Antarctica – Part I

There is a place on this planet – our planet – that is so surreal, so magical, that it feels like an entirely different planet.  There is a place where the air seeps into your skin and the quietness of the world is so real that it’s like being in a Disney movie.  There is a place on this planet that I could have never dreamed of.

Antarctica.

The mountains push higher than the clouds, and the snow cliffs stand proud with ownership.  The sea water can be as flat and clean as glass, or it can be as rough and turbulent as the world that sits above it.  The penguins – the only real land animal that can be seen by humans – go about their lives as though they are the only creatures living on this planet.  They own this place, and in a knowingly strange way, everyone else knows it.  It is theirs.  We respect it, we respect them.  Our goal is to take only memories and leave only footprints.

Antarctica.

It was a long journey to get to the bottom of the world.  I was coming from the Pacific Islands.  Twenty-two hours of flying time to get to the US where I would spend three days sleeping, repacking, and completely changing my mindset.  For the first time in over six months, I woke up not knowing where I was.  On two different occasions.  In my own bed.  But it was short-lived, because from there, I would take another 10-hour flight to Buenos Aires where I would spend a few days with my family.  There was a lot of speculation in the airline industry about potential pilot strikes, so we built in a few extra days in Argentina.  This was not a trip we were going to miss because of a delayed flight!  And finally, we all took one final 3-hour flight to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world.

I knew that going to Antarctica was going to be tolling, but I had absolutely no idea how physically demanding this trip would be.  Not in a ‘use my muscles, need a good cardiovascular system’ demanding, but in every way unexpected.  It’s called an ‘Antarctica Cruise,’ but really, it’s an incredibly adventurous expedition.

We put on our scopolamine patches (a patch that sticks behind your ear for three days and releases medicine to help with sea sickness) and boarded the catamaran that would take us to our ship in the bay.  The next three days were a complete whirlwind.

The scopolamine patches induce a lot of drowsiness.  I almost felt as though I was drunk and wanted to do nothing more than sleep.  When I did get up out of my bed, I had a hard time keeping my stomach under control.  It was evident that we were in the Drake Passage.

The Drake Passage is a 600 mile stretch of open water between the southern tip of South America and Antarctica.  It is the most treacherous and dangerous body of water in the world, and getting through it is no easy feat.  The weather is extremely unpredictable and winds up to 60 mph coupled with waves over 40 feet aren’t uncommon.  I would lay on my twin bed and slide down eight inches to the footboard only to wait a few minutes and slide back to the top.  Tony was on the opposite side of the very small cabin, and I would watch him do the same.  It became soothing, to a point, and we learned to sleep through the ups and downs.  Everything we owned was put into a drawer with a latch, and we would fold my wheelchair and lay it on its side so it wouldn’t fly across the room and injure us while we rested.

On the occasions I would venture out of my room, mostly for meals, I would rely on the assistance of my family to help me crawl through the door and balance my wheelchair to keep it from rolling too quickly across the ship as it rocked and rolled.

If you remember from one of my previous posts, there was some hesitation from the company I booked my tour with about me participating.  As such, I had a few meetings with the expedition team early in my trip, while things were still swaying, to discuss my capabilities.  I cannot express enough to everyone reading this how absolutely incredible this team of people was.  I met with the expedition leader, the kayaking team, the onboard physician, and many others.  Every single staff member that I met had a ‘let’s make this work for you’ attitude, instead of a ‘we don’t think that’s possible’ attitude.  They did it with smiles and I credit them for giving me a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. 

This group of around 30 people holds an immense responsibility for the roughly 135 passengers on board.  They are the ones taking us out to explore each day.  They are responsible for our safety (there are absolutely no medical facilities outside of what might be located on the ship) in Antarctica.  They are also responsible for making sure we get the ‘full Antarctica experience,’ seeking out wildlife, islands, icebergs, everything that everyone wants to see on the few days they are there.  Adding in different physical limitations, fears, and expectations is just the icing on the cake for their already full plates.  Again, having a crew that was willing to take a few minutes to speak with me and give me every experience, like anyone else had, was incredible in and of itself.

