Antarctic Adventure: November 2016

Every couple should take an annual trip without kids, rekindling the relationship that existed before the children arrived. In this case, we got as far away as possible—a voyage to the seventh continent. Turns out, you don’t need kids around to regain your childlike wonder.

Day 1: Wednesday, November 16—Departure

I shepherded the three older girls out the door like any other day, but today was different. It was the last time I’d see them in nearly three weeks. The night before, I sent the spreadsheet of passcodes and the master password that would unlock it. The recipient simply replied, “I got it.” And I knew she did. John and I selected her and her husband many years ago as the guardians of our girls should anything happen. And if anything did, I know she’d lovingly get them too.

In spite of the other trips we’ve taken without our girls, I’d never sent “the spreadsheet.” I think it was the required insurance, the waivers, the NO EMERGENCY EVACUATION disclaimers, or maybe it was reading more about the Drake Passage and expeditions to Antarctica. But I did everything I could to minimized the risks and leave things in good condition.

It’s true that I’m much more likely to die crossing our local interstate highway than crossing the Drake Passage, but that line of thinking didn’t make saying goodbye any easier. Four-year-old Minerva was the last to be dropped off. She was silly at first and refused to give me a hug goodbye. She’d been waiting for me to leave so that she could go to Grandma’s house and play with little Maisy, her favorite dog. I finally got my big, bear hug, gave her a wide smile and smooch and left the room.

That’s when I lost it. That’s when I always lose it. As I walked out of her preschool, the directors saw the tears in my eyes. I explained where I was going and for how long. I write this so you too will know that if you need to leave your child to visit a far away place, you should say goodbye at a Lutheran preschool where the teachers love your child and will offer up instant, audible prayers for your safe return.

Day 2: Thursday, November 17—Argentina Arrival

I hate overnight flights. I just do. If the sleep deprivation before departure isn’t insult enough, add a cabin full of strangers, odd smells, terrible food, and a two-inch recline.

Several years ago I finally embraced the idea (and expense) of an early check in. I was in a travel fog, riding in a taxi through Rio de Janeiro. It was morning and I felt terrible. In addition, I was engorged. My nearly three-year-old was still nursing and although I knew she would be fine, I suspected the long journey wouldn’t be kind to my milkers. John called the hotel en route to ask if our room would be ready. In some sort of Spanglish-Portuguese (and plenty of hand gestures) he simply said, “The milk of the mama breast will explode!”

Thankfully, we got the room. Ever since, we’ve booked an early check in, because an hour or two of horizontal sleep and a hot shower has a way of erasing several hours of travel stress. That’s especially true if the room is a suite in the Palacio Duhau Park Hyatt Buenos Aires.

As owners of a boutique travel company we’re always searching for great tours and guides. In the early afternoon, we met Eduardo Masllorenz, a retired Argentine architect who worked on Teatro Colon opera house during a multi-year renovation. He told stories of Argentine traditions, drama among patrons, and taught us about the acoustics while we sat in his favorite box. He took us through the basement practice halls, the rooms where costumes are made, and through the maze of props. We listened in on a full orchestra rehearsal where the lead soprano—a nightingale—practiced her aria in a midriff T-shirt and distressed jeans. Eduardo shared all this with personality and wit. Then he let me dance on the main stage; something I wouldn’t have dreamed possible in a hundred lifetimes.

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Later that evening, we met with some young, filmmakers—adventurers who are making a career of exploring Tierra del Fuego, Brazil, and Africa. John talked freely and easily with them about options for some of our clients. They were perfectly Argentine: charming, polite, energetic, and handsome. And yet, my crush of the day was for Eduardo the architect.

Day 3: Friday, November 18—World’s End Ushuaia

Mount Olivia, Ushuaia, Argentina

Mount Olivia, Ushuaia, Argentina

We woke at 1AM for a 2AM transfer and 4:30AM flight to the end of the world. Ushuaia is the southernmost city in Argentina. We checked into the Arakur Hotel and began to explore the town.

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I indulged on king crab, which is easy to come by and affordable in this port town. We returned to our room early, looking forward to the first decent sleep in weeks.

