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.

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