The Circle of Life

After exploring the world from pole to pole, one woman discovers her greatest adventure

April 12, 2021
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What’s the dog doing outside?” my daughter inquired oddly one Connecticut Christmas morning as she gazed out the window adjacent to the sparkling tree.

“No, wait,” she added, turning around to face our Bernese Mountain Dog lazing by the fire. “The dog is inside. But then, what is THAT on the lawn?”

A sleepy black bear (whose presence was previously unknown to us) glanced groggily up at the commotion in the bay window above, then immediately turned tail, retreating hurriedly into her lair just underneath the crawlspace of our shed. It appeared that we were going to become the curators of a hibernating female preparing her den to cub. And I thought my days of adventure were well over!

The last time I stared out a window into the eyes of a bear, it was from a porthole on a Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker in the frozen Arctic Ocean. The polar bear dashed towards the ship over the solid pack ice with great curiosity, so the captain slowed the vessel down to a standstill, allowing it to approach.

Luckily, my porthole was in the right place at the right time, and this noble white denizen of the Arctic, with dark eyes and pristine white fur, got up on his hind legs and stared straight into my poised Nikon with charming curiosity. There were several thick inches of Russian steel between us, but the bear’s broad face was just inches below my wide-open porthole. As he sniffed the delicious smells coming from the ship’s galley and seemed to exhale with joy, his breath fogged the wide-angle lens, for at that range, who had need for a telephoto?

Not many where I live in the beautiful Farmington Valley know much about my past. Before becoming a Connecticut “soccer mom” (and had never even heard of that demographic, frankly), I’d been leading a completely different kind of lifestyle.

As a young woman, I worked as a photographer and expedition coordinator for an eco-tourism company that sent a team to “faraway places with strange sounding names,” as the song goes. From Antarctica to the North Pole, up and down the tributaries of the mighty Amazon, and threading through remote islands in South Pacific waters, our staff led tourists on adventures all over the world, on small cruise ships, for more than 15 years.

Our days were filled with many moments when we didn’t know what might happen next. We ran aground several times on tropical reefs but always got off, flew in aging helicopters over the Arctic sea during whiteouts, spent the night bobbing about in a small inflatable lost in the Bering Strait, discovered ancient shipwrecks in the Pacific, and damaged ship propellers the size of Volkswagens due to thick ice, forcing us to replace them at sea.

During our landing operations, my team was usually sent ashore with the photographers who had booked trips to get the shots they needed for commercial purposes.

On thin ice

In the Russian Arctic, for example, heading to the geographic North Pole, our ship’s helicopter landed a small group on a polar ice sheet to watch icebreaker Yamal plow through the ice at full speed. After all, she was the newest and most high-tech icebreaker in the world at that time, and we had internationally acclaimed photographers from magazines and award-winning documentary filmmakers to please.

After dropping us off on the pack ice, the helo took off to prevent capsizing the floe with its weight. We were left alone, floating on a white expanse of frozen ocean. But the photo session was short-lived, as the speeding Yamal was just too forceful when breaking apart the jumbled six-foot-thick pack ice. Her wake created broad cracks in the ice; snaking vessels of blue seawater appeared much longer than anticipated, like a scene out of the animated film “Ice Age.” The floe we stood on began to crack up before our eyes.

Instinctively, we dashed over the dancing “bergie bits” – leaping rapidly, scanning for thicker ice. I radioed for the chopper to come back immediately. The Russian pilots returned posthaste but needed to hover while hoisting us in, for fear of breaking the solid ice where we stood.

In between all of the passenger drama, nature in her purest state pressed upon our souls, touching us with her primordial allure.

During each Antarctic voyage, the most important rite of passage would always be an encounter with the first iceberg. Our red parka-clad globetrotters lined the railing at the bow to witness this spectacle, marveling wordlessly at deep turquoise blue veins of dense ice bedecking the monolithic sculptures hewn by the Southern  Ocean.

