I recently returned to Boulder after about six weeks of science research on the Greenland ice sheet, including some delightful and restorative tent yoga practices (i.e. Yoga in Confined Spaces).
The Arctic is a wild place. Imagine flat white as far as you can see to every horizon, with nothing but sky and rippling waves in the snow – like being in the middle of a solid white ocean. Imagine camping for weeks, every few days traversing by snowmobile 60 miles or so to the next site, setting up and breaking down camp so many times it becomes automatic, but your forearms develop shooting pains from fastening so many tent clips. To bathe, you thaw out a frozen wet wipe every few days and get the most offensive areas. You fall asleep hugging a bottle full of hot water. It never gets dark, so you sleep with your hat pulled down over your eyes and your head buried in your -40 degree sleeping bag. You keep your toothpaste, sunblock, and contact solution in your sleeping bag with you – even so, one morning your contacts are frozen solid in their case. You sleep with your boot liners in your sleeping bag as well. On especially cold mornings, you might want to put hand warmers in your boots, but the ironic thing about hand warmers is that they won’t get warm when they’re frozen – so you have to warm them up first. Sometimes the wind is so loud you can’t sleep, even with earplugs. Other times the wind finds ways to sing, winding its way through anything it can, a lonely frozen whale-song.
Your camp of bright orange tents stands out, the only discernible feature across the entire landscape, a camp of ice gypsies. You know that if you wander away from this bubble of life, there is nowhere to go and no way to survive. Once or twice you are amazed to see a solitary bird swooping overhead, some sort of gull, hundreds of miles inland on the ice. You don’t know where it is going or if it will make it – there is nothing to eat and nowhere to rest but snow.
While I was away, Boulder transitioned into full spring mode – so green and alive (even off the ice sheet, Greenland has short tundra grass, tiny wildflowers, no trees whatsoever). As the plane came into the Denver airport as the sun was setting behind the mountains, I was struck by the fact that, for the first time in weeks, it was going to get dark. Incredible, it seemed, and so calming. But I miss the ice already.