Sunday, February 1, 2015

If on a Winter’s Night an NFC Championship Game is screened in the Arctic

With the Green Bay Packers down 19 to 22 against the Seattle Seahawks going into the two minute warning of the last playoff, the idea of shutting down the only bar playing the game in town seems not only preposterous, but illegal. And yet, with 2:32 on the clock, the owners of O’Leary’s Bar and Restaurant stopped its service and shut its doors to the handful of American football fans at the top of the world. Finding some humanity in our distraught expressions, the owners agreed to leave the monitors on and turn up the sound outside, so that we eight still standing could watch the game through the windows as they cleaned the tables. With limited options and a long instilled lesson that real fans stay till the end of the game, my newfound friends and I buttoned our jackets and embraced the midnight air. Throughout the next hour we screamed through field goal kicks and held each other in overtime almosts. We paced the snow with Super Bowl anxieties and looked up to the northern lights in moments of tension. And, though the Packers lost and I may have gotten frostbite, I’ll always look back at watching the 2015 NFC Championship Game outdoors in the Arctic with fond
memories, and a newfound appreciation for the crowd’s endurance at the 1967 Ice Bowl.

I began my trip to Norway earlier in the week in the not-as frozen sub-Arctic town of Bodo, about halfway up its western coast. Arriving late in the afternoon after the sun had sunken below the horizon (Northern Norway only gets a few hours of dawn-like light in the winter months), I hurriedly made my way to the hotel to join the rest of the group. Though the sun’s retreat had already plunged the village into darkness, the interior of the hotel was brightly lit with sleek, simple white and blue lighting constructed out of paper and blown glass – my first introduction to modern Nordic art and design. Walking through the icy streets, the group of Emerging Leaders and mentors made our way to a restaurant across town, where the tenants of Scandinavian design – simplicity, minimalism, and functionality – also held strong. After introducing ourselves and receiving a warm welcome to Norway by the Mayor, the head chef came out and introduced our meal – a tapas sampling of traditionally prepared fermented fish, cured sausages, ash-filled cheeses, and cloudberries.

The combination of traditional and modern followed me as a theme throughout my trip up the coast and into the Arctic over the next two weeks. Perhaps more so than any country I have visited, Norway has developed an extraordinary union between its rich history and traditions and the splendor of chic contemporary designs that came to fruition after World War II. From remote fishing villages in the islands of the fjords to its city in the Arctic, the ideology of finding beauty in everyday, functional objects is imbued in every chair, doorpost, and ladle.

My trip up the coast of Norway during my first week was filled with engaging workshops and seminars combined with cultural and nature-oriented excursions to learn more about the costal villages at which our steamer stopped. The topics ranged from search and rescue at the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre, security considerations at the Norwegian Joint Military Headquarters, diplomacy and geopolitics presented by the Canadian Ambassador and American Consular for Political and Economic Affairs, technology and sun activity from the Norwegian Space Centre, and presentations by oil directors and entrepreneurs on business in the Arctic (just to name a few). Each and every discussion was an incredible and thought-provoking experience packed with intellectually stimulating problem solving and people-to-people cultural exchange of how an international and interdisciplinary group of young professional thinks through some of the biggest problems of the 21st Century.

While the conversations I had with my peers and mentors amongst functional modernism were awe-inspiring, they pale in comparison to Norway’s natural beauty. From Bodo to Lofoten and all the way up to Tromso the frozen fjords were some of most magnificent landscapes I have ever seen. With each glance outside, I had to keep reminding myself that the scenery surrounding me was real and not taped up drawings out of Disney’s fantastical animation studios. The Fjords were scattered with small, rugged islands of jagged mountains gilded with glistening ice.  The fleecy flurries of snow and coarse cliffs seem to seamlessly blend into each other despite their contrasts under a pallet of almost-unreal hues of blues, purples, and whites. On a cold afternoon the group suited up in brightly colored jumpers and piled onto rubber boats to take a high-speed tour through these Arctic islets. Making quick turns around the rocks and sudden stops to see a sea eagle (with a wing span of six to eight
feet) majestically swoop down to the water’s surface to pick up dinner, we sped through the fjords in a whirlwind adventure. While the icy mountains were breathtaking, equally amazing were the tiny fishing huts and villages speckled amongst the craggy nature. Every so often a bright red house would spring up perched just off an island’s edge, or rows of racks for drying cod would come into view as we twirled around a dock. It was in those moments of glimpsing houses and docks you realize these islands are living, breathing ecosystems. Once winter lifts, they come to life and thrive off the marriage of fishing communities and natural wonders – a beauty beyond seeing people and nature each in isolation.

Getting some free time from our busy schedule in Bodo before departing, a few of us meandered through the snow-blanketed streets, weaving in and out of art galleries along the way until we happened upon the docks. Waiting for our steamer to pick us up and carry us along the coast to our next destination, we watch the strength of the maelstrom take hold of the water. (Contrary to popular belief, Maelstrom is not just a ride at Epcot filled with trolls; it is also a very powerful whirlpool that stirs a body of water into a free flowing vortex – nearly as scary as the one-eyed gnome that waits to push your boat down the fall). The steamer that took us up the coast of Norway was filled with freshly caught dinners and incredible northern lights illuminating the night sky in lyrical pirouettes and plies, striking their green tails across star-filled black skies.

