Liveblog: ‘Svalbard: Life on the Edge,’ Episode Three (‘Out of Darkness’) at Polar Permaculture


9:30 p.m.: Saw an advance screeing of this “make-or-break” episode two days ago (almost certainly the last time locals will get the opportunity during the 10-episode series) and it certainly was for the best as I prepare to do this tonight. Not because of the jolt of reliving last December’s avalanche – hard as that is at times – but because of a far more dismal shock I never would have imagined would be shown tonight (BTW, that shock isn’t what may seem overwhelmingly obvious, as you’ll learn by the end).

9:33 p.m.: Just to summarize the general mood of the locals leading to this episode: the first two episodes introducing the main characters were better than expected, even if it kept making things look more extreme than they are in real life (a sled crash during a dogsledding trip, a polar bear near town, etc. weren’t life-or-death moments). But the final minute showing the historic storm the night before the avalanche (shot on someone’s iPhone since the film crews were home for the holidays – and, yeah, I’m going to try to find out who and add the person’s name later) followed by the quick-flash “next week” preview of wreckage shots had many residents seriously uneasy. As I wrote after the local screening of Episode Three, those I talked to said the tragedy was handled respectfully and I agree what you’re seeing tonight captures the essence of what happened (if not some of the more amazing community moments, which I’m sure someone in London long regretted, even if they did send a crew out a couple days late to get a few days of footage).

9:40 p.m. Anyhow, tonight’s liveblog is from the apartment Ben Vidmar from Epiosde Two uses for his Polar Permaculture sustainable food project. Alas, despite saying he hoped to make more of those infamous worm cookies, he doesn’t enough worms to spare. Plus, he’s at work as a cook at the new hotel I wrote about for my newspaper in Episode One (not to plug my friends, but it was easily the fav place of in-laws who spent nearly a week here recently – but be warned the whale was the fav dish. Ben can definitely cook, but we saw almost no diners while we were there because they’re overfilling the usually recommended places)  Luckily, he said he’d leave the TV set to the right channel in case he’s a bit late (and by luckily I mean it’s been at least five or six years since I’ve owned or turned on a TV – the idea of having to change the channel with today’s cable/satellite/etc. options on a stranger’s set is terrifying).

9:55 p.m.: Ben’s living room is empty except for me, a vistor and a couple of guys in his tribe. I know two (and maybe four) visitors I met today who are watching the show at a pub next door after I sent out messages a couple hours ago saying he isn’t making cookies.

10 p.m.: Female narrator: “This program contains scenes of a disturbing nature. Parential discretion is advised.” Don’t remember that from the first two episodes.

10:01 p.m.: Opening preview makes it clear the episode will go way beyond the avalanche, with a stormy dogsledding tour, Wiggo taking drunks to their hotels and me talking about something awful in an apartment that looks like a cyclone hit the inside.

10:02 p.m. News clips and some lead characters without the usual “hero shots” (a bold profile shot showing the character’s name) talking about the impact after the avalanche that destroyed 11 homes and killed two people. Christine Ireland, a UNIS student and favorite from Episode One, is briefly in tears. (Something the crews missed in the immediate aftermath: she helps run a “thrift” store where everything is free. She put the word out the place would be open and unlocked for anyone needing emergency things. I was among those who grabbed a few clothes and other essentials.)

10:03 p.m.: Svalbard Church Priest Leif Magne Helgesen, with a much briefer hero shot than the first episodes (hopefully the new normal), in the church with a covered coffin. It’s as much mourning there is likely to be shown, since even the local media access was severely restricted (a single photo from the paper of record at the memorial services for the two victims, which was shared with other media). Leif is not having an easy time talking about the loss of a friend and the effect on the children, parents, etc. I can’t blame him…the question I should have asked at some point: who is offering comfort to you?

10:05 p.m: Cut to me taking photos in the avalanche zone and talking about the storm the night before. And, of course, the show’s obsessive obligatory mention of Los Angeles when I talk about how the 1994 Northridge Earthquake was the only other time I saw destruction on this scale. That disaster was far more massive in quantity; this was far more massive in scale. (Post-show note: there’s a scene later where I encounter a reporter I know well from the mainstream local paper writing about something I’m doing, and I mention covering things like earthquakes and how reporters don’t get involved in helping folks during disasters, etc., so go ahead and intrude into my affairs. That might sound inhumane, but I nearly went to jail for manslaughter because I may have killed a woman trying to help out during those L.A. days. True story. I tell it to journalism students every time I’m in front of them. Check back for a link in a day since I might as well put my worst professional screwup ever online.)

10:07 p.m: To the library where I’m printing out the first-ever extra editon of the fishwrapper in the library and how, after throwing a quick article on the website the day of the avalanche, I was one of 200 people forced to evacuate my apartment because it was in a risk zone (hence the need for emergency clothes). I’ll say, I’m pleased they use stuff where I was relatively calm, not so frazzled and exhausted I don’t remember what I said.

