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The Trails of El Chalten and the Road to Calafate

El Chalten, Los Glaciares Nacional Parque in Pictures, Patagonian Road Thoughts, Friends of Calafate

all seasons in one day 63 °F

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El Chalten was exactly what I was looking for. It’s a small town. I walked everywhere. Everyone walked everywhere. The streets were full of day hikers, trekkers and climbers. There were more hikers in the streets then cars. The buildings were of simple designs- half shanty and half chalet. They were painted bright colors, cozy, but with a ramshackle feel to them. The bistros and café’s were plentiful. They were all plying for the pre/post hike trade. I would attend the latter, exhausted, thirsty and hungry. The hostels poked out of the ground like spring flowers. Some of them are good (Lo De Trivi). Some of them are not so good (Rancho Grande). The grocery had only a few items, but the gents behind the counter were fun.
“Where are you from, man?” He asked.
“The states,” I replied.
“Yeah, which one?” he said.
“Denial.” I said, “It’s near Michigan.”
He laughed, “Yah, I think I’ve been there.”

The dogs roamed through town in packs. These aren’t strays, these are family dogs that run free during the day, and go home at night to sleep it off. They met in open areas, sniffed butts, wrestled, and chased each other around. Dogs love a good social hour.

The hiking was incredible. It’s easy to find the trails of Los Glaciares Nacional Parque from the hostels. Beyond the first ridge, Cerro Fitz Roy and Cerro Torres dominated the landscape. I spent my days in search of new angles to stare at them for several hours a day.

I offer you the following images as the highlights of my stay in El Chalten.

Chorrillo Del Salto
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I heard the dull roar of the waterfall through the forest. The spray from the falls floated over the viewing area leaving everything with a sheen of water. I walked further downstream to try and find a unique angle for a photograph. I set my tripod up in the river, and spied this bird scratching through the underbrush. It stayed with me for quite awhile, keeping a four foot distance between us, despite my maneuvers to get a clear shot.
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After awhile, I climbed up the side of the cliff to get close to the roar of the water. I took a deep breath of the fresh moist air. It tasted wonderful

My First Llama
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At First I thought this Llama was a stump painted to look like a llama. When it blinked at me, I rejoiced. My first llama!

The Fitz Roy Range
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When I reached Rio Del Salto I hurried down to the edge of the river. I had found my first photo opportunity. Fitz Roy slipped through the clouds with clear blue skies beyond. The clear river gave me the leading line I wanted, and all I had to do was wait for the sun to break through the clouds behind me to brighten up the green shrubs next to the river.

Lago de los Tres
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I like the human perspective of distant hikers in front of the massive mountains.
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Rio de las Vueltas Valley
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On my way back from Lago de los Tres, I saw this light over the Rio de las Vueltas River Valley.

Locro
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Locro is a traditional stew consisting of four different meats, white beans and vegetables. I highly recommend it.

Alpine Flowers at Loma del Pliegue Tumbado
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While sitting quietly atop Loma del Pliegue Tumbado, I noticed a small movement on the rocks in front of me. I focused on it, and saw that it was a grasshopper - a mountain grasshopper. I had never seen a grasshopper this high before.

Laguna Torre
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At Laguna de Torres, I sat on the shores of the lake and stared at Cerro Torres for three hours until the tip of the spire cleared of clouds for ten seconds. Sometimes, you have to put in the time to make things happen.

Forest Scene
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I really like this quiet scene. I was walking behind Steph when I stopped to take this photo. She didn't hear me stop, and she went on ahead continuing to talk as if I was still behind her. I laughed.

Horse in the Afternoon
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This horse wanted its picture taken.

Ben
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I have had good luck with room mates here in El Chalten. Every day when I returned from a hike, I would cautiously open my dorm room door to see if I had gained another room mate. One afternoon, Ben was there.

Ben is one of the best people I’ve met on the road. He’s genuine, generous, and genial. He has a knack of being able to approach and talk with anybody on the street. I wish I could do this. He’s a philosopher, who appreciates the quiet moments in life. He was the first person to show me the matte ceremony. This world needs more people like Ben.

Slack-lining at Laguna Capri
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This is the most gorgeous location I’ve ever slack-lined.

Parrots of the Lenga Trees
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I was hiking up a long hill and I stopped to take a rest. I looked into the trees and saw two parrots foraging among the lenga. I slowly unsheathed my camera and took a lot of photos. After awhile, they flew to a branch close to where I was standing. They “kissed”- they bit each other on the beak. Then simultaneously noticed me. They craned their heads to see if I was trouble. Before I could react, one of them dove low and flew inches above my head. “Whu-Wha-Whuh-Whuh.” I grinned wildly, what a moment!

Piedras Blancas
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My favorite hike was to the glacial lake at Laguna de Peidra Blancas. The last quarter mile involved scaling across a moraine of massive house sized boulders. I love this kind of exploration.

