Music is Not Made for the Adventure

August 22

Would have been sublime to hear London Grammar the night I stepped off the plane and rode the train from Heathrow to Houndslow, but the tickets to the pre-tour show at Round Chapel were impossible to snag, even with preregistration, even with staying up very, very late. Some fans said after that the tickets had sold out in seconds. Others said it took a few minutes, at most. For me, it would have been a squeeze to get across London that night, and I hadn’t exactly slept on that gorgeous 787 from Seattle. So, all things considered, I was okay making myself at home at my cousin’s house in Twickenham, and sitting out on the back porch and garden while they were vacationing in the south of France. I had my notebook and a cup of tea. And, starting there, in that place with my feet up and the night sounds complicating my thoughts, it was even more okay, even surreal perhaps, to discover this perfect modern band, and Hanna Reid with her expansive voice, playing their final set of the night live on the Internet.

The night was warm, and those were not bad seats, and when the band was finished and the stage lights winked out on my laptop screen, I began that journey—three weeks in Europe so that I could begin to ask some new questions and listen to the sounds, the voices of people I only ever hear every few years or even every decade or so—and let that adventure prompt other memories, the way sounds when coupled with sights and half-remembered smells always do. All my best memories are married to sound—and sometimes music.

My college acting teacher told me, “Sometimes, things don’t go as planned.” His name was Jeremy Caplan. For the longest time, I’ve remembered him as ‘Robert,’ but IMDB has set me straight, even from way out here in the Arctic Ocean.

Jeremy played a deputy sheriff in Toy Soldiers. He’s the one who runs down the hill near the beginning of the film and says, “Sheriff, there’s been shots fired at the school.” So, Louis Gossett Junior and Wil Wheaton were in town that fall, and me pretty close to working fame at the city bars, and at the Culbreth theatre—Tina Fey was there too, a year ahead, but I don’t remember running into ‘Elizabeth’ in the corridors or the prop shop or the stage or the green room. There’s no reason I should remember. I can’t even remember the name of the plays I directed, or any of those from which I acted scenes. Streets at night and theatre corridors are too quiet to be remembered well, unless there’s shouting, or a raccoon in a garbage can, or my heart’s going fast because all theatres are in the wrong part of town. But remembering is too often not a part of the plan.

We deal with the unexpected when it comes, and if it’s memorable, I think there’s usually a quality of sound attached. I planned to find a working cash machine in the Underground that afternoon (thin, echoing spaces and too many voices to concentrate), and I planned to have a wallet in Kyoto years ago when I needed to pay for the hotel (a rolling suitcase cutting through loose gravel on the road). I planned to have an unexpired driver’s license in order to rent a car out of Manchester (yes, there, just the pounding of my heart). That’s to say, things work out even if the details go astray. And the psychological pressures that come from driving a month, illegally (because the agent hadn’t noticed), on the wrong side of the road, probably add something to the overall adventure.

Nothing in the last ten years indicated sea ice would be factor in our survey of the Beaufort shelf-break. Once upon a time, say 2005, sure. But things have changed, and this year it’s not that things have changed back, but perhaps the old memories haven’t gone altogether. Maybe we’ve come upon a lingering, fringe chance to collect data now about conditions that have become so rare they might not happen again, not in our lifetimes. We don’t know. A sombre note, because the seascape beyond our portholes is stark and beautiful and more than ever a sign of times gone by.

We can’t direct the details. We can’t know what’s beneath the surface until we go there, dip a toe and think it’s warm and then sink to our knees and discover that warmth was just a skin exposed to the sun, and that there’s much more going on beneath. We have no idea what our actors had for breakfast. We have no idea what our shipmates will be going back to next week. But because that future affects these details, time is nested eddies.

For our college acting class, I directed two other students in a somewhat quiet scene on a couch in the green room. It was exactly the type of scene I like to write, minimal characters hesitant to fall in love, and everything that should be scripted isn’t. I think this is a good example of why I should not direct and not make films—because I overproduce—sometimes. I had a couch in the green room and two talented students, and I wanted music as well, because sound is important to me, because while I was never a huge fan of Tangerine Dream, in 1990 I’d fallen in love with the first dozen bars of a little B-side track called “Underwater Twilight,” and I wanted that to play from a cassette tape and portable stereo to close out the scene. I probably wanted to make a statement that this was a sublime moment. Would have been, could have been heavy-handed, but the tape stuck, or something like that, or maybe another of the students hadn’t understood the cue, or maybe Jeremy had a hand in it—I don’t know. The point is that the music, shoehorned in, wasn’t needed—except that the process of planning it and failing at it is likely the reason I even remember the couch and the green room at all. I had married the occasion to music, even ineffectually, even if the music hadn’t actually played.

