Small picture of great value

Ten centimeters by fifteen that gather the intensity of a dazzling week. It’s July 12th, 2017. I’m discovering Svalbard as a beginner polar guide.

A few days ago, me and my colleagues were squeezed at the bow of the boat scrutinising the horizon line at the end of this calm sea, materialised as a white trait. The ice pack. The first muffled sound of ice floes against the hull brought us into a new world, in which we could now stop dreaming about the Polar Bear and start looking for it.

The next day, it appears, standing still, asleep on a rocky island. I am already marvelled but the more experienced colleagues, the ′′seniors”, calm me down quickly: ′′ That’s nothing, wait until you see a bear on seaice “. And yet a bear remains a bear! Stubborn and slightly offended, I am holding on to the wonder of my first vision. The next day, no bear but a discovery that surpasses all our highest expectations and remains the observation of a lifetime: fifteen Narwhals in the middle of seaice for an hour! Even the oldest of our guides have never seen this, wherever in the Arctic, especially not in Svalbard. We, the newbies, are enjoying the indecency of our luck.

We are over the moon and it seems almost logical to us to spot this bear an hour later, walking on the ice. And I must admit that they were right: discovering the biggest land predator in the form of this tiny silhouette walking in the frozen immensity, between sky and ice, between sky and sea, it is gut-wrenching. It moves you so much. It captivates you. Nothing else exists but this shape outlined by light, bathing in blue, gray and ocher, which walks and swims from one floe to the other.

More than anything else I want to capture this scene on paper. But right now I only have my binoculars. No pencils, no notebooks. Nothing. So I have only one thing left to do: to observe. To observe intensely and memorise everything I can. The head length in relation to the body length, the eye position in relation to the ears, the water level and the corner of the lips, the size of the reflection, the contrasts on its fur, the area darker behind the ear, the water shades… As soon as the bear is out of sight, I put the binoculars down and start drawing the scene in my head, line by line. I know from experience that the more beautiful the scene, the more intense my investment, the more engraved in my memory the observation remains. But the day goes by without giving me a single moment to draw. So I repeat the drawing in my head on a loop, over and over again, to not lose the image.

It is finally bedtime and I am as impatient as anxious about this moment that I know so well: it is a make or break, frustration or jubilation. I’m laying in my bunk, curtain pulled so I don’t bother sleeping colleagues with the light. Notebook, pencil, watercolors and waterbrushes on the mattress. This is the moment of truth. The first lines are hesitant, the hardest. Then the image builds, it seems to work and then every trait diminishes along with my apprehension. Then the color, carefully, with parsimony. The image is finished. In the privacy of my cabin, I am exhilarated and reliving this observation, this day, this journey, looking at this small picture of great value.

Far away, between the sky and the ocean: the sea ice
The small sketchbook
Memories from the Narwhals
The bear I wrote about, in its environment, before he went in the water