kayakers expeditioning in Antarctica

Paddling Antarctica

Back to the Basics: Man in Extreme Conditions

In the year 2000, Nigel Dennis, Stan Chladek, and Tom Bergh successfully circumnavigated Nelson Island in the South Shetland Islands. It was the first unsupported expedition of its kind.

Out on the open Pacific, enormous drifting icebergs freed from the Antarctic ice shelf flowed toward the Drake Passage, dwarfing our sea kayaks. Other worldly shapes and iridescent blues, coupled with the ice’s unusual lumbering movement, lent an eerie quality to the low ceiling clouds. The only sounds were nature at its most rugged. The weather was Antarctic: windy, foggy, damp, and cold. Out here there are no people, no boats, no options. It is just the three of us, making hopefully wise decisions on the sea. 

We paddled beneath a series of 100-foot volcanic sea stacks, telephant seals in Antarcticaops lost in the mist, and landed in a
football-sized amphitheater covered with Elephant seals; wallowing in muck baths, their molting skin lent a sad quality to these magnificent beasts. Lying piled together for friendship and warmth, only the massive bull seals, over 8,000 pounds, roared a warning to stay away. Their harems’ warm moist eyes more gently pleaded, “Leave us alone, thank you.” We were graced to walk freely through their world. We started to perceive how rich were these freezing waters, in order to nourish these hundreds of huge seals. So much input, it’s hard to grasp this place…

Three of us: Nigel Dennis from ASSC in the United Kingdom, Stan Chladek from Great River Outfitters, and Tom Bergh from Maine Island Kayak Co were on the first day of a kayak trip around Nelson Island located in the South Shetland Islands. This archipelago lies 600 miles south of Cape Horn and about 70 miles west of the north end of the Antarctic Peninsula. The area is best known for its Elephant Island, where Shackleton left all but 6 of his men for 22 months in 1916 as he navigated his 22-foot whaleboat, James Caird, 800 miles across the Drake Passage to South Georgia Island. His amazing sea crossing was but one stage on a star crossed expedition that remains an epic, even in today’s extreme world. We had thought often of these true Antarctic explorers: other names like Amundsen, who pioneered a lightning fast dog sled trip to the pole barely beating out Scott – who lost his life attending to the British style of adventuring. The awesome story of Mawson, who lost his two companions in the treacherous 60 mile wide Mertz and paddling toward an Antarctic glacierNinnis glaciers, then struggled alone across the wasteland – improvising for lost equipment while losing half his body weight pulling himself solo out of crevasses. These men were truly born to suffer, along with dozens of others, in total darkness, minus 50 degree temperatures, 60-100 knot winds with damp frozen clothing, heavy stores of very basic survival gear, canvas tents. We were well equipped and decently provisioned if nothing went too wrong. Between the three of us we’d adventured in many wild places, but Antarctica is perhaps the most isolated place on Earth dominated by severe and capricious weather and surrounded by a fierce open ocean. We hoped our preparations and years of training were adequate for this journey? But we didn’t really know…

From the beginning this trip involved focused high-energy movement with long periods of patient waiting. Some of our expedition gear had been sent to Punta Arenas, Costa Rica. We were staging from the lovely town of Punta Arenas, Chili at the end of the civilized world, one of us without our gear, two of us without boats. Finally after days of re-supply and anxious waiting we were able to collect our equipment in the Chilean military’s hanger, ready to be flown across the Drake Passage. For three days we raced off to the military hanger ready to board only to be delayed a few hours or another day. Patience is a more than a virtue, it’s an expeditioners’ basic need. Finally our able pilots felt they could drop their 4 engine Hercules transport plane down through a window in a cyclone onto the dirt strip on King George Island. Since the Chilean’s service several Antarctic research stations we were joined on the flight by Italian geologists mapping glacial caves, Russian glaciologists studying the magnificent streams of ice, and a group of red jacketed Chinese officials. The 40 passengers sat on strap seats in a bare noisy fuselage with all kinds of cables and tubes running overhead and vehicle sized pallets sitting on the floor behind us. The parachutes were neatly stacked on shelves above us. Comforting. After 2 ½ hrs we banked heavily over the Pacific and dropped a wing toward the ice covered islands and landed on a dirt strip.

