This week on Live Like the World is Dying, Emil talks to Margaret about life on Svalbard. They talk about hiking in the Arctic, staying warm, gear, the unfortunate realities of climate change, and the rising conflicts between humans and polar bears.
Emil (He/they): a masters student on Arctic Outdoor life.
LLWD: Emil on Arctic Hiking
Margaret: Hello and welcome to Live Like the World is Dying, your podcasts for what feels like the end times. I’m one of your hosts, Margaret killjoy. And this week, we’re going to talk about snow and ice and moving across them. And I’m probably gonna ask about glaciers. And we’re gonna talk about all that stuff. And I’m really excited because we’re gonna be talking about how to move over Arctic terrain, which might be everywhere in the future. I mean, everything’s getting warmer, but like, you know, everything’s getting wackier. So things might get different. Do you need crampons? I don’t know. I’m gonna find out. And that’s what we’re going to talk about. But first, we’re proud member of the Channel Zero Network of anarchists podcasts. And here’s another jingle from another jingle…Here’s a jingle from another show on the network. [Makes noises that sound like singing a melody]
Margaret: Okay, we’re back. So, if you could introduce yourself with your name, your pronouns, and then a little bit of your background as to why I’m having you on the show.
Emil: Yeah, sure. So, my name is Emil. I go by he/him or they/them. I have a bachelor’s degree in Arctic Outdoor Life and Nature Guiding from the University of Tromsø in Northern Norway. And I’m currently doing a master’s degree, also in Outdoor Life, at the University of Southeastern Norway.
Margaret: Okay, so this means that you spend your time with a sledge and fighting polar bears? And penguins. Is that correct? [Said with dry sarcasm. Emil laughs]
Emil: There have been sledges and polar bear guard standing involved. But the penguins are on the other side of the planet unfortunately. We don’t have penguins up here. [Laughing] Would be cool, though.
Margaret: Yeah, I mean, because then you can have the polar bears and the penguins hanging out and the Far Side comics would be complete. Okay, so yeah, so you’re a guide, or like, you know, so this is one of the things that you do is you take people out and show them how to move over this terrain and show them how to explore. Like, is this like tourists? Is this like, scientists? Is this people who got lost in the snow on their way home? Like, I don’t really know what…I’ve never been in Norway. This is gonna come across.
Emil: Yeah, no, it could be, it could be all those things. It could be guiding on scientific expeditions, it could be taking tourists on trips, or it could be more like, you know, like summer camps and things of that nature. Which, is more like…not as hardcore. So you have sort of, it’s a broad range of sort of different levels from summer camps with kids that’s really sort of safe to the two week long expeditions in the Arctic, skiing, where you really have to sort of take care of yourself and the people around you and you have to be sort of on guard.
Margaret: Okay, yeah. And so I kind of want to ask you about…I mean, basically a lot of my questions are just like how do you move over Arctic terrain? Like what is involved? How do you get…how do you practice? Like, is it…is everything like snowshoeing? Is it cross country skis? Is it like, dogs and sleighs? Is it reindeer pulling the sleighs? Like what’s…I’m making jokes, but I also know there’s reindeer up there.
Emil: Actually, actually, you can. You can actually do reindeer sledding. Some people do that.
Emil: But yeah, really, in Northern Norway, the northern most county, there is a yearly reindeer sledding competition, actually. So that is the thing that some people do. But it’s…Yeah, dogs sledding and skiing, I think, are the most common for long distance. If you’re moving, sort of in forests, then snowshoes can be advantageous. But if you’re moving any sort of distance, it’s going to be cross-country skis, or we call them mountain skis. They’re a bit broader. They’re a bit wider than normal like racing skis, or dog sledding. Yeah.
Margaret: So, like for my own selfish reasons–it’s unlikely that I will specifically need to be moving…escaping an apocalypse in Northern Norway–like that seems not incredibly likely but something that does, like, within my own selfish…when I think about it, I’m like, “Well, what if I had to move over some mountains?” Right? Like, what if? And that seems like, the kind of thing that could theoretically come up in my life or just could be fun, right? What’s involved in starting to learn that stuff? Like both, like, how does one? Like when you take someone out and you’re like, “Here’s some snowshoes?” Is it like a? Does it take people hours to figure them out? Is it like, pretty quick? Like…
Emil: It’s…I think it’s pretty intuitive often. A lot of the outdoors sort of pedagogy or the philosophy of learning is learning by doing. So, it’s getting hands on experience and just sort of trying it, obviously, putting people in an environment that’s challenging enough that they feel a sense of accomplishment and mastery but not so challenging that they die.
Margaret: Okay, that’s seems like a good way to learn. Yeah.
Emil: Yeah. So it’s…What’s involved in learning it? I think a lot of it does come from from childhood, at least if you live in the north, sort of something you grew up with. But I think it’s kind of just like, getting out there. And then I know, there’s skiing courses and stuff that you can take if you want to learn, like technique.
Margaret: Yeah. Okay. Well, if I like had to, like, Lord of the Rings style cross a mountain pass, do I want skis? Or do I want snow shoes? Or do I want the Ring of Power? Like? Like, like, if I’m just crossing a mountain…Like, obviously, if I’m going to be like moving overland in the far north, it would be way better if I had skis, it seems to be the case. But like, if I’m just trying to like cross a mountain pass, do I need skis?