In Antarctica, after the usual rough landings in the surf by the Zodiac, our staff would guide passengers over the rocky beaches to the edges of the penguin rookeries. There, we set up cameras from a distance and trained them on downy chicks riotously crying to be fed as their patient parents took turns regurgitating krill. The smell of penguin guano, while odiferous to most, became most endearing to my senses because it was associated with astronomical numbers of the fetching birds dashing about like little people in tuxedos. Mature penguin parents would carefully nestle unhatched eggs or sometimes hug tiny chicks on their feet, holding their young close within the ample folds of their muscular brood patch just below their feathery breasts.

En route to shore, whales often playfully targeted Zodiacs in the polar channels, tossing their flukes while dousing visitors with their fragrant exhalations smelling of krill and salt water. Far-ranging wandering albatross sporting six-foot wingspans glided noiselessly overhead during long days at sea, giving rise to serious debate amongst ornithologists onboard as to which is far superior, the penguin or the albatross? Leopard seals lounging on icebergs searched for penguins to hunt, and smaller, freshly calved icebergs from glaciers floated by in resplendent blue pageantry.

Antarctic passengers are often privy to an awe-inspiring specimen – the tabular berg – a wide, flat sheet of floating ice that can be as large as a city block or even as big as the state of Rhode Island. When the frozen ocean waves roar against its sides, a thundering crash of unspeakable magnitude impresses the ear.

Circumnavigating the vast Antarctic continent, at times we traveled 10 days at sea with no landings, but it was worth it to seek the most coveted prize of all – the emperor penguin. Alighting with a helicopter on a pastel blue ice shelf, passengers hiked for miles in the searing cold to reach the breeding grounds of these elusive birds.

Emperors are undoubtedly the most magnificent – and the largest – of all 18 penguin species, standing well over three feet tall and weighing 50 to 100 pounds. Searching for krill, they are capable of walking 70 miles during the polar night to the open ocean from their breeding grounds, as well as diving 900 feet to fish for their supper. As our ship’s penguin expert liked to say: “They don’t know that’s impossible, so they just go ahead and do these things anyway.”

Ghosts of characters from the Great Age of Exploration during the early part of last century seem to run across the murky stage of Antarctica. Visiting the huts of Ernest Shackleton and Robert Scott on the continent, we could walk inside a time machine of sorts. Everything the famed explorers left behind is carefully preserved as if they had just headed out on their quest for the Pole.

Perhaps the place I loved the very most was the enchanting island of South Georgia in the South Atlantic, a far-off mystical land that was once home to a whaling station where cetaceans were once so plentiful that the men rarely had to leave the bay to catch their annual quota.

The whalers are now all gone, of course, and nature has had the last laugh. All that remains are the graves of brave explorers, including Shackleton himself, nestled below razor-sharp mountain peaks blanketed with ice blue glaciers and hemmed by green tussock grass. King penguins breed along the shores of South Georgia in plentitude so dense that the beach seems to be comprised of an array of bright orange, gray, and white feathers instead of sand. It was here that Shackleton landed after his illustrious shipwreck, followed by nine months of camping on pack ice and an 800-mile open boat journey seeking help to rescue the remainder of his men on the sea ice.

As if to ensure the sanctity of the place, nasty fur seals dash out from behind the tussock mounds at hikers, barking and threatening to bite anyone who gets too comfortable on their turf. These fur seal sentries were perhaps the most frightening of all creatures we encountered in the 15 years I spent at sea.

The elegant wandering albatross, meanwhile, know that remote South Georgia Island is the best place to breed and nest, so here many reside when not at sea. Accessing the trail to observe these regal birds that choose their mates for life, we viewed them with their chicks and watched the juveniles dancing together in large circles, endlessly practicing their mating moves in preparation for the real thing.

In hot water

Our tropical adventures were just as magical – and, most often, equally dramatic.

