Calvalanche at Neko Harbour

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December 22nd 2008
Published: December 31st 2008EDIT THIS ENTRY

Monday 22nd Cuverville Island and Neko Harbour
Sitting back in the library, I’m glad I’ve worked into a little routine with journaling. But there is so much that’s been happening each day that it feels like I would need to spend hours writing to capture everything that’s gone on. And with all the memories fresh in my head, I realize now why my writing has been a bit scatter brained and some paragraphs have been underdeveloped. It’s just not enough to write down what i’ve been seeing (currently I’m looking back out the window and I am watching a penguin , oops, two penguins porpoising across the gerlache strait, with tons of icebergs floating our way, formidable size mountains protecting the sidelines, and snow falling into the below freezing waters). And I realize I won’t be able to describe it all, but for my own indulgence, hopefully I will be able to look back and recall some of the things that happened this day, and those in the past; because this day was really cool.
Waking up at Cuverville Island put me in a good mood. I wanted to get back to the ice, and this island was a stone’s throw from the peninsula, with the additional benefit of knowing I would get to play in the snow! The expedition consisted of a group, too many for my health, making its way up the snowy mountain. After the guide took about fifteen steps in the unmarked snow, he collapsed in exhaustion. I offered to blaze the trail, if he just guided me in the direction we were heading. So, I got first tracks on the Ice. The going was a little rough, but the excitement of looking up an untracked hill (I say hill only because the other peaks around us were thousands of feet higher) kept my interest to the top. Although the guide thanked me for helping half the way up, I would have to probably be fair with the effort I put in, and the energy and humiliation I saved him, by honestly saying I did three quarters of the trailblazing, and certainly all of the incline work. The view from the top was nice, but compared to the later view at Neko Harbour, it is difficult to say it was truly special. But still, it was a great warm up. I also had a lot of fun trying to toboggan down the hill with my crazy uncle. As we realized it wasn’t quite steep enough for our butts, uncle decided to summersault his way down the hill. I tried log roling, but gave up once I got dizzy from the third roll.
After walking back to shore, the zodiacs picked us up and took us around the corner to a nice little cove where our kayaks were waiting. My dad and me hopped in and scooted ‘round, keeping in mind the expedition guide’s warning, “icebergs are like bombs, you need to stay out of the bomb radius or you will die.” Um, okay, advice taken.
Of course we didn’t get close to the bergs, but also of course some other people headed for the bergs like they were hamburger stands offering free milkshakes and fries. Mmmm, shake shack! We rather decided to stay near the gentoo penguin rookeries and watch them porpoise toward our yak, swim right under us, and head for shore. At its peak, we had fifty penguins surrounding us and flopping in and out of the water. In the end, my dad decided to smack a small piece of ice in the sea, just to see how it would break. It didn’t. Rather, he whacked it and it didn’t move, like smacking a piece of blue concrete. It’s hard to imagine then when some truly massive bergs smack into our ship, we just plow them out of the way.
After lunch and a nap, we arrived at Neko Harbour, the location of the first group to ever winter-over at the big Ice. That group, lead by Gerlache (who the straight was eventually named after) and his chief officer, Roald Amundsen (one of the greatest explorers of all time, including the first trip to the south pole and arguably the north pole too) shacked up on the beach, building a place that truly rivals anywhere else in the world for beauty. The harbor is surrounded by massive glaciers running down probably 30 different peaks stuffed side by side.
Walking past their shack, I heard a thunderous sound coming from across the harbor; the glacier was spewing white thunder, calving into the blue and throwing a nice wave across the bay. I looked up the ridge and realized this is where we were taking the afternoon hike. Apparently it would be blazed by others so although the elevation was higher (700 feet), it was a cakewalk. At the top of the climb, I weaseled my way around the others who had also made it up there, and I put my bootie on a rock so I could take in the scene.
Our ship was docked less than 20 feet from the beach, a feat seemingly incredible unless you know how crazy knowledgeable our captain is of this area. To the right, a crakled glacier wandered from the mountainside down into the bay, where it leaned on its last icicle. I could have sworn it was on its way in. Out in the bay, very little water could be seen. For it was covered in one of a million different types of ice. Next to the glacier and up the mountain, an avalanche sounded off. Snowy smoke filled the chute and crashed down toward the glacier. Only a few minutes later, an avalanche from the same area broke the silence and headed down the next chute on the mountain.
The activity in the area reminded me of being at base camp at everest. There was always some deadly natural activity reminding you that the beauty of the scene could only be trumped by the danger that lie beneath. It is a feeling inside that nature is talking to you, saying “you bes watch yo self.”
On the way down the mountain, I made it easy for myself, taking the toboggan route that a few people carved as they made their way down the hill on their butts. This one was pretty good, and I tried to watch the scenery as much as the toboggan chute, since parts of it felt like a freefall and so the perspective was as though I was falling into the glaciers.
Back down at the sea line, I grabbed a zodiac ride around to the bay of the harbor, which couldn’t be seen fully from our vantage point on the mountain because we didn’t go close enough to the other side to be exposed to the glacier we were sitting on (which I was unaware of the glacier until I saw that side of the harbor, nice to know). The zodiac was really nice for lots of reasons. The water was totally flat, and the reflections of the mountains and glaciers were like looking into mirrors. Also, Steve, the boat driver, stopped the engine for a few minutes so we could enjoy the sounds of the Antarctic; in fact we only got silence after a second request that the other 4 people on the zodiac shut their cameras off for a few minutes. In some ways it was hard for me to believe that these people couldn’t stop shuttering their cameras. Truly, it was as though they were seeing the Ice through their lenses, and could stop for a breather sans electronics. More shocking, these were all old people who definitely did not grow up in the digital age. But they seemed to be relying on their gadgets more than me.
Finally, they shut off their cameras. It was almost completely silent. An arctic tern chirped its way across the harbor. The small icebergs around our zodiac bobbed in the water and made a slight bubbling sound. A heavy breath exhaled behind us, a whale I was sure. Looking around, I noticed the mountains shot out of the water and steeply headed towards the clouds. The grey contrast of the clouds made everything white stand out that much more. And the afternoon light, which was at the same location as the light from the morning and evening for the most part, created a glow for those mountainous angles that aimed for the sun.
As the zodiac came back to life, a minke whale appeared in front of us. We followed it for about 20 minutes. At one point, we got so close, and the water was so clear, that I saw the whale come up for air just in front of the zodiac (less than 3 feet!). My heart jumped, I didn’t want to get in the whale’s way, and I didn’t want him to come up under the boat and knock me over! The whale surfaced an arm’s length from the boat, sucked in some air, and slowly submerged again into the clear, ice protected harbor.
The rest of the evening has been more of the same: incredible. Words are enough to describe my reaction to what I’ve been seeing, but the continent is like nothing I’ve ever experienced. And since it doesn’t remind me of anything on earth, nor even remind me of what it must be like to walk on another planet, how can I describe what I am seeing?
Today definitely felt like a trip to the end of the earth. Anyone thinking of going beyond is either greedy or insane. But apparently we are going to a place tomorrow that most people consider the main reason for going to the Ice. I guess that can only mean one thing. Bring on the greed.


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