In the morning, a whiteout howled across McMurdo Station, Antarctica with 100 mile per hour winds and minus 60-degree temperatures. I had been confined to my barracks for two days as a 'Condition One' storm worked its way over the icepack before me.
By late evening, a high pressure center turned the weather placid with a warming trend taking the temperature to a "balmy' minus 20-degree temperature that kept most people inside. A report came over the base radio that a few Emperor penguins were waddling toward the open sea near the ice runway. Not wanting to miss a chance to see those majestic birds, I bundled into my cold weather gear--insulated boots, heavy mittens, five Thermax layers, fleece, three hats, face protection, along with ski goggles--and headed out the door to ride my bicycle over the ice runway.
Yes, there were bicycles at the scientific station for me to ride. I HAD to see those birds no matter what the cold. I jumped on my bike looking like an over stuffed bear with all my cold weather gear on. My breath vaporized as I rode toward the ice-covered ocean. My lungs burned with each inhalation of polar cold. About a mile around the cove, the setting sun glinted off the roof of
the great British polar explorer, Robert
Falcon Scott's Discovery Hut.
He had died 90 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. This was a cold, miserable place. Upon reaching the South Pole in second place behind Admundsen, the crafty dog sledder explorer from Norway, Scott cried out, "Oh God, this is an awful place."
I rode along a path that led toward the ice pack in the sound. From there, a plowed road headed eight miles out to the makeshift runway for the air port out in the middle of McMurdo Sound. That's right, the ice was 10 feet thick and could hold the weight of massive C-140 Starlifters with four jet engines.
I rode along carefully on the packed snow on the smooth ice. On both sides of the "ice road' was the pack-ice. 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 gold/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. Riding along, I nearly tipped over, but soon, I pulled 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 snow I pedaled over. The big boots I wore made it hard to keep on the pedals. But I persevered and kept moving forward.
After four miles, and across the ice, I looked through the sunlight and saw four black figures approaching. I shaded my eves with my gloved hand. They drew closer, their bodies back-lit by the sun on the horizon. It was a family of Emperor penguins. I dismounted from my bike and walked onto the pack-ice about 50 yards from the ice road. From our survival classes, I learned to sit down so as not to frighten them. By appearing smaller, 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 and they were 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 at least 40 inches tall and his enormous three-toed feet were 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 closed in. 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 eyes 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 he too wanted to scratch my hand, but was afraid, and turned with his friends. As they retreated, their wings spread out, 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 once when a hummingbird landed on my finger near a feeder on a cabin porch in the Rocky Mountains--and I remembered the sheer delicacy nature shared with me that warm spring day. Here, in this frozen wasteland beyond the borders of my imagination where man does not belong, nature touched me again today with its 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 my hood and looked for the penguins. They were gone. Only the pack ice rumbled toward the horizon. I walked toward 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, along the Great Wall of China, across 15,000 foot passes in the Andes, through the scorching Outback of Australia, across Europe, 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 it and turned toward the base.
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