Man in Extreme ConditionsWe were in Antarctica! After months of anticipation we’d finally made it. The day was foggy and dark gray with a damp wind blowing off the sea. It was probably 25 degrees colder than Punta Arenas now 800 miles to the North. Light splotches of yellow lichens colored the dirt and black rocks. We were on one of the few areas of exposed earth in these islands otherwise completely covered with glaciers hundreds of feet thick. The Chinese kindly shuttled us to the shore, we assembled our hard shelled 3 piece kayaks and loaded up to cross Maxwell Bay to our host base, Echo Nelson. Located on a dry dirt patch on the Northern side of Nelson Island, this small Czech research station, headed by Jaraslav Pavlicek, who has been studying “Man in Extreme Conditions”, the title of our permit, for over a decade.

The views are stunning. Tidal glaciers stretching up several hundred feet into the clouds rim all Nigel kayaking by Antarctic glacierscoastlines. A light Pacific swell pumped in past Race Point rolling bergy bits around in the surf. Sharp ridges of volcanic rock tear at the edge of the sea. On landings the growls and groans of fur seals stretched out on the rocky beaches greeted us. These are the cute circus-type seals once prized for their coats. None are interested in seeing us, in fact they’ll quickly chase you on flapping flippers, their silky mustaches glistening over razor sharp barred teeth. Their gait is similar to a grizzly bear, but fortunately not as fast.

From Echo Nelson, the landscape in all directions was truly awesome. It is surreal – hard to wrap the mind around the harsh and subtle beauty of the South Shetlands. Fifteen miles across the bay 700 foot black basaltic Nanutuks pierced the miles of undulating glaciers covering King George Island up to 1,500 feet. Around the corner the fierce blue of fresh ice cliffs contrasted with the crystal white icebergs calving from the enormous glaciers. Regularly dynamite-like explosions boomed across this Antarctic wildness as virgin icebergs plunged into the sea. On our exploratory day trips we’d gently bulldoze our kayaks through the brush ice, the bergy bits and growlers streaming out along the current lines. Every few hundred feet a brand new vista opened up as the dense wet fog limited our vistas. Occasionally the sky would brighten – then the landscape jumped out at us with the lime greens and royal yellows of the ancient lichens, spongy mosses, turquoise melt lakes and many hues of 10,000 year old glacial ice…and always the wind. The margins on our trip would be very narrow. Our weather logs reflect temperatures around freezing, very high humidity and winds averaging Force 4-5. It was summer but the constant winds bit deeply in the thick damp.

kayaker expeditioning around Nelson Island, South ShetlandsThe South Shetlands were “discovered” by the Russian, Bellinghausen in 1819 for sealers and whalers looking for a new stock of fur, meat and oil to support the demands of the Northern cultures. Several times since the animals have been beaten, stabbed, bled and cut up for our needs…nearly to extinction. The log of one ship anchored in Admirality Bay in the 1800’s recorded daily seal clubbings and killings of 600 to 7,000 animals a day! Some summers there were four dozen ships in these areas. It is hard to imagine the animal’s fear and death screams, the blood red bays, stench of rotten flesh, hills of carcasses on the beaches.

Antarctica is the driest, windiest continent on the planet. Its ice shield averages 2.7 km thick, has depressed the land in some places 1,600 meters. The Beard glacier is 3,000 meters thick where it enters the sea. The ice has been sampled as old as 250,000 years, and contains 70% of the world’s fresh water. In the winter Antarctica’s size doubles as the ice shelf extends out 1,000 km. Its average elevation is 2,250 meters contributing to the katabatics reaching 320 km/hr.

This lonely continent houses hundreds of lichens, mosses and algaes. Its largest animal permanently dwelling on the land is a wingless midge helping feed the 45 species of birds and 7 varieties of penguins. The biomass of shrimp-like krill has been estimated at 5 billion tons with some countries arguing for its harvest, but this mass is the food for all critters in the Southern Seas. The massive numbers of penguins, seals and whales in these waters is built upon the krill. During the early part of this century, our incomplete records indicate whalers killed and harvested over 45,000 of the earth’s magnificent Blue whales – the largest animal on Earth, 87,555 Finbacks – the second largest creature of the planet, 26,754 Humpbacks and numerous others; for what important purpose? We saw no whales during our journeys on the sea.

