Thursday, December 30, 2010


What a week of celebrations it has been, and it's not quite over. Last Wednesday was Ema's birthday, so of course I had to track down a picture of bacon and turn it into a birthday card to go with the surprise cookies at work. I also discovered the burger bar where you can order a vegetarian burger with, you guessed it, bacon. Kind of silly to shell out $3 for dinner when you can eat for free, but the fries alone are worth it.

The next day had a nice break in the work day with a gift exchange mid-afternoon. I just watched this time, which was just as well because there were no Sweet Valley High books for my dog to constantly try to eat. It was rather entertaining to watch folks fight over bad bottles of wine and nerdy science books.

Christmas Eve was the town Christmas party, hosted by the Vehicle Maintenance Facility in a massive warehouse. They have lots of pictures on the walls showing large vehicles that have fallen through the sea ice or otherwise gotten mangled. Santa was there, as were cookies, bacon quiche, mozzarella sticks, and jalapeƱo poppers. I also spotted the third inflatable penguin I've seen in town, possibly the largest I've ever seen (one in the Crary lab pictured above). On a cross-country road trip about 7 years ago, I became slightly obsessed with spotting inflatable Santas. I think that may have been the first year they were widely available, because I have pictures of them from New Orleans, Breckenridge, and several other places. I still think they are odd, but at least they're of the slightly more appropriate penguin variety down here.

Weddell seals on the sea ice

On Christmas day, it was gorgeous and sunny, so we went on a hike near town. The traditional route to Castle Rock included a stream that would guarantee getting wet to your knees, and we really weren't quite in the mood for such an adventure. Instead, we headed up past Scott's hut, and spotted some wildlife, Weddell seals and skuas (which, for you Toolikers, are in the same genus as those parasitic jaegers we used to run away from).


After the hike, we had a large meal with all of our friends. Unfortunately, not one, but two planes "boomeranged" in the days before, one of which was only 5 minutes away. We had precious cargo on those planes, namely "freshies" and mail. So no beer, no fresh vegetables, and no presents. But, we still had it better than the kiwis who were denied their Christmas turkey dinner. I have a feeling we shared our food with them, because it's just not right for nearly 1,000 people to enjoy lobster tail, sirloin, and roast duck while 30 or so people down the road were missing their turkey because of the possibility of ice crystals in a cloud layer.

Artwork cataloging stuff in people's pockets at the MAAG

In the evening, the annual McMurdo Alternative Art Galley had its opening. The creative talent here was hinted at before with the craft show, but the MAAG was art of the broader variety from conceptual to performance, sculptural to two dimensional. The majority of it was also interactive, with a photo booth and several games inside and outside. There was even a fashion show of wearable art, but the carpenter's shop was getting crowded and we opted to sit outside and enjoy the sunshine and view of town below.

Mactown on the night of the 25th

After all the celebrating, Sunday brought a much needed day off to rest and take stock. So often when you are out in the field, you end up working every day, even if just for a little while. I think that Christmas and the day after were the first two "real" days off I've had in a long time- at least since summertime. Of course, taking a couple of days off did mean that I'd have to work even harder this week to get everything finished on time, but sometimes sanity does insist on being indulged. If you have the luxury of really leaving work at the end of the day, enjoying every weekend, and taking at least an annual vacation, make sure that you fully appreciate it. If you've chosen a life like mine, you have to soak up moments like these to carry you through and find entertainment where you can.

The past few days have been dominated by lab work once again. Today we were supposed to head back out for a short couple of days in the field, but the weather seems to have different plans.

Only one more day of 2010 here! Have a happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

It's a harsh continent

Apparently I need to clarify. The titles I use here are not meant to indicate that I don't like it down here, rather, last week's and this week's titles are references to common phrases down here which are used in both a serious and a joking manner. For example, if it's a particularly gorgeous day with amazing views, you might say, "just another cold day in hell". If your tent got torn to shreds by 65 knot winds (~75 mph), you might say, "it's a harsh continent". The same phrase could be used when you're gorging on a ridiculously tasty dessert and fill your belly too full.

