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Jan/Feb 2005 | If Antarctica Were a Woman

Jan/Feb 2005 | If Antarctica Were a Woman

"Antarctica is a place that demands all of you," says longtime polar explorer Ann Bancroft. "You can't fake it out." Discovering the love at the end of the world.

"Antarctica is a place that demands all of you," says longtime polar explorer Ann Bancroft. "You can't fake it out. You have to be willing to back off. It's a place that can be benign one moment and life-threatening the next."

Bancroft pauses and decides she can share this too: "I have a love affair with Antarctica that's hard to explain to people."

"Oh, yeah," I say, as if we were discussing a woman with whom we'd both had an unforgettable affair. Three years ago Bancroft and her Norwegian expedition partner, Liv Arnesen, became the first women in history to ski across the Antarctic landmass--from one edge of the continent to the other. They pulled 250-pound sleds, completing the 1,717-mile trek in 94 grueling days. Bancroft accomplished this feat as an out lesbian, which means nothing to the continent of Antarctica but a lot to the corporate sponsors upon whom she's dependent. "You win them over by who you are," she explains. "They get over it."

On the other hand, her lesbian audience, she says, "has been with me through thick and thin all these years, rooting me on, even when I wasn't that popular. They've always been right there with me, saying 'Go!' I need those voices."

Bancroft and Arnesen, who is straight, recently published an extraordinary book about their expedition, No Horizon Is So Far, groundbreaking not only in the narration of their all-women trek but also in their willingness to discuss their family lives, lesbian and straight, as part of the adventure.

My own adventures in the Southern hemisphere, though perhaps less illustrious, have been no less life-changing. Traveling to Antarctica is like having an affair with an inappropriate lover. A famous inappropriate lover. Cold. Dangerous. Unaccom-modating. She makes you do some crazy shit. But she's oh, so gorgeous. You've got to have more.

The first time, I flew to the continent in a combat plane, an LC-130, courtesy of the Air Force. Sitting in the cockpit with the pilot, I watched as we approached the coldest, driest, southernmost continent. The American station, McMurdo, which houses about 2,000 workers each austral summer, is located on Ross Island, which is really two big volcanoes, Mount Terror and Mount Erebus. A plume of steam curls out of the latter's caldera.

I soon learned that my writer identity was a lot more suspect among this community of scientists than my lesbian identity. The National Science Foundation "in-briefed" me the minute I landed on the Ice, basically telling me which behaviors would put me "on the next plane back to Cheech," a.k.a. Christchurch, New Zealand.

I agreed to everything, then hit the galley in time for dinner. No sooner had I set my tray down on a table and introduced myself when a guy leaned forward and asked me, "How do you get a woman in Antarctica?"

Was this a test? I'd just sworn to the NSF that I'd be no trouble during my three months on the Ice. I looked at my plate of food and mumbled as convincingly as possible, "I don't know."

My new friend slapped the table and crowed, "Be one!"

"Get it?" someone else at the table helpfully asked.

Yeah, I got it. All the women here, according to my new friends, were lesbians.

This wasn't true, of course, but there were lots of out girls. In fact, a lesbian couple taught McMurdo's ballroom dancing class.

Staying out of trouble wasn't as easy as I thought. By the end of the season I'd heard the phrase "No, Lucy, no!" so many times that a friend of mine engraved the words on a plaque for me.

But I wasn't alone. Flirting with the edge of trouble is a favorite pastime of many Antarcticans. In December a small group of us skied out to see Pegasus, a plane that had crashed about 15 miles from McMurdo many years ago. The day was so hot--35 degrees Fahrenheit, a good 20 to 40 degrees above the norm--that we couldn't resist the temptation to strip and take a series of pictures of ourselves skiing naked in Antarctica.

The next day the photos were e-mailed to me. I'd never imagined myself available--undressed--on the Internet. This woman Antarctica, she'll wreck you.

Somehow I never did get put on the next plane back to Cheech. In fact, I was offered the crown jewel of any Antarctica trip: a shot at the pole. Probably just a turnaround flight, I was told, but bring your duffel. I got to stay a week.

The Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station is another American science base where during the austral summer 200 scientists and support staff live and work. Awesome science, like tracking data from a telescope that looks back to just 300,000 years after the Big Bang (cosmically, that's just seconds), is conducted there. People work long, hard hours because their window of opportunity is so small, since the "summer" lasts only a couple of months. For R&R people ski out to Hotel South Pole, a tiny solar-heated shack two kilometers away from the station.

I wanted to experience the polar plateau in intimate solitude, so I skied alone to the shack to spend a night. Counting wind chill, the temperature was 60 degrees below zero that day. The wind had carved permanent waves in the ice, making the snow look like a frozen sea. Even with the diamond dust--tiny ice crystals that glow with an entire rainbow of colors--sparkling the air, the sky was so clear and the snow so pristine that I could actually see the curvature of the earth.

