Today, Northfield had an incredible hailstorm that transformed town into nothing I’ve ever seen before:
You won’t be surprised to hear that This Reminded Me of Antarctica – specifically, of an amazing small-boat cruise on February 4 though the ice floes that choked the French Passage. I’ll write in more depth about that unreal experience soon, but the particular aspect of this day that reminded that day was the ice. Most of the hailstones were white, but some were clear, including some of the biggest ones. (I sure wish I’d taken a few photos of those marble-sized, perfectly clear stones.)
Clear iceberg ice is very old; the weight of the snow and ice over centuries or millennia has pressed all the air out of the ice, leaving only transparent frozen water like this hunk that I brought back with me from the French Passage cruise. I just leaned out of our rubber boat, barehanded, and scooped out a piece of ice – the size of a soccer ball, heavy like stone, clear except for the remaining bubbles. I sure wish I’d taken a few photos of that big old piece of ice. Here it is about twelve hours later:
It looked a lot like this bigger chunk that some of the Russian passengers pulled out of the French Passage and used that afternoon as a vodka “luge.”
My response to the Russians’ invitation to try the vodka luge was well documented (a possible topic for another post), but I only took one photo of how I wound up using my personal chunk of ice. I set the original chunk in a bowl after we got back from the cruise around noon, then around midnight poured the meltwater and remaining ice into a wineglass. Ferociously cold, amazingly delicious.
Our ship, SH Minerva, was pretty spectacular inside and out. The interior spaces, from the public areas to my cabin, were wonderfully comfortable, but I really enjoyed the outdoor spaces, which encouraged everyone to spend as much time in the open as possible – whether together for meals or birdwatching or alone to simply contemplate the ocean and the mountains.
Of the several great outdoor spaces, the most spectacular places was the “Swan’s Nest,” a lookout at the very tip of the prow, a spot from which every inch of the ship was behind you and the only thing in front and below was the ocean.
I spent every moment I could in the Swan’s Nest. Between the wind, the waves, and the birds, the spot was a very loud place to be.
Most everyone else on Minerva enjoyed the spot too.
I’d planned to spend as much time in the Swan’s Nest as possible as we sailed back through the Beagle Channel to Ushuaia at the end of our cruise, but alas: I was confined to quarters by COVID. The best I could do – and it was pretty good – was to watch the live feed on the camera aimed down off the bridge over the Swan’s Nest. I drank the last of the previous night’s wine while we sailed back to port.
Enjoying the view virtually, as it were, was nice, but I’ll never forget being crowded with other passengers into the Swan’s Nest early on the morning of February 4 as the captain nosed Minerva into the Lemaire Channel. What a spectacular spot to watch those headlands come toward us.
We wound up not going through the channel that morning, but the Swan’s Nest was still the best place on the ship to watch channel pass that afternoon – a topic for another post.
We saw the British base and Norwegian whaling station at Deception Island on our first proper day in Antarctica. On our next-to-last day, we saw another, far more pleasant and even prosaic sign of man’s encounter with Antarctica: the British and Argentine “huts” at Damoy Point on Wiencke Island. What a place – unreal in that quintessentially Antarctic sense: snow, ice, ocean, mountains, clouds, sky… And of course seals and penguins.
The gentoo penguin colony was small
and, in the soft evening light, quite active. Many of the adults were tirelessly marching back and forth to collect more rocks for their nests.
On the long walking path between the landing beach and the huts themselves, a couple seals and a couple skuas were lounging, unperturbed by the parka’d pax going back and forth.
The huts themselves were tiny and charmingly rustic. The British hut was open to visitors and preserved more or less the way it had looked in the 1990s, when the Brits stopped using it as a station for scientific research and a base for supplying other nearby stations, like Port Lockroy (just a few kilometers over the ridge).
A sign at the door said, in essence, please clean your boots before coming in, please don’t disturb or take anything, and please close the door when you leave. So small and crowded was it that I couldn’t get a good angle for photos, but it looked and smelled like just about every backwoods cabin you might’ve seen. Except, no woods outside. I could imagine spending months there quite happily, hiking over the snowfields all day and hiding from the weather as needed.
