Tim Meehan's Antarctic Adventure
Call Me Ishmael...
Well, actually, my real name is Tim Meehan. I am a graphic arts professional turned Macintosh computer graphics consultant. My home and office are in a shady little suburb of Denver, Colorado, called Arvada.
Last year I was presented with the unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel to Antarctica as part of the support effort for the National Science Foundation, which sponsors a variety of international research projects there. (How could I say "No?") Naturally, my first hundred phone calls in preparation for this adventure were to Apple Computer, Inc. to figure out a way that Apple and the rest of the world could share in the experience.
Fortunately, I was able to capture the attention of some very helpful and interested individuals in the Apple Solution Professionals Network program (of which I am a member). By immediately having the vision to realize the scope of the project and seeing a global picture, they helped by securing some very impressive technology, including a PowerBook 540c, and a QuickTake 150 digital camera to record and transmit my experiences, real-time, back to classrooms across the United States.
What follows in these subsequent pages are a collection of my journal entries and selected images of everything I saw and did in the four months between October, 1995, and February, 1996. After returning and spending the past 12 months getting my life back in order, Apple has asked me to post my experiences to the World Wide Web, so the rest of the world can enjoy and learn from my experiences.
I hope you enjoy them as much as I enjoyed putting them together.
McMurdo Base, Ross Island, Antarctica - January, 1996
Where in the WORLD?
At this moment I am writing this in a tiny little cave of a room, in a drafty and shaky little dorm, in the dusty little town of McMurdo, on a grey and remote peninsula on Ross Island, just off the coast of Antarctica. (whew! Take a breath...) I am composing a multimedia journal of my travels and adventures for Apple Computer, using some of their best available hardware and software tools. How I got here and what I'm doing is a story in itself. But first a little background...
Here's how Antarctica's land use is described by science:
- arable land: 0%
- permanent crops: 0%
- meadows and pastures: 0%
- forest and woodland: 0%
- other: 100% (ice 98%, barren rock 2%)
As of October 1991 it was reported that the ozone shield, which protects the Earth's surface from harmful ultraviolet radiation, had dwindled to the lowest level recorded over Antarctica since 1975 when measurements were first taken.
Katabatic (gravity-driven) winds blow coastward from the high interior, causing frequent blizzards to form near the foot of the polar plateau Cyclonic storms form over the ocean and move clockwise along the coast. And if that's not enough, there's an active volcano called Mount Erebus on Ross Island!
While Antarctica has no indigenous inhabitants, there are seasonally staffed research stations all over the continent which bring the summertime population to around 1200. During the totally dark winter months the total population is closer to 200.
While no country officially "owns" or inhabits the continent, there is a world-recognized treaty in effect that governs the signatory nations who visit there. The Antarctic Treaty was signed on 1 December 1959 (six months after I was born) and entered into force on 23 June 1961, establishes the legal framework for the management of Antarctica. Administration is carried out through consultative member meetings.
Here are some interesting facts about Antarctica:
Most of the Antarctic continent is south of the Antarctic Circle.
It has a total area of 14 MILLION sq km (est.) (no kidding!) which is just a bit less than 1.5 times the size of the US.
Antarctica is the highest, driest, coldest, windiest, most remote place on the planet. But the weather is not the only environmental danger there. Because of the now well-documented depletion of the ozone layer, during summer more solar radiation reaches the surface at the South Pole than is received at the Equator.
East Antarctica is colder than West Antarctica because of its higher elevation, while the Antarctic Peninsula has the most moderate climate. Its highest temperatures occur in January along the coast and average slightly below freezing.
I worked for the Antarctic Fire Department at McMurdo Base, on Ross Island, where the temperature can range between -120 degrees (that's right, one-hundred-twenty degrees BELOW zero) and +40 degrees (above zero).
The overall terrain of Antarctica is about 98% thick continental ice sheet and 2% barren rock, with average elevations between 2,000 and 4,000 meters.
One of my favorite t-shirts I saw down there said: "Ski the South Pole. Two miles of ice, two inches of powder."
The mountain ranges are up to 4,897 meters high. Ice-free coastal areas include parts of southern Victoria Land, Wilkes Land, the Antarctic Peninsula area, and parts of Ross Island on McMurdo Sound. Glaciers form ice shelves along about half of the coastline, and floating ice shelves constitute 11% of the area of the continent.
Where EXACTLY is Ross Island?
Ross Island is right on the edge of the Ross Sea ice shelf, in the middle of McMurdo Sound. (For which the town of McMurdo is named)
This is a map of Ross Island, showing the location of the McMurdo Base research station. McMurdo is at the very end of the smallest isthmus extending from the island.
This point is called "Discovery Point" and is where the original Antarctic explorers first established their permanent base. Scott's original hut is still standing on the point at the edge of Winter Quarters Bay, so the McMurdo residents sometimes refer to it as "Hut Point".
Getting to Antarctica
Denver to Los Angeles to Auckland to Christchurch to McMurdo and all in an easy four days of airline travel. We got to ride down to McMurdo in a C-5 Galaxy cargo jet, we're the envy of the crew as the C-5 is considered the luxury transport of the fleet. We sat on actual chairs in a temperature-controlled cabin and only 5 hours in the air. By contrast, we'll be coming home on a C-130 Hercules, sitting knee-to-knee on canvas webbing seats in the cargo hold for eight hours back to Christchurch.
Life here is very different from anything I'd imagined coming down here. I'll write about it in great depth as I get time. My schedule is hectic and busier than I had hoped. I have only every other day to spend in personal pursuits. The rest of my time is occupied in firehouse activities.
