Kittiwakes, Danish jarls, menus for death, Shell Super Outboard, Phippsøya, Edgar Allan Poe, singing Norns, writhing mountains of walrus, the Antigua & the existentialist microcosm.
“Nature is not only that which is visible to the eye; it is also the inner images of the soul, images on the back side of the eye.”—Edvard Munch
On the remote Arctic island of Phippsøya there stands an emergency hut. It waits on the shore of this barren outpost, tilting in its rocky moat as a last sentinel of human habitation. After the four walls that contain a paraffin lamp and a splintery wooden bunk, there is no promise of comfort for the next six hundred miles to the North Pole.
Norway’s other Arctic huts are relatively inviting. Arrivals to Smeerenburg (“blubber town”) find the seventeenth-century remnants of Dutch whaling stations still lumped in the tundra. In the celebrated Frambukta hut—where the explorer Fridtjof Nansen’s shipmates wintered as he crossed Greenland on foot, eating his dogs along the way—a log book lies open on the kitchen table. Recent visitors signed in from Poland, Kansas, London: Had a great time. Very inspiring. Nice curtains, beautiful view!
In Phippsøya, there is no guestbook. It is as if the hut swallows up its witnesses. Maybe those who stay too long find their desire to chronicle effaced. With this hut Norway maintains its northern frontier—the outermost edge of a nation that defines itself on survival, emotional fortitude and isolation. This hut is the existentialist microcosm. In it are the ghosts of Ibsen, the hunger pangs of Hamsun, the screams of Munch.
I reached Phippsøya aboard the tall ship Antigua. I was one of thirty-four participants in the Arctic Circle Residency, an organisation that promotes research in science and the arts to enhance understanding of this region under increasing threat. We’d spotted blue whales one day and writhing mountains of walrus the next. We anchored beside surging glaciers and made our way ever northward in the constant summer light. The expedition was doubly exposing for me: between novels, I was in the familiar gloom, the dark container of pathological self-examination. Others on board seemed engaged in similar enterprises. On deck, while staring into the icy water, I often sensed them coming nearer, as if coveting my place at the railing.
The glaciers always beckoned. They are moving monstrosities of ancient frozen snow, gleaming with bright-blue tunnels and fragile ice bridges. Thunderous booms accompany clouds of expiring breath from losing battles with the sun. Chunks of ice the size of SUVs come slowly tumbling down the outer shells, each followed by an explosive splash. Gigantic blue diamonds soon bob in the water. In our Zodiac, we stared into the fresh cracks and fissures. Icicles hang over a glacier’s cave mouth like dead fingers. As the glacier calves the kittiwakes scream, and new waves form. Every day, we watched more ice turn to liquid. Of course we were complicit—not just as humans, but as artists. Take a photo of the reindeer. Paint that floating seal. Write a poem to the blinding light.
Icicles hang over a glacier’s cave mouth like dead fingers. As the glacier calves the kittiwakes scream, and new waves form.
Temperatures were warmer than average, and our cowboy captain pushed us north. We made for the outermost point of Norway, the Sjuøyane (Seven Islands) archipelago, surrounded by pack ice for most of the year. The strong winds gave us a lurching arrival at Phippsøya on a cloudy night. Only it wasn’t night. The sun was still shining across the high jagged cliffs. The anchor groaned as it sought a bed for its long iron tooth. In the distance, over the choppy water, I saw a small shape on the shore. At first I thought it was a person—a solitary figure looking back at me. The island was supposed to be uninhabited, yet someone was standing there in the snow. I almost knew what it was like to see a ghost and be frightened to death, with no chance to describe what I’d seen. It was the emergency hut.
Much of Phippsøya remains uncharted. No Danish jarls, no Norse petty freeholders nor chieftains ever mentioned this rock on the edge of the world’s outermost sea, unreachable most of the year. We’d come farther north than the mythical frost giants of Iceland, sea kings who waited out the headwinds to singing Norns flying overhead in swans’ dresses. No such deities seem possible in Phippsøya. It is a place of nothing, an island of futility, a destination for only the most pointless human exigencies. Here, in 1773, the young naval officer Horatio Nelson served an apprenticeship with Constantine Phipps (whom the island is named after) on a search for the North Pole. Apparently Nelson took it into his head to pursue a polar bear and put himself into danger. Nothing much has changed. Because we do harm, we need emergency huts. I went down to my cabin, wondering what we might find there in the morning. What if we landed and couldn’t leave? What if that hut contained somebody?
