PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot The Rapids — Antarctica Journey, The Campout

When I first begin to explore going on a cruise to Antarctica, I read about the opportunity to go camping on the continent. Of course, every fiber of my outdoor being hoped and prayed that I would be able to take advantage of such a unique and incredible opportunity. However I was fully aware that because of conditions and limited availability, the chance to do it would be slim.

Even after our names were drawn in the random lottery as the cruise began, I continually tried to temper my expectations because I knew it could be canceled right up to the last minute. The conditions had to be perfect in order to allow us to go from a basic liability standpoint.

When organizers finally called our names and told us to prepare to go, I truly couldn’t believe that it was happening. I think that was the opinion of everyone else in our group.

Thirty of us were selected to go, although I do not know how many submitted their names to do it. There were some who were sorely disappointed they could not go, while others questioned the sanity of those of us who wanted to leave our boat to pay more to sleep on ice in Antarctica. Those folks clearly don’t get me.

Our group was very diverse. It included a family of four from Indiana, a mother and her 16-year-old daughter from New Zealand and a woman in her 70s with her 50-year-old son from Texas, a woman from Trinidad who now lives in Albania, traveling with her aunt from Trinidad, and a host of others. I was delighted that several of my closest friends I’ve made on the ship were also selected. Birds of a feather, I guess.

Janel and I couldn’t have come from more opposite experiences. I’ve been camping since I could walk, and this would be Janel’s first time sleeping in a tent. I admire her moxie being willing to camp for the first time in Antarctica. She said she’s never done it before because she hates creepy crawlies and things one might encounter camping but the chances of that happening in Antarctica were slim.

We were asked to bring as little as possible, so in addition to my usual array of clothing, the only additional items I brought were a sleep mask because of the light and cold, a couple of medications, an EpiPen, just in case (though the chances of bee stings seemed quite remote) and, of course, the requisite penguin costume.

Prior to going, we needed to take care of all of our nighttime activities, so much as possible, because we could bring absolutely nothing with us beyond a water bottle. No food or other beverage was allowed.

When we arrived at the site, we got off of the zodiac and loaded our personal bags with a sleeping bag and an inner liner that they provided into the pulka, a sled that we would pull to our site. It had previously been loaded with a foam mat and thermarest for each of us, and our tent.

Together we pulled the pulka up to our location and began the process of setting up the tent. The job of constructing the tent was entirely up to me because Janel had never put a tent in her life. I can usually put a tent up in my sleep, but this was a tad harder because of the snow, even though it was a simple tent that was very easy to construct. The most challenging part was getting the poles into the slots with the cold and figuring out how to position the stakes that we had to use to pull out the tent.

When we arrived, the weather could not have been more perfect, literally windless. It is Antarctica, and weather can change, so we had to prepare for fierce winds that might blow in. As a result, we needed to make the tent as taut as possible. I stretched out all of the lines and used the stakes sideways in order to basically create an anchor in the snow, using the concave part to face the tent. Once that was secured, I had to tamp it down with as much snow as possible to leave it in place in case the winds blew.

Since I had done all of the portion involving putting up the tent, Janel went inside and made our home for the night. She laid down the mats and the sleeping bags when I handed them to her and got everything together. We had a nice little foyer for our boots, which could not go inside the tent for obvious reasons.

All the tents went together fairly easily, and when we were done, we gathered for a group meeting. We took a group picture and were informed of the basic rules. They really weren’t any additional rules other than obey the usual rules and abide by the sound of silence from 11 p.m. until we woke in the morning.

We also visited the  “ig-loo” they created for us. It was basically an ice wall behind which they placed two self-contained toilets. The rules were extremely strict. Urine only. Under no circumstances, could we do anything else. Before leaving, I took Imodium and googled techniques to prevent anything else from happening.

After this, I announced to the group that I had brought my penguin costume and anyone who wished to wear it for a photo would be most welcome to after my own photo shoot. This has been my favorite Halloween costume for years, and I have used it for a costume when traveling over Halloween. My decision was that I would bring it and only take it out if the vibe of the group was such that I felt it was acceptable. If I was with a bunch of very serious naturalists, etc., I would’ve been much less comfortable. However, almost everyone thought it was hilarious. Perhaps one or two people were not amused, but I think they need to loosen up.

About half of the group had their photo taken with me or used the costume for a family photo. I am pretty sure the family from Indiana is going to use it as the Christmas picture. The joy the 14-year-old girl from New Zealand had when she was wearing it and taking a video of her waddling around made it absolutely worth bringing.

After this, it was nearing 11 p.m., and I wandered around and enjoyed the view. A couple of Weddle seals were sleeping not terribly far from our camp, and we saw and heard some glaciers calving. Some penguins also came on shore to see what we were up to, but they did not get very close.

I was the last person to go to the tent and could not believe the chance to just walk around in utter and complete silence and experience the majesty that surrounded me. It was a truly awesome spiritual experience that I will relish for the rest of my life.

After using the  “ig-loo,” where I had without a doubt the most glorious throne room view in my entire existence, I got into the tent. It was close to midnight and the sun had still not set. We had some blue sky earlier and could see the incredible changes in color that occurred when the sun came out. But by this time, it was cloudy and I realized there would be no visible sunset, I decided to lie down.

I waited as long as possible, and I hope this is not too much information because I have not slept through the night without needing to get up in years. However, this was one occasion when I did not want that to happen. The thought of having to pull all of my gear to go out and walk quite a distance to go was everything I needed to try to keep it from happening. Thankfully, it worked.

Once in the tent, I snuggled into the sleeping bag, wearing my thermal underwear, a hat on my head, socks and a facemask and slept fairly soundly.

However, around 4 a.m., I was awakened by the sound of the calving glaciers. They were extremely loud and felt very close. The wind was also howling at this point, and I was glad that I had worked so diligently to stake the tent well

At this point, I began a reflection on the fact that nature is nature and uncontrollable and even though we were not in the direct area of calving glaciers, anything is possible, since this is an area where there are both earthquakes and avalanches. After reflecting on what a death by avalanche would be like and determining that it was in God’s hands, I got a little more sleep until they woke us up at 5:30 a.m. to begin the process of breaking down the tent and getting ready to go.

This was the only time that I was uncomfortable during the entire camping experience. It was sleeting, and the wind was blowing. At one point, I had to remove my gloves in order to take care of some of the tasks of putting the tent down. I reached a point where I could not feel my fingers, and I was actually becoming very afraid of getting frostbite.

Fortunately, Janel had bought long handwarmers. I shoved one into my outer  glove and and wrapped my hands around it, continuing to try to take down the tent, even as I used paws rather than fingers. By the time our boat arrived, and we were on the last boat , I had regained some in my fingers, although even as I write this, the tips are still a bit numb.

When we got back to the ship, we were greeted with a warm cup of cocoa and told to go to one of the restaurants after we had taken off all of our gear. There we were welcomed with a mimosa and a wonderful buffet and breakfast service, as well as a certificate, marking the fact that we have slept on the Antarctic continent along with the location of our campsite.

It was my seventh continent to camp on, a feat I suspect puts me in a smaller group than most when it comes to travel exploration, a fact I do not take lightly. For the rest of my life, I will hold this up as one of those events that truly allows me to embrace the serendipity of life and the grace of God.

Truly, the words of “How Great Thou Art” will forever go through my mind as I recall this unique and unbelievable experience.

Leave a Reply