So after three days and three nights of sailing through the Drake Passage, watching nothing but water out of our windows, we arrived in Antarctica.  We were up and dressed at 5 am, walking on the outer deck of our ship when we first felt Antarctica.  Yes, we saw it.  But it was more than seeing it.  Antarctica is a feeling, all encompassed by every sense that our humanly bodies withhold.  The temperature was cold and the air was crisp.  There were few people awake and the noise of the engine had silenced.  There was no pollution.  There were no concrete buildings or streets or sidewalks.  There was no light except what shown through from the clouds and the sun.  Surrounding our ship were mountains so high they appeared to reach to the heavens.  Some had a base of hard rock, and some appeared to be made of only ice and snow, the inside having been exposed only thousands and thousands of years ago.  Floating along in the crystal waters were icebergs so big that they appeared to be islands themselves.  The water was no longer turbulent and everything was at peace.  We had no connection to the outer world; our Internet was gone moments after we left Ushuaia.  It felt as though we had just spent three days in a space ship, being yanked and jerked around, and we had just landed on an undiscovered planet.

Still, weeks later, I cannot believe that a place like this exists on the same floating sphere in our universe that I live on.  How are we the creatures that get to have this place on our planet?  And yet, we were just getting started…

For the next three days, our crew would make hourly announcements with the plans for the day.  And because the conditions in Antarctica are unpredictable and the weather can be volatile, the plans often changed within minutes.  We each listened intently as the morning and afternoon plans would take shape, and followed instructions to be sure we were able to participate in every activity we could.  It wasn’t uncommon to be sitting at breakfast, sipping on coffee, only to hear an announcement that we were to head to the mudroom and prepare for an outing in 15 minutes.

On our first day, we did just as told.  The announcement came on that we would be taking zodiacs, small boats with about six air vestibules and a small engine, to an island.  We headed to the mudroom where we finished dressing.  Each day we went out, we would wear a wool base layer, a pair of leggings, insulted and waterproof pants, two shirts, a puffy coat, an outer coat that was also wind and waterproof, several hats and scarfs, a life jacket, and muck boots, which are high waterproof boots provided by the ship.

There is a strain of avian flu in the North Pole right now, and scientists are expecting it to reach Antarctica sometime in the next two years.  And when it does, if it’s not there already, it could potentially wipe out several colonies of penguins.  As such, it was extremely important for us to be bio-secured.  This meant that anything we wore outside of the ship had to be inspected in the days leading up to our outing.  A crew member inspected each item, often vacuuming fuzz out of Velcro on a jacket or waistline.  And anything that would touch the ground in Antarctica had to be cleaned with a special liquid disinfectant.  The muck boots served a purpose.  Everyone stepped into a giant bucket of disinfectant as they left the boat and again as they came back on.  It became quite an automatic process for us, knowing that one miss could wipe out an entire colony – hundreds – of penguins.

We lined up in the gangway, waiting our turn to take the roughly eight steps off of the ship and onto the zodiac which would hold a total of 10 passengers plus a crew member.  I swiftly hopped onto my bum and bounced down the steps, sliding into the zodiac quickly but safely.  Everything was becoming a whirlwind.  Just a few hours ago, we were swaying in the middle of the ocean.  And now we were bundled up and sitting in the waters of Antarctica!  The sea sickness meds were starting to leave my body as I took the patch off, but the feeling my body had was something out of this world.

We cruised along for a few short minutes, our guide giving a quick safety briefing, but most everyone peering through their warm gear into the vastness that was Antarctica, hardly hearing our guide’s important message.  We saw colonies of penguins on the islands surrounding us, each of them going about their day.  Some would jump in the water and we’d watch as they would swim, jumping up for air every few minutes.  Others would waddle around, clearly on a mission, but heading into what appeared to be nothing more than another snow-covered mound.  And then there were some that fought, usually males over a female.  On a few occasions, we experienced two penguins mating, a male standing on the females back (yes, this is how they mate), trying to balance with his short wings flapping every which way, and finally finding his place for a few seconds before ending the encounter.  Surrounding and mixed throughout each penguin colony was a brownish-red snow, which I learned to discover was the penguin poo, red from the krill penguins live on.

