“Whenever we cross the Arctic we take on a few avian hitchhikers.” These words spoken by Karen Miles, wife of Rick Miles, co-owners and Captains of the Wanderbird expedition-cruise ship. She displayed her photograph taken early that morning of a gyrfalcon devouring its prey while perched on the rail of the ship’s aft-deck. She glows, knowing how rare such a sighting is. Greenland, in the Arctic, is a place where survival is a never-ending battle. The success of any hunter, this gyrfalcon, was to be celebrated. One precious life to feed another.
Our August voyage to Greenland, timed to witness the explosion of color and light was titled Chasing the Light – and we did. As a rough guess, the ten passengers and five crew members aboard the Wanderbird ‘chased’ with such photographic and artistic enthusiasm that we may have surpassed, in four weeks, the total photographic output of the mid-19th century. Remarkably, tens of thousands of digital photographs were taken, as well as traditional film; video and sound were also recorded. Some of this will lead to other work: paintings, drawings, installations, some of it an end unto itself. It will be exciting to see the collective output of this undertaking.
This journey was for many of us transformative, producing a perspective shift. Imagining the hardships endured by people living in or travelling to one of the earth’s most demanding environments are made clear even in these short summer months. The Inuit people, the Norse, missionaries and whalers, all either called this place home or learned to respect this immense island of ice and rock. The ocean, massive ice, glacier lakes and waterfalls, the soggy and fragrant hummocks and prehistoric geological features were all breathtaking. It was an honor travelling in the wakes of luminist painter William Bradford (1823-1892), Polar explorers Isaac Israel Hayes, Sir John Franklin, Elisha Kent Kane, Adolphus Greely, and others before them.
The Wanderbird is a floating classroom, a Bed & Breakfast, a lookout. The Miles’ converted their sturdily constructed North Sea fishing trawler into a comfortable long range expedition vessel. The fishhold turned into six comfortable mahogany trimmed cabins accommodating as many as twelve. The Captains, experienced mariners and conservationists are tuned to nature and local culture. Food preparation, whenever possible, is based on obtaining locally hunted or fished resources: musk-ox, reindeer, seal, char, wolf fish, shrimp, crabs. The galley always emits enticing smells.
The diverse group aboard the Wanderbird, artists and crew members alike, have been invited by the Museum to share their work and experiences. First on these pages, and then potentially as part of a series related to the primary exhibition, Arctic Regions: Away then Floats the Ice Island.
As curator of this project my primary goal during Chasing the Light was to document as many of the original locations illustrated in Bradford’s Arctic Regions as possible. To that end, I am pleased to report that as a group we saw five, possibly six locations previously captured by Bradford expedition photographers John L. Dunmore and George Critcherson. I will present these in the weeks to follow on this blog.
Here is the first installment.