What the ice claimed

What the ice claimed

Photos: the Terra Nova in the pack (the image we were reenacting in this post); an LC-130 Herc taking off from Williams Field. Photo: US Antarctic Program Photo Library (http://photolibrary.usap.gov)

I’ve delayed posting any of this for over a year now, even though I started writing it back then. I just didn’t want the way I went out to overshadow the amazing time I had on the ice.  But here it is, at long last.  The Ross Ice Shelf has claimed a number of people. And maybe just to spite the reenactments, it gave me a nasty sideswipe at the end of our journey.

Our time on the ice was nearly over. McMurdo was shrinking, and every flight out–as many as 3 a day now–seemed like part of the countdown. I took to looking at the passenger manifests posted on the intranet to see who was experiencing the mixed emotions of bag drag the night before flying. Every morning, it seemed, there were more bright blue duffle bags of bedding left outside the doors of the dorm rooms on my corridor, a sign that someone had stripped her/his bed and vanished, up and away. When I thought about having to perform these rituals myself, I almost couldn’t bear it. Not ready to go. But I was spared that kind of performance, as it turned out….

Our last shoot was at Williams Field. In one of the Ponting coffee table books for the centenary, there is a full 2-page spread of a photo of the ship in the sea ice with 2 men standing closer to the camera but still in extreme long shot. We wanted to reenact the photo not with the supply ship, which by then was long gone from the ice pier, but with an air ship. We thought we might shoot this at Pegasus Field when the C-17s started landing, but Pegasus had been in really bad shape, so no wheeled aircraft were able to come and go. This has been a problem in the last few years, and in fact we had attended an SRO lecture about the affects of the slow but inexorable movement of the Ross Ice Shelf and how it was causing Pegasus to come right into the path of volcanic dust blowing in from Black Island as well as some strange bacteria that was contributing to mushing up the runway. So a new runway is in the works. (Update: The new runway, Phoenix, is open, and Pegasus is no more: https://antarcticsun.usap.gov/features/contenthandler.cfm?id=4284)

Anyway, the process of changing over to winter was going more slowly than usual, because  people were being ferried out and in exclusively with the smaller  slower Hercs.  This was causing some anxiety in town, because people would get themselves all ready to go and then face a delay of 1, 2, 3 days.  Your stuff is all sitting in cold storage, you’re ready to go physically and mentally, but you don’t. And if you’re a contract worker, you have to keep working while in this limbo. People began to gather by the monitor in 155 just outside the mess hall that provided flight and weather info and to scan passenger manifests. I’m getting ahead of myself here a bit, but I did hear that when I left a couple of days before planned and not in the way I would have wished, I might have displaced a couple of poor souls, and there was some cursing at the 155 monitor. I still feel badly about that.

Back to Willy Field. We  wanted to include the Airfield Manager Gary Cardullo in our shot. He’s responsible for keeping the runways in good whack among other things, and what a job he had this year.  He was understandably busy, so we kept putting off the shoot, but finally we made a date. We drove out with him–it’s about 7 miles from town–with Katy along to help us and as our liaison. We were carrying a lot of video gear, because we planned to double up on the shot and as we were riding in a van, toting a lot of stuff wasn’t an issue–or so I thought.  We sat in the van for awhile chatting.  I’ve noticed that many folks who work out in the cold keep the insides of their vehicles really warm, for me uncomfortably so, but then I’m not outside for hours on end every day.  Earlier in our stay we’d been fascinated by the spectacle of folks who were driving trucks for the Evolution and waiting in queue for long periods such that they couldn’t keep the engines running indefinitely. To keep warm, some of them would get out of the trucks and use the beds as exercise mats. There’d be someone up on a truck doing push-ups, legs up on the cab.

Gary kept his van quite warm, and when we got out to go wait in the fire station/warming hut where the crew get some respite from the cold, I miscalculated a number of things. It was murky weather outside, cold and blowy and overcast. When the wind hit my face I put my sun goggles on, but they steamed up, and in the murk and because I was hefting a heavy pack over my right shoulder and a tripod in my left arm, I did not see a hill that had formed near the fire station/warming hut steps from the ice repeatedly thawing from heat of said hut, and then re-freezing. So it was nasty ice, hard and slick. I just didn’t see it. Down I went. I was facing the steps with the downhill side of the ice hill to my left, and my legs started to slide that way, which would have made me land uphill a shorter distance, but then I would land on my right side on which I had slung my pack containing my camera and all the pretty Sony lenses. So I swung the pack to go the other way, thinking to right myself, but it was too much weight and I wound up falling on my left side on the downhill side with much more force due to the extra weight and distance, and of course the weight landed on me. Yikes. People helped me up and I thought dang, that was a nasty fall there, but I was OK, maybe. I used the tripod as a cane and hobbled into the hut. Gary brought me a cup of coffee–real coffee–better coffee than I’d had in over a month.  I’m OK, I thought, I am just bruised. A couple of days before I had played soccer on the ice and fell diving for the ball several times, but was so well padded and warmed up I didn’t even bruise. I was fine then, so I must be now.

