Roald Amundsen and his men arrived at the South Pole on December 14th by “dead reckoning” which means they were going by the distance indicated on their sledge meters. After they arrived, they spent several days taking observations to make sure that they were, in fact, at the Pole. In 1911, it was not so easy to make such observations. In December, the sun stays at what appears to be a constant height above the horizon. The South Pole is one of only two places on the planet where there is no longitude, only latitude, and many of the traditional ways we think about navigation simply disappear. There is no “east” no “west”; there are no time zones. What is a “day” when the sun is always at noon?
By December 23rd, he was on the plateau, five days into his homeward journey. They were well-provisioned but there was worry about the dogs. Three had succumbed to exhaustion already on the homeward journey and now there were thirteen left of the original fifty-two dogs that had started for the Pole. I try to imagine the happiness of the men when Amundsen decides they have the supplies to increase their pemmican ration from 350 to 400 grams per day. They felt it was luxury.
I'm on the deck of the ship, warm in my merino wool long underwear and Antarctic overgear, full of cauliflower soup and fresh bread. No hardship here. We're heading into the Lemaire channel, one of the most picturesque passages on the Antarctic Penninsula. At the entrance to the channel, the cliffs of Booth Island rise almost a thousand meters straight out of the sea and extend down into the water for another four hundred meters. The water is black and mirror-calm, the sky is grey and I am astonished by the volume of colour around me. There is a Home-Hardware chart worth of different shades of blue. The ship maneuvers around icebergs, through brash ice, and straight through wider floes which make black lightening bolts of space in front of the bow when they crack open. All afternoon we make our way slowly along. All fifty-four passengers are on the deck, taking photos, and there is a reverent silence as we are rendered speechless by beauty of the place. What is there to say?
Amundsen himself was in these waters on February 12th, 1898. As second mate on the Belgica expedition, the ship's crew were the first people ever to pass through this channel (named by Belgica's captain). Amundsen’s journal entry for that day is only a few sentences long, but he has time to marvel that “No one has ever seen this channel before.”
As we near the narrow end of the Lemaire, there are more and more icebergs. The passage through looks like the hallway in a daycare where twenty children have piled blocks. The bergs have drifted into the passage since we started along and the captain decides that proceeding is too risky. The ship is brought about and we head back where we've come from. This is not a disappointment for me. A few more hours in the Lemaire channel is more of a gift than anything.
By evening, we stop at the entrance to the channel and have dinner in the galley. The veil of cloud is lifting and because it will be light until late, there is an opportunity to take the kayaks out again. At 8:30 I'm in my dry-suit and at the stern of the ship. There is a certain military precision to unloading zodiacs and manning kayaks. Often when we stop the crew needs to keep the propeller going. It can be just as dangerous to be hit by an iceberg as it is to hit one so the ship needs to be able to maneuver whenever there is ice around. But getting twelve people off a ship and into kayaks while keeping us from capsizing, getting squashed by ice, or drifting into the propeller requires that everyone be alert and efficient.
As I float in the rear of a two man kayak, stretching my spray skirt around the cockpit, I do not know that the next three hours will be among the great moments of my life.
We paddle away from the ship toward Booth Island which looms dramatically. Judd, the kayak guru, likes to paddle through ice rather than go around it because, well, because for the most part we can in these small vessels. He goes first and when he gets stuck he wiggles his hips back and forth until his boat shifts enough of the ice away to get him through. In a few minutes we are around a bend and away from the ship again. The sun is still relatively high on the horizon but because it is getting late, it has more warmth to it, more yellow which lights the ice around us like candles. We are in the Antarctic, utterly alone, paddling kayaks around the base of a kilometer-high cliff. We are surrounded by ice floes and icebergs that do fibre-optic things with light. As we round another bend along the shore, the cliff opens and is replaced by a glacier that pours out of a small valley which moments ago I wouldn't have believed could be behind the peak I'm staring up at. Again there is reverent silence as we move through the water. The only sounds are small chunks of ice that ping like Buddhist bells against the kayak rudders. Ahead, Judd holds up his paddle to signal a stop. We drift up to a floe that is about seven meters around. On it, a leopard seal is resting after a meal. All that is left of the penguin are some of the brushtail feathers, conspicuous by the seal's tail. He lifts his head to see who is in his turf and yawns which shows his mouth full of sharp teeth. His head is reptilian and it is easy to imagine how ancient mariners would have seen this creature as a sea monster. In 2003 a marine scientist was dragged under and killed by a leopard seal. We paddle around the floe and as I get to the landward side, I realize that I haven't been paying enough attention to the three meter high iceberg that is drifting in an opposite direction to the floe and moving quickly (icebergs generally follow the currents whereas ice floes are blown by wind). The iceberg is a house bearing down on me and forcing me toward the floe upon which the leopard seal is now raising his head higher. My brother is in the front of our kayak and we're both having a hard time paddling in the brash ice. I'm in trouble and I know it. I don't want to dig too deeply with the paddle for fear of capsizing us but I know that we need to get out of here right now. We hit a chunk of ice the size of a dog house and it pushes our nose toward the leopard seal. I don't want to look at it because I don't want to know if it is coming toward us. I'm completely focused on paddling and moving the boat forward. And then we're through and out the other side and quickly away from the floe and into more open water. But there is another boat behind us. Daniel, who has come out in a solo kayak this evening, is still back there. Only now the chunk of ice is directly in his way and the passage we made it through has disappeared. He's there because he had to wait for us. The iceberg is bearing down on him and I can see that if he doesn't manage to move, its bulk will crush him against the ice floe. Icebergs are dense structures, their mass is about one tonne per square meter so there is an unforgiving weight coming Daniel's way. This is where his composure and Judd's expertise become crucial. Judd paddles his way and begins giving him instructions: “Hold your paddle vertical and put it in behind your right side. Now, paddle backwards three hard strokes. One more. Now the other side.” And in this way, Daniel is released from ice and leopard seal, and we can carry on. I don't know how much of a sense of jeopardy either of them felt just then, but as I'm paddling, I am again aware of just how easy it would be to die here.
On the way back to the ship, we paddle through the fairytale of light that is even more brilliant at 11pm. Ahead there is a beautiful blue-green castellated iceberg as large as our ship. Icebergs are at least as unpredictable as leopard seals. You can not know when they are going to roll over or crack apart or otherwise rattle the sky with an explosion, but Judd must feel fairly confident that this one is stable because he paddles through its column arches and into the iceberg. We follow. I am surrounded by green light and ribs of ice that curl around and over my head. The exit is several meters away and completely arched over with ice. Beneath is a foot of water and then ice. I am in the belly of a whale and I am happy.