On Arctic voyages and people crammed into tight spaces

I was listening to the CBS Massey lecture on Radio New Zealand just now, presented by Adam Gobnik and the topic - oh, bless you - was snow, the Arctic and the Antarctic, winter voyages, failed and successful expeditions and what drives people to do these silly things in the first place.

It was absolutely wonderful: captivating, funny. If you wish, I believe it is available at www.cbc.ca/ideas/episodes/massey-lectures/2011/11/07/the-2011-cbc-massey-lectures-winter/ 

It reminded me of two things. One was professor Peeter Tulviste at University of Tartu.

You see, at the time I started studying, social sciences (and law was considered one of them) freshmen were mass-lectured in epic, 500+ student arenas, for lack of a better word. From second year onwards specializing started, but those first year base lectures were given out - again, for lack of a better word - in massive chunks. It was something Tartu did. Maybe still does.

(You can probably already tell that I wasn't a big fan of those, but, hey, that's not the point here.)

Early on I learned that not all lecturers were created equal. Some just weren't... captivating enough, for me anyway, whereas others I could've happily listened to for hours.

Peeter Tulviste was one of the lecturers I enjoyed listening to, thoroughly, and the reason for that is - he told stories. Sure, he could also go into technical detail beyond my understanding - and interest, at the time anyway - but every little while he would pop up with an amusing story, often from his field studies in Siberia. He not only got the audience's attention, but he linked these stories to theoretical detail and therefore made the stuff memorable.

And this is why Adam Gobnik reminded me of Peeter Tulviste. His lecture was stories upon stories upon stories. Captivating!

And the other thing I thought of was my summer up on the glacier.

You see, Adam Gobnik told in his lecture how Arctic explorers' diaries were often published afterwards, but not before they were edited. In unedited versions the guys would've complained in long, drawn-out pages about crowded living conditions and how after a few months of voyaging another man's ears could become a thing of utmost annoyance, not unsimilar to Madame Bovary.

When he was talking about that I grinned, reminded how, pardon my English, bitchy we could all be to one another after two or three months of living in a glacier camp and not really having anywhere to go.


The setup was pretty straightforward: 270 sled dogs in their numerous little dog houses, and 24 people in ten or so tents. Here, I attached a video of what it looks like when coming in for a land.



Everyone shared the kitchen tent. Two outhouses (or bucket-toilets, whichever word you find more familiar). There was a tent for our command center, and another for supplies, and yet another for photography supplies. With the exception of two couples who had their own private tents earned by the commitment they had shown by returning year after year, everyone was "flatting", three-four people per tent.



Work was 6 days a week, 24 or 36 hours off a week (so either flying out, say, Friday afternoon and flying back on Saturday afternoon, or getting another night off ice and flying in first thing Sunday morning), and we could only leave camp area by pre-arranging it with the manager and doing it in pairs or, better yet, three or four people at a time.

Which was all awesome, except by about July - and we were there from May onwards - everyone was sort of peeved off by everyone else. It makes me laugh now to think about it, but it wasn't particularly funny back then.

It's a natural thing to do. Living on top of each other does that to (Western) people who are used to having quite a bit of personal space =)


And so I thought about that summer and grinned. Grinned about how naggly I was, and how naggly others could be. At little things that made for big, oversized problems.

And to be on Arctic voyages for months at a time, with tins of food and no tin openers (they bashed tins with hammers to get the food out), with twenty-something men crammed into cabins four bunks high - the men that did it and didn't bite each others heads off... Wow.

And yet Adam Gobnik talked about the romantic ideas that have now for centuries accompanied trips like that, how afterwards they'd talk about the courage and the beauty, even if whilst pulling the sledges the thought that kept them going was dollars they would receive once back home in New York.

Radio New Zealand's awesome, man.

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