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.
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.
I grew up on the edge of Lake Superior, and ventured out onto it a few times, but I always felt and feel most at home when surrounded by tall trees. After moving to Northfield, I had to get used to the prairie. I think I’m pretty comfortable now in wide-open spaces. The Southern Ocean, though, was an entirely other sort of wide open.
I guess I expected to see endless empty ocean when we set sail on Minerva from Ushuaia, a busy port. The commercial pier where we boarded Minerva was lined with other cruise and merchant ships, and not far from a marina that wouldn’t look out of place on any of the Great Lakes.
The Ushuaia harbor was crowded with big vessels. These cruise ships were supposedly full of passengers and crews who were waiting out their COVID quarantines.
But after we left the harbor and steamed down the Beagle Channel toward the Drake Passage, the only craft we saw was the boat the took the channel pilot off Minerva in the middle of the night. (I had just returned to my cabin after watching Ushuaia disappear behind us.)
The Practicaje was the last ship we saw for days. No ships, no other people, nothing but the open ocean. Well, the ocean and the sky. If Ralph Waldo Emerson is right that “the sky is the daily bread of the eyes,” then we gorged ourselves.
When we reached Antarctica, the mountains, glaciers, icebergs, and wildlife added to the feast, as I hope my post are showing. But through the couple hundred of us on Minerva felt like the only people in the world, or at least the only people in our part of Graham Land, we weren’t. Almost every day, we caught a glimpse of another ship.
The night of February 2, after our landing on the continent at Orne Harbor, we headed down the Gerlache Strait and passed two other cruise ships cutting away up the Schollaert Channel. They glowed almost obnoxiously in the midnight gloaming. I’m sure we looked just as artificial to them.
The next day, high winds prevented us from making any landings and forced the Minerva to keep moving. We sailed down the Neumeyer Channel right past the British “Station A” on Goudier Island in Port Lockroy, a tiny cove in the western side of Wiencke Island. Several sailboats were hiding behind Goudier in the cove. Their masts and the antennae of the Station A buildings stood out straight and sharp against the natural shapes of the coastline.
Later that day, still looking for shelter from the wind, we sailed around Cape Errera at the very southern tip of Wiencke Island. Another cruise ship was going in the other direction – one of the two ships we’d seen the previous night. The spectacular cloud plume off the headland suggests the strength of the winds that day.
The winds calmed on February 4, allowing us to try to sail down the Lemaire Channel, a passage famous for its truly jawdropping mountains. More on that cruise another day – suffice to say here that Lemaire’s fame drew other ships too. As we approached the northern end of the channel, we could see the the French cruise ship Le Lyrial coming in behind us.
Our captain found too much ice in the mouth of channel to risk a run, but while he brought Minerva about, Le Lyrial snuck past us, close to the cliffs, threaded its way through the icebergs, and successfully sailed down the channel. We watched its progress on the navigation screens aboard Minerva.
Minerva on the other hand spent the morning sailing counterclockwise around the islands that form the western wall of the channel. Just before noon, we emerged in the French Passage, a more open reach that feeds into the southern end of the Lemaire. The passage was full of ice that had been trapped there by the previous day’s winds. We had a grand outing, to be described in another post, but we also saw a tiny sailboat in the white floes and black water.
As with the boats we saw at Port Lockroy, the straightness of the mast looked alien. I wound up talking for quite a while with another passenger, an experienced sailor, about what that boat’s crew must have been doing and seeing. They were in hazardous waters, which meant they were either stupid or, more likely, consummately experienced. Either way, what an adventure they were having!
That little sailboat was the last ship I saw until we crossed the Drake Passage and headed back up the Beagle Channel to Ushuaia, on February 6 – at which point I was quarantined in my cabin. I took a few bad photos through my water-splattered porthole of traffic in the Beagle and in the harbor after we docked, but nothing worth the pixels. Five days later, when my cuarentena ended, I walked from my hotel outside Ushuaia into the city and down to the harbor. The pier was crowded with beautiful vessels – several cruise ships, a Russian research vessel, an Argentine Coast Guard cutter, even a Greenpeace ship. Minerva had already sailed back to Antarctica.
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.
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.
Without much soil, Antarctica naturally lacks much plant life. The British Antarctic Survey – which is pretty much the most reliable source of natural-history info on the continent – claims that only two flowering plants can be found on Antarctica, and then only on the peninsula, the area where the Carleton trip will go:
Antarctic hair grass (Deschampsia antarctica) and
Antarctic pearlwort (Colobanthus quitensis).
Neither is the sort of plant you’d like to have in a pot in your house. Or could, since they thrive in cold, dry, windy places, not your damn living room.
BAS reports that besides those “flowering plants,” Antarctica is home to
around 100 species of mosses, 25 species of liverworts, 300 to 400 species of lichens and 20-odd species of macro-fungi.
Incredibly, some moss and lichens live in rocks in the coldest, dryest parts of the continent. So much for being “lower plant groups,” right? Show me some dumb oak or pine that can do that.
As Antarctica warms, plants are the among the most dangerous invaders – but as you’d expect given humankind’s colossal stupidity, we also brought some invasive species to the continent. For example, Poa pratensis was introduced as part of a study in 1954-1955. It’s since been eradicated.