You can’t direct the details, but you can learn from them. You can sleep on them and adapt. We are here on a ship in the Beaufort Sea to survey and to see how the distribution of animals along the shelf-break (zooplankton, fish, birds, belugas) changes under conditions of upwelling, when winds from the east push the surface water north, and deeper, more nutrient rich ocean upwells in the water column. But the actual story plays out as it must. Today, we deployed the mid-water trawl under conditions we could not have done two weeks ago. We did it in record time. The fishing is late in coming this cruise, but the crew’s movements are now practiced and informed by our repeated attempts. The ice is still an issue, but we’ve been looking for routes through the labyrinth that allow us to use even our largest net most days.

So, a plan is a good starting point. From there we can see just how good we are at figuring things out. Just the other day, Randy remarked how the Sikuliaq is still young for ship and hasn’t found herself yet. Over the last three years, the crew has worked the ship into better and better shape.

I most remember the sounds of the very young ship and the too many things that didn’t fit together when she had only just met saltwater, the way the north Atlantic swells rattled the coat hangers from one end of the closet to the other, the way some of the drawers wouldn’t latch and then opened and closed two feet deep on every crest and every trough—and there seemed too many other things to do to find the duct tape—and these are just the silly surface details. Then the anchors bounced in their pockets and the chains rang like bells in their tubes.

Emerson Eads wrote music for the Sikuliaq’s launch, recorded by the Fairbanks Symphony orchestra. They played it the day we dropped the ship into the Menominee River. They played Emerson’s piece at the reception—but people were more in a mood to talk about the future of the boat and the future of the Arctic and arctic research than listen to music that had never seen the boat run, or grow, or settle into itself. Music is not made for the adventure. It arises from it. Sometimes it is just the song playing on the radio, or the quartet at the top of your last playlist. You can’t force the show, and no one had yet heard the voice of the Sikuliaq. The ship had barely gotten wet, despite the rain in Wisconsin.

The delicacy of the symphony orchestra’s recording was lost to the poor playback from someone’s laptop and a neglected speaker system. All this hoity-toity theatre, dress-up, and presumption, and they didn’t get the sound right. It’s fine. This is art. This is science. We work at it and we work at it with big plans and little control of the details. They fall out as they must, and we work at it some more and some more until people begin to take notice.

The Sikuliaq’s song is strongest when she’s running and the swells grow large. You can hear it best in the forward hold below the chains. There the rhythm of the sea and the moan of the engines come together in the steel to create a sound all her own. I have it recorded. I listen to it sometimes to remember.

I drove by Marinette this last spring. I was on my way round the lake and wanted to re-find a particular café I’d discovered when I was there for Sikuliaq’s launch, a little place in Menominee with great pie. I didn’t have much of a plan to find the place five years on, but I’ve found these things are not so hard, finding the old places once you’ve got the music of it.

For better or for worse, a bit of the music I’ve most played over and over again this cruise:

Moon in Your Mouth — Goldfrapp, Silver Eye

Different Skin — Vogel, Imperium

Let it Go By — Fiora, Let it Go By

So Just Hang On, Beautiful One — Au4, And Down Goes the Sky

                   Move It — Prinze George, Illiterate Synth Pop

You can also follow the R/V Sikuliaq @rmtopp @Sikuliaq on Twitter and @toppworld on Instagram and @R/V Sikuliaq on Instagram and Facebook. To further chart the course of this August 2018 expedition, look up Arctic Winds, Fish, Fins, and Feathers on Facebook.

—Thanks to the R/V Sikuliaq, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and the University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, and the National Science Foundation.

 

A Fishing Trip

August 18

We had every reason to believe we wouldn’t see a shred of sea ice for the duration of this cruise. Last year, the project’s cruise was run in September, and there was no ice then. Sea ice hasn’t been observed in August in this part of Beaufort since 2006. Not that there’s more ice this year than in the previous decade, only that the winds move it around, and the pattern and strength of the winds this year seems to have shifted into an older regime.

Today, we make an attempt to reach a pair of moorings to the east of us where the sea ice has covered their positions thus far this expedition. At the moment, the ice there is patchy, so the ship pulls up the acoustic centerboard and begins to drive through. Someone clarifies that the Sikuliaq is not an ice breaker. It’s an “ice pusher.” Technically yes, it is not an ice breaker, but it does break ice. The Sikuliaq is ice capable—capable of easy driving through young, year-old ice—‘sikuliaq.’