W hile Antarctica is a continent surrounded by oceans, the Arctic is an ocean surrounded by continents. The freezing, slashing waters are a constant threat. The Arctic Ocean is very deep. In places, it reaches 5,500 meters (over 18,000 feet). Largely covered by ice, the ocean fragments at the edges with floating pack ice, creating unseen channels and twisting maelstroms. The mountains shaped by these waters compete with each other for their resemblance to daggers. The main island in the Svalbard archipelago is Spitsbergen (“pointy mountains”). I half expected to find Prometheus chained up, punished by Zeus, according to Aeschylus, “on high craggy rocks at the world’s limit.” Each sweeping view brings an internal rupture. Love is doubted. Loneliness is exacerbated. No wonder Mary Shelley exiled her monster here.
In the Arctic, the menu for death is long and varied. You can stay the night outdoors. You can fall into a cave while walking your dog. You can be eaten by a polar bear on a moraine, on the shores of a peaceful fjord or in your friend’s back garden. You can drown in the harbour by falling overboard, or by braving the water for a quick dip, only to find yourself unable to move. Last year, over two hundred people in Longyearbyen had to evacuate their homes when an avalanche struck during breakfast. People have died on shore, watching a glacier break apart, only to be taken under by the ensuing tsunami.
It is as if the creators considered human existence futile, delivered a small supply of wood anyway, then withdrew to watch.
Behind all of these events, something other lurks. It is the sinister, ancient way of the self-inflicted. Perhaps the region inspires it. “More deplorably desolate no human imagination can conceive,” Edgar Allan Poe wrote about northern Norway, “like ramparts of the world, lines of horridly black and beetling cliff, whose character of gloom was but the more forcibly illustrated by the surf which reared high up against its white and ghastly crest, howling and shrieking for ever.”
The night we anchored off Phippsøya, I had a series of violent dreams. They were probably inspired by stories I’d heard in Longyearbyen a few nights before—of men who rented rifles and disappeared into the snow. Of the trapper found starved in his hut with stocks of food in his cupboard. Of the woman who asked to be left beside a glacier, without a coat, during the darkest night of winter. Of the widower who headed off unarmed into fresh tracks in the snow. The locals have a saying: “suicide by polar bear.” Svalbard’s thawing tundra reveals an increasing number of corpses. Melting ice causes the land to lift, and new beaches are exposed with human bones beside animal fossils.
The morning of our landing on Phippsøya, the waters had turned tranquil. The air was crisp, the visibility clear. There, on the edge of the shore, waited the hut. Everyone on deck was looking at it. We all carried similar expressions: death stares formed in the privacy of our cabins, pressed to our portholes with an almost bright expectation of final territories. Some of us discussed our dreams. The young woman beside me, normally given to singing before breakfast, simply stared at the hut without a word.
As we boarded the Zodiac, the jagged mountains pointed in the opposite direction, back toward the open sea. There were low, harrowing sounds carried by the wind. “We’re actually lucky,” our guide said as we neared the beach. He showed us an entry in his book describing the normal difficulties of landing in Phippsøya: “The weather is often bad, or the shore is blocked by ice or the beach is occupied by a polar bear…it is amazing how many things can go wrong.”
We all carried similar expressions: death stares formed in the privacy of our cabins, pressed to our portholes with an almost bright expectation of final territories.
Even with experienced guides, polar bears can appear out of nowhere. A few days earlier we’d had an alarming encounter, not long after our landing. A bear materialised against the white snow on a nearby hill, then proceeded toward us. Polar bears can seem to take their time, only to be upon you in seconds. That day we made a clumsy evacuation. These animals face a shrinking habitat, and with increasing tourist activity in the Arctic, deaths are inevitable. Not long after our expedition left Svalbard, a German guide had to shoot a polar bear to save another guide under attack.
