Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Field day

I love field work. I find it the most challenging, the most fun, and the most rewarding aspect of what I do. Being able to improvise when things don't go according to plan is a key skill, as is always having a multi-tool and a roll of duct tape close at hand. But some days are harder than others. It's easy to enjoy a day out when the sun is shining, there's no wind, and everything runs smoothly.

ATV loaded with field gear

But sometimes, you have less time than you need, and everything goes wrong. Instruments that don't feel like working because they are too cold, no matter how much cajoling you do can really slow you down. And at a certain point, you have to decide if it's worth proceeding, will you be able to cross that threshold of sampling enough to make another trip out unnecessary. Today was one of those challenging days. Lots of hauling equipment, riding in helicopters, and problem solving, with only 2 samples to show for it (requiring another trip back out next week). It's time to just count your blessings, because things could always turn worse. No injuries, and we didn't have to spend the night out due to the weather. Today was a good day, because we're back in camp, warm, and waiting for dinner.

Re-fueling the helicopter at Marble Point

Arrival at Lake Miers

Trying to convince one of the instruments to work

Line of snow in one of the valleys on the way "home"

One side effect of a day out in the field

We're back at the Lake Hoare Camp now. As soon as we set foot here yesterday, it felt as if I had just left the land of the Lost Boys over at Bonney camp. The manager here runs a much cleaner ship and best of all, cooks us dinner. It was fun to have the communal cooking experience at Bonney, but I can't say no to fresh focaccia.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Lake Bonney lies over the ocean

It's day 4 here at Lake Bonney camp. Seems like ages ago that we left town. On Monday, we moved all of our stuff to the helo pad, so once that was finished, we had some time to remember everything we forgot to pack, do some computer work, and enjoy a last evening in town. With all the bars closed on Mondays, there was no trip to Gallager's, but we still enjoyed a bottle of wine and some lovely Amstel light with my roommate in the evening. Our ride out to the Dry Valleys wasn't scheduled until lunchtime, so we were able to sleep in a little and grab an early lunch before heading out. I suppose I should have taken advantage and squeezed in one more shower, but really, when you're going for over a week without a proper shower, one more day won't make that much of a difference.

My green duffel bag looked a little sad sitting in the bottom of my wardrobe all by itself, and I was a little amazed how the same amount of stuff can expand. I had packed both of my issued orange bags to go on the helicopter, and I ended up with a last minute bag as well (purple, if you must know). Granted, none of the bags were full, but I still managed to forget my sneakers. Somehow, I thought I'd be okay with just my two pairs of boots, but when I saw everyone in camp with their sneakers, I asked my roommate to go on an adventure to have them sent to me on the next "flight of opportunity". My boss said it was a FNG move, but I didn't care- I am wearing sneakers instead of boots right now and sometimes that makes a world of difference. As the saying goes, "there's the right way, the wrong way, and the Antarctic way".

Flying over sea ice.

My fellow team member let me have the front seat on the way out to Lake Bonney. For those of you that haven't been in a helicopter, the front windshield extends down, so that it almost looks like you are flying on your own. We also got to ride in the Kiwi helo (the one that arrived with us on the C-17), so that meant I was sitting on the right side which was quite bizarre! Anyway, it was an exciting flight with gorgeous views. Without any familiar landmarks, it was hard to tell how fast or how far we were traveling. Soon we were coming up over the ridge into Taylor Valley and spotted the series of lakes. As he swung around into the wind to land, I still couldn't believe we had arrived at Lake Bonney camp.

Entering the Dry Valleys

Stepping out was a bit like landing on the moon. There are pretty much three colors here: the white of the glaciers, the blue of the sky, and the brown of the rocks. The lake ice contains all three. Erratics dot the landscape and large boulders appear as if they would move any second. The camp itself consists of few buildings including the large Jamesway (our kitchen, dining, living room, and office), three small labs (each with a different purpose), a fuel and generator shed, and a couple of outhouses. Little yellow and blue tents dot the surrounding area, within a designated boundary to minimize our impact on the area. Minimizing impact also means shipping out absolutely all waste, segregated into corresponding containers.

