Joining the Ranks of the OAEs

Today seems like it will be our last day here in Antarctica. Tonight we will take our bags to the terminal and prepare to leave tomorrow morning, and although we may be delayed, I’m treating this like my last chance to experience this place. So far, we’ve had a great weekend. After we got back from the field on Thursday, I ran to my room, dropped off my stuff, washed my clothes, and took a shower. I didn’t think we’d have showers in the field, so I didn’t take any shampoo and regretted it as a I suffered through greasy roots for two weeks. I shampoo’d twice and even deep conditioned. I’ve never felt so clean and shiny. I swear my feet lightened by two shades after that shower, and there was so much sand in the drain it looked like a small beach forming. Getting to put on clean clothes afterward was just the cherry on top. Running water is an amazing thing that I will never again take for granted.

That evening we got to tour the Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star. That was a neat experience, since we got to go up on the observation deck and see where the crew ate and spend time in the aircraft hangar. The stairs were a little scary though, seemed pretty easy to fall down them! Friday we got the whole gang back together (our geologists spent an extra day taking glacier samples) and celebrated the end of our field season and a job well done at the coffee bar here in town. We also returned all of our supplies to their rightful owners, resulting in a very satisfying lightening of luggage bags, although I did almost lose a GPS device. Yesterday we spent the day photographing science summaries that the National Science Foundation puts out, and I had a nice dinner with a bunch of new people before I had to go get homework done (grad school waits for no one). The semester started last week, but it’s been summer vacation here up until last night, essentially. I’m going to have a ton of catch-up work to do once I return.

This morning we took a tour of Captain Scott’s hut from the first expedition. The hut is an old wooden structure that’s been renovate and taken care of by the New Zealanders, who are very careful with their restoration. The inside of the hut is full of century-old seal pelts and old tins that to this day are full of uneaten dog biscuits, tea, and cocoa. (I guess they ate the dog biscuits last, even after they ate the dogs, because they were just that bad.) It smelled like a barn, probably because of the seal leather and hay inside, and it was very dark to boot. You almost needed a flashlight to walk around without knocking over cans, which would no doubt have been an international incident. Some of the expedition members had written their names on the wooden planks of the wall, which you could just barely make out. Most of the cooking stuff was in the same place, as was a small brick chimney in the center of the floor. Our tour guide and I got to chatting about all the National Parks he’s been to and the historic battlefields he’s toured, and we had a surprising amount of viewpoints about history in common given that he’s a firefighter who gives tours for fun. I’ve said it before, but the people here are constantly surprising and amazing. Just something about the way you can’t take anything about someone for granted here makes this a cool place to be.

Something I have noticed is that there is a ton of lingo to learn in McMurdo. Almost everything has a snappy name that someone made up for fun. It generates a kind of steep learning curve when you arrive and have to ask three times for someone to explain what the BFC is (it’s the Berg Field Center where they store gear like sleds and tents for field parties, but most people tell you it’s the “Building Full of Chicks” and has the best coffee). Some of my favorites are “bag drag” (taking your luggage to the drop off point), “skua” (either they mean the bird or the free thrift store here), “Highway 101” (actually an indoor hallway through the main building, Building 155, on which most of the important offices are located), and “OAEs” (Old Antarctic Explorers – used to differentiate between old hats and new guys). Nobody is mean about teaching you things, either – in fact, it’s a cool way to bond with people by asking them about something they can help you with without much effort. People love letting you in on the joke, and in turn you help new people navigate as well.

I can’t believe I’ll be going back home soon. McMurdo has a lot of the creature comforts I missed in the field like running water and beds with mattresses, but it’s starting to feel like it’s just a waypoint on my path home now. I think the light at the end of the tunnel is starting to appear, and without work to distract us, it’s easy to get impatient to be home and back in routine again. I am doing my best to stay in the moment and enjoy everything I have left to offer without getting too moony about leaving.

Home Away From Home

Lake Hoare is one of the most fun places I’ve ever been. There’s absolutely nothing to do here, and but there’s never a dull moment. You can always count on games to play, crosswords to do, songs to sing along to, movies to watch, and just the barest of work to do to make it all seem legit. I’m kidding on that part – we work almost every day and a LOT of it includes long hikes and chilly weather. But being at Lake Hoare on days where there’s no way we can go anywhere is really wonderful, because this is the homiest, coziest place in the valleys.