It was a long flight down to Christchurch. By the time we all got on the ground in Christchurch we had been sitting in airplane seats for a solid 24 hours, including a stopover in Fiji to refuel. The last leg of the flight was on an Ansett NZ Air BAe jet that was a real improvement over United's standard of service. The flight attendants were very friendly, interested, the food was passable, the seats roomier and more comfortable than regular coach flying.
We are all in town for 48 hours as we are assigned and fitted for our ECW (Extreme Cold Weather) gear. We get fitted this afternoon, then leave sometime early tomorrow morning. The company has issued us all US$250 (NZ$350) for our expenses in Christchurch. Should last just about right.
The hotel where I'm staying is called the Hereford (on Hereford Street) across from the Christchurch fine arts center. The hotel itself caters to backpackers and low-budget travelers. My room is a cold 8 x 8 foot with no electricity or heat. The bathrooms are right across the hall and you can hear everything/everyone coming and going. But for only NZ$25/night I can put up with it for one more night. It's right across the street from a popular coffee house/bar/micro-brewery called 'Dux d'Lux'. Looks to be a popular hangout of the student/arts crowd. I'll have dinner here tonight.
Who IS this guy?
Tim Meehan, Antarctic Firefighter (no kidding!)
This is a picture of me sitting on the treads of our "Crash-3" Nodwell firetruck out near Williams Field, the snow-covered ski-way where all the C-130 Hercules aircraft land...
Last summer, the Antarctic Fire Department was looking for someone to help them install a new computer dispatch system, and train their dispatch staff in it's use. They got in touch with me and offered me the incredible opportunity to travel to Antarctica and get paid to do it. How could I say "No?"
As part of my training, I was sent to a crash-rescue training school in Arkansas to learn the intricacies of airport firefighting and how to cut open aircraft. Then Washington DC and Chicago, Illinois to learn more about the specifics of their computer-based dispatch system. It's been a great summer for frequent flier miles...
My official job title is crash/rescue-structural firefighter. I work at the McMurdo Fire Department in alternating 24-hour duty shifts with 43 other firefighters. Our mission is to protect the town of McMurdo and their ice-runway airport on the Ross ice shelf. The McMurdo fire department is the largest fire district in the world, covering the entire continent of Antarctica. It is also the southern-most fire district in the world. Our duties include fire prevention, paramedic service, fire protection and training all year round. All over the continent.
Whenever I'm not at the firehouse or the ice runway, I'm spending almost every spare moment in the Crary Science and Engineering Center (CSEC), the new $50 million science and research facility in McMurdo. The town has an extensive network of DOS-based computers running all over the area and far afield, but the Crary Lab has a good sized concentration of Macintosh computers all on a Novell network. I was surprised to learn that ASA does not employ a dedicated Macintosh administrator. So I made a few inquiries and before I knew it, I had a second part-time job down here taking care of all the Macintosh computers! Great for these guys as they were in need of some serious Macintosh support (but that's another story...)
I've been keeping an almost-regular journal of my experiences here, including all the most interesting photos I've gathered. They offer an interesting look at the people, the work, the environment, the science and the life in Antarctica.
...and what does a Macintosh Consultant do in Antarctica?
So what exactly DOES a Macintosh consultant do in Antarctica?
A natural question to follow might be what's a firefighter doing supporting Macintosh in Antarctica, but that begs the question; what is a full-time professional Macintosh consultant doing working as a firefighter? (And in the most remote environment on the planet?)
After all, the company that supports the science, the National Science Foundation, and even the government agencies working in Antarctica don't even support the Macintosh... (no kidding!)
Well, here's the story:
As you can see in my resumé, my career direction has been following the travails of Apple Computer, Inc. since 1984, via the career skills I have developed as a professional graphic designer and illustrator. While my successes in both fields have been significant and very rewarding over the years, my spare time diversions have been split between pursuing adventure and thrills in the air as a paraglider pilot and volunteering my time as a firefighter for my home town of Arvada, Colorado.
All these skills rolled together into the perfect qualifications for becoming a professional firefighter for Antarctic Support Associates, the main contractor providing support services for all the science taking place in Antarctica.
I was committed to documenting this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, not only for myself, but for the world, and with Apple's help I was loaned some pretty serious portable hardware to record as much as I could and communicate it to the world via the internet. Luckily, McMurdo was just beginning to take advantage of high-speed net-access via satellite communications and the internet, but the only way to take advantage of this access was to be a part of the science community.
Lucky for me, NONE of the organizations represented there (ASA, NSF, OPP, NSFA or any number acronymed government agencies present on the continent) officially supported ANY computers that were not primarily running DOS-based operating systems. This included Windows OR Macintosh.
While McMurdo has an extensive telecommunications network connecting all the PCs on the continent, legally, none of them could be anything but DOS-based machines. There's a whole InfoSys department that is in charge of taking care of all the systems on the continent, but are barred from providing any support for anything but DOS. Now herein lies the irony of the entire situation!
The entire operation is connected via Novell networks and running simple DOS-based systems for e-mail and databases and CAD systems, yet almost EVERY scientist, researcher, student, medical professional, even the computer department heads preferred to use the Macintosh OS system!
To this end, the base had a rather extensive (but cleverly hidden) network of Macintosh computers running throughout the CSEC. And almost all of these above-mentioned professionals brought their own Macintosh computers with them, or insisted on having a Macintosh system available to them to perform their work!
Can you see the irony present here? A company officially prohibited from supporting a system that almost everyone wanted access to... This is where I came in.
As the company has no official Macintosh support professionals, there's no staff to support their network of Macintosh computers, but here I come, walking in completely unexpected from the McMurdo fire department (which until then had not enjoyed a very professional reputation in McMurdo), an Apple Solution Professional. It was as if some very specific prayers had been directly answered for the director of the Telescience department.
(This also gave me access to the internet and the world wide web. Almost a necessity as you can see by my journal entries.)
