“Ready to go up to speed?” Will asked, over the hum of the outboard motor. With one hand still on the steering wheel of our Zodiac, he reached for his ear protection and wiggled the headphone-like pads into place. Makenna, Danielle and I did the same, after first making sure our warm hats were pulled down over our eyebrows and our fleece neck gaiters were pulled up all the way to our lower lashes. I grabbed all three of the hoods tucked uncomfortably behind my neck and tugged them up and over my head. Then I shimmied my gloved hands inside the sleeves of my mustang suit and took a deep breath. “Aye, Captain,” I said, from behind the layer of fuzzy fabric that covered my mouth.
We were cruising around the Beaufort Sea, the body of water that creates the northern Alaska coastline and is frozen over for ten months of the year. Typically, it is navigable in August and September, although not reliably. The Beaufort Sea’s ice is both notoriously fickle and dangerously restless, and it has stopped this team of bird researchers in previous years. It is all around us here, but broken up enough to allow our eighteen-foot rigid hulled craft to maneuver fairly easily through the icebergs that surround us.
As we accelerate to ten miles per hour, the bow of the inflatable dingy rises up out of the water, as though it were looking to escape the chill created by contact with the forty-degree liquid. In order to protect ourselves from it, we are wearing fishing waders over multiple jackets and long underwear bottoms. The waterproof waders allow us to get in and out of the boat in thigh-deep water without getting wet – although we can still feel the frigidity which envelops our legs. Over the waders, we are wearing mustang suits – bright orange foam garments that make me feel like an inflatable super-sized creature in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. Essentially, these cumbersome pieces of equipment are full-body life preservers, intended to keep us afloat for the few minutes we might have if we do end up in this inhospitable body of water. Despite preventing me from performing anything that resembles a graceful action, my mustang suit does give me an extra layer of warmth – one which I desperately need as we settle into our maximum speed – roughly twenty-five miles per hour.
“We’ve got about forty minutes of motoring,” Will says, as he presses the black plastic throttle lever down towards the floor and pushes his sunglasses up into the bridge of his nose.
Forty minutes, I have learned, is about the right amount of time to facilitate entrance into what I have come to call “the psychedelic ice zone.” During the week I spent accompanying US Fish and Wildlife migratory bird researchers along the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s coastline, I traveled to this trippy netherworld a number of times, each more puzzling and destabilizing then the next.
The experience starts with the hum of the motor – a constant low-level drone that, not unlike the dotar of Indian temple chanting, seems to prime the mind for a non-linear, non-rational experience. Layered over that drone is a veneer of cold, creating a physical sensation that is at once continuously uncomfortable and slightly stimulating. You can’t quite doze off at this temperature, with the wind in your face and water droplets flying through your awareness, but you can enter a state that lies somewhere between sleep and wakefulness.
With ear protection on, conversation is impossible, and the dulling of sound sends you further inward. At the same time, however, the boat continues to hit chop and pull you back outward into the rhythm of its movement. This paradoxical interweaving of external stimulation and internal retreat creates a mesmerizing dance that serves to establish a fluid backdrop for the visual display gliding by.
This visual display is like a movie that you travel through, or a voyage that happens around you, independently of your experience. You are at once immersed in it and nowhere near it. These chunks of frozen water are so unfamiliar to the human eye – so difficult to label, categorize, and file away – that the mind can never quite lean in your environment the way it might in a more familiar landscape.
For starters, there are the shapes. You might think of icebergs as curved features, rounded by the elements into submissive, soft, and friendly forms. But they are not. They are jagged and angular. Spikes jut into the air, creating serrated ridges and asymmetrical crests, unlikely throughlines and overhanging ledges. Floating fragments of ice are often undercut, their bases eroded by the incessant movement of the water around them. Their outlines do not taper cleanly into the water; instead they undermine their own presence as they disappear below the surface of the sea.