Until I stood back up and pain stabbed me in the hip so cruelly I was nauseated. But I kept saying to myself, and probably others around (I don’t remember a lot of this clearly) I must have sprained my back again or something, I did that years ago and it took a few days but I was OK.  But no.  We went back out to take the shot, the tripod now absolutely necessary as a crutch, and got in the van to get out as far as we could safely toward the runway, as the Herc’s arrival was in 15 minutes or so and we needed to set the shot up. I think that as we drove out I must have said to Vince that when we were done I needed to go to medical, because by then I thought, the cold air is helping but something is really wrong.  I did get out of the van and tried to help, but all I managed to do was grope my way around the van and hop over to Vince’s tripod. There is some GoPro footage that I evidently shot, but I don’t remember doing it. The Herc appeared out of the clouds and glided down and away, and Vince got the shot. He, Katy, and Gary walked over to get another angle on the plane after it had taxied in and passengers were climbing out and then into Ivan the Terrabus, but I couldn’t even make it over there. 

Dear reader, here the story grows tedious. Medical. X-Ray. Probable fracture, but it would have to be sorted in Christchurch. Wanting to kick myself, but that would have really hurt. I thought everyone was exaggerating. Medical at McMurdo looks like the 1960s. But I was treated well, at one point stabbed with some sort of pain killer in the thigh and told I had to go home. Tomorrow. And not walk. Honestly at this point I still thought this was all wrong, that I would wake up limping but essentially okay and get on with my planned activities for our last 2 days: cleaning out our lab, labeling and sorting files, making some rounds to say goodbyes and thank everyone, returning my library books, cleaning my room to the specs on the list we were given, taking a few last long walks along the sound to look at the mountains, sharing a last bottle of wine at the Coffee House.

But instead, there was a lot of rigmarole getting back to the dorm and packing, right away. To do this, I was hauled up on a chair by firemen, and was surprised to find people I knew by other jobs doing double duty on fire shift–many jobs entail this, because fire in such a dry place is a thing most dreaded. I was loaned the only pair of crutches they could find at this point in the season, which bizarrely seemed to be made for a child or someone 4 feet tall, but they were better than the tripod.  And I was helped by Katy and Vince. Katy packed my personal belongings while I was propped up on my bunk feeling idiotic,  and she even went so far as to sleep in my room while my newly-arrived roommate went down the hall into one of the empty rooms for the night.  Vince got the work equipment sorted and packed. 

 The next day I was again carried, this time down the steps, collected by an ambulance, and taken to Willy Field (cursed place!) having been designated a medical evacuation.  It took 3 tries to get on a plane. Herc #1 showed up with a cracked window. By the time i had started the too-short-crutch hobble up the cargo ramp it was scrubbed so back into the ambulance I lurched; meantime all the passengers for Herc #2 had arrived, the cargo was all stowed, and there was no room in it for the gurney I had to travel on. So after hours and hours on the runway, I finally got on Herc 3, the last flight out that day. I was joined by another medical evacuee who turned out to have a more serious problem, in the end. About 2 hours into the flight I couldn’t get comfortable at all, so I took one of the Rush Limbaugh pills I had been given. How that guy ever functioned on those, I have no idea. The rest of the flight was  like an hallucination.

When I came to they were opening the hatch on the plane and I was struck by the strongest smell of earth, of green growing things, that I have ever experienced. It was intoxicating (on top of the drugs). A month on the ice with no plant life at all, and then wham, what an intense difference. I’ll never forget that rush of smell.  It’s there all the time, of course, but we don’t smell it until it goes away for awhile.  Off we went into the delicious green humid air in an ambulance to Christchurch Hospital, for a lot of stuff I just cannot remember or seems like it must have been part hallucination.  For instance, I woke up to see a very tall Maori man standing next to my gurney in the ER. He said in a very deep voice, “You are lucky. You are first for theatre.” In my fog I thought huh, I’m going to the theatre; will there be Maori dancing?  Cool!” But then I asked the Maori man, who introduced himself as an orderly, why we were going to the theatre and he seemed upset. “Didn’t anyone tell you?” Then things snapped into focus–New Zealand, dope, theatre is surgery–and I sat up fast (ouch!) and asked, “Tell me what? What is wrong?” This is how it was confirmed that my hip was broken and required immediate surgery.

