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Beginning of an ending

February 1, 2010

Hot dog. There have been so many adventures since my last post. I’ll try to recap as best as possible, and maybe it’ll actually be a more accurate representation of the way time moves down here – quickly, in large chunks broken up by location or jobs, and with similar days fading in to one another. The 24 hour sunlight adds to the feeling that it’s one long day.

Being at Byrd camp, where I was for about three weeks, was wonderful. I loved working in the “deep field,” as we call it. In a lot of ways, I found a life out there which closely matched what I imagined life here in McMurdo would be like. There were between 40-60 people there, on average, and because it’s such a small community, everyone pitches in. House Mouse duties rotate among everyone, and include washing dishes, bringing in trash cans full of snow and dumping them in the snow melter to help slake the impossible thirst of the camp, and sweeping the galley. If the mechanic needs something, he shouts across the camp for a hand, and if I need help with one of my projects, he’s just as willing to pitch in. Most of the entertainment, at least for me, consisted of talking to people. I slept in a regular backpacking-style tent and we ate and worked in huge heated upside-down horseshoe shaped insulated tents with wooden floors. It wasn’t really all that rustic – you could access a work e-mail account, though no other internet, there were satellite phones, generators provided ample electricity, and there was a TV and DVD player (albeit crammed into the wash tent). It was cozy. But the pace of life out there was great. Everyone worked hard, and we GA’s were given some tasking but most of the time left to our own devices, which was a relief coming from McMurdo, where it’s easy to feel constantly scrutinized. Our bosses specifically told us that if we had really finished our work, we were not to try to make ourselves look busy for the sake of appearances, which was an especially refreshing directive.

Byrd’s landscape is hard to take in, let alone explain. Pictures don’t do it justice. It’s flat and white. But that sounds boring, when in fact it could be staggeringly beautiful or ominous or uninviting or enticing or really anything but boring. On days when the sky is overcast, the light becomes very flat and it’s easy to walk off three foot tall embankments, because there’s no way to perceive depth. It feels like you’re in an infinitely large white room. On sunny days, the whole ground sparkles. And I swear that the first night I slept in a tent there, I could feel the depth of the 7,000 feet of ice between me and solid ground.

One crazy coincidence happened at Byrd, which made it feel like a very, very small world. One of the scientists overheard me say something about Baltimore, and he mentioned that he was from there as well. When we asked him what neighborhood, it turned out that he lives right next door to a puppet theater where Geoff and I do shows – and that we’ve been in his backyard before, and met his dogs. How strange that we wouldn’t meet him until we were hundreds of miles into Western Antarctica.

Coming back from Byrd was a bit of a letdown at first, though friends, hot showers, phones, internet, and fresh vegetables softened the blow considerably. And the best thing of all about coming back is that in the weeks we were gone, the ice breaker came into town and because of that and the relatively warm temperatures there’s a ton of open water around McMurdo. There have been whales playing, and penguins swimming right up to station, and seals are everywhere! It’s put a whole new face on town to have so much wildlife around. We’re lucky, because there’s definitely not always this much ocean, and penguins and whales don’t come around every year either.

Then we rushed right into fuel offload, which involved pumping 4.5 million gallons of fuel (a smaller amount than usual – we burn an awful lot on this continent) from a huge tanker into McMurdo’s many tanks. My part in that involved trading off walking the 1.3 miles from the ship up to the tanks and then back, checking for leaks, and sitting by the main shutoff valves with a radio, ready to jump to attention should something go wrong. Nothing did, thank goodness, and it was actually a fun couple days of work. Gazing at the whales didn’t hurt any either.

And now I have only two more workdays left here. I’m definitely ready to go, as much as I’ve liked it – two day weekends and home cooked meals and a little bit of vacation and GREEN PLANTS are all sounding mighty good to me right now…

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Liza permalink
    February 2, 2010 5:58 am

    Been following your adventures faithfully but never wrote a proper letter! Drats! Enjoy the last few days of wildness and have a safe journey home.

  2. February 27, 2010 4:40 pm

    Hi!
    Word is you’re a Smithie. We’d like to add to the Association of Smith Alum Blogs (smithalumblogs.wordpress.com), but we don’t know what class year to associate you with. If you’d like to be included, email us! smithalumblogs@gmail.com.
    Thanks!
    Sarah & Amanda

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