Grey Days

Sikuliaq Ice Trials
March 29, 2015

Grapes from the Galley
Grapes from the Galley

We are more than half way through our cruise and the food’s running low. Last evening Annie told us there were no more chips. She’s from Wisconsin so I suppose chips doesn’t include Cheetos, because those appeared today as usual. But this morning she put out a single grapefruit. Carin snagged it immediately, saying she was going to save it for tomorrow. She also said she would give half to John the Bosun. I think she hopes in turn he will share his grapefruit knife. This could be our last grapefruit until we return to the hot, sunny coves of Dutch Harbor. Or perhaps another single grapefruit will appear tomorrow? Mysteries in the grey.

I don’t trust the grapes anymore, and there’s a sneaky huge amount of cake and cookies and muffins, and pastry, and cinnamon rolls, and ice-cream bars always within hands reach. So, maybe food’s not running low, as there are always 2-3 options for dinner and they all must be tried — so someone’s compensating for something.

Fulmars over sea ice.
Fulmars over sea ice.

This afternoon I was recording the hull breaking ice from over the starboard upper gangway when I saw a seal high-tailing it away from the boat. It was only half a ship’s length away and the camera was two decks uphill. The seal was booking. I think I’ve shot fewer photos today than any other day at sea. That’s all right, I’ve caught up on other things. Been making sound recordings and this evening after dinner, to compensate I did go up to the Bridge and shoot fulmars as they buzzed the boat. I understand they are related to albatross so what could go wrong.

Seal running away from the boat.
Seal running away from the boat.

It’s not the most comfortable spot to record sound, putting my arm and a mic over the steel gangway (because it’s cold and my coat is a half a boat length and a floor downhill, but the starboard rail is in our wind shadow today. So while elsewhere else the wind is shouting, “What the hell are you doing out here?” on the lee side the snow drifts down without a care in the world. It settles on my microphone just the way it’s supposed to collect on a friend’s fur ruff as you walk a lake shore in fall. “It’s all right,” it says. “Winter’s coming and it’s okay.” By morning the snow will have collected and there will be ice on parts of the deck.

So, I missed photographing that seal, but this seems to be their neighborhood, so there are many others. We keep catching them out on the ice, scaring them into a high speed, floppy sprint away from the boat.

I also missed seeing the snowy owl this morning. The observers on the Bridge noticed it because it was being mobbed by a hooligan gulls. It had an animal in its claws. Fur. A tail. A lemming? I fully believe the animals were happy to get into a tiff over the only low-salt meal in twenty miles. Perry tells us about the time the wolves scared a small herd of caribou across from Russia to St. Lawrence Island. Stories of seeing fox tracks on the ice, following the bears. Wolverine. Looking for food. Trying not to be food.

We talked about the ‘outside’ world a little today. Plans have to be made for shipping gear back from Dutch, back from Seward. Who needs what when? How long will it take? There’s a rumor of a disaster somewhere. Someone’s looked at the news. It’s only rumor because, really, no one’s asking for details. We’ve trekked out into the ice, trying not to think too hard about the world back on shore. Nothing else is happening out there besides baseball scores. Or it basketball? So hard to tell. Right! Baseball starts soon. I think that’s the most beautiful piece of ephemera I’ve heard in a while. A nugget of information that means nothing. I couldn’t care less about baseball season. So that works for me. That’s news. John says this is one of reasons he likes to be at sea.

Of course family’s different. Any bit of information from Carrie is cherished. I hear that William (<1 yr) has begun to be the climber we knew he would be. He pushes milk-crates and cars about with sound effects. For months we’ve used a couple chairs turned on their side as a barricade between living room and library. I understand he’s figured out the holes between the briar legs are bigger than they need to be. Kaelin (<5yrs) is reading Tintin this week. Adventure! Precious, I’m listening to ‘Uncatena’ by Silvan Esso as I write this. It’s been my favorite song of the Winter. I think, yes, it is the perfect song for grey skies and long distances.

Several of the crew have said their wives, husbands, friends, colleagues have read the blog. “It’s good people know what we do.” This is a very different part of the world. It’s a different experience for me, writing about events as they happen, editing the same day — deleting all things I really want to say… Haha. When I write this much, it’s usually fiction — and I take weeks anguishing over paragraphs before posting stuff to that blog. Link redacted. I’m on a boat, in tight quarters, and cannot get away quick enough if anyone reads something.

Look over there! Another seal thinks we want him for dinner.

rt_blog_208As we make our way slowly through the ice, in the galley I take pictures of Matt chopping vegetables for taco Tuesday (on a Sunday). I should take pictures of the food every day. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner all excellent. Matt apologizes for the seafood pasta, polenta, and zucchini side not being the most photogenic of dishes. Tony got it right with the bagel bar earlier, and Matt knows how to hold out fish salad on pita for a camera. So, potentially more food porn later. Already I could probably give a slideshow just on ship cuisine.

Full stomach. Back up to the Bridge where the day has been good to me so far.

The Bridge’s windows angle out, allowing you to look down around much of the boat. More sea ice, sheet after sheet mottled by pancakes about the size you could eat, if only just one or two, sheets so thin when the boat pushes them aside the pieces cut into each other. A coin is tossed. One sheet becomes a knife, the other paper. If thicker, maybe a quarter to half an inch, and if the ice is smooth as glass, the pieces shatter like crockery and scoot across the ice sheet like a thousand hockey pucks kicked by a boy across a road on the way to school. Behind the pucks, a thin fan of water, foaming at the lips. Sometimes the overflow and the energy of our displacement crack the sheet like a windshield battered by Spring gravel. Tiny white streaks race through it like lightning, flash brightly for a moment and dim to a dark hairline.

Sea Ice
Sea Ice

We stopped for our fourth ice station today. The crew got out on the ice to set the anchor and promptly came back aboard as massive cracks began to open in the floe. Even though boat had cut a fresh driveway, it was rolling as if in open water. The swells were significant and you could see from the working deck the ice rise and fall in waves, opening up new cracks the longer we waited. No ice station today. We drive on into evening, heading towards established stations on the 70m isobath. As Carin said over dinner, “We’re switching from relative to geographic coordinates.” Less floating in the grey, more paying attention to the hard world underneath.

Before night fell, Liz saw three belugas from the Bridge, first a white calf and then two (greyer) adults just behind. Quick. Then gone. We we were in a tight lead with ice all around. We watched for them after we had passed but saw nothing more. Everything out there today is shades of grey, but the height of the Bridge and the fulmars and the ice sheet made for some fun, moody photos, like I had an assistant quick flipping abstract backdrops behind the sporting wildlife.

Bowhead whale
Bowhead whale
Bowhead wale (enlarged photo)
Bowhead whale (enlarged photo)

Oh, and Sue spotted our first bowhead, swimming towards the east across the surface of a great, wide lead. I should mention that shouldn’t I? Despite all the work on Arctic Currents these last couple years, this was the first bowhead I’ve laid eyes on. Enlarging the photo, we see a nice, big, fat hump is clearly visible behind the blowhole. It’s a poor replica for being there, but a big whale, in good shape, and definitely well fed.

— Roger Topp (UAMN Head of Exhibits, Design, and Digital Media Production)

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