Wednesday, December 8, 2010


Tuesday morning woke up absolutely glorious. Bright blue skies, shimmering white snows and a knot in my stomach. Today I was going home. Back to my husband and my cat and my garden. Still, there was a little part of me not too sure about all this. I packed up my bags and headed off for breakfast.

After eating we stuck in our last two interviews and finally put our recorders away. And before getting lost in the tedious thoughts of listless waiting we were invited to help do some sea ice thickness drilling. So we hopped into the Hagglund and rumbled off down the Armitage Loop that wraps itself around the headland from Scott Base to McMurdo. We stopped at every set of crossed flags, found the now blown in cracks and set to drilling them. This is a weekly occurance as the sea ice here is known to melt out first and from below. You don't want to loose your Hagglund or Pisten Bully down a crack in the sea ice, let alone your best mate. So we drilled, measured and drove on to the next one. And were home in time for lunch.

After a tasty lunch of fresh salads (remember the C-17 was able to land yesterday), we were back to the listless waiting game. As the kitchen was usually quiet at this time of day, I decided to see if any help was needed and was put to work making cookies. A huge batch of chocolate afgans in fact. Mixing and blending, rolling and squashing and sliding them into the oven. By the time they were ready and pulled out, our shuttle to the sea ice runway had arrived. My stomach was in real knots then. I was excited to go home, but at the same time, having lived here at Scott Base for 3 weeks, it was starting to feel like home too. I had friends and things to do, I knew the places I liked to go to ski and walk and even do yoga.

It's a strange feeling "home". I grew up in the Yukon for 25 years, so in one sense it is my home. But we have now lived in Christchurch for 2 years and it too is home. And after just 3 weeks of time at Scott Base, it too was beginning to feel homey. It wasn't something I noticed in the people who had been in camps, perhaps being completely comfortable you let your guard down and allow yourself to settle in and adapt. Although we generally like think of Antarctica as this distant place of absolute extremes, it is also a home. Not just to the penguins and seals that live there, but to the people who spend much of their lives here with any of the Antarctic programmes. Any place we haven't been seems exotic, but to someone it is still home.

We climbed onto the big C-17 and took in one last breath of cold Antarctic air before settling inside. The door was drawn up and tightly shut and the wheels starting rolling. We were once again in that liminal space between departure and arrival, between home and home.

For 5 hours we thundered along in the sky and finally arrived into the greyness of Christchurch. It was a gentleness to arrive on a cool cloudy evening, as many of us were still dressed in our ECW (extreme cold weather) gear. We were ushered from plane to bus and driven to the international terminal where we joined the line to entre the country. Grabbing my bags from the conveyor, I trundled through customs and finally walked out to a happy hug from my husband.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

On Track

[Flying kites out on the sea ice in front of Scott Base. Photo by Gary]

After a weekend of high winds and blowing snow cocooning us into our warm little base, the weather has calmed. The winds are just a whisper now (by Antarctic standards, which means perfect kite flying weather) and the clouds have parted letting in the sun. The C-17 that was scheduled to leave last Friday took off today and all going well. Our plane will take off tomorrow - with us on board.

It has been an amazing 3 weeks, with lots of interviews, lots of skiing and not a lot of sleep. Some of the things that I noticed in my time here include:

- the snow feels like talc, very dry, fine and powdery
- even with a high, high wind it can still be quite warm outside if you're wearing the right clothes
- some sea ice tastes salty and some doesn't
- most of the rocks here are volcanic, so black or brown and rough
- penguins have longer tails than I thought
- you can tell if the scheduled plane hasn't come in by the amount of fresh produce for dinner that night (or lack thereof)
- despite having light all day, time still seems to whiz by
- Antarctica is a really cool place, but it is also a home to the people who work here

I've really enjoyed my experience here. We've worked super hard to collect as many interviews as possible and I am really looking forward to getting home and sleeping (and eating lots of fresh fruit like cherries, strawberries, apricots and nectarines).

Friday, December 3, 2010

Hidden Horizons

[The wind whistling through the bamboo poles]

Yesterday, the wind picked up. In fact, we had gusts up to 35 knots (that’s about 65 km/h). And although it doesn’t actually snow all that much here in Antarctica, there is a lot of snow around to be blown about. So with all that snow caught up in the wind and being whipped about we loose something rather important – the horizon.

The horizon is an interesting feature. When we are at home we often do not spend much time thinking about it. It is simply there, in the distance, disappearing around the bending of the earth. But here in Antarctica it is important. Because the sky and the ground can be such similar shades and tones and colours, the absence of a horizon means you can loose yourself between the earth, or ice rather, and the sky. It also means the planes can’t land.

