Monday, March 29, 2010


Dr. Chiu Liang Kuo in Alaska, December 2009.

Updates RE some friends and acquaintances:

1. An email from Chiu, my long-time climbing partner, who's heading to northern Baffin Island in two weeks to learn about the Narwhal:

"I am still looking for a long piece of wood works as a spear shaft( I have a spear head). It is my only defense from the polar bear.
I also need a last piece wood for sled.


Unable, due to the fact that he is a citizen of Taiwan, to transport my 12-gauge to Canada for protection from polar bears, Chiu is going to rely on a spear for protection. Good luck, Chiu!

2. Ripley Davenport, of England, is off to Mongolia, where he will drag his cart, if all goes well (or well enough, anyway) for 1,700 miles "across the Eastern Mongolian Steppe, Gobi Desert and the Altai Mountain Range". Stay warm, Rip!

3. Belgian Louis-Philippe Loncke has been elected into the Western Europe Chapter of the Explorers Club. Congratulations, Lou-Phi; let's get on the horn RE diving under the sea ice in Alaska!

4. Sixteen-year-old Aussie Jessica Watson has "passed the 18,000 nautical mile of her epic [solo sailing circumnavigation of the globe]...and is now less than 1,500 nm from Cape Leeuwin in Western Australia." Stay safe till you step on the doc, Jessica!

..and finally,

5. Brit Ben Saunders is back in the Arctic; he's walked alone to the North Pole once before, so I am shocked and amazed to find that he has had a stove-fuel leak from a cracked 5-liter container, which has contaminated a significant portion of his food supply, thereby seriously threatening his ability to carry on. Why am I so shocked? Because such a disaster is exactly why we (A) carry stove fuel in smaller containers (to minimize disaster if a container leaks...when we are counting fuel in ounces, to reduce weight, a five-liter leak is disastrous and can ruin years of planning, not to mention risk life itself!) and (B) we always carry stove fuel containers themselves inside fuel-impermeable bags, or so separated from food supplies (e.g. in a different sled or sled compartment entirely) so as to prevent precisely this disaster! All I can imagine is that in his mania to reduce weight (we all do it), Ben made decisions, took gambles, that now are not paying off. Rough luck, Ben! Very dirty luck--but why didn't you follow these basic principles of Arctic manhauling???? Interestingly, a number of comments on Ben's blog post announcing the disaster suggest that he, essentially, 'buck up' and keep going. But he can't! It's not a matter of will--Ben has plenty of that (he aborted another attempt on the pole last winter due to an equipment failure, so this must be extremely frustrating)--his food is contaminated with Coleman stove fuel. That is poison. It is either he gets a food resupply flown in--and repacks it all, which will take a while--or back to England. Hopefully, as often happens, things are not as bad as they seem; hopefully the food bags, maybe, are reeking of fuel, but the contents are actually OK? I'm sure Ben is checking that out in the most exacting detail right now.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Top Ten Myths About Evolution

Wow -- five years ago it was an outline in my notebook, a year and a half later it was a book, and it's still out there, hanging on; it hasn't gone 'down like an anchor' as 99% of books do in the first three months; it's been translated into Italian; it's available for Amazon's Kindle; it's in a new hardback edition; it's in nearly a thousand libraries worldwide, including the National Library in Paris; it's being used in at least one undergraduate class; it's sold close to 10,000 copies worldwide; and it's still selling at Powell's. I am thrilled. And I'm working on the next book, "The Fact of Evolution" for Prometheus right now--waking at 5am with Ediacaran biota on the brain--for delivery in November. I don't know how I'll get such a great promotional comment, though, as Charles Sullivan and I did for TTMAE:

"A modest proposal to reverse the national great leap backwards: I say we all familiarize ourselves with the compelling, crystalline logic of The Top Ten Myths about Evolution. Then, let's do our best to connect with those who have yet to accept the ancient legacy of life on earth as revealed by Darwin and affirmed in countless ways by the generations of science ever since."

-- Ann Druyan, co-author with Carl Sagan of the Cosmos television series and Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors.

Sunday, March 21, 2010


"Nalunaikutanga" (nalu-naiku-tanga) is the Inuit word indicating 'an important de-confuser.' More specifically, " action-oriented Inuit culture it is the feature which facilitates the initiation of a process of recognition and action, by ending ignorance and confusion (nalugiak) and supplying the key appropriate action and role behavior."

Fascinating concept!

From Graburn, N.H.H. 1976. Nalunaikutanga: Signs and Symbols in Canadian Inuit Art and Culture. Polarforschung (46)1:1-11.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Letter to Dr. Glenn Sheehan at BASC

A letter to Dr. Glenn Sheehan, Executive Director of Alaska's Barrow Arctic Science Consortium. The letter, and package, will finally go out on Monday!

19 March 2010
Dear Glenn,

Please find enclosed a box containing a pair of Converse High Tops. I noticed that you were partial to them when I visited in the winters of 2007 and 2008-09; I hope they are the right size. This box has been sitting on my desk for a year; I have no excuse for not sending it earlier other than sheer volume of grading papers, and my own field and lab work.

