The Quark Expedition website states: “Polar kayaking takes place in one of the roughest and toughest environments on Earth.”
When we signed up for Kayaking in Antarctica, I was excited and nervous all at once. We were going to be locked inside skirted kayaks while paddling in icy waters. We needed to have practiced an emergency wet exit and we needed to be comfortable and confident in a sea kayak.
Now, we have kayaked many times before and I know that we are strong paddlers. We've even taken an adventure racing course on the Ottawa river where we tackled a little white water, practiced our T-rescues and flipped upside down in the chilly Canadian waters regularly. We can handle Antarctica.
If you don't know it already, I really hate cold water, (See my Polar Plunge challenge for proof) so I dread being upside down in the water, especially cold water. To me, there is nothing worse than being upside down in a kayak. Even though I know to breath out through my nose, water always goes up it and I always feel a pang of panic. I hate the feeling of going upside down it's unnatural. So the last thing I wanted to have happen was to go over in the Antarctica peninsula. There was no way I was going to take a spill. No Way.
Quark Expeditions has a lot of meetings throughout the voyage to Antarctica and as kayakers we had even more meetings to attend. Each day at 6:50 am we all met for our pre-kayaking chat. Our first of many meetings happened during our Drake Passage crossing where we met the other 13 team members led by the awesome Solan and Val. It was here that we discussed our previous paddling experience and what we'd be doing over the course of the next week.
In Antarctica, the weather can change in a heartbeat, so nothing is guaranteed, but Val and Solan were hoping for at least four good days of paddling. We won't know how things go until we get to the continent, so for now while crossing the Drake, we'd be putting together our gear and getting used to the kayaks.
Unfortunately, we had to duck out of the meeting to chat with Canada AM live from the Drake Passage, so we had some catching up to do during the next meeting.
You are very well taken care of when kayaking with Quark. Each of us received a dry suit, our own kayak skirt, booties and a life jacket. All this was ours to keep for the duration of the trip.
We wore two layers under our suits, a base layer and a warm thermal layer. We weren't sure if we'd be warm enough, but those dry suits are quite toasty and between our neck warmer and hats we were very comfortable on the water. We didn't even wear gloves, we just used the Pogies on the paddles. They're neoprene mittens attached to the paddles and they worked great.
Our last meeting before we hit the water was about feeling out the kayaks. We went out onto the deck and sat inside a single and a double kayak to get a feel for just how tippy they are. Solan and Val set our foot pedals for us, we practiced putting our skirts on and we practiced pulling on our “Oh Shit” strap. This must always be outside the skirt because if you go over, you need to pull this to release you from the kayak. Right after you say to yourself “Oh shit!”
We were now ready for open water.
It was extremely exciting when we heard that we'd be kayaking the first day that we landed in Antarctica. We awoke early to Shane's (our expedition leader) voice over the intercom saying that kayakers would indeed be paddling today and we are to meet in the Oceanus Lounge to get ready to paddle Half Moon Island.
Everyone hopped into a zodiac to take us to calmer waters. Our kayaks were towed out ahead of us by our safety driver Karin who was waiting for our arrival. We transfered from one zodiac to another and then one by one we got into our kayaks. Naturally it turned out that Dave and I went first.
I cannot tell a lie, I was feeling a little stressed. Solan and Val got in their boats first and pulled up alongside the zodiac to help the rest of us in. They steadied our kayaks for us as we stepped in with great care. Most flips occur when getting into the kayak so it's important to be careful here.
We had no problem getting in especially since we practiced in the pool before leaving Toronto and once we started paddling, we both relaxed into the motion. Hey, I remember how this is done!
It was a slow start for day one, so Dave and I circled a few rocks and practiced our strokes in a calm bay while waiting for everyone to get in the water. We were all told not to go far and I don't think anyone was feeling adventurous enough to not listen. We all felt safe being close to each other and didn't venture far off from the safety zone of Val, Solan and Karin.
Once we were all saddled up, we followed Solan along the coast as Val stayed in the back keeping an eye on us all. It was our first day paddling as a team and we all fell into a comfortable rhythm quickly. We spread out and gave each other room and yet we all moved along at a similar pace. Nobody was lagging behind or racing ahead.
It was spectacular.
Penguins jumped out in front of our boats, we saw seals sleeping on the shore and we were paddling in Antarctica Man!
We became more and more comfortable as we paddled along the coast and I started to enjoy the silence of this last frontier. With each dip of my paddle, my stress melted away and I fell into a sort of meditation. My mind went blank as I focused on nothing but the task at hand. I was truly relaxed and living for the moment.
As we said, the weather can change quickly in Antarctica. After about an hour of paddling, we rounded a bend and that's when things got exciting. The waves picked up and so did the wind. We had to dig deep to make headway and Val gave me some pointers to make my strokes more efficient. It worked. I was slicing through the waves with ease feeling my confidence build.
The adrenaline was pumping and excitement was growing as the adventure kicked in to overdrive. As we approached the shore, Solan told us to circle our first iceberg.
How Exciting is that?
Not only are we paddling in Antarctica for the first time, we're circling an iceberg! Sure we were going to see bigger and better ones down the road, but this was the first and it was exciting. The waves were getting larger and as I was half way around I thought that maybe this wasn't such a great idea. I was feeling pretty unstable. One kayak turned back in mid circle and the rest of us were weaving around in the waves trying to navigate without falling over. I seemed to be going in the wrong direction of everyone else and at one point I nearly lost my balance. But it all turned out well and we even managed to make controlled landings on the shore.
Nobody flipped over and nobody fell in. It was a great first day on the water.
What we love about paddling in Antarctica is that we got the best of both worlds. We could paddle and have a great adventure on the water and then we could go on shore and see the wildlife. There is no better way to see Antarctica.
Ah, Antarctica, there is nothing like it.
So how many times did we get to kayak? Solan and Val's wildest dreams came true and we had a total of 8 good kayaking trips. Each day was more incredible than the last and we're going to be writing about them all! Stay tuned for more kayaking through Brash Ice, with whales and seals and in Paradise.
Check out Quark Expeditions for planning your own Antarctic Expedition.