The Coast Guard ice breaker has arrived and is anchored at the McMurdo ice pier.  This event heralds the imminent arrival of the resupply vessel that will bring all kinds of things to Town and take all manner of things away (a lot of trash, for one).  I am constantly amazed by how “right there” the human history of this place is.  The ice pier is Right There where Scott’s Discovery was tied up for the winter of 1902, hence “Winter Quarter’s Bay” in McMurdo Sound. Pictured here in the same location as the photo above are Discovery and her relief ships, the Morning and the Terra Nova, in 1904.  The row of dark brown buildings marching up the hill in the background–those are dorms.  The second from the right is mine.  Observation Hill is in the far background.  Right There.

As part of what is evidently the annual ritual, McMurdites (McMurdians?) are invited to tour the ice breaker, and along with others I made my way down the road that runs along to Hut Point with a fork down to the pier for a look. Our guide seemed impossibly young but very pleasant,  We went all over the ship except down into the engine room–about which I was curious–and the crew quarters (not so curious–could well imagine).  It’s astounding to me that the US has only one ice breaker in service, and it’s 40 years old.  Of course the Coast Guard had her looking shipshape, but that 40 years has got to hurt.  She has a flat bottom and, our guide told us, she bobs like a cork.  I was very glad the Southern Ocean was good to them on the way here from Tasmania.

I had imagined an ice breaker making a straight path, but in fact they spent several days in McMurdo Sound carving a giant “O” or turning basin (looking to us on shore like they were driving around in circles) so the supply ship can make the turn into and out of the pier. There will actually be 2 ships: one carrying supplies and food and equipment needed to keep the base running, and the other a fuel tanker.

Here’s the nasty bit: Winter Quarters Bay is pretty darn contaminated.  We used to just dump all kinds of junk into the ocean.  Vehicle no good? Drive it onto the sea ice and let it sink when the ice went out.  Raw sewage was pumped into the bay from McMurdo until 2003. It’s a mess down there. And there are folks who have been here enough seasons to remember this.

Nowadays all our garbage is shipped off site.  The resupply vessel will desupply our waste and take it back to LA.  Who knows from there.  We sort waste into recyclable, non-recyclable, food waste, biological (hazard) waste, toxic waste like batteries and aerosols…I fee I am forgetting a category, but you get the point.  With the sorting very present, one does one’s best–at least I do and I witness this in others–not to produce so much waste.  You can have as much food as you want in the galley, but when you have to scrape anything you did not eat into a “food waste” container you think twice about wasting food.  You take less, eat it, and if you are still hungry, you can go get seconds. I find this very civilized. I don’t know exactly what more large scale or infrastructural measures to produce less waste have been implemented, but I’m learning more about them, looking about to see how it is done.  McMurdo is at once a relic of times when we were pretty darn careless with our world, and a model of what caring more could do–but only because we have agreed to Cool It here. Greenpeace had a base here in the 80s, I believe, and exerted a lot of pressure to change–not just McMurdo.  Hard won treaties and international agreements have also had affects, of course.  I’d like to read up on these, but the internet is not cooperating just now.

So much is happening on this journey, I find it hard to find blocks of time to reflect and write.  We have trained and become guides for the Discovery Hut at Hut Point, and did our first shift during an open house, mostly crew from the Polar Star venturing up to see the place.  Some of my hut stories are rusty–I’m re-reading Kelly Tyler Lewis’s The Lost Men about the fate of the lesser known half of Shackleton’s Endurance expedition, the men from the Aurora who laid depots on the Ross Ice Shelf all the way to the Beardmore Glacier–depots that of course the transantarctic party never made it to.  The hut has been conserved and restored to look about like it did in 1917 when the “lost men” recovered–sort of–from their horrific depot journey.  In happier times, the hut was once upon a time used as a theatre, “Terror Theatre” after Mt. Terror (after the ship Terror) on Discovery who built it but used it primarily for storage.  So many stories.

And on that note, we met a journalist who came into town, a rare non-official visitor. He is traveling with the Polar Star and collecting her stories. In some ways, our projects are related, or at least our curiosities about what makes people travel to extremes are similar.  So we had a great talk about that at the Coffee House, our preferred (mellower) tavern just across the street.  The Polar Star leaves today to go escort the resupply. Godspeed Polar Star.

Brandon Reynolds’ blog on KQED:

And I saw my first penguins (at Hut Point), and it has been snowing.  I haven’t even touched on the shots we’ve made thus far, nor the launch of the LDB.  Weather depending, we are about to go on some trips into the field:  Cape Royds for portraits of penguin science and the penguins themselves, and Shackleton’s hut; the McMurdo Dry Valleys for more scientist portraits and the amazing landscapes.  Much to do to prepare.





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