Yesterday, the C-17 was supposed to land and take several people home to New Zealand. But without knowing where the sky stops and the ground begins, the pilots have no idea where to land. So our friends are stuck here at Scott Base until Monday. And hopefully they will be able to land then, because my flight home is the next day, on Tuesday. Fingers crossed the storm has passed by then.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Measuring Space with Time

Antarctica presents us with some unique and not so unique challenges. Perhaps not one of the most obvious ones being the incomprehensibility of the space it occupies and places you in. I can only imagine that being in outerspace and out in the middle of the ocean would be similar. But perhaps they are not because here, in Antarctica, you can stand, not on the ground, but several thousand metres above it on top of the frozen water that is there. Scott Base is on solid ground, but take a step out onto the sea ice or ice shelf and you can feel the ground dropping away from you until it is but a thin rope that tethers you to reality, to a time and place that are comprehensible in human terms.
My favorite view aroun Scott Base is South East, out over the Ross Ice Shelf. To me it epitomizes Antarctica. It is flat and seemingly empty of everything, including time. Yesterday, when we visited the Long Distance Balloon programme out on the Ice Shelf we were pointed towards a tiny wooden crate. This, it was stated, was all that we could see of the 30 foot high building below. Over a period of 16 years, the snow and ice had built up around it and slowly swallowed it. So you see, an empty expanse is never truly empty, it has only swallowed up the tiny markers and comforts we try to place on top of it. Somewhere, below the surface of the ice lie a thousand reminders of our presence here, we are simply blind to their stories because we can only skim the surface with our eyes. We are reminded that for all our time here, we are insignificant in comparison.

While the space around us is vast and seemingly endless, it is time that is truly immeasurable. It is swallowed whole by the space we attempt to mark - to show progress, for personal satisfaction, and for the pure comfort of knowing someone has come before.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Turkey night

The fourth Thrusday in November is American Thanksgiving. Coming from Canada I am familiar with the idea of gathering with friends and family around a large table loaded with lots of food to celebrate the harvest. Traditionally, there is turkey and potatoes, stuffing and veggies, but most importantly it seems is the plentitude of food gathered from that year. At McMurdo, this was taken to the extreme.

Due to our small size, the entire Kiwi base was invited over to McMurdo to join them for Thanksgiving dinner on Saturday night. About 30 of us decided to join them for the 7pm sitting (yes, there were multiple sittings - there are over 1,000 people in McMurdo) and we all made our way over or around the hill to find ourselves a spot in line. And my goodness, what a line it was. With several hundred people all waiting to fill their plates, the line snaked its way down the fall around the corner and back up on itself.

Everyone was dressed in their Sunday finest, which varies a lot here in Antarctica. There were some in high heels and others in boots, long dresses and scrubby jeans. It was great just standing in line. But eventually it started moving and we slowly wound our way up and down the hall, around the corner, up the stairs and through the narrow corridor to the food service room. Wow, what a place. It was huge and it was filled with people and food. Turkey, stuffing, potatoes, beans, crab, salad, stuffed peppers, and more. And as you walked past the silverware station there too were the desserts. Piled up in all their glory, fresh fruit spilling down tiers of cakes, pies and other delicacies. It was phenomenal and amazingly difficult not to take one of everything.

[Everyone enjoying their meals with good company]

[A plate stacked full of tasty food - cherries and strawberries were especially welcome]

[A meal well enjoyed]

I found my way to a table of kiwis and we tucked into our delicious meal. We chatted with the token American at our table and enjoyed each others company. I showed my Kiwi friends how to extract crab meant from crab legs and we slowly ate through our dinners. By 8:30pm we were stuffed and ready for home.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Cape Royds

In 1907 Shackelton arrived in Antarctica and searched for suitable place to start his attempt on the pole from. He found Cape Royds. Rich with penguin life at the rookery perched on the tip of the peninsula and with easy sea access he built himself a small hut nestled in the volcanic stone and readied himself for the trek ahead.
[The Barnes Glacier Crack]
On Sunday, we headed out from Scott Base in our Hagglund filled with people and lunches and ECW gear. We rumbled along in the Hagglund, a Swedish tracked vehicle built for warfare in desert environments. It is not a smooth or quiet ride, but rather unique to the whole experience of being here in this place. Padded with jackets and foam mats, and fitted with ear plugs and headphones, you can actually make yourself quite comfortable. Which is good as the drive to Cape Royds takes about 3 hours. We stopped every so often to drop things off at various field camps on the way and to do sea ice profiles at the cracks we encountered to make sure they were safe to cross. But mostly it was the deep rumble on the machine under our bums that kept us going.