10:09: Chris Borstad, a UNIS professor and avalanche expert, is at the base of the hill where the avalanche occurred giving a calm and easy-to-understand explanation of how the avalanche happened and the damage it inflicted. Some who saw the preview screening thought he seemed too “academic,” but he talks about being devastated by the death of a two-year-old girl and seems genuinely upset when he said he believes preventative measures could have been in place that would have lessoned the damage. And, more significantly, about a friend whose wife was trapper far under the snow and he was digging frantically with only a pan lid in his bare hands in freezing weather.

10:13 p.m.: Me continuing Chris’ lessons about the avalanche at the fence bordering the homes. While he talks science, I talk statistics and practicalities, as befitting our professions. I also mention the sealing off of homes, trying to let people to retrieve things eventually and how nobody had predicted a storm this severe (Chris and I are both right in ways, despite the contrasting claims. I’ll come back and explain after the episode).

10:15 p.m.: Back to Chris talking about the volunteer effort and how it went about as well as possible under the circumstances (which an official report released a few days ago confirms). Again, I’m not getting the sense of detachment others did.

10:16 p.m.: Narrator: Svalbard has been in total darkness for three months during a hard winter. Emotionally, yes. Scentifically, I think it was our warmest ever. The storm and avalanche were immedately followed by a record heat spell and rain that caused record flooding, which is where I bite off my comments to climate change skeptics. If not for long, knowing the scenes coming soon.

10:16 (still): Cut to Green Dog Svalbard and intro of Lara, a musher who’s been here eight months and appears to be the show’s first supporting character since she gets a hero shot. Talks about being 10 kilometers outside of town, sometimes getting a bit cranky at the isolation, but generally coping.

10:18 p.m: And we get to her subplot for the episode: Tourists arrive for a trip in the dark with lots of snow and wind. All the guests are novices and – yea! – the show is allowing them to talk about their perspectives. Not enough of this the first two episodes. If you live here a bit, it’s easy to forget how weird outsiders think this place is until they discover we’re mostly like any other small town with the usual variety of people.

10:20 p.m.: Lara notes the conditions are a potential risk and narrator, in a bit of overplay, notes she is constantly “walking fine line between guest safety and making a living.”

10:21 p.m.: And we start the subplot that’s hardest for me to watch: Mentioning I came here with a lot of money and blew it all running this fishwrapper (not mentioned: plus about a decade of traveling in 60 or so countries writing about jazz, of all things…it’s a long story and hopefully a book someday). Part of the money here went toward an apartment I was planning on selling if I had to, except climate change damage during past few years has caused all kinds of cracks and buldges (having edited the theses of climate scientists, this is why you really don’t want to toss wingnut “junk science” fodder at me, since my very profane reponse would be “come spend a bit of time watching it happen in real time. Asshole”). A surveyor’s report suggests the building will be condemned and I could be forced off the island. It’s literally the law – if you can’t support yourself they exile you. Me: “I might have enough money to last another month or two here.” Many visitors interviewing me have called Svalbard’s self-sufficiency laws – which extend to things like age, pregnancy, substance abuse, etc. Nazi-like – but that ignores the incredibly open rules that let people live here and the incredibly harsh environment that can kill those lacking in the above. In a line cut from filming I said during my frantic move: “I’ve been here for seven yesrs taking the best of everything Svalbard has to offer. If you do that, you also have to take the bad.”

10:23 p.m.: Back to the dogsled trip. Lara: “a little bit of scariness is good, because that’s what makes people feel alive and why they’re here.” The tourists are not looking too happy as Lara gives them instructions in the horrible wind. Guy talks about how Sri Lanka is totally different than Svalbard. Lara talks about polar bears: “do not not start running toward the bear or anything like that” if you see one. They try to set out, but snowing so hard a snowmobile can’t make a path fast enough.

10:26 p.m.: Bit of a goofy moment for me this episode as I’m making cash boxes out of peanut butter jars. People have said they’d pay for the fishwrapper – so this is a way they can do so voluntarily. And more major pain – I admit openly I inherited a million dollars from my grandparents and I talk about him telling me at the end of his life to work for myself (I wanted to use the money in a way he’d approve of and too often I just don’t know…). So, as I say in this scene, who am I to bitch when so many locals have lost their homes, loved ones, jobs, etc. during the past year?

10:30 p.m.: Storm is getting much worse and the dogsledding trip is looking seriously dubious. Snowmobile escort says weather even worse along route and a trail can’t be made. Group cheers up when Lara says they’ll give everyone hot chocolate and show them some puppies.

10:32 p.m.: Wiggo “operating a more civilized form of transport.” He and his typical gruffy and cheerful laugh/voice: “When it comes to the weekend, people party like crazy.” Drunk people singing in his mini-bus. He talks about drunks who’ve forgotten coats and where they’re staying – and more serious things like a coworker who found a man who passed out drunk in the snow and brought him to the hosptial. “If my colleague hadn’t seen him, he’d be in the history books right now.” Instead, he waked up the next morning in “in a nice warm cozy bed with a hangover.” This could easily star in his own reality series.

10:35 p.m. Back to Leif drinking beer with the Store Norske Men’s Choir, interspaced with practice. “I believe in life before death. And this is life.”