Emil: Well, I think it depends on the…I think it’s going to depend on the time of year and the snow depth. So you don’t necessarily need skis. You can walk through the snow with just your normal shoes, not even snow shoes. But, it’s probably going to be faster on skis. And additionally, you would probably want, at least if if you’re going to be out for more than a day and you’re going to be out for several days, you’d want something called a pulk instead of a backpack. A pulk is just a sled. So you pull the sled after you instead of carrying a backpack. It helps with stability. You can carry more, which typically, winter equipment is heavier. So it is advantageous to pull the sled.
Margaret: Okay. Yeah, cuz one of the reasons…I think, I think that you commented, like, we posted an episode recently with an ultralight through hiker, right, and I think your comment was something like, “Whoa, things are different in America,” or something like that. And, and so that’s why I reached out to you. So, it’s like, I’m curious, your reaction to concepts of like weight and ultralight and stuff like that. And I guess when you’re carrying a pulk you, like…weight probably still matters, but in a very different way?
Emil: Yeah. At least when it comes to when it comes to winter in the Arctic, you want equipment that sturdy. It’s quite often specialized equipment as well. So, on average, it’s going to be a bit heavier. So doing ultralight isn’t necessarily feasible. So I think it’s going to depend on sort of the environment you’re in. Moving ultralight in a temperate forest, I think is probably more feasible. Like in, I don’t know, the Appalachian Trail or the parts of the PCT, right? But, it’s it’s also a thing where the arctic environment is kind of inhospitable in the sense that there isn’t a lot of available energy in the environment. So if you think about walking through temperate forest, right, you have firewood and there might be some food and stuff that you can forage, right. So energy both in the sense of fuel for heat and in the sense of calories, right? If you think about moving across a snowy mountain plateau, it’s sort of a barren, it’s kind of like an ice desert. You have to carry all of that energy with you, the fuel, the gasoline, the food, everything. So, it’s necessarily going to be heavier.
Margaret: Wait, what’s the gasoline for?
Emil: The gasoline is for stoves for burning. Yeah.
Margaret: Oh, okay.
Emil: Both for heating food and heating the tents.
Margaret: Okay. Okay, so then…this is so much to think about. Obviously the way people do this now is probably very differently from the way people did this a hundred years ago or something, right? Like, I assume that a hundred years ago people probably bringing like–well, actually probably they were still bringing oil stoves a hundred years ago, actually, now that I think that through–rather than, like…people aren’t hauling their firewood. People are instead hauling oil to burn? Is that?
Emil: Yeah, yeah. Or is it kerosene? The sort of oil?
Margaret: From wax?
Margaret: Burnable wax. Paraffin wax. Okay, yeah. Um, I’m trying to think there’s like so many things I….
Emil: I know, it was different, like, the sleeping bags were made of reindeer skins and stuff, you know?
Margaret: Yes. Yeah. And so it’s probably lighter equipment now than it was 100 years ago? I assume that’s like…
Margaret: Okay, what kills people? Like, besides probably everything, but like, what is the? Like, what are the like, main things you’re worried about? Like, if I’m like, walking through the snow, am I gonna like just like, fall into the snow and then die? Like, I know, there’s like avalanches to worry about…Like, like, I read a lot of like, “And then everyone went hiking, and then there’s snow. And then they all died. And it was Russia. And people still argue about what happened to them. And they all went mad.” Now, I can’t remember where it was from.
Emil: Yeah, the Dyatlov pass incident, I think it’s called. Yeah, that I think was confirmed to be an avalanche. Or the the main theory now is that was an avalanche. That can….actually this actually a good example.
Margaret: Yeah. Do you want to explain to the audience because if people have no idea what we’re talking about, what are we talking about?
Emil: Yeah, it was a group of people in Russia that went on a hike and they all died. And it’s been sort of…it’s been sort of a mystery for quite some time, what actually happened to them. Right. So there’s been a lot of like, conspiracy theories and stuff. But, to the question of sort of what kills people: what killed them, the the predominant theory now is actually a, I believe, a combination of an avalanche and subsequent hypothermia. Okay. So they’re…what we believe is that their tent was caved in by an avalanche, which then made everyone super wet, and super cold, and without shelter. And so they became hypothermic, and essentially, became so hypothermic that–and this is what happens when you become really, really, really cold, you start to feel warm, which is called the sort of…I think it’s called the hypothermia paradox, right, which is when people, towards the end, they get so cold that they feel warm, they take off all their clothes and then they succumb…
Emil: Yeah, to the cold. Alright, so the main things to worry about, I would say, are avalanches. So, if you’re moving in terrain that is steeper than 30 degrees, or moving…then that’s sort of the avalanche zone and then you have a zone below that where the avalanche could…the run out zone that you have to worry about. And then you have hypothermia, of course, just being cold. And hypothermia can be sort of a slow and insidious killer because it can actually creep up on you over the course of several days.
Margaret: Yeah. Oh, interesting.
Emil:Yeah, it can. And then the last one is carbon monoxide poisoning.
Margaret: Oh, from like burning stuff inside your tent?
Margaret: Or your snow cave.
Emil: Yeah, from burning stuff inside the tent or the snow cave when you have, for example, a gasoline burner that isn’t burning properly. So the flame is, if the flame is yellow, that means that it’s an impure…the…it’s not a…it’s not a complete complete combustion, as opposed to when the flame is blue. So blue flame means less carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide is tasteless, colorless gas. It’s a heavy gas that settles below, sort of on the floor. And it takes up the place of oxygen in your blood. So, your blood transports oxygen through your body. But, when the body takes up carbon monoxide there is no more space for oxygen, essentially. The body thinks it’s oxygen, and so what happens is that you actually, your brain becomes oxygen depleted. You become dizzy, tired, you can begin to hallucinate, and just generally your decision making ability degrades.
