Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The blog continues...

with a new beginning...

The morning sun burns through the fog, warming the Earth to another day here in paradise.

I thought that this image, taken in my "front yard" a few days ago, would be a good way to restart the old blog.  There'll eventually be more "yard" photos like this, travel photos, people photos, creek photos, nekkid photos, wildlif          Wait!  What?

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Life and Death on Cuverville Island

I slept fitfully as the blustery gray dawn half-heartedly attempted to chase away the gloomy dusk of early morning.  I had no conscious wish to come to a fuller understanding of life.  Or of death.  Not on Cuverville Island.  And certainly, not today. By the end of day, though, I would have a new and heightened awareness of both.

Coffee finished - check.
Breakfast finished - check.  Just a "few crumbs", though.  Life is tough in the Antarctic. Only the hardiest survive.  I hoped that I would gain enough sustenance to be able to crawl back into the zodiac to return alive, one more time, to the ship for supper.  (It was prime rib night!  Mmmmm.)
Nervous pee before layering up - check.
Uh oh.  brb...
(Another nervous pee before boarding the zodiac - double, triple, and dribble check.)

And off through the bergy-bits we sped, zigging and zagging, towards an appointment with 5000 pairs of Gentoo penguins.  And just perhaps, an appointment with a better understanding of life?  Of death?

A wet landing on Cuverville's beach is a rocky affair, and I found it unsuitable for complacent ambulation in gum-boots, parka, and my chic rubber pants.  We were buffeted by the wind, shoved by the sea, and safety, if not survival, was on everyone's minds as we scrabbled across the rocks to the safety of the flat snow.

We humans involved in today's landing expedition, all bundled and layered, were cozy and toasty.  Comfy even.  Although this wet landing on Cuverville elicited memories of many of the Antarctic weather cliches that I had heard or imagined, in reality it was only a mildly chilly -3 degrees, but with noisy, gusty winds quartering off Errera Channel.  The expression "occasionally chilly-miserable, mixed with intermittent-to-greater tolerable" comes to mind.  (Yeah.  I composed that weather terminology later that evening.  At the bar.  The "open" bar.)

The penguins.  "Carefree" comes to mind.  While some huddled on the rocky beach, others, more independent souls, decisively marched along snowy trails with self-assurance, if not downright boldness.  Going somewhere.  Anywhere.  Unaware. Blissfully unaware...
... as they marched along through the gusting winds with great determination and purpose, if not poise.

 It's easier to traverse snow and rocks, if you have specialized feet like these...
  ... with muscle and sinew, and claws gracing webbed toes for traction.  Oh, and a brushy little tail for balance to make the bird's compact design even more efficient. These avians have genetically evolved for a perfect accommodation with their environment.  They swim at a rate just short of the speed of light, and can scale near vertical snowy or rocky slopes in search of adequate nesting areas.

With their "traction masters" engaged, these birds toddle along the rocky beach with ease...

... and climb the trails up their snowy slopes to home sweet home.
Movin' on up... to the top.. to that deluxe penguin apartment in the sky.

The slight shift in wind direction was blessed with the potential to change my entire perspective of Cuverville in scant seconds.  My mindset snapped...
The aroma of pink penguin poo swiftly permeated the air as the winds shifted.  It made my eyes water... my nose ran... I forced myself to breathe the cold damp air through my mouth.  It didn't work.  I silently took back every disparaging remark that I ever made about "mouth breathers".  And if you've ever walked through Wal-Mart with a cold, I swear to god I wasn't talking about you.

Like any competent pilot, I made a 360 and got the hell outta there.

Life back on the beach seemed once again, pristine.  I was upwind. Exhilarating beauty abounded.  The gentoos had their nests.  The glaciers groaned and popped, inevitably exploding with a tremendous reverberation that I could feel in my chest, calving bergs into the bay.  Working birds rested on the bergy bits after gorging on krill.  The smell of the ocean was once again sweet as it lapped the rocky shore.