Lake Bonney camp

Much of our time this week was spent preparing. Preparing tents, sampling gear, and drilling through the meters of ice so that we could sample the lake. Sampling day came early Thursday morning and we were on the lake by 5 am. By lunchtime we were back in camp processing samples, which took until late last night (Friday). At dinner, I was asked how we could make our process more efficient, especially in comparison to having worked on arctic lakes. Honestly, I'm not sure. It seems odd to take an entire day just to punch through the ice, but holes have to be melted to fit equipment in, and certain things just take time. About the only way to make it faster would be to have more people. Unfortunately, logistics takes up most of the personnel down here, and despite there being a population of over 1,200 people at the station, they are anticipated being swamped by (only) 300 scientists this season. Makes for a very different way of doing science, and I'm still wrapping my head around it, especially having come from a very "a la carte" system in Barrow.

East lobe, Lake Bonney

Looking out the window, I still can't believe where I am. Here in the field camp, we live a very different existence than when we are in town. We cook our own meals, wash our own dishes, and run our own machines. Helicopters and the occasional repair guy or gal have been our only visitors. Basically, we've been thinking, eating, drinking, talking, and occasionally sleeping science. I say occasionally because suddenly I've become a light sleeper. The wind likes to howl up this way, and my tent likes to flap back. I think the fly wants to see some new scenery, because it's doing what it can to escape the rocks it's tied to. The constant daylight is the most easily fixed obstacle, with a knit hat pulled down over my eyes, and my head tucked into my fleece liner and super thick sleeping bag. But waking every two hours was the norm this week, only fixed by a 3.5 hour nap last evening, and a solid night's rest last night. Amazing how exhaustion will fix your sleep schedule.

Tomorrow we are sampling the other lobe of the lake, so it will be even earlier with an ATV ride to get there. But today is for resting, melting holes, and preparing supplies. Maybe even a hike to see the ventifacts.

Word of the day: Katabatic winds
Entertainment of the day: Lightning McQueen

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Happy camper

It's been a whirlwind getting settled in here. Much of the past week was spent taking classes and attending briefings on everything from how to go on a recreational hike to maintaining ATVs. Wednesday night there is a science talk open to everyone and this week's was about penguins and if they alter their foraging behavior in areas with predators. Turns out that getting out to see penguins might be a bit difficult, so don't be too disappointed if the only penguin pictures I end up with are of stuffed ones. After the science talk, I ran into my roommate who was out wandering around, and we decided to check out the coffee house. "Town" has three drinking establishments: the Coffee House, Gallager's, and Southern Exposure. Apparently, back in the military days, Gallager's was known as the Erebus club (named after nearby Mount Erebus) or the E club because it was meant for only enlisted men. Southern was one of the officer clubs, as was the coffee house. The coffee house now shows movies and serves wine and shots of liquor. We were barely able to get a seat at the bar, it's quite a popular spot. Gallager's was hosting a Jimmy Buffet night of sorts with cheeseburgers (in paradise) and margaritas, but sadly I have not experienced that bar yet. Anyway, at the coffee house, I got to meet a co-worker of my roommate and I did what I could to minimize the talking shop.

Me at Scott base

On Thursday, in addition to more classes, we overheard that the Scott base hosts an "American night" at their bar, and allows us to come overrun their small pub. After dinner, we piled into a series of shuttles and made our way down there, just in time to pop into their store before closing. $10 was a little much for a patch right now, but come January I don't know if I'll be able to resist the one that read "A woman's place is in Antarctica". The pub itself was exceedingly clean yet still charming. For some reason, the Kiwis were dressed in costume, so either they think that Americans are 50s doo-wap singers or trannies or they were just looking for a reason to dress up. Right when we were about to leave, my roommate spotted Ben Fogle, who is apparently a minor celebrity here to film some sort of documentary with the BBC. Thankfully, she listened to my prodding and got her picture taken with him and proceeded to dance about the halls for the rest of the evening.

