life list

Sneak Peek: Svalbard!

I’ve just returned home from my most recent adventure, to the land of the midnight sun* in arctic Norway. I’m still editing pictures, but wanted to be able to share a few images from the trip. There are many more to come. We had fantastic weather, and saw a wide variety of wildlife.

Atlantic Puffins, Fjortende Julibukta, Svalbard, Norway

Atlantic Puffins, Fjortende Julibukta, Svalbard, Norway

We saw quite a lot of birds, but everyone’s favorite is always the puffin. I’d seen them before in Iceland, but I never really knew the way they hop around on these cliffs — it’s as if they don’t quite know how to walk, so just improvise something to get some forward locomotion. It’s adorable.


Rich tundra at Varsolbukta, Bellsund, Svalbard, Norway.

Rich tundra at Varsolbukta, Bellsund, Svalbard, Norway.

The tundra here at Vardsolbukta was incredibly rich and varied – several species of tiny flowering plants, mosses of a half a different shades of green, various lichens and such. The ground in places was like walking on pillows, the moss was so soft. It felt really strange. Things take forever to decompose in the arctic, so there are all sorts of bones and reindeer antlers, skeins of shed reindeer fur and various feathers lying around to be studied. It’s the kind of place you want to walk around bent over at the waist so you don’t miss anything.

Polar bear on the drift ice in the Hinlopen Strait, Svalbard, Norway.

Polar bear on the pack ice in the Hinlopen Strait, Svalbard, Norway.

And of course: a polar bear! The trip would not have been complete without one…. in the end we saw seven, a very unusual number. This one was particularly photogenic in the bright sunshine and sporting a healthy sleek coat.

There really is something incredibly special about seeing a huge predator like this in the wild. There is that little chest-tightening frisson of excitement the moment you spot it: ” *gasp* BEAR!” — even more exciting if the bridge has not announced its presence yet.

There are many more images to come, including some surprises — things I never would have expected to see on a trip like this.

*A note on the “midnight sun” — I’ve never really experienced this before. What it really is could best be described as: “noon all the time” — there is essentially no modulation in the strength of the sun at any time of day. If the sun is out its at the same height in the sky all the time. Most disconcerting. Bring an eye mask. A good one.

North to Adventure!


I’m leaving today for a very exciting trip to Svalbard, Norway — north of the Arctic circle, to travel around the islands and hopefully, hopefully see a polar bear in the wild. Bonus points for walrus, beluga and NARWAL! As you can see in the image above, I will not be seeing any night.

When I land in Longyearbyen, I will be north of the Arctic circle in the same year that I’ve traveled south of the Antarctic circle. I’d be crowing about my achievement, except now I know (at least) three others doing the same! Two are working on the expedition ships, and another is a passenger like me who’s traveling to the North Pole this summer.

North and South

I will definitely be posting as much as I can to instagram so please keep an eye out for that.

“The List”: how are you going to remember to do it if you don’t write it down?

I refuse to use the term “bucket list”, which I’ve mentioned previously. Life List sounds more positive, and somehow more open-ended than a grim death-march of accomplishments. The whole idea of this is not a prosaic to-do list, but a reminder you can use to help shape your priorities as you flap around in the day to day minutiae of your life. Therefore the word “bucket” should have no part in it. Also, you can feel free to edit, amend and add to it at will. Your feelings change, and this should reflect that.

Writing them down is a way of committing to them. I tend to think of my list strictly in terms of places I want to go, though that is usually just shorthand for the things I expect to experience there. “Antarctica and South Georgia” is a location, but it’s also a package of experiences: crossing the Drake passage, hearing what a colony of thousands of king penguins sounds like, seeing six different species of penguins, getting close to a leopard seal, hearing a ship crack through ice floes, seeing innumerable glaciers, watching icebergs silently float by, crossing the Antarctic Circle. That is all pretty wordy, so “Antarctica and South Georgia” it is.


