The Doc Project

Meet the North: An expedition that listens for the true north, one person at a time

Meet someone, listen to their story, ask to be introduced to someone else, repeat — how Jennifer Kingsley's simple formula is transforming her perception of the Arctic.
American Ninja Warrior Nick Hanson, Unalakleet, Alaska. (Eric Guth)

I think really getting to know a place is about confronting the unexpected. What are all the things that are right there that you never thought about? That's when a place really comes alive.

The Ilulissat coast. (Eric Guth)

I used to think of the Arctic as a wilderness. This is a common misconception for southerners like me. Ice, tundra, polar bears, that kind of thing.

I had traveled north, but I hardly knew any northerners, even though four million people live above the Arctic Circle all over the world. So, I came up with an idea. With sponsorship from the Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic Alliance, I started a project called Meet the North. 

My plan was really simple: meet someone, listen to their stories, ask them to introduce me to someone else, repeat. That was three years ago. Since then, along with American photographer Eric Guth, I've travelled across six Arctic nations. It's become a journey into the unexpected.

I walked down to the dock with no plan and collided with this story. The most incredible stories are so close by us, we rarely even know they're there.

Elias Fleischer. Ilulissat, Greenland. (Eric Guth)

After a chance encounter on the dock in Ilulissat, Greenland, Elias Fleischer took me fishing. He told me how he lost his wife and son in the freezing waters when their boat capsized. Now, he chooses to make his living by returning, each day, to the place where his family died. 

I collided with Elias' story by chance, and it reminds me that the most incredible tales are sometimes within arm's reach.

I used to relate to the Arctic as wilderness, but when I think of the Arctic now I hear people talking, and people living.

Store Norske Men's Choir, a.k.a. the Great Northern Men's Choir, in Longyearbyen, Svalbard. (Eric Guth)

In Longyearbyen, Svalbard, music was a window into the cultural and political life of the entire community. This is Norway's northernmost town and the only one powered by coal. This stirs up controversy between the town's residents over the environmental impact of the town's major employer. 

You get to know a place by listening.

But once a year, men who sell coal for a living sing side-by-side with men who want to stop coal mining forever. When these men dress up as coal miners and sing together, despite their opposing views on fossil fuels, their songs become a conversation about energy security.

Plus, they sing "16 Tons" and "Heigh Ho," so what's not to like?

Jennifer Kingsley at work on Flatey, Iceland, with Hafsteinn Gudmundsson. (Eric Guth)

Journalism is not only about the stories that someone is trying to hide. "Tell me your story" is a pretty good place to start with someone new. I've also learned a lot about silence from the people I meet. Overall, I ask fewer questions and focus on listening. I learned this while in Flatey, Iceland, with Hafsteinn Gudmundsson. This photo speaks to the process of the project and the bit where I talk about interviewing people (and sometimes asking very bad questions).

I'm looking for threads that will take me into the fabric of modern Arctic culture... this is a doorway into the unexpected.

Laureli Ivanoff, Unalakleet, Alaska. (Eric Guth)

I went to Unalakleet, Alaska, to meet journalist Laureli Ivanoff. She has the insider perspective on something I'd been curious about as an outsider: How does it feel to see all of these negative portrayals of your home? 

A lot of the stories that come south from the Arctic are really negative. In the south, we hear about poverty, teen pregnancy, suicide. And Laureli has been confronting this in her writing.

I used to go to the north for the express purpose of getting away from people. I don't do that anymore.

"We are people who choose to live in these small communities because we want to," Laureli says. That distinction seems to be lost on much of the rest of the world. "I want to live here because this is where I thrive."

An aerial view of arctic Alaska. (Eric Guth)

At first, recording the north was about silences, mic-distorting winds, machinery, and endless footsteps in snow. Now I never know what I am going to hear, and that's the point.

About the producers: 

Jennifer Kingsley
Jennifer Kingsley is a writer, audio producer, and National Geographic Explorer. She has been published widely and is the author of Paddlenorth: Adventure, Resilience, and Renewal in the Arctic Wild, which won the National Outdoor Book Award for non-fiction in 2015. Her radio work has been recognized by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. She lives in Ottawa. 

Meet the North is sponsored by the Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic Alliance and funded in part by the National Geographic Society

Dick Miller
Dick Miller spent three and a half decades with the CBC in radio and television production. He is currently a freelance writer and audio documentary producer. He also teaches Advanced Radio at the School of Journalism, University of King's College in Halifax. 

All photos in this online essay are by Eric Guth.