Month: April 2014

Taking a month off for the trip of a lifetime, part 1

I can’t even remember why I decided to look at the Quark Expeditions website that day. A trip to South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula had been on “The List” since forever — in fact it was the very top thing on that list. I hate the term “bucket list”, probably because I just hate the word “bucket”, so I prefer to think of it a “life list” – sounds more positive that way, anyway.

King penguins at Salisbury Plain, South Georgia

This trip had gained that position at the top of the list years ago — certainly since I worked for photographer Galen Rowell and helped organize images for his book Poles Apart. I had seen so many pictures of these places, it felt as if I already knew them. I had expected that I would never be able to afford to go there, at the very least not until I retired. But looking at that site, seeing the the dream trip I wanted to take, a few things occurred to me:

  • This is probably not going to get any cheaper. It’s got to cost a lot to send a small ship with only 114 people to the Antarctic, and I don’t expect diesel to be getting much cheaper anytime soon.
  • You just never know what is going to happen. Don’t wait for tomorrow to do something you really want to do, cause you might not have a tomorrow.
  • Getting older adds risk. I’ve never had problems with my knees before, but who’s to say what shape I’ll be in when I’m 70? I can easily hop in and out of zodiacs now, but you never know what will happen in the future.
  •  Why on earth would you wait to do something you desperately want to do? — this is more of a philosophical question than anything else. What are you waiting for? Are you waiting to achieve some magic goal that will make you feel as if you can do it? Are you just afraid to spend the money?

Zodiac and Commerson's dolphin, Falkland Islands.

So dear reader, I signed up. My hands were shaking, my heart was pounding — it feels like a drug sometimes — and I put the $3500 deposit on a credit card. Now, even though I travel all the time, I am at heart a cheapskate, and that deposit represented the entire cost of some of my trips. Deep breath. I had some money saved up, a good 2/3 of that I could pay off right away. The final payment was 14 months away. Fourteen months. We can plan for that.

  • So, why Quark? They are the undisputed leader in polar travel. All those years ago, Galen Rowell went on trips with them, in fact taught photo workshops on those trips, so I knew that they are a reputable company with years of experience safely guiding travel in these remote environments. This is not a place to economize.
  • Why then? Booking early gives very significant discounts. For these types of voyages, booking 18 months in advance will often net you a 20% discount off the “rack rate”. I decided to sign up for a twin porthole cabin, figuring that while I could deal with one roommate in a small cabin for three weeks, the two roommates you’d have in a triple might do me in.
  • Why that trip? If you are going to spend the time and the money to go to Antarctica, it makes sense to go for as long as you can. Just getting there is expensive, so amortizing that cost over a longer trip is a better deal. It was imperative for me that I go to South Georgia, which only happens on the longer trips (you can see why in the map below). Aside from the amazing landscape it has to offer, the sheer tonnage of penguins and seals can be found no where else.


Crossing the Circle

I know what you’re thinking: “Um… thats a month long trip. What about your job?”

I KNOW!! When I booked this, I was thinking that if I had to quit to go on this trip, maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing. The office had moved, and I now had a much longer commute. The company was doing “ok” but not well, so there was not much advancement going to happen. I was bored. It all added up to: meh, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. If I have to quit, I will. I’m lucky I work in an industry and a location with a healthy economy, so I was not too worried about finding another job if it came to that.

As it happened, just two months later I switched jobs. Now, I’ll be honest. I should have told New Job about the trip, I really should have. The complicating factor was that I already had a previously planned trip to India scheduled for one month after my start date. Not a long trip, but still. Telling them about one upcoming trip seemed like enough. Besides, maybe I’d hate it and have a completely different job by then. It was over a year away! Who knows what will happen….

So, how did I pay for it? What preparation did I have to do? Part two to come.

“F8 and being there”

Sunset over ice floes, near Adelaide Island, Antarctica.


It’s a quote attributed to everyone from Ansel Adams to a nameless photo editor, and even Weegee.

But it remains some pretty good advice. It means simply: You have to actually be there to get the picture. Seems simple enough. The reality though, is that depending where you are, this could mean waking up hours before dawn, staying out late in the evening stamping your feet trying to stay warm, or like in this instance, missing dinner.

We had had an amazing day slowly making our way south through the first-year ice in The Gullet, a small space between Adelaide Island and the main part of the Antarctic continent. At around 4pm the thickening ice caused our captain to turn around and head back north. We had spent all day on deck photographing in the incredible sunny weather, and everyone was beat.

