A few nights ago we had a big wind storm tear through town. The wind stirred all evening, into the night and come morning we awoke to discover that the wind had blown all of the pack ice out of the water in front of the station. What was once a collection of cracked ice had suddenly become a sheet of shimmering water, as far as the eye could see. We had a lot of open water last year but this is more than we have had for decades (short history: we used to get a lot of open water here but about 10 years ago a massive iceberg (b15) broke off from the shelf and clogged the passage).
All of this openwater has not gone unnoticed by the local wildlife. Last night while hiking I spent about 30 minutes watching a pod of orcas (killer whales) playing in the distance (you could tell what they were by their behavior and dorsal fin shape). They eventually found a group of about 30 penguins hanging out near the ice edge and spent some time checking them out. Every few minutes I would watch a giant head pop up out the water, right in front of the penguins, and stare. Luckily for the penguins they weren't close to the edge.
There was also a seal swimming in the shallows near our shoreline. I noticed it as I hiked right by it, probabl like 15 feet from it. I have never been that close to a seal down here before. I think it was most likely a weddell but it might have been a leopard seal.
In the center, you can see three dorsal fins. On my copy I can zoom and make out the fins.
There is a scene in a Christmas Story where one of the kids is "triple dog dared" to lick a flag pole. If you have seen this the you know what happens, his tongue bonds to the pole and then, much to the amusement of his classmates, the fire department is called to free him. I had always wondered if that was an urban legend. I mean, could something really freeze that fast?
Last night I went out to the pole markers with a friend of mine to take some pictures and video of me hanging out with the Pole, both geographic and ceremonial markers. Now for many years now I have taken photos of me licking stuff, or at least pretending to, all over the world. I figured the Pole would make a great licking photo.
So I lined up, made sure my friend was ready and prepared to pretend to lick the ceremonial pole marker. Except the "ball" is a mirrored surface, which is both metallic like and screwed with my depth perception. My pretend lick became a real lick and before I knew it, within a fraction of a second my tongue tip was frozen to the ball. Not realizing how fast it could happen I recoiled my tongue only to leave a small piece of it attached to the pole. sigh. There was a some blood, some stinging and some good video. I tried to find humor in the situation and was glad that it wasn't my whole tongue as then I would have had to call medical on my radio and that would have been REALLY embarrassing.
I leave the South Pole Station, to return to McMurdo, in less than 24hrs. I will miss it.
Most of the living activity at the south pole centers around the main building. It's the newest structure at the station and generally is what I always imagined an Antarctic research station to be. Unlike McMurdo it isn't sprawling or spread out. The windows aren't drafty. Things aren't jerry rigged together. And it is possible for me to go from my room to my work center without having to totally venture outside. This is a nice thing.
Last night I walked around the interior of the main station and took a bunch of pictures. The station is basically two levels with two long hallways and then 3 spokes that branch off of the main hallways that hold the dorms. A lot of people during the summer, since there are more people than beds, have to live out at summer camp. Summer camp is basically 10 jamesway tents that are old, drafty and either too hot or too cold. It's a ten minute walk from the main station and bathrooms are outside of the tent. Many people bring in pee bottles with them so they don't have to rush out in the middle of the night. Those same people will often find their pee bottls frozen by morning. Or come home to find their bed covered in snow. I am very happy I am not living out there! ( Collapse )
We don't have continuous internet access at the South Pole. We get limited service throughout the day, at bad times, when 1 of 2 satellites pass overhead. Most of the bandwidth is devoted to science (one of the recently completed projects, Icecube, uploads 65 GIGABYTES of data a DAY), what remains is given to the crew for websurfing or calling home.
Which is to say that the satellite window is about to close here and I spent most of my time uploading the following 40 or so pictures. I don't have time to go through and caption them (in part because LJ makes uploading photos such a pain in the ass).
Basically the time line is: took off from Mcmurdo, was invited to sit in the cockpit for the first half of the trip, had engine trouble and turned around, got on another plane (which made it all the way), flew over the transantarctic mountains, sat in the cockpit for landing, arrived, took pictures of the cermonial pole (the mirrored ball) and the actual geographic south pole. This is basically my first day of pictures.
I walk out to the geographic South Pole marker, with the wind tearing into my back, and a horizon that is obscured by blowing snow, to read the two quotes that are on display from Amundsen and Scott, the first few people to make it to this place.
I think about their journeys. The hardships they endured. The sacrifices (including death) that each made to slowly trudge their way to the pole. For no other reason than just to say they did it, that man can endure.
I stand at the marker and look at the changes, changes that I doubt those two fellas could have imagined. There is a giant, new, beautifully sleek station surrounded by supply storage. Vehicles of all shapes and sizes buzz in the background as they make their way slowly through town. The airfield (which sees 3-7 planes a day) sits a 2 minute walk from the main building.
I guess the biggest change of all is the ease of being here.
