The trip of a lifetime
By ANDREW MCGINN
Visiting Antarctica is sort of like traveling back in time — and as anyone who knows anything about time travel can tell you, that’s a mighty fragile endeavor.
One boneheaded move can reshape the timeline and permanently alter the course of history.
So imagine what Roger Aegerter must have thought when a stray glove recently got away from him, blew across the ice, tumbled over some barren rock and landed in a penguin nest.
This, after being explicitly told not to touch anything.
Fifty years from now, when another ice shelf breaks free from Antarctica, when the 6 million residents of metropolitan Miami are displaced due to rising sea levels, when 16 of 17 species of Antarctic penguins go extinct and when McDonald’s finally opens its first restaurant on Earth’s coldest, driest and windiest continent, it will all be traced back to one Jefferson man’s lost glove.
Actually, Aegerter got his glove back, but only after a scientist carefully retrieved it and made an example of the 66-year-old retired educator to the rest of the tour group.
And, as if he needed any extra reminders that Antarctica is the largest remaining wilderness on the planet, his glove was returned to him covered in the krill-rich poop of a penguin — which, come to find out, is pink.
That was just one highlight on the trip undertaken last month by Roger and Jan Aegerter that can only be described as the experience of a lifetime.
“Pinch me,” Jan remembers thinking as she watched penguins by the thousands waddle to and fro in their natural habitat.
For most of us, the notion of traveling to Antarctica is about as plausible as actual time travel.
There are no cities or towns, and no indigenous people.
It’s a place made up of 98 percent ice and 2 percent barren rock where the average wintertime temperature is somewhere around 81 degrees below zero.
Human activity is confined mostly to scientific research by numerous countries thanks to a 1959 treaty designating the continent as a “natural reserve devoted to peace and science.”
The Aegerters themselves weren’t sure how to go about visiting Antarctica, so they did what any modern-day explorer might do — they Googled it.
It turns out commercial ships have been taking tourists to Antarctica annually since 1966. Last year alone, 37,608 people got to channel their inner Sir Edmund Hillary (the famed explorer who participated in the first overland crossing of the Antarctic in the late 1950s).
Admittedly, Roger envisioned sailing to Antarctica aboard an icebreaker or a cargo ship.
“I was kind of looking forward to that,” he confessed.
Instead, the longtime Jefferson residents found themselves on board a ship staffed with 11 chefs.
“It was much nicer than I thought it would be,” Roger said.
Some passengers actually griped that the Wi-Fi was slow.
Not Jan, who retired in 2014 after 39 years as a special education teacher at the local high school.
“I love being unplugged,” she said.
Short of taking a trip to the moon, Antarctica is about as far as a person can get from just about everything.
In one area of the Antarctic Peninsula, the Aegerters were in close proximity to 60,000 breeding pairs. Adult penguins on land have no natural predators.
“Just realizing how adaptable creation is, it’s pretty incredible,” Jan said.
The photo ops were bountiful.
“Everybody loves a penguin,” she said.
“Everybody else,” Roger explained, “says, ‘Oh, that looks cold.’ They don’t see the beauty in the landscape, but we did. I love watching how nature works together.”
For the record, it was early summer in the Antarctic — located in the Southern Hemisphere — when the Aegerters visited in December.
That meant temperatures were around 30 degrees above zero, but with wind.
Lots of wind. Gusts of 70 mph, in fact.
“I had to take a knee several times to keep from blowing over,” Jan said.
The Aegerters didn’t actually set out to visit Antarctica, but figured they may as well cross another continent off their list while on a mission trip to Chile with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Back in 2011, Jan accompanied the ELCA’s Western Iowa Synod on a trip to Chile to seek out partnership opportunities with churches there.
In Punta Arenas, the southernmost city in Chile, they just happened to stay with the captain of a ship who regularly made runs to Antarctica.
The flare, er, light bulb turned on.
When the Aegerters returned in late 2017, they made plans after the 20-day mission trip to embark for the Antarctic from Ushuaia, Argentina, the port city with the motto “Fin Del Mundo” — the End of the World.
“One of the fun things about traveling is having someone to share it with,” Jan said.
In July, the Aegerters will celebrate 40 years of marriage. Jan has so far visited six continents (of seven) to Roger’s lowly four.
She has yet to visit Asia.
“I’ll get there,” she vowed.
The Antarctic tourism industry isn’t exactly booming — 11,339 Americans came ashore during the 2016-17 summer season, followed by 5,148 Chinese — but it’s still a major uptick from 1991, when only 6,400 total tourists visited the continent.
China in December even introduced a commercial flight from Hong Kong to the South Pole.
“It’s only going to become more popular as a destination,” Jan lamented.
“As long as I get to go, that’s OK,” she joked. “I don’t want other people to ruin it.”
Non-native species have already been introduced to the Antarctic, from micro-organisms and algae to fruit flies and even spiders.
The Aegerters spent three days on Antarctica, traveling between the main ship and land for just a few hours at a time.
“They tell you to wear waterproof everything,” Jan said. “My gloves got wet the first minute.”
They traveled there as “citizen scientists,” documenting birds and whales along the way, and uploading photos of clouds directly to NASA.
But technological advancements aside, the two-and-a-half-day cruise from Argentina to Antarctica still serves as a potent reminder of voyages made long ago.
The Drake Passage between South America and Antarctica is said to be the roughest water in the world to cross, according to Roger.
“The ship’s doctor got sick,” Jan said. “She spent the first 24 hours throwing up.”
Roger found he couldn’t sleep on his side — the rocking of the ship kept turning him over.
Afterward, Roger asked the ship’s crew to rank the turbulence on a scale of one to 10.
They answered “three.”
For her part, Jan didn’t have any trouble at all sleeping.
“They give you all the free wine you want,” she said.