I had sat down to dinner with some friends at around 7:30, and was just finishing my salad when my eyes were drawn out the side window. The light, it was getting interesting. Really interesting.

“I’m really sorry, you’re gonna have to excuse me. I have to go take pictures now.” I usually had my camera bag nearby for whatever whale or iceberg came into view, so I just grabbed it and headed out.

In the course of about an hour, I shot probably 50 different scenes. There was the light on the far mountains (above), Crabeater seals resting on ice floes, the sun setting through milky cirrus clouds over the broken-up pack ice, and even a Snow Petrel in flight (below). The light was amazing, changing quickly and causing me to run front and back, side to side, all over the ship to get a shot of whatever had just caught my eye. It really was an “F8 and being there” kind of situation: there was a great picture everywhere you looked.


Snow Petrel in flight

I spent at least an hour out there,  running around on deck photographing in all directions, while nearly everyone else was eating dinner. When I came back in my friends were just finishing their dessert. The waiter had kindly put a dome over my pasta so it would be there when I returned.

The pasta was still a bit warm, so wolfed some down. Was it worth it? Absolutely.

Packing 101 – No, you don’t need that

There are two elements to the art of packing: deciding what to bring and figuring out how to get it all in the bag you have.

I decide what to bring based on some simple principles:



1 Colors matter: Everything needs to match everything else. Easiest to stick to one neutral color (black, brown), then pick one or possibly two others (blue, green) for everything else. If all the shorts and skirts and shirts you bring are in within this color group, then you should be able to mix and match things pretty easily.

2 “Bring Layers!” : everybody says this but it’s still good advice. Instead of bringing that big winter coat that you might need, make sure you have a couple cardigans and a trenchcoat. You might end up wearing four layers of clothes one day, like I did on a recent trip to Stockholm, but heck: you’re warm.

3 Who cares: Guess what? These people in Bangkok, or London, or Monteverde, they don’t care what you’re wearing. You don’t need to impress them. Even more importantly, you’ll never see them again, so if you are wearing the same thing you wore two days ago, who the heck will even notice?

4 Avoid formal occasions: Once in a great while I feel like I have to pack “special” clothes for a “special” occasion, and every time I regret it. Either it never happens and I’ve brought extra clothes for no reason, or I end up someplace fancy where the surprisingly casual dress of the other diners makes me feel like a rube.

5 Don’t skimp on shoes: Always bring more than one pair of walking shoes. Rain, mud, blisters, aching feet — they happen. Having an extra pair can really make a big difference. I’m amazed at how just switching the shoes you’re wearing can give a new lease on life to aching feet at the end of a long day. Oh, and those “fancy” shoes you want to bring? The cute ones? Forget it. Leave them at home. See #3 above.

6 Socks and Underwear: I make no attempt to be one of those preening “light packers” who manage to pack for a week in a tiny knapsack – I just want to pack efficiently and make sure that everything I bring actually gets used. Therefore I’ll often pack a whole week’s worth of socks and underwear just so that I don’t have to do any sink-laundry while traveling. I mean really, do you really want to wash clothes in a bathroom sink after a long day of sightseeing? I don’t.

7 Finally: The little bits and pieces: depending on where you’re going, you may need:

  • nail clippers
  • headlamp (instead of a flashlight, they’re much more useful)
  • dental floss (can be used for so much besides teeth!)
  • gallon size ziploc bags (I use these all the time, for everything)
  • an extra luggage lock (in case one goes missing or you buy so many souvenirs you have to bring home an extra bag filled with your dirty clothes)
  • an extra bag – see above (you can get cheap sturdy pack-in-a-pocket duffels from REI that are perfect for this)

Now, how to get it all in there:

Eagle Creek pack-it cubes: it took me a long time to warm up to these… they do seem a bit precious, and might seem like a waste of money, but they do one really important thing: they keep things from shifting around in your bag and getting wrinkled. They can also make figuring out the geometry of bag-packing easier: they fit together better than hodge-podge stacks of clothes and once you’ve worked out how they best fit in your bag, you can pack them the same way next time. I also utilize ziploc bags a lot, for keeping smaller things organized (and to keep shoes from dirtying things up). It’s especially useful to pack this way if you’re going to be living out of your suitcase and moving around a lot. If you’re staying at one hotel the whole time then it really doesn’t matter that much.