I was almost immediately given access to the entire building, their network and everyone's offices so I could help get their network working and their system software upgraded.
Some of the projects I worked on during the season were as wide-ranging and comprehensive as:
- Updating system software for all the Macintosh computers in the building.
- Providing technical support for anyone using a Macintosh. This included researchers, scientists, science staff, students and even the hospital staff.
- Network administration, keeping all the Macs visible and accessible on the network, with access to their giant behemoth 300dpi printer.
- HTML coding for www site composition for the Office of Polar Programs.
- Starting the FIRST Macintosh User's Group on the continent of Antarctica.
In spite of the company's official policy of NOT supporting the Macintosh, and in the face of the demands of researchers, scientists and assistants who must actually be productive in their work, the Crary Science & Engineering Center's Telescience lab actually kept a secret Macintosh network in the building.
It was served by a Macintosh Quadra 950 with 8MB of RAM and connected to the community's Novell network.
When I arrived at the Telescience lab, there were a number of Macintosh computers sprinkled throughout the building. Almost all were on the internal network, had internet access for transmitting e-mail and research data back to the real-world. And almost NONE of them had current system software installed. This became my first project, my first guerilla mission in the jihad... Most were in various offices throughout the building, but there was a row of four Macintosh LC machines in the telescience lab for researcher and assistants' use.
After contacting my Apple compatriots in the US to obtain the appropriate license and permission to upgrade everyone to system 7.5, I undertook to see what kinds of MacOS systems were present and where in the building they were being kept.
This part of the project was challenging and fun for me as it allowed me to show off some cool HyperCard stack creation where I created a floor plan layout of each floor in the building, and created buttons and text fields that would be revealed with a mouseclick. A click would display a field describing the physical location of the Macintosh and which system software it was running. (I love HyperCard)
Then I could set about to scheduling access to each location and update the system and spend a few minutes highlighting the new features that system 7.5 brought to the user.
Most users were barely literate with computers anyway, one of their primary reasons for insisting on Macintosh access there, and were happy to have some support.
I continue to be surprised by the incredible minds at work on some of these projects, who were enabled to make their jobs easier, more effective and efficient with the tools that the Macintosh offered them.
Here was another irony I saw almost immediately. There were DOS-based systems abundant throughout McMurdo for sending e-mail and communicating with everyone else in the system. Hundreds of them. Yet here in the telescience lab, the four DOS boxes sitting directly opposite the Macintosh machines were almost always vacant, while there were users standing two and three deep waiting for a chance to use the Macs for their daily e-mail and TelNet uses. (go figure...)
After upgrading all the systems to what was then Apple's latest system software (thanks to the ASPN program for seeding their consultants with network install disks. I had the tools I needed for the job.)
My secondary official capacity was helping these users with on-site support when needed. This wasn't very often as these WERE Macintosh machines, so I got to spend most of my free time composing and communicating with the real world via their high-speed internet link.
One of my favorite cool projects that I worked on was that of creating a HyperCard stack that would help future network administrators to keep track of their Macintosh inventory and system software status. I created a floor plan layout of each floor in the building, and created buttons and text fields that would be revealed with a mouseclick. A click would display a field describing the physical location of the Macintosh in the selected room and which system software it was running. (I love HyperCard)
While the Macintosh-specific part of this chore was easy enough, everything still had to exist on the building's Novell network, so in order to print on their huge, room-sized 300-dpi, multi-tray, cross-platform compatible HP laser printer, I had to do a little experimenting to figure out why the Novell network didn't seem to like carrying binary printing data to the printer.
Fortunately, Apple's LaserWriter driver software allows the users to switch between binary and ascii. Problem solved...
Shortly after my arrival to the Crary Science and Engineering Center, I was introduced to two representatives from the Office of Polar Programs. They were keenly interested in Apple's QuickTake 150 digital camera. They'd never seen anything like it! Amazing to them, you could snap a picture and seconds later see it, edit it, e-mail it all from your handy, portable Macintosh PowerBook computer!
They were tasked with documenting the environmental impact of some of their science sites, and the QuickTake seemd to be the one and only answer to getting images recorded and transmitted back to their offices in Washington DC.
They initially contacted me a day later and asked if she could borrow my camera, and of course, I said "NO!" Of course I was as polite and diplomatic as I could be. I wasn't so sure that I was comfortable loaning a lot of expensive toys that didn't belong to me to a total stranger (even if they WERE government employees and scientists). So in order to get the images, they had to taek me with them on this day-trip to the Dry Valleys areas outside of Ross Island.
And GET THIS! Following my recommendations and the excitement of several researchers and computer-people, purchase orders have been cut and three new QuickTake 150 cameras arrived in McMurdo today. The science center will never be the same...
As I lived and worked in McMurdo, always carrying and using my trusty PowerBook, I attracted the attention of just about everybody I met. There was almost always a short demo of the MacOS, the cool product features etc, and almost always a little education to be done. I was surprised at how little people actually knew about the Macintosh, and Apple in General.
It struck me one day that we could really further the cause by creating some mechanism to elevate awareness of the features and benefits of the coolest products in the world. Aha! A Macintosh User's Group! Certainly no competition here. But then again, no local dealers to send them to either.
Participation was outstanding. Interest was keen. Almost everyone there had a curiosity about the Mac, and most were seriously interested in buying when they got back to the real world.
While we met every second Tuesday evening in the telescience library, did demos, showed off capabilities and challenged everyone to look for similar (but unreproduceable) features in Windows/DOS systems.
Shortly after posting our first announcement poster, we were waylaid by the InfoSys department. Apparently there was already a group on the island using the name MacMUG! Well, sort of. They were actually known as "McMUG" which stood for McMurdo Mapcon User's Group. Mapcon is the company's pre-historic database software that they use to track inventory. The InfoSys department manager didn't want her users (McMUG) to get confused and attend the "wrong" (and officially unsupported) user's group meetings (MacMUG)!!