I watched the birds as they aimlessly wandered the beach or jumped into the frigid waters to swim out to feed.  In a quiet, personal moment, I pondered their existence here.  Working birds.  Nesting birds.

I also contemplated my existence here.  Humans, I surmised, are like that.  I laughed at myself as I thought of the "Good kid gone bad" sticker that I had once applied to one of my motorcycle helmets.  It was fun to think back to that tongue in cheek moment so many years before.  As I thought about my life, I found myself astonished that, while some people from my old home town had rarely even crossed county lines, I had ended up at the other end of the world, sitting on a rock that didn't have too much shit on it, pondering the meaning of life.

Humans, unlike penguins, have an awareness of death that's both a blessing and a curse.  While the penguins seemed blissfully unaware of the limited nature of their existence, I was becoming aware of the signs of death all around.

Whale vertebrae
These two birds just cruised right along, oblivious to the cetacean carnage that had occurred in a century past.

 There were whale bones everywhere I looked.

The more closely I observed, the more abundantly clear it became that there was evidence everywhere of both the abundance of life, and of the cessation of life.. whale bones, penguin cadavers, seal skulls...

Stand tall.  A bluff sometimes works.
The skua gull has the reputation of being one of the more vicious opportunists of predation.  It'll eat eggs, chicks, carrion (dead anything), and stuff I'd rather not think about.  The penguin above stands as tall as it can, hoping to bluff the skua into looking for an easier mark.  It worked this time... for this penguin... just as it has occasionally worked for other animals.  Primates come to mind.  Have you ever bluffed your way out of a serious situation?

Here, a skua threatens a penguin on it's rocky nest.  The gull advances.  The penguin trilles.  The gull threatenes again and hops closer.  The penguin stand ever taller. Finally the stand-off is over and the gull walks by, obviously looking at the nest with great longing...  This time, another penguin wins.

The skua looks for easier pickings...

Dead penguin guts.  It's what's for supper.  Mmmmmm.
... and finds them.  It doesn't make any difference if the death is from predation, old age, injury, sickness, or starvation.  The end result is the same.  We all eventually join the food chain at some point.  Sitting on that shitty rock, I decide that I have both the resolve and the courage to accept whatever fate befalls me.  And that if I perish tomorrow... it's been a damned good life all the way.

I will also attempt to see, with new vision, everything that I can possibly see from that moment on.  To feel the gravel beneath my boots.  To smell the ocean, the snow in the air, and even the birds.  I listen to the trilling of the gentoos, to the happy voices of my fellow travelers... some with exotic languages... all communicating and living in this moment.  I listen for the sounds of the glaciers and the water.  I am reminded of a lesson attributed to Ghandi: "Live as if you were to die tomorrow.  Learn as if you were to live forever."

There will never be sufficient time in a day to see the family and friends that I want to see, to feel the emotions that I want to feel, to say what I'd like to say, to write the things that I need to write, to love like I've never hurt or been hurt, to walk in the cathedral of my woods as often as I want...

I will be not fretful for the past, nor anxious for the future, but will live in, and appreciate, the moment.


Monday, February 20, 2012

Orne Harbour, where we did not excel, overcome, or achieve!

Friday morning.  The sun, somewhere, is lurking just above the horizon, veiled behind a million miles of heavy, wet, gray clouds.  Maybe.  Certainty, at this early hour, would be grossly premature.  

It is day number ten of our trek across the world and I'm starting to get a bit weary.  I awake feeling as sullen and sodden as the air.  I extract myself from a tangle of arms and legs and climb out of a very warm, deliciously comfortable bed.  I locate the Quark Expedition Bulletin on the floor next to our stateroom door.  It reads "We hope to land... was discovered by Gerlache in... whalers... 
     ...for those who wish to come ashore for a steep hike up a snowy hill to a chinstrap colony at about 200m elevation...

I look at Winnie.
Winnie looks at me.

Personally, I don't want to climb 200m of ice and snow this morning, with or without crampons, to see penguins, or pink penguin poo, or to inhale and swell my chest and lungs with the fishy eau du doo-doo de penguinos.  