I surfed across the frozen sea on my skis, flying through the diamond dust, glancing now and then at South Pole Station disappearing behind me. When I arrived at Hotel South Pole, I discovered that my radio didn't work. I was supposed to report to the station that I'd arrived safely. (No, Lucy, no!) At about 5 in the morning a hairy face peered in the one window. I figured he'd been sent to make sure the writer-in-residence wasn't lying somewhere between the station and the hut, frozen on the polar plateau. He skied away before I could open the door.

When I was away from McMurdo--including a week in the Trans-antarctic Mountains with a team of geologists studying global warming, a week at Cape Royds with a colony of Ad?lie penguins, and a week in the Dry Valleys accompanying the "worm herders" (who studied nematodes) and the "stream team"--I courted the continent like a lover. Back in MacTown, I made do with the fabulous community of lesbians. A friend and I skied in the Antarctic marathon, doing only half the course--and still coming in last beyond everyone who did the whole course. We danced at the big music festival, called Icestock, on New Year's Day, where everyone dances with partners of their choice regardless of gender. In the evenings my friends and I walked to the continent's edge to watch orcas and minkes playing in the icy Antarctic waters.

I cried when the Air Force crew flew me home.

But I wasn't done with Antarctica yet. There's a saying among the people who live and work on the Ice: The first season you go for the adventure, the second season for the money, and the third because you no longer fit in anywhere else.

I skipped right over the second season. I was already in love, and no one else would do but her. Antarctica.

I applied for another fellowship, and off I went, this time by ship to Palmer Station, situated on Anvers Island, off the Antarctic Peninsula. The third and last American station houses about 35 workers during the austral summer and is much warmer than the other two stations. The temperature hovers around freezing much of the time, and it can even rain at Palmer Station. Though the NSF floated the possibility of my traveling by cruise ship to the station, I insisted on the real deal. I wanted to cross the dreaded Drake Passage on the NSF research vessel, the Laurence M. Gould. I was advised to invest in Bonine, the patches, and the wristbands, all three, because not only did the Drake have the reputation for being the roughest stretch of water on earth, but the Gould had one for being the most uncomfortable vessel for crossing it.

My advisers were right. I dearly missed my Air Force escort by fighter plane. But still, compared to my cabinmate, a young scientist who was going to be dropped on an Antarctic island for a few months of research, I fared well. All night long themedics were in and out of our cabin, attending to the moaning young scientist until they put her out with a shot.

That night we were hit by a big storm sporting 25-foot waves. I lay in my bunk and watched the explosions of salt water smash against the small porthole.

Another uniquely Antarctic moment happened two mornings later when I awoke to a strange stillness. I pulled back the curtains on my porthole and saw a calm sea and eerily glowing icebergs, gorgeous translucent blue messengers from Antarctica. Penguins--chinstraps, gentoos, Ad?lies--lounged on the floes, as did Weddell and leopard seals. We began to pass through some of the straits, bordered by the most beautiful mountains I've seen in my life, while giant petrels, shearwaters, and albatross flew overhead. One night I saw the famous Antarctic "green flash," which occurs a second before the sun sets.

The thing about travel, especially travel in a place like Antarctica, is that it changes constantly. Complicated NSF logistics required that I leave Palmer Station after only two weeks--and go into the field with a team of dinosaur-hunting paleontologists. But that's a story for another time.

Suffice it to say, I was deep in Lady Antarctica's lair by, I was being shaken in her jaws. And loving it. Yeah, if Antarctica were a woman, I'd marry her in a second. Even if she has made me do some crazy shit.

One word of warning: If you're not ready to be forever altered, forget Antarctica. She'll break your heart.


There's good news for those of you who don't feel like wrestling the Ice Queen on her own terms but still, well, want her. Olivia Cruises (800-631-6277) is offering its first-ever trip to Antarctica in December 2004, with future cruises to the Antarctica planned for 2005. Within the comfort of a 100-passenger cruise ship, you spend about two weeks visiting some of the continent's most beautiful and wildlife rich corners. This cruise leaves from Ushuaia at the tip of Argentina and visits the arm of the Antarctic Peninsula, as most cruises do. Adventure Center (800-228-8747) has six Antarctic cruises per season on real Russian ice vessels, and will be launching its first all-gay cruise in November 2005 (see contest, page 30). Coda Tours (888-677-2632) was the first gay company to offer cruises to Antarctica in 2000, and it will be doing three cruises from November 2004 to February 2005.

The information in this story was accurate at the time of publication. We suggest that you confirm all details directly with the establishments mentioned before making travel plans. Please feel free to e-mail us at if you have any new information.
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