Rio Blanco
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I followed Rio Blanco on my way back from the glacier lake at Peidras Blancas. I took this photo just before the clouds covered the sun for the rest of the day.

By night, I ate my fill in town, or made it for myself. I hung out with some of the best people in the world. Paul and Camille (French), Ben (South Korean), Philip (German), Stephanie (United States). We talked about everything. We shared fresh wine, peanuts and stories. We raised our pints to one another in good cheer. It might have been the best days of my life.

If you want my advice, bring your own produce to Chalten. Bring lots of cash, as there is only one cash machine in town. It occasionally runs out of money. Eat at La Senyera. Eat at La Tempura. Stay at Lo de Trivi. Go hiking everyday. Stay for a week.

The Road to Calafate
Philip and I traveled together to El Calafate. We boarded the bus at the small terminal on the outskirts of Chalten. There were only five passengers on the bus. Patagonia stretched before us. We stopped at Rio Leona to take a break. A simple wood chair stood against a wind battered hotel. Fast moving dark gray clouds whistled by above the greenish opaque river. Without a word, we boarded the bus and rolled on.
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Patagonia is everything I hoped it would be. I sat listening to the prose of Ram Dass and choice music selections. I stared out at the wind swept landscape while everyone else dozed. I love this kind of travel.

In El Calafate, I thought the selection of produce in the grocery store was amazing. We chose salami, cheese and rolls. We ate them in the plaza with a coke. We wandered through the town. I looked at the flamingos at the public refuge. I didn’t want to pay to enter. I despise having to pay to visit a park.

Two women stopped next to us in their car and tried to explain to us in Spanish that we could not cross the river on this street. We were going the wrong way. When I finally agreed with them, they drove off. I asked Philip, “How do they know where we are going?”

We drank afternoon beers and went shopping for dinner. The store was hectic. It was busy with shoppers gathering the evening supplies. We found our produce quickly, and headed back to the hostel.
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That evening we prepared penne pasta with sautéed, garlic, onion, tomato, zucchini, and peppers. We topped it with fresh parmesan. It was heavenly. We sipped a Trapiche Merlot, Philip continually filling his tiny cup. We chatted with our housemates. I did the dishes before joining our hostel mates in lounge to talk the night away. We drank all of our beer. It was a great night, perhaps the finest hostel experience one can have.
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Before he left Chalten, Phillip bought a tiny metal cup. He loves this cup. He spent the entire night in Calafate drinking wine and beer out of it.

The next morning I went shopping in the notoriously expensive shops of Calafate. I needed a pair of trousers. By some piece of random luck, Phillip found me the perfect pair of jeans that cost one-third the amount of every other pair in the store. They fit amazing. I had to laugh. I had to come all the way to Patagonia to find a pair of jeans that fit me. What are the odds?

Philip headed back to Buenos Aires, and I’m heading north to El Bolson tomorrow. The bus will be traveling Argentina’s famed Route 40. Imagine spending 25 hours on a bus rolling across the rising steppe of grassy Patagonia. My friend Camille, who I met in Chalten will join me for the journey.
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I can’t wait. I wonder what’s out there?

Posted by Rhombus 15:26 Archived in Argentina Tagged waterfalls mountains birds parks hiking trekking towns argentina photography patagonia Comments (0)

Ushuaia And The Long Road to El Chalten

Returning to Terra Firma, In the Forest, On The Bus, and Patagonian Road Thoughts

semi-overcast 59 °F

It took me a couple of days to get used to Ushuaia. Actually, I should have said it took me a few days to get used to civilization. After four months of ship life, I was a landlubber once again. The transition is hard. I suddenly (and violently) realized that if I wanted to eat, I had to prepare something, or go to a restaurant. It’s a cruel world, sometimes.

I was nervous. This time I was starting in a foreign country, I didn’t know the language, and I was alone. But, I did it. I put one foot in front of the other and I walked off that ship. I haven’t really looked back. Argentina has been too alluring.
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Ushuaia is a bustling city. People have places to go, and a never ended stream of traffic moves along its sidewalks and streets. The city was bigger than it appeared from the ship. The city looks and feels like a larger ski town, with upscale outdoor clothing shops, and very high prices.

Ushuaia reminds me of southeast Alaska. I think its the climate. One can see every type of weather in one hour. The mountains are similar. The forests are similar, but the plants are not all the same. They both have clean mountain streams, and the town is perched at the base of the mountain. I almost felt at home.
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I spent my first day attending to business. I found my hostel. I bought an adaptor for my computer, a small lock, a bus ticket, and food. I managed all of this without speaking many words. I don’t speak Spanish very well. So, while I may be able to ask for directions to the supermarket, I don’t know what they said to me in response. They could have told me it was on Mars, and I would’ve replied, “Yes, thank you.”
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I feel bad about it. I don’t want to be another dumb American who demands English in a Spanish-speaking nation. Therefore, no matter how badly I mutilate their language, I will still try to speak it.