Tents at Happy Camper

The most exciting and entertaining of all of the classes was on Friday and Saturday, Snowcraft I, aka "Happy Camper". For two days, 20 people from all different types of jobs learn basic survival techniques for Antarctica. What to do about cold injuries, what's in a survival bag, how to troubleshoot using a stove, how to set up tents and tie knots so that you can stake your tent in snow, etc. We used snow walls to help block the wind while sampling around Barrow last April, but I can't say that I knew the intricacies of building a snow trench or making a kitchen and dining area out of snow before. After the instructors left us for the night, most of the group continued digging their graves (or trenches, rather) and some folks played monopoly. A few us of headed over to a previous class' structures and broke into an igloo. It took some digging to clear out the entrance, but it was quite beautiful and roomy inside. We also ventured over to an "apple" or round green warming hut off of one of the nearby trails, just to take a look. It looked very much like a space ship.

Warming hut

The next morning came early, and after camp was broken down, we headed back to the instructor's hut to play out scenarios such as a helicopter crash and rescuing someone from the outhouse during a white out (with buckets on our heads). It was quite a fun experience and we were lucky to have nearly perfect weather. The best part of it was working with and talking to people we wouldn't otherwise have met. The majority were really interested to hear about the science we were doing and it was clear everyone was in it for the adventure.

After a hot shower and laundry, I received word that the boss was in town and looking for me. I dragged my poor roommate over to his place and we discovered a bit of what we've been missing. Apparently, some of the dorms here have saunas, pool tables, and big screen TVs! His had a semi-private bathroom and a small tv, plus a couch. I guess when it's your 26th season, you go up on the list a little bit. We're just happy that our third roommate hasn't shown up yet. Post dinner, my roommate went to collect a co-worker and we headed to Southern, which used to be known as the smoking bar. I discovered the hard way that my wrist is not ready for foosball. But, it can still lift a can, and we spent the rest of the evening stacking up cans in various designs. It was also fun to note that I am starting to recognize people around from either the plane ride, various tours, or classes.

Crates at Scott's hut

Sundays are days off here, and I was more than happy to sleep in to a reasonable time. Generally, things start early here, with breakfast over at 7:30 am and classes and meetings start around 8 am. Likewise, things end early. On Sunday, the galley puts on a huge spread for brunch. I thought the dining hall was really quiet until I turned the corner and discovered that the food area was filled to the brim with lines of people, baked goods, and a bewildering array of options. After eating too much food, we headed out to Scott's hut and the observation tube. The hut was built in 1902, and is quite eerie. Crates, cans, and carcasses line the walls and decay has been slow, giving a vivid picture of what the early explorers faced. The place vaguely reeked of rotting seal, and I imagine it would be far worse on a warmer day. The observation tube down the hill is set into annual sea ice, and you go down a metal hatch where there is a window under the ice. You can see divers and fish, but unfortunately we ran out of time and had to leave before I got a chance to go down there. Hopefully, I'll have another chance to get down there tomorrow, because I'm sure it will be melted out by the time I get back from the field.

McMurdo and Scott's hut from Vincent's Cross

The reason I had to get back to town was that we had visitors! A group of Kiwis had come south on the plane with my boss a few days ago and wanted to speak with us about our work. Imagine my surprise when I found out that one of the visitors was someone I knew from Toolik! A small world indeed. It was great to catch up with her and to meet the other visitors. My co-worker remained envious of their black and orange gear which has a very stylish logo of penguin and fern.

Which brings us to now. We're heading out to the Dry Valleys on Tuesday, so there are lots of last minute preparations to be done. Unfortunately, with Sunday being a day off, there's not too much to be crossed off the list today, so tomorrow will be busy I'm sure. Hoping to squeeze in a visit to Gallager's before leaving, and maybe another shot at the observation tube. Next post will be from the field!

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Between then and now.

