Local men ready for 7th continent

Antarctica? In February?

When you’re Michael Smith and Jim Grabinski — and Antarctica is the only continent left on your travel life list — that’s a big yes.

The germ of an idea

Michael Smith and Jim Grabinski in New Zealand, where their current trip to Antarctica had its start.

The pair has collectively visited more than 100 countries across Europe, Asia and Africa as well as India. Antarctica wasn’t on the radar screen — until a 2011 trip to Australia and New Zealand. During a stop in Christchurch they made what started as a casual visit to the International Antarctic Centre. They became intrigued.

After letting the idea germinate — Michael took more convincing than Jim (“I live in Minnesota,” he quipped during an interview Thursday. “Why would I go to Antarctica?”) — they started researching the possibilities.

They ended up with a soon-to-start 22-day trip with an itinerary of sidelights that could be the centerpiece of most travelers’ trips: Rio de Janiero. Buenos Aires. Patagonia. Igaussu Falls. Tierra del Fuego.

But there looms Antarctica, with all its forbidding romance, overshadowing them all.

Grabinski and Smith will be departing soon, having found through their research that December — spring in the southern hemisphere — is often too cold for comfort in Antarctica. February’s move into summer should bring tolerable daytime temperatures in the 30s-40s and the best chance to see large numbers of penguins, seals, whales and other wildlife.

But first, they’ll have to endure one of the globe’s prime points of travelers’ bragging rights: The Drake Passage.

The Atlantic and Pacific oceans meet there in the Antarctic Convergence, slamming cold waters and relatively warmer waters together.

The two-day water crossing is notorious for its unpredictability, from raging turbulence to dead calm. The conditions have earned the passage a two-part nickname: the Drake Lake or the Drake Shake.

The small ship they’ll be sailing on is ready to help its approximately 110 passengers handle the Shake, if it happens: Each of its bunks has straps to hold you in, and if seas get too rough passengers will be asked to stay in their cabins.

Smith, who said he has laid in a supply of motion-sickness remedies, still hopes they don’t run into the Drake Lake. They’re after the full experience.

While the Grand Circle tour is geared toward comfort, this Antarctica trip isn’t for the frail. Unlike most cruises, no passengers with mobility limitations that require use of a walker or wheelchairs are given passage. The company says anyone who books the trip needs good balance and agility, and for many of the shore excursions, the ability to hike 3 miles over rough terrain.

Both Grabinski and Smith are eager for the challenge. They’re looking forward to the jungles and the waterfalls and the major cities they’ll see along the way — Rio’s attractions are mentioned particularly. But the reality is that, for the two who spend up to five months away from their St. Cloud home every year, the Antarctic is the place that is like none other they’ve ever seen.

I can’t wait until they get home. I’m going to hang on their every word, and then I’m going to tell you all about it, too.

Safe travels through the Shake, gentlemen. Bring us back some tales of adventure.

Lisa Schwarz

About Lisa Schwarz

By day, I'm a St. Cloud Times editor guiding coverage of politics, government, public safety and business beats. By night, I'm leading the cubicle jailbreak as the Times Traveler. Follow me on Twitter at www.twitter.com/LisaSSchwarz and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sctimeslisa
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