To Build a Fire, 2011

We’re about 120 miles from Akureyri now, and up until last night it had been a brutal passage. By “brutal” I don’t mean difficult: the conditions haven’t been life-threatening or anything like that. It had been a brutal passage due to tedious conditions that resulted in fatigue, tension and just general malaise.

For instance, right now we’re motoring over a smooth but rolly sea. There’s a thick blanket of cold fog surrounding Polar Bear, drenching every last surface — deck, sail, body — with a thin but pervasive bone-chilling layer of wetness that sinks deep inside the cabin and the soul.

And we’ve been motoring since we left Constable Pynt, almost two days ago. It was a bright, sunny, breeze-on-the-nose motor south in Hurry Inlet, but as we neared the broader waters of Scoresby Sund, things got interesting. A fierce wind blew from the east-northeast, steadily in the mid- to high-30-knot range with gusts even higher. In response to that, the seas in Scoresby Sund were heaped up into a choppy maelstrom of steep waves and blowing spray, again, pretty much from the direction we were trying to go. Polar Bear’s already underpowered engine struggled to move us at much over 2 knots. And the pack ice that had been outside the sound had blown in on the wind and waves, turning our path into a slalom course through icebergs, growlers and bergie bits. It was a lousy way to start a passage, ruining the upbeat mood that had permeated the boat upon our departure.

We turned the corner at Kap Brewster, exiting Scoresby Sund and entering the open seas of the Denmark Strait. There we found a large, steady swell out of the southwest formed by the storm that had recently passed so it was all locally generated and, as in Scoresby Sund, short and steep. And southwest was our desired path in order to head south past the pack ice before turning southeast to Iceland. But with the wind out of the south and southeast, we had a choice: motor into the seas and rock like a bucking bronco or motor into the headwinds for a somewhat gentler ride but at really slow speeds.

On top of the in-your-face conditions that made everyone at least a little queasy, the wear and tear of almost two weeks in the cold had begun to take effect. Continually low temperatures had made fatigue a constant, and I, for one, could do nothing when not on watch but sleep. The cocoon of my bunk was so welcoming that whenever I came off watch it wasn’t more than three minutes before I was safely and warmly ensconced in my sleeping bag. With others in a similar state, esprit de corps was waning.

So it was that despite calming seas, I went into last night’s midnight-3am watch dreading another three hours of monotonous engine droning and cold, wet air. And upon exiting the companionway hatch and standing in the cockpit I found myself surrounded by, yes, a droning engine and thick, cold fog. But I looked straight overhead, right up the mast toward the zenith and was rewarded with a clear view of the W of Cassiopeia. To the south a bit, off our starboard beam, the bright stars Vega and Deneb were visible in a clear, night sky. And off to the north, off our port quarter, the Big and Little Dippers (the latter with Polaris, the pole star, at its tail) were also visible. And that’s when the magic happened.

The fog eased slightly and a bolt of green shot across the sky from north to south. From the horizon off our port side to the horizon off our starboard, a grand, waving curtain of green danced before the solar winds as the aurora again appeared at the start of my watch. In short order, other cliffs of shimmering green undulated in rhythmic swells, punctuated by occasional globs and pulses of bright auroral glow.

For a good half-hour we were all treated to a magnificent show of the northern lights, and occasional displays occurred for another two hours, until the glare of morning twilight grew from the dark northern edge of the sea to engulf the entire sky. Any queasiness I’d been feeling? Gone. And the malaise that had plagued the journey from Scoresby Sund was gone, swept away by the energy I generated bouncing from rail to rail to maximize my view of the magic light in the sky. At 3am, in the broadening glow of day, I went off watch feeling refreshed and invigorated, and though I once again headed straight to my bunk to sleep, the pall that had weighed on my eyes and my psyche was lifted. A few more watches to go and we’d be in Iceland, but in the meantime, I’d had my taste of northern magic and was greatly refueled.

The northern lights last night were a lifesaving fire that warmed the inside so much that the outside and the soul were brought back from the edge. I hadn’t gone into frigid water and I wasn’t trying desperately to build a fire that would save my life, but the conditions didn’t seem that far off. Thanks to this fire, the numbness that had been creeping deeper and seemed ever more deadly were banished.

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