Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Patagonia Toe Jam

Emerald Lake sits high above Ushuaia, about a 20 minute chartered bus ride from the hotel. The frigid water is the color of turquoise and the scenery here in the Patagonia region of southern Argentina sucks the very breath right out of you. Today's hike through a muddy bog up to the lake was yet another bonding experience for the 64 students and 24 adult chaperones who are preparing to leave civilization on Wednesday evening aboard the 100-passenger M/V Ushuaia.

Jim Raffan, guest lecturer, belives there are "F" days and "M" days. F days stand for "fine," when everything goes as planned. Borrrring. But then there are the "M" days which stand for "miserable" - when the conditions conspire to make you regret getting up in the morning. But Raffan believes those are the days you remember the rest of your life. To him, "m" also stands for "memories" as the Students on Ice team certainly experienced today.

So there we were, our expensive Lowa and Merrell boots set aside as we donned rented rubber boots - "Wellies" - for the six-mile roundtrip hike to the lake, a hike that saw some of us mired in knee-deep mud - an "M" day for sure. Christina and Simit, two students on the group, rescued one of the Argentinian guides from the rath of two Italian women who were smoking cigarettes on the trail and having a hissy fit about ruining their hiking boots. They obviously didn't get the memo about the need for rubber knee-highs. The climb up through the morass was fine, but try hiking downhill in floppy rubber boots. My big toes are crying the blues.

Dinner tonight was shared with Scobie Pye, 59, a professional Zodiac driver from Tasmania. Were it not for these sturdy twin-tubed rubber runabouts, landings on the Antarctic peninsula would not be possible. Pye tells me he's seen "Zodes" flip, but never on his watch. His big concern is with the huge cruise ships - 1000-1500 passengers each - that have begun to ply these waters. He wonders who's going to rescue the passengers if something goes wrong, "certainly not 100-passenger ships like the Ushuaia," he tells me. Luckily, the ships in the area book their landing sites in advance with a trade association to avoid conflicts and overcrowding that could likely occur when more than one ship vies for a visit to the same penguin colony."Antarctica is better off with smaller ships," he says.

Tonight before bedtime, Geoff Green, expedition leader, read us the drill on seasickness, a topic I'm sure I'll return to in a later blog as I share a common trait with Charles Darwin himself: a propensity towards mal de mar, tossing cookies, or as I once wrote after a disasterous English Channel crossing on a hovercraft in 1972: "saying hello to yesterday's lunch." Stay tuned. This could get interesting.

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