It is always difficult to shop at a grocery store after being on a ship for so long. I never know what to buy, or what I want to eat. I’ll spend the first ten minutes kind of wandering around in a daze. I’ll touch various pieces of produce remembering that somehow French fries come from this earthy brown thing. A mom was pushing her cart around with two kids in tow. The one sitting in the basket looked at me, smiled, and said, “Hola!” I smiled back, and said, “Hola!” Then I repeated the process with her brother. Kids are the same everywhere.

After a good night of sleep, I felt much better. I could do this. I met all my daily requirements, and slept well besides. I decided that the day’s mission was to find a place to slack-line.
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My small city map indicated there was a park six blocks west of my hostel. I found it, and I set up my line between two likeable trees. Whenever I have an audience, I always perform my best tricks. I think I’m trying to show off how fun slack-lining can be. I listened to the usual catcalls, but this time I didn’t understand what they were saying. No matter, I was having fun.

On my last day, I decided to see if I could find a hiking trail. I had two different sets of directions on how to find the trailhead, sandals, my adventure bag, and good weather. I wanted to see how feasible it would be to hike in sandals. I reasoned that people have been using sandals for thousands of years, yet hiking boots are a modern invention. If I could hike in sandals, it would save me the hassle of shopping and the cost of the boots.

I found the trailhead to Cerro del Medio right where they described. I grew confident. I know what to do with an unknown trail that ventures into the mountains. The trail snaked upward through thick woods that covered the foothills. The trail became increasingly muddy. Mud doesn’t pose a problem if you have boots, but it becomes a challenge in sandals. I clung to any patch of higher ground and stepped off into the woods to make my passage. I broke the hiker’s commandment, “Stay on the Trail.” But, it worked.
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Then I took a bad step and sunk up to my ankle in mud. When I pulled my foot out, I discovered my sandal had broken at one of the straps. Sandals were not a good idea. Fortunately, only one strap broke. This meant I could still walk in them, but they were very loose.

I heard rushing water through the trees, and decided to investigate. I wanted to wash my foot off before slogging back down to town. When I neared the stream, I found a long gently sloping waterfall running over a carpet of green moss. It was beautiful. I forgot about my sandal, and pulled out my camera. I spent the next half hour setting up scenes through my camera, and blurring the water into a silky white.
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When I returned to the trail, I turned uphill. I saw no reason to return to town. I felt good. I liked this mountain track. I passed the tree line. I clawed my way up a snowfield onto a rocky side the mountain. I followed the track for another half hour. I wove along moss-covered rocks with beautiful patterns.
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I could see forever. The beagle channel and Ushuaia lay far below. The wind whispered through the rocks, but I’m not sure what it said. The trail went on up to the ridgeline, but I did not. I was satisfied.
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The Long Road to El Chalten
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I walked to the bus station through the early morning gloom of a rainy day. I boarded the bus at 5:00 in the morning. I would not reach my destination until 9:00 the next morning.

Even at that early hour, I was excited. I was heading into the nether regions of Patagonia. All I wanted to do was listen to a good book and stare out the window. I love endless landscapes. I love moving through new country. This was going to be great! Within ten minutes, I fell asleep.

I woke up some time later in the town of Rio Grande. Soon afterward, the road had turned to gravel, and we were slowly bouncing through the mud at a steady clip. The mud flew up and slowly spackled my window into an opaque layer of filth. Light could pass through, but I couldn’t see out of it at all.
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The bus stopped, and the driver told us we had to pass through customs. I didn’t know what he said, but when everyone else left the bus, I followed. I understood when I saw the building. I went through the line. With my passport stamped, I stepped back on the bus.
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A little while later, it stopped again. I didn’t like not being able to see where we were going. Again, we all filed off the bus and I saw we were on the south side of the Straits of Magellan. Aha! I walked on the ferry. It was weird to be crossing another famous waterway. I never imagined I’d ever see the Straits of Magellan. Yet, here I am.

Once I was back on the bus, we passed through customs into Argentina, and Rio Gallegos.

The bus station in Rio Gallegos was dirty, but had plenty of seats. Stray dogs with ratty and matted looking hair wandered in an out of the station trying to get out of the cold. They scratched their fleas, and chewed their fur. They smelled of dank dog sweat, and stale fur. They were a sorry lot.

It’s a five-hour bus ride from Rio Gallegos to El Calafate. I slept through most of it. I remember waking up somewhere out in the middle and trying to see out of the window. From what little I could see, it reminded me of nighttime in North Dakota. Wind whistled through the crack in the window near my head. My eyes were dry and unfocused. I tried to remember my dream. I couldn’t grasp it.

