By Emily Boe Lee ’17
Lee smiles for a photo at the Brown Almirante Base, an Argentinian operated base located in the Antarctic Peninsula. Photo courtesy of Lee.
I am shaken awake by the sound of a massive wave thundering against the outside of my cabin. The room rattles, and the my eyes shoot open in the darkness. Once I remember where I am and my heart begins to slow its pounding, I slowly ease myself out of bed. Cerulean-white water ferociously swirls on the other side of my porthole, giving the appearance that I was inside the spin cycle of a washing machine. I try to stand, but the ship suddenly rolls forty-five degrees to the right, and I’m thrown to the floor like a rag-doll. My head is about to explode out my temples. Coldness rises in my stomach, and before I know it, I’m heaving. There’s nothing left in me but bile at this point, so my throat burns from the acidity. Clawing at the nightstand for balance, I rise to my knees and snatch my water bottle from the drawer. I gulp the cool liquid down my aching throat before collapsing back to the ground. Welcome to the Drake Passage.
This was the final leg of my week-long journey to the seventh continent, and definitely the most trying. Grueling layovers and terrifying taxi rides through Buenos Aires at rush hour had nothing on sailing through the Drake. This relentless stretch of ocean between Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost town on Earth, and the Antarctic Peninsula is famous for being the roughest seas in the world. Fifty-foot swells pummeled my small ship, making it impossible to sleep without strapping my body down to the bed or eat without regurgitating it moments later. The voyage was a test in willpower of the highest degree.
The past year had felt like eternity. Not in the way that three days in the Drake feels like eternity, but in the way that so much has happened, it seems impossible to all have occurred in twelve short months. For ages, philosophers and astrophysicists have written about the compression and elongation of time – years experienced as moments, and seconds that feel like lifetimes. I try to think back to my world just one year ago, and I wonder if I had been caught in a wormhole. A year ago I had just arrived at Northeastern University, and was sitting in a freshman lecture hall in Boston. The biggest questions on my mind were, Should I join a sorority? Should I major in biology or in chemistry? Does my roommate think I’m weird?
The Tiger Insider decided to conduct a survey of Newton North Students to see what they thought about taking a gap year after senior year. Survey conducted by junior Alex Kelsey-Ramos.
And now, I am en route to Antarctica, vomiting my brains out somewhere in the middle of the Southern Ocean. The Emily of a year ago is a lifetime away.
When we finally cross over into Antarctic waters, the peninsula shelters us from the ruthless waves of the Drake, and I can finally keep some food down. I’m famished. On top of starving for three days, it’s bitter-cold here, and I discover I need to eat at least five-thousand calories a day just to maintain my bodyweight. Upon waking on that fourth day, I frantically scarf down a huge bowl of white rice, four slices of toast smothered with butter, two cans of albacore tuna, and more than a few fistfuls of cashews. My crew-mates stare at me with wide eyes.
I’m the only American on board, and by far the youngest member of the expedition team. Our final destination was the Lemaire Channel, located at about 65 degrees south. If successful, we would be the first ship to break through the channel’s ice this year. I had been enlisted as a polar guide and the resident photographer for this expedition, a position I was still shocked I had received. After all, I was just a nineteen-year-old with a camera, in search of adventure and the Great Unknown.
The mouth of the “Kodak Gap” or the Lemaire Channel. Photo taken by Lee.
A little less than a year ago, I had decided to leave college and pursue a career in photography. My whole life, I had been a straight-A student with aspirations of going off to university, becoming Dr. Lee, and doing something that would make my grandparents give me a pat on the back. Discovering a new sustainable energy source, starting a colony on Mars, developing a catch-all preventative vaccine for cancer… You know, nothing too big. It was a pinhole vision of success, and I chased it blindly just because it was something to follow. When I finally realized that getting a PhD wasn’t going to make me happy (In fact, it was going to make me miserable), I made the biggest decision of my life and cut the ropes. Since that moment, I found myself thrown into a hurricane of things I never thought possible. I spent the following months living abroad in the Westfjords of Iceland, climbing mountains under the midnight sun, learning to teach yoga, and falling madly in love with an solivagant stranger – all while improving my photography.
And now I stand on the seventh continent, doing work that I can only describe as numbingly incredible. I drive Zodiacs to shore at each landing, photograph iceberg shapes, and record calvings – monstrous chunks of ice breaking off the edges of glaciers due to rising temperatures – in a voyage log. I harness up and scale towering mountains, keep watch on the ship’s bridge, and untangle yards and yards of salt-hardened rope. Aside from the wonder of learning countless new skills, I was constantly surrounded by insurmountable beauty. While, standing on the snowy shore at Paradise Cove, I watch as a group of chinstrap penguins dive in and out of the water in front of me, skipping like rocks over the surface of a perfect teal-blue lake. A glassy iceberg drifts by in the distance, and the roar of a new calving across the cove rings in my ears.
A Gentoo Penguin. Photo taken by Lee.
Despite my life looking like a panel out of National Geographic to the outside world, my choice to quit school led to the biggest struggle I’ve ever faced. It was constant doubt – the looming weight that maybe, I had made a grave mistake. At the beginning of my new life, I often woke up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, hit with a wave of anxiety. Is this just a pipe dream? Am I ruining my life? What have I done? To add to the difficulty, everything I used to find comfort in suddenly became unrelatable. I could no longer turn to my high school and college friends for support; they didn’t understand anything I was going through. I was on a path that seemed to be diverging from everyone else and everything “safe.” A lot of times, I felt utterly alone.
The team’s first ascent of Spigot Peak. Photo taken by Lee.
The team reaches the summit of Spigot Peak. At the top of the mountain, the team recorded the snow conditions. Photo taken by Lee on a telephoto lens.
It’s now mid-December, and I find myself standing on deck three, starboard-side of the ship, gazing out over a frozen ocean. We’ve made it to the Lemaire Channel. The ghost of Ernest Shackleton himself must have been onboard that night because, despite a storm brewing to the west, we were breaking through. The ever-present summer sun of the south pole is obscured by the thickest fog I’ve ever seen, painting the sky slate. Pack-ice extends out over the sea until it disappears into the milk grey fog and seems to drop off the edge of the world. Broad, slow swells move beneath the ice layer, causing the entire ocean to breathe like the stomach of a snoring giant. I barely feel the sub-zero winds pelting against my parka. The bow of the ship carves through the pack-ice, leaving a haunting strip of dark water, which I watch close up behind us just as swiftly as it had opened. Frozen fragments tangle in my unruly hair, and it suddenly hits me how far I am from everything I’ve ever known. I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my life. No degree, no 401K, no shiny little office with my name on the door. But I feel like I’ve made it.
That night in the Lemaire was the culmination of a year-long transformation. From crippling doubt to confidence, I’ve come to a place where I am now excited by the unknown. Becoming comfortable with uncertainty changed my life and my idea of “success.” The shift in my mentality started happening when I realized one very important thing: sometimes, you have to let ideas go. I had been so latched onto the vision of what I thought my life was going to look like, that every step in a different direction felt wrong. I had to let my original plan go; it wasn’t giving me happiness and it wasn’t what my soul ached for.
For me, success is being thrilled to wake up every morning and have a new adventure. It wasn’t easy to set my old ideas free, but when I finally did, my heart was open and ready to receive the joy my new life was bringing.