Thursday, June 11, 2015


I am getting a tattoo for my 50th birthday. Two stylized penguins will forever grace my left shoulder with their presence. 

The buzz of the tattoo needle reminds me of the sound of the electric razor my dad’s barber used on the sides of my head and the back of my neck, only the razor was louder and more painful. I give blood routinely and that involves having a nurse insert a nice thick spike into my brachial artery, so I don’t have to pretend to be a tough guy as Dave, my tattoo artist, works away on my shoulder with with the little machine as it pokes black ink into my dermis. It’s annoying more than painful. My body responds to this invasion by sending white blood cells to the rescue to absorb the foreign matter, but the pigment is too much for the white blood cells to carry, so instead they remain there in stasis. 

This is my first, and probably my only tattoo, and I gave a lot of thought to why I want it. 

The practice of making designs on human skin with ink, or ash, or pigment goes back about 6000 years. In 1991, some tourists hiking in the Italian Alps took a detour off the main trail and found Ötzi the Iceman, the corpse of a man who lived sometime around 3300 BCE. Ötzi bled to death from an arrow wound and was then preserved frozen in a glacier for thousands of years. He was tattooed and his tattoos were created from incisions rubbed with charcoal. Scientists think the purpose of the tattoos was therapy for body pain rather than decoration. The word tattoo may have its roots in the Samoan “tatau” but in one way or another, the practice of marking the body is global and goes back a long time. Tattoos have been used as punishment, to mark criminals or undesirables, as spiritual practice, as war paint to instil fear, or to delineate royalty. At their worst, we can imagine the power of the tattoo on prisoners in Nazi Death Camps, but tattoos have also long been an art form, as in the example of the horimono in Japan. 

Love potion, good luck charm, funereal marking, clan designation, or rite of passage—one of the reasons people have had their skin marked over the centuries is that it looks good and that it means something to the tattooee. 

In my case, the tattoo is about my personal mythology — the stories that most significantly contribute to my understanding of who I am. One of those stories is the myth of Castor and Polydeuces who are the twins of Gemini. Leda, the swan, was their mother, but Polydeuces’ father was Zeus and Castor’s father was Tyndareus although they both hatched from the same egg. Castor was mortal, and Polydeuces, being the offspring of gods, was not. When Castor was slain in battle, Polydeuces begged Zeus to restore him and make him immortal too, and though Zeus was not known for his sympathy, he gave Castor his wish on the condition that the two would have to take turns living in the underworld on alternate days and would not be together again, but would pass each other every day as they changed places, as the stars in the constellation Gemini seem to do on the horizon. 

For me this story is meaningful not just because I was born in June, but because the Gemini myth is about finding ways to live with paradox. How can you live in the underworld and in the heavens? How can you be mortal and immortal? 

I have never been someone who is able to bear dichotomies. If my choice is this or that, my answer is “both.” If I have to have black or white, I’ll have black now, and white later. All my life I have found ways to solve problems. When someone says, you can’t be in two places, I usually find a way. 

The other important story for me is the story of my ancestor, Roald Amundsen, the polar explorer who was first to the South and then the North Poles. He was my grandfather’s cousin and I was brought up hearing stories about him and his travels. It was the pursuit of his story that took me to Antarctica in 2011 — 100 years after his arrival at the South Pole — and it is his spirit of adventure and exploration that is sending me to the high Arctic this summer. As Amundsen looked north again after Antarctica, so will I.

So for me, my gemini penguins have a lot of meaning and represent my will to embrace paradox in life and to push toward personal adventure. The image on my skin is adornment, it’s true, and it’s swashbuckling and sailor resonant, but it is also laced with meaning. 

I was not brought up in a particularly religious way, and in my late teens and early twenties, I struggled to find what I thought was a sense of meaning and purpose in life. I investigated Catholicism, Anglicanism, Buddhism, Sufism, and Taoism and at this stage of my life, having just turned 50, prefer the label that I once saw in a bookstore: “Miscellaneous Spirituality.” I’m open to the wonders of the world, but don’t follow a particular practice to make meaning from them. Having lived a mere half-century, I know I have a great deal more to learn, but it seems to me from here that unlike my younger, searching self, I don’t need to forage for meaning in my life, I need only to see the meaning that is already there. 

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

After Antarctica -- The Beginning of a New Story

I'm going to Svalbard this summer. Not a lot of people can say that but I like the sound of it. "What did you do on your summer vacation?" "I went to Svalbard." The idea gets my Viking blood going.

My research into my famous Norwegian ancestor, Roald Amundsen, continues. After Antarctica, he began trying to reach the North Pole by air and eventually disappeared on a rescue mission on his way north from Tromso.  

I felt a kind of relief when I published In Antarctica because a decades long project was finally between covers.  I had needed to bring my own obsession and experience into the text I had been working on for years, and I did that by going to Antarctica. Later, as I traveled to book launches and gave lectures and readings about that work, I thought I would begin to tire of it and would want to put my polar library away for a while.  Instead, I began to think that the project was really just beginning.  

Amundsen arrived at the South Pole when he was thirty-nine years old. That success was his greatest achievement, and at the time was quite akin to Neil Armstrong walking on the moon. What does one do as a second act?

For me, what Amundsen did next is the reason I believe I am not yet finished with his story. Amundsen continued exploring, but his South Polar expedition marked the end of a heroic age of exploration and to some extent, he found himself in a world in which he no longer belonged.  He adapted, however, and took to the air and, after a disastrous expedition across the North-east passage in a wooden sailing ship, he learned to fly and began exploring the north from the air from Svalbard, above the Arctic Circle.  In 1926, he flew over the North Pole in an airship and became the first verified explorer to make it there.  In 1928, his estranged comrade on the 1926 voyage, Umberto Nobile, crashed a second airship and Amundsen himself disappeared shortly after joining the search for Nobile. 

The story of Roald Amundsen is filled with mystery, betrayal, and also romance, and I now believe that after my Antarctic journey, my work is only half-finished.  I would like to continue to follow in his footsteps, and to visit Tromso, Norway (which was the staging ground for his final rescue mission), Bear Island (which is near where he is believed to have crashed), and Svalbard (from whence he mounted his northern air expeditions).  

