A Journey Beyond The Kayak In Antarctica
Written by Ewan Blyth // Photos: Ballagh / Blyth Photography
I coerced my hand out of my pogie with great care, as if I were disentangling a gnarled vine from a tree limb. I almost chuckled as I did so – not because it was particularly funny, but because the effort required for that one simple action, an action that was as natural to me as walking, was completely out of proportion to the task. I was spent.
After wresting my hands free, I fumbled for the GoPro strapped to the deck of my kayak and waged the daily war to detach it from its mount. The camera ceded. I stared into the tiny convex shield of glass in front of me and began speaking – or so I thought. In reality, mumbles dribbled out of the corner of my parched mouth, much like the streams of snot that had trickled out of my nostrils and congealed with sea salt. I groaned and mumbled and probably slipped an expletive or two. I was just too tired. I could hear Sophie somewhere, having a conversation, but there was no one here but us.
This wasn’t one of the fairytale images that had manifested in my mind when I’d sat in the warmth and coziness of Cabin 328. What my partner and fellow sea-kayak guide Sophie and I envisaged was an opportunity to explore, witness and connect in a profound manner with our expansive office – the Antarctic Peninsula, which stretches like an arm from the great frozen continent itself.
We work for One Ocean Expeditions, guiding passengers on journeys to this impregnable wilderness frontier and also to the high Arctic of Svalbard. While our work had afforded us the opportunity to visit these wild places, we both desperately sought to ‘feel’ Antarctica, to live with her and be touched by her presence. As any adventurer knows, beneath the layers of adrenaline, risk-taking and satisfaction of the ego lies something far deeper. Connection with these wild places is what we truly seek.
The process of planning an Antarctic expedition is as involved as the expedition itself. The meticulous preparation had begun with a 20-minute conversation in Cabin 328 aboard the One Ocean Voyager, 18 months before. We were blessed with the support of a successful polar tourism operation that we knew intimately, the backup of two ice-strengthened research vessels, and access to the knowledge of people we call friends, many of whom will be forever immortalised in the chronicles of Antarctic history. Collectively they share hundreds of years living, adventuring, working and breathing all that is Antarctica. But at the end of it all, it would just be Sophie and me, out facing nature in all her glory. Who we knew, and what we wished we’d packed but hadn’t, would stand for nothing when that moment arrived.
Mumbles dribbled out of the corner of my parched mouth, much like the streams of snot that had trickled out of my nostrils and congealed with sea salt.
A chorus of squawking gentoo penguins welcomed us. A few even poked their inquisitive heads over the top of a snowbank, their brilliant orange beaks contrasting with the monotone of the landscape, little faces quietly assessing the awkward creatures that had just hauled themselves, exhausted, onto their doorstep.
The search for the appropriate safety gear and highly specialised equipment led us to consult fisherman, electrical engineers, dehydrated food specialists, foam suppliers, polar explorers and kayakers from across the globe. When the gear we needed couldn’t be sourced commercially, we made it ourselves. Our living room in New Zealand came to resemble a factory floor as foam matting, fabrics and hardware supplies were strewn about the place, tubs and tubes of various glues rested on carefully placed sheets of newspaper, a hairdryer intermittently blasted hot air to mould foam, and the clack-clack-clack of a sewing machine was continuous. We prototyped and developed pogies (mitts attached to the paddle shaft to keep hands warm), snow anchors, sea drogues, flask insulators, tripod cases, insulated battery bags and more.
Food in the refrigerator and freezer made way for batteries, hand warmers and food flasks as we tested their performance in the coldest possible conditions. We knew that our safety, comfort and ultimately the fulfilment of our dream required scrupulous planning and organisation. As we flew from New Zealand bound for South America in late 2014, equipment and supplies were simultaneously migrating south by sea and air from across the world for the austral summer.
I was still staring into the lens of my GoPro, battery now dead from the cold, when Sophie grabbed the bow of my kayak and hauled me up the rocks and out of the slopping intertidal zone.
We had just beached our kayaks onto the rocky coastline beneath a low hummock – the only place for six nautical miles in either direction that didn’t have a 30-metre wall of jagged ice rising, fortress-like, from the lapping sea. A chorus of squawking gentoo penguins welcomed us. A few even poked their inquisitive heads over the top of a snowbank, their brilliant orange beaks contrasting with the monotone of the landscape, little faces quietly assessing the awkward creatures that had just hauled themselves, exhausted, onto their doorstep.
