My Christmas day was spent packing and repacking my bag, and then pacing and fiddling aimlessly with various things. I was nervous about my upcoming trip; not only was it my first time flying/travelling alone, but my destination was a place as far from home as it is possible to get. Visions of lost baggage, foreign places, and me panicking danced in my head rather than Christmas sugar plums.
The first day of my journey down to Antarctica started at 2:15am on December 26th, in Tagish. We had to get to the airport in Whitehorse by 4:45am, and my flight was scheduled to leave at 5:50am. I said a tearful goodbye to my family in the airport and got through security. After the boarding call was announced, I heard one of the people in the lineup say “She’s going to Antarctica!”. My head whipped around in time to see a girl about my age wearing a bright blue toque heading down the tunnel to the plane – I figured that must be the girl the unknown voice was talking about.
Once I boarded (I had a nice window seat right on the wing), the first mishap of the trip happened. Air Canada decided to do all of their de-icing after the passengers had boarded instead of before, which meant our takeoff was delayed one hour. I worried about what that would mean for my connecting flight from Vancouver to Toronto, which had a very short layover. Once the plane finally started takeoff and I heard the roar of the engines as I was pushed back into my seat, all the worries disappeared as a thrill of excitement and adrenaline rushed through me. After a year of stressful expedition preparation and frantic fundraising, the day to leave had finally come. How the time flew by!
The Pilot’s voice came crackling on over the speakerphones as we began our decent into Vancouver. He said that most of us would be missing our flight connections, and those leaving for my connection could try to make it, but would likely miss their plane. I was completely panic-struck. Everyone stampeded off the plane and swarmed the nearest Air Canada agent in the airport. I frantically looked around but could not find anyone else who could help. Then I spotted the girl who may have been on her way to Antarctica and ran over. “Hi! Are you the girl going to Antarctica?” “Yes,” she said. “Cool, me too! Students on Ice? My name is Shyloh.” “Hi, I’m Teah!” “Teah, can you help me? I’m a bit panicked here – I’m going to miss my flight and the flight agent is busy, I can’t find anyone else, and I don’t know where to go or what to do!!” So Teah, my wonderful savior, helped me find another agent who told us that my connecting flight had also been delayed one hour, and then she helped me to find my gate. She was on a different flight. Teah, I can’t thank you enough!!! 🙂
We both got to the Toronto International Airport sometime that evening, and met another student, Shakti, before finding one of the Students on Ice Alumni who took us to the hotel where we would be meeting the Canadian SoI group. Flying into Toronto was amazing – it was nighttime and the city lights sparkled on and on into the distance.
Meeting the Canadian students for the first time was interesting. We were all a bit awkward since we hadn’t met before, but it didn’t seem to take long to break the ice! I met some of our coordinators for the first time including Clare Glassco, who is one of the two women at the Students on Ice headquarters who organized the whole expedition and got the students through the steps of getting there through the summer. I also met Geoff Green, the founder of Students on Ice and the Expedition Leader. Students on Ice is a truly incredible accomplishment that has provided thousands of students from around the world with unique opportunities to visit the polar regions and become polar ambassadors. Most of them have gone on from it to achieve remarkable things. For Geoff, it all started out as an idea – an idea that grew into something amazing and real as he told people about it and gained support. Thank you so much to Geoff Green for coming up with the idea of SoI, and for working hard to make it real for students like myself! This was Students on Ice’s 13th Antarctic Expedition, and 72 students from around the world were lucky enough to attend.
The next morning began at 6am with a great breakfast, then it was off to the airport to catch our flight down to Miami where we met the American students. Again it took some time to break the ice and ease up, especially since it was two groups coming together instead of individuals. It was my first time flying down into the U.S.A, and I noticed that nearly as soon as we crossed the border the snow disappeared to be replaced with badlands and/or sprawling cities. We flew down the east coast, and were lucky enough to see the Great Smokey Mountains down below as we passed by the Tennessee/North Carolina border.
As we got into Florida and drew nearer to Miami, we passed low over the expansive Everglades. A single road went through it, long and straight. It reminded me of the Dead Marshes in the Lord of the Rings. Someday I would love to drive that road and explore it from the ground, birding as I wrestle crocodiles!
Dropping down onto the runway at the Miami airport I saw my first Palm Trees. That was a very exciting moment. Though I knew we would be going through Miami, it was just a name to me and I never actually thought about what I might see there. So the Palm Trees were an unexpected and pleasant surprise!
Our flight from Miami to Buenos Aires, Argentina was 8.5 hours long and went through the night. Some students were able to get some sleep, but others greeted the morning with red eyes. We didn’t see much of anything since it was dark, but we passed over the Caribbean, the Amazon, and flew the length of South America. Dawn broke just as we began our decent into Buenos Aires. My first look at Argentina was definitely interesting; the land was a checkerboard of agricultural squares, circles, and stripes. When I thought of Argentina before, that agricultural checkerboard is not what I had ever pictured. Eventually a swath of forest turned up, and then the city sprawl. My very first Argentinian bird showed up right outside the window on the edge of the runway as we landed – a Southern Lapwing. This was a bird I never suspected would be the first on my list; in fact, I had doubted very much that I’d see one at all.
The air felt tropical as we exited the plane. The airport was a maze – dimly lit, hot, humid, and filled with people. Security and check-in looked like it would be a very daunting task due to the huge noisy mob in the line-up. In order to get to security we had to go out of the building, walk down the side-walk, and enter and exit other buildings. It was a very confusing place. Once we were outside the air didn’t feel as suffocating; it actually felt pretty nice. I’m not the type of person who wants to spend my winters in tropical places, but it certainly was nice to feel the warmth and sun on my skin. As we made our way through a series of hallways, up escalators, and down window-lined tunnels, I noticed many Chalk-browed Mockingbirds outside. At the time I thought they must have been some type of grackle due to the long tail and their habit of running on the ground, but I was informed otherwise later on by the expedition Ornithologist. Overall, it was interesting to experience the airport, but I was also quite happy to get out of there.
Our next flight to Ushuaia was pretty short – only about 3 hours I think. This time I was sitting in one of the middle seats on the jumbo jet, so I couldn’t see out of the windows at all. Ushuaia is the southern-most city in Argentina, located on the shores of the Beagle Channel and nestled in amongst the Andes Mountains. The population here is about 70,000 and quickly growing; about 50% of the population is 25 years of age or younger. Some maneuvering is required on the pilot’s part in order to get into an appropriate position for landing here due to the mountains. When we came in, the mountains were snowy-capped and shrouded in pearly white cloud. Ushuaia… after two days of flying we had finally reached the point we would set sail from. Ushuaia was both our last destination and the beginning of an amazing adventure! I like what Geoff Green said in one of his expedition posts: “It is a special place. There is a palpable sense that you are on the edge of a frontier.”
Part 2 coming up soon! 🙂