Thanks to some exceptional circumstances, I’m going to be setting sail this summer. Rather incredibly, the expedition ship Polar Pioneer (which is the vessel upon which I traveled to Antarctica) is making an expedition in July 2015 from Aberdeen, Scotland to Oslo, Norway, up the coast of Norway to Tromso, and then past Bear Island to Svalbard—exactly the route I feel I need to travel.  

Perhaps more incredibly, I asked the expedition company, Aurora Expeditions, if they would sponsor me on the trip and they have agreed to give me passage in return for a lecture onboard the ship. I'm still pinching myself. 

So I’m dusting off my expedition boots and scrambling to get everything I need in place before the end of June. This time I hope not to follow quite so closely in Amundsen’s footsteps (since they disappear in the ice) but I’ll haunt his Northern turf and take notes.  

More soon….

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Professor shares ancestor's tale
Ruzesky's great-grandfather's cousin was Roald Amundsen, the first explorer to reach the South Pole
Julie Chadwick / Nanaimo Daily News
October 11, 2013

VIU professor Jay Ruzesky will speak about his experiences in Antarctica and his famous ancestor Roald Amundsen in a presentation at the university on Oct. 18

It was out on the bow of the Polar Pioneer headed for Antarctica, that Jay Ruzesky got a peculiar sensation.

The vast, inscrutable landscape was stunning, said Ruzesky, and in its presence he struggled to understand his accompanying emotions.

The closest he could come to describing it was that he felt he was home.

Though it was a completely foreign locale, Ruzesky may have been picking up on an ancestral affinity: His great-grandfather's cousin was Roald Amundsen, famous for being the first explorer to go to the South Pole.

"Lots of families have their claim to fame, whatever that might be," said Ruzesky. "That was kind of our family's fame story, was that we were related to Amundsen the explorer."

On Oct. 18 Ruzesky will share the tale of his ancestor, as part of VIU's Arts and Humanities colloquium series.

In his presentation, Amundsen Then and Now: The End of the Age of Heroic Exploration Ruzesky will look at his own 100th anniversary expedition to Anarctica and analyze how exploration has drastically changed in the last 100 years.

It was on Dec. 14, 1911 that Amundsen arrived at the South Pole in a five-person, 16-dog expedition team.

Plunging a Norwegian flag into the frozen ground, the acheivement was the culmination of years of fundraising and planning.

Some of those funds were raised through North American speaking tours, one of which had stopped in Claresholm Alta., where Ruzesky's ancestors lived.

It was at that time that Ruzesky's grandfather received a watch as a gift from Amundsen, a keepsake that remains in his family today.

Amundsen was initially inspired by the Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin.

"One of the things he said in his autobiography was that he read about polar exploration when he was a young man," said Ruzesky. "When he was 14 years old he read Franklin's accounts of one of his expeditions in the North. .. it was a horrible expedition and all of the men spent a couple of weeks barely surviving to get back from where they'd been. They ended up eating the leather from their shoes because they had no food. So it was horrible suffering, but what he says in his autobiography is that he read that and was attracted to it, and thought, 'Wow, I'd like to go suffer for a cause too.'" Amundsen's experiences in turn served to inspire Ruzesky.

"That idea of polar exploration, of going to the ends of the earth to these stark, cold, lonely places which was where he really spent his life - that reaches pretty deeply into the imagination," he said. "I was told those stories from pretty early on."

However, travelling to far-flung places means a very different experience for the modern explorer, he added.

Ruzesky's own expedition to Antarctica in December of 2011 - which he detailed in his memoir In Antarctica: An Amundsen Pilgrimage - highlighted these changes.

"One goes in rather a different way now. I was not as interested in suffering, as he seemed to be," he said.

"It's a very hostile and challenging landscape. .. but it's also a place where modern clothing and transportation can take a lot of the risk out of it and make it a lot more comfortable."

In his talk Ruzesky details how he came to terms with his own romantic notions of exploration - his visions of frostbitten cheeks and dogs howling into the wind - to come away with an appreciation for what remote places like the Antarctic can offer to one's perspective.

Ruzesky's talk is free and will be held in VIU's Malaspina Theatre from 10-11:30 a.m. on Oct. 18.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Ariel Gordon's Review in the Winnipeg Free Press makes my holiday weekend:

Bold combo of memoir, travelogue

Reviewed by: Ariel Gordon



On his mother's side, British Columbia poet and professor Jay Ruzesky is a cousin, twice-removed, of Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen.

Ruzesky's compelling new memoir, In Antarctica, tells the story of his trip to the Antarctic a century after his ancestor became the first person to set foot on the South Pole.

Ruzesky, who now teaches in Duncan, spent his childhood dreaming of the polar expeditions. But his adult life had been consumed by writing three collections of poetry and a novel, teaching and having a family.

As the 2011 anniversary of Amundsen's achievement approached, Ruzesky tried to reconcile himself to not following in his ancestor's footsteps.

He failed. Instead, Ruzesky found himself online, booking a berth on a ship that would take him from Patagonia to the Antarctic.

What's more, he convinced his brother Scott to come along, even if his sibling's first question was, "Which one of us is Amundsen?"

Ruzesky knew he was incurring tens of thousands of dollars of debt but thought there might be a book in his trip across the ice. (Which, in case you're wondering, makes perfect economic sense to a poet.)

Structurally,In Antarctica parallels Ruzesky's 2011 trip with episodes from Amundsen's 1911 voyage on the Fram and his earlier expedition to the Antarctic on the Belgica in 1887. His title is obviously an homage to the late Bruce Chatwin's classic 1977 travel memoir, In Patagonia.

The sections from Ruzesky's point of view meld travel writing with memoir, which effectively sets the stage for the writer's month-long voyage.

For instance, though Ruzesky has called B.C. home for 20 years, he spent his childhood in the cold-weather climes of Winnipeg, Thunder Bay, Saskatoon and Calgary.

One story that would be familiar to anyone who grew up on the Prairies details how the entrance collapsed to the quinzee he and his schoolmates had built in their school playground in Thunder Bay.

