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Christmas In Antarctica: A Moment Frozen In Time

This Christmas

I turn my quill to a happy story about the endless joy and amazing experiences that await all of us wherever we may roam on this planet.  From “Bikes in bloom” to “A moment frozen in time”, let us rejoice life and all its possibilities.

During my bicycle travels of 125,000 miles across six continents, I have encountered amazing and strange creatures in the Amazon jungle, Australian Outback, Tibetan plateau, Alaskan wilderness, Himalayan Mountains and the Arctic.

When a family of monkeys screamed at me from the rainforest canopy in Brazil, I pressed on the pedals a little faster.  In Australia, I cranked alongside an emu, a flightless bird akin to an ostrich, who had befriended me in the searing heat of the Outback.

Some animals startled me like the frilled lizard that flashed his “frill” at me one morning when I poked my head out of the tent in the Northern Territory of Australia.  If you remember that creature that “frilled” the guy who stole the test tubes filled with dinosaur eggs in the movie “Jurassic Park”, you might get an idea of the shock value.  That lizard scared the daylights out of me.

One morning in Alaska.

On the Russian River of the Kenai Peninsula, I awoke to a grizzly bear, not three feet away, looking at me through my mosquito netting.  By sheer luck, he didn’t eat me.  In Norway, 700 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle, I listened to the cuckoo bird serenade me all night long with, “Cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo….”

But nothing beats the amazing moment when I rode my bicycle in Antarctica to meet the most unlikely creature on the planet.

For a six month period of time, I lived, worked, camped and bicycled on “The Ice Continent.”  Of all the creatures that I have met in my world travels, this meeting may be the most profound moment in my life on two wheels.

The story of a moment frozen in time:

In the morning, a whiteout howled across McMurdo Station, Antarctica with 125 mile per hour winds and minus 80 degree temperatures.  I had been confined to my barracks for two days as a “Condition One” storm worked its way over the ice-pack before me.

By late evening, the weather turned placid but a biting minus 20 degree temperature kept most people inside.  I, however, bundled into my cold weather gear—insulated boots, heavy mittens, four Thermax layers, fleece, three hats, face protection and ski goggles.  I headed out the door to ride my bicycle over the frozen road to the ice runway where the supply planes landed each week to provide food for the people working at the research station.

Yes, we enjoyed a fleet of bicycles at McMurdo during my stay in Antarctica.  Over the radio, Mac Ops reported some Emperor penguins on the ice.  I had to see them no matter what the cold.  I jumped on my bike looking like an overstuffed teddy bear wearing cold weather gear.  My breath vaporized as I rode toward the ice-covered ocean.

About a mile around the cove, the setting sun glinted off the roof of Robert Falcon Scott’s Discovery Hut.  He had died 100 years ago on his last attempt to reach the South Pole.  The hut had stood on the point of McMurdo Sound since 1902.  It gave mute testimony to the courage those men displayed in their polar adventures.  When Scott neared death on his run to the South Pole, he shouted, “Great God! This is an awful place.”

Nonetheless, I rode along a path that led toward the pack-ice in the sound.  It’s hard to describe pack-ice, but it’s jumbled, broken ice chards being heaved and smashed into multiple shapes—triangles, domes, squares, tubulars, and wedges—like an Erector Set gone crazy.  However, near the shore, it was reasonably smooth with a thin veneer of snow from the blizzard.

Above me, a golden-purple sky glowed brazenly in its final glory into the crevasses of the Royal Society Range across the sound.

For once, a rare quiet softened the bitter edge of the crystal white desert before me.  One of the glaciers, more than ten miles across at its terminus radiated liquid gold from the setting sun.  Pedaling through some shallow snow drifts, I got stuck so I pulled my bike through and gained the edge of the ice.  Even with polar weather gear protecting my body, the numbing cold crept through the air, as if it were trying to find a way into my being.

The bike frame creaked at the cold and the tires made a popping sound on the ice I pedaled over.   The big boots made it hard to keep on the pedals.  But I persevered and kept moving forward.  About six miles onto the ice, I looked through the sunlight and saw four black figures approaching.  I shaded my eyes with my gloved hand.  They drew closer, their bodies back-lit by the sun on the horizon.  A family of Emperor penguins waddled toward me.  I dismounted from my bike.   From our survival classes, I learned to sit down so as not to frighten them.  By appearing smaller than them, they might find me interesting.

Slowly, I lowered myself into the snow, cross-legged, like an Indian chief.  Minute by minute, they waddled closer—straight toward me.  Three big birds, about 80 pounds each kept moving dead-on in my direction.  The smallest followed behind them.

Another minute passed.

They waddled to within 30 feet of me.  The lead Emperor carried himself like a king.  His silky black head-color swept down the back of his body and through his tail.  A bright crayon yellow/orange streaked along his beak like a Nike logo.  Under his cheek, soft aspirin-white feathers poured downward, glistening in lanolin.  His wings were black on the outside and mixed with black/white on the front.  He stood 40 inches tall and his enormous three-toed feet featured a gray reptilian roughness with blunted talons sticking out.  He rolled his head, looking at me in a cockeyed fashion, as if I was the strangest creature he’d ever seen.

I don’t know what made me do it, but I slipped my right hand out of the glove and moved it toward him—slowly.  The rest of the penguins moved closer.  The big guy stuck his beak across the palm of my hand and twisted his head, as if to scratch himself against my skin.  I felt glossy feathers against my hand.  He uttered a muffled “coo.”  The rest of the penguins cooed.  Their mucus membranes slid like liquid soap over their eves every few seconds.  I stared back, wanting to say something to them, but realized I could not speak their language.  However, at that moment, we shared a consciousness of living.

My frozen breath vapors hung in the air briefly before descending as crystals toward the ground.

I battled to keep from bursting with excitement.  Within seconds, one of the other penguins pecked my new friend on the rump.  He drew back.  With that, he turned and waddled away.  Following the elders, the little one gave one last look at me, as if be too wanted to scratch my hand, but was afraid, and turned with his friends.  As they retreated, their wings flailed away from their bodies like children trying to catch the wind in their arms.  The baby Emperor was last to go.

My hand turned numb so I stuck it back into the glove.  As I sat there, I remembered the day when a hummingbird landed on my finger at my feeder on the back deck of my house in the Rocky Mountains—and I remembered the sheer delicacy nature shared with me that warm spring day.  There, in that frozen wasteland beyond the borders of my imagination where humanity does not belong, Mother Nature touched me again with her pulsing heart and living warmth.  I only hope my species learns as much respect for our fellow travelers as they show toward us.

I stood up, tightened the hood on my coat and looked for the penguins.

They were gone.  Only the pack-ice rumbled toward the horizon.  I turned to my bike.  It’s hard to believe that two rubber tires laced together with spokes and rims—and attached to a metal frame could carry me from the Amazon Jungle, to Death Valley and on to where the bolt goes into the bottom of the globe.  That simple machine lying in the frozen snow had taken me to far flung places on this planet and it had allowed me magical moments beyond description. That moment with the penguins probably was the best it had ever done by me.  I remounted my bike and turned toward the barracks.

The ride back didn’t seem so cold. Merry Christmas dear friends across America, Canada, Europe, Australia and the world.

Frosty Wooldridge is a blogger for JenningsWire, a blogging community created by Annie Jennings.