To be continued . . . 

Back home with Shackleton the puppy enjoying my wheelchair more than I am




Yesterday we shot another video portrait–one of possibly ten, I have lost count– for what we anticipate to be an “office mosaic.”  These are based on some of Ponting’s photos made during his winter over of men in the hut doing indoor winter things:  Cherry at his typewriter working on The Polar Times; Wilson making watercolor versions of his pencil sketches made in the field (watercoloring not an option in the field; the paints would freeze); Teddy Evans working over what looks like a map; the famous shot of Scott at his desk. These are all “desk work,” and we’ve kept them separate from the other Ponting winter interiors of household tasks like mending sleeping bags or cooking.  There is a lot of contemporary desk work at McMurdo due to the complexity of running a whole town, two airstrips, a helo port, a shipping port, a cutting edge research lab supporting scientists of many stripes and an artist or two, and many field camps both semi-permanent and temporary–all of this in as remote a location as it gets–and due to all the various contractors and sub-contractors employed in doing all of the above.  There is a flow chart of all of the administrative layers and it’s less a chart than a tangle.  Even if one masters all the acronyms (and I have not) one could get lost in the forest of who does what.  And they come and go–administration from afar, with periodic visits–or not–from administrators.  Every department has its own administrative tasks as well–for example fuels, which we also visited yesterday, though administrators of these are more like Scott, combining outdoor work and accounting and planning for it back at one’s desk. There are as well visits from linked agencies like NASA and NOAA who have major ongoing projects here.  So the few portraits of Scott or Evans doing desk work have grown into a mosaic of video portraits that is only a synecdoche of the administrative work going on every moment to run McMurdo.

I have to admit these are not my favorite images to shoot.  Many of the office spaces at McMurdo are tight and a little…boring.  I mean, outside is far more interesting.  Often the window, if there is one, is useful as a light source but if we expose for the view we would lose the subject.  Shooting at 120 fps has meant we lose some of the range available with the full sensor of the camera.  So the challenge has been to find the shot and make it work technically as well as interesting as a video portrait.  And what is the movement in the shot?  Typing?  Dull. But we’ve found some ways to meet the challenges, sometimes better than others.  Hopefully the force of all of the office portraits in a mosaic will create one larger image that speaks well.

Back to the portrait yesterday. It was of Bev, the young and very smart and personable woman who runs Crary lab.  We first met her when she issued us our keys and showed us our space in Crary, then took us (along with interested visitors) on a tour of Crary, a regular Sunday event.  Like so many others we have met, Bev has worked her way through many positions at McMurdo, but she first came here as a grantee working on her Masters degree and studying sediments for the fossil record.  She returned and has worked her way up to her current position.

We posed her in a position echoing Ponting’s portrait of Wilson watercoloring.  There are some large display cases in the first long corridor entering Crary from the main door, and the artifacts in these cases were the basis of the start of the Crary tour Bev gave us.  I liked how animated she was talking about them, and how she used the artifacts as the agents of stories.  Lava bombs from Erebus; preserved specimens of a sea spider showing polar gigantism; various gizmos used by scientists in eras past; a full facsimile edition of the Polar Times (how I ache to get that out of the case and look at it); a stuffed Emperor penguin and chick; a sculptor’s interpretation of a toothfish (and boy does that have a story:  see http://priceonomics.com/the-invention-of-the-chilean-sea-bass/ and http://ecowatch.com/2016/02/11/sea-shepherd-illegal-fishing/ and please do not order anything called “Chilean Sea Bass”ever ever ever because you are likely eating Patagonian toothfish which is threatened by irresponsible and even illegal fishing).  But the artifact that initially drew my eye and hooks it every time I walk by it is a copy of Wilson’s Antarctic Notebooks.  I have a reprint back home but this looks to be an earlier edition.  In the case it is propped open to a page of his Emperor penguin illustrations.  Here is a short video clip from the Natural History Museum, narrated by David Wilson’s nephew, explaining Wilson’s watercolors and their value to scientists:

It includes the Ponting image we were using for Bev’s portrait.  We asked her to take Wilson’s book out of the case and look at it for her portrait, substituting the book for the watercolor over which Wilson is bent in the Pointing portrait.  It’s my favorite thus far of the office portraits because it so directly connects Wilson to Bev, and therefore Wilson’s work as a naturalist and biologist to Crary.  In her audio interview, Bev also talked about her favorite object displayed in the Crary cases, the glossopteris fossil, and how a fossil like this was among the relics found in the tent where Scott, Wilson, and Bowers died.  This was hard evidence–the first of its kind–connecting the fossil record of Antarctica with the supercontinent Gondwana.