This is meaningful, given that Amundsen's crew spent more than a year in a large hut connected to a series of snow caves on the Ross Ice Shelf before making their attempt on the pole.

Also interesting is Ruzesky's anecdote of a failed dog-sledging lesson in Whitehorse in 2002. Knowing that Amundsen's success in reaching the South Pole was largely attributed to his use of dogs instead of ponies, like his English rival Robert Falcon Scott, supercharges this story.

Ruzesky also includes meditations on exploration and cartography and provides context for Amundsen's journey by providing thumbnail sketches of other voyages to both the North and South poles.

The other half of In Antarctica is in Amundsen's voice, an incredibly detailed account that Ruzesky somehow cobbled together from the explorer's journals and photographs.

More importantly, these sections are very finely written. Ruzesky illuminates Amundsen's dreamy childhood and his possible motives for devoting his life to exploration instead of medicine, as his mother would have preferred.

Ruzesky's description of Admundsen's affair with the married Sigrid Castberg that preceded the 1911 voyage, however, read like the best historical fiction.

All of which is to say that In Antarctica is a bold and satisfying composite of creative non-fiction, memoir and travel writing.
Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg poet whose paternal great-grandfather died on the shores of Antarctica's South Georgia Island in 1914.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Rather a kind review from Colin Holt at the Victoria Times-Colonist

Colin Holt in The Victoria Times-Colonist
“A tale worth following to the end of the Earth”

Times - Colonist [Victoria, B.C] 16 June 2013: D.9.

By Jay Ruzesky
Nightwood Editions, 239 pp., $24.95

Vancouver Island author Jay Ruzesky's In Antarctica is a hugely enjoyable tale of a journey to Antarctica, both his own and that of his relative, the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen.

Ruzesky alternates between his own voyage to Antarctica and Amundsen's historic achievement of reaching the South Pole in 1911, managing to fill each chapter with adventure.

Amundsen's attempt at the South Pole begins in secrecy as everyone, including the crew, believes he is setting out for the North Pole - one of the Norwegian's many tactics used to get a time advantage over the British as they race to be the first to claim the Pole.

Amundsen's experience is a hard and dangerous one as he has to battle the elements, the dogs and at times his own crew along the way. The relationship between the crew and the dog teams that eventually get them to their destination is a fascinating, and at times heartbreaking, story all on its own. The fact that he not only successfully made the South Pole, but then went on to be the first to reach the North Pole, makes him one of history's greatest explorers.

Ruzesky's route to Antarctica is a bit more relaxed, and he and his brother make stops in South America and spend time sightseeing in shorts and T-shirts - a far cry from the wintering the crew of the Fram experienced a century earlier. As Ruzesky points out, "I was taken to Antarctica because that is how one goes these days." And while his route may have been less gruelling, it also allows him time to visit spots like the home of Chilean poet and politician Pablo Neruda.

If Ruzesky had to go to Antarctica because it was in his blood (Amundsen was his great-grandfather's cousin) it could just as easily be argued that he had to go to Santiago because poetry is in his blood. In Antarctica may not be a book of poetry, but the respect and command of language that makes Ruzesky such a wonderful poet is on display throughout the book.

He vividly brings to life the beauty of Antarctica, a place that to the unfamiliar may seem like just a white barren wasteland. Ruzesky seems to find himself at home here and treats readers to wonderful descriptions of the animals (he grows particularly fond of penguins) and the many colours of the land that make up our least-populated continent.

A successful work of nonfiction should do at least two things for a reader: First, it should leave one feeling as though they have learned something, and second, they should want to know more. In Antarctica succeeds on both these counts quite handily, and includes a list of works consulted to point readers in the right direction should they want to spend more time in Ruzesky's Antarctica.

Ruzesky closes out the book with a nice round of acknowledgements of all the people who helped with the book, and also includes a paragraph that states: "This story, while fiction, is based on actual events." This seems to blur the lines even more than the creative non-fiction classification on the back of the book. It made me wonder just what was it that I had read, but it was immediately apparent that it wouldn't have mattered if the entire story was made up. Ruzesky is such a fine writer - fact or fiction - that he is worth following to the end of the Earth.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Literary Events

There were plenty of events this past few weeks - readings and signings.  Thanks everyone for coming out and saying hello.  The lecture at the Maritime Museum of BC was wonderful as was the book launch in Duncan with Carol Matthews.

Coming up: I'll be at Laughing Oyster Books in Courtenay BC on Sunday, June 9th at 2pm; in my old stomping ground at Mosaic Books in Kelowna BC on Thursday, June 20th at 7:30pm; and I'll be giving another lecture and slide show at the Vancouver Maritime Museum on Sunday, June 23rd.  Admission for that one is free.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Race to the End Exhibit

I was at the opening of the Race to the End of the Earth exhibit at the Royal BC Museum yesterday and had chills - not just from the Antarctic atmosphere, but from the artifacts and clever displays.  One of Amundsen's sledges is there and, maybe my favourite thing, the Kino camera he took to get film footage from Antarctica.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Next Events for In Antarctica:

If you are in the Cowichan Valley, join us on Saturday, May 25th at 1pm at 
10 Old Books, 330 Duncan St., Duncan BC (in the Duncan Garage) for a reading and book signing.  Nanaimo's Carol Matthews will also be reading from her recent work.  It's market day in Duncan so if you're from further afield, it's a good reason to come up and say hello. 

On Wednesday, May 29th at 7pm, I'll be giving a talk about my Antarctic adventures illustrated with photos.  There WILL be penguins.  The talk is in the old courtroom upstairs at the Maritime Museum of BC -- 28 Bastion Square, Victoria BC.  Cost is $6 - free for MMBC members and children under 12, especially if they like penguins.  

Wednesday, April 17, 2013


In Antarctica 
has arrived!