Originally we had planned to paddle from King George to Deception Island, a currently dormant volcanic caldera, a round trip distance of 160-220 miles depending on the route we were able to paddle. The Kayaking outside of King George, South Shetland Islandsweather had been particularly thick this summer season so the Chilean military had requested that we be ready to evacuate a few days earlier than planned. No one wanted to winter over on the ice. The three of us were well aware of the sometimes fatal dangers of Destination Disease, particularly in exposed environs, so despite our plans with the shortened time frame we quickly but sadly reworked our expedition to explore King George and circumnavigate Nelson Island. It’s disappointing to know at base camp that you are not going to climb the mountain. Yet we were still going exploring, paddling unsupported, a decent journey in these wild, wind sculpted waters. Most folks we met wondered if we were ‘half a bubble out of plum’, especially as we wanted to paddle the outer Pacific coast.

Our arrangement with our hosting base, Echo Nelson, was to perform seal counts, map landings on the exposed unexplored northern coast, and record the data for our permit’s title: “Man in Extreme Conditions”. We were well equipped for this demanding sea kayak expedition with expedition grade kayaks, but limited to the storage capacity of our three kayaks. Weight is crucial when you need to move fast, so we carried no radios as there’s no one to call – no phones since there’s no one to respond – no flares as there’s no one to see them. We carried one EPIRB that was mostly useless – we wrapped it in duct tape so it wouldn’t go off accidentally and buried it in Stan’s Nordkapp. Our only back-up was an arrangement with our host to inform the Chilean Navy to come search for us if we had not returned in two weeks. He had advised us we’d only be able to paddle 1-3 days a week. We allowed for 10 days. Lots can happen on the sea in a remote corner of the world with howling winds and challenging conditions. If the expedition stretched out much beyond that would we have to face wintering over a portion of the cold, dark season?

We had launched that first morning through a light surf break from the North shore of Nelson Island and immediately paddled into a narrow passage toward the Pacific. The Fidels Strait’s strong tidal currents mostly run West to East. On Neaps there is but one tide a day, on Springs this area has two of only 9 feet – but with the full pressure of the Easterly set of the Southern Oceans squeezing through the infamous Drake Passage separating the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

We skirted the edge of the moon-like black and gray coastal landscape, weaving through truck sizedseal on Antarctic ice chunks of ice on another thick, wet, foggy morning. Suddenly the mists revealed a Leopard seal sleeping on a clear blue floe. We approached with great caution. It slowly raised its long snout. The beautiful spotted coat contrasts with its savagery. Leopard seals are not fuzzy, friendly warm looking things. Their broad jaws were filled with 2” inch teeth – the better to fillet their penguin prey in one quick snap of their thick neck, or tear apart a 300 pound fur seal dinner. Their several thousand pound weight makes them formidable. The cold gaze from the 2” eye is almost reptilian. No wonder early explorers feared this beast.

Out on the rugged North coast of Nelson, the weather was quickly brightening. Shafts of light sparkled in the ice, glistened off the rocks and illuminated the subtle lime greens of the ancient lichens. The clouds began to lift. Our spirits soared with the excitement of the sun. We’d been in Antarctic for nearly a week, waiting for the weather to turn. But suddenly our pulses quickened as the wind began to race overhead from East to West, a new direction … offshore … out to sea. We were bouncing amidst small ice bits in front of a Chinstrap penguin rookery near a point we named Window in the Rock. Juggling cameras with freezing fingers, fending off ice blocks…

Within minutes we needed to yell to talk. The bergy bits began to beat and cut our boats. The sky battling the elements in Antarctica by kayakbecame nearly crystal blue. Despite the short fetch the seas were building into quick, steep waves. On our left was the 100-foot vertical face of a mile long blue ice wall. On our right the open Pacific and the now fierce blow pushed us toward offshore pinnacles and hill size icebergs. Once we left the minimal protection of the smelly rocky point the wind slammed us. Nigel was a bit ahead, Stan and Tom paddled side by side. It was back to the basics as the wind climbed into the 40’s – climbing blade angles on our forward strokes, quick braces, strong corrective strokes. Keep the hips loose, relax, breath and enjoy, loosen the grip, drop that bracing elbow. I was reminded of just how important it is to acquire solid fundamental skills.