I was surprised at how emotional these guys were about the situation. Stern and territorial, there was no room for compromise. From then on we spelled out MACINTOSH in big letters whenever we posted notice of upcoming meetings...
Animals I saw in Antarctica
There aren't actually that many different kinds of animals present on the continent of Antarctica. And the ones I saw were strictly limited to a few species that make the Ross Island area home.
While there are hundreds of different species of marine life living in the ocean and under the sea ice, (and almost all of them being studied in one capacity or another by the scientists in Antarctica) I spent all of my time above the ice and saw only the local birds and seals that travel between the two worlds.
Saw my first Penguin tonight!
(Prologue: As I was getting my gear together for my shift at the runway, I had the camcorder in my hand and thought to myself, nothing ever happens out there, and if it did, I'd have plenty of chances later in the season to catch whatever it was again. I put it back in my closet and grabbed a few books and my sketch pad.)
When we're working the crash shack, every time a plane is ready to taxi, the tower alerts us to take the crash trucks out to the runway for a 'hard stand' where we watch the plane take off and stand ready in case there's a problem, accident, crash, whatever.
Occasionally the tower will tell us to go out and inspect the runway. This usually means there's some of the indigenous life out wandering around on the runway. It's our job in this case to drive out to them and shoo them off the runway. Such was the case tonight.
We drove all the way to the end of the runway in the ambulance expecting a small group. A herd, maybe. And that all we'd have to do is shout and wave our arms and scare them off the runway. Not this time. The locals here don't react to human presence at all. These guys are smug. Tonight it was a single emperor penguin, all by his lonesome.
There the little darling sat. Right smack in the middle of the end of the runway, about 50 yards beyond the threshold upwind. It was about 4 feet tall, all shiny black and white with a flash of orange under his chin and a pink brush on his beak. Too cute for words, just sitting there thoughtfully clucking and honking in that soft understated way they have. He was picking at the snow at his feet, his toes upturned like a Disney cartoon.
It looked around, looked at us, sat, picked at the snow, made cute little noises-- and ignored us.
So here's our dilemma. We aren't allowed to interfere with the normal behavior of the animals. We aren't usually allowed to get close enough or even make noise that would cause them to even turn their heads our way. Absolutely can't pick them up, can't shove them, can't touch them in any way. More importantly we can't let aircraft run over them either. What to do?
Ordinarily, the planes are in the air long before they're even halfway down the runway, and this guy was just beyond the threshold at the upwind end. We decided to just leave him alone and alert the pilot not to make too long a runout. This little furry thing could sit here all night and keep any planes from moving at all. We're sure he'll be alright.
I scooted up and laid on the ground and using Apple's hardy QuickTake 150, shot off all 16 high-res images in just a few minutes. Good thing as the camera died on me right away in the cold, and took a good hour to warm up again enough to download the images.
And for tonight's comedy break-- here I am, face-to-face with this wonderful irony of nature, our two species eyeballing each other- one more curious than the other, when I notice the soft tinkle of water drippling somewhere close by. "How cute," I thought, "this little guy is taking a wizz right here..."
I got up to leave him to his business and took two steps back to the truck and noticed that the distinctive tinkling sound was still there. Right near by in fact. It wasn't the penguin at all, but me! I was wearing a genuine Camel-Bak water bottle inside my bunker coat so I could take a sip whenever I needed one. (In fact, there's a humorous anecdote here about how everyone seemed to think this was either the best idea in the world, or the stupidest...) Anyway, the nipple had worked itself off the hose and was freely pouring water out onto the snow, down my back, into my pants and all over my backside. I was soaked completely and every exposed bit of clothing was freezing solid very quickly.
Later, (as my clothes were drying out) while we were getting ready to go back out to the runway, there he was again, right outside the crash shack. Just walking around, craning his neck and looking all about. Jay and Phil were outside with instructions to herd it off the runway and out onto the ice fields. He spread his arms out and stuck his neck as far into the sky as he could to try to intimidate Jay into moving out of his way, but Jay did exactly the same thing back. How funny seeing these two mimicking each other, waddling around. The penguin would look over his shoulder at Jay as he walked away, and Jay would waddle along with him, right behind. I'm still chuckling at the sight of them.
The QuickTake gave up on me for real this time as the battery indicator was flashing empty. Once again, the lesson of never going anywhere without a camcorder to record unexpected sights and experiences is painfully driven home. On a more positive note, this forced me to look at the whole scene through my own eyes, and not through the lens of my camera. A good thing as I think I've been thinking too much about what would make a good shot, not how wondrous the experience was.
Skua birds have been described as large rats with wings, and are commonly seen swooping down to take food right out of people's hands in town. The night I took these images, they were pecking at a softball glove like it was dinner. We shooed them away before they could take off with it.
Skuas are amazingly intelligent and resourceful birds that inhabit Ross Island in the summer months. They are known to swoop down out of the sky and pluck the very lunch from the hands of unsuspecting passers-by.
If you don't lose any food or clothing to them, they can be quite amusing to watch as they have no fear of us and can be quite entertaining as they clown around with each other and boldly get into all manner of mischief.
Here are a few pictures of some skua birds that I saw at the ice runway last night. They were taken with Apple's QuickTake 150 digital camera and saved in jpeg format.
Seal Pods, Pressure Ridge Garden & the Iceberg. Date: Sat, Dec 9, 1995
My paragliding friend from Denver Joanne is finally down here in McMurdo. She and I ended up traveling to Scott Base to jump off and ski out to the iceberg tonight. Her skis had been left there by a friend and were waiting right at the base bus shelter. Sine I hadn't cross-country skied since high school, and then only once, I was probably a hindrance for the first couple of miles, but she was very good natured about waiting for me whenever I fell over. Our trip out and back included a stop for a very close encounter with a pod of Weddell seals and several photo/rest/cool-down stops and took only a little over three hours.