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Book Launch Events for In Antarctica:

Sunday, April 28th 4pm Fernwood Inn
1302 Gladstone Ave. Victoria BC
(with Dede Crane and Marita Dachsel)

Saturday, May 25th 1pm 10 Old Books
330 Duncan St., Duncan BC
(with Carol Matthews)

Wednesday, May 29th 7pm 
Maritime Museum of BC
28 Bastion Square, Victoria BC
(slide show and book launch)

Here is a book trailer about In Antarctica:

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

At Home at the Edge of the World: Jay Ruzesky Shares Two Epic Voyages at Ben McNally's Travellers Series | Open Book: Toronto

At Home at the Edge of the World: Jay Ruzesky Shares Two Epic Voyages at Ben McNally's Travellers Series | Open Book: Toronto

At Home at the Edge of the World: Jay Ruzesky Shares Two Epic Voyages at Ben McNally's Travellers Series
Jay Ruzesky was fascinated by the diaries of Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen from an early age. The Vancouver poet, author and teacher of English is a descendant of Amundsen, the first man to cross the Northwest Passage and reach the South Pole. Ruzesky spent much of his childhood pretending to be his famous ancestor, navigating the rough waters of his parents’ attic aboard the ships BelgicaGjoa andFram, but it wasn’t until he was an adult that he began to think about following in Amundsen's footsteps.
“I was interested in his role in the heroic age of adventure and wanted to be a part of it in my own way,” he says. In 2011, 100 years after Amundsen’s year-and-a-half-long voyage across land and sea, Ruzesky boarded the 71-metre research vessel Polar Pioneer, beginning the epic journey that inspired the writing of his new creative non-fiction memoir, In Antarctica: An Amundsen Pilgrimage.
Ruzesky will be reading from In Antarctica alongside authors Matthew Goodman (Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the World) and Iain Reid(The Truth About Luck: What I Learned on My Road Trip with Grandma) as part of Ben McNally’s annual Travellers Series at Harbourfront Centre. The event, presented by Authors at Harbourfront Centre, celebrates new travel writing by North American authors.
In Antarctica tells both the story of Ruzesky’s expedition to the South Pole and that of his forefather. He traveled in relative comfort compared to Amundsen, but Ruzesky’s voyage still proved challenging, and took him, just as it did Amundsen, to the very edge of the world and the most isolated continent on the planet.
“It is like nowhere else on earth and it feels very remote,” he reminisces. “It's more like going to the moon than anything else. There is no infrastructure. No planes fly overhead, there are no wires, no cell towers. You have to cross 1000 kilometres of very nasty ocean to reach it. What surprised me is the way I felt belonging there. Somehow I felt at home in that landscape and I'm still thinking about what that means. How is it that I feel at home when I am so thoroughly away from the world as I know it? In a way, that was a spiritual awakening — a feeling of getting deeper into my essential self than I had before.”
Ruzesky's voyage to Antarctica took him through Canada, Norway, Brazil, Chile and Argentina, but prior to this adventure, he’d travelled extensively. He notes that travel isn’t important to everyone, but that part of what appeals to him is the vulnerability one feels when they find themselves in a new place for the first time.
“It helps us become children again, and to see like children — wide-eyed and full of wonder,” Ruzesky offers. “If there is value in travel, surely that is it. Travel takes us out of our comfort and complacency and, in opening our eyes to difference, urges us to reconsider our own lives, values and wants.”
When asked where he’d like to head next, Ruzesky names more of Amundsen’s turf: the far reaches of the Arctic Circle. “I'm working on a way to get up close and personal with some polar bears,” he says. “Amundsen got to the North Pole in 1926, so that gives me lots of time to make plans.”

Ben Mcnally hosts the Travellers Series on Wednesday, March 13. Tickets are $10 to the general public and free for supporters, students and youth 25 and under with ID. To reserve a seat, please call 416-973-4000 or visit the online box office. For more information on Authors at Harbourfront Centre's weekly event series, check out their website.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Five Questions with…Jay Ruzesky

Ruzesky, Jay (c) Scott Ruzesky (cropped)

Authors at Harbourfront Toronto - March 13, 2013
Adventurer and In Antarctica author Jay Ruzesky answered our five questions.
IFOA: You’ve been interested in Roald Amundsen’s adventures since boyhood. How did you originally stumble upon his stories?
Ruzesky: I am an Amundsen through maternal lines, and he is our family’s claim to fame. He visited my mother’s farm and gave my great grandfather a compass which my mom used for show and tell in school, so I was probably imagining his adventures before most kids hear about Peter Pan.
IFOA: What’s one thing you and Amundsen have in common, and one way in which you are different?
Ruzesky: We have in common a feeling of belonging in the polar regions. I don’t know what it says about me that I felt at home in Antarctica (a place as geographically hostile to humans as you can get), but I did. A difference is that I am nowhere near as tough as he was. He skied into -50 degree winds for days in a row, and, with his crew, hauled tons of supplies up a glacier to the Antarctic plateau. I wouldn’t have the endurance.
IFOA: What’s your favourite thing about travelling by water?
Ruzesky: Maybe it’s the mariner’s genes I have—I don’t get seasick even in rough water. No doubt that was an advantage in Antarctica.
IFOA: Who is your favourite poet?
Ruzesky: Depends on the hour and the day: Sharon Olds, P.K. Page, Michael Ondaatje, Don Coles, and bp Nichol.
IFOA: Finish this sentence: Next time I’ll bring…
Ruzesky: I’ll bring a good portable audio recorder. I didn’t want to see Antarctica only through a lens, so I thought long and hard about it and then left my film equipment at home. I brought a small digital camera and got some quite good photos with that. What I had not thought enough about is what a powerful aural landscape Antarctica is. There are no planes flying overhead, no trucks on a far highway. There is only the sound of a whale spout way in the distance—like someone catching their breath; or the noise of 20,000 chinstrap penguins raising a flap. Those are sounds I wish I would have been able to record.
Ruzesky will appear at Authors at Harbourfront Centre as part of the Ben McNally Travellers Series on March 13.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Well, the bad news is that I'm not going to have the publishing adventure I thought I might.  In the process of thinking through publishing IN ANTARCTICA, I went looking for a publisher who could help me with distribution.  I got in touch with Howard White at Harbour Publishing, but instead of talking about a distribution deal, he asked to see the manuscript and now Nightwood Editions, an imprint of Harbour, is going to publish the book this coming spring.