We were moving fast with the quartering wind and sea as we approached a dense stream of bergy bits also being driven to sea. This was dangerous – remember the Titanic. The impact of hitting chunks of ice rolling over in the breaking chop and driving winds could be a real bummer. If we paddled closer to the protection of the glacial faces we risked being crushed by a calving berg. The further out we paddled, the greater were the building seas and windblasts. Slowly gently we pushed through the ice, thankful for our expedition grade boats with their thick heavy gelcoats. By now the sky was intensely clear, the ice reflecting the full spectrum of blue, the katabatics blasting at us, the seas still building. Now we know – gorgeous clear days bring fierce winds. Ah yes, adventure, this is why we came. It is exhilarating and challenging. It brings one to the fullness of our short life – do it now. We are expeditioning in Antarctica!

We continued paddling toward a rocky point some distance away – our only possibility of a landing. Portside gusts grabbed our paddles, requiring that give and take of life in the moment. None of us wanted to roll in the cold bumpy seas laden with 200 pound ice bits bouncing around in breaking waves. An Eskimo roll was the only realistic rescue – swimming in 30-degree water as the winds drove us offshore and would put our group in a terminal situation.

Nigel disappeared into a gap between slender sea stacks. Resting in a momentary lee, we grinned at the power as sheets of water were torn off the top of the waves. We all knew, without saying a word that we had to get off the water. The question was where could we find a landing? Any potential spot amidst the numerous glassy black sea stacks would be up into the wind – we had to make that turn or be blown into the great emptiness of the Drake Passage. Between stacks we clawed our way to the next protection often leaning hard on our paddle as the winds funneled through the gaps. We spied a protected channel leading to a partly sheltered cobble beach under a large basaltic rock pinnacle peeling apart the huge glaciers advance. We felt lucky to land. We figured the blow might end as quickly as it arrived but after a couple of hours hiding beneath a tarp the cold began to seep in. We had been able to paddle less than 3 hours after waiting days for a break in the weather. We could walk about 40 feet one way, 75 feet the other on the exposed outer coast of Nelson.

We were in the “screaming sixties”. All night the gale blew incessantly down the glaciers driving all things off shore. The gusts slammed into the sea, tore the top off the water and pasted a sheet of ice against windward surfaces. Sometimes in a quieter moment we could hear the growling of a fur seal out on the cobble. The soothing wind howl was jarred by the roar of sharp black rocks cascading down from the overhanging cliffs above. Our two tents were pitched in a shallow cave in the face of a 100-foot wall of unstable, frost-shattered basaltic columns. All night the falling rocks landed just outside of our protection. The cave was our only shelter on this desolate frozen neck of land, surrounded by glaciers, bounded by icebergs.

kayaking Antarctica past icebergs and penguinsBy noon the next day the sun still shown brightly, the wind manageable. We were anxious to get exploring. The North coast of Nelson continued on with huge glaciers, sliced by bizarre rock formations dividing the bays. With a few hours of luxurious paddling we approached the mouth of Nelson Straits and slid through a few tidal rips running over submerged ledges. Once in the strait the now rocky cliffs were covered with penguins clear to the tops of the 400 foot ridges. Harmony Point is an Antarctic Sites of Special Scientific Interest, an environmental protection zone for the colony of some 280,000 Chinstrap and Gentoo penguins. Penguins were everywhere. Hundreds of Fur, Weddell and Elephant seals lay about the beaches and frolicked in the chilly waters. Here was an animal’s world now protected from the ravages of man. It was not a place we should intervene. We paddled on…

Our kayaks were beaten amongst the chunks of ice as we sought out a landing in surf around the Toe. No luck. Only hours later were we able to land on the exposed Ross Point in the cold breezy overcast of late evening. We’d been on the water about 10 hours and were ready to make camp. But nearly every spot on the beach was occupied by seals including the belligerent Furs warning us Nigel's birthday in Antarctica with sealsaway. Though cold and wind chilled we were graced with this landing amongst healthy sea mammals and massive whale skeletons. At the height of the beach a nearly 20 foot jawbone offered a temporary windshield. Finally we spied a sizable rock outcrop just below a receding glacier which promised some wind protection but was surrounded by seals. Stan decided to imitate these majestic creatures and slowly crawled toward them growling ominously. The seals allowed us room to camp for the night. It was a cold, snowy evening and Nigel’s birthday so we celebrated with a whiskey shot and a blueberry biscuit cake. Only a year ago Stan and Nigel had celebrated his birthday in sweltering heat as they circumnavigated Easter Island.

