Chasing the Borealis: Near the Arctic Circle

Patterns in ice, on the Snaefellsness Peninsula, Iceland.

I am suspended on ice. My fingers cannot find purchase on the smooth surface. My right foot is solidly on rock, while my left searches for another hold. It is beginning to snow, and the sun is gone; purple midnight is falling at five p.m. The worst is I am panicking. If I slip, I might not die, but my bones will break, and I am at the end of civilization, five hours away from a hospital. I do not look down at the hotel below the frozen waterfall I have climbed; I do not think of the hot cocoa waiting for me there.

But I cannot stop a small thought entering my head about my last trip here one year ago, up on the glacier, when I was filming a kite-skier, one of Iceland’s best, until a gust threw him into volcanic rock, and I thought “Cool video” until I got close to him and saw his face, ghastly white, choked for breath, because his liver was split in half and he would spit out this message for me as he bounced four hours back to Reykjavik: “Don’t put me on the funniest home videos on TV.”

I am among Vikings, who take calculated risks as part of the national heritage, and I have gambled on the weather, and am losing. I have had this happen to me before, and have come out scraped and bleeding, but happy. Churchill said it’s a gas to be shot at and missed, and I agree. But Icelanders don’t quote Churchill, since their homilies are more blunt: “If you don’t like the weather in Iceland, wait five minutes for it to change.”

Relax, relax. Panic is error’s instrument, and I am usually vindicated in my explorations, cheerfully. To keep my head out of the drop beneath my feet I look at the sky: Mars and the seven sisters are already twinkling, and only half the sky has any clouds. It is clear, with promise for an inky black night. This is what I came for: A cold, absorbent velvety black dark, so the jewels from the Sun can shine with turquoise brilliance.

I am chasing the Aurora Borealis. And the Aurora is right here. Or it will be when I get off the frozen waterfall.

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This picture is evidence of why it is worth going to the Arctic Circle even if the Aurora doesn't get seen. At least it's evidence for photographers: ice forms differently here because of the wind and the variation in temperatures. You don't see these patterns except at these latitudes, under a twilight sunshine that allows the capture of water in mid-melt and then re-freeze, as photographers can find in Iceland's north. As I am laying out the iPad/PDF of shooting Iceland in wintertime, this lesson is brought home by the minute: the macrocosmic purposes of life are easy to follow, but it is in the microscopic details that beauty is divined and mined; in the glance rather than the stare, in the kiss rather than the marriage, in the moment rather than the month, etc. The ice and its patterns teach the eye to look for details that habit and routine obscure, better to keep us firmly on the mill, churning our energy into social productivity. It's on the ice that the seed of doubt is constantly planted for me: Get into the wind, feel the volcanic grit in your teeth, taste the unfiltered unpurified undiluted unmasked untreated water the way it was before hormones and fertilizer got mixed into it. I drink in DCA: what is this taste from the tap? Whose chemicals, and why?

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I exaggerate. I write. Hyperbole is my tool, not my excuse. But I landed in Iceland two weeks ago on the edge of irritation, shackled. It took 24 hours in the air drinking the water to get my batteries charged to spilling. No, less than 24 hours. I have seen people so wrecked with the sweat of their worries come to the Arctic Circle and find instant release. The longest it took anyone was a filmmaker who talked about her issues for 48 hours and then stood on the pass next to the Kambur mountain in the blistering wind and said, "But, this place is beautiful!" I'll never forget it, that "but" of hers: a small discovery of a cleaner and sharper self. This is my ad for both a) coming here, and b) leaving wherever we are.

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