It will be its own big adventure -- there is a big exhibit at the Royal BC Museum called Race to the End of the Earth which will be on from May until October so I'm hoping to do all I can to get this book out there.  The show looks like it will be fabulous and I'm not above dressing up penguin-like to flog books.

For me, the gift is that I get to put all my energy into rewriting and making the best book I can over the next few months and that's an adventure I'm up for.

Stay tuned for updates.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Leaving Antarctica

December 28, 2011

As we have travelled north from the Antarctic Circle, we have seen more evidence of humanity. At Cuverville Island, two sailboats were moored in the bay. They were unlikely and vulnerable there anchored among icebergs. They looked, in fact, out of place. Antarctic glaciers make just about anything seem puny.

On Deception Island yesterday we wandered around a haunted whaling-turned-research station whose human inhabitants were chased away not by ice, but by a violent volcano.

This morning we are bound for King George Island—our last stop. I'm on the bridge early, wanting to be as awake as I can be for my last few hours in Antarctica. The plan was for a quick breakfast after which we would go ashore and walk up to the airstrip operated by the Chilean government, and we would fly out to Punta Arenas. But Antarctica doesn't want to let us go. There is a strong gale blowing across the tip of South America and the pilot has decided it is unsafe to take off. It is a two hour trip from Punta Arenas so they will let us know by radio when the plane is able to leave. In the meantime, we'll have a chance to explore this active research station.

In fact, King George Island is home to several research stations. In order to belong to the Antarctic Treaty Group, a country has to maintain a presence in Antarctica and even though King George Island is in the South Shetlands and has a sub-Antarctic climate, it counts. So there is a Russian station alongside a Chilean station, and everybody else has their toes planted here too: Argentina, Brazil, China, Ecuador, South Korea, Peru, Poland, and Uruguay. Provisioning is easier here than in other places because the airfield is of size and can land relatively large planes on its gravel tarmac.

It's cold and misty. A skua clutches an anchor hold on the bow and looks hopefully toward me. This is a much more domesticated bird than we have seen further south. It must have habituated to life around the research station and it knows that sooner or later, humans mean food. The wind is strong and there is a little snow in the air although I'm uncertain if it is new snow or if it is blowing off the island. Everything we do today happens with a sense of finality. We gear up with coats, boots, and warm gloves; we decontaminate our footwear in the troughs on deck; and we climb down the ladder and into the zodiacs to go ashore.

Robyn is driving our boat and as she cuts the motor to drift us up onto the gravel shore and another sound fills the silence. It is a low humming at first, but quickly builds to a coughing roar and I realize it is only unfamiliar because it is a sound I haven't heard in a while – a Toyota pickup truck. One of the scientists from the base has come to welcome us.

In 2004, an Orthodox Church went up on a hill above Bellingshausen Station. It was built in Russia out of Siberian Pine then taken apart and shipped here to be reassembled. It is one of the star attractions of the island and we haven't been ashore long when the priest bursts out of his trailer to greet us. He is wearing a frock and a long open coat which he tries to gather around himself with one hand, hauntingly like the image of a flasher on the subway. He's using the other limb to gesture his welcome and to shake hands. Hairy legs poke out under his frock. His long beard blows sideways in the wind. I join the line to follow him up the track to the church. From the top of the hill and in the grey light and bad weather, the research base looks desolate. There is a muddy river flowing through the center of it which roughly delineates the Russian and Chilean buildings that share the space. In winter, snow would cover the ground and make it brighter and less-dirt-splashed, but at the moment Collins Harbour could as easily be a lake in the Northern Alberta tar sands. The priest struggles with the heavy wood door and when he opens it, God pours out. There is a blast of light and those at the front of the line begin to glow. The church is so small that we go in ten at a time and when it is my turn, I see where the light comes from. There is a gold screen of panels which holds paintings of Mary and several Saints. There is also an upper section showing Jesus and the fourteen Apostles.
I have a strong sense of spirituality that comes from my experience with the broadly unexplainable wonders that are life on earth as a human being, but that sensibility isn't connected to any particular religion. I understand the power of ritual and yet these shining relics of veneration seem out of place here. I have kayaked through castellated icebergs, I have communed with penguins, I have caressed thousands-year-old ice and allowed the heat of my fingers to melt it. In Antarctica you have to come to terms with immensity. The ice at the Pole is three kilometers thick and it is a desert where snow rarely falls. That fact alone says something about our how Antarctica shows us time. This place is so unlike anywhere else on the planet and is so hostile to human life that coming to Antarctica is as close to travelling to another planet as we can get. So far anyway. Dante Allegheri's Hell is a place of smoking sand and burning rain, and of pools of boiling blood in which the damned must swim. What is the opposite? If you woke up suddenly in Antarctica with no idea how you got here, I suspect you'd think you were in Heaven. No lutes though.

We find out that the plane has left Chile and is on the way. Down at the beach, three penguins line up: an Adelie, a gentoo, and a chinstrap and as they flap and preen, it is as if they have come ashore to wave us off.

It is a 1.5 kilometer hike up the road to the airstrip and as I make the walk, I already feel absence. I will be leaving behind this community of shipmates, and I'll also be leaving something more.

As we're making the walk, the plane, a BAe-146 touches down and taxis toward a flat open space. By the time we arrive, the disembarking passengers have been herded into a group. They're frantically zipping up winter coats and putting on gloves. We are smug veterans now, and we packed away our cold weather gear. In a few hours we'll be in Punta Arenas and people will be wearing summer clothes. We wait to board while the air crew refuel the plane with a barrel of kerosene and a hand pump, and then we climb up and fly away and that's it. We rise into the sky and I catch a last glimpse of King George Island before it disappears under the clouds.

At the hotel in Punta Arenas, there is an orange pickup truck parked out front with a sledge strapped to the roof. The tires are size of hot tubs, and painted on the side it says “” so I learn that this truck set a world record by driving to the South Pole in a day and a half. Had I made it all the way to my goal, I would have been standing at 90 degrees south when this thing arrived and would have had to try to come to terms with it invading what I have come to think of as a sacred space. It's a sign that the “real world” whatever that is, can not be escaped. And we shouldn't want to escape it. We should strive to live in it, to see more of it, the be the stewards of the world as we know it.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Deception Island

December 28, 2011

People suffer in the polar regions. Anyone who goes to the far north or the far south knows before they get there that there will be challenges. Even with modern equipment there are hazards; frost-bitten noses, fingers, and toes are still common. And yet many adventurers come because of the challenges, and not only are they prepared to suffer, they expect to.