Margaret: You sound like you’re speaking from experience.
EmilI have, I have woken up one time with sort of…you get these, you can get these sort of black spots under your nose almost from a night of sleeping in it. Yeah. And I was kind of dizzy after, that day.
Margaret: Okay, but do you all have a like, and maybe it would be in Norwegian and not in English, but do you have like a like, like, “Flame is blue, that’ll do. Flame is yellow, you’re a dead fellow.” Like, is there like… that’s the one I just made up. But like…
Emil: It was very good. I don’t think we do, actually. We should. Yeah, no, we’re not that creative.
Margaret: Okay, you got to work on that.
Emil: Maybe it’s something to do with our Norwegian language. I don’t know.
Margaret: I literally don’t know word of Norwegian. So I can’t…That’s annoying. I’m like, I usually know how to say at least like, “Thank you,” and, “Fuck you,” in like most languages.
Emil: You know, it’s quite similar, actually, because English is a mix between, I think it’s…there’s some Gaelic in it, and then there’s Norwegian, and Danish, and Swedish, and French, right, because of all the different groups of people that invaded England and settled there over the history. So it’s, you say, “Egg,” I say, “Egg.” [rhymes with “dig”] You say, “Window,” I say, “Vindu.” So, it’s quite similar.
Margaret: Okay, how do you say “thank you”?
Margaret: Takk. Okay. I think I have heard this before. Or is it? Maybe it’s similar to Swedish or something?
Emil: Yeah, they’re mutually intelligible.
Margaret: Oh, interesting. That’s good to know. My tiny bit of Swedish.
Emil: Swedes and Norwegians can talk to each other.
Margaret: As everyone in the audience learns that Margaret doesn’t know shit about Norway. I know way more about Finland. Okay, so. So, the question then is like, okay, why do you burn stoves inside? Is it just because you fucking need to? Because there’s like, otherwise you’ll freeze to death?
Emil: You don’t, so you don’t necessarily need to. It does help, right? It does help with especially the form of hypothermia that’s kind of creeping hypothermia that you you get warm once a day in the evening. That you…and it’s also like a psychological thing. It’s having warm food, knowing that you’ll have warm food. It’s also…well actually you do need to because you need…
Margaret: And you can’t look outside because it’s too cold?
Emil: And you need, and you need, you need water as well. You need to melt snow to drink.
Margaret: Oh shit. Yeah.
Emil: Yeah, yeah. So you do actually need a burner. You can theoretically melt snow by just putting it in a, some sort of a plastic bottle and heating it with your body heats, so keeping it close to your body while you walk. But, it’s not very efficient. Yeah, so and it’s also the social psychological aspect of, “You know even though I’m cold now, I know that when I get to camp tonight I will be warm.” Right?
Margaret: So does that mean y’all’s tents…Like in my head when I think about tents in the continental US where I live, there’s like three-season tents and then four-season tents, and four-season tents are just like honestly…they’re almost like more windproof and they just have like fewer events, right? And they’re heavier. And then there’s like lighter shit like single wall tents, and little pyramid tents with no floor, and all that stuff. But like…but overall, we have three season four season tents. But then I’m like aware of this thing that just is not part of my life because I don’t live in the North–if you ask some southerners I do, but, you know, that’s a political distinction and not a how-much-snow-is-that distinction [noise of something hitting the floor]…I just dropped something that scared my dog. But then, I’m aware that there’s like these tents that have stove jacks and stuff and you can vent out a chimney and shit. Is that like what y’all are fucking with? Are y’all just basically taking the same four-season tents as us and then like putting a burner in there and like hoping you get the flame right?
Emil: Yeah, it’s essentially a four-season tent. Yeah. So, the last one. You can, if you do dog sledding, for example, or you use a snowmobile then you can do the really big heavy duty tents with…what did you call it?
Margaret: The stove jack.
Emil: Stove jacks. Yeah, right. So yeah, it’s the chimney, right?
Emil: Yeah. So, you can do that. But, I think those are more used for base camps because they’re so big and heavy. So, it’s more of a four-season tent and then you have like, you know, you have an outer tent and an inner tent, right, so you can cook food in the outer tent, but you can also bring the stove inside the inner tent as long as you’re careful with all your sleeping bags and all that stuff. If that squared away, you can put the, you can put the stove on a wooden plate, for example. You can just jury-rig that system. And then, if you then burn inside the inner tent, it can be easily 20 degrees Celsius. I don’t know what that is in Fahrenheit, but it’s like a nice comfortable temperature.
Margaret: Nice and warm. Yeah, I want to say it’s around 70 [degrees Fahrenheit] or so. Yeah,, let me actually do this math for our listeners. 68. Yeah, I was close. Yeah. The the ideal temperature in a lot of ways.
Margaret: Yeah. Okay, because I cannot imagine bringing a stove inside my…like the way that I grew up, you know, I mean, we would have like…I would camp in…Well, this is going to be non-mutually intelligible. I guess I’ll just keep this thing up. You know, it’s like I’ve camped in like five degrees Fahrenheit, right? Which is like negative fifteen. That’s about as cold I’ve camped and it would never occur to me to heat my tent. But, I know a lot of people do do that. And then the other thing…Okay, the other question I have is: do people use little…like what I use in my like cabin and I use in my truck is like a little one burner, a little propane heater that’s like meant for inside safeness. Do people use those? Like, why the stove? Is that so they have only one thing that both melts your water and keeps you warm or like…I’m so afraid of this carbon monoxide thing. I’m just like, we need to come up with something different.
