“It really does feel like you're on the end of the world,” Connie Wood says of Antarctica.
Connie and her husband, John Wood, traveled to the isolated, icy wonderland that is the world's southernmost continent in December 2018. The trip marked the completion of their goal to visit all seven continents.
The Detroit Lakes couple, both retired teachers, gave a presentation Feb. 25 about their adventures in Antarctica to a full house at the Detroit Lakes Public Library. They shared pictures they had taken, and recalled their experiences on this “trip of a lifetime,” as Connie called it.
“It’s so incredible to be someplace where there’s no towns, no roads, no citizens,” Connie said. “It’s just so unusual. It’s rare to go somewhere where you don’t hear vehicles and people.”
Extremely remote and virtually uninhabited, Antarctica is the world’s coldest, windiest continent. Not founded or owned by any single country, it has no indigenous people, and no real “citizens” to speak of. Small populations of temporary residents — scientists and their families — can be found across a smattering of research stations.
Not only humans are scarce: the frozen landscape is devoid of trees, shrubs and grass, and is home to zero amphibians, reptiles or mammals that live on land. There are, however, large populations of penguins, whales, seals, fish and invertebrates that live along the continent’s coasts and surrounding seas.
Apart from the areas inhabited by penguins, which can get very noisy, Antarctica is a silent place. It’s pristine. Relatively untouched by human influence.
To keep it that way, almost 40 countries around the globe have signed a treaty to only use Antarctica for peaceful purposes. They’ve put strict rules in place to preserve and protect the unspoiled wilderness and its creatures.
Those rules, of course, extend to every visitor, and the 20 or so cruise lines that bring travelers to Antarctica go to great lengths to abide by the rules. Before the Woods could get on or off their ship, for example, they had to step in and out of a disinfectant with their boots on, as did all 200 or so of their fellow passengers. And the Velcro on their coats would be checked over every time to make sure there were no organic materials stuck on that might accidentally get transported.
The Woods took an “expedition” ship, which is smaller than a typical cruise ship and thus could travel into tighter and shallower areas. They chose Silversea Antarctic Cruises, an all-inclusive, luxury cruise line.
They embarked from Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world, and sailed further south through the infamously stormy, 600-mile Drake Passage. The Woods said they “lucked out” with decent weather during this leg of the journey, which spared them from the serious hand-wringing, jostling and sea sickness that many other travelers experience as they go through the passage.
“We did cross, one evening, over 100 mph winds,” John said. “But the ship had stabilizers and we slept right through it. Otherwise, we had perfect weather … We would weave down the hallway, and get rocked to sleep, but it wasn’t too bad. We were fortunate.”
After getting through the passage, the ship traveled the waters around the Antarctic Peninsula and nearby Shetland Islands, at the northeastern tip of Antarctica. Two to three times a day, for the week and a half that they were there, the Woods were able to get off the ship and explore, usually by foot, and once by kayak. They’d take a zodiac, or rubber dinghy, along with about a dozen other people, to get from the cruise ship to the shore.
One time, Connie said, a penguin shot up out of the water and landed in one of the zodiacs, right next to a passenger, surprising and delighting everyone on board. Generally, though, the travelers were supposed to keep a reasonable distance between themselves and the local wildlife.
Of that, there was no shortage. The Woods saw several kinds of whales, seals, birds — and penguins were “everywhere,” they said: “The penguins were so fun. There were three kinds, they were about knee-high … It was spring while we were there, so they were nesting.”
They also visited a research station, took a lot of walks through pathways in the snow, dodged icebergs during a kayak ride, and took part in educational tours and seminars led by professional scientists who were on the cruise with them.
Probably the most memorable parts of the trip, however, were the views. From every angle, Connie said, Antarctica “was just gorgeous, with the ice and the snow.”
They described the oceans as a brilliant aqua blue, and the sweeping landscapes as rugged and mostly covered in smooth, untouched snow. Massive icebergs and mountains towered in every direction, as far as the eye could see.
“It really was just a beautiful experience,” Connie said. “We were so far away from everything.”
The weather was similar to a Minnesota winter. December is summertime in Antarctica, and temperatures are usually around 30 degrees. The Woods weren’t phased, and said it was more about staying dry on the trip.
Married for 30 years, the Woods have been active travelers their whole lives. They’ve visited all 50 U.S. states, and now that they’ve also visited every continent, their new goal is to see as many presidential homes, libraries and museums as possible.
They don’t do it to brag, John said: “There are lots of people in town who have traveled a lot more than we have,” but they don’t mind sharing their travel tales, and they love to hear about other people's travels, too.
“I think we’re just really curious and open to seeing what’s out there,” said Connie, explaining why they love travel so much.
“We’re curious,” John dittoed. “And you don’t have to be crazy, but it helps.”