A few weeks ago I lay in my sleeping bag, under the stars, on the playa of Oregon’s Alvord Desert. In the distance, purple lightning lit up the stretched skies while the moon rose over the nearer horizon. With the taste of bourbon on my lips and the smell of dust in the still air, I listened to my friend’s mandolin catch the wind, haunting its slow, easy strumming. Silent tears streamed down my cheeks just because my heart could only break while trying to hold onto the magnificence of a world that stuns in unexpected moments. I sought out words to capture the beauty. My friend, a photographer, sought out pictures. But neither of us were entirely successful, and getting beauty to stand still was nothing but an elusive grasp. As sleep hunted us down, I whispered into the empty space, “There are some moments that are too beautiful to capture with words or pictures. We simply have to memorize them.”
I am reminded of this as I make my way across the Denmark Straight with National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions. Try as I might to capture with the lens and with words, I am finding myself setting aside the pad of paper and the camera, more and more, and simply sitting in the wind and memorizing.
I never want to forget this.
I was nervous about the crossing, expecting turbulent waters in the open strait, but instead found myself sitting on deck, alone, watching as our ship sliced through glassy, silver waters. We crossed in the most serenely possible manner.
At one o’clock in the morning, thirty miles from Greenland’s east coast, our ship hit pack ice in the Denmark Straight. We awoke to the sound of explosions shaking the vessel. Large pieces of ice slowly scraped underneath my porthole with menacing tenacity, and the ship shuddered as it plowed its way through. Curious about what we were experiencing, my roommates and I bundled up in our winter gear and made our way to the boat’s bow in the dim Arctic summer light. The ship’s search light illuminated a small patch in front of the gargantuan pieces of ice that covered approximately eighty percent of the water’s surface, while Magnus, the Swedish night captain, up in the Bridge, hummed along in the dark to Icelandic music, mapping out an efficient course. I stood at the prow, leaning into the wind, while the cracking, gushing, sliding, and exploding surrounded me. My underexposed pictures didn’t recognize the scale of the pack ice. My fuzzy, shaky video didn’t articulate the grandness of the noises. I was small. Everything I knew about the world seemed meaningless. There was simply us in a silence broken by the shattering of blue. I set down my camera, leaned against the railing and looked out. It was too majestic to capture, and so I set about memorizing it instead.
Later in the day, after watching pilot whales dance alongside the boat and finback whales blow 20 foot spouts off in the distance, a mammoth finback visited our ship, scooting alongside the bow. The light filtered in through the clear water and I could see its eyes. Time stopped while its long body glided just below me. I wanted to reach down and run my hands along its strong spine. It was grand and magnificent and too beautiful to be captured by my frivolous words or my inept camera. After one snapshot, I set it all aside and just watched, memorizing the broad white jaw, the sea-green glow, the undulating movements.
The mountains on the distant shore beckoned me. Icebergs whose scales refuse to be put into perspective on film skirted our edges, towering high in wrinkled layers of grays and whites, while sinking low and iconically blue below the water’s surface. Birds scooped up the wind’s current.
As we made our way across the Denmark Strait, I found myself more and more, finding places of seclusion to breathe in the ocean spray. To remember the line of a whale’s silhouette. To learn the sounds of a cracking iceberg.
It was all too beautiful to capture, so I’ve simply memorized it.