Searching for the 12-foot-long, ferocious “Komodo dragons” endemic to the Indonesian island of Komodo (but hoping not to have too close an encounter), we often glimpsed these behemoths dashing across our path, hunting for goats that were frequently sacrificed by locals to keep the lizards at bay.

These rare carnivorous creatures are endowed with sharp teeth and long, forked tongues that project far outward every few seconds when hungry – perhaps looking like fire to the imaginative and giving rise to the name “dragon.” We warned passengers to stay on the trail between the guides, for there had been true stories about their voraciousness. One obstinate European passenger from a different ship went off the beaten path against all advice. He simply disappeared within hours, and all that was ever found of him were his Leica binoculars.

We prepared our passengers with lectures about science and anthropology given by onboard scholars so that nothing would shock them, and no cultural misunderstandings could ruin the visit.

Natives in remote places like Irian-Jaya, the western half of New Guinea, hinted of tales involving revenge cannibalism between warring tribes. In Papua, the eastern side, fire dancers partaking in rituals that marked – among other things – the passage of young males into adulthood – cavorted at night in large ochre and red painted, top-heavy masks while enveloped in flaming bonfires.

Each year, the Asmat people on the remote southern shores of Irian-Jaya welcomed our small fleet motoring to the mouth of their shallow river home. These strong men stood proudly upright 10 to a canoe, barreling out of the jungle tributary and poling rapidly down the river, chanting relentlessly to impress the flotilla of invading Zodiacs.

Clad in war paint and feathered headdresses, they knew how to create a scene fit for a Hollywood film. Some men wore wild pig tusks, others six-inch long curlicue shell carvings stuck through their ponderous nose cartilage, a fierce accessory designed to intimidate. In the village, as a sign of hospitality and deep respect, nursing women holding infants lined the muddy pathway adjacent their stilt huts, offering their breast milk to passengers as refreshment, yet polite refusals were graciously accepted with broad smiles.

Certain tropical islands we called upon forbade the use of modern technology in order to preserve their traditional culture. On Ifaluk, a coral atoll of four islands in the central Caroline Islands in the Pacific Ocean nation of Micronesia, we witnessed a flotilla of handmade canoes maneuvering homespun fishing nets across their large lagoon. It would be an extravaganza where the bravest men trapped schooling tuna the way the ancients had always done.

Maintaining their courage, they chanted songs while pulling the net in closer and closer. A few men with rippling muscles and dressed in bright blue loin cloths swam adjacent to the net to assist, but it was clear that one wrong move could result in being torpedoed by the speeding tuna as they darted wildly, right and left, en masse.

When the net tightened into the final circle, it had gone from the diameter of a football field to that of an extra-large Hula-Hoop. The fittest and wildest of islanders enthusiastically jumped out of their canoes at that moment and each reached over the rim of the net into the silvery haul, grabbing a tuna with a single bare hand. In a display that was gruesome but somehow no worse than a Netflix Original, these powerful fishermen plucked the heart out of the gills and ate it raw while the others chanted deafeningly in unity, acknowledging such bravery.

Topless women in grass skirts bedecked with plumeria flowers danced happily on the beach, welcoming the canoes back to the village for the feast ahead. On trips like these, our passengers learned what it meant to be open-minded ambassadors who respected the culture of their hosts.

When asked about my most memorable expeditions, certain legendary stories come straight to mind.

There was my first time in the Amazon cruising on board the World Discoverer, when our Brazilian guide declared we would be searching that night in Zodiac boats for caiman – a South American crocodile.

The narrow tributaries were ablaze with winking fireflies as dusk arrived, and pink river dolphins played in our wake. As darkness fell, we were instructed by our guide to cast our flashlights out upon the calm inlets and pluck one reptile out of the water with ungloved hands to bring back for observation and study.

We heard brazen whoops and hollers from other boats in the darkness, then taunts coming over various walkie-talkies, asking us teasingly why we hadn’t caught a caiman already. Before the hunt, no one mentioned that we needed to make sure the space between the caiman’s eyes was less than two fingers wide, so we dashed up to one sizable fellow whose red shining eyes were spaced far wider apart than a human fist.