We decide to bag it for the morning.  The decision to slack being made, suddenly my mood is elevated, the "sodden" air is now "perfectly crisp for sleeping", and we mull whether or not to sleep through breakfast.  (Perhaps I won't have to enroll in the Betty Ford Food Rehab program after all.) 

Spigot Peak over Orne Harbour

Why do they have to keep serving so much breakfast?  And for so many hours?  After a teeny breakfast snack of gnawing one edge of a burned bagel and washing it down with a tablespoonful of low-cal water so small that it's hardly worth mentioning to those skinny-assed folks at the Ford Clinic, we venture outside to bend some light into pixels.  Exercise.  Bending things.  THAT'S where I'M at.

It's cold. It's gray.  The katabatic winds gust down from the glaciers, marking up the surface of the water, then vanish as quickly as they began.

I head for the other side of the boat to hide from the wind.  It works.  The gusts are small on this side, and temperature much more tolerable.  Note to self:  bring earmuffs next time... the toboggan doesn't even break the wind.  You shouldn't break wind, either, if you're wearing your head to toe rain gear... it does something to your skin... but never mind...
I'm not actually "plus-sized".  The parka's just inflated.

It has been a restful and successful morning.  Winnie and I are replenished and renewed.  Some of our fellow travelers... perhaps, not so much.  They've been working for it.

I reach out with my camera to touch our friends ashore.  The last group has started down from their 200m trek up the snow and ice...

Next, I notice the noisy approach of the first of the returning zodiacs humming along through the brash ice, with a load of...
                                    ...cold, tired, and happy sailors and trekkers.  As it should be.

Back in the stateroom, I unlayer and hop under the comforter to rest for a few minutes.  You know... after shooting all those pixels...  and stuff...  The last thing I consciously hear as I drift... drift... Lunch will be served 12:30 - 13:30 in the Din...

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Magical Wonderland Around Spert Island

Our destination for today was not just another colony of penguins.  I would discover a mythical, magical place, unlike any that I had ever seen before... Spert Island.

Looking toward Spert through my longest lens, I could barely make out the tiny gap between the basalt cliffs.  It seemed that I could see something quite blue... the same startling blue that I recognized from the glaciers of Alaska.  Would we get a peek inside at the secrets hidden behind the rocks and pounding ocean?  Would it be just some more glaciers?

Soon, the captain dropped Sea Spirit's hook, and we boarded our zodiacs for the zodiac cruise du jour.  Better than hanging about the boat.   I suppose.

Tim and Winnie in uniform
As we approached Spert, there was indeed something blue.  And not a glacier.  Was this lonely iceberg our tour for today?  I had seen a couple of icebergs before.

Toward the cut.  I am here.  Today.  I am in the present.  I make a silent pact with myself to go forth... experience... appreciate... and learn... and live for today...

As we got closer to the cut between the cliffs, I kind of thought we'd turn back, our pathetically pale attempt to breach the forces of Nature thwarted.  The surf was pounding on the rocks, the water surging in, pausing, rushing back out to sea.  Then, I quietly breathed a sigh of relief as we passed some invisible line, an edge of the force, and the water calmed.

Always exploring in pairs for safety, we followed Pam in our sister zodiac.  (As a zodiac driver, photographer, and naturalist, she's killer.  If I ever get into trouble in a zodiac... I'll want her or Mette twisting the stick on the outboard.)

 Through the brash ice now, the vista expands.  First one berg, then a hard left turn and...

...yet another berg.

A further turn to port side reveals...
... an older floating berg.

Since water's warmer than the air above, ice bergs melt from the bottom up.    This ice berg revealed two previous lifetimes on it's right side... first, a melt that let it raise up into the air for 20m (exposing the higher indentation).. next, a chunk must have broken off its side allowing it to tilt to the left... then its current incarnation (the second indentation) occurred due to further melt down below.

Next, we came upon two magnificent pinnacle ice bergs... Beautiful !

These bergs appeared...