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Day 4: Saturday, November 19—Exploring Ushuaia

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There are some days, especially days away from the office in gorgeous locations, when I realize how fortunate I am to have this career. Today we met with Roberto, the owner of HeliUshuaia—the only helicopter tour operator in Tierra del Fuego and southern Argentine Patagonia. He took us on a helicopter tour of the city and into the valley north of the city. The twisted rocks and jagged edges of Mt. Olivia are even more impressive up close and from above.

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In the afternoon, we explored a magical forest around Arakur. John practiced flying a drone among the trees while I marveled at their tiny leaves. It takes a lot of time and effort for things to grow this far south. I have little doubt that there are ancient spirits among these numinous pathways.

Day 5: Sunday, November 20—Aboard the Hebridean Sky

It was the last day we would have reliable wifi for nearly two weeks and I spent most of the time checking things off the long and laborious to-do list.

In the afternoon we boarded Polar Latitude’s Hebridean Sky. It was the first time we would meet the crew and its 100 passengers. The ship buzzed with excitement.

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We finally met Sunniva Sorby, whom we connected with immediately. She’s responsible for the marketing at Polar Latitudes. She barely weighs 100 pounds, but there is no doubt about her strength, both physical and emotional. She is fierce, yet warm. She was among the first, all-female group to ski to the South Pole. When you look into her kind eyes, you instantly know she has been through the depths of despair and resurfaced victorious. And somehow, by being in her presence, you will too.

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There are similar feelings around each of the crew and expedition leaders. These people have seen some miraculous things in the Antarctic and can’t wait to introduce you to this special part of the world.

All of the adventures begin as we sailed out of the calm waters of the Beagle Channel. With luck, everyone would be sleeping as the sea becomes a torment of waves through the Drake Passage.

Ushuaia Bay

Day 6: Monday, November 21—Dismal Drake

Some of my fondest memories are on my father’s boat as we cruised over different waters through my childhood. I feel comfortable on boats. Although seasickness was a real possibility while traveling over the Drake Passage, I thought I might be immune.

I was wrong! Although I took Dramamine in anticipation the night before, it appeared to have little affect on me. In the morning, I washed with one hand gripped to the shower bar as my body flipped flopped like a fish between the tiled walls.

I had to close my eyes and rest my head in order to have the energy to dry. The rest of the day was like this: tiny exertion, big rest. Repeat. John was not as affected, which reminds me that sometimes the universe is totally unfair. The nausea reminded me of the first 16 weeks of all of my pregnancies, when I felt terrible, but had to keep life going as normal.

In spite of the rocky start to their existence, being a mother to my four little ladies has been life’s greatest blessing. Although the trip was cost prohibitive for the entire crew, I would not have been able to care for them through the Drake. There is a typical 13-year age restriction to be allowed to cruise to Antarctica, but the real test should be how well they can contain your own vomit.

Day 7: Tuesday, November 22—Passage

During the night, at the top of some of the bigger waves, I awoke with the sensation that my body might lift up from the mattress. The churning is akin to being inside a washing machine while riding a Ferris wheel—waves moving forward to backward and side-to-side.

This morning I reluctantly lifted my head from the pillow, but was grateful to realize that the worst was behind us and beauty was ahead.

In the afternoon we reached the Antarctic Peninsula and began our first excursion on land—Aitcho Barrientos Island where we encountered our first Gentoo, Chinstrap, and even an Adelie penguin. The penguins are darling, but it was the walk in the crisp, clean air that set me back on course.

Day 8: Wednesday, November 23—Devil’s Island

Today we saw several Humpback whales and three of the much rarer Sperm whales. Curious by nature, they followed us in the deep waters with tabular icebergs in the distance.

A colony of Adelie penguins greeted us on Devil’s Island. As we hiked to the top of the mountain, the wind picked up and sheets of ice were blown down the channel. For a moment, I thought the wind would pick me off my feet. I had to sit to hold my ground. It’s a reminder of how suddenly the conditions can change here. We sprinted to the top of the peak. Soon after, we were advised to descend, retreating to the safety of the ship.

