Antarctica: Zero Degrees

Wintersilks lightweight 100% silk long johns

REI silk liner socks

REI mini crew merino wool hiking socks

North Face TKA100 fleece pants

REI waterproof breathable windproof pants

North Face TKA100 glacier 1/4 zip fleece top

Buff merino wool neck gaiter

North Face Sonoma Swirl wool cap

Zeal Optics Airstream polarized, 100% UV protection sunglasses

Expedition-issued fleece-lined waterproof/windproof parka

Fleece shoe insoles

Expedition-issued wellington boots

Seirus Hyperlite all weather gloves

REI Polartec Windpro combination gloves/mittens

Heatmax Hothands chemical hand warmers…

and the discovery that
in Antarctica
zero degrees celsius
is the temperature at which
your heart
melts.

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Antarctica: On a Magic Carpet Ride

“I can open your eyes
Take you wonder by wonder
Over, sideways and under
On a magic carpet ride…”

© Alan Menken & Tim Rice

We queue up, bundled in layer upon layer, and wait our turn. I am a zodiac riding rookie, and I’m nervous.

A rubber raft with metal floor and outboard engine, just getting in and out requires the small bit of coordination that I’m doubting I possess. I survey the vessel and see no seats, just the rounded rubber edge, and no handles, just a loose rope laced across the sides. I wonder how cold the water will feel – and whether my waterproof backpack holding all my camera gear is really as waterproof as advertised – when I fall in.

We’re seated, the motor is started and we are off. Miraculously, within seconds I become fairly confident that I’m not going overboard, and my heart pounding with fear is now a heart pounding with thrilling anticipation.

Sometimes the zodiac is simply a shuttle to transport us from ship to shore. Other times the ride itself is the destination. We never know exactly what we will encounter when we step inside, but we always know we are in for something magical…

“I can show you the world
Shining, shimmering, splendid…”

We weave our way slowly through an ice sculpture garden. Illuminated from below by blue neon spotlights, each a chiseled masterpiece of immense proportions. I am Alice, floating through a frozen Wonderland.

“A whole new world
A new fantastic point of view…”

Two humpback whales, mother and calf, are spotted. We motor toward them, and as their curiosity is a match for ours, they approach. They playfully surface, showing off their flukes to the rapid-fire click click click of our cameras. They dive far below, and we count down until they resurface and the show starts again.

“A whole new world
A dazzling place I never knew…”

Hundreds, thousands, seemingly hundreds of thousands of penguins. Everywhere we look. Chicks nestled underneath their mothers, reaching up with all their might for nourishment. Fathers unabashedly stealing stones from neighboring nests. The smells and sounds startle our senses; the energy of abundant new life invigorates our souls.

“Unbelievable sights
Indescribable feeling
Soaring, tumbling, freewheeling…”

To think that I once hesititated before stepping inside. Now, I hope this magic carpet ride lasts forever…

“A whole new world
A hundred thousand things to see
I’m like a shooting star
I’ve come so far
I can’t go back to where I used to be.”

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Antarctica: My Funny Valentine

My funny Valentine
Sweet comic Valentine
You make me smile with my heart
Your looks are laughable
Unphotographable
Yet you’re my favorite work of art…

© Rodgers & Hart

As if on cue, the Chamber of Commerce welcoming committee greets us as we come ashore. Tuxedoed ambassadors of the ice.

We diligently obey the “stay 5 metres away” rule, while secretly hoping that the “but it’s okay if they approach you” loophole comes into play. And they oblige. With their Charlie Chaplin waddle and bumbling pratfalls, we can’t help but smile.

The comedy ensues as they strut, single file, to the water’s edge. “After you.” “No, after YOU.” Haven’t I seen this before in a Laurel and Hardy routine? After much hesitation, one by one they belly flop into the sea. More smiles and laughs.

But within seconds, their awkwardness transforms into grace and agility, swiftly porpoising through the water. We are soberly reminded that we are witnessing not silly cartoon characters, but rather beautiful and sleek swimming birds, searching for food and hoping to evade their ocean predators.

Yet only for a second are we reminded. Because we hear a high pitched squawk behind us. And we turn around to see another wind-up plush toy playing for our laughter. And stealing our hearts.

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Antarctica: Top of the World

“Such a feeling’s coming over me
There is wonder in most everything I see…”
© Richard Carpenter & John Bettis

We hike up a steep, snowy path; my clumsy wellington boots attempting to retrace the footsteps of my predecessors, lest i might sink into the white abyss never to be seen again!

We have been briefed on the ground rules: Once at the summit, no cameras clicking, no talking, none of that ubiquitous velcro ripping sound from our yellow parkas. Just sit down, enjoy a few minutes of silence and take it all in.

And take it all in I do! I am enveloped in crisp fresh air and a panorama of black and white mountains and crystal waters. Made more spectacular by the realization that I am somewhere very remote and special, enjoying what few get to enjoy. The serenity is pierced only by the magnificent crash of a glacier calving in the distance. Tears fill my eyes.

Far too soon, it is time to retreat from my mountaintop perch and make way for some fellow travelers to have their own moments of bliss. And while I hesitatingly trudge down the snowy path back to sea level, I remain high as can be.

I dismiss all this talk about Antarctica being at the “bottom of the world.” I know better.

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Antarctica: A Whiter Shade of Pale

“We skipped the light fandango
turned cartwheels ‘cross the floor
I was feeling kinda seasick
but the crowd called out for more…”
© Procol Harum

In what feels like trillion metre high swells, we hang on dearly with “one hand for the ship.” Enduring the infamous Drake Passage is a reminder that perhaps we’re not supposed to be here. That we are very small and feeble in the shadow of Mother Nature’s wrath.

Yet I know in my heart that I’m meant to be here. I stare out at the waves crashing into the ship’s bow with a mix of reverence and foolish bravado as we continue south.

And when the turbulence subsides we find ourselves in the wonderland that we came here for, but with every adjective exponentially more than we could have imagined.

Where everything is a shade of white. Except when it’s blue…

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Antarctica: The Sweetest Hangover

“If there’s a cure for this,
I don’t want it, don’t want it… “

© Marilyn McLeod & Pamela Sawyer

Stendhal syndrome, according to Wikipedia, is an illness causing rapid heartbeat, dizziness, fainting, confusion and hallucinations when exposed to a large amount of art in a single place or when confronted with immense beauty in the natural world. I’ve most certainly fallen victim. My head is still spinning. My feet have not yet touched the ground. I am intoxicated by what I’ve seen and what I’ve felt during my journey through the land of ice. Most definitely the sweetest hangover, I don’t want to get over…

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