Two days earlier we had been tent-bound, waiting out one of the storms that gives the Southern Ocean its fearsome reputation. Our support vessel had indicated that we now had a two-day weather window. We needed to cross the infamous Gerlache Strait, named after Adrien de Gerlache of the 1898 Belgica Expedition and our largest planned open water crossing for the trip. To do so we needed a sound forecast. In order to assess conditions we had to be on the doorstep of the strait, not tucked away where we were, hiding in the lee of mountains.
We began monitoring the winds in the soft twilight of the Antarctic morn at 2.00am, rising at 6.00am to find a stiff but unthreatening wind. The sea reflected this in little peaks of white tumbling from the slight chop, and the sun shone high in the sky.
We hauled our 80-plus kilogram vessels down into the shallows, carefully positioning the essential items for the day: the boat, paddle, and our hard-cased waterproof boxes the size of a car battery housing our precious filming equipment. We each packed a day bag containing our go-to items: spare GoPro batteries, snacks, spare warm gloves and hat, binoculars, ice screws, sun hat. Only then could the painstaking process of getting into our boats begin.
It took some time each day for the aches in the shoulders to dull, the core temperature to rise a little with the physical exertion and blood to flow once again to the extremities. But it wasn’t long before we were stroking fluidly, smiling with a deep sense of satisfaction, tempered only by the mild but constant undercurrent of anxiety: where and how would this day end?
As we rounded the southern tip of Wiencke Island that forms Cape Errera, conditions could hardly have been more idyllic. Sunlight gleamed off the glaciated cape and crevasses loomed above us, drawing our gaze deep inside, as if into the depths of a turquoise sea. The sea sparkled as the morning sun reflected off the rippled, glassy surface. Sometimes Antarctica bestows these moments of splendour upon us, magical almost beyond description.
But at the same time, I was wary. Sheltered here by the looming cape, we were probably getting a false representation of the general wind conditions on the Antarctic Peninsula.
As expected, we met a mirthful breeze when we turned and headed north out of the lee of the cape. We pushed northwards and enjoyed the bows of our kayaks bobbing along, slicing through the choppy surface in this northerly breeze. Off to our right, the Gerlache Strait’s surface was broken but not capped in white, the telltale sign of a more threatening wind.
All morning we had been making calculated decisions, alone and together, with and without discussion. We had been monitoring cloud movements and patterns, assessing the sea state out in open water on the horizon, constantly checking watches to gauge speed across land, identifying comparatively stable glacial faces to shelter behind and reviewing the laminated charts on our decks for escape plans in case the weather turned foul. And the physicality of the battle had yet to begin.
We pulled onto a small outcrop of rock, drank hot chai from our flasks and snacked on some chocolate as a Weddell seal lay motionless, basking in the sun some 20m away. Gentoo penguins darted back and forth in the shallows, sometimes standing and wading ashore, sometimes slicing their chaotic patterns through the water. Sophie scanned the three nautical miles ahead to Pursuit Point through her binoculars. This would be our next landfall on the way to Truant Island, our proposed destination for the night, on the edge of the Gerlache Strait. A colony of gentoo penguins could be seen through the magnified lenses.
We pulled onto a small outcrop of rock, drank hot chai from our flasks and snacked on some chocolate as a Weddell seal lay motionless, basking in the sun some 20m away.
If we had learnt anything in our years of outdoor work and play, it was that knowing your limitations and preparing accordingly is your greatest asset in living to fight another day.
Where a penguin can get ashore, so, in theory, can a kayaker. Penguin colonies were always a welcome sight – it not a welcome aroma – although they generally made less than ideal campsites. On many occasions we had been confined to our boats much longer than expected because we couldn’t find anywhere to get ashore. A glaciated and somewhat unknown coastline was a risk we had known about ever since the early days of planning, but one that proved difficult to manage. On the second day of our journey we needed to land but there were no penguins going ashore – and the coastline was everywhere guarded by a two-metre rampart of ice, or had a healthy swell that would have pounded, shattered and scattered us and our gear had we chanced it. By luck and adrenaline we snuck through a foaming rock channel that gave way to a tiny sheltered gravel beach. When we couldn’t see penguins getting ashore, only by identifying colourful points or islands like this one, stained pink by decades of processed krill, were we able to ensure we could find places to land.
We took a last swig from our flasks, then prepared to add the next hop to our never-ending game of hop, skip and jump. Three simple nautical miles – at our average pace, just over an hour on the water. The clouds told me that some real wind was heading our way, but how much and from where would it come?