Amundsen became fascinated with polar exploration partly through his reading, as a teenager, about Franklin's Coppermine Expedition in 1819. Franklin's account, says Amundsen, thrilled him as nothing he had ever read before – for three weeks the men struggled to keep going in horrible snow storms with nothing to eat except lichen until they were “reduced to eating their own boot leather to keep themselves alive.” Even as an adult in his fifties, Amundsen admitted that “the thing in Sir. John's narrative that appealed to me most strongly was the sufferings he and his men endured. A strange ambition burned within me to endure those same sufferings.”

So for those souls aboard Polar Pioneer feeling that we have not suffered yet, the sea graciously provides. We do not collapse under the strain of man-hauling sledges, we do not freeze our extremities, and we do not starve, but we do find the rough seas that we escaped in the Drake Passage and several previously unscathed passengers are bruised, battered or green with sea-sickness. Overnight, we sail from the relatively sheltered waters in the lee of Brabant Island into the more open water of the Bransfield Strait on a course for Deception Island in the South Shetlands.

I wake up at two in the morning and hear my brother Scott saying, in his half sleep, the word “ridiculous” over and over. The ship rolls and pitches wildly and his bow-to-stern oriented bunk threatens to roll him off the edge of his mattress. I once again congratulate myself on choosing the port-to-starboard bunk because although I am rocking back and forth, I am not being thrown out of bed. Scott seems less impressed with my choice and I think about offering to trade and then think better of it. I should keep myself from getting seasick so I can help him out later, I reason silently. Later Gary suggests stuffing a pillow under the side of the mattress to keep from getting rolled out of bed, but as it is far too late by then, Scott seems not too impressed with the advice. I doze a little from two until about four-thirty in the morning and then decide that I might feel a little less of the ship's tossing if I am on the bridge and can see what is happening.

It isn't easy to climb down to the galley to make tea and is harder to climb three floors up to the bridge with one hand for the rails and one for the tea mug, but I take it slow and get myself there with only a moderate number of bumps. If I was on land, this ladder would be set on a trampoline on the back of a flatbed truck travelling around a hairpin highway and I wouldn't even think about climbing it, but at sea one doesn't make such comparisons.

It is the only time the ship slams into some weather. The sky is light and the sun is even shining through in places when I get to the bridge, but the wind is strong, gusting from the northwest and the waves are so big that when they burst over the bow, they wash the entire deck and often splash two floors up to the windows on the bridge.

Half of the passengers are missing at breakfast, preferring to ride it out with empty stomachs although I note that some of the people who were seasick in the relative calm that was the Drake are now eating oatmeal despite rough seas. Thus we adapt.

When we get to Deception Island the winds are still strong and it is too rough to attempt a landing so the ship motors slowly along the shore to Bailey Head while we take care of a few departure details. Tomorrow we sail for King George Island and leave the ship, so this down time is our chance to exchange email addresses, photos, and settle accounts.

After lunch, Gary decides that we can risk a landing. Bailey Head is always a challenge and many expeditions don't get the chance to land here. The sea is often rough and it's a tense “wet” landing. The beach is steep and rocky and the waves curl and break just at the shore so landing requires an experienced zodiac driver who can bring the boat close enough to shore that passengers can get out without the craft being swamped by breaking waves from behind. It takes ten trips in the zodiacs and as I watch the operation I see members of the Russian crew up to their armpits in the Antarctic water as they struggle to keep the boats from being washed over, but all goes well and before long the entire entourage is ashore.
Bailey Head is home to one of the largest chinstrap penguin colonies anywhere. There are between 80,000 and 100,000 nesting penguins here and since the have an average of two eggs each and it is the height of the season, there are maybe 300,000 penguins on this edge of the island right now. The melting glaciers create a stream from the heights of the island to the sea and this bed is also the highway from the ocean to the furthest reaches of the colony. I stand by as a freeway of penguins travels to and from the breaking waves in lane after lane of determination. It's like being up against the wall at Grand Central Station at rush hour and the flow of birds is fascinating.

I hike up one of the small peaks and when I get to the summit, I am standing on the podium of a huge Greek amphitheatre of penguins that stretches so far that the tuxedoed audience looks more like snow than individual birds in nests.

I have not yet been troubled by the smell of penguin colonies, but this one is a test. The scent is strong and distinctive. They eat mostly krill but the waft of the penguin colony is less maritime and, to my nose anyway, more of a smell of something vaguely burnt.
Getting back in the zodiacs and aboard the ship is as impressive as the landing in the first place and once we're all accounted for and tagged up, the captain brings the ship about to make an attempt at Neptune's Bellows.

Deception Island is a volcano and the caldera is flooded by the sea so that this island is one of a very few places on earth that one can sail into an active caldera. The narrows are the entrance and not only is the passage narrow, but there is a large rock like a spike or a tooth in the middle of the narrows that is only eight meters below the surface waiting to tear a hole in an unsuspecting ship. Despite the still high winds, the captain decides the passage is worth an attempt and no one speaks as the crew slowly manoeuvres the Polar Pioneer past Deception Islands' portals.

The ship anchors in Whalers' Bay and the zodiacs are lowered again but this time the landing is uneventful. The beach inside the caldera is one of the most sheltered bays in Antarctica and has been a refuge for sealers and whalers since the early nineteenth-century.

Deception Island is a haunted place. There are the remains of a whale rendering factory here – great rusted refinery tanks left behind as whale oil became less valuable, but not before the corpses of thousands of animals were piled here. The volcano erupted violently in 1968 and 1969 and the large research stations that moved into the space the whalers left behind had to be abandoned as well.

