Thursday, November 29, 2007

Ice Ghost

I'm thrilled to say that my narrative of spending February 2007 on Alaska's north slope will appear as "Ghost on the Ice" in The Best Travel Writing 2008 (you can see the 2007 volume here). Some excerpts below:

Sometimes I crossed frozen lakes, the black ice, six feet thick and hard as bottle-glass, screeching under my crampon spikes. I often knelt to examine shapes that seemed to move beneath the surface. Through the thick, irregular lens of frozen water, spectral gray bubbles seemed to wobble if I moved my head from side to side, and I did this to keep them in their surreal, drunken motion. Some were big as balloons, others like marbles. Deeper forms were blury. In some places, multitudes of star-white points clustered like rising soda fizz. And there were isolated specks, lonely as interstellar dust. The surface of the space-black ice was often broken by inch-wide cracks that shot and jagged like lightening bolts hurled from the sky and caught int he ice. Most of the cracks were filled with snow and the broad gray slots dropping into the ice looked like curtains or guillotines. Occasionally the scenes would be obscured as a gust-driven swarm of sparkling grains slid across the ice.

One morning a stiff wind drove the temperature down to seventy degrees below zero. The wind rushed through my face, bypassing skin and muscle to directly attack the bone. It felt as though a screwdriver had been jammed between plates of bone in my skull and was prying them apart...

On my 20th morning in this frozen world the Earth rolled another fraction and the rind of the sun flowed up and over the horizon, a syrupy slash of bloody red and molten copper. Turning from the roiling blaze, I saw that the snowscape was now an irregular checkerboard of hues. A million wind-scalloped hollows brooded watery green, cold cups patterned regularly between batallions of small wavelets and whips of windblown snow that stood up a little, their peaks catching the light and glowing as if lit from within. The snow radiated a misty pink and the expanse of delicate shades leaping away from my boots in all directions seemed so bouyant that I imagined the entire tundra lifing slowly and gently floating away, an immense flying carpet. For a moment I forgot the cold and allowed myself to believe that I was in a magical place.

(c) 2007 Cameron McPherson Smith

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Moonlight Levitation

There is something extraordinarily primal about being lifted. When you are lifted bodily, you remember something. Tonight I took a paraglider wing to a park and pointed the inflation ports into the wind. The wing inflated and stood above me, towered twenty feet above me, striving upward; it pulled at me, straight up, lifting me off the ground. Drawing on the correct lines I dropped to the ground with a light bump. With a gust I was up again; the feeling of suspension from an array of lines was deeply familiar. I felt a great calm as something ancient in me whispered Yes, this is right.... When I looked up I saw stars racing past the leading edge; I was flying, just a few feet above the grass, but flying forward. Below my boots the grass was black and shining with moonlight.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Oregon Bluster and the Shrimp Army

I love Oregon; it's raining now, our 'Liquid Sunshine' streaming off waxy fir boughs, turning elm arms a slick black, wet wind blowing yellow-white leaves off the trees like snow, whirling in the wind until they slant down and stick to the pavement. Beautiful. The other day, with Greg Baker and Bill Cornett, I took a dozen students from Linfield out to Parrett Mountain to find a lost archaeological site. What can I say; 30mph wind, clouds blowing across the fields, so dark in the woods that we couldn't even do basic paperwork. For the first time in seven years, my GPS couldn't even acquire a single satellite; this was Oregon bluster at its finest. Picture above of my intrepid students :) And below, a sketch of the Shrimp Army, seen a few weeks ago on a night dive seventy feet below the surface of Puget Sound, Washington (click to enlarge).

Friday, November 16, 2007

Sarcophagus on Skis

A feature on the sled-hut, which I called the 'sarcophagus on skis' in my Iceland expeditions (photo above is copyright 2004 by Halldor Kvaran). Below, an excerpt from my book manuscript (tentatively titled The Frost Giants), on what it was like to live in this contraption. This is an experiment written in second-person.

Life in a Telephone Booth

Flesh, bone, and mind tell you “That’s it,” and you take last step of the night. It’s been blowing a stiff 30mph all day from your right side and since you’ve stopped moving the chill of the ice cap leaps at your body. Slabs of skin on your face harden in the wind. Super-cooled wind pours into your hood like a pitcher of ice-water dumped down your shirt. The chilled air mass settles in your clothes and your sweat starts to freeze.

As you unbuckle from the harness, your fingers freeze and tighten. They’re like metal pincers worked by cables and pulleys. Your hands feel a thousand miles away by the time you’re out of the harness. It’s as if you’re looking at someone else’s mittens. It’s OK; you’re used to this. You’ve learned to set up camp entirely by grabbing things with the crudest grasps, or pinched between the heels of your hands…

You stand, pushing the sledhut lid hard upwards against the wind. The fabric walls suck in as you push up. Once the lid is as high as you shoulder, you rest it on your shoulder and struggle with the frozen door zipper. You use a combination of frozen claws, breathing on— and then licking— the plastic zipper pull. You get the zipper moving, once again, though you’re not sure how, because your goggles are frosted over and all you really see are wriggling blobs of muted color, not objects.

When the door is open, you thrust your head and shoulders inside, where there’s a glorious moment of peace, out of the wind. It’s pitch dark, but that doesn’t matter because your goggles have fogged on the inside, now. You’ve learned that you can’t do anything about it, so you blindly fumble for the two metal telescoping poles that keep the rear end of the sledhut lid up. They’re frozen tight from condensation last night, so you must brutally break the ice free, using your fists like hammers. The wind has been whopping the loose fabric walls like giant kettle-drums, but now you have them up and tight, and it’s a good feeling; the system is coming together.