It’s clear I don’t understand Antarctica, yet. Although this land is similar to Patagonia, I’m disoriented. Even the familiar has an otherworldly twist. No plants or insects in sight. Away from the penguin colonies, we hear only the sound of wind. For now, I let my body go through the motion of walking, breathing, and being, while my mind and spirit search for understanding.

Day 9: Thursday, November 24—Thankful Landings

We took the zodiac through brash ice in Ciera Cove, near mainland Antarctica. At one point, ten of us sat inside a zodiac and participated in a few minutes of silence. The snap, crackle, and sharp pop of ice echoed around us like a giant bowl of Rice Krispies.

A couple onboard had attempted to visit Antarctica many years ago. Due to weather conditions, they were never able to step foot on the mainland or islands. On this Thanksgiving Day, their story was yet another reminder of how fortunate we are to be here and to be enjoying good weather.

We landed on the continent at Portal Point and took in the krill-scented penguins and views of rock, ice, sea, and sky. Thirty passengers chose to set up camp on Antarctica. You might wonder who would give up a perfectly warm, comfortable cabin in exchange for a bivy or tent, but the thrill of sleeping on continental Antarctica was energizing.

During the summer months (November – February) it never really gets dark. Stargazing is impossible. In the middle of the night, we looked up at a clear, bright, pale orange sky.

Day 10: Friday, November 25—Humpbacks and the Emperor

I removed my bare hand from the foam poggie and cupped it into the icy water of Wilhelmina Bay. I swept it quietly through the water, so that the other kayakers wouldn’t hear. I wanted to be just a little closer to the Humpback whales only a dozen yards ahead.

Antarctica is a kingdom of uncertainty. No landing, conditions, or wildlife sightings can be guaranteed. But I was clearing the path—visualizing the animals I wanted to encounter. I recently finished an 8-week course on mindfulness and meditation. In the habit of practice, I spent the morning breathing deeply; imagining the kind of day I hoped for, and prepared to be satisfied with whatever the day would bring.

Somehow, reality exceeded my expectations.

After breakfast, we kayaked among the brash ice. The water was silky calm—motionless except the reflective ripples of sleek boat cuts. The surrounding peaks were cloaked in mist. As we paddled quietly, we heard the sudden, sprayed exhale of a whale. In unison, we paddled silently toward the burst. The whales were logging—resting half their brains while their bodies floated to the surface in sleep.

We unintentionally woke them. Generously, they swam slowly through our human pod. The spray and steam of their exhalations rose into the cold air. You don’t observe whales so much as you witness them: gigantic pectoral fins, arched backs, and fanning tails. Then, they fell back into dreams.

We left them and soon found a Weddell seal, lying fat and happy on an iceberg. His scarred pelt suggested this peaceful moment had been earned. We could have watched him longer, but Ewan radioed from a nearby zodiac, “Emperor Penguin! Emperor Penguin!” We paddled quickly to a new location.

Most of the crew have been to Antarctica dozens of times. For almost all of them, this was the first sighting. Emperors are rare this far north. This juvenile was probably on a gap year holiday. Even for an adolescent, this penguin was huge. His neck craned and snaked in impossible twists and curves. The fish and krill must not stand a chance against this hunter.

Day 11: Saturday, November 26—Danco and Ronge Islands

Words and photographs can’t capture the feeling of this continent. You’d need another language to express the wildness, stillness, and purity. Even with the naked eye, the crystal blue ice looks Photoshop-false.

The crack of ancient ice resounds with authority, commanding us to consider the weight we carry and roaring permission to shed burdens, hurts, and imperfections. Nature carves us into better beings—sloughing and shaping as needed.

I miss our girls, but I’m grateful for the way this continent has strengthened our marriage. Strange that a place so crystal cold can make us feel warmer. Here we are more alive, grateful, aware, and in love than ever.

Day 12: Sunday, November 27—Elephantitis

This morning we visited Deception, one of the South Shetland Islands. It’s deceiving because from the coast, it seems like any other island in the region—rocky coast, cliffs, ice, and virtually no greenery. But Deception isn’t like any other island; it’s coast has a narrow but navigable gap known as Neptune’s Bellows—the entrance to a hidden, sheltered interior. This inner ocean is the caldera of an active, submerged volcano. We are sailing in the caldera of a volcano.