The even smaller Argentine hut wasn’t open for visitors (perhaps because it’s actually still in use?), but honestly they have a superior hut-decoration scheme. Nothing really beats los albicelestes, even battered by the weather.
Nothing except maybe the wider, wilder landscape itself. Dorian Bay was a good reminder of just how small and insignificant humans are and should be.
One of my few specific hopes for the trip to Antarctica – separate from from general experiences that I figured I’d have almost no matter what, like seeing icebergs or being close to penguins – was to visit the British facility at Port Lockroy, which had been a military post called “Base A” during World War II, a scientific research station till 1962, and since then, the southernmost post office in the world. I even brought addressed postcards to mail from Port Lockroy! Alas, the place was closed due to the goddamn pandemic, so this is as close as we could get:
For a better look at Port Lockroy, check out some photos of the place. I love the color scheme of the structures themselves, and the neighbors seem nice.
Honestly, I didn’t even know till after the trip that we had sailed past Port Lockroy, so taken I had been by the scenery that day, during which we’d had to stay on the ship due to high winds. And by then, we’d already visited another old British base on Deception Island, “Base B,” which was located on the same beach as an old Norwegian whaling facility, the Hektor factory – the beach where many of us had had our polar plunges.
Base B is now a decrepit old building that we couldn’t even enter, but which the skuas and terns had long ago colonized. One of the ship’s naturalists told us all about “Operation Tabarin,” a slightly bonkers effort by the United Kingdom:
Its primary objective was to strengthen British claims to sovereignty of the British territory of the Falkland Islands Dependencies, to which Argentina and Chile had made counter claims since the outbreak of war. This was done by establishing permanently occupied bases, carrying out administrative activities such as postal services and undertaking scientific research.
According to our guide, Tabarin was also an effort to secure the whale oil that was stored on Deception Island – truly, a disgusting military objective, but one which speaks to the ecocidal nature of man’s relations to Antarctica. Deception Island was among other things a place where thousands of seals and whales were slaughtered and processed for… pretty much nothing – some fuel and lubricants and soap and margarine. What a heinous waste of life. We also saw the oil tanks and the carcass of the Hektor whaling factory, which was falling down and overgrown with lichens.
Up the beach were a few more buildings, and even an old aircraft hangar, but I didn’t go that far. I had polar plunging to do, and honestly I wasn’t relishing the ugly, obscene history of man’s exploitation of Deception Island. Far better to enjoy the place’s insistent, uncompromised nature, like the outcrops that Minerva sailed past as we left the island’s harbor and its fading traces of humankind.
The animal that was most reliably ubiquitous on the cruise was Homo sapiens antarctica, which when not aboard Minerva always wore its summer plumage. The photos of all of us passengers – “pax” in the crew’s lingo – crack me up. We look so un-Antarctically bright. But we were mostly warm and pretty dry!
Before the trip to Antarctica, I tried to read up on the birds we’d see, but by the old gods and the new, there are a lot of kinds of birds, and after some studying, I concluded that most of them live in or migrate near Antarctica.
So I tried to focus on penguins and the biggest, majestickest seabirds like your albatrosses and petrels. And even then, sheesh, there are like ninety. (Okay, according to my best field guide, about 30 – 7 penguins, 5 albatreaux, and 19 petrels, some of which, annoyingly, are called fulmars, prions, or shearwaters.) And then there are some terns, including the Arctic tern that migrates all the way from the Arctic to the Antarctic and back, as well as the Antarctic tern which is lazy and stays in Antarctica all the time
Plus cormorants, which are also called shags, which the British passengers on the ship thought was pretty funny but which look just like the cormorants we see on prairie lakes in Minnesota.
The birds I didn’t read about before the trip but should have, though, were the skua. What freaking beasts! Though they lack the tuxedo coloration of your penguin or the insane wingspan of your albatross, their plumage is understatedly attractive.
On the wing, though – that’s when the skuas look like the predators they are, effortlessly riding the winds
And watching for a penguin to briefly neglect its egg or its chick. Then:
Turns out that skua eat a lot of things besides penguins, such as smaller flying birds like terns, fish they either catch on their own or steal from other birds, krill, even food waste that ships throw overboard. When edible calories are as scarce as they are in the Antarctica, you’d better be willing to eat anything!