... to be as tall as 10 story buildings, and 90% of them are hidden beneath the surface.  We are in deep water.

I am now in complete sensory overload... the brain can only process so much.

Mette, our zodiac driver, stops the outboard.  We all become hushed, listening to the sounds of Spert. Smelling its smells.  Getting into touch with our environment..  Maybe getting into touch with ourselves.

I feel a tiny shade of wistfulness colour my thoughts as the zodiac drifts, unpowered.  My very best attempts to photograph the unparalleled splendor of this land fall short of the continent's true beauty.  Thoughts of family members, friends, and acquaintances cross my mind in these quiet moments... I so wish that they could all see this magical place.. at this very moment... and hear the water lapping at the sides of the boat... see and smell the crystalline clarity of the air about us.

We move on.  Ever onward.
We move by the pinnacles and see a possible opening between more bergs...

 Just ahead, and to the right..

 ... and following Pam, another course correction to the right leads us to

what seems, at first, to be a pair of icebergs, but a closer look shows rather shallow appearing water across the low point of a single berg, the two sides connected just beneath the surface.  No problem for the Mette and our zodiac.  If there's a fan club or facebook page for zodiacs, I'm gonna join.  Great little boats that can accomplish anything you demand.

Next, we mush on through a bit of brash ice to find an ice face marked by algae like the annual rings on a tree.  Some of the lines are darker than others indicating warmer summer seasons.

An arctic tern flies by, so far the only wildlife that we've spotted.  Arctic terns are referred to as "birds of light", due to their 44,000 mile round trip migration every year.  Northern hemisphere summer (June, July, August) for breeding, then southern hemisphere (December, January, February) for the antarctic summer.  Always heading for summer, somewhere.  Always heading for "the light".

Each turn brings a new vista...

 Each new vista's appearance changes...

as we approach...

Each of these calved bergs represents the death knell for some glacier.  Glaciers are born when a few flakes of snow fall in the Antarctic mountains. These snow flakes become packed down by the weight of a millenia of snowfalls, and are compressed into a river of solid ice. This glacier may take 10,000 years or more to succumb to gravity, advancing ever so slowly toward the ocean, where chunks as large as office buildings yield and break off the face of the glacier.  Some will become grounded in shallower water and live a long time in the colder climes.  Others will drift to the ocean to wander it's currents, finding the warmer water of the Antarctic convergence where they melt and die.  The water eventually evaporates, to be taken back into the atmosphere where it will begin its life cycle once again as another bit of light snowfall in the Antarctic mountains.  The continent breaths like a living being.  It inhales in the winter, the ice doubling the continent's size.  In the summer the continent exhales and sighs, melting sea ice and calving glaciers, and shrinking once again.

I love icebergs, even though their sheer immensity and long lives make me feel a bit...  insignificant?

This old berg reminded me of some old WWII movie, where the aircraft carrier is blown into two, and begins to sink...

Forging onward, ever onward, we break on through to the other side, break on through, break on through...

I break on through... the doors of perception.  I'm seeing a side of this tiny blue planet, and a side of life that I've never personally seen before.  I ponder at that which I see and think is real, and wonder if others in the boat see the same thing?

It finally occurs to me.  It's not what you look at, it's what you see.  In icebergs.  And in life.

This is cool.  Yeah, I know, bad pun.  The dimples in this "golf ball berg" were formed by the same currents of water that melted it, then allowed it to roll over for us all to see and appreciate.
Again: cool.

A berg that once floated free (rounded top used to be on bottom) has now grounded, and is being worn away by the waves.  Although trapped, it'll live longer.

This old berg is starting to show a bit of graceful aging, bless her heart.

Always turning right can be a good thing.  (In a boat, not necessarily in politics.)  It'll eventually get you back to the ship.  In this case the right turn was really short-lived, and we ended up bearing left through a narrow canyon that was hiding in plain sight, just ahead.  And that, in turn, lead to...

