By Virginia Dean, Standard Correspondent
A life-changing week has arrived for some two-dozen area residents who will be venturing to a part of the world few have ever attempted.
Two of these sojourners, local residents Miranda and Charles Shackleton, are making the trip not only to bring that experience back home but also to walk in the footsteps of Charles’s second cousin, Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton (18741922).
One hundred years ago, Sir Ernest Shackleton – a British polar explorer but Irish by birth – generated a plan that not many of that time or perhaps even today would dare to do.
Having led three expeditions to the Antarctic at the turn of the 20th century, Ernest, who had thus been knighted by King Edward VII on his return home, turned his eye toward the one remaining task of Antarctic journeying: the crossing of the 2,000-mile continent from sea to sea.
Twenty-seven men and 68 dogs were chosen, eager to sail with the explorer to the unknown. As Ernest prepared for what he named the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition that began in October 1914 on a wooden ship named the Endurance, little did he know that he and his crew would be stranded beyond all help of rescue, the vessel frozen in ice in the Weddell Sea for eleven months until it was squashed and sank in November 1915, leaving the men on a floe with three small ship’s boats.
As their leader, Ernest was forced to give the order to abandon ship that remained afloat for some time, allowing the crew to salvage supplies and materials including photographs that exist today to tell the story.
For West Windsor resident Ashley Pakenham, the trip is not only one of a lifetime but a chance to share in the history of Ernest Shackleton’s infamous expedition.
“It’s just such an opportunity,” said Pakenham. “To go with people who are members of the Shackleton family is extraordinary. It’s just wonderful. Charlie and Jonathan present Ernest in such an interesting way. He had extraordinary talent to lead men which I think was his greatest accomplishment.”
Last Tuesday, as part of Quark Expeditions, the 24 sojourners left Boston and headed to Buenos Aires where they will stay for a couple of days before boarding a private charter flight to Ushuaia on the southern tip of Argentina.
From there, they head east on the Ocean Endeavour out of the Beagle Channel to South Georgia where Sir Ernest Shackleton was buried in 1922 at the age of 47.
“South Georgia abounds in such wildlife as king penguins and elephant seals and was a famous whaling station where Antarctic expeditions often set out from,” said Charles.
The area is also where Shackleton and six of his men returned after the famous 800-mile boat journey in the 24-foot long James Caird open boat as part of the rescue mission for the remaining twenty-two men left stranded on Elephant Island after their ship, The Endurance, sank in the Weddell Sea.
“This was part of Ernest’s famous Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition from 1914-1917,” said Charles.
From South Georgia, the expeditionaries proceed to the Antarctic Peninsula, traveling around the western side, visiting many of the famous sights including Elephant Island, Deception Island, and the Lemaire Channel. From there, they will head back across the 500-mile wide Drake Passage that can be one of the stormiest seas, depending on the weather, Charles noted.
The Passage is the body of water between South America’s Cape Horn and the South Shetland Islands of Antarctica. It connects the southwestern part of the Atlantic Ocean with the southeastern part of the Pacific Ocean and extends into the Southern Ocean.
“It’s called the Drake Lake or the Drake Shake!” Charles said.
For local residents and veteran travelers Barbara and Frank O’Connell, the trip represents a new continent to explore, one that is sure not to disappoint.
“This type of trip is far different, more of an expedition,” said Barbara. “We were contacted by Charlie and Miranda a year ago. Because of him and the adventure, it just sounded phenomenal. It’s also a chance for us to share this experience with others from Woodstock. It’ll be really enriching to see this part of the world and the climate change that we understand is occurring.”
Her husband, Frank, agreed.
“I love the possibility for thrill seeking, and I think this trip will have that,” he said. “Just being with our friends from the area will be so much fun. I’m really looking forward to that and sharing our experiences.”
In addition to local residents, the expedition – which is overseen by four guides, including Charles’s brother, Jonathan – is joined by several knowledgeable scientists who are part of some 190 ship passengers in total from all over the world.
The Ocean Endeavour is engineered to explore the polar regions and features an ice-strengthened hull, Zodiacs for exploration and remote landings, and advanced navigation equipment.
“This is a visit to one of the great primal wildernesses of the world at its southernmost tip,” said Charles. “It’s a place almost devoid of human habitation and activity and famous for its extreme climate.”
It is summer in Antarctica and temperatures are hovering around the freezing mark, Charles explained. The sun rises and sets much like it does in North America. The Peninsula’s isolated terrain also shelters thousands of penguins, walruses, and seals.
“There’ll be many lectures and day trips to explore the different habitats and how they’re being altered by climate change,” said Charles who traveled to the southernmost global continent some 15 years ago.
At that time, he was with two of the grandsons of the men who traveled with his second cousin, Ernest.
“We had a great time,” he said. “It was amazing. We visited the island, had a barbecue on an iceberg and had an Antarctic dip. It was a chance to appreciate what our relatives had accomplished.”
After the three-week trip, the voyagers hope to bring back and share their experiences to Woodstock area residents.
“I believe this will be an inspirational trip,” said Charles. “Woodstock itself is situated in one of the most beautiful places on earth, but this is way more extreme and remote. We hope to come back with many funny and serious stories of our adventures together (plus evidential photos) as a group and inspire others to follow in our footsteps, whether it is to the Antarctic or other special places in the world. We also will get to understand the extraordinary nature and bravery of Shackleton’s exploration down south and, in particular, his historic rescue story and why he became so famous for his incredible leadership.”
This article first appeared in the February 9, 2017 edition of the Vermont Standard.