Whaler’s Bay, tucked just inside Neptune’s Bellows, is utterly forlorn. Settled in the early 1900’s, this became a processing plant for marine mammals. Naturally bleak, this lifeless landscape is littered with the bones of whales, rotting buildings, oil tanks, and rusting digesters—the boilers used to render whale blubber. This miserable settlement killed and liquefied more than 200,000 whales in a 20-year span. It’s a ghost town now, abandoned in the 1970s after eruptions, a mudslide, and a global tsunami of disgust. But it’s an important stop in the history of the Antarctic region. After walking among the human wreckage, we hiked up to the Nipple, and then lightened the mood with a polar plunge.

John and I were both committed to the plunge. Why not? You don’t often have the chance to dive into ice cold water topped by an uneven inch of boiling volcanic hot spring. We stripped off our layers and ran for the shallows. If we run, our momentum will overcome our urge to stop, right? I dove too early, afraid that the cold sensation from my feet would find my brain and leave me frozen before I submerged. My suit filled with black gravel. Miserable. But we were here to swim, and swim we did. The ischemic pain was intense—rapid waves of pinpricks, ice, fire, and leaches. If you’re doing this, people will offer to “hold your camera” and then force you to take photos. My first thought: turn away from the camera so as not to reveal my pain. My second thought: what were we thinking? And then, I wasn’t cold. Not at all. My body went numb—the kind of numb you know will hurt later. We posed. We smiled. We calmly walked back to the shore. We took our own sweet time getting dressed.

After a while, the tingling sensation set in. The “what were we thinking?” returned. We returned to the ship by zodiac and ran through the corridor. I won the coin toss for first shower. Once warm, we laughed until our guts hurt.

I know I’ll regret sharing this photo—much more flesh than I’m accustomed to preserving in digital form—but this moment was spectacular and I want to remember it. Besides, John and I are old enough to know we need to take care of our bodies and much too old to care what others think of them anyway.

The Elephant seal was high on the list of animals John had hoped to encounter. We knew the chances were good at Hannah Point. We landed to find hundreds of these giants on a single stretch of beach. We were awestruck—transported back in time to an era of giants.

Elephant seals are loud, and the beach echoed with the kind of sounds grade-schoolers love: belches, croaks, and farts. Their language seems so simple, and fun to imitate, that we were compelled to try speaking Elephant seal. Even the retired Japanese physicist in our group had a go.

We watched groups of juveniles practice sparing. Imagine Jabba-the-Hutts chest bumping. Imagine pencil fighting with bratwursts. Fat slapping fat, accompanied by the worst sounds of a public bathroom. On impact, the seals try to cut each other’s necks and faces with incisors. These animals are gross and irresistible—like an entire species of thirteen-year-old boys.

The “weeners” or newly weened seal pups were huge, even at only a few months old. Of course, we all thought of them as “wieners”—plumped up Vienna sausages with flippers and puppy dog eyes. Elephant seal “culture” is pretty brutal. We saw massive males smashing and chasing off pups. Mothers reject their babies as soon as the young can fish.  Infant mortality is close to 50%.

We were re-briefed on IAATA (International Association Antarctica Tour Operators) regulations before landing. These standards restrict visitors from approaching or touching animals. The animals themselves are free of such restrictions. If you sit still on the beach and make wheezy barking noises, a weener may approach. One came up to our legs, looked up at us with sappy eyes, and seemed to beg for milk and sympathy. No petting. Must resist. Must not pet the weener.

Day 13: Monday, November 28—Return to the Drake

We’re back inside the washing machine today. The waves were fiercer on the return to Ushuaia than when we made the journey south.

We were offered lectures by the expedition team. Sophie Ballagh and Ewan Blyth’s described their two-week unaided sojourn by kayak. Sebastian Coulthard gave an account of his reenactment of Ernest Shackleton’s small-boat journey—the Voyage of the James Caird. Marty Garwood explained the finer points of penguin care, as chief aquarist at Sea Life Sydney Aquarium. And Sunniva recounted her 67 days skiing to the south pole pulling a 200-pound sled.  Sunniva’s story made me long for the people waiting for us at home—our own big-eyed weeners.