Still, I could not stop thinking about and watching the penguin hunting. Our naturalists, sensitive to the spectacle of the skuas stealing and shredding adorable penguin chicks, talked quite a bit about it: “The skuas are just feeding themselves and their young,” “It’s the circle of life,” &c, &c.
All true, and even kind of touching. Skuas (like penguins!) mate for life and take assiduous care of their own young. Here, Mami and Papi Skua sip meltwater from a pool on Deception Island, then fly back to their nest to hydrate sus bebes.*
But the predation was also riveting, a passage in an Attenborough nature documentary that’s being lived out, not filmed. The skuas were beautiful in the air
And then they would plummet to the rocks and … Well, it was ugly. But natural.
* For some reason, I think that in the Antarctic Peninsula, todos los animales hablan español.
I rocked the parka ‘fit every day of the cruise, but I didn’t wear the parka itself all the time. I had to take it off whenever I did any serious hiking – the thing was just way too warm to wear during any kind of strenuous activity!
And I took off the parka whenever we had some sunshine – like here, during the glorious cruise up the Lemaire Passage, when I accepted some fellow passengers’ invitation to enjoy an afternoon drink:
And I took off the parka – plus everything except my glasses, my watch, and my swim trunks – to do the polar plunge at Deception Island. I had been worrying about this for more than a day, ever since the expedition leader said that we’d probably have the chance to jump in the water at Deception Island. I’m fine being cold, but I was worried about having a heart attack from the shock of the water. When the guides said that they’d have an AED on the beach, my fear of dying in the volcano was greatly lessened. (I never did confirm that they knew how to use the AED, or, come to think of it, actually see it on the beach…)
My lord, though, what a goddamn thrill to dunk myself in the Southern Ocean! As my face in the first photo suggests, the “active” volcano didn’t actually warm the water too much. In fact, our guides pointed out that since salt lowers water’s freezing point, this water was probably slightly colder than 32º F. The air was just about at 32, full of rain and sleet and snow.
Fun as hell, and honestly, not that cold, either. Plus, how many people can say they they did a polar plunge in actual polar water? Well, probably about fifty or so from our ship, which the guides claimed was an unusually high number. Perhaps Carleton alumni are especially brave (or dumb), or perhaps the group’s members were particularly amenable to shared adventures (or susceptible to peer pressure), or or or… Who knows!
I can’t say I won’t ever do another polar plunge, though I am pretty sure I won’t ever have another chance to say that a swimsuit is legitimate work clothing. Unless Carleton sends me on an alumni trip to Alaska or something…
Cycling and loving winter has given me a deep appreciation for good gear. As addictions go it’s probably less destructive but not much less expensive than drinking, drugs, or gambling. And it gives me the chance to smugly tell people, “There’s no bad weather, only bad clothing.” If I could say this in Norwegian, like some Northfielders can (and do), I’d probably collapse into a smug black hole.
I was thus both pretty lucky to have a lot of the “right” stuff for the Antarctic cruise (the value of wool baselayers cannot be overstated!) and somewhat dubious that I really needed the heavy-weather parka that the cruise line provided to everyone. Wouldn’t one of my weatherproof winter jackets suffice? I generously, landlubbingly decided to grant them the benefit of the doubt. At worst I’d get a sweet new jacket; at best I’d get a sweet new jacket that kept me dry and warm in Antarctica.
Well, it turns out those folks knew what they were talking about! The parka was incredibly effective at keeping me dry and warm while standing or sitting in some pretty bad great conditions: sideways rain, pelting sleet, 70-mph winds, snow flurries… Who knew? Besides, I mean, everyone who’s ever gone to Antarctica, been on the ocean, etc. The fabric was great, but the super-snug and easy-to-use hood was fantastic, the snap cuffs were marvelous, and the numerous well-designed pockets were wonderfully useful for phones, gloves, hats, hands…
As for the blue of the jacket? Pretty much the same color as old ice!