This got me thinking again about the work of the heroic age explorers and about how research in general can be very pointed, but can also be full of unexpected surprises.  Sometimes it feels like projects people describe are tantamount to looking for the lost contact lens under the streetlight.  But even in doing so, maybe you find something completely unrelated under that streetlight.  Doubtless there are a lot of dead ends in research–otherwise, it’s not really honest.  Getting folks to realize the effort and patience real discoveries take to make seems increasingly difficult in times that are increasingly dictated by what Cherry-Garrard called “shopkeeper” thinking.  For me Cherry, Wilson, and Bowers’ “worst journey in the world” to fetch penguin egg specimens that proved to be a dead end is a parable of that effect.  Accommodating research means accommodating dead ends, failures, contingencies and surprises.  One has to look beyond the immediate to understand the value–not a cash value–in these. No matter how many administrators parse expense sheets at their desks, there are some things that just can’t be accounted for. And for me, not just the penguin eggs, but the “incidental” beauty of Wilson’s paintings is is a related boon beyond the utmost balance sheet.

Here is another video from the Natural History Museum in which a curator shows us the eggs and narrates the story.

On the town

On the town

Tonight there is a special presentation about AIMS (yes, another acronym:  Antarctic Infrastructure Modernization for Science).  Basically McMurdo (along with Palmer) has outgrown itself and the next phase is being designed.  The movement has been away from doing research in a lab at the station (collecting specimens and bringing them inside) to studying phenomena in the field, so McMurdo can get leaner and meaner (more efficient) and more focused on supporting field camps.  On my way between Crary and 155 today I overheard a clump of folks who had an engineering look about them.  They were walking along a pipe and one of them stopped and said, this is where the door will be, and the others stood as if looking through an imaginary door.

If this makeover takes place it will take a very long time, and somehow they have to figure out how to keep research going during the reconstruction. Here’s the website: http://future.usap.gov/

So while we are re-enacting the past, McMurdo is on the cusp of a different kind of future.  The plans look…. futuristic, sterile, and devoid of the cultural stuff that has made this place so wonderfully strange.  I have no doubt that will stay, however.  You can’t keep it down. And one of the very best places to find it in Old McMurdo is the building known as BFC for Berg Field Center, supplier to remote field camps, where yesterday we spent a pleasant afternoon making video portraits of 2 of the wonderful staff repairing Scott tents (the same design as in Scott’s day) and sleeping bags.  BFC feels like a great loft apartment crammed full of stuff–only the stuff in this case is tents, ice axes, backpacks, field kitchen supplies, etc. ad infinitum.  And lo and behold, on the wall of the BFC were copies of the very photos we were reenacting.  BFC is the opposite of the new plans as far as aesthetics go, and as far as soul.  But the people are the soul. That has to stay.  They are also hard-working and seem to do a lot with what they have, some of it limited.  They repair everything they can, and use every bit of their gear well.  They are resourceful.  They just happen to have a cool loft and a great view over the sound and a giant scrabble board on their floor (and someone recently made them some tiles so they could really play).

Tonight at the same time (and we may be running between them a bit) is the Mardi Gras party at Gallagher’s (and yes today is Wednesday but it’s still Fat Tuesday in the US).  We were just finishing helping to decorate the bar when someone came in and said, “penguin in town.”  And so there was.


McMurdo miscellany

McMurdo miscellany

Photo from the road at the end of town leading down to the sound, taken in our first week here

Hard to believe we have only 2 more weeks here.  I am preparing an entry about our trip to Cape Evans–a trip that was more brilliant than I could have hoped for on so many levels–but the photos are refusing to load so I’ll put that one on the back burner for a bit and just write a bit about McMurdo life.  I’ve had the “McMurdo crud” for a couple of days, a virus–not too bad, the kind of thing that circulates when people come and go from the outside world constantly and live in close quarters whilst here.  We also probably don’t sleep enough.  The constant daylight has been both amazing and a challenge to the body’s logic of when to sleep and when to wake.

