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Serendipity in Punta Arenas, Chile

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By Felicia Ennis Big Sky Weekly Contributor

I never really understood what it meant when people said they’re set in their ways. Until recently.

I started feeling comfortable in my house, on my street, in my neighborhood and in my state. It surfaced as a reluctance to buy a plane ticket. I noticed it as I questioned the practicality of foreign travel in a slow economy. It lingered in the simplicity of home.

And then, I got a really big itch. Hives! There is a person inside of me who loves travel, foreign languages, the serendipity of meeting new people, and ultimately coming home again. She bowled into me, reminding me I have work to do and that work requires me to travel, and that it will certainly be worth it.

While traveling in Chile for work this past November, I made a connection that will forever encourage me to pack my bags and head out into the unknown, even alone. This connection reminded me of the fascinating world beyond my house, my street and my town.

A day after flying into Santiago, Chile’s capital, I flew further south to Punta Arenas, the southernmost city in South America. This dynamic wind-blown city is a launch pad for adventure and a staging ground for cutting edge scientific exploration and expeditions to Antarctica.

I went to visit friends and co-workers who live in Punta Arenas several months a year, using it as a base to access Antarctica. To my delight, just hours after arriving I was drinking a schop, a draft beer, with five accomplished Antarctic scientists and guides.

I struck up a conversation with Chris, a soft-spoken British engineer and the program manager of a project studying an Antarctic sub-glacial lake. He told me about his work, and I was intrigued.

Lake Ellsworth, a liquid lake beneath 3.2 kilometers of ice, has been cut off from our biosphere for hundreds of thousands of years, possibly even millions. Chris was about to fly 70 tons of specialized equipment to Antarctica, for a 2012 project to extract a water sample from the lake.

The study will look for life forms in the water and clues to past climates in the lakebed sediments. One of the most exciting and ambitious explorations of our time, Chris said it has potential to find new life forms, or life forms that have ceased to exist in our world.

photo courtesy of British Antarctic Survey, Lake Ellsworth Drilling site with Ellsworth Mountains in the background

As I listened to Chris describe this work, my three-week trip to Chile seemed worthwhile. As owner of a boutique travel business, my work requires me to explore the world and to connect with people, and then to share those connections. Here, I was witness to enormous opportunity, and felt romanced by the possibilities it opened.

Having left my comfortable neighborhood, I found intrigue in the foreign and frozen.

Before the beer was gone I learned that he was working closely with a similar scientific program based at Montana State University and plans to visit Bozeman in April. It sent chills down my spine to be so far from home and at the same time right at home.

Felicia Ennis owns Bella Treks, an international travel business. She draws from her own travel experiences to create unique custom itineraries.

To learn more about the Lake Ellsworth project, visit

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