While we passengers were able to bring our parkas home with us, we could not keep two other cool bits of gear. Each time we went ashore, we wore insanely great insulated and waterproof Muck boots instead of regular boots. The guides specifically warned us not to bring, much less wear, any landlubbing boots (hiking boots, Sorels, etc.), saying that no matter how good you think they’ll work, they won’t work well in Antarctica. The knee-high Mucks, like the parka, were a revelation. Not only did they provide exceptional traction on snow, ice, wet rocks, and penguin shit, they were completely waterproof and amazingly warm, thanks to the liner and to wool socks. Because of course I did, I tested my boots (size EUR 48 – big clodhoppers) on one of our landings by standing for about ten minutes in shin-deep water that was about 30º F and chock full of ice chunks. Toasty warm! If I had the sort of life that involved frequent splashing in near-frozen water, I’d get a pair.
A life in which I could “need” Muck boots is imaginable, but I can’t imagine a life in which I’d need the amazing lifejacket that we had to wear on all of our landings. On our second night at sea, the ship’s guides provided a detailed orientation to the lifejacket that included such tips as
Wear it over all your clothes, but not over a backpack! Never wear it over a backpack! Reason: if it inflates, it won’t float properly under a backpack, and could actually drown you.
Make sure the straps – even the awkward one running between your legs – are snug before leaving the ship. Reason: you won’t be able to easily tighten the straps when you’re in the boat heading ashore.
Do not ever pull the inflation tab unless you’re already in the water! Reason: somehow the lifejacket senses water and inflates automatically when it’s immersed, or even just wet.
This last bit of guidance caused several passengers at the orientation to reflexively reach for the inflation tab, which in turn caused the guides to shout good-naturedly, “Do not pull the tab!” Relatedly:
Do not take the life jacket into the shower in your cabin to rinse off dirt or penguin shit, because the water will make it inflate and then you’ll be super embarrassed. (I was very tempted to do this on the last night of the cruise.)
The full kit – complemented here with a wool cycling cap from Minnesota’s 45NRTH (one of my very most favorite items of clothing) and by fleece-lined and water-resistant pants from Eddie Bauer (same) – was something to behold! Almost drowned out the dorky grin on our first landing.
The day after we visited Deception Island, we landed at Orne Harbor, a gorgeous inlet on the Antarctic Peninsula proper – our first (and only) landing on Antarctica the continent.
Our geologist guide Mary Savina half-jokingly pointed out that the notion of a “continental landing” is a kind of fiction that’s only true or not true because of the particular moment in geological time at which we visited. A few hundred or thousand years later in either direction, and maybe an island would be connected by land to the continent, or this bit of “the continent” would be an island. Point taken, Mary, but I stil enjoyed the thrill of being on Antarctica.
Orne Harbor was a spectacular place. The view down into the harbor, with Minerva anchored and waiting for us to come back aboard. I mean, good god: the ship! the water! the mountains! (Notice the tiny rubber boats heading back to the ship…)
But the literal and personal high point of the continental landing was the snowy, winding climb up a steep bluff to a narrow, wind-blasted saddle
that offered some glimpses of chinstrap penguins who were somehow ensconced in a rock outcrop hundreds of meters above the ocean.
From there, we could look south into the continent
And west out onto the Gerlache Strait, named for the borderline-insane Belgian explorer who was led (or mis-led) the first crew of sailors that overwintered in the Antarctic, not far from Orne Harbor.
Despite the 60-knot (70 mph) winds that howled off the ocean at us, I drank in that vista, which was the best I’d seen to that point in the cruise. The seething gray clouds. The stabs of sunlight. The distant snowpeaks. The deep blue ocean. The plunging white bluff (carefully monitored by one of our guides, who was determined to make sure none of us went too close). The icebergs. And amidst them all, reminding us that the world still existed, a Russian oligarch’s private yacht, steaming north…
After a long – but not long enough – time on the saddle, looking every which way and getting deliciously chilled
I finally decided to descend the bluff and return to Minerva. As I turned away, I spotted a lone chinstrap making its way from the rookery up and over a ridge and then, presumably, down to the water to feed on krill and fish that it would bring back up to its chick. The bird looked lonely as it wobbled alone along a path that it and others must have taken many times a day, indifferent to the blue-jacketed primates who were coming and going, but mostly going.
