Sunday, December 2, 2012

Scotch On The Rocks

Map picture

Today is the final segment to our wonderful adventure to Antarctica. I can see land out our window which has to be the outer islands around the southern tip of South America. We are scheduled to dock sometime early tomorrow in Ushuaia, and to then make our way home to Kansas City, arriving there on Dec. 4th.

I have not written much on the final days of our journey partly because we had no internet, but also in large part because I simply did not have any free time. Let me share with you a little of what it is like to get ready to go ashore in the Antarctic Peninsula.

To begin with, we quickly learned in the Arctic that anything we would wear with cotton was a serious mistake. When we were finished dressing, the final layer of our clothing was waterproof and wind proof. Our bodies naturally exude moisture, and when it has no place to escape, it became absorbed by cotton. Cotton, when it becomes wet, loses its thermal properties, so we would end up in wet and chilling clothes. Therefore in preparing to get out in the weather, the first order of business is to remove all of our clothing – including cotton underwear. Prior to this however, I have carefully laid out all of the items that I must put on, and laid them on my bed in the correct order in which they would go on. Standing in our room buck naked looking at all the gear made me feel a little like a matador preparing to enter the ring! The first order of business is to don a heavy thick pair of merino wool socks- not ordinary wool, mind you. Next, I then pull over the socks an extremely light pair of silk long johns. They are so thin that you would think them useless, but in truth, they are quite warm.

Next I pull over my head a corresponding silk long sleeve shirt being careful to tuck it into my pants so that wind does not blow up under it. About at this point in the process, it is starting to become a little warm in the room, and so I turn down the temperature. Next on the agenda is to put on both a top and bottom layer of merino wool trousers and a pullover shirt. It takes a little effort to slide it over my thick socks, and then it does not want to slide very well on my undergarments. By the time this process is complete, I am becoming quite warm, and so once again I lower the thermometer. I then put on my waterproof and windproof pants. All of this material wants to slide down off my hips, so I use an old belt to pull them tightly to my waist.

I am now prepared to do battle with my huge specially made boots. They are good to a temperature of -45F, but pulling them on over the heavy socks and half way up my calves over the silk and wool leaves me momentarily breathless. Finally Lisa joins the fun, and helps me into my waterproof coat. Because of my arms, putting it on myself can be quite painful. It then takes both of us to get the zipper up completely to the top of my neck. Speaking of “hot,” at this point I am cooking, and so we open the outside door to cool the room. But wait – I am not finished! At the same time I am dressing myself I also have to assist Lisa. This is clearly a team effort. Once again, Lisa has to assist me in this process by helping me put on my life vest which is required for the ride ashore. They say “one size fits all,” but trust me, I put that statement to the test. It is so tightly bound around my chest that I can hardly move, but somehow I must now get a merino wool neck band in place to protect by face from the cold winds. This is followed by a wool hat that has flaps to pull over my ears. Finally I must put on silk glove liners, and lastly the thick gloves themselves. Not able to do much at this point, Lisa puts the “dry bag” for my camera around my neck, as well as the camera itself. I am sweating so badly I could scream, but somehow I pick up my walking stick, and slowly waddle down the hallway. There I am inspected by the Hotel Director, and then dispatched to the waiting zodiac. At this point, I feel a little like a young kid again who has just been dressed by my mother to go play in the snow. The only problem is that I can hardly move.

Is all this gear necessary? Absolutely! The temperature this time of year on the Antarctic Peninsula averages around freezing. Sometimes it is a little above or a little below that number. However, when you get on the cold water surrounded by ice and snow, throw in a little wind, much less the 30mph we encountered at one point, and before you know it, the cold starts to seep in.