On Phippsøya, as our guide held the mooring rope, we climbed onto the beach. For a while I remained by the Zodiac. The snow was deep and wet. The higher tundra looked extremely barren, even for the Arctic. There was no glacier, no moving rivers, no birds. The only sound came from our gasping breath. The cold smell troubled me. It carried only the smell of itself—a vessel of complete purity, unmolested for eons. To be here meant a violation.
Recent visitors signed in from Poland, Kansas, London: Had a great time. Very inspiring. Nice curtains, beautiful view!
And yet—there was the hut. The others had already stripped off their lifejackets and started for it, slightly stupidly, like sheep toward a cliff edge. Our guides, up on their promontories with rifles on their shoulders, were too distant for my liking. I kept wondering if some people found themselves in peril because they had come to the emergency hut. This structure had the capacity, I believed, to cause the very emergencies it was meant to alleviate.
The Phippsøya hut was built by the Norwegian government in 1936. Fifteen years earlier, the nation had a Nobel Prize winner in Knut Hamsun, who wrote his masterful homage to hunger while working on his uncle’s Arctic cattle farm. “I discovered the weightiest objections to the Lord’s arbitrariness in making me suffer,” the protagonist begins. “What if God simply intended to annihilate me?” By 1936, Hamsun was no longer hungry; he was infatuated with fascism and Hitler’s showpiece Olympics. Down in Oslo, Edvard Munch had become surprisingly violent. In his private notes he tried to make sense of a troubling episode: “I on my back—down on the ground—Karsten in a white suit in front of me also on his back—we both raise our heads facing each other—Now he is going to rush at me I thought—It’s now or never I shoved my heel into his eye…” In the Soviet Union, Stalin’s reign of terror had reached its peak with mobile gas vans, show trials and forced confessions. Around the world, carbon emissions and temperatures were climbing. Maybe Norway’s hut builders were just being cautious.
Love is doubted. Loneliness is exacerbated. No wonder Mary Shelley exiled her monster here.
Eventually I set off toward the thing. As I came closer, the structure took on ominous functions: coffin, Swiss suicide chalet, human disposal chamber from the sci-fi classic Soylent Green. It certainly didn’t look like a place I wanted to stay for long. As I trudged through the snow, my feet dropped, and dropped further. Freezing water poured into my boots. The hut awaited, partly sunken into its rocky moat. The roof was torn. The chimney looked crumpled, the window covered by a wooden hatch. Two polar-bear jawbones lay side by side at the door. My companions had gone, leaving me to investigate alone. I turned the handle and stepped in.
The Phippsøya hut is the size of a walk-in closet. The floorboards are streaked with mud. There are two wooden bunks without mattresses or pillows. A paraffin lamp hangs on the wall; a stove sits in the corner. The shelf, directly above the window, holds a supply of matches, a few rolls of toilet paper, a can of motor oil (Shell Super Outboard), an empty can of black paint and a battered paperback of Louis Masterson’s Morgan Kane, translated into Norwegian. The anteroom contains a portion of wood, together with an axe, mallet, shovel and box of nails.
I stood there with one clear desire: to leave. The hut is nearing its own state of emergency. Perhaps it has always been this way. In this dwelling are the few things you need to hold out, just a little longer, in order to eventually die. It is as if the creators considered human existence futile, delivered a small supply of wood anyway, then withdrew to watch. Here in Phippsøya, Norway plays Zeus, exiling Promethean man for his transgressions. It isn’t a hut to prevent an emergency; it is a hut to experience an emergency. This tiny structure with barely enough room for one’s thoughts—it is the architectural equivalent of our spinning globe, temporarily protecting people so self-destructive, there is little promise of escape.
Rob Magnuson Smith’s debut novel, The Gravedigger, won the Pirate’s Alley William Faulkner Award. His second novel, Scorper, was published by Granta. Rob’s short fiction has appeared in The Guardian, Ploughshares, The Literarian, The Reader, The Greensboro Review, Granta, Fiction International and the Australian Book Review as winner of the Elizabeth Jolley Prize. He teaches at Exeter University and will be the 2019/20 visiting professor of English and environmental studies at Vassar College.
Lead image: Annie Spratt