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Winter Wonderland: Laurel McFadden '06 Carries on Year-Long Arctic Adventure

The dead of winter creeps closer every day. So, of course, intrepid, ice-loving alumna Laurel McFadden '06 is heading north. Far, far north.  Longyearbyen, Norway, is the next stop on her year-long Arctic adventure. This outpost will be her northernmost stay on the trip, unless she manages to find affordable passage to the North Pole, which so far has proven too pricey.

With her prestigious Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, McFadden set off for Canada in August to start her photography project documenting life in some of the world's most remote human settlements.

She has already spent two months helping with research aboard a Canadian icebreaker, which also afforded her the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fly over glaciers and icebergs aboard the ship's helicopter. From Canada, she set off for Greenland, where she taught English to school kids in a small village plagued by various social ills. All the while, her camera has been clicking away, capturing not only the breathtaking scenery, but also the hardy people who live in the world's coldest climes.  (She also is recording her personal reflections in a blog.)

On her last night in Greenland, her host father took her out on a snowmobile, away from the lights of the small town, so she could see the Northern Lights. "It was bitterly cold as we raced along but there were waves and strings of green light covering the entire sky – definitely one of those moments that reminded me why I came to these places, even though I didn’t even have my camera with me,'' she says via e-mail.

McFadden's fascination with the Arctic started in the summer after her junior year at Pomona, when she spent a month living on a windswept Norwegian fjord, where she worked freezing, 14-hour days helping Pomona Biology Professor Nina Karnovsky to research an obscure bird known as the Little Auk. McFadden loved the breathtaking views of glaciers and the chance to spot reindeer running free.

Landing the Watson fellowship allowed her to return to the Arctic, providing $25,000 for her to pursue independent travel and study. Now, nearly halfway through her year-long trek, McFadden's fascination with this ice-bound world has only grown.

"The Arctic is immense,'' McFadden says. "It's barren and cold and beautiful. Flying into Greenland I looked out my window to see massive icebergs dotting the ocean below – and then the rocky land came into view. It is pure ice and rock, totally empty and unforgiving. A few steps out of town makes you realize what a tiny spot of land has been barely conquered by the local inhabitants."

The lowest temperature she has experienced so far: minus 8 degrees, in Ittoqqortoormiit, Greenland. "Not too bad,'' she writes, "although it feels worse with wind chill." But she knows an even deeper cold awaits: temperatures in Longyearbyen, Norway should fall to minus 40 degrees or lower.

Still, McFadden is looking forward to her time in Longyearbyen, located on an archipelago far north of Norway's mainland. Much of the town's population consists of graduate students studying at the local Arctic university, where McFadden will be working as a research assistant to one of the marine biology professors.

After Longyearbyen, she's off to Siberia, where she is planning to work at a research station in Cherskii, in the northeast, near an infamous Stalinist gulag and in the vicinity of a number of reindeer herding communities. "While logistically a daunting leg of my trip,'' she writes. "Siberia is certainly one of the areas I am most looking forward to."

Daunting logistics are part of the package while traveling the Arctic, and McFadden has had to adapt some of her plans along the way. She has traveled via plane, snowmobile and ATV, along with the aforementioned six-level icebreaker ship equipped with helicopter. Just getting from northern Canada to Greenland required eight flights and six days, including a three-day layover in Iceland. (And McFadden has done all this while lugging around 120 lbs. of luggage. You can only travel so light when you need to be able to dress for 40-below weather.) But she has been fortunate so far on the travel front. There is only one flight per week out of the town she stayed in in Greenland, and she was lucky there was good weather that day. "For all the horror stories you here about getting stuck for weeks at a time,'' she says. "I’ve only been delayed a few hours here and there."

The biggest surprise of the trip so far is that things have come together so well. "I feel incredibly lucky – I’ve gotten some amazing positions that both give me excellent experience and the freedom to follow my project,'' she says.  "Also, I haven’t lost any of my luggage – a miracle in itself."

The hardest part has been saying goodbye, even in Greenland, where teaching English was a struggle and she thought she was ready to leave. "But when I got on the helicopter to fly away I found myself held to the land,'' she says. "It gets inside of you."