[Driving on the sea ice]

[Barnes Glacier]

[A seal hole chewed in the crack]

[Weddell Seal]

[Drilling a sea ice profile]

Finally we arrived at Royds. We stumbled out of the Hagglund, grabbed our bags and headed for the peninsula. We started by hiking up a slope to find two frozen water lakes. Their surfaces frozen to a smooth glassy sheen that rippled like liquid water. Parts of the surface were pocketed with holes made by dust and stone blown onto the surface and causing differential melting. It was great fun to carefully slide across the surface. At one point I bent down to lick the ice to see if it was fresh or salty, I discovered much to my companions delight that it was quite salty and didn’t taste all that great.

[Frozen lake at Cape Royds]

We then moved on to the coast. What a view. Seeing open water was much more exciting than I had expected. Just the amount of life that seemed to teem there surprised me. We watched penguins fly through the water and up onto the sea ice below us. Seals lazing on the coast and watching as penguins waddled by in long lines. It was phenomenal. We hiked down to the waters edge and just took in the total difference that it offered from our experience on the Ice Shelf (which doesn’t melt each year). Even the presence of fluffy cumulous clouds was different, as there are none out by Scott Base because there is very little moisture to produce them.

[The Ross Sea]

We wandered along the coast and took pictures of penguins and seals. We found a really neat pressure dome to climb inside and explore. And we eventually made our way over to Shackleton’s hut nestled beside the penguin rookery and out of the prevailing wind by the surrounding volcanic hills. The raucous sounds of the penguins filled the air almost as much as their fishy smell. To think that these are the same smells and sounds and sights that Shackleton and his men shared is a neat feeling. It was a neat feeling. The inside of the hut was pretty amazing as well. The musty light filtering through the old glass windows playing with the dust moats in the air. It was very still and quiet there, filled with the tedious memories of cooking dinner on a wood stove, eating dehydrated eggs from a can and fiddling in the dark room with cold fingers to produce the images we can see today in books and museums. Very cool indeed.

[Penguin prints]

[Adelie penguins]

[Adelie penguin]

[A pressure dome in the sea ice]

[Walking along the sea ice]

[ASPAs - or Antarctic Specially Protected Areas - are meant to protect things like penguin rookeries, important ecological sites and scientifically significant areas]

[Shackleton's Hut in the shadow of Mount Erebus]

[The inside of Shackelton's Hut]

[Mmmmmm - preserved cabbage]

Soon our times was running short and we still had a 3 hour trip home. So we climbed back into the Hagglund and rumbled across the sea ice to our own little oasis on the other side of Ross Island.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Fun in Antarctica

When we’re not chatting with scientists or writing up our thoughts afterwards, there are plenty of great things to do here at Scott Base. One of my favourite has been to go out skiing.

[Out for a ski]

I have been out a few times, once by myself which was a neat experience and twice with people here on base. It is neat to ski through a completely treeless environment with very little on the landscape to give you a sense of scale – or how far away things are. So something that looks only one kilometre away might actually be 6 kilometres away. It is an interesting feeling – mostly it makes you feel very, very small. But at the same time, by exploring the environment around Scott Base I am starting to feel more at home and more located in the Antarctic environment, it is less out there, less unknown, a more a part of me.

[Do you remember what the green and red flags mean? - a safe route, always follow the flags]

[Skiing out to Castle Rock. It seemed so far away on my first trip here, but it only took an hour to ski to and there was a fun hill to go down on the way back]

Another great pass time here is the observation tube. Over in front of McMurdo, the Americans have set up a metal tube through the sea ice and under water. You climb down the tube using a wee ladder and emerge into a tiny room surrounded by windows. There is even a little box to sit on as you stare out through the windows into the blue, green, yellow seascape filled with fishes, krill, jelly fish and more. If you listen you can hear the rumbling boom of the big heavy vehicles as they drive over the ice a kilometre away and the voices of the people above you as they wait for their turn. After your eyes adjust to the darkness of the sea, you can begin to see the silver flash of fish, the watery shapes of sea stars on the bottom and the ghostly figures of delicate diatoms as they swim by. In Antarctica, it is the ocean where life flourishes. The greatest form of life here is the algae that live on the bottom of the sea ice, making it the glowing yellowy-green that it is in the pictures. After 15 minutes of staring in awe and wonder at the alien beauty of this flourishing environment my time was up and I climbed back up the ladder to my friends waiting for their turn down the tube.
[Anyone know why the ice looks like this?]

[Opening up the Observation tube]

[Looking out the windows]

[The algea makes the bottom of the sea ice look bluey-greeny-yellow]

[Coming back up the tube for the next person to head down]