Part of the magic, no doubt, is that the food here is amazing. Rae and Renee are always making these delicious dinners, cookies, cake, fruit bars, or something. Usually I’d dread seeing more uber-fattening baked goods, but our usual calorie burn is 3,000 a day with all the hiking we do. I walked about 48 miles this week and 48 miles the week before too. My hips, feet, toes, and back feel it pretty much every time I move, but I’m in the groove of it now. I think with another week I might start to develop some calluses and then I’d return to New Zealand like a real Hobbit with big, crazy feet. At the moment, though, just little baby calluses I know I’ll lose the minute I get back.

Antarctica is full of surprises. We flew over to Marble Point, which is one of the oldest stations still in use on the continent, where they were waiting for us without us even knowing anyone was there. They have a chef who went to culinary school and spent 18 years living and cooking in Switzerland. She fed us butternut squash soup and pistachio hand-churned ice cream. At cold, chilly, windy Lake Fryxell, we met a carpenter who had a masters in biological anthropology and did professional photography on the side in addition to being a carpenter. Two nights later all the carpenters hiked over to have Sunday dinner with us and play cards at Lake Hoare. When we arrived at Lake Vanda and started explaining what we were doing to the New Zealander scientists, one stepped forward and said, “Oh, know exactly what you’re doing, Adrian.” Turns out he had helped one of our other project members in the field last year, and knew all about what we were doing.

All weekend I got beat at game after game, and it felt like one big family reunion party with cards and dice and stories. I’m really going to miss having people around so much. It’s funny, you’d think being so far from anyone you might feel isolated and alone. But I spend much more time around others socializing or just relaxing together than I do at home. In a way, being isolated brings us together. I’m really starting to feel at home here in the work and in the fun. Especially the more I remember that I’m supposed to be doing homework!

We come back from the field on Thursday, then leave the ice on Monday. It’s going to be a major adjustment when we return to try to do normal things again. I haven’t driven my car, haven’t seen trees, haven’t prepared my own meal, haven’t worn open-toed shoes, haven’t been to the grocery store in a month! Although I can’t say I’ve missed going to the grocery store.

I’m sure my updates have focused much more on food than on the adventures, but funnily enough, it’s almost too hard to describe the landscape and the things we’re seeing as we go about surveying these old huts. The places we go are so varied – sometimes they’re big ex-Navy gas stations covered in tractor trails and fuel barrels. Sometimes they’re old packing cases converted into cooking shelters. Sometimes they’ve entirely sunk under the lake and are no longer accessible. They’re always surrounded by beautiful rocks and frozen lakes, huge stately glaciers surrounded by the valleys they helped to form, and each peak is as bare as the day it burst from the ground. It’s gorgeous and entirely alien here, and I love it. More updates as we get closer to leaving.

Flight of the Valkyries

Helicopters are awesome. I love everything about them. I love the radio thing and the views and flying anywhere quickly and the fact that they’re early and how effortlessly they move through space and how they will knock you over if you’re standing too close. It’s awesome. We’ve been in and out of helicopters probably a dozen times now doing our field work, and they’ve taken us to some really cool places. We flew over a perfectly teal blue lake covered in ice, we skimmed over glaciers, we saw high peaks and low valleys, it was awesome. Today as we were getting picked up, one of the carpenters we were staying with started playing Wagner’s Flight of the Valkyries. Now I can check that off my bucket list. But it is pretty fitting, because the helicopters have taken us across the Asgard mountain range a dozen times. Who better to fly you to Asgard than a Valkyrie?

The last few days haven’t been super newsworthy, but they’ve been very busy. We went over to the Wright Valley to an area near the Meserve Glacier and found an old key to a hut that no longer exists hidden under a rock. We also found old tin cans, decaying seal mummies, and evidence of old greenhouses. It’s been really cool finding these tiny scraps of historical evidence just strewn about the landscape. Some places we didn’t get so lucky, usually because the camp is underwater now and all the evidence of its existence is now at the bottom of a lake. What we have found, though, has proven the point that human presence and science have made an impact on the environment here. So the results right now are exciting and seem to point in an interesting direction.