As we crack through the longer ice floes, we scare up the arctic cod we’ve had trouble hunting en masse with the Tucker Trawl and our sounding pings. When the cod swim over the edges of the blue ice, they are clearly visible. Marty sees one trapped in a blue pool and be quickly scooped up by a gull. They are small fish and especially vulnerable from above when backlit, sandwiched between an overcast sky and the bright blue ice. It’s cold. It’s raining, but Jennifer and Kristina put on Mustang suits so they are impervious to anything the sea has to throw at us. I deposit my camera bag in a puddle on an upper deck. It doesn’t matter. It’ll dry out later and in meantime I can feel a little less encumbered and enjoy the sounds of ice cracking under the hull.

The ship makes headway, but the going is slow. Considering the limited work days left to our calendar, we soon decide to turn around. Too much time would be spent getting to the moorings with few chances to recover them once we’re on station. The batteries on the moorings are good for another year. A different ship will be asked to recover them.

In the evening, we pull down the work boat. The fish team want to go after a few of the cod hiding under the ice floes. I’m happy for that and the chance to photograph the ship again before the fog finds us.

So, again I’m in a small boat on the sea, and amongst ice floes for the first time in 14 years—then one of my first photographic expeditions on any terrain. In 2004, I was in the Chukchi Sea on the other side of Point Barrow, photographing Inupiat hunters take seals from 14-foot open boats with a rifle and a harpoon, stalking about the floes and then racing through the gaps to get to the seals before they sank. We spent whole days on the water, eating packed sandwiches and drinking coffee from a thermos. I made the mistake of loaning my lens wipe to the man with the rifle, only to see it flutter away in the wind. This time I’ve brought three. This time, our fishing trip sees us much farther out to sea and always within foggy eyesight of the mother ship.

Before we go, with rod and reel and cameras, so many cameras, Steve makes a joke about how if I don’t come back, can he have my stuff? I tell him I’m carrying it all with me. So, no running off and leaving us out in the middle of the ocean. I’ve done this before—loaded with a backpack and a duffle bag and cameras. We’ve gunned the motor so as not to be captured by ice floes, and we’ve been stranded on an ice floe as the pilot fixed the outboard—and we’ve raced for Barrow as the pack-ice pushed us to shore and we walked the last few miles to the end of the road where we were met by trucks. So, sure, if we don’t see you again, I’m confident we’ll make it somewhere. I’m content to see where that story goes. Trucks and a wet road. I know how this works. Adventure. You just keep going until there’s a bed and some food in a cupboard.

On the Beaufort, the boat motor gurgles and the world is pretty silent except for all our moving about in boots on the aluminum. I remember that sound, I think. I’ve watched the video. I wonder if I could I catch the Sikuliaq’s Wi-Fi on my phone and fire off a selfie from the shadow of an ice floe. But the fish team casts their lines, and I take photographs of them instead. Time is short and I was never here. And the fog closes in.

We never lose sight of the ship, though it is sometimes reduced to the weight of a ghost drifted across a little used road. And we are not so far away as we were on Kasatochi a couple years ago. We drove that skiff out from the volcano in dense fog to find the Tiglâx (Tec-la) waiting in one of the many straits where the Pacific meets the Bering Sea. For a long while, we saw only that boat’s red light atop the mast. Then, when we were right upon her, she appeared and we were home. Another away-party. Another all-returned.

Now too, the Sikuliaq appears as a great wall in the sea, to bump up against as the davit’s hook comes down and picks us up and pulls us away from the surprise of the August sea ice. If it takes another 14 years, this will be the last time. Steve does not get my stuff. Not yet.

You can also follow the R/V Sikuliaq @rmtopp@Sikuliaqon Twitter and @toppworldon Instagram and @R/V Sikuliaq on Instagram and Facebook. To further chart the course of this August 2018 expedition, look up Arctic Winds, Fish, Fins, and Featherson Facebook.

—Thanks to the R/V Sikuliaq, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and the University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, and the National Science Foundation.

The Colors Does It

August 12

Steve failed to wake me for the sunrise, but I’ll forgive him. Celia showed me the pictures and impressive though they are, I’m not sure the clouds have moved since the previous evening’s sunset, which all by itself took several hours to perform—and every time I sat down to type something Celia came back inside to tell me how different the light looked now, and even better than before—and I had to come outside to the back deck and take a look. She wasn’t wrong. The resurgences of the new day fell softly upon the slow death of the old, and I’m sure no one complained whose watch it was to work through, cleaning nets and flying the Mocness* in the midnight sun.

And now get to journey into a world of color again, if only for an evening and a day—all the yellows and oranges and shades not quite turquoise we needed, a breather from the grey on grey. The night watch gets to work through a sunset and a sunrise—thought isn’t that all the same thing here. The sun at best is giving the world a glancing blow, and the color gradients that Celia tells me really are changing, because look at the latest pictures, and I need to go back outside and see, “because it’s better than earlier.” It’s always better than earlier. I’m tired. I’m done with pictures. I should make a case that all my memory cards are full, that the portable hard drive and the thumb drive backups are stuffed and the laptop itself has begun to fit files into uncomfortable places. When I’m not looking, it shoves them onto the phone for safekeeping, which makes the Instagramming pretty, but then the phone and the laptop are dogging like they’re homesick.

