“Maybe we have lived only to be here now.” Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams
There is a soft, audible in-breath on the ship’s public address speakers. Like someone is emerging from a deep, meditative trance. Relaxed but confident.
“Good morning. It is now 6 AM, and if you are not out on deck now, you should be. Welcome to Antarctica and the Lemaire Channel. Breakfast will be served in the dinning room at 7:30 AM.”
Thus lulled awake by Chad, we hurriedly dress in layers, head caps, scarves and gloves, grab cameras and binoculars and dash to the forward observation deck where “the air bites shrewdly.” Although it is probably no colder than the mid-20s (Fahrenheit), it is not the invigorating chill that causes me to gasp. The palate of colors before our eyes reveals every shade of blue, with contrasting blacks and blinding whites reflecting a sun that can burn your skin in five minutes. Small bergs with darkly compressed blues appear inverted and reflected in water still as a mirror and obsidian black. Although the ship is moving, there is a hush in the air that complements the incomparable scene before us. Occasionally, the crisp brush of ice against the hull brings me out of my day dream. Debbie has a wide contented smile on her face.
Behind us, at the northern entrance of the Channel, the Una Peaks stand 2,451 feet above glassy water, clouds trailing away from the twin summits like a veil. The deeply black rocks of these sentinels are what is left of extinct volcanos formed by a subduction zone which began throwing lava and volcanic ash into the air some 183 million years ago. The mountains which line the Channel were once connected to the Andes in South America. Further north in the Bransfield Strait, one plate is still slipping under another. Tectonic activity along this Peninsula can confuse the local magnetic fields. Beyond the southern exit of the Channel, in the Penola Strait, are humpback and minke whales. But it is time for breakfast and our first expedition.
At the morning briefing, Chad lays out the activities for the day. The ice has blocked the passage to the Ukrainian station at Verdnasky, which boasts the southern most public bar on the planet. So we will be unable to see the famous wall that holds a collection of bras donated by visitors. Ukraine purchased the station from the British for the sum of one-pound in 1996. It was here in 1985, that scientists from the British Antarctic Survey realized the ozone values in these rarified skies had been decreasing since the 1970s.
Chad explains that the first excursion of the day will be to Circumcision Bay on Petermann Island (so named because it was discovered on the day of the Feast of the Circumcision, Forgotten Footprints). Then Michele Grant announces that the kayakers will meet in the mud room and be offloaded into the zodiacs before the gangway is open to the rest of the passengers. This is our cue to finish breakfast, grab our gear, and make for the mud room.
One of the queries on the pre-trip questionnaire asked whether we had ever “wet exited” a kayak. That is, tipped it over and exited while under water. Since this seemed like something to try first in warmer waters, we took lessons at Point Reyes on Tomales Bay some months before.
Our instructor at Blue Waters Kayaking taught us how far we could lean the kayak to the left or right. This was a prelude to actually rolling over and wet exiting which was planned for later in the day. The first lesson was about getting a sense of balance.
I was somewhat timid at first, so she appealed to my adventurous side (remember that I am an accountant – I don’t have adventurous sides) and encouraged me to lean to the left just a bit more.
“You mean like this?”
I was upside down and under water in an instant, trying to recall the move I was supposed to make that would pop me out of the cockpit and back to the surface. Remembering her instructions, I reached for the tab at the front of the skirt and yanked hard. Buoyancy did the rest, and I was breathing fresh air again.
“Well, it seems like it’s time to learn the T-rescue,” was our instructor’s comment…with a big grin on her face.
Back in the Ioffe’s mud room, we change into our dry suits, place cameras in dry bags, and make our way to the starboard gangway. Our names and cabin number are checked off, and a moment later we are in the Penola Strait taking our first zodiac ride.
“This cord I am holding will cut the motor if I fall over board.” Sarah Scriver, our driver, is explaining some zodiac safety while we cruise to where the kayaks have been off-loaded (her OneOcean bio states “Sarah has climbed to 6000m in the Andes, lived with a Shuar tribe in the Amazon Rainforest, chased tornadoes in the American Midwest and trekked for days in the remote wilderness of BC, Canada”).
“In case you feel like rescuing me, you’ll need to plug it back in like this to get the outboard working again.” But then, she is so relaxed and sure in her navigation that it is hard to imagine this scenario. Nonetheless, I glance at the plug.
Debbie and I are soon in our tandem and over her left shoulder, some three and one half miles distant, is Mount Scott. It seems all I need to do is reach over her shoulder to touch its summit. I must recalibrate my sense of distance. Without pollutants, dust and water vapor (despite all the water and ice, it is dry), the landscape is deceiving. I must look with new eyes.
Sarah has withdrawn the zodiac to a discrete distance. Close enough to be quickly at hand, but outside of our immediate awareness. Our paddles carve gentle strokes through the water creating the only sound in a vast panorama. There is nothing else I could want at this moment.
“The necessaries of civilization were luxuries to us: and as Priestley found under circumstances compared to which our life at Hut Point was a Sunday School treat, the luxuries of civilization satisfy only those wants which they themselves create.” Apsley Cherry-Garrard
In the afternoon we visit Port Charcot on Booth Island. While watching the ice stretch beyond the Dannebrog Islands to the horizon, I slip back into my dream, and imagine the possibilities yet unfulfilled in my life. I am humbled here and have been shown something so precious, so fragile, that my perspective of life has shifted in some way that has yet to be discovered.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Back on the Ioffe once more, the evening’s talk is given by Mette Eliseussen and is on the subject of “Mercenaries, Misfits and Missionaries.” From her OneOcean biography, Mette…
…lived for 7 years in the heart of the Afghan Wars from 1990 till 1997 as the Program Manager for Save the Children. This added her 5th language, Persian. Many international programs involving women, children and micro credit in areas of conflict have been designed and implemented by her as well as some 20 popular safe playgrounds in mine and cluster bomb contaminated areas of Kabul. She founded the Afghan Campaign to Ban Landmines and was part of the team that won the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize for banning landmines. Since then Mette has been active in creating a new international treaty to ban cluster bombs and is currently spear heading the international efforts to get the Pacific Island nations to join the treaty.
If you are getting the sense that we are in the presence of extraordinary people who have dared to let dreams dictate the course of their lives, this is the impression I am trying to convey. Because these are “the kind of dreams that give a whole life its bearing…” Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams.
See Part III, the Drake Passage
Part V, Almirante Brown