One young naturalist, new to the crew, leaned out over the bow and grabbed the caiman with bare hands, lifting the reptile directly into our boat. It began thrashing wildly from side to side. Hapless passengers scooted rapidly out of the way towards the stern. Just then, disturbed by the night’s commotion, a giant hoplias aimara (Amazonian wolf-fish) and a characidae (dog-fish) leapt from fear out of the water into the boat, their gaping jaws opening and closing, frantically gnashing anything that got in their way. They projected piercing, curved teeth far more impressive than those of the pirañha.

Suddenly, our boat was nightmarish mix of naked ankles, whipping tails, and sharp teeth. It was suggested that we either throw our quarry back into the water immediately, or try to calm the caiman down, then decide what to do next.

A seasoned naturalist saved the day, holding the caiman’s jaws shut firmly with one hand while expertly tossing the sharp-toothed fish back into the river. We then flipped the caiman over and I began to pat and stroke its tummy because I had read somewhere in a fairy-tale that this is a soporific for crocs. To our amazement, my technique worked and he felt asleep almost immediately, lying across my knees like a contented lap dog.

When we got back to the ship’s gangway, still floating in our boats, we innocently lifted up our six-foot caiman to show it to the other Zodiac groups. Aghast, our guide held up his 12-inch-long caiman, sheepishly explaining that this was the size we were supposed to be going for. The reptiles were safely returned to their habitat after naturalists studied them for a short time.

New adventures

Not long after our divemaster discovered a shipwreck on Ducie Atoll in the Pitcairn Island group and we raised the anchor of the sailing vessel Acadia for its safe return to Bounty Bay, a Telex came to our ship. The main office asked our team to go aboard a Russian icebreaker for its maiden voyage to the geographic North Pole with tourists who would be guests aboard a ship normally used to keep the shipping lanes ice free in the Russian Arctic. A joint venture expedition for tourism between businesses in the USA, Russia, Australia, and Sweden seemed too good to be true.

That following summer, we flew to Murmansk, Russia, the largest town above the Arctic Circle. There, our staff climbed up the gangway to board the most powerful nuclear-powered icebreaker in the world, the Sovetskiy Soyuz, a 480-foot long, 75,000-horsepower monster that could cut its way handily through 12-foot-thick sea ice for as many miles as necessary in order to reach 90 degrees north. Such voyages to the Pole took about eight days one way, truly a “Polar Express” if there ever was one. After shuddering like a train on uneven tracks through the aquamarine sea ice churned from ship’s hull, our passage to the Pole was successful.

On that first of 12 subsequent North Pole trips, I met my husband, the ship’s Russian doctor who had spent about two years devoted to being the onboard surgeon during the long winter voyages to isolated regions of the Soviet Arctic, where surgical operations were sometimes unavoidable. He spoke very little English, and at that time, I did not speak any Russian.

Don’t ask me how, but we ended up in Connecticut, raised three kids, and as I tossed in my adventure travel towel, I morphed into a soccer mom who now has to dodge Simsbury’s black bears instead of polar bears.

Regardless of all these adventure travel experiences, for me, parenthood IS the ultimate expedition. You could say I’m glad that after 15 years at sea, running around in a boiler suit as “one of the guys,” I finally became a landlubber residing in the Farmington Valley.

Adventure awaits here too, for those who look for it. Not many people can claim that a litter of black bear cubs was born in their backyard, crying and mewling through the winter nights.

My own three “chicks” are all away at college right now, and as I come to be thinking about the frenetic energy and unpredictable ups and downs in the remote destinations visited many years back, one could say that parenthood isn’t much different from a crazy penguin rookery.

In the strange path of life’s adventure, sometimes, everything really does come full circle.

Photography By Eye on the World Photography.

Anna Zuckerman-Vdovenko is a Farmington Valley based portrait photographer and writer.

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