I first met the Arctic through its rivers. I was a canoe tripper and travelled from the south, like many others, in search of rugged landscapes far away from people. At the time, I didn’t realize how common that vision was, or how incomplete. Like many southerners, I grew up with a notion of a nearly empty North. I didn’t know that the Arctic cannot be separated from its people, nor had I experienced the cultural diversity of northern latitudes. For the last two years, photographer Eric Guth and I have been travelling the Arctic with the support of Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic to learn about the North from its people. By meeting one person at a time, and by asking that person to introduce us to someone new, we are journeying around the pole, story by story. Here we present a few stops along the way.
Singing in Longyearbyen, Svalbard
At the Store Norske Men’s Choir’s annual concert, these men honour the coal mining tradition that founded their community in 1905. They sing in harmony, yet their members represent every political party in town. The conductor, Espen Rotevatn, also leads the local green party which intends to end mining, yet as a fellow choir member Sveinung Lystrup explains, “Your political belief and what you culturally relate to are two different things.” When I asked Rotevatn about what happens when politics mix with music, he replies, “Nothing. We sing and we drink beer.”
Pastor Leif Magne Helgesen was raised in Madagascar, and he’s been in Svalbard since 2008. Helgesen presents a global context in his sermons, reminding us of climate change, conflict and poverty. His love of this place goes beyond the landscape that draws most people here. “Nature is nice here… but it’s nice in the Maldives and in Madagascar. I would not have stayed here for so long if it wasn’t for the rich cultural life.”
Farming at Minni Mastunga, Iceland
Icelanders in the countryside invited us into a world of northern farming, starting with the annual sheep round-up. The mission: find your sheep and bring them home with you. Most people identify the sheep by the tags in their ears, but some farmers recognize their animals’ faces.
All six of Olga Andreasen’s children are home for the sheep round-up, along with some of her grandchildren. Before supper, she pulls out three different homemade desserts, plus cheese, butter and hot cocoa. Then we go out to dig potatoes, and Andreasen introduces us to the mystical side of Icelandic life, including the hidden people who live in the countryside. They are much like us but usually cannot be seen. “My grandmother’s best friend was a hidden person,” she said.
Sewing in Sisimiut, Greenland
The women gather around the sealskin to clean it. Some use ulus or butter knives. Others work with their bare hands. It’s part of a two-year program where students learn to make the Greenlandic national dress. Instructor Nikoline Kreutzmann (at right, facing the camera) was a graduate of the program in 2013. “When I applied to the school… it was after my grandmother died. She had made some clothes for us, but we didn’t ask her how to do it, and nobody knew how to do it.”
Listening to student Vera Larsen and taking notes, she says enrolment is impacting her whole family, “They are very proud of my work. I can see in their faces that they love what I do.” The finished product includes beading, crochet, and embroidery, but it all begins with skins prepared by hand. These traditions were in danger of being lost until a small group, including these women, committed to making them strong again.
Celebrating in Pond Inlet, Nunavut
Four long strips of plastic and then cardboard are laid out on the floor. Next, the frozen meat, cut with saws, is spread. Anyone who wants to eat comes with a knife. Deputy Mayor Eleanor Pitseolak helps to lay it all out: Arctic char, caribou, aged walrus and aged narwhal. Some of the food is local, some has been traded with Igloolik, and the tuktu (caribou) comes from a special hunt, led by Abraham Kunnuk, that took almost two weeks. Food is more than fuel; it’s culture. Early in our visit, Joshua Arreak asked me why southerners don’t know about Arctic celebrations. Joyful news rarely makes its way south, but laughter is also part of the Arctic soundscape.
This article was first published at Above and Beyond on December 28, 2016