Even apart from the unusual experience of being inside an active volcano (and, you know, not getting melted), our time on Deception Islands merits more posts – whaling station! steaming beaches! polar plunge!
But Deception was also the first of several landings where we were promised great views of the ocean. The classic vista on Deception Island is from a low spot in the crater wall called Neptune’s Window.
We had to walk about a half mile down the island’s black sand beach from our landing site to the window.
The walk was slow going because the wet sand was hard to walk over, because I kept stopping to marvel at the steam riding out of the geothermally heated sand and water, and because I didn’t notice the many fur seals hauled out on the beach. I got way too close to a couple of them, but they quickly warded me away!
The hike up the crater wall to Neptune’s Window itself was slippery and fun, well staked out by one of the guides from our ship. And man the view through the window, looking southeast onto a gorgeous foggy seascape.
On a clear day, a person could see across the Bransfield Strait all the way to Graham Land on the Antarctic Peninsula. As it was, I’d have to wait to see actual Antarctic land till the next day.
I’ve been back from Antarctica now for almost seven weeks. The Buenos Aires-Antarctic Peninsula-Ushuaia trip was the longest trip I’ve ever taken, and – with the places, the animals, the quarantine – certainly the weirdest. I still can’t always remember whether I was just yesterday studying icebergs from Minerva or watching penguins or running away from seals or hiking in Tierra del Fuego – or conversely whether I just dreamt the whole amazing experience.
So to try to make some sense of the trip, I’m going to try to post some photos and a short essay (a long caption, really) each day this month. This first post is on our very first landing, exactly two months ago today, on the morning of February 1. We put ashore at Walker Bay on Livingston Island in the South Shetland archipelago, just northwest of the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. Livingston was “the first land discovered south of 60° south latitude in 1819.”
The island was like no place ever seen before: rugged snow-covered volcanic bluffs that looked black but resolved into a palette of blacks, grays, and browns;
long rubbery strands of kelp that looked like intestines; black sand like Hawai’i and big smooth gray rocks like Lake Superior;
a few penguins wandering to and from the colony on Hannah Point (where we were forbidden to go;
and seals. We saw a leopard or two, a few Weddells, and many elephant seals, a surprising main attraction. Massive. (As big by weight if not volume as Asian elephants – the pachydermal kind.) Colorful in an understated Antarctic way. Slow moving, ridiculous looking, yet somehow dangerous seeming too.
I’d never seen anything like these beasts except maybe bison on the plains. I was riveted, especially by two juvenile males that were practicing the fighting they’d need to do later in life to secure mates.
What a first encounter with Antarctic wildlife. And what a first encounter with Antarctic terrain – as shipwrecked American sealers wrote in 1821, “awfully grand, though terrific and desolate.”
While Amundsen and Scott dueled to reach the South Pole first, another team – led by Nobu Shirase, an unknown Japanese soldier – was deep in its own expedition to Antarctica. Shirase had long aimed to go to the North and then to the South Pole, but his effort was slowed by a lack of interest in Japan – still emerging from shogun-era inwardness, and focused on building its Asian empire – and the concomitant lack of funding for the trip.
Halting attempts to reach the continent finally culminated in a push in spring 1911 that brought Shirase and his crew to the Ross Ice Shelf from which the Europeans had launched their treks south. Realizing that the he would never reach the pole first, if at all, Shirase decided on other goals. His tiny ship – the smallest exploration ship to try the Southern Ocean – ranged along the coast of the Ross Sea while Shirase and a few men made a dog-sled sprint as far south as they could, beginning on January 20, 1912 (110 years ago today). They turned around, nearly out of food, after 8 days, having ventured to 80º 5’ S – the fourth-furthest anyone had ever gone (after Amundsen, Ross, and Shackleton).
Amundsen had reached the pole exactly two weeks before; Scott was still heading south to his fate. Shirase sensibly headed back to his ship and then home to Japan, where he was briefly hailed as a hero. He spent most of the rest of his life paying off the debt incurred by the expedition. At least he’d looked like a complete badass during his expedition.