Outside El Calafate, the police checked our passports once again. We motored to the top of the hill to the bus station. The station was mostly empty, the station kiosks closed for the night. There were a handful of passengers waiting for the next bus. I sat down on a wooden park bench. I had six hours to wait. I brushed my teeth. I washed my face. I applied deodorant. This was my shower, El Calafate style.
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When the last bus for the night arrived, it took the rest of the passengers. I was alone. I wondered if I could stay there all night. There were no signs, and I reasoned I wasn’t the first gringo to stay overnight at the bus station. I tried to get comfortable as I could. I sighed. I settled in for the long haul.

I had Chatwin to keep me company. I read his prose and tried to relate. I was getting sleepy. Every half hour or so, and army man would walk around the deserted station. He didn’t look at me, or talk to me, and I didn’t say anything to him. At four thirty, I sprawled on the uncomfortable bench and fell asleep. I woke up an hour later to one of my snores. I would have been embarrassed, but there was only the stoic army man to hear me.

I huddled by the heater for the next hour as the station began to come alive. At 6:30, I boarded my last bus that would take me to the promised land: El Chalten. I dozed off. When I awoke we were rolling through the grassy steppe of Patagonia. The steppe was mostly grassland, but there were many stones and rocks sprinkled throughout. I wondered if I would see Mont Fitz Roy from the road. I really didn’t know what to expect, but I was glad my journey was nearing an end. I couldn’t wait to sleep in a real bed.

Finally, we rolled into El Chalten. I had made it right on time, twenty-nine hours later. I was glad to be here for many reasons, but the number one reason is that El Chalten is gateway to Los Glaciares National Park’s north side. This is home to Mont Fitz Roy, Mount Torres, glaciers, lakes, rivers, waterfalls, and as it turned out, one of my favorite towns in the world.
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More on El Chalten to come…

Posted by Rhombus 08:33 Archived in Argentina Tagged mountains islands hiking buses photography forests patagonia ushuaia roadtrips Comments (2)

Living The Good Life: Parting Shots of Antarctica

Opportunity, Parting Shots and Going Around The Horn

sunny 21 °F

It’s hard to believe I went to Antarctica. Who does that? As we were winding up our last days on the continent, my travel companion and I compared notes on how much we’ve worked this year. I’ve worked five and a half months in 2012, and she worked six months. We both started laughing at our ridiculous good fortune. By the numbers, we should be living in poverty. But here we are, sitting in white robes on a comfortable bed, waiting for our next landing on the Antarctic Peninsula. It’s absurd.

My advice: When opportunity knocks on your door, answer it.

Parting Shots

Orca!
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I didn’t see many whales around the peninsula, except for one pod of Orca. The orcas were on the move in search of seals. The seals like to bask in the sun on top of ice floes. The whales will search among the icebergs; spyhopping out of the water to see if any seals are hiding on top. In this pod, there were two males, one female, and one juvenile whale.
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Endless Mountain Landscapes
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We had some outstanding weather on the trip. These shots are of the narrow passage that leads to Port Lockroy. The weather for the entire trip was amazing. There were several days in a row of brilliant sunshine with blue skies. Sunglasses and sunscreen were mandatory.
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I didn’t expect the peninsula to be as mountainous as it is. I love seeing high mountains peaking out from heavy cloud cover.
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Marching Penguins
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Penguins spend a lot of their day moving from one group to another, one place to another. Though wary, they tolerate humans so long as we do not get in their way. A penguin is busy this time of year, there are rocks to haul, nests to construct and mates to attract.
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A penguin highway is a great spot to watch them. The highway is obvious, as there is a ten-foot wide discoloration on the ice, and it usually has a couple of penguins ambling back and forth upon it. I like to sit down right near a highway at a strategic point where the penguins have to by closely in order to get where they want to go.
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For instance, one of their paths wound up a rock ramp between the ocean and the main colony. I sat down right next to bottom side of the ramp. The penguins didn’t care at all. They waddled right by and allowed me to watch them from less than three feet away.
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Penguin Flight

Brown Bluff sits at the extreme northerly end of the Antarctic Peninsula. Underneath this massive rock lies a large breeding colony of penguins. Like all life forms, a penguin must eat. To do this, they have to eventually get into the ocean and swim out to their feeding grounds. A leopard seal must also eat, and it knows the best place to catch penguins is between the colony and the feeding grounds.
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The leopard seal is very crafty, and uses all kinds of stealthy camouflage to catch the penguins off guard. He will hide behind bergs; wedging himself into a small crevice before launching himself at the passing penguins. He’s a menace to penguins.
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The penguins know this, and fight back with numbers. At a rocky point, the penguins gather in the hundreds. They wait there until the lead penguin closest to the water decides to go for it. Then it’s a game of follow the leader, and the hundred penguins that were standing behind him launch themselves into the sea in a mad rush. It’s impressive.