Here are a couple of posts I wrote on my computer without internet access. Lots of pictures to share and will try to post about "town" more before I head into the field early next week.

~1 pm, 9 November 2010

Despite promising to become more succinct, this is going to be a long one, so hang on to your britches. I'll try to add in some pretty pictures to keep you entertained. All downtime in Christchurch seemed to be taken up with important matters of recovering after the journey, and I already could feel a shift in priorities. I wonder if it will continue. Three hours into a 5.5 hour flight on a C-17 from New Zealand to Antarctica, here is what I can recall from the past few days, assisted by a couple of notes typed on my ipod. Gone are the days where I diligently hand wrote the day's adventures in a notebook dedicated to whichever country I was traveling through.

The last minute preparations were a whirlwind, only made possible by borrowing a couple of people's cars and begging rides. It took the generosity of more than a few people to enable me to make the insane turnaround time between poles. By my count, only the mailing of some samples was postponed because I chose to wait to mail them until Friday, the very day that the building of the rest of our department was shut down without warning due to the discovery of asbestos. For all the havoc they caused, I do hope it had been knocked into the air supply late the night before and was not simply present in some undisturbed ceiling tile. Although I strongly suspect the latter. At least it was not the building where our lab was located or I might have panicked slightly.

The first couple of flights were relatively standard, and every time I fly over the Utah Rockies, they seem to become more striking. This time, they were topped in a bit of snow and the sunset shown on the smaller hills as if they were painted by Georgia (O'Keefe) herself. Immediately, I regretted bringing pencils instead of paints with me, but the fact was that it had been months since I even picked up a paint brush and my cameras would likely be put into more use than pencils (not to mention the likelihood of paints freezing and the mess they would generate which would then have to be removed from the continent). Fodder for the winter when I return, I suppose.

Arrival into LAX soon turned into weaving through a labyrinth of trying to get from the domestic terminal to the international. Strangely, (or perhaps not) LAX felt like a foreign county, complete with initial disorientation and visitors from all over the globe. Once I finally found where I was supposed to be, with a boarding pass for a middle seat in hand, I discovered that at least that portion of the airport had neither free wi-fi nor easily accessible power plugs. How passé!

The 12.5 hour flight from LAX to Auckland was surprisingly pleasant. Food service took a bit longer than I would have liked as it was about 12:30 am for the last time zone I was in by the time we took off. Just as I was contemplating the sleeping pills my boss had recommended, the plane hit turbulence and with the recent Qantas Airbus incidences, I decided quite irrationally that if something were to happen, I wanted to be conscious. So, the pills stayed in the bag and out came the complimentary eye cover and my trusty ipod.

With a solid 5 hours sleep and many shorter naps, the 6534 miles ticked away on the flight tracker screen. I was either wedged or nestled (depending on my mood) in between two guys on the flight. I knew that there were several of us heading south and I imagined that the one to the right looked to be a contractor while the one on my left I figured was a Kiwi. Turns out I had them backwards. The thin, younger man with longish hair to my left was headed to the South Pole (second trip, as I recall) while the larger, rough looking fellow who slept a solid 11 hours on my right was likely an Aussie, judging from the roughness of his accent.

As we proceeded off of the plane, through baggage claim and customs, and out to look for shuttles, the folks headed to the ice managed to sort out and find each other. People I had figured were on holiday are in fact on the plane with me right this minute, with jobs ranging from kitchen staff to drillers to geophysicists. Funny thing is, we all looking strikingly alike. The majority of the diversity on the plane right now comes from the Air Force crew flying us, cargo, and a kiwi helicopter. Yes, directly in front of me on the plane is a helicopter, bigger than the ones we used to ride in back at Toolik out to field sites. My guess is that once we land in McMurdo, the pilots sitting next to me will fly the bird over to the Scott base, just a few miles away.

Across from me on the flight from Christchurch to McMurdo.