So if Amundsen and his three men were the first men to the South Pole, who was the first woman? It took 58 years after the Norwegians, but… it was a six-way tie.
The excellent Wikipedia article on women in Antarctica points out that the continent was, in a very real sense, an extraordinarily male space until fairly recently:
Antarctica was seen by many men as a place where men could imagine themselves heroic conquerors. In Western culture, frontier territories are often associated with masculinity. Antarctica itself was envisioned by many male explorers as a “virginal woman” or “monstrous feminine body” to be conquered by men. Women were often “invoked in terms of place naming and territorial conquest and later even encouraged to have babies in Antarctica.”
The first woman known to have visited the continent was Norwegian Ingrid Christensen, who set foot on the mainland in 1937. Tell me she doesn’t look like the sort of person who would have gone right to the pole if she’d had enough biscuits and tinned beef.
Not till 1969 did women actually visit the South Pole. An international group of scientists, led by Lois Jones, a geologist from Ohio State, interrupted their research elsewhere on the continent to fly to the South Pole for what was basically a tourist jaunt:
Still, first! Honestly, I’m a bit surprised both that the first visit by women took until 1969, and that the Soviets didn’t do it as a sort of Valentina Tereshkova effort to prove the supremacy of socialism. I guess they were too busy measuring temps at Vostok.
The Chileans and Argentines had a different approach to female firsts on the continent:
Using women as territorial conquest is probably at its most literal in the way that Argentina and Chile have flown pregnant women to Antarctica to give birth and stake a national claim to the area. Silvia Morella de Palma was the first woman to give birth in Antarctica, delivering Emilio Palma at the Argentine Esperanza base 7 January 1978.
Madre y bebe Palma are probably still kicking around Argentina. I should look them up!
I have always loved maps. I have several laminated maps that I keep around as motivation to train for my winter bike races, and I like to buy one or two (let’s say) both to plan for trips and to remember the trips. I spend way too much time studying the maps generated by fitness-tracker apps of bike rides I just took, and even more time poring over Google Earth maps of places I’ll never visit.
I’ve spent quite a bit of time, then, finding good maps of Antarctica and now studying the couple that I’ve bought (so far):
The “Antarctic Explorer” map covers all of the continent on one side and the Antarctic Peninsula on the other, and offers a lot of interesting historical information on Antarctic explorers too. The other map, made by the British Antarctic Survey and “dispatched by post” from Stanfords London (“the world’s biggest map shop,” which, yes please!) focuses entirely on the peninsula and on its northernmost tip, a.k.a. Graham Land,
which was named for the Lord of the Admiralty who dispatched an early British expeditions to Antarctica in the 1830s. Sailors on that venture were probably the first humans to actually see the continent, rather than just infer its existence from wind, ice, and currents or to spot some of the many, many islands offshore. Ice ho!
As you can see in this video, Graham Land is as much water and island as continent. Our expedition’s ship (which, by the way, is not exactly a tramp steamer!) is going to thread its way through all these islands on the west side of the peninsula to about 65º south latitude.
The name “Graham Land” strikes me as old fashioned in a charming, goofy way, but mostly harmless since it doesn’t, you know, erase the name(s) that an indigenous people used for the place. (I want to say more about Antarctica’s humanlessness in a future post.)
Argentina and Chile – the countries nearest Graham Land – beg to differ with the name, por favor. The Argentines call whole peninsula Tierra de San Martín, after the general who established Argentina, Chile, and Peru as independent from Spain (at exactly the same time Lord Graham was lording in London). The Argentines call Graham Land the Península Trinidad or Tierra de la Trinidad (Peninsula or Land of the Trinity).
Despite Argentine’s appeal to the heavens, Chile totally wins the toponym debate by applying the name Tierra de O’Higgins to the entire peninsula. The wonderfully named Bernardo O’Higgins was the Chilean leader who worked with General San Martín to free Chile and who then served as its first ruler, the “supreme director. Honestly, forget Antarctica – someone should name whiskeys after this guy. I would totally drink a glass of O’Higgins or Supreme Director.
I should probably pencil those alternative names onto my maps, no?