View from my new tent at Bonney camp

Our last days at Hoare were quite busy, and even a dance party on Saturday night did not interrupt our schedule of being up at 7 am to get out onto the lake. Consequently, we were back at the main house before people were rolling out of bed on most folks day off. Instruments and packing were topped off with a full, dairy-rich, German meal, complete with homemade cheesecake and New Zealand ice cream (thank you, Lactaid). On Monday, we moved back to Bonney camp, which felt strangely like coming home. With no other groups "ruling the roost", we basically get to make up the rules, and decide when we want to do chores (generally when they needed doing). At Bonney, my main contribution seems to be cooking along with some other folks, but since we lost most of our frozen goods (including our chicken) when our sling loads were stuck at Fryxell for a couple of days, the cooking chore required a bit more creativity. Asking the former vegetarian to come up with meat-free meals isn't exactly rocket science, but the lack of freshies (onions, etc) was a bit challenging. Some how we survived on Italian, Mexican, and Thai dishes with a few soups, and delicious breakfasts and desserts as always.

The tent that got away, with Bonney camp in the background

The biggest change at Bonney camp was the tent situation. Forty knot winds at Hoare translated to 65 knots for the same wind storm at Bonney. All four of our tents fell down, and two of them blew away, but not due to improper securing. One tent broke its lines where they connected to the tent, and another had all the poles pop out. The one that was carried 1/2 mile south on the lake had several broken poles, but everything was recovered and half of the tents were salvaged. The rest had to be packed up to be returned to the field center, where somehow these things get patched back together. With our extra tent and a borrowed tent, we were back in business after a few hours.

Taylor Glacier from West Lobe of Lake Bonney

The lake ice was a little flatter, the moat was starting to melt, and the weather was warmer this time around. We also "adopted" a grad student from another group and I was introduced to the Big Bang theory TV show. Other than that, it was hijinx as usual. Spurred by the promise of town for the weekend, we decided to forgo our day "off" and did back to back limno runs, with 4 am and 7 am followed by another 4 am and 7 am set of days. I headed back to town with samples for an experiment on Friday afternoon and promptly discovered why there is usually a day off scheduled in between. When I sat down at dinner, it suddenly felt as though I hadn't slept in a month. Sleep only brought reminders of the physicality of our job, with aches and pains setting in. A few days later and I'm good as new, but in hindsight it seemed a bit silly to rush back.

Crack in the Ross ice shelf, open water beyond

Summer solstice was earlier today, precisely at 23:38 on the 21st of December (UTC). Since we're on New Zealand time, it works out to midday, Wednesday the 22nd of December at 12:38 pm. Unlike Toolik, there's not been a word about any costume parties or bonfires (other than a Mad Max themed party I missed last Saturday out of exhaustion). Rather, people are ramping up for birthdays, alternative art galleries, and Christmas dinner reservations. If you are wondering how they decorate for the holidays in Antarctica, think "penguins". Edit: the music show at the waste barn last night did include a few folks in costume, including a bearded lady for the theme of county fair.

I've got plenty more stories, but it's already taken me a day to get this far on the post. I think it's time to upload a few photos and I'll try to revisit some missed activities later on. Safe travels everyone!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Just another cold day in hell

The bona fide day off was quite enjoyable, with mostly mellow tasks like laundry on the list for heading back out into the field. A craft fair took place in the afternoon, where people from the station set out tables of homemade wares to sell. It was almost like being at a farmer's market, with a wide variety of items from buttons, to photographs, felted hats, jewelry, wooden bowls, even hand cream. It wasn't clear to me what had been made at home versus what was made on station, but it was a lovely diversion for a couple of hours. A cone of chocolate frosty girl ice cream topped it all off, since the fair was in the galley.

Melting moat at Lake Fryxell

Monday morning we finished hauling our ever increasing pile of gear and supplies down to the helo pad in preparation for our flight out. Right after one last shower and an early lunch, we headed down to wait our turn. The flight across to the Dry Valleys was gorgeous as always and soon we were at Lake Fryxell. On first impression, Lake Fryxell camp is somewhere between the Lost Boys feel of Bonney camp and the clean and structured atmosphere of the camp at Lake Hoare. Nestled on the west side of Canada Glacier, the camp has the largest number of lab buildings out of the Taylor Valley camps, but they are the smallest.

Fryxell's fancy facilities (not a laboratory)

When we head out into the field on multiple day trips, we have a regular schedule of travel and prep the first day, up at 4 am to sample the chemistry of the lake followed by hours of filtering and processing samples, with the third day allocated for retrieving incubated samples and using instruments to take profiles of the water column for things such as light and temperature once the water column has re-stratified or recovered from our sampling. If we are changing camps, the third day is also spent re-packing all of our equipment in preparation of repeating the cycle. So this trip we had the schedule of Monday = travel to Fryxell and prep for sampling, Tuesday = up at 4 am to sample and filter, Wednesday = finish profiling the water column and pack to move.