I am lucky enough to have a dorm room window that looks over McMurdo Sound to the Royal Society mountains, and if I peer around one end, to Mt. Discovery on the right, and the other end, Hut Point and then the wharf and ice pier.  At the pier right now  the refueling ship, the Maersk Peary, is anchored, filling McMurdo’s coffers with 2 year’s worth of fuel. I’ver stayed in a bit more than usual lately to get over the Crud, so I’ve been watching out the window.  Over the last week or so the summer thaw has happened in the sound and there’s quite a bit of open water, so I see a twisty maze of navy blue sea and busted up sea ice, and across the sound, the mountains.  I am fascinated by the way they change appearance during the course of a day as the sun moves in its never-setting arc, and from day to day.  Because the air is so dry the diffusion we are accustomed to doesn’t happen, and the mountains consequently appear quite close, much closer than they actually are. Herbert Ponting had a terrible time with that aspect of Antarctica in his photography, and it changed his aesthetic.  He had a kind of look in his work in Japan in which he used a long lens to make the distance between foreground subjects and background mountains to collapse.  He couldn’t make it work here, it turned to mush.  So his landscapes, which I find very moving, tend to focus on the shifting textures of the water and ice.

The mountains appear to advance and recede, and they change colors and moods.  When one is walking in the hilly town the browns and rusts and drabbish building colors and lava grey-blacks of the ground lava and dirt roads take over, but look toward the sound and one sees the sea and ice and mountain vistas.  For all the photos and video we have taken, I feel hopeless to show what this feels like to see–but then I always feel that way, just not to this degree.  Following Ponting, we’ve focused more on the humans and animals  in this landscape.  I wonder now if Ponting intended to do as much of that as he did. Mt. Erebus is so very present at the Terra Nova hut at Cape Evans, and though there are several Ponting photos of it, he did not make a detailed set of images, a study of it, as one might have expected from him.  Meanwhile, Wilson painted it over and over.  There’s a curve ball in the common wisdom about photography as technology of representation.

Also under my window is a sign for McMurdo Station at the corner of the road, and there seems to be always someone down there, taking a selfie with the sign or watching the pier action or just staring out over the sound at the mountains.  I’ve seen orcas several times now on helicopter trips, but none yet in the patch of open sea out my window.  We’ve been told by the dock workers that last year during resupply penguins came and wandered around the wharf, but none that close so far.  This afternoon we are going to Hut Point for a shoot, and I hope to see some critters around there.

From looking to hearing:  the sounds of McMurdo are of the heavy equipment operating periodically; the thrum of helicopters coming and going, ferrying researchers to and from their field camps; the clatter and chatter of the galley in 155, the crunch of one’s boots on the cindery roads, the change to the clang clang as one walks across any of the many footbridges that span the exposed pipes and cables that carry McMurdo’s power and water and heat and waste; the wind whistling past buildings.  I am aware of the absence of sounds that trees make in the wind, of animals–someone woofed like a dog on the street a couple of days ago and everyone around looked sharply in the direction of that sound.  Occasionally a skua squawks but otherwise no birdsong.  If you get out from town, sound seems to carry much further.  I’ve read that in certain conditions you can hear a human voice from up to 2 miles away.  At night (which looks like day) the streets are more deserted. Town looks the same, and there are certainly folks at work on night shifts, but it’s pretty quiet.  The light does not match the quiet in town at times like these, and McMurdo feels a little melancholy then.  Or at least strange.  It’s bright out, there are at least 1000 people here now, where is everyone?

The tastes:  let me take you to the galley for lunch or dinner.  We stop first at the bays where one hangs one’s parka–no parkas in the dining room, please–and then at the 2 large multi-fountain handwashers before entering.  McMurdo is obsessed with hand-washing.  We don’t want to spread any pathogens.  Then off we go to collect our trays and plates and cutlery and then choose our food.  We have a lot of choice.  You can hit the grill line and get a burger (including vegetarian or chicken patty options) or sometimes this is the Mongolian grill with lots of things to have grilled up; or if you are headed to a field camp or day out you can hit the coolers with pre-made sandwiches; or you can hit the fresh sandwich line and have your own choice of meats and cheeses; or you can grab some pizza from the warming oven (this is available all the time, even outside of meal times, and you can also have it delivered between 10 AM and 10 PM); or you can hit the hot food line, soup at one end, vegetable, starch, and meat and meatless mains–often there is a cuisine theme here, like Indian or Thai or American south.  Then there is the rotating special counter where one might have a taco assembled or something else special.  There’s usually a pasta dish at its own small station. I usually hit the hot food line.  There’s also a station to make waffles any time, an always-full warm cookie oven; a salads bar that includes cold salads and yogurt and fruit (we’ll come back to that), a counter of desserts and fresh baked breads–we’ll come back to that as well–a drinks line with ice, water, and juice, and a hot drinks line with coffee, tea, and Frosty Boy at the end.

So no, I am not going hungry.

