Sunday, April 25, 2010


As I guess most of you have heard, Washington DC had the snowiest winter on record this year.  Feet and feet of snow fell, closing schools and office buildings for more than a week.  You could ski right down the main 16th St. route to the White House.  But fortunately that has all ended.  Birds are singing, flowers are blooming, and the first traces of the characteristic heat, humidity and spike in the crime rate so typical of the DC summer are beginning to creep into the air.  So, what did I decide to do to celebrate the dawning of the spring season?  Take a vacation.  To the Arctic Circle.

There is still plenty of snow up here in Longyearbyen, Norway, the largest city on the Svalbard Islands.  This is supposedly the northernmost inhabited place in the world.  It is certainly northern.  I am 3.5 hours north of Oslo.  I am 2 hours north of the Arctic Circle.  I am north of most of Greenland.  You name it, I am north of it.  In fact, if you had the money or inclination, the north pole is only a 16 days dogsled away.  You would leave from Longyearbyen. 

And what in hell am I doing up here?  I must admit, that is a fairly good question that I don’t necessarily have the answer to yet myself.  This trip is the brainchild of one of my grad school friends, Johnny Norseman (who previously achieved fame on this blog by being the photographer for the famous picture of me tongue kissing a giraffe).  We are going to go hiking and snowmobiling and dog-sledding, and maybe, just maybe, see one of those elusive big white bears before global warming kills them all.  (Like taking a no hitter into the 8th, I don’t want to jinx it by saying the word.  They are hard enough to see with all your mojo working in the right direction - though there apparently was one across the bay from the airport when we landed.  All I saw was a tiny black speck at the edge of the water - and the opposite bank lined with camera toting tourists.  I hope to do better later in the week.)

But all that will have to wait a day or so.  I am confined to Mary Anne’s Polarrigg (the decidedly quirky lodge where we are staying) until Scandinavian Airlines finds my luggage.  Lost luggage in Africa is a pain in the ass.  Lost luggage in Svalbard is a frostbitten toe.  And in one of the more impressive customer relation moves I have seen recently, the woman at the SAS counter thought it was highly irresponsible of me to have packed my boots in my checked luggage.  Didn’t I know that they lost bags all the time?   How stupid could I be?

So I spent the morning sleeping in, reading my book, and gorging myself on Norwegian Sunday breakfast.  And examining the décor.  I guess it would be best classified as a nouveau taxidermy/mine motif.  The walls are painted with coal mining scenes (which, along with tourism and observational astrophysics, makes up the bulk of the economy up here).  In lieu of table runners, there are seal skins.  The floor has reindeer rugs.  And there are stuff polar bears everywhere (including one wearing boxing gloves that you must remember to duck when walking down the hall).  The hotel key chains are made of reindeer antlers.  Despite all the incredible natural splendor outside, I am starting to suspect that this might not be the place to the more strident environmentalist in the world.

Anyway, I will sign it off here.  There is a nice cozy seal skin armchair waiting for me and my book.  Besides, I will have regular internet access up here (bonus quirk of vacationing in the developed world for a change), so you will probably hear from me fairly often this week.  The photo selections are taken from my seat in the plane during the approach.  It was exactly like coming into Nouakchott over the Sahara, but pure white.


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