This was arguably the best time I've had since arriving here. We had the most insightful and interesting conversation all the way there and back, covering just about everything under the harsh midnight sun. It was great talking about ourselves and feelings and life and soul-stuff instead of the usual firehouse banter about trucks, women, jobs and money.
We talked about how Antarctica had changed each of our lives, and in a way helped change the lives of everyone we'd left at home.
Our objective was the grounded iceberg that was locked in place when the annual sea ice froze it where it sits now two years ago. It's relatively small as icebergs go, but broad. It towers a good 30-50 feet above the ice surface and is at least a mile around its base. I suspect that the rest of it under the ice must be the size of Arvada. It's a prominent feature in a featureless beauty. An interesting hiking destination.
Along the way, we were treated to a rare early-season sight. A pod of 8 or 9 Weddell seals had come up through a hole in the ice and were sunning themselves at the base of the pressure ridges. Of course we stopped and walked out to them taking pictures and video tape of everything we saw. The seals are huge. Imagine a huge bloated puppy dog, weighing a thousand pounds. Big, quiet furry sea slugs that just lay there and look at you sniffing, blinking their big brown eyes and wheezing. Every once in a while one would animate a bit, scratching its tummy, flapping its tail or craning its head around. Uncanny how they can sense when a camera is pointed at them. They become immediately still. Like a statue. They don't even look at you. Harrrumphhh!
They're being studied here because they can hold their breath for hours, dive to depths of 1600 feet and wrestle a 500lb cod fish back up from those depths. The scientists believe that their blubber has something to do with changes that happen with the immense pressures at those depths, and somehow metabolizes oxygen back into the blood stream.
We tiptoed out away from them after making hushed pet-store greetings. It won't be long before we're seeing the Adele penguins close to town and I'll have more great video tape and digital images to show off.
The crystal clear air and immense terrain without any physical size reference makes for some interesting traveling on foot. As we were pushing along on our skis, it seemed like the iceberg never got any closer. Every time we looked up from the snow, it was still out there, way off in the distance. It seemed like it took a lot longer than it should have to get out to it. we eventually made it out there though and took a bunch of "hero-shots" of each other standing on skis at the base of it. Changing our eye-level sure changed the apparent size reference. Taking a picture on our knees made us look taller than the iceberg, a hundred feet in the distance, and standing up made us seem like tiny mammalian bugs at the base this huge ice-nugget.
The iceberg itself is banned from climbing. You could easily make a day-long picnic out of climbing all over this thing and exploring the surface. And what a vantage point the view would be from the top. But the iceberg is riddled with fractures and crevasses that are covered by snow of varying thickness. You could easily be walking along, enjoying the view, and in an instant find yourself a hundred feet below the surface, jammed in an ice crevasse. Nothing but a hole in the snow where you used to be standing. The locals here joke that when that happens, they all come out and throw in a wreath and change of address form.
We took plenty of photos. Both digital and film. I'm running out of hard disk space, and I'm starting to worry about getting a new MO drive down here before the holidays. As it sits now, I can't load up any of my multimedia software without dumping some of the images. My only external data source is now the CD ROM, and it's glacially slow for working off of it. I'm losing productivity and a little worried about it. Bummer.
Anyway, that's my night. I stayed up and ran around a deserted McMurdo until around 2:30 this morning. This morning I'm stiff and tired and somehow wonderfully refreshed by the experience. Can't wait to get out there again and take some more pictures.
This Tuesday is our "Happy Camper" school where we'll all spend the night out on the open snow fields, learning to build igloos, snow mounds, snow caves and rappelling down into some magnificent crevasses. Should be big fun. Would have been great to get some pictures of Bibler's products being used in this environment. Oh well...
Living & Working in Antarctica
Living and Working in the most remote environment on the planet... This is your central jumping off place to explore many of my Antarctic adventures. The topics below are linked to specific pages of my web-journal accounting of my experiences...
Welcome to the Antarctic Fire Department...
The Antarctic Fire Department is based in McMurdo base, on Ross Island, Antarctica. It is responsible for fire prevention and fire safety for the entire continent. With a staff of 44 firefighters, it protects the largest geographic area on the planet.
Two shifts of firefighters alternate between spending 24-hour shifts in town (McMurdo) and at the ice runway. A typical day sees each shift spending time in training, fire inspections, fire safety presentations and equipment maintenance.
While I was there, I spent as much time as I could recording the experience with Apple's QuickTake 150 digital camera. My journal entries describe my days in greater detail. Here are some of my favorite pictures from both the firehouse and the crash shack.
Although life in town is exciting enough, there are plenty of excursions and day-trips available just outside of town to keep you occupied when you need to get away from it all...
- Ski to the iceberg
- Visit the ice caves
- Visit Cape Evans and Shackleton's Hut
- Walk to Discovery Point
- The Dry Valleys
- Check out the ice runway
- Visit Scott Base
- Ski or hike the Castle Rock loop
- Sea ice survival training
- Journey to the Pegasus ice runway
Special events, parties, holidays
Like any small town in a remote inhospitable wasteland, McMurdo Base enjoys a close-knit sense of community. The people there work hard for six days a week, then party hard whenever they can. Some of the best parties have unique themes.
- The Annual Antarctic Beach party
- Ice Stock Antarctic outdoor open-air talent show/concert
as well as all the usual holiday celebrations...