Lately there have been 2 or 3 large bowls of fruit at the entrance:  apples, tangerines, once kiwis, once or twice pears, and once a miracle of bananas.  A couple of times the salad bar has had fresh greens and last night, even tomatoes.  These are the coveted “freshies” and they tend to go fast because they are only there when someone brings them in on a plane or in limited quantity on the resupply ship.  McMurdo can go for months without freshies, especially in winter.  There was a scarcity this summer because of scrubbed and delayed flights and other cargo that had to be brought, so the first time we saw fresh fruit it was a big old deal.  It’s rude to take too much, especially if you are a short-timer (are you really going to take a banana when you can have one in 2 weeks, and the person next to you won’t for several months?) and people do notice.

The food here is really good.  The baked goods are outrageous–I’ve actually asked for recipes.  Last night for dessert there was sticky toffee pudding, vanilla flan, and lemon bars.  (OK, I think the splash-out had something to do with the Distinguished Visitors).  The breads are way better than (sadly) what is generally on offer in BR.  In sum I’ve been eating like a lord here.  I do miss good strong espresso, but I make McMurdo lattes (or as I learned recently, Frosty Joes) by putting a dollop of Frosty Boy in my coffee.

Frosty Boy is a legend in his own right, an ice cream-type food dispenser.  To me it’s an acquired taste–to me a little….pre-fab.  Some people adore him.  I like him in my coffee, in a small dose.

The kitchen staff is delightful and they work very, very hard. The mood of McMurdo can be set by the food.  People perk up when there is something really wonderful or freshies are available.  Take as much as you want, but eat it all.  We try not to waste food.  On the way out, bus your tray and scrape your orts into the appointed food waste receptacles, deposit cutlery, plates, cups, mugs, and trays in the proper places for dishwashing, and say hello and smile at the hard-working folks who are washing the dishes.  Marvelous not to have to go buy food, plan meals, cook them, clean up.  It frees up a lot of time, but you are here to work.  The main thing is to see the value in everyone’s work here.  We rely upon one another.  The kitchen workers are known as “stewies” I suppose short for stewards.  I like to think of their stewardship in the broader sense, of the whole station.  Good people.

I am watching a zodiac out in the water at the moment.  A piece of the old ice pier needs to be moved, and they are bringing in divers to figure something out, I’ve heard.  Time to go investigate, and then it’s time for lunch.


McMurdo Dry Valleys

McMurdo Dry Valleys


taylor glacier.jpg

Above, Taylor Valley now and then (a photo that is in poor shape made by Frank Debenham, who was on Taylor’s expedition)

Ever since I read about Scott’s Discovery team blundering into the strange snowless arid part of Antarctica now called the Dry Valleys in 1903 and finding there also ancient lakes and drinking out of them, and then poet-writer William L. Fox’s account of his NSF Artists and Writers visit there (Fox’s Terra Antarctica is a huge inspiration in my interest in Antarctica–see http://www.wlfox.net/) I have dreamed of seeing this part of Antarctica, perhaps even more than the parts that are covered with ice and snow (i.e., most of it).  It’s a strange place, a place that slips through all the categories I have for conceptualizing space, and that may be why.  It is also the case that a good writer like Fox makes one want to see what he saw, feel what he felt.  And if Antarctica doesn’t need us, here is a region of it that doesn’t even play by the scripts we have for conceiving of landscapes.

Here is Scott: “… we have seen no living thing, not even a moss or a lichen; all that we did find… was the skeleton of a Weddell seal, and how that came there is beyond guessing. It is certainly a valley of the dead; even the great glaciers which once pushed through it have withered away.” I seem to recall Scott was impressed by a lake, and that he didn’t need to melt snow to make tea, but I can’t find that quote at the moment.  And somewhere else I read there was a bacterium that gave them diarrhea from drinking the water.  So there were living things….

On Scott’s Terra Nova expedition, a party led by Griffith Taylor (hence, Taylor Valley and Glacier) explored the valleys. With Taylor begins more of the human history of the valleys, though it is still, in the scheme of things, slight.

The valleys are among the most arid places on earth–supposedly now the place most like Mars.  It did feel like another planet.  The mountains here are high enough to make the glaciers just sort of peter out, stopping in folds that made me think of tablecloths, or of marble billows of cloth chiseled in the Renaissance. They do move, but (ahem) glacially–extra glacially, only inches a year.  In some accounts they are growing, ever so slightly.  Time here seems to move more slowly, if at all.  But Scott was wrong about the lifelessness there.  There is life, just not, as Fox writes, the kinds of life we can readily perceive.  Earlier in the season we heard a lecture about the “extremophiles” that inhabit the lakes, focusing on the nematodes, which can apparently survive extremes by freeze-drying themselves.