The last two nights we spent out at Lake Fryxell camp. Imagine if you had none of the comforts I described in my last post about Lake Hoare and in their place you have lots and lots of wind. Now you have Fryxell. I’m hyperbolizing of course, it’s not that bad. But I did miss my tent here at Lake Hoare. We put up our tents in a serious headwind, so we looked like three circus monkeys trying to tame a large, angry bird out there, and it was a little chillier in these tents than in our ones at Lake Hoare. But the carpenters working at the site helped us out by feeding us some pasta and salmon, and they were really good company and lots of fun. They tried to teach my how to crush cans with my feet, but I knew that’d just end with me looking silly, covered in soda spray.

It wasn’t a bad excursion by any means, but nothing beats coming back to camp at Lake Hoare. It was especially wonderful as we thought we were going to have to hike across the glacier again but instead the helicopters came and picked us up. Now we’re back in the swing of things, I hope. The rest of the team is headed out to Lake Bonney and I am sorting photographs and making sure we don’t lose track of what we’re doing while we’re here. Only about a week left in the field, and it seems so weird that everything is coming to a close so quickly.

Longjohns, Long Showers, and Granny Smiths

First day out on field work was a success. We walked about five miles out to an old drilling site on the other side of the lake we are staying on. Most of the walk was on kind of rough, rocky terrain, with lots of stumbling, sliding, and scrabbling on my part. It’s tough trying to get anywhere on ground covered in sharp rocks and sand, but I was proud we got out there and back. In my head I thought we were doing about six miles total, but it ended up being five. My back is definitely sore today from my pack, but I’m excited we got work done instead of letting the bad weather and helicopter delays set us back even further.

We saw some really cool stuff on the walk. This area has really great geological diversity, with tons of different and unique looking rocks everywhere you go. We also went out to the side of Suess Glacier, which turns into a kind of ice fall with huge icicles right near where we stopped for a sandwich. It’s really beautiful, especially the quick little stream that makes the area beach-like with crystal clear water. And I mean that when I say it. If the water was still, you almost wouldn’t know it was there. On a sadder note, we saw three mummified seals and a mummified penguin, which was also morbidly enough the first penguin I’ve seen on this trip. I think that sums up the Dry Valleys – pristine and gorgeous-looking, but devoid of most living things over a centimeter long.

The rest of the walk took us around to the other side of the lake, where we could have walked across to our camp in about fifteen minutes had the ice been thicker. I was also super thirsty at this point, so walking across the half melted lake actually sounded really awesome. I kept having to remind myself that this is still Antarctica and wet = hypothermia. It sure looked inviting though.

On the way back, those rocks started to get kind of old. I stumbled a bunch of times, banging up my boots pretty good. I was very lucky not to twist an ankle out on the rocks, and I also did not take enough water along by a long shot. So I was a thirsty, delirious mess clambering over big scary rocks, when we stopped for a quick break (because I asked to, of course). I said out loud kind of casually “Man, I wish I had an orange” and Luna responded “Well, I have an apple.” If I haven’t explained before, fresh fruits and veggies are a treat here. Chocolate, cookies, cakes – those are plentiful because they keep well. But having a real, honest-to-god piece of fresh fruit? No way. So what I’m saying is, this was the best apple I ever ate, hands down. There have been sweeter apples, and juicier apples, but this one was the best because it was like a small miracle. Between the two of us we ate it in about five minutes, core and all. If you go to the super market today and you pass those granny smith apples, just take a moment to appreciate them.

I noticed yesterday that my legs haven’t really been cold since our first night at Icestock. I’ve been wearing longjohns everyday for the past nine days, which basically grants you the superpower of warm legs in any environment. I love them, desperately. These will become a staple of my winter wardrobe from now on, regardless of how long I’ll be outside. The drawback to these is, I hadn’t really seen my legs for nine days, because I have just kept on the same pair of long undies. So when I went to take a shower yesterday (more on this further down) I noticed my legs are so black and blue that they look like they’ve been delivering kung-fu vigilante justice while I sleep. Unfortunately this is probably because every time I crawl into my tent I have to put my shins down on rocks, and I’ve done this not anticipating how hard I’m hitting the rocks like seven times now. Oh, and if you care – I had to switch tents. The Scott tent was spacious but so cold. The mountaineering tents are small and cozy, without much footspace but I don’t have to sleep in three jackets.