- New Year's Eve
Ice Stock is kind of a low-budget freeze-dried version the Woodstock music festival. All the talented and musically inclined people on base perform for the residents, who have the day off and gather around the quonset stage in the center of town all day to listen to music, eat barbecued hamburgers, drink beer and generally try to create some kind of live music concert experience
It's a real festival atmosphere as the barbecues are all fired up and crews are on duty to wave off the Skuas from the hamburgers. The fire department parks their trucks on the periphery and allow residents to sit on top and watch the entertainment. It's quite the sight. Imagine a real concert/tail-gate party, but the temperature is around 0° and everyone's wearing parkas all day. I took a few pictures.
This being the last of the major parties of the season, after it's over everyone can get down to the business of battening down the hatches and getting the station ready to close officially on 23 February.
New Year's Day seems to be a significant totem in our lives here at McMurdo. It seems to mark the midpoint in the season, separating our time between getting there and going home.
Up until now, it seems a lot of the mental energy has been spent in the awareness of where we are and what we are doing here. Now that the mid-season marker has passed, everyone's awareness seems to be focused on preparations for leaving McMurdo. It's time to start thinking about going home. Schedules become a larger part of everyone's lives as departments begin to gear towards losing their staff and other support services from around the base. There's plenty of jockeying to arrange departures, as everyone's eager to get home, but department managers don't want to leave too many people high and dry without services.
Looking at my own calendar, I think I'm down to about 38 days of on-ice time left before I can count on being on an airplane on my way home. This leaves me with about half that time of usable working days to gather more data for my multimedia content. I think I can split that pretty evenly between gathering the data and actually producing product (or demos) to show Apple on the way home. I'd better start getting things in gear here.
There are a number of QuickTime VR and video locations I have yet to record. Some are weather dependent and some are just schedule dependent. I'd love to get a QuickTime VR scene from inside of Scott's Hut on Discovery Point, and the top of Ob Hill, and also Castle Rock, not to mention a bunch of indoor locations at the various labs and hangars around town.
I've been watching the weather pretty closely these past few weeks, waiting for my chance to climb up Ob Hill. It's been pretty cloudy and fogged in most of the time, and when there was clear air, I've either been out at the runway, or the horizon has been obscured by clouds. I really wanted to get the mountain ranges across the sound in clear view to give some dimension and scale to the VR scene.
It was looking like things might start clearing up here this week, but last night we began another snow storm. Here I was, kind of thinking that summer was just around the corner, and today I was reminded that summer is just ending here. The warmer, clear weather is all but over and it's all downhill from here. We've already had the best weather we're going to get this year. Still, I'll keep my eyes open and the camera mount handy for an opportunity.
I had a talk with one of the Infosys (information systems) department heads over breakfast today. I made a few recommendations about where the Macintosh OS is going and why they should reconsider their support issues before installing Windows everywhere. There's no interest in bringing Windows to the ASA/NSF systems down here. They're quite happy with DOS6.x for the time being and will probably look a little harder at the MacOS solution before doing anything. They've had nothing but problems with their previous experiences with Windows and Novell, both will be a 50-50 proposition before anything else new gets down here.
And for the fire department, I told him I was going to produce a proposal to the fire chief regarding how they might keep and improve the fire department at McMurdo in the coming years.
I will stay in touch with the home office and keep myself available for short-term assignments. With the Macintosh OS upgrades I installed in McMurdo, I believe I can continue to support their computer network from Denver. It should be easy, and I would love to fly down once a year to visit my favorite penguin (Chilly Willy) under the guise of being a Macintosh consultant.
Xmas in McMurdo
This place is an amazingly twisted and perverse version of Mayberry. Small and familiar, but so weird that no normal frame of reference really applies. Too much like first semester of college, too much like first week of grade school, too much like summer camp, but too weird as you'd expect all these adults to act like adults. And I think that's what throws me. Since we've arrived in October, everyone seems to look forward to all the regularly scheduled parties as an opportunity to socialize with all their co-workers.
This is unusual as most employees spend 12 hours (or 24 hours in the case of the firehouse) with their co-workers, then when a party comes around, they all stand around in little groups of the very same people, talking a bout work. It seems this would be the perfect opportunity to meet new people and get around a little bit. Not here. So much like a warped version of high school dances.
Anyway, by the time Xmas rolls around we've all already attended no less than four other town parties on different occasions, so we pretty much knew what to expect. Same people, same food, same beer, same band, same music but different colored crepe paper and cardboard cutouts. I suspect the New year's Eve party will be the same old stuff again. I can see where there's a pool of creativity that organizes, plans and executes the party functions here, and I think the pool is kind of shallow this year.
I suppose I could be a little more pro-active and join the party committees and make an effort to improve the scene, but I've found (generally) in all other aspects of life down here that suggestions on any topic are not necessarily encouraged to any extent (or at all). Unfortunately I've let this color my experiences down here and have chosen to concentrate on my own agenda, and let the rest of the town wallow in the their own mediocrity without my help.
Oops, there's a lot of text, and none of it's about Xmas in McMurdo.
We're trying... The holidays are a different kind of awareness down here. The town makes a half-hearted attempt to decorate and spiff itself up, but there's only so much you can do with crepe paper and cardboard ornaments in dingy, dark, military-decorated environment.
Gifts arrive on the planes the week preceding xmas along side packages that were sent out in September and October, so any enthusiasm for arriving packages is tempered by a resentment for having to wait for so long for stuff that should have arrived months ago.
I've been lucky this season. Susanna's been great about getting stuff from home out to me almost every week. Whenever there's mail inbound, I'm sure to get a package or two. I'm the envy of all the fire department for it. It's really helped me maintain a feeling of connection and belonging back home.