Towards the end of our journey into the Arctic, we stopped at Lofoten to visit the Viking Museum and partake in a traditional feast in a reconstructed Viking home. The museum itself was based on an archeological excavation that began in 1983 on their property. The dig uncovered the larger house in the Viking world – both in Norway and the rest of Europe. The exhibits are filled with finds from the chieftain’s house accompanied by an informative (and overly dramatic) movie and audio-guide. Jewelry, swords, still-intact decorated glass, and gold-leaf amulets each told a story of a wealthy, worldly chieftain who traveled to Iceland and beyond. After exploring the museum, we indulged ourselves in a Viking feast of lamb, vegetables, and plenty of mead. Sitting in long rows around a roaring fire in a full reconstruction of the excavated chieftain’s home, the experience was a somewhat more authentic version of Medieval Times (sans tournament but complete with Viking dancing, singing, and cheeky comments by our host family).

My last week of the trip was spent in Tromso, the second largest city above the Arctic Circle at 72,000 inhabitants. Called the “Paris of the North,” Tromso benefits from the end of the Gulf Stream, meaning that it is considerably warmer than most other places at that latitude. Though in the Arctic and covered in snow and ice (and no sunlight – though on my second to last day there the sun rose for the firs time since November, which was celebrated with sun cakes) for most of the year, Tromso is a vibrant city. Walking through the streets lined with old wooden houses dating back to the 18th Century you can feel the pulse of its people and culture. Although most of my days were spent at Norway’s University in the Arctic for the Arctic Frontiers Conference, I did get to explore the city on my days off. I visited Polaria, the world’s most northerly aquarium housed in a striking white building designed to represent ice floes that have been pressed up on land by the rough seas of the Arctic. I also visited another remarkable building of architectural note across the water on the mainland called the Arctic Cathedral. The church is comprised of many overlapping triangles flowing into one another until they open up onto a magnificent glass mosaic on its eastern side. While on the mainland (Tromso is on an island within the fjord), I took a gondola up to the top of the cliffs with a few friends where we weathered the harsh winds to see incredible panoramas of the city and sea at dusk. Getting in one last site seeing trip before heading back to meetings on geopolitics and oil, I made my way to the Polar Museum, a collection of exhibits in the old Customs House (1830) that tells the story of Arctic trapping and polar expeditions. The walls were hung with the skins (some stuffed) of many seals, polar bears, wolves, and foxes, interspersed with black and white photographs of Norwegians who dared to travel to the North and South poles for hunting, adventure, and the beauty that ice and sea travel offer.

Each night after a long day of interesting presentations I had the opportunity to try a wide variety of Arctic fare - reindeer, cod, salmon, seal, and whale (though I didn’t taste the latter two) - and hear many different sounds of the Arctic – opera, jazz, electronic music, and a beautiful performance called Kaffekopp og salmebok, a modern take combining stories from Sami and Kven culture in music and visuals. It was after one of these pampering nights of food and culture that I found myself cheering for Rogers to hand it off to Lacy in between chattering teeth and shivers. As the only one in the crowd rooting for the Packers, the walk back to our hotel was a divided one filled with occasional hugs and murmurs of “the Hawks shouldn’t have won that game.”

More and more, the world is filled with dichotomies. From football to nationalism, income to religion, it seems near impossible to get through a day without aligning yourself with a side opposing some sort of ‘other,’ whether that be the other team, the other party, or the other people. And yet, now more than ever before the international community has both the means and the reasons to come together to undertake the biggest challenges facing our shared planet. Our feats in bridging oceans with satellite communication and planes, in overcoming national biases to back United Nations efforts to end Ebola and fight extreme poverty, and in building multinational centers for scientific development both on earth and in space all hold testament to what we can accomplish when we combine passion and collaboration.

My two weeks in Norway were spent with emerging leaders from over a dozen countries and many nations of people. We were scientists and oil workers; bankers and policy makers; educators and fishermen. We held different political and religious beliefs, and often found ourselves in heated debates over elections and development. And yet, rather than let our differences define our shared time, we came together through our mutual, passionate desire to see the Arctic and its people happy, healthy, productive, and safe in the face of melting ice, shoreline erosion, and extreme remoteness. Admiral Papp, the U.S. Special Representative to the Arctic who will take on the chairmanship of the Arctic Council in a few months, spoke of  “One Arctic” while in Tromso, wherein country leaders, residents, and researchers come together to make the Arctic a better place to live and work. Amongst our diverse group of friends, we embodied that hope of caring cooperation for the betterment of something bigger than ourselves – an ideal more inspiring than any fjord or Scandinavian design. And so, though I won’t be rooting for the Seahawks today, I know those American Arctic workers who will be in Oslo, Ottawa, DC, and beyond are still on my team, and that together we will draw up plays and move down the field until we reach our goal.