The beach is volcanic. Black sand steams in the cool air. I wander around the rotted buildings feeling a kind of sadness and judgement as I think about the whalers as marauders pillaging the sea. But it may be that what I'm really feeling is the human presence here in the form of abandoned buildings, and also the realization that soon I will be going back to the world of news reports and politics, of oil spills and corporate power. It may be that it's not so much what happened in the past that I'm finding vaguely depressing, it's the fact that I'll again have to think about what's happening now in what some people so wrongly refer to as “the real world.”   

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Neko Harbour and Two Hummock Island

December 26th, 2011

I'm thinking about how quickly anything in life can become “normal.” You have or you don't have, you're with someone or you're not, it's raining and three degrees or it's sunny and thirty. You get up to the alarm clock and go to work or you wake up and put on your gear to go kayaking among icebergs.

A week exploring Antarctica and being here feels normal. Last night was Christmas night and because we feasted in the afternoon, dinner was low key – soup and fresh bread.

Before turning in for the night, I found some space alone at the bow of the ship, looking out at ice-covered islands, icebergs, and glaciers along the edge of the peninsula. I was trying to name the feeling I had. Melancholy? I was missing my family and aware that they were having a very different Christmas night without me back in Canada. But no, not melancholy. I wasn't sad or lonesome, wasn't happy or joyful either.

What I felt was belonging. I felt at home and it surprised me that I would feel like that. Who would feel at home in Antarctica where humans have not, historically, lived? What kind of person feels at peace in a place that is almost utterly inhospitable to all forms of life, let alone people?

And yet there I was in my toque (a word unfamiliar to my Auzzie and UK shipmates), winter coat, boots and gloves, dressed the same way as I had been on so many mornings growing up in Winnipeg and Thunder Bay and Saskatoon and Calgary to go to school or go out to play on days when the wind-chill factor was minus thirty and skin would freeze in minutes. Being in the cold is normal for me, but it is more than that. Somehow the landscape seems familiar. Could be thirty years reading about Antarctica. Just maybe.

At Neko Harbour we have a quick breakfast and gather gear for the kayaks. The bay is glass-calm but full of ice so we have to be carful when we launch. A current pulls our boat toward the stern of the ship and we have to work to paddle out of the way of the propeller which is running in case the ship has to maneuver away from an iceberg heading toward it. Most sailors need only worry about reefs and running their ships into rocks. Antarctic mariners have to worry about icebergs running into them.

We spend the morning on a fabulous circuit around Neko Bay, past a parade of gentoo penguins on a iceberg, past a sleeping crabeater seal on another floe, and along the edge of a magically blue glacier that calves into the sea now and then. We take a pause to stop and to try to do nothing but listen for a few minutes. It is an exercise in realizing where we are and later some of the paddlers will say this is their favourite moment of the expedition. It is a silence that would be hard to find back in that other world we come from.

We've seen it all before, of course: ice like blue steel, penguins preening in the snow, whales surfacing to blow, and glaciers heaving off great chunks of themselves, but I think this would never get old for me. I think I could spend years with penguins and every day would be a new day. I think I could paddle the same bay weeks in a row and it would be different every time.

We land on the continent again and walk among the penguins, comic in our own funny suits. A Waddell seal has crawled fifty meters up the shore and sleeps so deeply that I'm sure I could lift its flipper and tickle it without a response.

We paddle back to the ship and load the kayaks. Though Antarctica is often represented in photos as a contrast of white and blue in bright shining sun, it is more often grey, overcast and foggy or stormy. But you can't take pictures in the fog so the impression of Antarctica becomes unrealistic. What we have not yet had on this voyage is a landing while the sun is out. I have made a very conscious decision to see Antarctica through my eyes more often than through a lens, but the photographer in me would like to photograph penguins in the soft afternoon sunlight. However, that doesn't look likely. For a few hours in the afternoon, we sail up the Gerlache Strait through cloud and even a little light snow, heading for Hydrurga Rocks and Two Hummock Island.

On our way across the Drake Passage, I told a few people that my brother and I are Amundsens. Robyn said, “Ah, I had no idea we had Antarctic royalty on board.” Amundsen may have had his problems later in life but Antarctic folks understand the skill of his accomplishments in the Polar regions. When Gary heard about our heritage, he said we'd have to go someplace special and that's where we're headed. We've been sailing in the same waters Amundsen was in as a twenty-five year old mat on the Belgica in 1897. “He landed at Two Hummock Island,” Gary tells me, “and climbed up to test his skis and so became the first person to ski in Antarctica.”

Hydrurga Rocks is a collection of rocks just off Two Hummock Island named after “Hydrurga leptonyx” which is the Latin name for the Leopard seal. It is a tiny island but is home to a chinstrap penguin colony and there is a sheltered bay big enough for a zodiac to land easily. We anchor in the strait and load into the inflatables. The clouds are so low now that I can't see the rocks until we're within a hundred meters of them. We make land and wander over the rocks among the penguins. A few Weddell seals have also humped their way over the rocks to the patches of snow higher up and they snore like middle-aged men. It begins to snow steadily and the clouds pack themselves in just a little tighter. My camera isn't weatherproof enough for this so it looks like I won't get any photos at all. Not only that but I haven't even had a glimpse of the peaks Gary tells me are across a short stretch of water—the peaks that Amundsen skied down over a hundred years ago.

If the only pleasure to be had this afternoon is to watch penguins waddle to and from their nests, then that's ok. I'll treasure the time anyhow.

As I'm looking across to where the mystical mountains are on Two Hummock Island, a little window opens high up in my line of sight. At first I'm not sure whether I can, in fact, see snow on a peak or if it's an illusion of cloud. Yes, it's snow and that's land. I decide it needs to be documented so I get my camera out and snap some quick pictures before the clouds close back in.

But they don't close in. Instead, it stops snowing and the clouds lift so fast it's as though someone just removed a tarp from the sky. The clouds simply disappear and are replaced by deep blue sky and bright sun. I keep the camera out and go photo crazy in case the light changes again just as quickly. I shoot Two Hummock Island from every vantage point I can find, I get penguins from a hundred angles, I pose by the snoozing seals and have other people photograph me. It heats up fast and I have to peel off layers. I'm sweating as I run around the rocks capturing everything I can on film.