To prevent this kind of disaster, travelers to Antarctica – even or especially tourists a-larking – have to carefully disinfect themselves before going ashore. Glad to do it!
A fun part of my prep for the Antarctica trip is watching documentaries on Antarctica. They’re naturally focused on penguins *() and the South Pole, but the German auteur-weirdo Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World (2007) was refreshingly different – though if you have watched any Herzog docs, you knowhe’s going to focus on the fellow-weirdos he meets. Spoiler alert: there are a lot of weirdos in Antarctica!
Over the film’s 99 minutes, Herzog performs an artful bait-and-switch that’s worth the price of the rental. The movie starts by dwelling at length on the ugliness of the American base on McMurdo Sound (he compares it to a mining camp) and the nuttiness of the people who work there – folks who could be working at a small-town gas station. There’s the survival trainer who puts his students’ heads in white utility buckets, leashes them together, and then has them try to find their way around an open snowfield. They can’t. They’d all die in a whiteout blizzard. Less terrifyingly, Herzog talks with a heavy-equipment driver who says with undergraduate profundity, “The universe dreams through our dreams. And I think that there are many different ways for reality to bring itself forward, and dreaming is definitely one of those ways.”
After his stay at McMurdo, Herzog gradually goes further and further into the wilderness of Antarctica – true wilderness, devoid of any humans but scientists. He journeys to the lip of perpetually-erupting Mt. Erebus – named for one of the ships sailed to Antarctica in 1839-1843 by the eminent 19th century explorer James Clark Ross – to talk with the volcanologists there. One helpfully offers tips for surviving a rain of lava from the lake below, where the earth’s crust is torn open. (Don’t turn your away from the lava lake: back away it, don’t run from it, so you can see the lava bombs sailing toward you and duck, or maybe contemplate your obliteration.)
Later – or maybe earlier; it’s hard to tell since the film has no real narrative direction – Herzog visits a team of biologists camped on an ice shelf to study the seals that swim, invisible but audible, under them. Some of the researchers gently ambush female seals by covering their heads with a bag and then milk them to analyze their milk – thick like latex paint, amazingly devoid of lactose – and understand how they can possibly perpetuate their species in a place like this. One of the seal-ologists says, almost sheepishly, that the place is so quiet she can hear her heartbeat. Then Herzog films them splaying themselves out on the ice to listen not to their own heartbeats, but to the seals’ otherworldly submarine songs.
That is the sort of arresting image that Herzog loves, and that fills this beautiful film – not empty whitescapes, but nearly empty ones where a trio of researchers crouch on the ice, geologists perch on the rim of a volcano, or a tiny vehicle zooms over the white vacuum , or a diver, taking his last plunge, swims along the sea bed, taking video of the bizarre animals that – unlike the humans – are perfectly at home in this harsh, beautiful place.
Antarctica has long been an object of my fascination. As this blog’s title suggests and many of its posts show, I love winter: snow and ice, cold and wind, leaden gray days and glowing blue ones. Ink-black skies, infinitely distant, studded by bright yellow stars or shining with a blue-green aurora. Paper-white skies, hovering overhead, releasing big gentle flakes or hurling tiny sharp darts.
What better place than Antarctica, then, to occupy my imagination? Winter, at a continental scale: colder, windier, drier, and emptier than anywhere else in the world. People lived in the Arctic, had thrived there for millennia. No one really lived in the Antarctic – and the canonical stories I read as a kid and as an adult showed why. The struggles of Amundsen and Scott, Nansen and Shackleton. The desolation of places like Elephant Island, McMurdo Sound, Vostok or Amundsen-Scott stations. The insanities of “sledging” across endless ice, of the temperature at the coldest place in the world, of miles-deep layers of ice, of the perpetual eruption of Mt. Erebus – and of penguins! Adorable, indomitable, almost more whale than bird.
So Antarctica has always been a kind of imaginary place to me, too far away and too hard to reach to even contemplate going. Antarctica and the South Pole are further, harsher, unfriendlier than the Arctic and North Pole, which seemed – growing up on the edge of Lake Superior – to be just a little bit past Thunder Bay. A couple flights and I could be in Anchorage or Fairbanks in Alaska or Iqaluit in Nunavut or Nuuk in Greenland (Kalaallit Nunaat). I haven’t actually been to those places, but I could be, right? I’ve never even really thought about going to Antarctica.
Until I heard that the college needed a staff member to join an upcoming alumni trip to the Antarctic Peninsula, the finger of land that crooks out from the continent toward the tip of South America. I volunteered, and incredibly, the higher-ups decided that I was up to the job – supporting the emeritus professor of geology who’ll do the hard work of teaching and helping 60-some alumni and friends who’ll be enjoying the trip. A factotum, for sure – but a factotum in Antarctica!
If all goes as planned, I’ll leave on January 27 for a fourteen-day cruise from Argentina through the Drake Passage in and along the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula. All told, we’ll spend about ten days visiting some of the innumerable islands that dot the Bellingshausen Sea as well as many spots on the continent proper. We’ll be a long way from the South Pole (about as far as Minneapolis is from Los Angeles! Antarctica is big), but still, it’ll be Antarctica: 17-hour austral summer days. Seals, skuas, whales, penguins. Icebergs, nunataks, glaciers. The South.