The Antarctic is a land mass whereas the Arctic is a basin of water. Northern ice is a floating kaleidoscope of frozen sea and precipitate, windblown wave-twisted miles of endless white. Southern ice is the spawn of a mountainous land, glittering white glacial pathways creeping snow-blown to the black shorelines. These differences meant that my transport to each pole had essentially opposite characteristics. Driving overland to the edge of the northern continent then switching to an amphibious craft ensured that if the sea ice intermittently collapsed we would still survive winter at minus fifty-eight while alternately floating and clambering laboriously between frozen platforms. Sailing from Tierra del Fuego, land of fire, gateway to the Beagle Passage, Cape Horn and the notorious Drake Passage in summer temperatures of a few degrees, I made a trip which is a ritual for Antarctic travellers who then battle the Southern Ocean to walk the immense continent.
Pure serendipity, just being in the right place at the right time launched two amazing voyages. I tagged along on a rather unusual freight delivery to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. The consignment was a craft designed to provide emergency evacuation of oil rigs in situations where the sea ice is transitioning. My experience of skiing and blue water sailing was all I had to recommend me for the task. On my return I stuck a sign up on the wall above my desk at work, added a phrase to my email signature block and strived to mention in every dialogue a dream to add that other pole to my experiences. Within a few months … an offer!
The trip to the north was an epic voyage in a convoy of two low-bed heavy vehicles and four pilot cars transporting the massive amphibious Arctos Evacuation Craft from Vancouver to its destination: a BP rig on the man-made North Star Island. We travelled during the winter months to optimise our use of solid ice roads. From Fairbanks to the Arctic Ocean we followed the famous Pipeline, travelling the “Haul Road”. We took to the centre of the track and drove with the throttle to the floor. The heavily loaded trucks needed to build up speed on a downhill section to attack the next slope and there were plenty of hills in the Brooks Range and along the Atigun Pass with very descriptive names such as Sand Hill, Roller Coaster, Ice Cut, and Gobbler’s Knob. In stark contrast the last sixty miles north was flat, causing high winds and snow drifts in often zero visibility due to white outs. When you could see, it was a lunar style landscape. No colour but white, which was transformed to an eerie transparency by the lack of any reflected light perhaps imagined to be slightly brighter in the middle of the so called ‘day’.
Unloading the craft from the dock onto the consolidated pack ice with its wave like formations against a backdrop of flaming pipes, groups of masked men suited up against the freeze. They scurried around the two huge vehicles, painted in garish international orange for safety reasons. The diesel exhausts pumped out a spume of gases, instantly frozen into puffs of cloud blowing off in the stiff breeze, as we boarded for the last stage of the delivery. After chugging at six knots for miles on a frozen sea, the towering rig suddenly loomed in the distance, lights ablaze with flames dancing and sounds of crashing machinery echoing across the chasm of broken ice.
There is something about a white landscape that evokes sensations of isolation; the absence of colour gives it a barren hostile posture. All the Arctic animals seemed predatory and had dangerous reputations. We kept our gun arm’s reach ready for Polar Bear, Barren Ground Moose, and Wolves who all lurked threateningly at the perimeter of our vision. So when the Ptarmigan bird appeared only in flight but magically disappeared when grounded, we could only wonder what else we might be looking at when we saw nothing. Spending time in Alaska improved my vision. At night sleeping in the truck, its diesel humming constantly as it kept us warm, I would listen in the darkness while a local girl explained the phenomenon and folklore of the Northern Lights, the multi-coloured laser show, five or ten spotlights moving powerfully across the horizon in green flashing aqua. Our eyes closed.
Dramatically contrasted with the north are the limitless vistas of the south. Who would believe that sunshine could be so wondrous? December and January in the Antarctic is a time of incessant light daring you to risk sleep lest you miss some amazing sight; provoking you to be more energetic and adventurous than you ever thought you could be. But my notes from the first few days of the sea voyage exclaim “spotting humans on deck is harder than finding a Black Browed Albatross or an Antarctic Petrel, both circling the stern as the prop throws up krill from the Humboldt Current running along the oceanic convergence”. Seventy per cent of the crew were seasick due to the enormous swell, mountains of water that the vessel climbed slowly and then sank into the backside of with a shrug. The regularity of this movement was strangely reassuring to the experienced sailor as it indicated steady weather patterns which were what we had all the way to our first sighting of an ice berg: a white façade standing hundreds of metres high as it boldly approached through the bluest water imaginable.
Within days we were numbed to the sight of ice, it was a constant companion, nudging our sides and impacting our navigational decisions. Surrounding Paulet Island in the Weddell Sea, the ice sheet was fast and we nearly relived the fate of Captain Larson on his ship “Antarctic” in 1903 as we contemplated being crushed by pack ice. We tacked about and headed through the Bransfield Strait leaving the clogged sea in our wake as we steamed through the narrow Le Maire Channel. Heading even further south from the British Base at Port Lockroy to Petermann Island, we passed other larger vessels whose size thwarted their attempts to get closer to the pole in this ice infested waterway. We became the most southern vessel on earth at that particular point in time, claiming the latitude of 66’30” degrees.
Human interaction with Antarctic wildlife has been benign since the cessation of sealing and whaling in the 1930’s. Ironically I could sit below dark cliffs of volcanic ash that tower above the pebbled beach and after a few minutes the curious Adelie penguins came to peck at my rubber boots as I gazed at the graves of industrious hunters and traders from the previous century. We made a landing at Hannah Point where the geologist crew member led us to an isolated Jurassic fossil site, walking through coexisting colonies of Gentoo and Chinstraps, nests of Southern Giant Petrels and wallows of Elephant Seals, who were confidently and sublimely disinterested in our trek. A baby seal slugged its way laboriously across the course black beach to investigate us, no fear in its bulbous brown eyes as it arched its neck, loose rolls of skin mimicking the enormous throats of adult relatives.
Days later, in our Zodiac dingy, we plunged toward a distant shore. Despite calm clear water and cloudless bright pale blue sky we were rugged up with thermal waterproof clothing and spare socks peaked from our pockets, the rubber boots never seemed long enough to keep feet dry on disembarking. As we approached the shallows we realised that the usual parade of patrolling penguins were missing from the water’s edge. Then there was a faint rumble, like thunder in the distance, its incongruity destabilising our minds. Suddenly a huge overhang of glacial ice cliff calved from its rocky womb landing with a stupendous crash, creating a tsunami styled wave along the bay’s perimeter. What premonition had warned the population in those leading moments that they should abandon a daily routine? We navigated away through some bergy bits of ice, raft like structures upon which stood groups of stoic refugees in their dinner suits, shirtfronts stained with a sticky pink goo of regurgitated krill detracting from the otherwise formal impression of the amphibious travellers.
These extremities are linked by the fire of Arctic oil or subterranean Antarctic volcanic energy and their common mantle of ice. They are often assumed to have one identity, but in December /January they no longer share their sun. The north huddles in darkness, relieved by sombre twilight for an hour in each twenty-four while the south sparkles in scintillating panoramas of ice-reflected dazzling daytime never ending. Their souls harbour moods that are polar opposites. Straddling the two, my feet felt the frozen Beaufort Sea reaching far into the Arctic Circle during those months, then strode the deck, paced the beach and stepped the glaciers of the Antarctic Peninsula during those same months of another year.