So on the topic  of showers, we have showers! I did NOT think we would so I didn’t back shampoo or my hair brush (past me, why did you do this??). So getting back from a ten mile hike and getting to take a shower? Oh. Heavenly. The system here is all revolving around not letting water into the environment. Grey water and cooking water get into the lakes and streams around here and mess with the ecosystems of teeny tiny things in the water, so all water gets collected and taken out to barrels, where it has to be hauled out to California. You read that right. They haul our gross shower water all the way to California. So the fact that we get to shower at all is awesome. Everyone showers on Sunday here. The station managers set out a huge silver pot of water and boil it on a stove, and you get to fill a bucket with hot water and lukewarm water and pour that into a solar shower unit. The best bit is that the stove makes the shower room warm like a sauna. When you’re done, you haul the grey water from your shower out to the barrels. The learning curve on just about everything is kinda steep out here, but most everyone is willing to help you figure it out.

It’s definitely about the little things out here. A fresh apple, a nice shower, warm legs. Maybe that’s because I’m far away from my regular responsibilities, or because I’m so far from home, but I’ve come to appreciate so many things more that are otherwise just a part of everyday life.

Antarctic Glamping

We finally made it to Lake Hoare Camp! I have no clue how to describe it here. I guess I’ll pick up where I left off. After our slow morning, we got called down to the helo pad at 3 pm. Briefing was, well, brief and really informal. Basically our helo tech told us not to walk into the blades and not to hop out before being helped. They gave each of us a helmet with a push-to-talk box, which was awesome, because I’ve never felt so official in my life. We piled into the helo (a Bell 212 in case you care) and took a dozen photos. Takeoff wasn’t scary at all. Unlike with a plane, you don’t have to rocket through space to get airborne. It’s much more like a hot air balloon, where it almost seems like it’s meant to be in the air and only the tiniest of tethers holds it down. That was maybe the coolest experience of my life thus far. Our helo pilots even gave us a fly by of a 120-foot tall glacier, but we didn’t get to see any penguins. Landing was also really something – we unloaded baggage while the rotors were going. That was very nerve wracking. Once the helo was set to take off, everyone laid down on top of the luggage, which at first I assumed was some kind of weird ritual, but it made immediate sense once the helo blades got back up to speed. I felt like my hair was going to fly off it was so windy! Laying on the bags is the only way to make sure they don’t escape into the atmosphere, I guess.

Lake Hoare camp is a hotspot of activity. The station is manned full time by two people – Rae and Renee, both of whom are funny, friendly, and handy. Renee gave us the tour, while Rae was cooking butter chicken in the camp hut. Oh, did I mention the indoor kitchen including oven, sink, pantry fridge, Kitchenaid stand mixer, with excellent wifi, napping bunks, bookshelves, cubbies, and a printer? Oh yeah. This is glamping. The station is pretty cushy. There’s also three different kinds of bathrooms, which I will explain further in future posts, a whole bunch of little tents strewn about the camp’s outer limits, a shower room, a yoga/nap/stretch/work room, and lots of beautiful open sky. And speaking of tents…

I got the penthouse suite – the Scott tent. The Scott tent is basically a big old bright yellow tent that comes to a high point in the center, but one you can stand up in! I love it. There’s plenty of space to sleep (and I’ve got TWO sleeping pads and a bag) as well as different sides to put your stuff. There’s even strings to hang pants, coats, gloves, or whatever from, and the best part is that there are pockets to put your smaller items in and keep them nearby! Totally posh, and the wind has been pretty mellow out here since we got in. I hope it stays that way. The one issue with the tent is that it’s tough to get in and out of it because there are two layers of tent vestibule fabric. That means crawling through a little fabric tunnel whenever you need in or out, and it also means a major tripping hazard. But I like it so far. It’s my space, it’s private, and it’s cozy.

For dinner, we had butter chicken, green lentils and rice served with lime chutney. Everything was absolutely delicious. It was so so so so good. I must have been really hungry and not known it because I can’t remember eating something so good. It might have been the lime chutney… that may become a permanent part of my life now. I have no idea where to buy it, but now I know what I’m missing out on.

No idea how sleeping in the tent is going to go  – that might be tricky, considering the light, the rocks, and the weirdness of the experience. Updates on that to come. In the meantime, I have lots of butter chicken to digest.