I had packages from my parents as well, and Steve and Mitzi sent me some goodies too. I got together with a few B-shift firefighters on XMas morning and opened our gifts together with the camcorder running on the tripod. I'll have hours and hours of tape to edit when I get back, not to mention the 1400+ digital images and 50 or so rolls of film to develop.
Strangely I was lucky to not get caught up in any of the holiday blues I was expecting. But at the same time I didn't really join in any of the holiday cheer either. An unusually 'flat' emotional EKG this season.
So Xmas in McMurdo consists of a holiday meal that is taken in hour-long shifts that you make reservations for. Most of the galley staff takes this holiday off, with volunteers from the community filling in to cook and prepare the meal for the town. I've refrained from helping in the galley as I put myself through college working in restaurants and couldn't stand to put myself in that steamy, smelly environment again. Yick. Instead, I covered for firefighters who volunteered, standing duty for them while they were working in the kitchen.
The meal itself is a remarkably community-centered affair. Everyone dresses up as best they can, some very formally attired, and brings bottles of wine and champagne. Lights in the galley are dimmed, candles are lit (which is altogether unsafe in this particular environment- more on that another time) wine is drunk, carols are sung and a brass quartet plays. We all do the best we can.
We had lobster, turkey, prime rib, an assortment of salads and vegetables, potatoes, yams, breads and all manner of pastries. As we were the last shift, having just gotten off of work, afterwards we all sit around talking and drinking the last of the wine. I wasn't too impressed with all of this as I don't really share any connection with many of the firefighters and all my beaker friends had already finished in an earlier meal shift.
The New Zealand military ate the same time we did. They were completely inebriated, loud, but good natured as they broke out a guitar and sang pop and folk songs all night. Every song, they tried to get us to sing along, I was the only one that gave it an attempt at our table. My voice has degenerated to worthlessness, and I think the same civil ordinance prohibiting me from removing my shirt in a public place would extend to keep me from singing as well. It was moderately fun nonetheless.
Spent the rest of the evening sending e-mail, watching some newer episodes of Babylon 5 that one of the Infosys nerds got in. I tried to go to sleep later, but the entire fire department had gathered in my dorm's lounge and was up drinking and smoking until the wee, wee, hours of the morning. I thought I'd better at least check this out, since I couldn't sleep, around 2:30am and was surprised to find the chief, the assistant chief and both of the captains down there with these guys, smoking and shouting and drinking with the rest of them. Ugh!
Of course, this is a non-smoking dorm, and the quiet hours are from 10pm on weekdays. The Chief Master at Arms (CMA) from the Navy, the only lawman on the continent, was called to the scene, but when he saw the chief there, drunk, smoking, and as loud as the rest of them, he probably determined that discretion was the better part of law enforcement as it was a holiday and he was outnumbered 20 to 1.
Oh well, not too big a disappointment. I stayed long enough to see Karen beat the Lieutenant at pool, but left as soon as he got too obnoxious and dropped his trousers and mooned me in front of everyone.
The Fire chief was pretty toasted, got face to face with me and said "You really don't like this guy, do you?" "No," I replied, "I don't like him at all."
He poked his cigarette fingers in my chest and said "I saw whut you did to Lieutenant with thaht computah..." (He's from the Massachusetts area too) "... and If EYE see ME in any of that shit, Ahhm gonna break YOU AHND yaw computah!"
OK, so much for a professional relationship with the chief...
As he repeated this to me four times over the course of the night, I told him I only use the computer for good, and not the forces of evil. The only picture he might see would be one of all of his captains bent over kissing his ass. Hmmm. That seemed to satisfy him for the moment.
Anyway, I did finally manage to get to sleep around 3am for a big total of four hours. Luckily, the next shift at the firehouse was a Sunday, a "down" day for the firehouse. Uniforms not enforced, no trainings or special activities, so most of us spent the day asleep upstairs.
Looking forward to New Year's Eve. Should be just as exciting. Just as fun.
New Year's Eve in McMurdo
It was almost funny, and a little sad. The company was almost pathetic in their pleas with the employees not to get TOO drunk on New Year's Eve. A nearly impossible request to impose on individuals, so they impressed onto everyone that they are severally liable for each other's drinking. We were all instructed to watch out for each other, and not let our co-workers get into trouble.
As it was, we only had one first-aid call to run on at 2:30am. Someone fell down, broke their wrist and split open a good sized laceration down the length of their nose. Better than expected and even the old-timers commented on how much more tame the evening was compared with years past. The amount of trouble has decreased proportionally with the decrease in Navy population in McMurdo.
As we were on duty, we were allowed to attend, but had to do so in uniform. I stopped in at the party and took 26 pictures of everyone having a good time. It was the standard too-loud, too hot, too-many-people, humid indoor affair. There was beer and champagne being sprayed all over the place, dancing and hugging and kisses all over the place.
I Kind of enjoyed standing around calmly in uniform as everyone else was partying it up. I felt kind of smug in my sobriety, radio hanging on my hip, shiny badge and ball point pen in my pocket. Aloof and separate, but smiling and friendly, we kind of come off the way that we are often described by the populace: "The FunPolice". Again, more than a few people expressed surprise at my place of employment. I guess a few people still think I work for the telescience department.
It's clear that even with all the parties that happen here, there is a lot of pent-up, unreleased partying that is let loose on New Year's Eve. Things seem just a bit wilder and just a bit more on the edge of being out of control. Almost as much an adventure as a party for me.
I was surprised by the number of people (mostly men) who came up out of nowhere and shook my hand, hugged me strongly and even kissed me, wishing me a happy new year. I was a little cynical as I wasn't sure exactly how much I had in common with these people that suddenly made them my good friends enough to elicit such hugs and brotherly love. I guess everyone needs to hug and be held, and a lively drunken party is the best excuse without exposing any real genuine feelings.