As the day progressed, fewer and fewer passengers came to meals. The ship’s common areas emptied out. I missed dinner, but later heard the masterful Filipino waiters had been applauded for delivering trays of soup with acrobatic skill.

Day 14: Tuesday, November 29—Homesick

The waves were more wild last night. I never feared for my life, but I couldn’t help but strategize how I would wake John, pull on the dry suit, and make it to the lifeboat. Sleep was intermittent, with strange dreams.

Mercifully, by morning the waves had subsided and appetites returned. The day’s activities included expedition team recaps, photo contests (John won with this landscape), an auction to support citizen science programs, a pod of dolphins racing the ship, and highlights from our time in Antarctica.

This was my first actual cruise. I’ve toured boats in the Galapagos and Amazon, but I’ve never before been a passenger for an extended journey. I can’t imagine seeing Antarctica any other way. The variety of cultures on this 100-passenger ship was nearly as impressive as the wildlife we encountered—at least 20 different nationalities. I was grateful to be in waters where no country has claim, and nature dictates course.

At dinner, I asked the Japanese physicist why it was so important for him to visit this place. I’ll never forget his reply. “It is changing and once it goes, it goes too quickly. I knew I must come in the next four years.”

Antarctica is dramatic, and so are the changes you feel by visiting—equal parts humility and inspiration. This continent challenges thoughts, ideas, and feelings. Its spirit brings out the healer, the adventurer, the seeker, the student, and the child in us.

Day 15: Wednesday, November 30—Reset

We arrived at the Ushuaia dock last night, but had one more night in the cabins before disembarkation. I was ready. Whenever I start packing, the longing to be home is fierce. A trip can be as long as it needs to be, but once I know I’m headed home, I want to be with my girls as fast as possible. I crave the comforts and connections of home. I’m ready for a fresh start—a recommitment to my routine of exercise, sleep, and progress. Most trips affect me like this. They are my reset button.

We still have a couple of days in Argentina. Today we returned gear, inspected other cruise ships and hotels, responded to email, and tried (unsuccessfully) to find souvenirs we wouldn’t regret.

Saying goodbye to the people we’ve met is a challenge. I don’t do it well. John exchanges contact information, but I retreat to quiet places. I don’t really care for closure. I’d much rather these adventures feel open and continual, even if only in my memory.

Day 16: Thursday, December 1—Best of Buenos Aires

Our time in Buenos Aires was brief, but we’ve been often. So, after a morning flight to Aeroparque, we made time for the highlights: empanadas from El Sanjuanino and gelato at Volta.

I’m not much of a shopper—I’d rather spend on experiences than things. But I make an exception when visiting Buenos Aires. We stopped at my favorite store, Cora Groppo, where last season’s sale rack usually has a treasure waiting for me. I was first drawn to the shop name—Cora is our eldest daughter’s name—but quickly realized that shopping in a country with opposing seasons has serious benefits.

The final stop was to pick up some custom boots from Correa. Pro tip: give these artisans 7-10 days and they will make you the best pair of custom shoes or boots you’ll ever own, at a price 1/3 of what you’d pay in the US or Europe. Juancho Correa, my large calves thank you, especially on tonight’s overnight flight.

Day 17: Friday, December 2—My People

It’s impossible to express the joy of holding your people after journeying to such a far place. I’m coming home resolved to be a better self: a more patient mother, a better friend, a more conscious and engaged global citizen.

I try to maintain all those feels as my children climb over me, fight for attention, and squawk all at once. Turns out they are louder (and even cuter) than a colony of penguins, and sometimes they smell worse. That’s saying something.

Your Journey

Antarctica exceeded all my expectations. I feel honored that we were able to experience it, especially with Polar Latitudes on the Hebridean Sky and with this incredible crew. It’s a trip that is well worth the investment. If Antarctica calls to you, contact our team at Mosaico Travel (801.582.2100) for information, availability, and pricing.

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