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.

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