An expedition that listens for the true north, one person at a time

Meet someone, listen to their story, ask to be introduced to someone else, repeat — how Jennifer Kingsley’s simple formula is transforming her perception of the Arctic.

The Ilulissat coast.

I used to think of the Arctic as a wilderness. This is a common misconception for southerners like me. Ice, tundra, polar bears, that kind of thing.

I had traveled north, but I hardly knew any northerners, even though four million people live above the Arctic Circle all over the world. So, I came up with an idea. With sponsorship from the Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic Alliance, I started a project called Meet the North.

My plan was really simple: meet someone, listen to their stories, ask them to introduce me to someone else, repeat. That was three years ago. Since then, along with American photographer Eric Guth, I’ve travelled across six Arctic nations. It’s become a journey into the unexpected.

Elias Fleischer. Ilulissat, Greenland.
Photo by Eric Guth

After a chance encounter on the dock in Ilulissat, Greenland, Elias Fleischer took me fishing. He told me how he lost his wife and son in the freezing waters when their boat capsized. Now, he chooses to make his living by returning, each day, to the place where his family died.

I collided with Elias’ story by chance, and it reminds me that the most incredible tales are sometimes within arm’s reach.

Store Norske Men's Choir, a.k.a. the Great Northern Men's Choir, in Longyearbyen, Svalbard.
Photo by Eric Guth.

In Longyearbyen, Svalbard, music was a window into the cultural and political life of the entire community. This is Norway’s northernmost town and the only one powered by coal. This stirs up controversy between the town’s residents over the environmental impact of the town’s major employer.

But once a year, men who sell coal for a living sing side-by-side with men who want to stop coal mining forever. When these men dress up as coal miners and sing together, despite their opposing views on fossil fuels, their songs become a conversation about energy security.

Plus, they sing “16 Tons” and “Heigh Ho,” so what’s not to like?

Jennifer Kingsley at work on Flatey, Iceland, with Hafsteinn Gudmundsson.
Photo by Eric Guth.

Journalism is not only about the stories that someone is trying to hide. “Tell me your story” is a pretty good place to start with someone new. I’ve also learned a lot about silence from the people I meet. Overall, I ask fewer questions and focus on listening. I learned this while in Flatey, Iceland, with Hafsteinn Gudmundsson. This photo speaks to the process of the project and the bit where I talk about interviewing people (and sometimes asking very bad questions).

Laureli Ivanoff, Unalakleet, Alaska.
Photo by Eric Guth.

I went to Unalakleet, Alaska, to meet journalist Laureli Ivanoff. She has the insider perspective on something I’d been curious about as an outsider: How does it feel to see all of these negative portrayals of your home?

Lindbland Expeditions, National Geographic

A lot of the stories that come south from the Arctic are really negative. In the south, we hear about poverty, teen pregnancy, suicide. And Laureli has been confronting this in her writing.

“We are people who choose to live in these small communities because we want to,” Laureli says. That distinction seems to be lost on much of the rest of the world. “I want to live here because this is where I thrive.”

An aerial view of arctic Alaska.
Photo by Eric Guth.

At first, recording the north was about silences, mic-distorting winds, machinery, and endless footsteps in snow. Now I never know what I am going to hear, and that’s the point.

This story first appeared on CBC’s The Doc Project on November 6, 2017.

Nick Hanson, the Eskimo Ninja, practicing on his homemade obstacle course.
Photo by Eric Guth.