Back to Christchurch. Everything had been quite the production up until that point, but now it was morphing into the machinations of a well-oiled machine. Slowly, the scale of logistics required to move around this herd of sheep became obvious. With a day and half in between flights to ensure that delays stateside did not make anyone miss their "ice flight", we had time to shower, sleep, and roam about town, with only about two hours required the next day for the clothing pull.

Christchurch, New Zealand.

The clothing distribution / computer check / last minute flu shot (yes, they know who you are and will come get you mid-changing of thermals to poke you with a needle) was nothing short of amazing. Two orange bags waited for us on arrival, labeled by name. Apparently, if you have a Ph.D., everything is named "Dr. So and so" and was slightly embarrassing, but still exciting. People's gear was already sorted to be appropriate to your job, so I had an assortment based on working at a field camp. I was a little surprised that nothing other than the infamous big red parka was anything out of the ordinary. In fact, I was a little envious of some of the crew that were issued the lined Carhartts I wear in the Arctic. But, the lighter wind pants are certainly more comfortable (and more adjustable). Unfortunately, the Carhartts vs wind pants also makes it all the more easy to identify the beakers (scientists) if the "Dr" on the name tag wasn't enough. Oh well.

After exchanging sizes, getting poked, and rescuing my computers, we finally headed back to town. The shuttle we hopped on was full of folks from the airport, and it took about an hour to get back to the hotel. The highlight of the trip was the kiwi sitting next to me mumbling about how climate change was due to cycles in the sun and had nothing to do with CO2. So far, that has been one of the only negative interactions I've had with the kiwis, who seem to be amazingly laid back, mellow, and friendly. He and his wife were dropped off at some fancy hotel, so I can pretend I misinterpreted his accent and that he is from some other Commonwealth country.

Children's librarians in New Zealand wear pirate earrings.

New Zealand feels like Scotland. Maybe with a touch of California or Hawaii thrown in. I can't help but wonder if such a first impression will be held up after travels I am planning after the field season in January. But with that, it feels so much like home, possibly the most familiar country I've visited so far. (For my own notation, the list now includes England, Japan, The Netherlands, Tanzania/ Zanzibar, "Kenya", Germany, "Belgium", France, Spain, Italy, Sweden, Costa Rica, Panama, Scotland, New Zealand plus Canada (Newfoundland, British Columbia, Ontario, and Alberta) and Mexico.) Christchurch even has possibly the best bed and breakfast I've stayed in. The Windsor is actually a bit like a hotel in terms of rooms, but the carpet is spotless, the mattresses comfortable, and the place has charm. Shared water closets of showers, basins, and toilets ensue more privacy than if they had been attached to rooms. Breakfast was delicious, and they are so used to dealing with folks headed to the ice, that they delivered snacks in lieu of breakfast they knew we would be missing today. Town is very walkable and we were very close to the botanic gardens, museums, and art centre.

Springtime at the Botanical gardens.

Last night, while my travel companion opted for a nap, I headed out to dinner with a friend from my Toolik days. It was great to catch up with her and hear not only about grad school and life in New Zealand, but also to see how her time with the Peace Corps in Senegal has changed her. It's funny, but the bravest people you meet, you would often never expect. I have much respect for such people who lack bragging egos and instead quietly lead amazing lives. Even if Biz can still get us lost walking to a restaurant five minutes away from the hotel.

Mt. Erebus is in sight! Time to get ready to land.

View from the flight deck, shortly before arrival.

9 pm, 9 November 2010

I think I have a new candidate for the longest day ever. After a disorienting landing, we all bundled up and headed out onto the ice runway and were greeted by spectacular sunshine and blue skies. Soon, gloves and hats were disappearing as people tried to take the obligatory arrival pictures while being hollered at to get on the bus, “Ivan the terra bus”. Considerably less agile with our big red parkas, we awkwardly squished into seats for the painfully slow and dreadfully hot ride into “town”. After a series of orientations, some of which I remember bits of, we were released to the great gravel expanse. Town is odd, it’s a bit like Prudhoe Bay, a bit like Barrow, a bit like Toolik, but inside the industrial looking buildings, everything is much cleaner and more updated. Still haven’t finished wrapping my head around it, but my British roommate just pointed out that “it’s a bit like being on a school trip”, having just attended a class on where you can and can not hike, along with sleeping in dorms, and set meal times. Of course, without such things there would be mass chaos and people falling into crevasses. Not really a fan of falling down, and I seem to be making it a habit, so I’ll stick to following the green and red flags.

