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Traveler journeys to the bottom of the Earth

Isabel Torrey recounts trip of a lifetime to Antarctica


by: COURTESY OF ISABEL TORREY - A WORLD OF WHITE AND BLUE - Magnificent scenery can be viewed almost 24/7 in Antarctica, so to enjoy the view, Isabel Torrey stands on the deck of the Russian ship, Akademik Joffe. Recently, the world's attention was focused on a ship stranded in Antarctica and the daring rescue of its 52 passengers.

A Russian-owned research ship, Akademik Shokalskiy, left New Zealand on Nov. 28 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Australian explorer Douglas Mawson's trip to Antarctica, but the ship became trapped in the ice Dec. 24 in an area about 1,500 nautical miles south of Tasmania.

The crew of a Chinese icebreaker, Xue Long, rescued all the passengers Jan. 2 by plucking them from the ice with its helicopter and transporting them seven hours in groups of 12 to the Australian icebreaker Aurora Australis; however, the Xue Long also became trapped in the ice in isolated Commonwealth Bay.

As the world's media was captivated by the unfolding story, King City resident Isabel Torrey was reminded of her own trip to Antarctica in 2005, and while her ship did not get stuck in the ice, she nevertheless enjoyed a dramatic voyage and fulfilled her dream of visiting the faraway continent.

A condensed version of her original story that was published in Guideposts appears below, beginning with this introduction:

Ever since her childhood, Isabel Wolseley Torrey has been fascinated by the explorers who found Antarctica so enthralling that they risked - and sometimes even gave - their lives to be there. But why should Isabel decide to visit this eternally cold continent during her admittedly senior-citizen stage of life? Find out… as she takes you on a voyage of discovery to the mysterious land at the bottom of the world.

The seventh continent

Back when I was a first-grader, the Sunday school teacher read the verse, "It is God who sits above the circle of the earth (Isaiah 40:22).” I looked at the globe she had on her desk and asked, "If God sits way up there, can He see the bottom of the circle too?" After a startled pause, she answered, "Yes, God can see everything."

I wanted to see the bottom too. But when I was growing up, explorers - not tourists - went to Antarctica. Eventually I traveled the other six continents, but I stayed curious about the only one I still hadn't seen: this windiest, fifth-largest land-mass God had created, the one with 90 percent of the world's ice and 70 percent of its water; the one with the highest average elevation, largest earthquake-free area, driest desert; the only continent where, except for marine life, penguins and native birds, no one lives.

Besides all that, it's the only continent owned by no one but governed by the most successful international treaty ever negotiated - the Antarctic Treaty, whose members represent 80 percent of the world's population.

I can't imagine a continent that doesn't have war, where the environment is fully protected, where research has priority. This land I must see, and getting there is now possible!

This trip will involve nearly 13 hours of flying nonstop from New York City to Buenos Aires, Argentina, another four-hour flight to the southern tip of South America and a two-day, 700-mile trek around Cape Horn and across treacherous waters to Antarctica. But I'm eager to go!

Flying south

We leave JFK International Airport on a snow-covered, mid-December night. Runway lights flash in quick succession, then become a blur while a slick, licorice ribbon of tarmac whizzes beneath us. Our plane's low whine turns into a scream as its wheels lift and enter their bays with a dull clunk.

Blankets and pillows are distributed, and the cabin darkens for the long flight. Suddenly I'm gripped by fear: Outside the window looms an inky, freezing vault of unheeding night sky; below is the blackness of the Atlantic Ocean. Yesterday's excitement dims as I ask, "God, what am I doing here?" But He reminds me, I never tire and never sleep, and in seeming confirmation, red lights from the plane's wingtips blip consoling signals. I relax.

Eighteen hours later, after a stop in Buenos Aires, we land in Ushuaia, Argentina. This city - the world's southernmost - is hemmed in by concentric circles of jutting, snow-capped mountains. Little houses dot their slopes; regal multihued lupines bloom, thicker than dandelions. In this somewhat-summer setting, it's incongruous hearing "Jingle Bells" and seeing department-store penguins dressed like Santa Claus to promote sales.

In shirtsleeve weather, I find it difficult to grasp that a mere 700 miles south of us is a continent composed of ice and snow. Even so, I'm exited and eager to be on my way to the bottom of the earth. And when our white ship pulls into the pristine blue harbor, I rush to be among the first to board.

Drake's passage

Last evening our ship left South America's southernmost tip, and in spite of my being in an undulating bunk - or maybe because of its rocking-chair motion - I instantly dropped off to sleep. But suddenly, I'm awake, the cabin so light-filled I'm sure I've overslept.

My watch says 3 o'clock. All is quiet, except for a heartbeat-like throb from the vessel's engines far below. I quickly slide a pair of insulated slacks over my nightwear, snap on a lined parka and dash to the nearest exit. It seems no one else it up.

As soon as I open the deck door, a wickedly cold wind threatens to blow away my hood. It's not merely the wind I have to contend with, mostly it's the warring waves.

This turbulent spot, Drake's Passage, is where the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian and Antarctic oceans circle clockwise around the land to squeeze through the comparatively narrow 700-mile opening between South America and Antarctica. It's next to impossible for me to walk on the deck.

In spite of the gale, a still-sleepy sun peers through the long, narrow slit dividing sea from sky, then pries the slit a bit wider and spills orange-red across the water. Leaning into the wind and clutching the rails, I wish one leg were either 6 inches shorter or 6 inches longer to match the rhythm and motion of the waves as I return to my cabin.