Then there are the colors. These are not the clean whites and blues that cartoon images of the polar regions have depicted, but rather an arresting mixture of off-whites, grays, and blacks. This ice looks dirty – dirty with the detritus of planetary life, flecked with the remnants of human activity taking place far from here. Traces of the daily life cling to these floes erratically; some surfaces seem to attract more than others. This variation grants additional dimensions to these already alien shapes. Depending on the ever-changing arctic light, there may be other shades cast upon these surreal canvases. At midday, turquoise tones splatter them. At ten or midnight or two in the morning, orange and pink hues come out of hiding, offering themselves up to only those willing to pull all-nighters in appreciation.
Strangest of all, however, are the mirages. They are everywhere, although they are most striking near the horizon. You’ve experienced mirages before – in the desert, perhaps, or while driving down a superheated Los Angeles freeway. But Beaufort Sea mirages are different. They are completely destabilizing. Multiple layers of horizon appear and disappear, like the morphing stratigraphy of a lunar landscape. You try desperately to identify what is water and what is land – the dark is the tundra, and the light is the illuminated sea, right? But, just when your mind has created and latched onto an order, reality flips, and your interpretation makes no logical sense. The water cannot assume a bounded form; therefore, it cannot possibly be that light shape on the horizon. So that is the land, then? If so, why is it pale in the wake of the low-angle sun’s peregrination? Shouldn’t it be dark? And why is the land divided vertically, with stripes of light slicing through it from left to right? You try and try to make sense of what you see while the engine growls steadily beneath your thoughts and the rocking of the boat keeps your body under the influence of a constant sway.
It all becomes too much to hold onto. Like a Sufi mystic, spinning in his ecstatic dance, you are immersed in all the conditions necessary for a trance-like, transcendent state. You have fought it and fought it, forcing your labeling mind to see, measure, and evaluate each iceburg as it whizzes by, but finally, your rational mind is driven into submission. It can no long overpower the hypnotic effect of this place, this form of travel, this unique combination of stimuli. So you let go of the tether. You relax into the weirdness. And slowly but surely, you slip below the surface, sliding into the psychedelic ice zone.
For me, in that place, time and space warped, conflated, and slipped from my grasp. I visited with friends in faraway mountain ranges and had vivid conversations with people who have long since passed from this world. I moved amongst strangers crowded into city streets and waltzed with acquaintances I had just met – not as a me with a body, but rather as a me uncontained, a me who could move through California and Colorado and Costa Rica with the same ease and elegance exhibited by our boat as it swerved through the maze of bergie bits. Occasionally, I would decide that I was asleep, only to realize that since there was an “I” present to make that determination, I must actually be awake. In fact, I was somewhere between those states of consciousness, and in this liminal zone, I could simultaneously be fully present with the aesthetic narrative of the ice and the internal ecosystem of my experiences, my connections, my fantasies. Were they “mine,” though? I was quick to grasp and own them, though I am not sure what their source was or if I have any right to lay claim to them at all.
People go into the wilderness for myriad reasons – to get away from the constant presence of other human beings, to find themselves lower on the food chain, to take in mindblowing beauty, to live more simply for a short time. I have always thought of these wildernesses in which we travel as physical spaces – areas we cordon off with gates and surveyors’ markers, areas we delineate on maps to indicate that different rules apply there.
But up on that far-flung coast, up at 70 degrees north latitude, where the sun behaves unusually and the weather erratically, I discovered some other wilderness – the wilderness of my own mind. As is the case in geographic wilderness, I was not in charge this other wilderness. I was small, insignificant – fragmentary, even. Yet, at the same time, I felt very whole – not as an “I,” an ego, or a personality, but as an assimilator of sensory data, a nexus of sight and sound and temperature and movement.
The boat lurched and came to a stop, causing my body to continue its forward trajectory and slam into the pile of dry bags in front of me. “Sorry team, gotta switch out the gas tank,” Will said, after jamming the throttle up and pulling his neck gaiter down and away from his mouth.
I shook my arms and legs from where they lie stagnant deep inside my mustang suit. Slowly the “I” – the one I know so well – reinhabited those body parts and worked to process the stillness, the smell of diesel, and the pool of frigid water under my wading boots. That familiar “I” was still there, but ever so slightly changed.
This trip was funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as part of the Voices of the Wilderness Artist Residency Program. More information about the science done on this expedition (collecting data about Common Eider nesting behaviors) is forthcoming.