You turn around, and sit down on the edge of the sledhut: torso inside, legs outside. You’re half-in and half-out of the sledhut, and the wind finds another way to make mischief, blowing snow into the doorway; you can hear it hissing around inside, feel it settling between your thighs on the sledhut floor…

Finally, you crawl inside for the night. You zip up the door. Your whole body shakes and your teeth chatter. You scrape at your goggles, but they’re too crusted and foggy, so you raise them a little, and you see the darkness in the sledhut filling with a dense white cloud of condensed breath. You know the headlamp won’t cut through this fog, and since your goggles keep a large part of your face warm, you lower them again and work blind for a while longer. You hope, every night, that something will change, but it’s always the same, and you have to work blind. A morbid chill is creeping up the flesh of your thighs, like you're being lowered into a pool of ice-water. It’s as if the ice cap is trying to get into the sledhut with you.
(c)2007 Cameron McPherson Smith

Sunday, November 11, 2007

New Yawk

I spent the last few days at the Explorers Club in New York City (46 W 70th), promoting a book, which means wearing a nametag that says 'Author Cameron M. Smith', drinking sparkling cider and wandering around signing books for the 200+ crowd with 20-odd other authors (or 20 other odd authors; as you please). Thanks to all who came! The Explorers Club is a crusty old place, five stories (well, I'm not sure, really; one floor plaque said 'Floor 5 1/2') of odd artifacts, fading framed pictures of polar explorers (one above), and heavily-carpeted, squeaky floorboards. I could imagine ghosts there, or a little old man in a forgotten cublicle, scribbling away on some impossible, endless Tome since 1909, a forgotten, little, immortal man, a kind of Burgess Meredith tucked away forever in the narrow spaces of the Explorers Club...You know, the grey little man who might smile mildly in a Twilight Zone episode and say 'Well, I suppose I have always been here. Yes...Do you know I can't say that I remember having ever been anywhere else? Isn't that odd?'. I'd like to write about this little man, but I don't know the first thing about fiction.

After this shindig I spent time wandering Central Park, or at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which was awesome in the most literal sense: awe-inspiring. I didn't get far from the Medieval, Greek, and Egyptian galleries. Didn't even get upstairs, not one floor up. That's OK, I'll be back. If you get the chance, the Met isn't to be missed!

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Explorers Film School

On a recent diving trip my buddy and I were able to view our pictures, and even video footage(my impresions of the dive are here, and Todd's are here), within minutes of getting out of the water. Saving images and video to flash drives, and having them instantly available, is strange. I'm used to carefully planning out each shot of 35mm film, and biting my nails for a week or so--after returning to civilization--for the results; maybe a handful of saleable shots in one 36-frame roll, maybe only two. It's all changed, though, and I'm going digital. A professional photographer friend of mine, who owns and operates PhotographersDirect said it the other day: 'Film is dead.' RIP, film! I'll miss you. Speaking of expedition videography, here's a link to Andrew Miles' new Explorers Film School (it's in England); Andy has filmed in Antarctica, the Himalaya, under Arctic pack ice, in the Candian name it. He shot supplemental video of my 2000-2004 SoloIce expedition to Iceland for the film 'The Deadly Glacier' (National Geographic Television, 2005; sample here) and he's now opened his own expedition film school to train expeditioners in the basics of field photography and videography. Good luck with the new venture, Andy!

Monday, November 5, 2007

Another Dimension

This weekend of diving left me sloshing with the waves, whirling and surging upwards with the bubbles. I felt these as I drifted to sleep, but at 3am I woke with an overwhelming urge to move, to keep moving. I went out and ran three miles east, towards the edge of the Earth where the sun would rise, but I found no light out there. Finally I turned for home, knowing I'd been right to go; there was little logic to it, but I didn't care. I had to go, I still have to go. I have to keep going. There is another dimension to plunge into, to explore, and it is just over there, towards where the sun rises.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Plumose and Sunstar

Eight hours ago I surfaced from the waters of Hood Canal, Washington, with my dive partner, Todd Olson. In our dives, day and night, we saw an army of shrimp marching across an undulating, muddy, moonlike plain seventy feet down; a fat, happy ling cod gilling in the wreckage of an old fishing boat; a billion phosphorescent motes whirling in slow motion through a medium 800 times denser than air; a confused young wolf eel; waving and swaying plumose anemones, and prickly starfish. Unfortunately some of the plumose anemones were wilted, and some of the 'sunstars' (like starfish, but with more arms) were exposing tender, orange tissues, also indicating poor health. These are due to low dissolved oxygen levels, at least partly a result of sewage and other pollution being dumped into the water (you can learn about this phenomenon on this short YouTube video. Once again, humanity uses the oceans as a garbage dump. The good thing is that we're aware of it, and today the canal is being cleaned up; divers are encouraged to report signs of poor aquatic health as part of the Hood Canal Diver Observation Program. Above, a photo of a healthy plumose anemone, by Todd Olson. As Steve Irwin used to say, 'WOT A BEAUTY!' And below, a sketch of a kelp crab. I'm building a slate that I can use to draw undewater, something I've wanted to do for a long time.

Friday, November 2, 2007


Neither flying a ten-pound fabric wing, nor breathing air through a mouthpiece under dark water, are intuitive. Suspended by an array of lines from a flexing, surging airfoil, or dropping slowly into a strangely passive blackness, you have to focus and rethink what you can and cannot do, and what you may and may not do. Disaster can transform your bliss in a moment, in a single decision. If you're lucky, you'll have the opportunity to regret what you've done, to learn from your mistake. To survive, you have to adapt; to learn, to rethink yourself from basic principles. That requires stripping away ego, and that's not always easy, but if you don't do it, you're finished.