Emil: Yeah. No, the carbon monoxide poisoning is definitely something to be aware of. The key there is to check your flame and check that you have a blue flame. So, you can do that by, and you can improve that by…Like, when you have a gasoline burner, usually you have a pump to pressurize the gas container. Sometimes you have to pressurize the pump to make sure that you have a blue flame but it’s…You can use like propane or butane, but that is mostly used in the summer because when it gets cold enough those gases don’t really work anymore.
Margaret: Are you fucking kidding me? Goddammit.
Emil: No, no.
Margaret: Okay, I believe you. I was trying to figure out why the fuck you use gasoline. So, this makes sense. Okay.
Emil: Yeah, you use gasoline because gasoline works in extremely cold temperatures. [Margaret unintelligibly interrupts]
Margaret: Go ahead. Sorry. I’m sorry. Go ahead.
Emil: No, you can get like, you can get like special propane, butane that can do a bit colder. But if it’s going to be really cold, you do want gasoline. Essentially.
Margaret: When you say really cold–I have a suspicion that we have different conceptions of how cold the world can get–can you give me an example of what you’re talking about? Like how cold are we talking about?
Emil: Yeah, I mean, so butane and propane, at least I think butane, stops working at, let’s say, I don’t know, 20…I’m looking at the Celsius to Fahrenheit calculator. 20 degrees Fahrenheit? Maybe? It’s below freezing, right?
Emil: So like, a bit below freezing, the gases kind of stop working as they should. But then if we’re talking about really cold, my definition of like, really, really cold would be something like 22 below Fahrenheit. Right? That’s really cold.
Margaret: Okay, what’s the coldest you’ve camped in? This is like, I’m just literally just curious.
Emil: Yeah, it’s around there. It’s around 22 below 0 in Fahrenheit terms.
Margaret: I think that’s roughly the coldest I’ve ever experienced in my life and that was not camping. I’m very grateful.
Emil: That sort of cold really sort of saps the warmth out of you, right? It really kind of…you feel your heat is being stolen by the environment. You have to be constantly moving.
Margaret: So, that actually leads to one of the other questions I have about all of this. Whenever I read about people in Antarctica or the Arctic, it talks about like…because in my head you know, if you’re cold, you put on more layers, but I’m aware of this thing where like, if you’re hiking and like climbing and doing all this shit, you kind of can’t just do that because then you like sweat and die. Like…
Margaret: What kind of clothing? Like what do you need clothing-wise to go on an Arctic expedition in the winter?
Emil: Right. So you want, you want wool as your base layer. It’s also–I think in English, it’s referred to as a wicking layer–because it dries, it basically takes the moisture away from your body, right? And it’s also…wool is also warm when it gets wet, or warmer than cotton, for example. Yeah, so you want wool as a base layer and then maybe you want, if it’s really cold, you might have a second warm layer and then a jacket. You can have, if you’re standing still or you’re in camp, you can do a down jacket. When you’re walking, it’s quite common to use just a shell jacket, shell pants that are windproof and waterproof, but that’s what you’re walking in. And also, it’s a constant sort of, it’s a constant adjustment, where you’re putting on and taking off layers as you’re walking as well quite often. So if you’re walking up…if you sort of, you’ve been walking flat and then you come to sort of a pass that you have to climb or a mountain that is…like a steep hill, you might take off the layers, but you have to be adjusting. Okay, but to the sweat thing, like…Yes. No sweating is like…the ideal situation is to be dry. But you are going to sweat. And I think sort of the whole, “If you sweat, you die,” thing is kind of overblown as long as you can dry–and that’s another reason why you would want a stove in your tend, so you can dry your clothes in the evening.
Margaret: Okay, okay. We say cotton kills because it’s alliterative. Is it alliterative in Norwegian also or no?
Emil: Yeah, you mean you can…Yeah, I think so.
Margaret: Okay, because that’s one of the phrases I learned when I was very young about not wearing cotton is, “Cotton kills.” Although that is a little bit with the like, “Everything will murder you,” theory. Although, it sounds like in the Arctic more things will actually murder you than usual. But, alright, well, I feel like I could talk about this for the whole hour. But, there’s a bunch of other stuff I want to talk to you about. And, one of the questions I have is, as I read a lot of stuff about climate change and one of the main things that it talks about is like the disappearing ice and the like, the impact this is having on the polar areas of the world. And, and that is completely hypothetical in my head, right? I’ve only seen a glacier with binoculars. On the other hand, I would have seen a lot more glaciers in Glacier National Park if I had been there 20 years earlier. So clearly, this is an impact. But, how has it…like what does it look like on the ground for climate change?
Emil: I can give you two examples. One example is from Svalbard, which is a Norwegian owned archipelago. It’s north of Iceland and east of Greenland. It’s quite close to the North Pole where I spent a year doing an arctic nature guide course. And on Svalbard, the thing is, Svalbard does have polar bear, right? And polar bears are classified as marine mammals for a reason. That’s that they spend a lot of time out on the ice, right, hunting seals. Seals are what they eat. And with the warming climate, Svalbard is actually one of the warmest…or one of the fastest warming places on Earth. It has been…it’s warmed, I think 4 degrees Celsius for the past, or over the past 50 years. So, since the 1970s, that’s 4 degrees, right? We’re talking about the global average of 1.5. Celsius. So, that gives you a sense of the scale of warming in the in the north, in the Arctic, heating up really quickly. And so one of the things that happens is because the ice is melting, the sea ice, polar bears are increasingly hungry and losing their sort of winter habitat, right, so they’re more on the archipelago itself instead of out on the sea.