And now the sun is beginning to go down and the last zodiac is about to leave. I'm not the only one who has been going paparazzi on Hydrurga Rocks. Andrew, who is probably the most tech-crazy passenger is getting a little more footage with his iPhone and Craig, an “amateur” photographer with impressive skills and a treasure chest of equipment is still snapping away as well. “Penguin silhouette” I say to them as we're making our way back to the last boat, and all three of us turn and fire.

Almost as soon as we're in the zodiac, the clouds come back and by the time we're heading for the Polar Pioneer, I can not longer see Two Hummocks and then I loose Hydrurga Rocks in the fog.

We swing by an iceberg where a young leopard seal is tormenting anxious penguins who look down from the heights of ice to see the predator circling. The seal is curious about the curious humans and lifts himself out of the water way too close to the edge of one of the boats. The zodiac lists to starboard as its passengers shift suddenly to one side.

Back on board, I spend an hour flipping through the three hundred new images on my camera and I'm still a little stunned by the coming--and going--of the light. I don't know what the gods look like, but I know they smiled on us this afternoon.   

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Christmas Day 2011

Christmas and we are likely as far away from our land-locked loved ones as we will ever be. No matter what your religion is (or isn't) Christmas is about the same thing for everybody: it is a holiday that reminds us to be better people, to be generous, to care about others, to be responsible for our actions. A Sufi proverb says, “Love is what you do,” and that is the general message for Christmas whether you're Sufi, Buddhist, Catholic, Protestant, or agnostic.

First thing in the morning, our ship anchors in Paradise Bay and we go ashore at Brown Station, an abandoned Argentine research station on the Antarctic continent proper. In 1984 a doctor went mad over the winter and burned down his cabin thinking that if he did so, someone would have to come and pick him up. Instead, the rest of the researchers had to stuff themselves into a remaining hut and constrain the doctor until the resupply ship arrived on schedule. He must have felt very alone indeed to do such a thing. Here on the Polar Pioneer, we passengers were strangers a few days ago and are now very much a community brought together by collective awe.

The wind is blowing at ten knots and there is a chop on the water but the kayaks are deployed for an expedition around Skontorp Cove. My brother, Scott, is in the front of our twin kayak and I can feel his anxiety as we struggle to make way through the open water. Waves crash over the bow and although I am trying to steer us at an angle into them, the water washes over the cockpit skirts. We two are heavy cargo together – four hundred plus pounds of personhood – and the kayak feels more like a submarine when waves cover us. I do not want to capsize in the Antarctic sea.

(photo: Peter Evans)
When we round the point Brown station sits on, the water calms and we are able to paddle closer to shore and to relax. We can't get too close though because Skontorp Cove is glaciated. We are paddling along teeth of ice that tower over us like steel buildings downtown in a big American city. Across the bay, faint rays of sun are breaking out through the low, dark clouds, but the wind is still gusting and I can see whitecaps where our ship drifts several kilometers away. Our guide, Judd, is a frustrated border collie trying to keep his herd a safe distance from the glacier fronts. There is a clap of thunder, and a wall of ice comes down into the sea as if its structure had been dynamited from within. We feel the wave the calving sends out but he has kept us far enough away to be out of danger. We find a low stretch of iceless beach. There is about thirty meters of land here that is not covered by glaciers and we climb out to stretch our muscles and toast the Antarctic continent with pieces of chocolate. I think about Shackleton's men, living for months on an Elephant Island beach not much larger while waiting for an unlikely rescue. Looking at the whitecaps on the bay, I think about how much happier I would be to be rescued than to get back in the kayak and sprint into the wind to get back to Polar Pioneer. But the ship has come closer and it is only a fifteen minute paddle back.

If that is my idea of Antarctic suffering, I know I have it soft. Less than half an hour after we wrestle the kayaks back on deck, I'm wearing warm clothes and my mug is full of hot, sweet tea. Other than the tree in the lounge of Polar Pioneer, it doesn't feel like Christmas to me. Happily, Santa Claus finds us in the afternoon and small gifts are doled out. The chefs in the galley have managed to cook a specially festive meal including Christmas turkey, Christmas pudding and wine.

A little later, we go ashore again at Cuverville Island where 5000 Gentoo penguins have a breeding colony. They amble. They dawdle. They saunter with their flippers out at their sides looking like outlaws in old westerns about to draw their six guns. But they have no six guns and as I watch them come and go in the bay, I notice a more sinister form stirring the water. A leopard seal haunts their launching point, hoping to snatch an unwary penguin as it enters of exits the sea. In an outright race, an adult penguin can outswim a leopard seal. Waddle as they do on land, penguins are grace incarnate in the water. But leopard seals are clever. Gary tells me they will bide the water at the end of a murky run-off channel to surprise an unwary penguin that swims through.

While I'm looking offshore, a greyhound bus sized iceberg in the water not far off the penguin colony snaps in half, erupts with sound and then rolls over like a lazy Weddell seal on the snow. The sound and the waves that spill outward from the crash reinforce the drama around us all the time. Like the poet Rilke's Archaic Torso of Apollo, the ice is filled “with light from within” and that brightness makes us, in turn, glow inside.

Much in the way Christmas reminds us to want to be our best selves, the Antarctic reminds us to want to change our lives. Here is the world before we messed it up. No cigarette butts on the beaches, no graffiti carved into the glaciers. Pristine is a word I keep hearing. Antarctica is pristine. When we spend some time among the marvels of Antarctica, we know that we are lucky and we want to be worthy of it.

At the end of Christmas day, the ship found some calm deep water and dropped anchor. A voluntary rite of passage in Antarctica is a plunge in the polar sea. I wasn't sure that my heart could take it. I have surfed in the Pacific off the west coast of Canada and suffered exposure. That water was twelve degrees. The sea in Antarctica is the coldest and most pure water in the world – there are very few suspended particles so it absorbs all light and appears black. The temperature is zero degrees Celsius. When the crew lowered the gangway, a sofa sized chunk of ice floated by. I climbed down the stairs in my bare feet and lowered myself into the water. The teeth of it bit into my skin. I leaned forward and tucked my chin and dove in and under, thoroughly baptized by Antarctica.

When I waddle back to my life, I know some parts of myself will have been washed away and others will have been awakened.