Hurry Up and Wait

We’re currently on one-day helo delay, and we are supposed to be flying out this afternoon. Yesterday we had beautiful weather here in town, but it was windy and stormy over the valleys so we couldn’t get out. This morning, it looks like low-lying fog everywhere, so we might not be getting out again today. The project prep work is already done, which means we have to sit around and do nothing until we maybe leave at 3. But in the meantime, we can’t unpack our bags from the helo pad because we may have to haul it all out at a moment’s notice. So the culture around helos is: hurry up and wait. It’s not too much hassle, but I am really hoping we leave… we are starting to run out of things to do.

I’ve definitely got a sense of what it’s like to live here. You really have to entertain yourself. Most people drink, usually every evening, because that’s how they decompress. You can find people at the wine bar or the pub just about every night (except Monday, I think), and we’ve met people who can clear a pool table in two minutes. They used to have a bowling alley, but that got torn down for structural problems. Now it’s crafts, yoga, dancing and hiking. To the town’s credit, there’s a ton of community organization here. Every morning a board goes up in front of the galley that lists all the fun things happening in town that day. There’s also weird intermittent things that I’ve seen sign-up sheets for: everything from film festivals to applesauce chugging contests.People stay entertained because they’d probably go stir crazy otherwise.

Yesterday we went out to Hut Point peninsula. Captain Scott’s hut, built during the Discovery expedition (1901-04). We got a true sense of how dangerous it is here. The peninsula sticks out past the rest of the town into the wind coming off the Ross Sea, and there were probably 60 mph winds coming in off the water. It would have been very easy to lose balance and go over the edge, but we were very careful to stay low to the ground. The more pressing concern was not letting our laminated paper signs blow away – they might have hit the seals at the bottom of the ridge. When you spill something, or it blows away, you have to report it to the Firehouse in town as a potential contamination of the environment. I can’t even imagine the conversation that might have resulted from giving a gigantic seal a paper cut.

Meeting the people who live in this town has been fascinating. Everyone seems to have a similar story: someone they knew told them about a job here, and they jumped at the chance. Lots of folks do entirely different jobs in the off season. I met a search and rescue team leader that works safety for industrial ziplines in Alaska in the summers. One guy used to work on deep water oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico until they helicoptered in an entirely new crew overnight and promptly fired everyone working there. Lots of the folks in town have Master’s or PhD’s, but might work in IT or run supply rooms or teach classes on field safety. Context doesn’t count for much down here. Anybody could be anyone.

I’m looking forward to getting out in the field. We each get our own tent, which is maybe the best news I’ve heard in months because that means we can take space from each other. Sometimes good teamwork means a few moments to yourself, and hopefully we get time to decompress and recuperate this way. Here’s hoping my next update is from the field. We should get wifi at Lake Hoare camp, so fingers crossed.

The Land of Ice and Orientations

It’s been a few days since I last had a chance to update, but with the weird time problems here, I can’t really tell where one day ends and the other begins. Since the sun never sets or goes down, you just kind of get up, eat, and sleep at arbitrary times. It’s been really weird. I keep saying to myself that there’s no way three or four hours has already passed, but then I check my watch and it’s already time to eat again!

Speaking of eating, the food here is actually pretty fantastic. Maybe it’s just my low expectations, but this is far and away better food than the dorms. The morning after Icestock, they roasted a whole pig for us, made key lime pie and baked brie, and had a breakfast omelette bar. Since then it’s been everything from Mongolian grill to nachos to philly cheese steaks to fajitas to pasta and there’s crazy dessert at every meal. So naturally any hopes I had of losing weight are out the window. But I’d much rather have good meals than go hungry in the cold.

Although, really, it’s not been cold at all. About 20-30 degrees most days with maybe 15 degrees of windchill. Thing is, we’ve been issued such heavy weather gear and I’m always wearing long undies, so it’s been pretty comfortable. The couture around town is definitely ski-lodge chic.

 

Since we got in, I’ve been to about seven orientations in three days. These have included a scientific brief, a vehicle safety training brief, a waste management brief, a scientific protocol brief, a field safety training course, a GPS use course, an environmental protection brief, and tonight an outdoor safety lecture. There’s probably more, but they really run together. I’ve learned a ton, ranging from how to tie a trucker hitch knot to how to dismantle a whisperlight stove to how to dig a t-trench for securing tent lines in snow. Usually I guess you don’t need to know those skills very well, since most camps have pre-set up huts and tents for people to stay in, but it was useful either way.