Margaret: Are you leading up to they attack more people? Is that what’s happening?
Emil: Yeah. Yeah.
Margaret: Oh, fuck. Oh no. Because then people shoot them and then they die.
Margaret: Okay. Please continue. Sorry.
Emil: Yeah, no, that’s what’s happening. So, there’s two things, right, they’re hungrier and they are in the same places people are, right. And so they…it’s it’s increasing. The polar-human conflict is increasing because there are more polar bears coming into camp. And they’re hungrier, so they’re more motivated to find food, right. So, that’s–which is again, sort of exacerbating the loss of number of polar bears, right? So, it’s kind of like it’s a double whammy. It’s both the climate and then the climate is impacting human-polar bear relations. If you want to put it that way.
Emil: So, then I have another example.
Margaret: Yeah, and then I’m going to ask you about fighting polar bears. Okay.
Emil: Awesome. So, in Northern Norway, the only indigenous people in sort of Western Europe is in Northern Norway, the Sámi people. So Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. And one of the sort of main components of Sámi culture, at least today, as we know it today, is reindeer herding. And so what happens–and the reindeer eat moss from the ground also in the wintertime–And so what happens is when the winters get warmer, you have more of these freeze…these what do you call them…Cycles…
Margaret: Oh, like when it defrosts and then freezes again?
Emil: Yeah, exactly. It melt-freeze cycles [melt-thaw cycles] which creates ice. Which makes it more difficult for the reindeer to find food because they have to kick through the ice layer to get to the moss. And so this is impacting indigenous livelihoods as well. I wanted to bring that up, too.
Margaret: Yeah, no, no, that’s…it’s absolutely worth bringing up. And then I think that one of the things about this melt-freeze cycle, I was talking with one of my friends who lives in Canada who like has…like, in rural Canada, where it snows more than half the year, which is not my experience. Where I live, it could snow, you know, three or four months of the year. And, it seems when you when you’re somewhere where, like where I live, where it constantly melts and freezes, it seems like a nightmare to have nine months of snow it seems unlivable. Right? I’m like, “How does anyone do it?” And I was having a long conversation with my friend about it. And one of their main points was that like, it stays snow. And so it’s navigable in a way that like…you know, when it snows here, the road is fine, because I have a big truck, but the next day, it’s fucked because the next day the sun has melted enough of it and then it’s frozen overnight. And then like…and if more snow falls, it’s snow on top of ice and then the roads are just fucked. You know? So I just…it’s interesting to think about that also fucking up moss and fucking up…It makes sense. But I don’t know. Okay, my other…Okay, I have two questions about all this. One, is it just heartbreaking? To like, actually visually see more of this happening? Because we have like, “oh, the weather’s really fucking weird.” And we have a few more like disasters, right? But I’m not watching permafrost melt. I’m not watching glaciers recede. I’m not watching the place that I go…like, I’m not trying to bum you out. But, I’m like…How do you know? How do you cope?
Emil: You know, it’s it’s difficult. I think. I don’t think I have a good answer for you. Yes, it is depressing, right? And so I think one coping mechanism could be just taking that sort of sorrow and anger and putting it towards political action. I think that sort of…I think that’s what I’m doing. Also, just like, getting really mad at politicians, just going around thinking all day, like, “Fucking Prime Minister. Fucking,” you know? You could just, you could just be angry. It’s okay to just be angry, you know? That’s…that’s fine. But, yeah. No, it is, I think, especially for the people who live in these landscapes and have their lives and livelihoods intimately connected to these landscapes, it’s…we think of climate change as an existential threat in the abstract, but for them, it’s already sort of in their lives, you know? And so yeah, I do think it’s…it’s, it’s closer, kind of. It’s not just on TV. It’s in this valley you’re moving through, you know?
Margaret: Yeah. And having it be different every year, probably every year that you go into it. Okay, well, that brings me my other…It doesn’t actually but my other question from what you were just saying. Alright, so how do you fight polar…like, you’re saying that it increases, like, conflict and so it’s like two questions, like, one, is like…I’m sort of aware I’m gonna get some of this wrong–I know how to deal with black bears because they are black bears where I live, which is that you have to like, stand up to them, right? You’d be like, “Hey, fuck you, black bear. I’m bigger than you,” which is like a lie, right? But they’re like, “Ahh, alright, whatever.” And they fuck off. And it’s like sketchy. And it like confuses me that I have friends who do this on a regular basis who are like forest defenders, you know. And I’ve only had to do it like, a handful times in my life and let it stay that way. That would be great. And then we have like grizzly bears are like the biggest thing that we worry about, right? Because like–and I don’t worry about them because I don’t live in Alaska–but like, the polar bears are like…they’re like mythical to me, right? They’re like, oh, you know, there’s bears. And then there’s like dire bears, which are grizzly bears. And then there’s dragons. There’s just dragons in the north. And that’s the polar bears. They are this like mythical fucking thing. And so the concept of like…like I’ve stood guard for bears or like, when you have a forest defense camp in the Pacific Northwest, people have to do bear duty where they sit around and like, throw rocks at bears that are trying to come into camp and shit, right? But I can’t imagine what that is like with polar bears. I want like a fucking palisade, and like, like spotlights, and like helicopters, and shit. Like, like, what is the…How do you deal with polar bears?
Emil: Yeah, so, I think it’s much the same way that you deal with other kinds of bears. The only thing is that, I mean polar bears can be really, really persistent. I believe they’re the only bear species that is known to actively hunt humans in emergencies.
Margaret: [Laughing] I mean, it makes sense. They’re a lot bigger than us. Yeah.