Solar panel at Fryxell camp

Our time at Fryxell was over in the blink of an eye. It was relatively crowded there, and some other groups arranged their schedule to accommodate us, so we were in and out as fast as possible. I seem to have picked up a little cold bug when I was in town, and it kicked into high gear when we got out in the field. Thankfully, only 3 people were needed for sampling and I had the luxury of missing the 4 am alarm clock call to head out onto the lake. There are simply no substitutes for sleep and water to get better, although some borrowed cold medicine helps out considerably as well.

The view on instrument day at Lake Fryxell.

Thursday was a day trip back over to Lake Miers, for a chance at sampling redemption. Luckily, the weather cooperated and we had a lovely day out. Our ride back to camp even came early due to complications with other folks on the schedule, so we got to show the pilot and tech how to sample a lake. Even our ride to and from Miers was gorgeous as we got to head over the Ferrar and associated glaciers between the dry valleys. The best part of the ride though was my co-worker explaining her new key chain to everyone. It's a little plastic cow that "issues" little round chocolate candy. I think I was in tears from laughing so hard.

My commute (on the way to Lake Miers, not my hand)

After the day trip, we headed not back to Fryxell, but to Hoare. Ever efficient, we combined a day sampling trip with a moving day. Processing the samples from Miers wasn't too bad and we were able to start unwinding around midnight. Unfortunately, the katabatic winds kicked on out of nowhere (well the polar plateau in actuality), so I spent most of the short night trying to keep my tent on the ground. Around 8, I finally decided to get out of the tent to evaluate the situation and ended up retying lots of lines and adjusting rocks. Somehow, I managed to continue napping until around 11 am and rolled out of bed. I still have not gotten used to the roar of the high wind and corresponding tent flapping and turn into a light sleeper when I'm in Taylor Valley. Combined with early mornings, it's only a few days before sleep deprivation sets in. Luckily, Friday was a mellow day, with only preparations for sampling Lake Hoare on the list.

Lake Miers has been conquered.

The upside to katabatic winds is that they generally increase the temperature considerably. Rumor has it that we actually broke 40 degrees! I guess it's summer after all. The other evidence of summer time here is the melting of ice. The lakes in the Dry Valleys melt only partially every year with many feet remaining in the center of the lakes, leaving an open moat around the edges. Some of the lakes even have layers of water and sediment within the ice layers, such as Miers. But ice does not melt in a uniform fashion, making lots of various structures to navigate between shore and our sampling sites, which are over the deepest part of the lake near the middle. Come December, it's time to hop over open bits of water, choose which candle ice looks most stable, and cross your fingers that the ATV doesn't cause a chunk of ice to collapse a few feet and knock you over (because that ice is not only slippery, it's hard!).

All set to sample Lake Hoare

Tricky navigations aside, sampling at Hoare went quite smoothly this morning. The early start is never pleasant, but high winds overnight again meant that come 4 am I wasn't exactly sound asleep anyway. By 9 am, we were back and cooking up another fantastic "limno breakfast". Usually a bowl of oatmeal fits the bill, but on days we sample we come back and cook a big breakfast. Today's was pancakes, scrambled eggs with cheese, and a pound of bacon. The latter was scavenged by other folks staying at the camp and apparently the scent of bacon greeted the two documentary film makers that came in for the day.

After breakfast, it was back to work filtering water and processing samples. This basically means dividing our water samples from various depths into subsamples and preserving them until they can be analyzed. Whether it's by freezing, filtering, or adding a chemical, everything has to be done right away. Today's samples were fast to do and we were done by 4:30 this afternoon!

Canada Glacier and the surface of Lake Hoare

To put icing on the cake, our personal bags finally arrived from Fryxell and I was able to take a shower. Generally, the "shower" is only available at Hoare camp on Sundays, but since there will be 22 people here tonight, the two people who run the camp decided to start showers early. Due to a miscommunication, I nearly missed my chance for the day, but a couple of guys from the streams group were nice enough to make sure I got to hop in before dinner. After the communal saunas at Toolik, the concept of a sign up list still seems foreign to me, but I suppose it makes sense. Who'd have thought people in the Antarctic are more reserved than those crazy folks up north? In reality, I think it's because usually there aren't enough people in a camp at once to necessitate a "bulk bathing" option like Toolik had. I do miss that sauna on the lake though, there's nothing else on earth like it.