 

Project work has been trucking along at a good pace. We’ve put in coordinates for all the places we want to take our pictures to the helicopter pilots, so they should be able to haul us straight there. We’ve also printed out laminated copies of the photos we’re trying to match and sorted them by location. Field prep was finished today – we filled out a food order form and picked up our bedrolls, GPS units and a geological compass. I’m feeling pretty solid about the trip right now, and well-prepped for the next few weeks. I’m not excited about having to pee in a bottle or not getting to take a shower, but it could be much worse. I could be somewhere other than Antarctica!

 

The people here have been fascinating. You meet so many Coloradans here. It makes sense because the Antarctic contractor is based out of Denver, but a ton of folks seem to come in here for the winter season and teach a course, drive a truck, or wash dishes. It sounds like the pay is pretty good, and food and boarding are included. The shop here is also great, and makes things pretty cushy. Any one person gets a ration of one case of beer, four bottles of wine, or a bottle of liquor a week from the commissary, and then I think the only other rationed item is Cadbury chocolate bars. All the knick-knacks and T-shirts you could ever want are for sale from the shop, too – earrings shaped like the continent, stickers, pins, patches, you name it. There’s also spare socks, which I was happy to see because I get paranoid about socks. It’s honestly a thriving little town here with yoga classes, craft studio hours, weekly science talks, a lab, workshops, gear centers, and a computer room for everyone to use.

 

I’m loving my time here. Luna has already determined she has to come back and get a PhD so she can experience this again, but I’m not super sure. I think I would miss the night time! But I’d definitely come back for a month or so every now and again… and of course, we’ll see if my tune changes when I get back from the field.

Live From McMurdo

Well, everyone, I made it. After weather delays yesterday which resulted in an awesome day of sightseeing and gondola riding, we gt the go-ahead yesterday afternoon around 3 that we would be leaving this morning. The disappointment of yesterday was still pretty fresh so I wasn’t sure we’d actually leave, but I had about 50% of my hopes up. Not that I’m complaining about another day in beautiful New Zealand, which is a gorgeous summertime island paradise right now.

The trip started at 5:45 this morning when the shuttle bus picked us up to take us to the Antarctic center. I bought a bag of oranges at the grocery store and had a good luck hashbrown at McDonald’s, which is how many of my successful travels begin. With some luck, at 7:50 after check-in and breakfast we were loaded up on the bus, which must be retired army issue. I definitely got some Forrest Gump vibes off of the that thing. The bus took us out a little ways to a big ol’ C-130 Hercules propeller plane (‘prop’ plane for the pros). I’ll have photos of that incoming – no wifi here at station, only wired connection, which means no photos til Monday at best.

We got on the plane by walking up a staircase, and suddenly you were inside the most stripped-down no nonsense vehicle ever made. The inside of the hercules is just a wonderland of olive drab paint, exposed wiring and piping, and things to trip over. We sat in bungee cord troop seats, which would have been more comfy with more leg room. That wasn’t the most pressing issue though. For whatever reason, they cranked the heat in there. I’m talking melt-in-your-seat sweat-a-gallon heat, like the blower was stuck on “NUKE.” Did I mention you have to wear Carhartt overalls, bunny boots and big red onto the plane? We were dying. I drank 3 liters of water and I still had a headache. Additionally, the prop plane is loud as all hell, so ear plugs or phones are mandatory at all times.

Eight fairly miserable hours of podcasts, sweat, and leg cramps later, we were getting close to the ice. We were able to look out the back door windows and see icebergs, sea ice, and distant snow blanketed mountains. I nearly cried right then and there – after all this time planning, I never thought it would happen. You can imagine me trying to keep it together then when we landed. Those first steps off the plane are blinding, and then the bite of the cold hits you. It’s not a wet cold, but all your exposed skin starts to tingle and your eyes scrunch up. I was lucky to get issues ski goggles, which were just big enough to cover my glasses. Suddenly the Death Valley conditions of the plane seemed pretty nice. But that didn’t stop me from dashing out onto the snow runway.