Me on arrival at McMurdo.

There’s far too much to write about tonight, I think things need to marinate and the sharing of it will be a bit more coherent after a good night’s rest. Just as long as I don’t wake up at 4 in the morning again!

Thursday, November 04, 2010

A quick breather

Before we left Alaska, we noticed a dramatic shift in the sea ice adjacent to town. Here are a few pictures of the sea ice in Barrow at various times:

Polar bear in early April, 2010. Photo courtesy of Paula.

Sea ice on arrival, late October 2010.

By the time we were leaving, the wind had shifted again bring the ice closer to shore. For days, the wind blew the ice in and out but it ceased and colder weather seemed to promise that the pancakes of ice would soon lock together in preparation for merging with the multi-year ice farther out in the ocean. The markedly shorter, dark days and dropping temperatures gave us a small glimpse of what it must be like to overwinter on the North Slope. Fairbanks I think I could handle, but I now have even more respect for those that call Barrow their home year round. The clear blue skies and 20 degrees warmer temperatures in Anchorage were a shock after the darkness, and its return in Seattle was strangely comforting. I'm glad I have a few days to recalibrate before the next wild swing to nearly 24 hours of daylight down south.

Also on my list for these few days is to catch up on my Antarctic explorers and literature, to the detriment of the stack of Alaskan books I purchased this last trip. Jack London definitely reads at bit differently a couple decades and more than a few seasons in Alaska later. While more books are in the mail (to add to my stack of mostly unfinished tomes), I found a few interesting websites about the women of Antarctica, often overshadowed by the likes of Scott, Shackleton, and Amundsen. I'm sure that to be interested in the women who have preceded me may be dismissed by some, but learning about the first American woman in an Antarctic expedition, current scientists and explorers, and all those in between is far more accessible and seems a bridge to those fantastical early tales. As a side note, I wonder if my little sister recalls me dragging her to see the IMAX movie about the Endurance.

Two days from now I will be (hopefully) sleeping on a plane to New Zealand. 2173 miles down, ~7500 more to go this week, give or take a few hundred miles. The relief of walking into a clean, good smelling house late last night was only tempered by the conspicuous absence of my puppy dog, and all I day I've had to stop myself from our usual routines. Despite my best intentions to get to the lab, scrubbing off field work (and the now infamous pink nail polish) and phone calls to banks, pharmacies, and medical providers took up my entire day. I vaguely recall the days of not being quite as tied down, and I know I'm not nearly as tied down as I could be. I really don't know how people do it year after the year. The logistics of arranging for bills to be paid and medications to be filled is not what first comes to mind when you hear you actually get to go south.

But who wants to hear about the mundane things of life? This evening I was able to check off some of the more fun things on my to do list including purchasing a new head lamp and picking up some travel guides on New Zealand. I've always found the travel section to hold my attention the longest in a book store, and I've only once purchased a travel book that has gone unused. The book for Iceland still sits on my shelf, becoming progressively outdated but still reminding me that there are more places to experience. Considering the numerous novels that line my shelves started yet unfinished, it's a small miracle that there is only one "extra" travel book. Of course, we can just overlook the stack of travel magazines that I've managed to keep.

(Note to my friends out there that are new moms: if you want to make sure your child is bitten by the travel bug, I recommend taking a short course someplace like Bali when your child is in elementary school and bring back all manner of exciting clothes and art. I still have a threadbare child sized t-shirt from Bali that has been sewn into a pillow cover.)

With that, I am off to relish another night in my own grown-up sized bed. Rotating dorms and tents are waiting for me soon enough.