We pulled up to the landing spot and everyone started climbing out of the zodiac.  They climbed, slowly, up a very steep incline that was quickly turning into a sheet of ice as more and more footsteps compacted the ice.  I quickly realized this was not something I was going to be able to participate in.  We had agreed that Julie – my incredibly athletic younger sister – would piggyback me during any land ventures.  But this would be too much, and knowing there was limited medical care, it wasn’t worth a sprained back or a hit head if we slipped and fell.  I asked if my mom and I could stay in the zodiac and the expedition leader advised it was no problem. 

We floated around in the waters nearby with the driver for about ten minutes, seeing icebergs and animals and views that I wouldn’t have gotten to see from land when she got a radio call saying they had figured out how to get me onto the land.  We headed back and there waiting was a young expedition guide – John – who put me on his back and carried me up the hill and over to a bucket where I sat for the next 30 minutes or so.  Anytime a zodiac goes to land, they bring along several buckets of equipment – water, food, warm tents – that can be used in the event the zodiacs cannot make it back to the island and the passengers and crew need to stay for a few hours or days.  As I said, the weather is unpredictable, so being prepared is incredibly important.

None the less, I sat on this bucket and just took in every minute.  I chatted with several of the staff as they came and went, also trying to take in as much as they could.  We watched the penguins waddle about, looking out into the never-ending sea of ice and snow.  And while it might have been cold, the emotions were warm and overbearing, and I don’t remember being cold once in Antarctica.  It just wasn’t a feeling that was welcome there.

I want to be able to express in words exactly how it felt to be in Antarctica, but I’m learning that it’s not something I will ever be able to do.  The pictures will never give this part of the world the justice it deserves, and my words will never be able to express the immensity of the emotions that come with it.  There’s so much to share about this experience, and I will continue to try, but please know that it is a place so unreal and so impactful that I, like the photos, will never be able to do it justice.

Our time on the island ended after about an hour and we loaded back into the zodiacs.  At the gangway, each person got off carefully and comfortably.  I waited until the end and scooted on my butt, the two staff members on board helping me in the most professional way.  We bio-secured our boots, undressed in the mudroom, and gathered in the one restaurant on the ship for lunch.  Everyone on board was chatty and you could feel the energy in the room.  This wasn’t a fancy place.  Most people had on leggings and wool hats, their cheeks red from the outdoors but their smiles bigger than the room could handle.  There was so much to share with the people who just experienced one of the most profound moments of their lives with you.  Did you see that penguin?  Oh my gosh, that iceberg was amazing!  I can’t believe how much snow there was.  What a cool experience!

It wasn’t long before an announcement came over the loud speakers.  “Attention Kayakers.  Attention.  If you are planning on kayaking today, please head to the mudroom and put on your dry suit.  We will be leaving in 15 minutes.”

We gathered our things and headed to floor four.  This time, because we were kayaking and there was a greater chance of us going overboard, we would put on a much tighter fitting dry suit.  We still wore a base layer, leggings, and several shirts, but instead of a waterproof outer layer, we wore a dry suit.

To get to our kayaks, we loaded into a zodiac that took us further away from our ship.  Obviously we didn’t want to be kayaking near a ship larger enough to navigate the Drake Passage.  I got in and out like I did that morning, and did the same with the kayak, the crew being patient and always ready to help but not demand.

For the next two hours, about 10 other passengers joined us as we kayaked on The Southern Ocean.  We navigated around large icebergs and ventured close to land when there were penguins to watch.  It was sleeting and snowing pretty consistently, and we left with a layer of white on our kayaks and hats.  As we floated along, paddling only when necessary, I looked up at the mountains nearby, wondering how they could possibly blend into the clouds and the sky, becoming one.  I wondered how long this particular mountain of snow and ice had gone without a human eye viewing it, and maybe the answer was forever.  I sat in this kayak, so small and meaningless, watching a part of the world that felt so powerful stare down at me and surround me, and I wondered how something with so much power could also be so still and so silent.  Perhaps that’s what’s so profound about the power of Antarctica…it’s silence that leaves you breathless.

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