Like I said, it was hard not to cry. Today was an amazing culmination of something I’ve been working on for almost three years. Seeing Mount Erebus in the distance and watching a skua fly overhead made me feel pretty giddy. I’m sure I had a huge idiot grin plastered to my face the whole terra bus ride to McMurdo. (A terra bus is a snow tractor designed to ferry folks around that has track rollers, not wheels. I think our driver “Shuttle Bob” was in Werner Herzog’s documentary about McMurdo.)

When we got to town, we sat down for a short orientation before being issued our keys. I guess Luna and I got the wrong keys, because someone was already staying in our room! So, we had to run down someone to fix it. Only problem being, it’s New Year’s Eve here, and NYE is when the annual Icestock festival is held. Icestock is the world’s southernmost music festival, and it features dozens of bands and goes from four in the afternoon until one in the morning. So everyone who could help us was out dancing in the snow with a beer in hand. Luckily we tracked down two people who got us a new rooms and linens, but it was a stressful time.

We also had dinner in the galley for the first time, and I got to experience the life event that is Frosty Boy. This, friends, is a basic Country Buffet style ice cream machine that has for whatever reason developed a cult following. It’s not a cute machine, or an old machine, or a very pretty machine, but it is apparently a fickle god, and so only dispenses ice cream when it deems fit. Today, I got Frost Boy to work. I interpret this as it bestowing its favor upon me, the team, and our field season.

I’m typing this from a computer lab while I take a break from the cold out at Icestock. It likely won’t be new year’s for you, reader, for another 24 hours, but here it’s about two hours out. I may stay up or not, but happy 2017, friends and loved ones. Thank you for reading, and I’ll update you from the new year.

Big Red and Bunny Boots

Today was an exhausting and ridiculous day but so so so so much fun. We were up to go to the clothing distribution center bright and early today, and I was feeling pretty great after finally getting a bed of my own! The distribution center (CDC) is a long-ish bus ride across town from our hotel to the Antarctic center, which is a fine little establishment I’m sure, but I never got to really look at it. They whisked us inside and off to orientation.

The Antarctic program staffers brought us back first to check in our laptops – we had to prove we had some kind of functioning antivirus software and then I got a quick flu shot (and now my arm is sore). Then they lead you into a big room to show you some videos, mostly about safety and waste disposal. Spilling things on the snow is very serious business here it seems, and you have to report anything you spill, from gasoline and hazardous wastes to coffee. Otherwise, they will prosecute. Kinda high stakes.

Once we finished watching all those wonderful videos, it was off to check clothing sizes. You receive in your kit two bags full of gear. One bag is your boomerang bag, which you can take off the plane if the rest of your luggage gets loaded but your flight is delayed. The other is your carry-on. In these bags, they have helpfully placed all the gear you need, which consists of:

  • Fleece pants and a fleece coat
  • Goggles
  • A balaclava (stylin’)
  • Two pairs of liner gloves, a pair of mittens, and a pair of leather work gloves
  • Bunny boots, which are rubber army boots designed for airflow circulation around your feet
  • A down coat (“little red”)
  • And……. BIG RED, the coat the real scientists get

Nothing is as exciting as getting on big red the first time and seeing your name on the little velcro name tag.

blogphoto1
Pictured: The author wearing big red and bunny boots

After we got our clothes, we check all those things back in. With a quick review of how not to click on suspicious email links, we were cleared for departure tomorrow morning.

The rest of the day was tourism day! With Luna and newfound compatriot Nick, I went all over the Christchurch downtown. We had meat pies and mushy peas (not bad!) for lunch at an Irish pub, where we learned that you do not in fact have to tip anywhere you go here. Then we walked over to the botanical gardens and museum, which were both very busy. The museum had some neat stuff, including a cool exhibit on Air New Zealand, old travel posters, Maori artifacts, and colonial-era daily life. Definitely worth more time than I had to give it. The botanical gardens were also really something. This must be prime tree country, because these were some of the biggest trees I’ve ever seen – purple beeches, willows, a California redwood even! And kids were encouraged to climb them. Luna and I just ate cherries by a fountain and enjoyed taking in the scenery and identifying the trees.