Emil: Yeah, but it’s actually, it’s only in emergencies because it’s a caloric loss project for them. The reason they eat seals is because seals are so fatty. And fat has more than twice the amount of calories per pound than carbohydrates and protein. So, like most of us aren’t as fat as a seal. So it’s…they don’t do it unless they absolutely have to. But you do…When you’re out in a big group, you do polar bear guard, right, whenever you have camp. 24/7. That means getting out of your comfortable warm sleeping bag where you’re snug at three o’clock at night and going out for an hour and grabbing the rifle and standing guard from from three to four, right, in the middle of night or in the early morning hours. But, you do, you have some sort of signal flare, usually, that is for scaring the bear away. So, you you can have…it’s like a small explosive fired out of a flare gun that…it’s just like a flash bang essentially, right. It’s a really big loud boom. And then you also carry a rifle, usually, you can also, some people carry magnums. I have seen…
Margaret: By Magnum, you mean a large pistol?
Emil: [Said while Margaret interrupts Emil] I have seen Glocks for sale….Yeah. By Magnum, I mean, like a .44 Magnum revolver.
Margaret: Yeah. Okay.
Emil: Yeah, a nine millimeter. I have seen some Glocks for sale. That’s not really
going to be very effective. You need a big round like a .308.
Margaret: There’s 10mm. Yeah. And they’re like, I mean, actually, for Grizzlies and for black bears, you’re better off, instead of a gun, you’re better off with bear spray. It’s just like, statistically, more effective at deterring a bear is to get sprayed with bear spray than to get shot. I don’t know about polar bears. But like, but I know that 10mm is a round that is often carried by people who are in Alaska or are in places where like, big fucking game is like a thing that they worry about, you know? Anyway, I didn’t mean to cut you off. I’m just like, geeking out about it. But, so the rifle that you’re carrying is .308?
Emil: Yeah, usually .308. Sometimes .30-06 Springfield, [pronounced thirty-aught-six] usually .308 Winchester. That’s kind of the standard, and then some people carry essentially big handguns as well. It’s lighter to carry a revolver. But, obviously it has sort of like less range and stuff. But it’s less…it’s more difficult to shoot a pistol than a rifle, but I have to say it’s…it’s shooting a polar bear is not something that you should do. There an endangered species. It’s actually, it’s illegal. It’s illegal to shoot a polar bear in Norway. The hunting was banned in the 70s. So, when you shoot a polar bear on Svalbard, in self-defense, it’s treated as essentially like a murder case.
Margaret: But you just like, prove it was self-defense?
Emil: You prove self-defense, essentially. So that’s, that’s very important to add that it is like a last resort.
Margaret: Yeah. Do people use bear spray for polar bears or just not?
Emil: You can you can use bear spray as well. But, I think the effective range of bear spray is so short that, sort of, people might not be comfortable with letting the bear get that close.
Margaret: That’s fair. I mean, I don’t want to get that close to a…I’ve only seen a grizzly once it was through binoculars. And I was like, “This rules. This is the right distance. I’m so happy. I got to see a grizzly bear. It is checked off the list.” Okay. Alright, so that’s how you defend yourself against polar bears. How common…I mean, you’re saying on Svalbard it’s becoming more and more common, but it’s like, is this a like…like, there’s places where bears are like raccoons, you know, they’re just kind of everywhere. But I assume that this is a kind of not the case, because they’re pretty endangered.
Emil: Yeah, not quite like raccoons, but they’re quite common. I think–because the usual line about Svalbard is, you know, “The archipelago with more polar bears than people.” Which has, which has a degree of truth to it. It’s just that the polar bears are also distributed around the sea ice, around the island group, right? So, it’s 2,500 people, and they reckon around 3,000 polar bears. So, it’s quite common, quite common. It’s not unusual to see a bear. But I didn’t see one.
Margaret: Okay, fair enough. Like, I want to go. I like, I’ve never been up where the sun doesn’t actually set. I’ve been close, you know, Well, actually, I’ve done the opposite. I’ve been in the far north in the summer and had like 2am Twilight and I love it.
Emil: It’s so weird. It’s like a super strange experience coming out of a nightclub at like, 4am and then the sun is just like shining straight in your face. Like, “No, I’m tired. I want to sleep.” Like all the birds are circling around you and fucking making ungodly noises and it’s…yeah, it’s a surreal experience. I mean, it’s…I’ve
been partying all night and it’s like, it’s bright as day now.
Margaret: Yeah, I’d feel betrayed. I’d be like…Yeah, I like it. But, I don’t know how I would handle it if I lived there. I like that I get to experience that every now and then. And I don’t know how I would handle the, you know, how–I don’t know how many days of night it is–but you know, the sun not coming up thing. But, okay, one of the other things that you mentioned that you wanted to talk about, and I got really excited about, was how you spent a lot of your time in the outdoors, you spent a lot of your time guiding people and like and working with groups of people in dangerous and complicated situations. And I want to ask you about the decision making in that kind of environment and leadership structures. And also, you know, specifically how this led you towards more thinking about non-hierarchical organizing and anarchism and stuff like that. What was that like for you? Or, what’s that? What is that like?