I want to thank you for supporting me in Barrow, which has allowed me the time to be enchanted by Barrow, it's people, and the landscape of the North Slope; I'm sure I'll return. I've learned that to better understand that fascinating and beautiful landscape, I have to go back.

As you know, I’ve communicated my experiences of the North Slope in Winter in Cultural Survival Quarterly magazine--where I outlined the Native concerns with 'listing' the polar bear as an endangered species--and The Best Travel Writing 2008, where I gave a more experiential account of my time on the tundra. I’ve also done my best to convey these impressions, and the concerns of the Native Alaskans, in many public talks here at Portland State University, the Multnomah County Library, and the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.

Recently the Cultural Survival magazine feature was included as Chapter 34 of McGraw-Hill’s 2010 edition of ‘Annual Editions: Anthropology’:

Chapter 34. Of Ice and Men, Cameron M. Smith, Cultural Survival Quarterly, Summer 2008. The U.S. Government's decision to list the polar bear as a threatened species is perceived by many as an acknowledgment of global warming. To the Inupiat—an indigenous Arctic people—the decision actually avoids the issue and will harm the very wildlife it is purported to protect.

I’m happy to see this because the article’s central messages--regarding the significance of Native traditional knowledge and Native rights--will reach many undergraduates for years to come.

I'm continuing to write about my experiences in and around Barrow: right now I'm working on a description of the night, there, and daylight, there, in the Winter season. While I'm currently writing a book about my Iceland expeditions under contract for publication in 2011, I also have a verbal contract--which may mean nothing, but also may mean plenty--for a volume of travel writings for 2012, in which my further writings about Alaska's North Slope in Winter will appear. If that contract doesn't pan out, I have other options, and I'm confident that the experiences I've had there will make their way to book form. In the interim I am of course continually sending out magazine article proposals, and the replies trickle in; there's a good chance of an upcoming feature in a magazine regarding the 'imanyarok', the night lights of the Little People, that I learned about in 2007; I'll of course pass that on to you when it appears in print.

Thanks again, Glenn; I think you're in a lucky position to be able to grant so many people such a great, life-changing experience.

I’m planning on being back in Alaska—though at Point Hope—in Winter 2010/2011, but in 2011/2012 I hope to return to Barrow in order to dive under the sea ice. This is a logistically complex operation, but being able to round out my impressions--of the surface of the land, the surface of the sea ice, and the water under the sea ice, I think, will be worth it.

Best regards,


Cameron M. Smith, PhD
Department of Anthropology
Portland State University
Portland, OR 97210

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Arctic Fox

I've learned that while it's neat to see an Arctic fox, it could mean trouble as they often follow polar bears to scavenge their leavings, so I've been happy to see only a few of them. Once one circled me, trotting at a hundred yards or so out, for a few hours as I dragged my sled on the North Slope. Inupiat folks had told me to shoot any fox I saw--due to a rabies outbreak (2007)--but I'm happy to say 100 yards is out of the effective range of my 12-gauge (with either the buckshot or slugs I carried) and I didn't have to do that.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Sounds of the Aurora

Retired physicist Steven McReevy has put online some 'natural radio wave' recordings of the aurora borealis (Northern Lights).

"Unlike sound waves, which are vibrations of air molecules that our ears are sensitive to, natural radio waves as received at ground-level are vibrations of electric and magnetic energy (electromagnetic waves) which--though occurring at the same frequencies as sound--cannot be listened to without an audio-frequency ELF-VLF radio receiver to convert the natural radio signals directly into the same sound frequencies. Another amazing realm of nature is thus ready to be explored and observed."

Here's a sample recorded at Grass River Provincial Park in central-western Manitoba, Canada on 30 August 1996.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

An Impression of Space

"My first impression when I opened the hatch was of a huge Earth and of the sense of unreality concerning everything that was going on. Space is very beautiful. There was the dark velvet of the sky, the blue halo of the Earth and fast-moving lakes, rivers, fields and clouds clusters. It was dead silence all around, nothing whatever to indicate the velocity of the flight . . . no wind whistling in your ears, no pressure on you. The panorama was very serene and majestic."

— Valentin Lebedev, describing his spacewalk of 30 July 1982 (portrait below).

Friday, March 5, 2010

Dean Potter

Dean Potter--a great modern solo climber--moves into a new realm, that of tight-rope walking.

It is easy to ask, what use is this act?

And it is equally easy to ask, what use is a painting?

What use is an infant?

What use is a song?

Nobody knows what what will come of these things! But not knowing the immediate use is not necessarily a good reason to forego it.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Pavel and Vašku at Lake Baikal

Czechs Pavel and Vašku are trekking the length of the frozen surface of Lake Baikal right now. A recent video clip had me laughing at two things:(a) while I don't understand a word they're saying, I know exactly what they're saying, (b) that looks awfully familiar.

Ve stanu při vichřici / From inside of the tent from Pavel Blažek on Vimeo.