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A Guide’s Guide: Trekking the Tundra with Expedition Leader Michael Ginzburg

by Oceanwide Expeditions Blog

For adventure lovers, a common reaction to meeting polar expedition guides is that they have the coolest job on the planet. They spend much of their time outdoors, piloting Zodiacs and leading hikes through some of Earth’s most dramatically sculpted landscapes. They introduce shiploads of new passengers, some of whom have never seen the polar regions (and may never see it again) to environments they have often studied for years as scientists. And as a bonus, they get to pack around really big bear rifles – that we of course hope they never have to use.
Antarctic Peninsula

Regions: Antarctica, Arctic

The Hidden Ninety Percent of Expedition Life

For adventure lovers, a common reaction to meeting polar expedition guides is that they have the coolest job on the planet. They spend much of their time outdoors, piloting Zodiacs and leading hikes through some of Earth’s most dramatically sculpted landscapes. They introduce shiploads of new passengers, some of whom have never seen the polar regions (and may never see it again) to environments theyve often studied for years as scientists. And as a bonus, they get to pack around really big bear rifles – that we of course hope they never have to use. Naturally, though, there’s more to being an expedition guide than the perks, and even more to being an expedition leader. It’s a late-to-bed, early-to-rise role that, like icebergs, shows about ten percent of itself while the rest lies hidden from sight. We walked the Svalbard shores with expedition leader Michael Ginzburg to get some background on that hidden ninety percent, and what attracts him to the whole hundred.

Guides and Guards of the Arctic and Antarctic

“There are a lot of dangerous aspects out here,” says Ginzburg, walking at the lead of the seventy-odd passengers joining us on this spirited midday hike. “We’re in polar bear country, so we have to carry these firearms. But we also operate Zodiacs in very cold waters. Having everything under control and knowing exactly what we’re doing is very important.” Adjusting the rifle on his shoulder, Ginzburg keeps a close eye on the other armed guides nearby, all of them on the lookout for bears that might not have been spotted prior to landing. Then he glances back at the passengers taking pictures, talking among themselves, marveling at the stark landscapes beyond-the-Wall beauty. “But from my experience, most of the truly dangerous situations are created by people themselves. Because they panic.” This, he explains, is what he has to watch out for the most – though thankfully the panic he encounters usually has more to do with missing a blue whale sighting than with any real danger.

Polar Cruise Plans and Procedures

Most people who embark on Arctic and Antarctic cruises see only the PR aspects of expedition leadership: The EL (expedition leader) wishes the ship good morning over the intercom, gives the day’s briefing to an observation lounge full of sleepy passengers sipping coffee and gnashing biscuits, and provides the evening recap just before the dinner bell rings. What’s less often seen is the substantial work that circulates around these key routines. “Long before the first passenger arrives,” Ginzburg tells us, “I meet with the captain, guides, hotel manager, and chef to say hello and have a quick chat. Then I sit with the EL from the previous cruise to do the handover – this is where I get an update on all the equipment, for example. After that, I call the guides to get everybody on the same page about plans and duties. And later on, I meet with the captain again to check weather reports and ice charts, confirming the plan for the next day. Only once all of that is done do I do anything visible to the passengers.” These visible duties, he says, include introducing the guides, running safety drills with everyone on board, and starting his round-the-clock wildlife watch after the vessel has pushed out of port.

The Allure of the Arctic, the Antarctic Attraction

In the David Lean film, Lawrence of Arabia, T.E. Lawrence (played by Peter O’Toole) answers for his love of the desert with elegant concision: “It’s clean.” While this is an admirably powerful snippet of cinematic phrasing, in real life it can be a bit more difficult to so clearly articulate our preference for one landscape over another. Such things tend to operate on a gut level, defying rational explanations. When asked why he’s drawn to the polar regions and not, say, the swamps or forests or even the desert, Ginzburg’s first answer comes from the gut: “The ice just has some fascination for me.” But squinting across the snow, which glitters like glass dust under the high noon sun, he finds more to say on the matter: “Also, I really like the fact that mankind discovered the poles recently. It was the limit of what was possible for a long time. The belief that there is still something undiscovered wakes a lot of passion in me, gives me goosebumps whenever I go to those places.” 

From Science to Pictures to Polar Cruises

Ginzburg slows for a moment to click his radio, saying something to the crew back on m/v Plancius. Meanwhile the guides tell the passengers about a scatter of whale bones farther up the beach. Plancius, the polar vessel thats carrying our group through the Arctic, is anchored in the bay behind us, beyond the fleet of parked Zodiacs that shuttled us to shore. Its crew has been watching the progress of our hike this whole time, in part as an extra level of precaution against polar bears. Though only in his late twenties, Ginzburg is accustomed to this level of high-stakes responsibility. He started out doing field research and scientific expeditions, deciding this was the most interesting way to work in the polar regions. Afterward he switched to being a full-time photojournalist specializing in, not surprisingly, expeditions. So it was no great leap when he began his position as a guide for Antarctic and Arctic voyages, eventually working his way to the rank of expedition leader. “I just like to explore new things and work with whatever nature is throwing at us,” he says, lowering his radio and rejoining the hike. “I don’t miss internet and cell reception, but sometimes I wish I could have my family out here experiencing these amazing moments with me.”

Instilling Awe of the Arctic and Antarctic

We hike for about an hour longer, taking in sights that seem to have dropped out of some other world – or maybe an earlier version of this one – when Ginzburg finally announces it’s time to head back. Plancius, now distant and miniature in the far-off bay, sits dwarfed by the immensity of its surroundings, resembling more a bath toy bobbing in a pond than an ice-strengthened polar vessel. Ginzburg turns toward it, the guides falling into position. The passengers follow us, scrolling through cell phones and cameras, comparing digital treasuries of the pictures they’ve captured during the hike. “We once had a full charter with an education program,” Ginzburg recalls. “Mostly kids and teachers. Now, it can be hard to fascinate kids after two weeks of polar exploration, history, and geology. But there was this one boy, David, who came to me when all the other kids were playing around, not really cherishing where they were. He told me how beautiful the tundra was to him, how much he loved seeing all the animals in it. One time he spotted an Arctic fox and was so excited he dropped his camera. He just screamed, ‘Fox!’ and slapped his hands to his head, almost forgetting to take a picture.” Ginzburg laughs to remember it. “If I can make even one percent of the people I travel with feel that way about the polar regions, I’m happy in my work.” Continuing back to the ship with him, we’re confident that in his one percent lies the ninety we’ve been looking for.

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