10:36 p.m.: “Mark, meanwhile, isn’t having so much fun.” The awful night when I and 30 others had two hours to evacuate the building. My favorite scene amidst the horror: the crowd at the preview cracked up hugely seeing my grab an absurd polar bear pinata among the most valuable possessions I was desperately trying to save. It was made several years ago by Icepeople’s first-ever staff writer – unpaid, of course – at least for a few months. And she was an awesome photographer. Buying one of her pinatas at Christmas seemed like the least I could do. And now I whine more about the money woes I’m facing here. The self-obsession is beginning to get embarassing. And I am legitimately pondering my next move out loud in real-time: probably one last farewell fishwrapper and selling my stuff so I can afford plane ticket to wherever I go next (I’d started looking at NGOs in Nepal in the hope of teaching English to kids/sherpas/etc. in the high-mountain villages).

BTW, AN ALL-CAPS, MUST-READ NOTE (added after doing this live): The episode does not show every crew person there on the project except for the cameraman helping me carry all my valuables to their three SUVs – after failing to reach a couple friends, the show folks were the only people I could think of in my state of panic who had cars. If I’d kept my head maybe I’d have tried Wiggo as well – I can just imagine what the cameras would have done with that. I have written over and over how I owe them an undying amount of gratitude and will do so again here for those reading about this for the first time. (Of course, that didn’t prevent me from going back to writing often less-than-rapturous things about the show itself at times.)

10:39 p.m.: Back to Wiggo telling a tour bus of riders about Longyearbyen’s mining history  and something about horse carcasses. Narrator gives a brief overview of the town’s mining history. Wiggo talks about mining tragedies and how “they die of all sorts of simple accidents.” Talks about more than 700 deaths, but, hey, they got free housing, food and beer. Tourist 1: “He’s the funniest guy I’ve ever met.” Tourist 2: “It’s not like politically correct, but he’s really funny.” I gotta say, I was iffy on the show continuing its “every time Wiggo tells a story it should involve death” mentality given the main theme of this episode, but maybe it’s part of seeing that we do indeed all move on with what passes for normal lives here.

10:43 p.m.: Leif is preparing to go to a Mass on a mountain ridge in early March, where the sun is shinning for the first time before it reaches town shortly afterward. Great shots of him snowmobiling up there. “Now people can understand why we’re living here.” Indeed – the setting of snow-covered mountains, sea, sun and twilight clouds is too-perfect as he sets up an outdoor alter and dons his robe.

10:45 p.m.: He talks about difficulty of feeling same joy with return of life due to tragedy. But the Mass scenes remain gorgeous and he talks about how for 99 percent of people it’s favorite time year. He mentions the one pecent who are sad and the scene cuts to me arriving (freeze-frame question: what’s wrong with my snowmobile? See end for answer). Leif talks about my situation: “when one person is suffering in Longyearbyen, we are all suffering somehow.” He talks about the many aspects of life from uplifting to fragility as various scenes of people dogsleding and doing other things conclude the episode. I’ve said before Leif has a dignified elegence in manner and speech like few I’ve known, and hearing what he said at the end moved me like few things have. (And, not to make light of things, but I did have to ask him during the past week if he’s full of “anti-semitic fury and rage.”)

10:47 p.m.: Preview for next episode include: return of the sun festival, Mary-Ann, Christine and Grace dogsledding and more 🙂

12:22 a.m. (Tuesday): Post-show thoughts: They did a very good job handling the avalanche and I will give them credit for doing so out of respect at seeing what the people they were following around experienced.

But I was surpised only about 15 minutes were devoted to the tragedy (although it often mentioned afterward, of course). I’m wondering how much the practical matter of only getting a small amount of footage might have had to do with that.

In my mind, I was envisioning a 45-minute show featuring the impacts and recoveries of all the main characters affected. The scenes were obvious: Me evacuating my place for the first of two times, talking with Christine at the thrift store about her experience (which resulted in a not-told-elsewhere fishwrapper story about the avalanche: the hundreds of dogs completely buired that had to be dug out) while I grabbed emergency things. Wiggo’s wife Claudia, if she was here working at our one supermarket, which opened extra hours and allowed those who lost their homes to shop free at the city’s expense. Leif doing anything that involved taking a breath (not that I’m repaying his nice words; Google can confirm he was basically the community healer-in-chief despite what he was going through).

But, as I said, they weren’t here and, while a boss might be regretting his camera minions weren’t denied holiday time off, it does the editors little good to dwell on it now.

Loved the dogsledding tour, especially since there was one in each of the first two that didn’t quite work for me (especially the excess drama about all the potentially deadly dangers after the crash in Episode Two). Only time I’ve enjoyed the narrator’s campy quips – let people see the punchline without telling them…eeesh – and because on this occasion the lines and inflections were actually funny.

Also nice to see Leif having fun with the chior (dignity aside, he can also be a masterful comic stage presence simply because it’s so against his perceived character). Chris continues to be a foundation of substantiative understatement. But after spending several days picking up trash along beaches in the northernmost part of Svalbard this summer, I know he’s also got a much more lively side the show will hopefully let emerge.

As for Wiggo, he and Leif are men of poetry – representing the Hell and Heaven of the craft, as it were. I suspect both of them will consider that a compliment.