Sometimes you just can't get through.
Tempting.  But in Antarctica, as in life, just being tempted don't mean you oughta try it.  Might squeeze through... might all end right there.  When I was younger - much younger - I would have steered a course, full speed ahead, right for the tiny gap.  I know.  Another bad pun.
Survival.  I am thankful for it.

Sometimes, you can.
A little further on, patience is rewarded.  I don't know how these arches were formed, but it was totally thrilling to go through, waves and tide heaving, zodiac lurching forward, pausing, and lurching further... "the time of your life".

A little further on, we came across this fellow.  If he looks cross, I'm sure he was.  I would have been.  Damn.  Guy can't even haul out, warm up, and have a nap around here.  This neighborhood's getting too crowded.  Maybe if I turn my back and ignore them, they'll go away.  And NO FISHING DAMMIT!

We came upon these bergy bits grounded on a shelf in the shallows near the cliffs.  They reminded me of ice cream treats.  Three sizes guaranteed to please the most discriminating desert palate, but considering the amount of ice beneath the surface...  probably not going to get one back to the ship.

A turn to the right and we were barging through these bergy bits.. the heftier ones we steered around, the smaller ones we just powered over.  They made quite a grating sound as they scraped and bumped underneath the floor of the zodiac.  I remember thinking  a) do we have extra shear pins for the prop, and b) isn't that hard on the prop?  (Note: later, looking at one of the outboard props back aboard the ship, it looked as though the blades had been fashioned out of sheet metal with pinking shears.
Props.  The renewable resource... on the Sea Spirit anyway.

While we couldn't get the ice cream bergs back to the ship, we could take some iceberg ice back for bragging rights over drinks later...

The harvest
Ice from bergs can have trapped air bubbles that are thousands of years old.  They appear white to our eyes, as the sunlight entering the ice is scattered by the bubbles.  In very old ice, the pressure has been so great as to completely express the air out, allowing light to penetrate deeper into the ice.  Colors in the red area of the spectrum are absorbed by the ice 6 x more than colors of the blue spectrum.  Thus very, very old ice appears quite blue.  This ice that can be tens of thousands of years old.  It is a pure as water can be, and with the salt rinsed off the surface, lasts all evening for your favorite libations.

Shunning the blue ice, I harvest some white ice.    For later.

The clarity of the water reveals the depth of the ice.  For each meter of ice you see above the surface, there are 8-9 meters below.  I can see ice extending to depths so much deeper than my camera can image.  Inside, I whine like a little girl "It's just not fair!"  Mere pictures just do not convey...

Mind your heads, we're making a turn to port side.

An arctic tern does a fly-by of a long grounded iceberg.

The vertical striations on the berg in the foreground illustrate the paths that were carved by escaping bubbles as the melting occurred.

A storm petrel flys by.  For some strange reason, Mette is suddenly reminded that our zodiac tour was scheduled for only two hours.  It's been three hours, and we're a long way from Sea Spirit.  Radio reception is scratchy and broken.  Unreadable.  We are out of radio contact.  Stupid radios.  All but two zodiacs, Pam's and Mette's, have probably been safely hoisted back aboard.  Captain and crew leaders are wondering "Where the hell are those two rebel naturalists?"  Are they okay?  Are they in trouble?
The storm petrel.  I can see the fear of the coming storm on Mette's face, and can imagine it on Pam's face.  There IS a storm coming back aboard the Sea Spirit for Pam and Mette.  Where had the time gone?  Didn't anyone need to get back to the boat for sustenance?  Or to pee?

We haul ass.  One last look back to try to burn the memory... of the sunlight on the icebergs, the feel of the water, the smell of the salt, the camaraderie of all aboard our rebellious pair of zodiacs... into our brains forever, for, as of this day,

I am changed.


I have a new perspective about myself, and my relative significance to global order or chaos.  I can continue to be part of the problem.  Or strive to be part of the cure.

That's why I'm writing this.

(As an aside, later, at de-briefing, tiny bubbles of air, tens of thousands of years old, are released as the ice melts in my drink.  I breath in antiquity, as I sip my Scotch.  The storm is probably over.  Life is good again, for all.  As it should be.)