My list has remained pretty steady over the past few years, but it’s only recently that I’ve decided that I really need to attack it. I plan on being around for a long time, but honestly you just never know. There is really no sense putting things off.  So without further ado, and in no particular order, the list:

  • Machu Picchu , Peru – April 2000
  • Croatia – May 2005
  • Burma – Nov 2005
  • Angkor Thom, Cambodia – Nov 2007
  • Antarctica and South Georgia– Feb 2014
  • Iceland – July 2013
  • Rajasthan, India – Nov 2012
  • (Back to) Burma – scheduled, November 2014
  • Polar Bears – scheduled, June 2014
  • Safari in Africa (Tanzania? South Africa?) – planning on 2015
  • North Korea
  • Bhutan
  • Namibia
  • Morocco
  • Fuck yeah Madagascar!
  • The insane landscape of the Faeroe Islands
  • Seeing TIGERS in the wild (India)
  • Daintree National Park in Queensland, Australia
  • Peruvian Amazon
  • Guilin, China
  • Sri Lanka
  • Northern India- Ladakh, Kashmir

Of course, the list of places I want to go is much longer, but these are really the top of that list, the “must do” locations.

Do you have a list? What’s on it? Do you need some peer pressure to help you get started? I haven’t used this, but I’m interested in the idea behind Go Mighty. It’s probably worth checking out if you’ve never done this before and need a bit more inspiration. There’s some great tips in there too. Just stop putting it off and get to work.

Taking a month off for the trip of a lifetime, part 2

Saving money is a bitch. It’s tedious. It’s weeks eating a bag lunch at work, months without buying new books or clothes, and over a year of watching all your outgoing expenses like Scrooge. It takes discipline. And so boring! So just post some pictures on the fridge of where you’re going to go and dig deep. You can do this. Every dollar saved brings you closer to your dream trip. One trick that a lot of people use is to set up a separate savings account, just to make it easier to mentally set aside the money. Then, you can set up automatic deposits from your paycheck and you never even see the money, making it a lot easier to save. And when you think about saving, don’t forget all the little bits of money that go through your hands that often just get spent: every bonus, every tax refund, every thing you’ve been wanting to sell on craigslist but have been too lazy to do, all of it.

It’s a good thing I was home-bound saving money, cause there’s a lot to research for a trip like this. I live in California, so I’m not exactly outfitted for polar travel. The travel companies provide general packing lists of what to bring, but there is just so much I didn’t know about this stuff.

Somehow I stumbled on Trip Advisor and their forums. The Antarctic Travel forum specifically is a treasure trove of information on gear and what to expect. Just what weight long underwear do you need? Wait, there are different weights of long underwear? Which gloves do photographers prefer? What the hell is a sock liner? All those questions and a thousand more are answered there. This was an incredible resource while I was planning this trip — one thing that might not readily occur to you is this: there are no stores in Antarctica. You forget something and you’re SOL*. So the more you plan, the better.

The forums also contain lots of fascinating trip reports from people who’ve traveled there already. There are even threads for specific voyages, so I was able to “meet” a few people on my trip before I even left. The trip reports that previous travelers post there are also great. If you’re having a moment of weakness, wondering if it’s all worth it, read one of those. You’ll be bouncing off the walls with excitement.

Upclose and personal

In the end, I gathered my courage and told work about the trip 6 months out. I had 2 weeks of vacation, but would need to take another 2 weeks as unpaid leave. Given the hesitant, halting way I broke the news to my boss, I’m sure he thought I was going to either quit or tell him I was pregnant. If you look at it that way, one month off is nothing! It could be so much worse! In the end he was fine with it, because we had 6 months to prepare a plan to keep everything rolling while I was away.