We flew out on a beautiful day and spent it hopscotching the Taylor Valley by helo with the “stream team,” hydrologists who are measuring the flows of the streams (yes, streams) and lake levels (yes, ancient lakes).  We visited Lakes Bonney and Hoare and Lawson and Bohner Streams.  The Stream Team went about their work and kindly consented to pose for various video portraits.  I spent a good bit of time walking around in a state of awe.  At the end of our day we had a tour of the Lake Hoare camp, including tents beside the Canada glacier, the skeleton of a wrong-way penguin (date unknown) and a seal carcass estimated at 8-10 years “fresh.”  How or why either of those creatures wound up so far away from the sea is mysterious, I would say especially the seal if one watches them for any amount of time; they just don’t move very efficiently on land.

A few photos from our day follow.  Some will have to be fixed–the helicopter stirred up all kinds of dust and dry valley dirt, and it was a nightmare trying to keep it off the lenses in the bright sun.  We were taught to crouch down when the helo landed to fetch us or we would get sandblasted.

Canada glacier


XLS of Vince shooting an XLS near Bohner stream


LSU plugtrishDV


Dry Valley links:

Dry Valleys LTER: http://www.mcmlter.org/

Working in the DV then and now, a NY Times piece:  http://scientistatwork.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/12/21/exploring-the-dry-valleys-then-and-now/?_r=0



Pygoscelis adeliae and fingy-ness

Pygoscelis adeliae and fingy-ness

We spied our first Adélies from Hut Point the evening we did our first (and so far only) stint as hut guides.  We were more like apprentices, helping out 2 more seasoned guides. There was a goodly crowd: 43 total souls visited the hut in the 2-hour open house that night, most from the Polar Star, and since only 6 or 7 may enter at once, I got to hang outside and tell stories.  I am rusty on some names and particulars, but I have accumulated quite a lot of material on the huts by reading about the expeditions obsessively and by making a performance also called Beyond the Utmost Bound in 2010.  Anyway at one point Vince wandered up toward Vince’s cross (no relation–the cross is for George Vince who fell from a cliff during a blizzard and died on the Discovery expedition).  He came back to report there was a penguin standing on the sea ice on the other side of the point. The penguin was just standing there, staring down.  But later 5 or 6 others came wobbling up to join him, and they all started diving and popping up out of the water onto the ice.  The sudden popping up is my favorite penguin gesture.  It looks so effortless.  It worked out rather well because folks waiting to get into the hut could go look at the penguins.

This turned out to be but a warm up for us, penguin-wise.  We had a planned trip with famous penguin scientist and environmentalist David Ainley (http://www.penguinscience.com/; http://www.lastocean.org/) to the Cape Royds Adélie colony but he was being kind of ambiguous about it.  He stopped by our lab in Crary and we showed him Ponting’s photos made 100+ years ago in that same colony and explained our project.  He stared at the one photo we liked most and said, “I recognize that rock,” which to me was the least interesting thing in the photo, “but that ridge is different now.” and then let us know the photo was taken at a different time of year.  The adults, he said, were mostly off feeding because the chicks were now grown enough, so mostly we would see chicks.  That was OK with us.  Ponting was here for a lot longer than we are, and we couldn’t possibly match up seasons on everything.  There are for instance some wonderful photos Ponty did in winter using lights, but wintering here could never have been on the agenda.

At some point in the next day or two it became apparent that Dr. Ainley wanted to go to Cape Crozier to that colony.  And I would love to go there–that’s where Cherry, Bowers, and Wilson went for their winter journey–but we do not have permits to go there, so we can’t.  At one point we thought we were going to Royds within the hour so we scrambled around getting together our ECW gear and camera bags configured and to BFC for pee bottles and hand warmers and so on, running around like madmen, but then that didn’t happen.  We waited until 9 PM that evening when the next day’s helo schedule is posted to see if we were going the next day as had been the original plan, but it wasn’t listed.  So we went to the Coffee House and then I stayed up too late writing a (now destroyed) blog post that was about how this place is a strange mix of meticulous planning and sudden changes.  Some of that is the weather.  And some of it in this case was the Ainley factor.  He has a lot of well-earned clout.

And then suddenly it was the next morning (which looks and that morning still felt a lot like night) and Vince was banging on my door saying, hurry, we’re going, we have to be at helo ops in an hour, and right after that Katy was calling my room saying the same thing.  Thanks goodness we had not unpacked the pee bottles and water bottles and ECW, but it was still a rush to get down to the helicopter pad in time–and we were complete novices at this whole process of weighing and getting helmets and this is when you wish you had been more awake at the safety orientation. And whoa, I had never considered if going up in a little whirlybird in the cold and wind might not just be a bit scary.  No time to think of that.  I hadn’t had coffee.  What was I doing?

heloNone of this mattered as we took off.  It was like leaving all the fretting below.  A view of McMurdo as we rose, then up and out over the ice and the beauty that is Ross Island and the Ice Shelf and the sea ice.  I cried a little into my helmet.  I find the beauty of Antarctica hard to talk about.  Town shields one from its full force, but away from town, this place just hits me in the solar plexus.