Nature's bounty

Breakfast is announced over the intercom, and I totter to the dining room where the chains that normally dangle beneath each table and chair now have their loose ends fastened to the floor. Those of us not overcome by seasickness have ample choice of seats.

It's mandatory that all visitors attend at least one ecological orientation meeting before we disembark in Antarctica. We're told to wash and sanitize our boots each time we leave the ship. We cannot pick up pebbles or feathers as souvenirs. If even a tissue blows away, it has to be retrieved. The landscape is to remain "as is."

An announcement interrupts our meal. "Killer whales at 11 o'clock, 300 meters (about 1,000 feet) off the prow!" We diners dash to portholes or to decks to see five dark bodies with sharp, jutting fins cutting through a slick atop the churning waves.

The slick means a kill, signaling free food for all types of wildlife, including hundreds of birds and countless fish, each willing to brave the roiling waves to fight for whatever shredded remnants float on top of and just below the ocean's surface.

Overhead, a wandering albatross with a wingspread of 11 1/2 feet, the largest of any flying bird, soars and watches the melee.

by: COURTESY OF ISABEL TORREY - SWIRLING SEAS - Viewed from the deck of the Russian ship Akademik Joffe, passengers in a Zodiak are ready to pull away for some sightseeing.Penguin Island

This afternoon we're taking a jaunt to an island in the South Shetland chain off Antarctica's coast. Zodiacs - inflated rubber boats propelled by outboards, each large enough for a dozen passengers - will take us, as the landing site is too shallow for our ship.

"Dress warmly," we're instructed. I don three pairs of socks, two pairs of long johns, a turtleneck sweater, a fleece-lined jacket, two pairs of gloves (the outer ones rubber) a two-piece wet suit and knee-high rubber boots! I look like a child in a snowsuit. Or like the Michelin man! Or a penguin - I certainly waddle like one.

Climbing down the gangplank-ladder and into a Zodiac in heaving seas is akin to boarding an elevator gone wild. I don't know whether to step up or down. Like the apostle Peter, I silently call, "Help, Lord!"

A crew member, sensing my alarm, assures me, "Don't worry. It won't sink." So said they about the Titanic, I tell myself, casting a wary eye at the water, which looks to be moving in for the kill. The wind continues, as do the cold and the elevator-like action of the waves, slam-dunking our Zodiac to their valley bottoms, then throwing us up again.

Finally, a welcoming party of emperor penguins - upright, fat, funny, waddling, wing-waving, yellow-beaked and completely unafraid - paddles toward us across the ice-carpeted terrain.

Paradise Bay

This is our sixth day of sailing from the southernmost tip of South America to Antarctica, but the first filled with spirit-lifting sunshine. Today I'll step onto Antarctica itself, fulfilling the dream I've had since childhood!

Zodiacs line up at the bottom of the ladder-gangplank. A dozen of us clamber in each, and we roar off in a blast of diesel odor, leaving V-like wave troughs in our wake. As we approach our destination, centered in a sea of icebergs, we drift slowly toward an ice pancake, its top claimed by a pair of fat, whiskered seals, one asleep, the other slithering over the edge.

Our outboard engine is turned off, and its blatting is replaced by the strange nothingness of total silence, broken only by faint ripples and the occasional plip of an iceberg sifting position in its sea berth.

We normally noisy passengers become speechless, overwhelmed by the immeasurable vastness that threads around, through, behind and beyond ice floes and white floating islands so high they seem to hold up the sky.

The steep cliffs have no visible tops, only clouds. Fingers of fog, wispy as gossamer, caress and cling to rock walls. The air is pure and clear and as cold as an ice mask, chilling but comforting.

Will I ever gain experience anything this awe-inspiring? On earth? No. In heaven? Maybe. No wonder this spot is called "Paradise Bay."

Eventually our outboard cracks the silence and the spell. We wend our way back to our ship, which sits in the distance amid the ice, glinting in a sun whose rays turn some of the ice floes into crystal, some into pieces of the sky.

The work of God's hands

Antarctica's islands and icebergs remind me of a spilled sack of beans: kidney bean islands, some ice-frosted; white navy bean icebergs, from ice-cube size to larger than houses. There are odd geometric shapes - some jagged, some smooth. And the colors: muted browns, ethereal blues, crystal clear as Steuben glass.

Most days the wind continues, as do the cold and the elevator-like action of the water. Those of us brave enough to venture out are clothed to our eyeballs in padded waterproof gear during each Zodiac outing.

I cling to the rubber side of the boat with one hand and with the other, clench my camera gear encased in plastic to protect it from the salt spray, drenching buckets of saltwater and shredded ice being slung at us by every wave.

Daily we see whales surfacing, penguins waddling across ice floes, seabirds swirling. The scene almost becomes commonplace… almost, but not quite. Here it's summer in December, and sunset is 12:05 a.m. with sunrise at 2:30 a.m., yet the weather turns colder.

Our ice-breaker vessel jolts and bucks as the sea becomes a nearly solid sheet of thick ice. The captain keeps turning the huge ship, concerned it will freeze fast.

Finally, after much maneuvering, he gets us into open waters. Again we head into the turbulent Drake Passage - dubbed "Drake's Shakes," from where we'll fly home.

My original purpose in journeying to Antarctica was a selfish one: I wanted to be able to say that I'd seen all seven continents. I didn't expect to see the glory of God displayed in such sheer white beauty.

These devotionals by Isabel Wolseley Torrey from Daily Guideposts 2007 are reproduced with permission from Guideposts, Guideposts.org.

Copyright © 2007 by Guideposts. All rights reserved.