Emil: Yeah, so, in my, during my studies, I’ve been outside, I’ve been working with a lot of different groups of, especially fellow students, and one of the things that struck me is that the…when we were out on trips, especially like study trips, all of the decision making was remarkably sort of consensus based. Rarely was there sort of a clear leader. It didn’t really feel natural to have a clear leader. When we were…When we had differing opinions about which route to take, we would usually sort of discuss and people kind of fall into, sort of, the organizational structure where people just sort of take up tasks that they see need doing, you know, and things just kind of work themselves out. And it’s also…Now, it is nice when you have the sort of structure to have sort of evening talks that are, for example, after dinner we have half an hour of like daily feedback, for example. “How did you do this day? Is there anything that’s, you know, bothering you? Annoying you?” I think actually the Kurds have something similar? I don’t remember the name.
Margaret: It’s called techmill.
Emil: Techmill. Yeah, exactly. It’s…So, we kind of had our own, like daily techmill when we were on hikes. And so this experience, really, I think, is one of the things that sort of pushed me towards anarchism, towards like, the idea of non-hierarchical social organization, or like self-organizing, because I see that it works even in sort of demanding contexts because the outdoors can be quite demanding. You’re like tired, cold, wet. And yet still, just with like a bit of work, a bit of like good effort it works and works well.
Margaret: Yeah. I love hearing this, because I like things that fit my presupposition about how the world works, but specifically, it’s like, because it’s the opposite of what everyone says. Everyone always says, like, “Oh, you can do consensus when it’s like, no stakes. But as soon as you’re in the backwoods you need a guy with big muscles to be like, “Nah, we got to go this way, then like,” and everyone would just naturally…” It’s just really cool to be like, this makes sense to me. They’re like, “Oh, which route do we take?” “We should figure this out, not listen to what the captain says. Like, we should actually listen to everyone here. And come to conclusions, because this is all of our lives on the line. And there are a bunch of people who like know what they’re doing. So we should ask all of them and figure it out.” This makes complete sense to me. But it’s completely the opposite of what everyone always says about this kind of situation. Yeah.
Emil: I have to say there are specific situations that are…When when the risks are extremely high, when you’re in an emergency, for example, if there’s been an avalanche, it does make sense to have one person coordinating the whole thing, right?
Margaret: That makes a lot of sense to me.
Emi:l: Or, or…Yeah, same thing if, hypothetically, this is not just outdoors but like if you’re being shot at, if you’re in a group of people and you’re like taking fire, right, it makes sense to have like one person who kind of, whose job it is to to keep their head on a swivel and kind of figure out what’s going on and make some decisions because it needs to happen quickly, right? Since there may be someone stuck in an avalanche. But other than those sorts of extreme situations, right, that consensus works.
Margaret: Yeah. Okay. And I actually really liked that you point this part out too, because I think a lot about like, when you’re in a situation where someone’s been grievously injured, the medic is in charge. And the medic can tell everyone what to do. And you just fucking do it. You know?
Margaret: Yeah. And that makes sense. Like, “This person is bleeding out. You go get me towels.” Or…you don’t need towels. Just whatever it is.
Emil: Yeah, you’re not going to spend 10 minutes discussing what to do and figuring out a plan together because by that time the person is already dead.
Margaret: Right. And so that that actually does make a lot of sense to me. And then you have like, basically, these roles are filled based on the people who are most capable doing them. Like, the person who’s been in a bunch of firefights, like…Yeah, maybe when we’re planning the overall strategy we listen to the people who have the most strategic knowledge, but it’s still “we figure it out together.” But yeah, like no, if someone’s shooting at me, and someone’s like, “You go there. Shoot back. You do this. You do that.” Like, I do like…To me, that’s almost like…It’s like the exploding brain of anarchism. Like, the bigger and bigger steps of it is being like, “Oh, no, sometimes you let people tell you what to do.” Like, sometimes that’s part of being a part of a functioning group. And then, okay, the other thing that I like about it, too, is that you’re talking about like, okay, you have your conversations you have every evening and it’s this balance because you’re talking about how everyone kind of takes these roles. They’re like, “Oh, what needs doing?” and then does it. But, then part of it is structured and so it’s this mix of organic…It’s like chaotic and structured all at the same time, you know? I really liked it.
Emil: And it’s not just…I mean, you can have I think social structure without hierarchy, right?
Emil: So you can…So I mean, for me, hierarchy kind of implies a…kind of implies violence and coercion, right?
Emil: But structure, social structure doesn’t necessarily imply violence. Social structure can just be sort of something that emerges by itself and which can then be discussed in these evening conversations, for example. So, if a person sort of naturally falls into the role of cook for the group, right, that can be a form of social structure that just kind of emerges. But, if that person isn’t happy in that role, it also helps to have these sort of regular scheduled conversations where those sorts of things can be discussed, right? And maybe we want to…maybe they want to do something different the next day, or like, maybe we can like switch tasks.
Emil: Right? And so, but this actually comes to something that I think is sort of important here and that’s that the outdoors is actually a fantastic arena for forming social connections and group, sort of, bonds, and also political…and also, like, within political groups. Like there’s a reason why in the 20th century outdoor activities, outdoor recreations, like the Scouts and those types of stuff, but that type of stuff was actually taken up by all the mass political movements, socialists, and communists, and anarchists, and fascists. All to use the outdoors as like an arena, right? But, I think as, as the–because it works really well–but as our societies have sort of Neo-liberalized and individualized and kind of also de-politicized in a way, I think that sort of, the outdoors as a political arena, that idea, has sort of faded away. And I think actually, for us as anarchists, that’s something that we can kind of take back. We can use the outdoors as a fantastic place to get to know each other and to practice anarchism, to form group bonds, and to just train. And it’s also just like fun. It’s a nice thing to do.