The penguin mob began swimming out to their grounds. When penguins swim, they “porpoise” through the water, jumping out like dolphins to catch a breath of air before diving back down. I watched the penguins get further away from shore. They looked like they were going to make it. Then, in an instant, they turned 90 degrees to their original direction and began to panic. The leopard seal struck again.
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The penguins raced back to shore. They began popping out of the water and recklessly landed on the rocks. They were scared. When the chaos ended, I could see the leopard seal thrashing the penguin against the water. It was somewhat sad, but that’s the way it goes.

Around The Horn
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We ended our explorations of the southern ocean by cruising through Drake’s Passage up to Cape Horn. This section of the world is unique. It’s where the Pacific Ocean meets the Atlantic and Southern Oceans collide. Our passage wasn’t bad. We had a good roll to our ship, but the seas remained relatively calm.

It was strange to see Cape Horn. Though I have read about it, I never imagined that one day I would be looking at the tip of South America. I had made it around the horn. What a strange life I lead.

In the old days of sailing, it could take months to make it around the horn, and many mariners did not make it. Hundreds of ships litter this section of ocean. Many sailors were never seen again.

Fortunately, our ship was not one of them. We turned northeast before turning into the Beagle Channel before returning to Ushuaia.

So ends one hell of an amazing life journey. In time, I may have more to say about this voyage, but I’m still digesting it. As one adventure ends, another begins. “Adios, Antarctica. Hola, Argentina.”

Posted by Rhombus 08:42 Archived in Antarctica Tagged islands wildlife ice oceans photography penguins icebergs antarctica Comments (0)

The Elements of Antarctica

Blizzards, Ice Sculpture, The Slide and Penguins

semi-overcast 22 °F


After much thought, I’ve decided I’m a struggling as a writer. I don’t know what adjectives to use when trying to describe the landscape of the Antarctic Peninsula and surrounding islands. My thesaurus has run dry. It’s hard to find words that illustrate supreme beauty-except those very words. Antarctica IS supremely beautiful, and that is all I have to say about it.

The Antarctic Peninsula is essentially made of six elements. These are: ice, rock, water, atmosphere, snow, and wildlife (which includes humans). The interplay of these six simple elements makes Antarctic landscapes magnificent.

Here is my proof.

Blizzard on Deception Island
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There is nothing like walking around in a blizzard in Antarctica to make you feel alive. I landed on Deception Island in the midst of a fierce gale. The snow wasn’t really falling so much as it was whipping horizontally over the ground. It never really had a chance to hit the ice. The wind grabbed those flakes and used them to scour the land and the people who walked upon it. It was awesome.
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It was a great day for photography. The wind and driving snow obscured the details of the landscape. I shot these photos in sepia to give an “olde tyme” feel to them. They are some of my favorites of the trip.
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Neptune’s Window
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My compatriots and I took a hike to a high point called Neptune’s Window. I love how these lines of people look in the heavy wind and snow.

Slush
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I found a pond with interesting patterns made of slush.

Cuverville Island
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Natural Ice Sculpture
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A beautiful collection of natural ice art surrounds Cuverville Island. What I really love about these sculptures is not only are they completely natural, but they are only momentary. You have to appreciate them as they are in this moment, because a day from now they might be completely different. In the Antarctic, the flow of change is constant.
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Weddell Seal
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Seals spend much of their time sacked out on the ice floes.

Gentoo Penguin Colony
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Gentoo penguins have a colony on Cuverville Island. It’s interesting to watch gentoos during this time of year, because they are beginning their mating season. All over Cuverville, the penguins gather about in groups on the highest points of the land. They choose high ground because the snow will melt the quickest on top, and it is here where they will make their nests made of rocks.
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In the colony, the penguins consisted of two groups: those that are still looking for a mate, or those that have found one. The courting of penguins is quite elegant. After a good sit, the penguins will slowly walk in a circle. Together, they will bow down very low to the ground and open their beaks while looking at one another. Then the birds will return to a neutral pose and continue sitting around for a few hours.
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The penguins that haven’t found a mate yet spend their days wandering from one group to the next. Often they will stand in trios and call out in a loud “purr.” These calls are announcements of their availability and fine genetics.
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Penguin watching is a fascinating pastime.
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Neko Harbour Shenanigans
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I took my first footsteps on the Antarctic Continent on a cold beach at Neko Harbour. I started my afternoon off by hiking high up on a massive bluff. I passed the ever-present gentoo colonies as I sweated my way to the top. It overlooked the massive glacier that was just across the small cove from where we landed. The glacier had a huge piece of ice poised to fall into the sea below. It would have made a tremendous wave had it fallen. The glacier did sheave off some ice, but the giant piece stayed in place.