Things are alright at the South Pole. I haven't been here 24 hrs yet but I already feel at home, like it's a place I am meant to be. I dare say I love it here.
Pictures will come, whenever I get new batteries for my camera on Monday. (doh!)
At the risk of jinxing, by publicly announcing something I have known for about a month now, it I feel it is time to reveal something I have been looking forward to for weeks (years, even) now:
In 6 days, on Friday, I will be boarding a plane and flying three hours to 90S: the geographic south pole, home of the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Research Station! A location where men have died trying to reach.
I will be spending two weeks there, covering for someone in my department who had to return to McMurdo. I am pretty lucky to get sent there as I am supposed to be working at McMurdo and am quite thankful for the opportunity.
What this means is that after spending 24 months on an island 25 miles from the technical continent I will have finally set foot on the actual Antarctic Continent. I will also the chance to run around the world, as all degrees of latitude converge at the pole and have a part of my body in every time zone at once.... :)
There will be lots of pictures though few will be posted until I return to McMurdo as the internet is supposed to be very, very slow (limited satellite bandwidth).
I suppose it was bound to happen. The brain can only reinvent something so many times before it falls to normalcy, to the known. Arriving at Pegasus Airfield, Antarctica's largest airport, felt like I was arriving at any other airport, anywhere in the world. All it needed was a duty free shop and I could have been passing through JFK, SFO, LAX. Gone was the gasp of wonder when I first stepped out of the plane. Gone was the slow lingering walk trying to take it all in -- the mountains, the volcano, the ice that seems more solid and more permanent than the greatest roads of Rome -- as I walked from the plane to the shuttles. This time I said hi to a few friends and quickly shuffled -- more mindful of the ice -- off to the waiting shuttle bus. Not one picture was taken.
The ride back to town was slow and long, as most trips at this time of year are. The back of my shuttle was filled with new people, full of smiles. You didn't have to look carefully to catch the wonderment that had filled their faces the moment they took that first step outside the plane. They wore that excitement as if it was a prized neck gaitor, wrapped tightly around their face, protecting them from the elements, from the assualt on the senses that Antarctica is known for.
Questions raced their frozen exhalations out of their lips and veterans on the shuttle made a sport of pointing out landmarks, relating antecdotes and speaking fondly of seasons gone past. Heads were shaken -- in disbelief, having not yet acclimitized -- as extreme low temperatures were rattled off like they were badges of honor by those that have lived here during the coldest months. Explanations of what permanent winter darkness -- and all of the stars and auroras that go with it -- were doubted as the 24 hr sun streamed through the window, reflecting dangerously off of the ice. It was through this, this easygoing recollection, that I was able to recapture a bit of what it means to arrive at this place but it was only for a moment, and only for the ride.
After 3 years the magic is starting to fade, the charm is starting to wear off and this place that once haunted dreamscapes and lingered in my heart has lost some of it's mystery. It is all to be expected.
I have been here 4 days now and it's like I never left. Old routines, old habits, old friends are picked up right where I left them 3 months ago. The galley menus remain largely unchanged, products of the limited ingredients that we have. The dorm I spend this part of the year in still smells as it did last year. The seasonal sea ice that rings McMurdo sits fractured and thin, waiting for the icebreaker and a good storm to blow it all to see. These are all things I have seen before. For I have returned not to the frozen continent, not to the great unknown, not to the place where explorers with the most basic of provisions once pocketed discoveries as if they were gems at a jewelers, but to the town that has basically been my home since 2008. There is comfort in this. There is also loss.
I wonder what this season has in store for me? I wonder if McMurdo still has mysteries for me?
That is the result of all of my travels these past few months. The cost, one could say, of those wonderful memories, jaw dropping photos and newfound friends. Since arriving back in the US I have been having a lot of trouble sleeping -- no more than 5 hours a night and that is starting to drain me.
These past few days, as I make my way back to Antarctica have been rough. I had to awake at 330am to catch my flight to Denver and then my two nights here were spent with friends and inevitably turned into late nights with early morning starts. In an hour I start the flights to the ice and will continue to be exhausted. I have one night in Christchurch before having to board an 11pm flight to McM.
In a rather humorous moment they have had to change all of the flights to McMurdo to "night" flights because it has been too warm there lately. The ice runway is softening up. This means I will be arriving at 4am, when it is colder, and since I can't sleep on flights I will continue to be tired.
My season at McMurdo begins on Jan 11 and I am probably less excited to go back than I have been in the past. For some reason the season seems a lot longer this year. It still doesn't seem like I am going back, it doesn't seem real. That happened last year also after being off for 3 months. You kinda get into the habit of not working and that is a habit that takes a while to break. I am still lamenting the loss of the good moments from last season and the missed opportunities.
I still think it will be a good time and I am not regretting my decision to return. In fact in three weeks I will most likely get a really awesome Antarctic opportunity that I am very excited about. More on that if it happens.