Margaret: I’m really excited by this idea. That makes so much sense to me. I think about like…I mean, one, literally being in Boy Scouts is a very formative experience for my life, right? And I like go back to the stuff I learned there constantly. And I was only in there for a couple years, because then I got like to cool. And like, you know, quit or whatever. And and then yeah, like, as I read about social movements in 20th century, I read about, you know, the hiking clubs in Weimar era Germany that the communist, the fascist, and the anarchists all did things with. And the like, wild, queer kids who didn’t really have a political label would also go do. And yeah, and then the Spanish anarchists had sports clubs as a huge part of what they were doing. No, this is really interesting to me. And then because even like when you’re describing all this stuff–because I’ve been getting more and more into hiking–and one of the things that when you’re talking, like one of the reasons I want to ask about all the Arctic stuff is like not because I really think that there’s a really good chance that I’m going to have to move over mountains personally, right? But knowing how feels like really useful to me and interesting to me. And then also like, going out and practicing and learning seems like fun, you know, and a good way to…And even…Okay, when I was talking about, when I was asking you how to cope with climate change, one of the things that I’ve been doing–and I don’t know whether it’s like good or not, but it’s been working a little bit for me–is to kind of embrace seeing more and like experiencing more–and not necessarily just like tourist and traveling–but like literally just hiking around where I live and just like feeling the Spring, you know, like getting out and being like, “Spring is here.” This winter was weird. We had a really dry, warm winter here. The west coast the US had the exact opposite. You know, but like, being like okay, how is this Spring different than last Spring? I want to be able to start really building that and being like, well if this is the last bits of the Earth being like this, let’s fucking enjoy it. Let’s do this shit.
Emil: Yeah, I agree completely. Yeah, it’s one of the things where I think a lot of people…because being outdoors, we’ve talked a lot about the practical and a little bit about the political, it also has an existential dimension. People go outdoors to feel a sense of peace, or time for reflection, or to get into, there’s a particular rhythm to, to hiking, for example. And it also has a spiritual aspect actually for a lot of people. So you can, what some people experience is that like, as they spend time outdoors, they feel a sense of sort of connection, or a being in place, feeling like a part of a network of relations to the landscape around them to the flora and the fauna. And from that can actually emerge, kind of animism as well. Like, if I’m wandering alongside a river, for example, in a valley and I’m fantasizing, I’m starting to think about this river as sort of having a life or like having a life force that sort of an animistic thought, and it doesn’t mean that–and it sort of arises naturally, I think–and it doesn’t mean that I literally think that the river has a consciousness, for example. But it’s an expression of this idea that this river in this valley is central to a sort of network of relations. It’s thinking ecologically. So, I think getting in touch with that side of things as well can be really–you talked about how to cope with what you asked about how to cope with like, climate grief–I think just sort of getting in touch in that way, can be a way to…or just like getting close, you know, to the landscape, to this network of relations. I think that can be a really sort of valuable personal experience and also an experience that you can have in groups, but perhaps wandering alone would be the best way to like get that.
Margaret: That makes a lot of sense to me. And I feel like that might be a good note to end on, for people to reflect on. And yeah, I guess I want to say thank you so much for coming on. And do you have anything that you want to plug, either your own work or work of people that’s around you that you want to draw attention to? Anything like that?
Emil: Um, let me think, Oh, yeah. I mean, thank you so much for having me. It’s been a pleasure. I think I don’t have anything to plug personally. But sort of on the last note that we were on, I would direct people towards a book called Becoming Animal: an Earthly Cosmology, by an American author called David Abram. He writes beautifully about, he takes a phenomenological perspective for those who know what that is. And he writes beautifully about exactly what we’ve been talking about now, sort of getting in touch with this network of relations. Yeah, I think that’s what I would point people towards.
Margaret: Fuck yeah. I like that. I like that your plug is a book. That makes me happy. I mean, I haven’t read the book yet. But now I’m gonna check it out. Alright, well, thank you so much. And I’m probably going to at some other point have you on to ask more questions about how to walk over frozen lakes.
Emil: That would be awesome. And also glaciers. We didn’t know mention glaciers.
Margaret: That was one of my questions I didn’t ask. Yeah, I know. I know. All right. Well, we’ll have to we’ll have to have you back. But yeah, thank you so much.
Emil: I would love to be back. Yeah, that’d be awesome.
Margaret: Thank you so much for listening. If you enjoyed this episode, please tell people about the show. Tell people about it on the internet, or in real life, or in the Arctic, which is part of real life. Believe it or not. If you want to support us more directly, you can do so by supporting us on Patreon patreon.com/strangersinatangledwilderness because this podcast is produced by Strangers in a Tangled Wilderness. We are a collective that publishes anarchistic culture stuff, Fiction, essays, memoir, podcasts, obviously podcasts. There’s this podcast. There’s another podcast called Strangers in a Tangled Wilderness. There’s another one called Anarcho Geek Power Hour and there will hopefully be other ones soon too that you all can hear. And if you support us on Patreon we will send you all kinds of stuff in the mail as a thanks every month. And also, some of you we’ll thank directly. In fact, we’re going to thank Hoss the Dog. Michaiah, Chris, Sam, Kirk, Eleanor, Jenipher, Staro, Kat J., Chelsea, Dana, David, Nicole, Mikki, Paige, SJ, Shawn, Hunter, Theo, Boise Mutual Aid, Milica, Paparouna, Aly, Paige, Janice and O’dell, Oxalis, and Jans. Thank you all so much, and I hope everyone is doing as well as you can. And hopefully I will talk to you soon while we’re trying to convince the polar bears that they’re on the same side as us. And that together we can destroy the thing that’s destroying the world together. Us and the polar bears.
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