Since I was on top of a very steep hill, it only made sense to slide down to the bottom on my rain pants. I managed to talk two of my friends into joining me. At first, it didn’t look like we were going to have any luck. The snow was too soft; the slope not steep enough. We tried a few different techniques, before the snow and slope cooperated. We were soon sliding easily along the snow, laughing, giggling, and whooping with joy. We picked up speed. The joy turned into sheer terror as we reached the lip of the true slope. At this point, there was no way to slow down, and we went into a free fall down the side of the cliff.

I tried to dig my fingers, boots, and arms into the snow, but it was no use. I was at the mercy of gravity, speed, and friction. I finally managed to dig my feet into the slope, but that only caused me to summersault heels over head. I body slammed into the ground and lost all control of descent. Finally, I began to slow and gradually slid to a stop. I laughed. It was exhilarating. I looked over to see how Amy was doing and she was fine. Then we both watched to see the giggling Tiffany fly down the last slope to where we were sitting in the snow. We compared notes, laughed some more, and finally got up to collect our things.
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After the slide, I watched penguins for the rest of the afternoon. They were up to their usual antics: Waddling around, bowing to one another, making nests, and looking cute. I had several of them bob right up to where I was sitting in the snow. I had a good look at their fine lines and remarkable feet.
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Lemaire Channel and Booth Island
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Lemaire Channel is one of the most beautiful stretches of water I’ve passed through. It is bound on both sides by steep, snow-laden mountains. Icy fields descend the mountain and form tidal glaciers at the waterline. I ventured through a corridor of blue glaciers. I felt like I was in a hallway of the Gods.
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After passing through the channel, I rounded the south side of Booth Island. It is in this area that the big icebergs have gathered. There size is immense. Only about ten percent of an iceberg is above the waterline. Keep that in mind as you look at some of the photos of these icebergs.
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The Keyhole
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Leopard Seal
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This is a male leopard seal. The leopard seal is a fierce predator that eats penguins as its main source of food. Their lithe, sinewy bodies are ideal for slipping through narrow openings in the ice. Leopard seals are territorial, claiming a patch of water as their own.

Compressed Ice
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The heavy weight of the dense glacier compresses oxygen out of the ice, which is why it is so clear. The clearer the piece of ice is, the less oxygen is in it. You can see this same process for yourself if you take a small scoop of snow and begin working it and squeezing it with your fingers. As it melts, it becomes easier to form, try to keep it in the shape of a cube as you compress it. You will notice that it becomes clearer. Now you won’t be able to make it as clear as this piece, but the concept is still the same.

Pack Ice
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It was an odd experience to be moving through pack ice on a ship. I have read about pack ice in countless books about Polar exploration. In my mind, I always wondered what it was like to be bashing one’s way through an endless plain of moving ice. As with everything, it’s one thing to read about it; it’s quite another to actually experience it.
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First, some science. Essentially, pack ice forms when a large flat piece of new ice breaks up in smaller chunks and collects en masse by wind and currents. Most pack ice looks like a large collection of giant snow pancakes, with smaller chunks of ice in between.
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Our ship is an ice class vessel, which means it can push its way through pack ice with relative ease. After the days activities, with dinner firmly lodged in our stomachs, everyone on board went outside to enjoy this unique experience. I bundled up against the cold, grabbed my camera, and went out to the bow of the ship.
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The lighting was incredible. Photographers and painters dream about this light. It was low angled light from a golden sunset, diffused through bands of thin clouds. The sunset seemingly lasts forever in the Antarctic during the summer months, and this was no exception. In the background were heavily clouded mountains that contrasted beautifully in the sunlit foreground. The photographers on board were in ecstasy, shooting hundreds and hundreds of pictures in a couple of hours. They ran around singing Paul Simon’s “Kodakchrome.” They talked to the icebergs, complimenting them on their beauty as they snapped their shutters. It sounded like machine gun fire.
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I loved every part of it. The ice pancakes were beautiful. Hell, everything was beautiful. It was an amazing evening in a unique landscape.

Adelie Penguins
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This is the classic Antarctic scene: A small group of adelie penguins popped out of the water onto a flat sheet of ice right in front of me. They shook and rolled around on the floe, which helps them shed water from their dive. They were curious, yet cautious. They kept one eye on me as they rested. I halfway expected them to start tap dancing, but they didn’t.
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Then one of the penguins took the lead and readied itself to jump back in the water. The other penguins followed it, and they all lined up before diving back into the frigid water.
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Antarctica is supremely beautiful… Yep.
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Posted by Rhombus 10:49 Archived in Antarctica Tagged islands ice oceans ships photography penguins icebergs blizzards Comments (2)

South Georgia Island In Pictures

Peggotty Bluff, King Penguin Colonies, Grytviken, Shackleton's Grave and Dawn at Gold Harbour,

semi-overcast 32 °F


There are many things I want to write about South Georgia Island. However, South Georgia is another one of those places where the written word struggles against the island‘s reality. It’s too big, it’s too beautiful, and it’s too complex. I will do my best, but I will try to keep it short. My photographs, though poignant, cannot fully encompass this island for the same reasons. I chose these images because I liked them, they stood up to my artistic eye, and they offer views of the island as it looks today. And today, this island is magnificent.