We then hit a grocery store, which had very little in it that seemed familiar. First of all, it was in a mall. Imagine going to the mall and there’s a King Soopers inside it. Now you have the idea. Second, they had a gelato counter, which sold licorice ice cream. And third, they had refrigerated petfood like a Petco would have. Not to mention they had NONE of the same products I was looking for unless it was soda or candy! I ended up with these just terrible “Pineapple Lumps” that are basically circus peanuts dipped in a thin layer of chocolate. My toffee cookies were really good though, so it wasn’t a total waste of time.

After a bit more work prepping for tomorrow in our small groups, it was time for dinner. We met up with the rest of the LTER people at a Thai place (two night in a row now) and my curry was just a touch spicy. But all in all it was thoroughly enjoyable and we had great company and good laughs. Very excited to hit the ice with these folks.

As I type this, it’s just dawned on me. Tomorrow I’m going to Antarctica. We take a very early flight out and it lasts about seven hours of uncomfortable bench-sitting, and you are expected to wear your gear on the flight. At the end of it, though, you’ve made it to the toughest continent there is. Wish me luck!!

Greetings from the Future!

The time here is currently 3:18 pm on December 28th. No doubt you are reading this on December 27th. I left my house “yesterday”/two days ago at 2:30 pm. DIA was, surprisingly, very quiet for the day after Christmas. I guess everyone must have left the day before, but it was a really leisurely stroll up to security and then out to the terminal. I got on a plane at 5 that finally left at 6:30, because LAX had a ground stop in effect and we couldn’t even take off. I arrived in LAX at 8 pm local time, flight time two and a half hours. I was lucky enough to have a window seat, so I could see the bright lights of the LA area glowing in the distance long in advance of arriving. Our flight brought us together with about 7 seasoned Antarctica explorers and when we arrived in LA I was finally reunited with my friend Luna. After a really quick layover at LAX until 11:00 in which I scarfed down a grilled macaroni and cheese and some soup, we finally got into our seats for our trans-Pacific flight at 11:30, and flew halfway across the world.

Hands down, this was the worst and most excruciating flight I’ve ever made it through. 13 hours is a very long time to sit in a small, cramped chair. Luckily the plane had a good movie selection and some fairly decent in-flight food, although by the end I was so dehydrated and ill the smell of the food was pretty much the antithesis of appetizing. In flight wifi was also $19. But they brought us “ratatouille stromboli” hot pockets, so it’s all evened out.

I might have slept more had I not been in an aisle seat. I had the earplugs, the face mask, the pillows, the blanket, and somehow I couldn’t get turned around enough to get comfy. It was a great flight too, in terms of being an even keel and not bumpy at all. I guess flying over the ocean at night is like that.

I woke up for the third time and it was finally the next morning, feeling kind of like death warmed over. Just to add a little bit of flair to make this bad flight story my own, I spilled apple juice all over my pants. The flight attendants handed me basically wet wipes. So I got to Auckland very sticky and smelling real gross.

Then we went through immigration and customs. For whatever reason, and I was told that it was probably because I was being too chatty and compliant, the immigration official took a very, very, very long time to look at my passport. She also started quizzing me about other people I was going down to the Ice with and exactly how long I would be there. Meanwhile there I am trying to play it cool whilst covered in apple juice and sweat and smelling like “ratatouille stromboli” hot pockets. Probably my general distress contributed to why she gave me the third degree. But after she finally okayed me to go into New Zealand, I got my shoes all cleaned up in customs (looked like I had cheat grass in some of my boot linings) and was quickly on my way to the last flight. Auckland is an odd airport in that you have to walk outside to the domestic flight terminal from the international flight terminal, so after our ten minute walk in the heat, I was very gross. How, you might ask, can you possibly get any grosser than eau-du-stromboli and apple juice pants? You’ll have to trust me. Moral of the story, I put on a fresh shirt.

The last leg of the trip was gravy: I played Pokemon the entire time and had no idea the time passed so quickly. Auckland to Christchurch is only an hour and a half flight, and we were greeted by a USAP personnel at the gate, who helped us sort out our shuttles and got me sent off to the Pavilions. I’m writing this from my room there, where their wifi is fabulous, and we have plans to get a very New Zealand dinner and explore the town this evening. Tomorrow morning we are off to get our gear from the Clothing Distribution Center and then I’m off to check out the Antarctic museum. For now? Washing off the apple juice.

More updates when I can.