As we moved away from the little island, it became apparent that the wind was not being halted by the protruding Pursuit Point. Instead it was wrapping over and around it like air surging over an aeroplane wing. The effort required to propel our laden kayaks forward, and the increasing volume of water streaming across our bow and spray decks, told us in no uncertain terms that conditions were strengthening – but there was no cause for alarm yet. We had trained in conditions far stronger than this. We knew we were outgunned in this potential battle yet we were as prepared as we could be for a confrontation with nature’s violent forces. If we had learnt anything in our years of outdoor work and play, it was that knowing your limitations and preparing accordingly is your greatest asset in living to fight another day.
And truly living is what this trip was about. We had never set out to be the first, to cover the most distance or be the fastest. We had come here purely to connect, to seek the rewards derived from experiencing a vast wilderness on a more profound level.
As we stroked closer to our destination, the wind speed edged higher and higher: 15-knot breezes with gusts of 20 became 20 knots with blasts of 25. The wind chill was intense and I was now very thankful for my home-made foam pogies. Without talking, we knew what to do – stay and fight until defeat looked imminent before quickly enacting our escape plan. To turn and run was not an option we wanted to take unless absolutely necessary. Running meant being blown many miles back south, potentially to where we had come from two days earlier.
Turning our overloaded kayaks abeam to this wind, with its peaking waves and steep troughs, had risks. A capsize, a broken rudder cable, any incident that would be trivial under other circumstances could shut us down. Strokes became strong and powerful and we tucked our heads down to counter the icy spray whipping across our bows. Conversation ceased, our voices no match for the tearing wind. Instead we communicated by instinctive looks, tuned by months on the water together. We were both monitoring our progress, lining up geographical features to determine if we were making ground, spinning on the spot or even heading backwards. Between gusts we edged forward. When the gusts hit we moved nowhere, blades churning the water just to hold ground. The pungent aroma of penguin guano now managed to pervade the snot that oozed from our icy noses. We were closing on our destination. The deeper we dug, the harder it blew. We both knew it – we were at breaking point. The wind now ripped at the water so ferociously that even the surface in the lee of Pursuit Point was chopped up. We would have to fight the whole way there – right to the end.
Eventually we reached our landing point. As we stumbled ashore we were greeted by the familiar sight of a gentoo penguin. It looked in our direction with curiosity, indifferent to the fierce struggle that had taken place in our world, the maelstrom we had just endured.
There are few other places on Earth where nature can humble you so completely, then fill you with an awe that reaches right to the very soul of your being. We had fought hard and smart, but we hadn’t won. You never win – sometimes you get away with it and sometimes you don’t.
While kayaking in Antarctica we experienced many moments of splendour: an inquisitive 40-ton humpback whale that glided inches beneath our kayaks, the throbbing of our ice-bound feet suddenly quietened; a vista from a rocky knoll so serene, so far beyond imagination as to appear surreal, the stillness interrupted by a piercing jab of icy wind; the awe of gliding past a cathedral of ice, blue beyond blue, soaring from the inky depths then collapsing catastrophically, moved by internal forces unseen.
And all this goes on – this unfathomable beauty, this finely tuned ecosystem, these infinite cycles of nature, oblivious to our presence. We are superfluous to the workings of this vast wilderness. As a species we have become so preoccupied with the mire of stuff that fills our daily lives that we don’t even have time to search deeper, to ask the more profound questions of life, let alone answer them. To even begin to grasp these notions is beyond difficult, beyond challenging – far more challenging than surviving two weeks in Antarctica in a kayak. To fully comprehend our place in this world and our lives, we need these vast wildernesses and we need to experience them, connect with them. For in doing so we are doing so much more – we are connecting with ourselves.
There are few other places on Earth where nature can humble you so completely, then fill you with an awe that reaches right to the very soul of your being.
In Ewan’s world, there exists a fine balance between respect of the inward and respect of the outward. They are but one and the same – linked, united. Through exploration of the mind and through adventure in the various realms of our planetary abode, Ewan aims to connect the two and in doing so, inspire others to take on their own adventures, their own journeys, their own explorations. Ewan is a passionate freelance adventure guide and freelance adventurer who enthuses greatly in sharing his passion via action, prose and imagery of both the still and moving variety. Having guided in various nooks of the globe, Ewan spends the majority of his working time guiding people in the polar regions of the world. Together with his partner Sophie, a like-minded soul, they roam freely, seeking out places to connect with – most at home in places where wilderness reigns.
Many thanks to One Ocean Expeditions for their unwavering support of this expedition. If you want a taste of this adventure for yourself, join One Ocean Expeditions on their Off the Beaten Track voyage and have the opportunity to undertake a guided, two-night sea kayaking trip of your own on the Antarctic Peninsula.
One Ocean Expeditions: www.oneoceanexpeditions.com