Today, I began to pick on members of the science crew I feel are a little underserved by the current bursting-state of the photo archive on the ship’s server. I have their names written into my notebook. So, I spent a day stalking some of those who’ve shown skill at ducking behind machines as I approach.

I should tell Celia I’ve had to jettison all the videos and audio books and podcasts I brought with, erased from my own memory half my recollections of growing up in suburbia. They were all wrong anyway, the wrong parts sticking, and too many felt like photographs taken from angles that should have been impossible, or backwards. Now need the space for sunset panoramas, the 11-photo-stitched 200 megabyte vistas that—well, where are they ever going to be printed larger than my head?

But Celia’s right. The sunset does keep getting better. One band of color gives way to another, and then the sun pops out and then it goes away again, but not in a sad way, because there it is again and we didn’t have to wait a whole day, and now a blue cool chunk of ice comes into the frame like an actor making an entrance from stage right. It’s a float on part, but where it falls across the bands of light, I just hold down the motor drive. The camera’s so hot the frames are going to stick together. Now I have to look over the gunwales to see what’s coming next, what in this parade of blue and white party floats is trying for their once in life time cameo. Don’t look at the sun; time’s shorter than it would lead you to believe. Not a floe changes course to avoid me. For this I thank them.

Eventually I go to bed.

And behold, the sun is still there in the morning, and beaming in my porthole when I open my eyes. I live in Fairbanks right, so I don’t even bother shutting the curtains when I fall asleep. If I’m ready for sleep, I sleep.

The winch is what wakes me up anyway, generally. Cal’s and my stateroom is the farthest aft, right up against the CTD control room. The winch is two decks down, but the Baltic room is just a deck away and the great big door that opens in the side of the ship to let the CTD out takes a minute to open or to close on hydraulics. Then the boom that tracks out is louder still. It’s really quite okay. The night watch stations are only every couple of hours and most of time I sleep right through them.

So, maybe it’s not the sunlight and not the winch. Probably breakfast then. The aroma of bacon and eggs sunny side up floods under our door at the same time every day, like the best of alarm clocks, smells so rich you can see the colors. The kitchen is right across the corridor, taking up most of the width of the ship, this deck, this far aft. We don’t need much room to sleep, not with sunsets and sunrises, and fresh berries (still) at breakfast.

Cal’s not in the lower bunk this morning, so he’s still on deck with the night watch. He’ll go to sleep shortly after breakfast. He’s Alaskan through and through. He leaves the light on, and sometimes even the door open, because, this is a skill.

Which is all just preamble to the really big news of the day. We are going to fish, and Jennifer and Mike will take point on the Tucker Trawl. The acoustic sounder is hung on the net and will allow them to target the depth at which the ship’s echo sounder says the fish are.

And for the first time this trip I’m shooting photographs in the sun, which feels odd, to finally be able to drop the iso. I also have to contend with hard shadows.

But the paint and the rust on the trawl’s doors look great in the direct, raking light, and the odd ice floe passing behind everyone to remind us where we are.

The trawl doors are shaped like airplane wings but work like kites—underwater. While they swim behind the boat, they open as far laterally as the bridal allows, until the net’s mouth is some 10×12 meters wide. The amount of wire let out depends on the depth of the water. Today, the wire goes out more than 700 meters. I suppose that’s like seven and a half football fields, if that is something people have a sense of the length of anymore. I dream of a day we can think in terms of things much larger.

The wire and the net and the doors put more than 2 tons of load on the winch, and in the end, we’ll catch mostly jellies. The fish, the arctic cod, when we do go after the right water, will only be a few inches long. This is a test run today, the first time the ‘fish people’ have got the team working on the deck with the big net. We’ve chosen this spot on the chance we’ve found a lake in the ice field. The lake’s not where we want to be—but it’s open water.

And I need to worry about where the sun is, at noon as well as sunset.

 

*MOCNESS: Multiple Opening and Closing Net Environmental Sampling System

 

You can also follow the R/V Sikuliaq @rmtopp@Sikuliaqon Twitter and @toppworldon Instagram and @R/V Sikuliaq on Instagram and Facebook. To further chart the course of this August 2018 expedition, look up Arctic Winds, Fish, Fins, and Featherson Facebook.

—Thanks to the R/V Sikuliaq, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and the University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, and the National Science Foundation.