Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Antarctica Day 1: Welcome Aboard the Ioffe

As it turns out, I have limited, text-only, once-a-day email access aboard
the ship via satellite phone. In theory. I have no idea if this will work
and no way to know unless one of you emails me at my ship address
(coolship+326frantz@ooepolar.com) to let me know! But assuming it works,
I'll try to post daily so you can follow along with me on this incredible
trip to Antarctica. I am taking tons of photos (and video) and will get all
of that up as soon as possible after I return to Not-Antarctica. Warm wishes
from the Drake Passage! -Carie
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ANTARCTICA DAY 1: WELCOME ABOARD THE IOFFE

I feel that the trip officially started the evening before the ship even
arrived in Ushuaia's port, when I met Lynn. My dad had booked this trip
through a lovely woman named Lynn, who runs a Bend, Oregon-based agency
specializing in polar expeditions. I had been in contact with Lynn since
early January when I first opened the Christmas envelope containing the
Antarctica postcard on the back of which my dad had written, simply, "Ioffe,
Kayaking and Camping, Antarctica, February 18-March 3" (I had to read the
Antarctica part several times before it sank in). Usually such trips are
booked many months in advance, but the Christmas surprise had delayed the
sending of critical documents like liability and medical forms and boot
sizes, so the day we celebrated Christmas Lynn and I had a flurry of
back-and-forth emails to get the forms taken care of and to confirm all of
the details.

Lynn emailed again several weeks prior to the ship's departure inviting her
customers to join her for dinner in Ushuaia the night before the cruise. As
I hiked up the hill from the hostel to the restaurant, I spotted a woman
who, in her quick-dry pants and polar fleece, her dark expedition
sunglasses, and her dark mid-length hair partially braided back in a simple
and practical way, walking with strength and purpose like a woman of the
mountains, was unmistakably from the Pacific Northwest. Sure enough, it was
her. She immediately recognized me, too, despite our never having met or
exchanged photos before. It reminded me of how in L.A. I would often get
"you aren't from around here, are you?" comments that made me wonder what it
was about my dress and appearance that made me such a dead giveaway, but I
guess you can take the gilled, web-footed, makeup eschewing, hiking-thighed,
smile- and squint-wrinkled, REI-outfitted, vaguely moss-scented woman out of
the Pacific Northwest, but you never take the Pacific Northwest out of the
woman.

We were joined by Jan and James, a retired biology teacher and wildlife
biologist, also kindred gilled and web-footed folk from the PNW, who despite
their appearance of ordinary grandparent-aged gentlepeople, had hilarious
stories from their pot-smoking, environmental rabble-rousing,
spotted-owl-protecting hippie days (which, it sounded like, never quite
ended).

The views from the restaurant were beautiful, the pisco sours and wine
excellent, the food outstanding, and the company engaging, friendly, and
warm. Excitement set in at full intensity, and I had a hard time getting to
sleep that night (but the wine helped).

I woke up the following morning early and nervous, I had an impossible
laundry list of loose ends to tie up and errands to run. I had last-minute
camera and toiletry supplies to buy, things to mail, emails to send,
applications to fill out, manuscript corrections to submit, photos to
upload, papers to download, and a hundred other things to do. One of the
most urgent was to secure bus tickets to leave Ushuaia when I return. I am
scheduled to give a research talk at the Universidad Nacional del Sur in
Bahía Blanca (on the Argentine coast "close"—and by Argentine distances
close means a seven hour drive south—to Buenos Aires) a few days after the
ship gets back from Antarctica. To get there, I have a solid two days and
two nights on a bus. I wanted to secure bus tickets for my return, which
because Ushuaia lacks a central bus terminal and bus tickets can only be
bought at special agencies and half of the agencies were closed and the
other half didn't sell tickets for the companies that served the places I
wanted to go, I was unable to actually get tickets. Coti, if you're reading
this, fingers crossed that it works out when I get back or else I might be
hitchhiking!