I know, I know: You have a million reasons why you couldn’t possibly do this. You have responsibilities! A job! Bills! Yes, well we all do. That’s where the planning comes in:

What about work? At work I cross-trained a few coworkers to handle the urgent day-to-day stuff I take care of, and they took turns doing it while I was gone. Of course there are some people who maybe wouldn’t be comfortable doing this. There is a risk of course that work will find they don’t need you to do the job after all. I wasn’t really concerned with this, not because my coworkers couldn’t do the job – they did great  – but because the job you do isn’t just about the tasks you take care of, it’s also about the experience you have and familiarity you have with how to handle problems that come up every day. That can’t be taught. So stop worrying so much.

What about bills? You need to set up automatic payments to fire while you’re gone, anticipating any gotchas like car registration coming due. About half of my bills are on auto-pay, half aren’t, so I just had to set up a few things and try and remember if I would start a new cycle of car insurance payments or whatever while I was away. Just sit down for an hour and plan it all out.

What will you do with your cat? I have a dog and a cat. I took the dog up to my Mom’s house 4 hours away to stay there while I was gone. I pestered a friend into taking the cat to his house for the month. They wanted to “test drive” having a cat for a while anyway, so in the end that worked out okay too. Cats get weird when you take them out of their environment, but he settled down after a few days.

What about your apartment?  You can either get a friend to house-sit for you or you need to stop the mail and let the neighbors know that you’re going away and not disappeared down a ravine somewhere. Leave emergency contact numbers (for your parents, for the ship’s sat-phone and the expedition company) with them in case something crazy happens like a fire or someone breaks in.

You have to clean out the fridge before you go — you don’t want to come home to a biohazard. Please, please remember to take the used coffee filter out of the machine the morning of the day you leave. I made that mistake once.

Turn off the heat if you can to save some money while you’re gone (it doesn’t freeze here so leaving it off in winter is not a worry). Maybe set a lamp on a timer so it looks like something is happening in your place in the evenings.

Call the insurance company to get them to okay you picking up two months’ supply of prescriptions so you won’t run out while gone. If you need glasses, definitely throw a backup pair into your packing box. A man on my trip broke his and it was a drag.

See? You’re almost done planning this out! You just need to buy a few things!


Iceberg, Gerlache Strait

A few people on the Antarctic forum posted actual Google doc packing lists, which were really helpful — reminding you to bring things like pepto bismol and bandaids and dramamine. I edited one for myself and made adjustments for all the photography gear I would need.

I relied on my Amazon shopping cart extensively. I didn’t buy everything from them, but when I thought of something I would need, I just added it there to remind me. This made it really easy to remember all the little things (extra-strong sunscreen, duct tape, sensor-cleaning wipes for my camera, etc) I needed to get. When I bought them, I just threw them all into a big box in the corner of my living room– a suggestion made on the TripAdvisor Antarctic forum, by the way–  which made packing really easy cause I just had to grab what was in the box.

Consider buying a new camera and a couple of longer lenses for getting really sharp wildlife images. Get vibration reduction (VR) lenses if you can – anything you shoot from the ship will be suffering from the movement of the ship and the shuddering of the engines, so it can make a huge difference. You can easily spend as much on lenses as you did on the trip itself, so consider renting them instead. A company like LensRentals makes getting your hands on that long lens a lot cheaper. They even sell insurance in case something happens to it.

At the beginning, all the work and all the preparation that I was going to have to do for this trip seemed Herculean, but it wasn’t really. Break it down into parts, keep lists, start early so you have time to remember anything you might forget. In the end I was possibly over-prepared. There were some things I brought that I didn’t use, but most of it I did and majority of the things I brought fit the bill perfectly.

So, was it worth it in the end? Absolutely. The trip was spectacular… we saw everything I’d hoped we’d see and lots I wasn’t even expecting. I learned so much about Antarctic wildlife and history. In the coming weeks I’ll post about the different locations we visited and what we saw there.

*The ship did have a small shop, where you could get a few essentials like deoderant and a hat, but the selection was limited and several things sold out quickly.

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.