South Georgia Island In Pictures

Peggotty Bluff, King Haakon Bay
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This is the spot where Ernest Shackleton and company made landfall on South Georgia Island after crossing eight hundred miles of rough Antarctic waters in an open wood boat. During that crossing, he sailed through a hurricane and was able to make only three sightings with his sextant. He named the bluff “Peggotty Bluff” after a scene from “David Copperfield.” He stayed for a day or two, then with two other men made the first crossing of South Georgia on foot, a feat that is easily as impressive as the watery crossing considering their condition and the landscape they faced. I could talk about this odyssey for hours. If you want to learn more about this amazing feat of survival, read “The Endurance" by Caroline Alexander.
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To me, it was a fitting place to make my own first landfall on South Georgia. This island is steeped in maritime history and amazing natural beauty. In my first fifty steps on the beach, I saw both. Wherever I looked, I saw high mountains, glaciers, and foothills. The beach was dotted with amazing wildlife I had never seen before. I gaped at a group of king penguins. I nervously grinned at sleeping fur seals and huge elephant seals. It was amazing.
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And with all that natural beauty about me, I walked in the footsteps of Shackleton. Who, upon reaching this spot, had already been through hell, and still had not given up. I had admired “The Boss’s” grit before, but being here and seeing what he faced gave me new appreciation for his feat of survival.

Trinity Island, Stewart Strait
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We passed through Stewart Strait in the late afternoon. The wind was howling from the northwest, a raw lashing from a cold whip on any exposed skin. I sat in the comfort of the ship’s library. I was content to watch the seals and penguins swim in groups through the lumpy slate gray ocean. The albatross and cape petrels zoomed by, gliding easily on the ferocious wind.

The sun cracked through the gloom just as we were passing Trinity Island. A compelling scene of ocean surf and misty islands unfolded before me. I grabbed my camera and shoved the door open against the gale. It felt like I was in a cyclone, but I steadied myself against the cold bulkhead and captured this shot. I stayed outside for as long as the sunshine lasted, which turned out to be only about ten minutes. I felt fully refreshed from my impromptu photo shoot. I pulled my way back into the library, took a sip of hot tea and smiled.

The Penguins of Salisbury Plain
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Salisbury plain is on the north side of the island located on the Bay of Isles. This plain is home to one of the island’s largest king penguin colonies, ranking forth or fifth in total number.

Let me tell you about a king penguin colony. First of all, they stink. Penguins don’t care where they shit. Picture hundreds and hundreds of penguins mingling together, each of them shitting several times a day. The aroma is over powering. The main part of the colony stood around in a giant plain of greasy muck. I gingerly stepped through the sticky sludge as I moved around the edge of the colony. If any part of your clothing touched this gunk, it remained there even after brushing it off. Penguin shit is half Velcro and half toxic waste.
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Secondly, the king penguin is a very handsome bird. It‘s plumage has very delicate lines with colors ranging in light gray, black, and bright yellow. It’s beak is bright orange along its side and black on top. It carries itself well, as though it is always just going for a stroll through the park.
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The penguin chicks are extremely cute. Known as “Oakum Boys,” they wear a fluffy brown suit of feathers that looks to be a size too big for them. They are very plump. They walk around in a gawky toddler awkwardness that brings a smile to my face whenever I think of it.
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Here are two of my favorite moments. Three chicks walked up to me and lifted their heads up to see what I was all about. Then, probably in frustration, one of them tilted its head skyward and started chirping quite loudly. It began flapping its useless scrawny wings as hard as it could. It ran around the colony with reckless abandon. It circled until it bounced off another adult bird, the latter bewildered by the young chick. It was hilarious.

One poor chick was convinced it had found its mum. It dutifully followed this mature penguin around the colony for over an hour. At intervals, the mature penguin would stop, turn around and curse the young chick out insisting it wasn’t its mum. It could not persuade the young chick of this. When the older penguin walked on, the younger one followed one-step behind. At one point, the young chick walked right into the back of the older one, which caused another bout of cursing. No matter what trick the mature penguin tried, the young chick stayed right behind.
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Penguins are curious creatures. During the course of the morning, I sat on my haunches to gain a penguin perspective, or to use my camera. If I remained there long enough, a king penguin would come up to me and watch me for a couple of minutes before moving on. “What are these giant red penguins?”