Care package #2 arrived! Somehow it managed to find me out in the field. Courtesy of my aunt and uncle, who incidentally sent me my first care package in college eons ago, thank you! This one arrived in a week, considerably faster than the other one which took about a month. So, if you are thinking about sending me something (hint, hint), envelope type packages generally travel faster and you're taking your chances if you mail anything much later. Fingers crossed, I'll be back in New Zealand within a month. Also, I've heard from lots of folks that you are reading the blog. Feel free to feed my ego and leave some comments or ask questions!

Friday, December 03, 2010

Trials and tribulations

Home sweet home next to Canada Glacier

The fiasco field day of which I last wrote, was followed by an absolutely fabulous Thanksgiving. Of course, because I'm on the limno team, we still did a bit of work, but it was still a relaxing day. People came from all over, by foot and by helicopter from other camps in the Dry Valleys. All told, I believe there were 28 people gathered at Lake Hoare for the feast. The camp manager had some friends from "town" fly in the day before to help her cook, and what a spread it was. Turkey with gravy, stuffing, mashed potatoes, Jessy's savory cornbread pudding, Dottie Mae's sweet potato casserole, roasted pumpkin, cranberry sauce, cranberry chutney, peas, pumpkin dinner rolls, pumpkin soup, pumpkin pie, apple pie, pecan pie, and walnut pie. Plus wine of various variety which seemed to appear out of thin air. Of course, I ate so much that post-dinner coma turned into a nap. Eventually people returned to whence they came, and those of us staying at Hoare had the place to ourselves again. The evening was rounded out by a rather loud game of Scrabble Apple.

Thanksgiving dinner at Lake Hoare

The day after Thanksgiving was our chance to prepare things for our next trip into the field and to pack up to head back to town. Weather delays messed with the schedule a bit, but we were still able to catch our helo ride. They combined our trip with another pair's, so we were packed like sardines, quite cozy for the half hour ride across the sea ice. Those big red jackets make for nice pillows. The best part of Friday was coming back to the lab to be greeted by Ema, who had been out in the field some of the same time as us, but she had been two valleys away, at Lake Vida, without internet! My roommate Anne was still sleeping, so I had to wait for her to wake up, but there were lots of familiar faces in town this time, quite a bit different from my first arrival. Friday night there was a huge dance party, with "local" bands playing lots of good music. It was good to let our hair down (post shower, of course) and relax after working in the field.

Heading back from Scott base

Our time in town has been dominated by processing samples from the last trip and preparing material for the second round of field work. Basically, we sample the lakes in Taylor Valley and then go back and do it again, and again, with a week or two between each round. Each trip is successively shorter with less time required for drilling and melting holes, and the very last run is a subset of samples collected. So, the weekend after the big party was relatively relaxed with bottle washing and sample processing on the list, with a quick trip over to the store over at Scott base.

Where to catch the shuttle to Scott Base (dorms in background)

Monday we had to say goodbye to Dr. Anne. Off to New Zealand for more adventures! She was quite the ideal roommate, especially compared to some of the horror stories I've heard floating around. There are snorers, people that type on their computers all night, and folks that never turn off the light. A bit like being back in college.

McMurdo infrastructure

The rest of the week has been fairly benign, mostly putzing around the Crary lab combusting bottles and setting up my heat block while the rest of the team anxiously awaited the opportunity to sample Lake Vanda. Originally, we were going to have two trips out, so I was going to be on the second trip. Unfortunately, I ended up missing out seeing Vanda entirely, but the rest of the team brought me back lots of water to play with (i.e., run lots of experiments on). They had another rough and windy day out, but the pictures sure look like it was worth it.

Temperature experiment set-up

One thing you might not realize about biological experiments is time sensitivity. With samples arriving back here around 6 pm, I was up until 3:30 am setting up an experiment. Not the end of the world, until I found out at 11 am that there had been a power outage after which one of my water baths did not turn back on, ruining the 20 hour long incubation. So, yesterday I got to set it up again, although it went much faster the second time around and it was up and running by dinner time. Not an unusual thing in the world of science, but quite taxing when you are already fighting off of a cold of sorts. Today I am ending the experiment and setting up a longer term growth incubation to run while I am back out in the field with the team starting on Monday.

Leopard seal skull

Luckily, it looks like tomorrow might be a bona fide day off, one I currently plan to spend sleeping and watching movies (with a break to see the big craft show). Thanks to a care package from my friend Kathy, I now have two "new" movies to watch, since it didn't occur to me to pack any dvds!