By Diana Hammell
The Caledonia Argus
Lorene Burrichter of Eitzen has traveled to six of the seven continents on earth. While many of us are heading south to warm climes to avoid all the snow and ice here in Minnesota, Burrichter also took another trip. She went south all right – all the way to Antarctica. How many of us, after looking at all the snow piled up so high around here would think of going somewhere where all you can see every place you look is more snow and ice? If any readers have an inclination to head that way and need a traveling partner, Burrichter would love to go back.
Burrichter is a veteran world traveler. In 1966 she lived and taught elementary school children in what was then Eastern Nigeria. The Nigerian civil war in 1967 caused her evacuation. She taught here at home for five years then went to the Dominican Republic where she was a kindergarten through 12th grade reading specialist from 1972 to 1978.
It was her sister who talked Burrichter into rounding out a travel group to France in 2006. In 2009 she traveled to Peru, including Machu Picchu, Chile and Argentina. In 2010 she went to Panama to see the canal and went on to Costa Rica, and in 2011 she followed the route of the Maya through El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Belize. She’s also been to Canada, Iceland, Luxembourg, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France, England, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Cameroon, Congo, Uganda, Kenya, India, Thailand, Hong Kong, China, Japan, Brazil, Haiti and The Netherlands. Of all of Burrichter’s travels, she enthused over the breathtaking sights of Antarctica.
Waterproof pants required
After obtaining the required medical clearance and waterproof pants, Burrichter booked her own flight from La Crosse to Chicago. From Chicago, her tour company flew her to Miami, then to Buenos Aires, Argentina and finally to Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, which is commonly regarded as the southernmost city in the world.
At Ushuaia they boarded their ice-strengthened ship, Corinthian II for the two-day cruise through the Drake Passage, past the South Shetland Islands, Deception Island and on to the Danco Coast of Antarctica. The Drake Passage is known to be the most perilous to cross, but Burrichter’s group experienced wonderful summer weather for the crossing down and mild weather on the way back. Burrichter was provided with a parka, which she could keep, and was given the loan of boots.
A learning experience
Lectures took up part of the voyage down. Talks included information on the birds, land and sea life and photography. “Trevor Potts gave a lecture on Shackleton,” Burrichter said. “He was on the expedition that recreated Shackleton’s trip.” Another guide had been to Antarctica 62 times. “We had expert guides and an expert team.”
From the smallest to the largest
The Antarctic travelers were broken up into smaller groups that boarded sturdy Zodiac inflatable boats for forays into the bay and onto land. The Antarctic is a world where the smallest of beings and the largest of beings live.
Burrichter witnessed a humpback whale arching through the blue of the water. The whales dine on the reason life is so prolific down there – krill.
Weddell seals were seen flopped on the rocks and snow everywhere near the shoreline. These seals eat an array of fish, krill, squid, bottom-feeding prawns, crustaceans and sometimes penguins. An active adult can eat over 110 pounds per day; they can weigh from 880 to 1,360 pounds. Burrichter noticed that while basking in the sun on shore the seals have an almost neighborly association with the penguins who waddle comically by without a worry in the world.
The penguins seen on Burrichter’s trip were chinstrap and gentoo penguins. Burrichter had a great time watching one male gentoo steal a stone from another’s nest made from rocks to bring to its rocky nest where his spouse sat on their egg. While that gentoo was off stealing another stone, a different male would sneak up to the female on the nest. She would then squawk a complaint that would bring her ever-vigilant spouse running home to chase the intruder off – again. Gentoos are distinguished by a white patch over their brow and a red-orange beak to go along with the required black and white tuxedo.
Chinstrap penguins are easily recognized by the black strap that seems to hold a black helmet down on their head over a white face. The penguins’ black-and-white plumage helps camouflage it in the water from predators such as seals. When seen from above, the birds’ black back blends into the dark water below, while the birds’ underside blends into the sunshine above when seen from underneath.
Warmer in Antarctica than it is Minnesota
Cruises such as Burrichter’s are possible only during the Antarctic summer from November through February. The temperatures where they were on the Peninsula were a very comfortable high 30s to low 40s. During one cold day back in Minnesota, after hearing a typical complaint about the freezing temperatures in Eitzen, Burrichter replied, “Yes, I wish I was back in Antarctica!” The travelers actually were so warm that they sat down in the snow to wait for the curious and unafraid penguins to come and check the visitors out. It was so ‘balmy’ that they even enjoyed a barbeque on deck one evening.
Burrichter easily adjusted to the fact that it was light almost all the time. On Dec. 21, the winter solstice, she stayed up to watch the polar sunset. The sun went down at 12:30 and rose again at 2 a.m.
While Burrichter and her fellow travelers sat in the snow while the penguins poked and prodded their boots and packs, they were not allowed to pet the birds. “They don’t want any foreign organisms to be introduced,” Burrichter said. “Boots and pole sticks had to be decontaminated. We had to rinse our boots in a liquid.” Burrichter has a photo she took of a very old dog sled abandoned there. “There are no dogs anymore because they’re not indigenous,” she said.
Treaties have been formed to preserve the Antarctic ecosystem. The United States passed the Antarctic Conservation Act in 1978, designed to protect mammals, birds, plants and their ecosystems. Despite these and other attempts to regulate and protect Antarctica’s natural resources, illegal fishing practices still threaten species like the Patagonian toothfish.
Cold, windy, dry desert
The Antarctic interior is a cold, windy and dry desert whose snowfall is equivalent to less than two inches of rain per year. Antarctica is the driest desert on earth – drier than the Sahara and just as big. Antarctica is also the windiest place on earth. Intense katabatic winds peel off the polar plateau to gather speeds of up to 185 mph on the coast. It’s a land of blizzards and snowdrifts. Winter temperatures on the plateau can range from -40 degrees F to -94 degrees F. The coasts and the Peninsula are much warmer.
Weather fronts don’t usually reach the Antarctic interior, where the air is too cold to hold much moisture anyway. The little snow that does fall tends to stay for a very long time because it’s never warm enough to melt it. The coasts, on the other hand, can get heavy snowfalls of up to four feet.
The 14 million square miles of Antarctica encompass different ecosystems and terrain. There are volcanic mountains, sand-dune like snow drifts, oases in the form of dry valleys, crevasses, glaciers and ice shelves near the coasts.
The Peninsula itself, where Burrichter was, is a major mountain system with rock and glaciers and many islands. Tourists can watch glaciers calve, though they usually hear them before they see them. The surrounding seas and straits are littered with blue icebergs.
Not many people go there. No indigenous populations inhabit the continent or the peninsula, and the penguins far outnumber the human residents. This immense continent boasts a peak population of around 35,000, comprised mostly of tourists and approximately 5,000 scientists.
“It was an amazing trip,” Burrichter said. “I wish that everyone had the opportunity to go.” It was also an expensive trip, costing more than $10,000.
On the way home Burrichter took a three-day side trip to Iguassu Falls on the border of Brazil and Argentina. These falls are one of the seven natural wonders of the world.
Now the only continent Burrichter hasn’t been to is Australia.