The Ghosts of South Georgia
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All that remains of South Georgia’s whaling history are decrepit artifacts of the once busy whaling stations. These old run down buildings are slowly rusting away- blown apart by the relentless wind. They are dangerous places, filled with asbestos, flying bits of metal and unexploded harpoon tips.
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I walked through the largest station at Grytviken (pronounced Grit-vee-ken). Grytviken sits in a small cove on the west side of Cumberland East Bay on the north side of the island.
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I had mixed feelings about Grytviken. As I looked over the huge collection of rundown machinery, broken concrete slabs, heavy chains, and rusted hulls of beached whaling ships, I couldn’t help but feel repulsion. All of this used metal was once part of a giant assembly line that killed and slaughtered the whales of the southern ocean. They turned the giant whales into barrels of oil, and sacks of fertilizer. It felt like a death camp - a disassembly line of the magnificent southern whales. They were very efficient. As the plaque states, “On a good day, thirty fin whales could be rendered in 24 hours.”
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The whale populations of the southern oceans still haven’t recovered. International law protects them, but there are still some countries that continue to kill whales. It’s a very controversial issue.
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On the positive side, Grytviken is home to an amazing collection of vintage maritime memorabilia. Throughout the grounds, there are interesting pieces of maritime history, from the giant chains, the rusting vessels, complete with a crow’s nest, and finally the well-stocked museum. With my camera in hand, I walked the grounds looking for history. It was all around me.
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Shackleton's Grave
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A very heavy snow squall fell upon me as I walked through Grytviken’s quiet cemetery. Shackleton lies here, his grave oriented north to south. I paused to reflect on the final resting spot of one of the great survivalists, and drank a toast to his spirit.

Gold Harbour Beach
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I landed on Gold Harbour beach shortly before four in the morning. It was chilly, but I was comfortable enough in my xtratuff boots, long johns and rain pants. I wore three thin layers of protection over my torso topped off with a windproof parka. I was snug.
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Upon arrival, I found elephant seals lying around like giant stuffed sausages all over the sand. Elephant seals are huge. The male can weigh over four tons, the female much smaller at only one ton. This bulk is primarily blubber. The male elephant seal looks much like Jabba The Hut (of Star Wars Fame). They spend most of its time fighting other males, mating (if it’s lucky), or sleeping in the sand. For such a large creature, they are surprisingly light on their flippers. If you aren’t careful, an elephant seal can sneak up and reshape you into a flat Stanley.
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I must admit it was a bit unnerving to walk among the sleeping males. At the same time, it was exhilarating. I snickered at the slumbering giants. They were snoring and snuffing through their giant nostrils. I thought of my brothers after a hefty afternoon meal.
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The weaners- the small elephant seal pups that have been weaned off mum’s milk- were very curious, and came right up to where I was standing. They were adorable. Their giant brown eye reflected the scene around it, and I had a hard time keeping it from chewing on my boots and tripod.
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Mixed into the hundreds of seals were thousands of king penguins. This was another beachside colony and these birds chose one of the most beautiful beaches on earth for their home. I spent a lot of time admiring their clean plumage in the crisp morning light. The “Oakum Boys” were active; the curious chicks waddled over to where I sat in the sand.
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Along with the king penguins, gentoo penguins waddled around in small groups. These penguins are much smaller than the king, but no less charismatic.
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This was a fine morning. Gold Harbour has one of the most beautiful beaches I have ever seen. This was South Georgia at its finest, an experience I won’t soon forget.

The Penguins of Cooper Bay

Before we started making way towards the Antarctica Peninsula, we made one final stop on the eastern side of South Georgia Island at Cooper Bay.

In this small bay, I saw four different types of penguins. This includes two types that I had never seen before: the chinstrap and the macaroni.
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It’s easy to see why they call them chinstrap penguins, as they have a dark line that runs underneath their chin. Though penguins cannot fly through the air, they can swim like mini torpedoes. To breathe they often pop up through the surface to catch a breath of air before diving back under. I was quick on the shutter for this shot of three chinstraps taking flight.
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The macaroni penguin is easy to distinguish from other penguins by its bright yellow feathers that stick out of the back of its head. I was fortunate to get close to a small group of them lounging on a large rock near the water. It would have been nice to spend more time with the macaroni penguin, but it wasn’t in the cards. My time on South Georgia Island had ended.
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I feel very fortunate to be one of the few people in the world who will ever make it to South Georgia. It is a very remote island located far in the south Atlantic. The wildlife and landscapes were among the most beautiful I have ever seen. Looking back at my photos from this trip, I realize that I only spent four days at six different locations on South Georgia. Imagine what a person might see if he spent a lot of time here on this amazing island.
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“Onward!” We are now sailing to Antarctica.

Posted by Rhombus 11:31 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged mountains islands wildlife oceans ships photography penguins seals maritime whaling southgeorgia Comments (0)

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