All in all from start to finish, the entire process takes about an hour, although as time progressed, we got better and could do it in 45 minutes. We then had to be downstairs about 15 minutes prior to our scheduled departure, and generally our trip ashore took only 15 minutes or so. We would generally spend an hour to an hour and a half onshore before returning to perform the entire process in reverse, with one added step; a stop at the “mud room.” I have no idea how that name was acquired, but it was here that we had to stop to both wash our boots and then apply a special chemical that would prevent us from “spreading” anything from place to place. By the time we reached our rooms and got everything off and redressed, an entire half day or more was gone. Then it was off to lunch, repeat the entire process in the afternoon, barely have time to make the all-important “recap and briefing,” and off to dinner. As you can see, there was not much time left to write, much less to manage any pictures.

Since I last wrote so much has happened that to reconstruct it all would be impossible. We saw some breathtaking scenery, millions of penguins, and add to that birds, seals, dolphins, and whales. The sheer diversity of life along the Antarctic coastline is staggering.

Our stop at Neko Harbor has to be a highlight on our trip because it was our one and only landing on the actual continent of Antarctica, as opposed to one of the many islands which dot the Peninsula. It was a cold snowy day with a good wind. They did not want us to linger on the beach in order not to disturb the penguins. However, when we started to walk on the snow, both Lisa and I quickly got into difficulty. At first, as we climbed the steep snow covered hill everything seemed fine, until suddenly and without warning, the snow would give way and one or the other of our feet would quickly find itself embedded in the snow almost up to our knees. I had trouble pulling my foot out without losing my boot, and sadly with my balance problem, I quickly realized that any serious walking for me was not possible. Lisa had this happen a few times, but suddenly she dropped through the snow on both feet, and panicked about her knees which are artificial. Fortunately the staff came to her immediate rescue and managed to get her back on the beach, where they arranged for her to have her own personal zodiac ride around the point of land so that she could see the penguin colony. Once I realized that she was in trouble, I cut short my somewhat aborted walk and returned to the ship to be with her. Not quite the experience we might have wished, but we can both say we made the continent.

Our next big adventure was our stop at Port Lockroy. This natural harbor was our southernmost point at 65degrees and 10 minutes South Latitude. What was very interesting was the fact that in this location, the British established a secret “Base A” during the Second World War. Today the British have established a museum commemorating the importance of this location. A nearby newly constructed building serves as a research station for 4 months of the year. The old buildings house the museum, a store, and even an official Great Britain Post Office. Our ship had some difficulty in entering the harbor due to the presence of a large number of icebergs which had been blown in the night before. This made our ride to shore all the more interesting. In fact, from shore it was at times impossible to even see our ship. In one of the funniest moments of the trip, as we departed from our visit from our last stop in Antarctica, our Zodiac took a rather strange route. I wondered why we were going away from the ship when suddenly from behind an iceberg appears a zodiac which is flying a huge SilverSea flag and is full of crew from the Hotel Department.; indeed, the Hotel Director himself was at the motor. Everyone onboard the little zodiac was waving and calling out to us, and so I assumed that somehow they had lost an engine and needed a rescue. When we reached them, they grabbed our side ropes and tied the two craft together as one of the waiters proceeded to deftly step over to our boat carrying a tray full of drinks, in glass mind you. One drink was the color of the icebergs all around us and the other looked a little like coffee. After drinks were served and a toast to the end of our adventure was offered, cookies were passed around, and we proceeded on our way back to the ship; that was until I wondered if we could chip off some ice from one of the glaciers and take it back to the ship where I could have it for drinks that evening. As soon as I uttered the words, our driver pulled up to an iceberg, grabbed two large pieces of ice, and put them on the floor. They were so dense and cold that they would take a very long time to melt. The ice was crystal clear and filled with millions of trapped little air bubbles. When we reached the ship, we took the ice onboard, and our butler proceeded to disappear with it.

At dinner that evening, Lisa and I were served our drinks using ice from a glacier that in all likelihood was over 1,000 years old. As it warmed in the glass, the trapped air provided a continual stream of little pops. And so, it was a fitting way for Lisa and I to toast to an absolutely wonderful experience here on the Silver Explorer. Today as we are packing, it is with some sadness to leave a ship that in some ways has become a home away from home. As it stands, we will not return until August of 2014, but it is something to look forward to.

We will be home soon, and looking forward to seeing everyone.

Thus ends another adventure!


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