that brings a car to a stop two inches beyond the garage wall.
When a double masted schooner is pecking its way through an ice field, what you hear from your bed is double layered. The contrapuntal soft grind of the engine, like a too loud dishwasher, overlaid with a shrieking crunch beside your head. Steel on crystal, paint scraped pink onto the ice.
An ice field is an organism, coalescing, re-forming, shifting, eroding. Self-organizing. The ice chart that hangs on our map, dated 13 July, shows red for tight ice pack all along the lower eastern edge of Spitsbergen, the HinloppenStretet along the upper east green and open. When we sailed round, a week later, we found a thick nested landscape of floes and forms jumbled in from the east, blocking the upper strait. The report from the Russian boat was that the lower edge was now clear sailing.
We spent more than a day trying to edge our way through the fog and ice of Hinloppen, aiming for the Sundet (Sound) that might take us into the safety of the lower Storfjorden, now apparently cleared. One iceberg, one floe, one growler at a time. Left south right right north left forward. Slow, clumsy arabesques, the ship pointed forward, strained to the side, forward. The captain determined, tense. Fog settling over the surrealscape, the land of crevices, crevasses, forts. More ice pointed below the surface than above. Some clear, some snowy, some crystal, some sculpted transparent and scoured into artifacts of another dimension. Crystalized coral.
We scour the landscape looking for a bear on an ice floe, find a few seals, a lazy pair of walruses. One waves at us as we sail away. The ice shifts in unnamable dimensions, underskirts magnified by water, edges and tops reflected in water, in their own shiny surfaces. Beneath the lattice, the floes, the sea is deep and mostly empty, plucked clean of bowhead whales by a mere century of pre-industrial whaling. We see glimpses of around 20 minke whales over our two weeks, in a world where reports talk of whales so abundant they could be harvested from shore.
We strain forward, tense. Grindingly, glacially, slowly. Literally. The glaciers here move 2 metres a day; we’ve watched them calve, listened to the thudding howls that echo through their caves. I could run more quickly than we are moving. Will we make it through the Sound and successfully circumnavigate Spitsbergen? Or will we have to turn around, retrace?
In Hinloppenstretet, the fog lifts, briefly, and Christian climbs the mast to try to see what’s ahead. The captain can see other ships on the radar, discern what’s there by their slow and swirling progress. The ice is invisible to the GPS, the other sensors. We only know what we can see.
By now, the movement has been so consistent we are convinced we will make it to the Sound, around the island. The grind, the periodic thuds and collisions, continue. People wander the deck, tense, restless. The lounge is full of people reading, a scattering of kindles among the books that have been passed around, people doing sudoko. The dauntless photographers are still on deck. The rumour waves through that we’re turning around, that the ice is, after all, impassable. Another undercurrent rolls through that it is possible we will get stuck, seriously stuck. Several times we grind to a halt, pushing one, two, three, four sheets together ahead of us, blocking our own way.
We grind on through the night, not anchoring for another 12 hours, until we are safely out of the pack ice. We all wanted to go around and ache for the unseen; everyone stiff-upper-lips their regrets. We make an unplanned landing on Wilhelmsoya, pure wilderness. Christian, nervous at needing to keep the group tightly together because of the bear threat, is frustrated by the photographers who keep dropping to their knees to worship the plants. Mercury dropped on the floor. “There’s a poppy queue,” Jan calls brightly when he urges us upward. The view from the top is spectacular, but everyone is as taken by the moss campion, the aven, the buttercups, tiny and unnecessary. As we descend, Christian slides down the snow on his bottom, bear rifle held up above his head.
A week later, the ice has mutated again. We begin to hear reports that the original eastern ice is now blocking the bottom western quadrant. I read how the earlier explorers, right through part of the 19th century, believed that the ice pack was the outer ring of the North Pole, and that there was an inner, ice free zone that would be smooth sailing. You want to believe it, almost, that this is an orbiting mass, a predictable circuit, that there will be knowable space. But the icescape again surges up, and three days before the end of our journey, we have to turn around partway down our final channel, go around the western full sea edge. A yacht ahead of us has brought the news that the mouth is blocked.
Finch and I rise at 11:45 that night, the midnight sun in full glory for one of the first times on our trip. We mark the minute of his birthday, a new decade, with a blast of arctic sun. We sip whiskey and the captain steps off the wheel for a minute to give us some privacy, the gps guiding. It’s clear, bluer than ever, puffins on the water as one day kneads itself into the next one seamlessly.
In the night, we feel the crunch next to our heads again, and we wake to fog, the careful grind. The captain is still at the wheel, a full 24 hours now. As we reach the mouth of Ijsfjord, the final fjord into our landing, rumours of ice clogging the harbor bloom just as the sun flares up. A stunning champagne flute of a day, we’re handed the promise of an icebow as we continue our agonizingly slow, uncertain, steady grind.