I fully expected to be trying to photograph Dr. Ainley in the colony from too far away, but he had chicks to catch and weigh, and several helpers along, and we were permitted right in among the penguins.  We were warned to keep some distance and the oft-repeated maxim about the wildlife here:  if they react to your presence, you are too close (unless of course you have a sanctioned research project).  We got the video portrait of Dr. Ainley right away, as he had work to do.  And there was that rock, the ridge, the chicks.  A few nights later we heard his lecture “Adelie Penguins Adapt to a Changing Ross Sea Climate and Food Web” at the Science Lecture (one of the things I really enjoy about McMurdo–and a tradition that connects directly back to the Terra Nova expedition). It was witty and engrossing.  There are so many factors that affect Adelie populations–on the ebb (dramatically) on the peninsula side, but on the rise on the Ross Sea side.

Back at the colony: we were then free to photograph and video the penguins.  Vince spent most of that time making images of Dr. Ainley at work in slow motion, and some of it looks really great.  I shot penguins, but I was overwhelmed by being right down amid them, and I was having a lot of trouble seeing in my viewfinder.  My dark glasses–a necessity much of the time–wipe out alot, but without them the glare is worse to contend with.  And we are learning that Antarctica is full of lens and sensor hazards because of the wind that whips up lava dust and grit and in this case, dried penguin guano. (It did not smell very bad there at all.  I think it was cold and windy enough–but oh boy, when the penguin researchers come back into Crary, we know it).  Add to this the dreaded bunny boots we are required to wear on helo trips.  Vince actually kind of likes his, but he is used to ski boots. I despise them.  They do provide a lot of warmth if you are standing on ice, but mine are a little too big for me, and they are big to begin with, and they feel like weighted clown feet.  I’m not exactly graceful, but they seem to exaggerate every bit of clumsy I can be–and in big red I am as well a puffy version of myself.  I have to measure every step; every limb movement feels more effortful.  Ah well, it’s a harsh continent. And re-enactment means that your body learns things efficiently.


The penguins were as promised mostly chicks, past the tiny furball stage and now looking like little people in capes.  I know I shouldn’t anthropomorphize, but penguins make it very difficult not to.  One group of chicks huddled together seemed to be guarded by a few adults, and one adult was really letting them have it, as if scolding them.  It looked like primary school.  There was the bad kid getting bawled out by teacher.

One horrible thing happened while we were there-all part of the cycles of life, and as we say here about every difficulty large and small, “it’s a harsh continent”–skua gulls killed and ate a chick, and then later when we were down at the hut 2 more, just kind of casually.  On nature documentaries I had always seen the lone skua threatening the eggs or chicks, but they actually hunt in pairs or groups–or at least they were here. It seemed so unfair.

Katy and Vince and I went back near the helo landing site to Shackleton’s Nimrod hut and took some video and still images.  It’s a lovely hut inside, spacious and high-ceilinged and clean, the inverse of the blubber-blackened Discovery hut.  I wouldn’t have minded staying there (of course that is out of the question).  There are lots of food tins and boxes with funny labels. Back in Christchurch Dr. Fyfe had told us what a treat this hut was.  The conservation here must have been a treasure hunt in some ways.  I think I would have left the canned mutton too.  This is where the Antarctic scotch whiskey was found (and returned: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/20/world/a-rare-scotch-back-on-the-rocks.html).  Yes, I could stay at this hut.  But that’s unthinkable.  The first rule of being a hut guide:  nobody touches anything.

On the way back to McMurdo, we made an unscheduled stop at a beach–I’m not quite sure exactly where we were–because Dr. Ainley wanted to check on some penguins he thought he had seen there.  It was pretty surprising.  But we all got out and walked a small way toward the beach where there was a Weddell seal lolling, and another bobbing around in the water.  Those big eyes.

Thus ended our first helo trip.  I felt like the bunny-booted fingy (in McMurdo-speak, FNG or expletive New Guy) I am much of the trip, but I don’t care much.  I lucked into an extraordinary day at Cape Royds.  And Vince got our remake image.  This is Ponting among the penguins. Note the rock at upper right.


Next up: Ross Ice Shelf excursions for soccer and snowmobiling



Polar Star

Polar Star


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: http://ww2.kqed.org/science/series/breaking-the-ice/

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.