The next day’s paddle to Dudhoit Point with a strong tail breeze surprised us with the receding glaciers. Many had pulled back hundreds of feet. Are we seeing a natural flux or the effects of global warming? We’re far removed from humanity – we’ve not seen a person, a vessel or a plane since we seal resting by a kayak in Antarcticaleft on our trip – yet we fear we’re graphically seeing some of man’s impact on the global weather. Perhaps it is only the natural cycles of our Earth, but can we optimistically avoid the possibility of our impact? Dudhoit’s beaches are covered with penguins and seals and more penguins and seals. There are tons of whalebones lying on the long beach. This must have been a place of intense whale slaughter during its heydays in the 1800’s and 1960’s. The bay must have once run red with blood and shreds of slaughtered whales. Yet one 4,000 pound Elephant seal was so effected by our presence that she lay in the sand all morning only feet from our tents without any concern, as we again waited out the wind. At night we corralled our tents with the kayaks so we’d be warned with a sickening splintering sound if one mistakenly tried to roll onto us.

Paddling in Antarctica requires patience. No matter how strong one might be it is hard to average more than 10-20 miles a day. Some days the wind only allows a few hours morning paddle. OurLong bones in Antarctica weather analysis was crucial to avoid the unpaddleable. Our last day began with bright sunshine and too much wind but by mid afternoon we were able to launch under descending cloudy skies. After a few hours on the water, the wind shifted into our faces from the West driving in fog and stinging snows. Ice spray froze on the decks as snow pellets pelted our eyes or coated our glasses. But we are adventuring and that enthusiastic human spirit always wants to see around the next corner, cruise the new penguin rookery, bob amongst the seals rolling in the surf. The storm was beautiful. Hours later the fog began to break up and the familiar shapes of the hills above our sponsoring base appeared. Sadly we pulled our boats onto the Czech station’s cobble beach. We had completed an unsupported circumnavigation of Nelson Island by sea kayak, mapped the unexplored northern coast and delivered a seal count to the Czech base. Yet we wanted to keep going…exploring and adventuring on into the wild.

kayaker in Antarctic fogAntarctica is now enjoying a respite from the worst of the earlier exploitation. All twenty-six consultative countries have signed the1991 Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty. It establishes 2 types of protected areas – Specially Protected Areas and Sites of Special Scientific Interest. In 2041 the current Treaty expires. Already the mining and oil interests are trying to solve the problems of the geography due to the richness of the virgin deposits. Antarctica is a continent of peace. No one owns it and no one should. Its true wealth lies in its unmilitarized free and open land of international cooperation and unsullied beauty. Current bases are trying to clean up the dumps of the past. We’ve not much time to build a world consensus for Antarctica’s future. Lets get on with it.

During our post trip recovery back at our 6’x 6’ wooden hut at Echo Nelson, Stan remembered the words of the Inuit shaman Igjogoijuk speaking to polar explorer, Rasmussen. “All true wisdom is only found far from men, out in the great solitude and it can be acquired only through suffering”. We hadn’t suffered. We’d been lucky. But we’d been denied by weather and timing the chance to kayak beneath the magnificent 5,000 foot tall frozen mountains of Livingston Island, and the 1,500 foot caldera of Deception Island. These images now loomed in our minds’ eye like a future dream.  Were we wiser? In a way, yes, but probably not … we are ready to return.

2000 Nordkapp Trust Antarctic Expedition Team:

  • Nigel Dennis – NDK Romany Explorer
  • Stan Chladek – Valley Nordkapp 
  • Tom Bergh – NDK Romany Explorer

Tom Bergh is the owner of Maine Island Kayak Co, a Nordkapp Trust Premier Center. Tom is a Master Maine Sea Kayak Guide.

Posted in Adventure, Expeditions, History.