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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…


PS from Santa

December 27, 2009

Santa doesn’t drive reindeer in Antarctica…. He drives a Pisten Bully!

Up in the clouds, by helicopter and by foot

December 26, 2009

Christmas in Antarctica! It was a good, if strange one. Pluses included:
~ A place completely devoid of any advertisements. The only TV commercials are military ones advising us that we should “take some time out of our days to reduce stress and play!”, telling us how to deal with moving kids again and again, that if we deep fry a frozen turkey it will explode, and that sexual assault is a crime
~ The feast in the galley
~ A pretty amazing art show in the carpenter’s shop last night, including some of the most beautiful furniture I’ve ever seen that was made completely out of glued plywood, a giant see saw, a big Newton’s Cradle made out of bowling balls and arches from a big tent, and a room-sized camera obscura
Shooting a movie with friends that we’re going to enter into the film festival (I’ll post it later when it’s finished)
~ Two whole days off!
Minuses included:
~ Being very far away from family, friends, and home
~ Not baking a gingerbread house
~ The strange disorientation that comes with Christmas being one of the warmest days of the year, though that’s not really a minus so much as a strange point of note

So all in all, it’s been a really good holiday season.

The trip that I spoke about in my last post was amazing. The floor system that we took down was a big and burly one, so there was hard work to do, but we had great weather and with 9 of us we made pretty short work of it and were able to go hiking. It was one of the best hikes I’ve ever been on. According to the altimeter on someone’s watch, we went about 4,000 feet up on the hills (cliffs, really, though I’m hesitant to say I was cliff scrambling because my Mom reads this – sorry Mom) beside the lake where we were staying. I could see about five or six glaciers, which were particularly striking because there was no snow on the ground in the valley, so there was a big contrast between the dark brown rock and the white, beautiful, textured, glistening, flowing glaciers.
Also, I got to hook a 2,000 pound load to the belly of a helicopter that was hovering directly over my head! I have to get the picture from a friend, but I’ll post it soon. It was a pretty big adrenaline rush.
I’m leaving on Monday for a three week stint at a field camp, so I might not be able to post for a bit. So Happy New Year to everyone!

Ice is alive

December 14, 2009

This will be quick, because I’m getting ready for yet another helicopter journey tomorrow morning (I’ve had once since I wrote last). This time I’m going out with the carpenters to take down a large and complicated floor, that used to be part of a structure that housed a very very fancy robot named Endurance (speaking of which, if any of you haven’t read the novel Endurance about Shackleton’s crew getting marooned down here, rush out and get a copy). Endurance was used to go under the ice of Lake Bonney in the Dry Valleys, but his season’s over, and now nine of us get to go out and take down what’s left of his old home. It should be a good time! So rather than write too much, I’ll just post some pictures of the last two weeks. The first few are from my one day junket to Black Island, which is where all of the communications equipment for McMurdo lives. I went over to inventory it. It’s only about a 10 minute helicopter ride away, and you can actually see Black Island from town, but it was still a great trip. Then the other pictures are from a tour of the Pressure Ridges, which are beautiful beautiful formations formed when sea ice gets pressed up against land (by nearby glaciers, currents, wind, etc). First the ice ripples a little bit. Then the ripples grow bigger and bigger, and they turn into swells that look like rolling waves. Then when the pressure gets too great, they crack at the top, and when the cracked ice is further compressed, strange and beautiful ice sculptures are made…

It’s happened!!!!

November 28, 2009

It happened, it happened, it finally happened!
It’s what you’ve all been waiting for. Let’s not kid ourselves. Clearly, all of you have suffered this blog up to this point because you figured that at some point I’d stop blathering and post pictures of cute cute penguins.
Well, you’re in luck!!!! I won’t say too much, except that my job on Thursday was to go out with the guy who evaluates the cracks in the sea ice surrounding McMurdo, to make sure that they’re still strong enough to drive on, and that we went all the way up to Cape Royds, which is where the penguin rookeries are….


November 24, 2009

I haven’t written in a while, and it’s not because I’ve been off having wild adventures, but actually the opposite – I’ve become absorbed into what feels like a very normal life. It’s amazing to me to think that after such a short time here it feels completely normal – mundane, even – to work in such a remote place. Time has started to fly. For the first few weeks, the days and weeks went by soooooooo slooooooowly, and then suddenly as soon as one Sunday is over, it seems like it’s already the next Saturday night. (Time here, of course, being measured by how quickly that one coveted day off comes around.)
But I will say that it is easier here to think big. When I do pause to shake off the feeling of just living an average life and working an average job, it’s very clear that there isn’t much between me and great empty spaces. At home there are a lot of layers of familiarity around me – house, street, city block, neighborhood, city, state, and even the whole US is manageable to think about. And because of that it’s harder to think in global terms, because there is so much distracting stuff happening at all of those earlier levels. But here, there is this small town, and then nothing.nothing.nothing for a long time. And so, improbably, because we are isolated from the rest of the world here, it is much easier to be conscious of being part of a global system.
But enough big picture stuff. Because I haven’t had any really grand adventures lately, here is a collection of small observations about life around town:

~Thanksgiving is coming up, and that means a 2 day (!) weekend. It also means that the galley will be cooking 1,300 pounds of turkey, 350 pounds of mashed potatoes, 1,000 pieces of pumpkin cheesecake, 400 each of apple and pumpkin pies, 500 pounds of beef, 9 gallons of whipped cream (made from real cream flown in, not dried milk), and a whole lot more. It also means that part of my job today was punching holes in construction paper on which people had made hand turkeys (you know, where you trace your hand and turn it into a turkey) and stringing them up in the dining hall. Sometimes living here feels like being at summer camp.

~There is a floor to ceiling bookshelf full of wigs that are available for the community to check out, free of cost.

~I went to the post office yesterday without any money, because I am used to everything being free – movies in the store, haircuts, skis, food, gym, yoga classes, basically any office or work supply you could want. It turns out that they still want money to mail things, though.

~I’m in the library, and someone is practicing tuba next door in the laundry. In addition to wigs, there are also a multitude of instruments available for use, including a theremin.

~The spring is coming, and there is mud everywhere. There’s a reason that the “r” is sometimes dropped from the station name. McMud-O really does describe it.
~The only wildlife you really see in town are skuas. Skuas are like seagulls, but much much larger, and brown. They are smart. And vicious. They will dive bomb you if you walk out of a building carrying food. Sometimes one distracts you from the front while another sneaks up behind to grab what you’re holding.

~I take tap dancing lessons once a week.
~Over 60% of the trash here is recycled. Working in the Waste Barn, as it’s called, is fascinating. Trash is sorted into about 10 different categories, and is shipped back to the US every year on the cargo ship that comes in at the end of January with the year’s supplies.
~I now know what it’s like to be a hamster. That’s because last Saturday I worked up at Waste and they used their wood-chipper, which is the size of an 18 wheeler, to make a dent in the huge amount of scrap wood that needs to be shipped back the the US. It’s chipped up and put into huge shipping containers, and the mess that’s left after they’re done is considerable. So I crawled around in the chips and raked and shoveled them so they could be scooped up by a loader and put into the containers. The best part about it was smelling wood – it was lovely to smell something organic and alive.

More pictures soon, I promise!

Camp life

November 13, 2009

It feels like Antarctica outside right now. I’m back in town, and there’s a storm here right now – it’s not very cold (around 28 degrees F), but the winds are gusting up to 50 knots. The wind in town gets squeezed between the buildings and whips along extra fast – and so right now walking from my dorm to the dining hall takes about 5 minutes of pushing hard with every step, and walking back takes about 2 minutes at a forced jog with the wind at my back. It’s a nice night to be inside!
Geoff and I got back on Wednesday night from Lake Fryxell. It was such an amazing trip – though we worked hard, and I’m still a bit sore from the digging. This wasn’t your regular garden variety digging – we hacked away at frozen chunks of gravel, rocks, and ice (very similar to concrete) with a pick and a big breaker bar for several days. It was slow going. But it was more than worth it to be out there. I loved camp life – we slept in a tent, but there is a common building called a Jamesway (the one on the right in the picture below), which is heated by propane and has a full stove and electricity. It was a cozy place to cook dinner and relax after work. There are also four smaller lab buildings and a generator shack. The buildings are all right near the shore of the lake – which is beautiful because most of it never melts, and when rocks or debris land on it they melt out parts of it which are then shaped by the wind. What’s left is a mass of one or two-foot high hummocks of ice, which are difficult to navigate and beautiful to look at. The lake is at the end of a long valley, and is surrounded by huge glaciers. The first day Geoff and I went to one of the nearby glaciers (Canada Glacier) to pick “glacier berries,” or small pieces of ice that have broken off the glacier. They’re melted on the propane heater to make water for drinking, washing hands and dishes, and cooking.
You’ll notice in the pictures that contrary to what I said in my last post, the camp is covered in snow – they had a rare dump of about 3 inches a few days before we got there, so the Dry Valleys were actually not the brown and rocky landscape that they usually are. It had already melted a fair amount by the time we left, though.
Here are some pictures from the flights there and back and from life in camp. That whole tower and wind turbine went up in the time that we were there, and Geoff and I were responsible for the ditch running back to the generator shack that now houses the power cord.