In the end, I got very little of my ToDo list done, but Antarctica wasn't
waiting, so I shut the computer, grabbed my bags, and ran to the check-in
point across the street from the harbor. I arrived late, but not too late,
after the bottom seam on one of my bags gave out halfway to the harbor and
spilled its guts all over the street, and I had to scramble to intercept the
wine bottles—miraculously still intact—that were rolling down the hill into
traffic. I handed off my passport to the Keepers, was herded onto a bus, and
was driven to my home for the coming two weeks, the imposing and glimmering
white M/V Akademik Ioffe, "pride of the Russian research fleet".

The Ioffe looks a bit like a whitewashed barge with a whitewashed Borg cube
stacked on top of it. She was built for polar hydroacoustic research, and as
a result is ice-strengthened, very stable (with a fancy system for shifting
ballast in heavy seas, so although she still rocks, there shouldn't be as
many pukers on this voyage as there otherwise would be), and very quiet. She
is 117 m long, 18.28 m wide (the extra 28 cm permitting just enough extra
room for the small sofa in our cabin), providing ample space for the ~100
passengers on this cruise, and comes equipped with a Russian crew (which
means Borscht is reliably on the dinner menu and the stairwells look like a
scene out of Hunt for Red October). The ship is actually used for research,
including on this expedition, and the tourist passengers taken on help fund
some of the research done.

After snapping some photos, I walked up the gangway and into the ship, where
I was greeted by a tunnel of scientific and hospitality staff and shown to
my cabin, conveniently located within crawling distance of the mess hall,
and met my roommate for the voyage, Ingrid from "near Amsterdam" (everyone
from Holland says that when you ask them where, exactly, they are from).
Ingrid is very Dutch: tall, blonde, athletic, elegant, totally at home on
the water, and very nice. She said that she was sad and missing her husband,
but is doing this trip alone because he gets seasick and didn't want to go.
She perked up significantly when we set sail after dinner.

But before dinner we had orientations, a cocktail hour with non-alcoholic
mystery pink beverages and caviar (the latter part being very Russian, the
former seemingly incongruous, like someone had simply forgotten to add the
vodka to the mixer), a safety briefing, and a safety drill complete with
oversized life vests and a climb into our designated lifeboats.

Dinner began with Borscht. I had never had Borscht before and decided I
liked it quite a lot. There was also a generous salad bar (I had worried
about maybe not having fresh veggies on the ship, forgetting that ships like
these are usually incredibly well stocked), and an entrée of broiled turbot
in a hearty tomato and bean sauce. I am definitely not going to starve on
this cruise. I skipped dessert in order to head up onto deck to watched as
we cast off from the dock and sailed away from picturesque Ushuaia in the
pink light of sunset. I wandered the decks to soak in the views and enjoy
the elated feeling of the start of an adventure, and later ran into Lynn
and Jane and James chatting at the bow.

Darkness fell and the temperatures with it, and we had turned to head back
inside when Jane turned to me and asked, "Do you miss hugs?" Yes, of course
I had, and enjoyed the big warm hug she gave me. "I figured that, traveling
alone, you probably don't get hugged very often. I know I would miss it." It
was very sweet.

We worked our way to the ship's bar and enjoyed wine and whiskey with a
handful of other passengers and crewmembers until someone came in at 10:30pm
and announced that the lights of Puerto Williams were visible at Starboard.
Puerto Williams. I stood out in the night and watched the twinkling lights
that marked the place I had spent one of the most memorable weeks of my life
back in November, waved to Patty, and waved to the mountains that had been
my friends there.

And it was another moment where, realizing my place in the universe, I was
humbled and grateful and excited to be alive. There, on a ship, sailing to
the end of the Beagle Channel, soon to enter the legendary Drake Passage,
sailing south. South. South. South beyond the end of my world. South into a
new world.

I crawled into my top bunk bed, turned out the lights, and was rocked to
sleep by the slow swaying of the Ioffe.




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