I snuck out of the firehouse and worked at the lab, updating my image catalogs until around 3am. Then slept soundly until noon.
Of course the town was completely deserted on New Year's day. Absolutely silent and still. Not surprising at all. There was little movement and foot traffic.
I went to the galley for lunch and was surprised by another unexpected development. What struck me as odd was how many people came wandering in hand-in-hand, as couples. People I had never seen together before, now strolling in the galley together as a couple. Interesting and unexpected. Hmmmm. (Must be the will of Landrew. Festival time and all.) I wonder if they will still be together in the coming weeks. Must be a delicate situation in some instances. What is so different this weekend that has drawn these people together suddenly on this one night?
Hmmm. Not a bad thing, just unexpected.
Cool Science in Antarctica
There are some seriously exciting, fascinating, mysterious, and important science taking place on this harsh continent. Science experiments that cannot be performed anywhere else on the planet.
Solar Flare Genesis
Flare Genesis is a balloon-launched solar observatory experiment that will circumnavigate the continent at an altitude of 125,000 feet for the next two weeks.
It will photograph and store digital images of the solar surface and its atmosphere at a resolution of two-tenths of an arc-second. These will be the most finely resolved images of the sun that have ever been taken. With the data they gather, the scientists hope to be better able to predict solar flares, (making interplanetary space flight to the Moon and Mars safer) and better able to predict the behavior of plasma in high-energy magnetic fields (such as are found in fusion reactions, which could lead to cleaner, cheaper commercial energy production).
Flare Genesis' payload is a solar telescope with mirrors made of ultra-light, non-expansive glass and a structure of carbon/graphite composite and has a price tag of 16 million dollars. Actually, a cash outlay of only $4 million and the donation of a $12 million surplus solar telescope which was left over from the Starwars defense program. It actually works out to be a pretty good deal money-wise as the costs to launch the experiment as a satellite would have been in the neighborhood of $800 (eight-hundred) million dollars!
The balloon vehicle is itself an amazing feat of engineering. All the cameras, computers and tape recorders come packed in heavy canisters to protect against the near-vacuum at the top of the stratosphere. Altogether, it weighs over 4,000 lbs. When the balloon is filled with helium it picks up the Flare Genesis observatory and rises to its cruising altitude at a rate of eight feet per second. When it reaches its operational altitude of 125,000 feet, the air pressure is so low that the envelope expands to about 100 yards wide!
The experiment will be in continuous electronic contact with the scientists at McMurdo for about two weeks as it circumnavigates the continent of Antarctica. It will store in its internal memory over 100,000 digital images of the surface of the sun. After the experiment is complete, the balloon will be automatically ripped from top to bottom and the payload released, where it will descend by parachute to the ground for recovery, not far from the McMurdo area where it is launched.
They couldn't have picked a better day for the launch. The winds were very calm, almost still. The sky was lightly overcast with high clouds that were steadily clearing. The balloon took off ever so gently and quietly, making a quietly thunderous clapping sound as the envelope gracefully undulated like some immensely huge airborne jelly fish. The sound was at once silent and majestic, yet sharply attenuated. Just like the sound that you'd imagine an angel's wings would make if they were in a full-flight hurry to get somewhere.
It was absolutely fascinating talking with the principal investigator about all this. How exciting to be part of such high-end science!
The "balloonatics" as they are known in the science community have their own facilities over on the far end of Willy Field, their own galley and bunkhouse in "JamesWay" wood & fabric quonset buildings. The scientists work in a large three-story barn out at Williams Field where they assemble all the components of the experiment, program the computers controlling the project and collect all the electronic data that is sent back. The head principal investigator is a real Macintosh proponent.
It rose silently into the deep blue Antarctic sky ever so slowly after releasing from the truck. It hung there over McMurdo for hours, I could see it plainly well past midnight as it rose into the stratosphere. You'd think it would disappear into a speck, but as it rose higher the air pressure around it reduced, expanding the envelope, so it actually got bigger as it got higher. It was hard to judge the altitude by sight because of this. It was absolutely inspiring. In fact, it boggled the mind to think of all the work and effort that went into getting this experiment off the ground. In two weeks it will be over and perhaps we'll have a new understanding of the physics of nature...
The pictures are astounding. The WideTake wide angle lens for the QuickTake really added a new and dramatic dimension the images I was able to record.
What a RIDE!
A "boondoggle" is a surprise trip to one of the outlying areas by helicopter. They're a highly prized and sought-after opportunity as there are so few on which non-science personnel can go. Most trips consist of a short hour or two out and back to a site to drop someone or something important off. The passenger manifest usually includes the flight crew, the scientist(s), the equipment, survival gear and if there's room, one other person whose name is drawn from a lottery.
There are some people who have been here years and never been chosen for a helo-trip anywhere. You can imagine my delight at my incredible luck to have been chosen for this once in a lifetime experience, during my first season down here.
My opportunity fell out of the sky into my lap by sheer luck and happenstance. One of the Crary Telescience people introduced me to one of the higher-up NSF directors who is down here to document the environmental impact of some of their science sites. She was enchanted by the cool demo I did of the QuickTake camera and the ability to transmit images back to Washington.
They initially contacted me a day later and asked if she could borrow my camera, and of course, I said "NO!" So they had to bring me if they wanted electronic pictures. (hah!) I considered loaning them the equipment for the day, but I wasn't so sure that I was comfortable loaning a lot of expensive toys that didn't belong to me to a total stranger (even if they WERE government employees and scientists).
And GET THIS! Following my recommendations and the excitement of several researchers and computer-people, purchase orders have been cut and three new QuickTake 150 cameras arrived in McMurdo today. The science center will never be the same...
Onward-- I was told to meet The OPP (Office of Polar Programs) rep-person at 7am at the lab, where we would all depart for the helo hanger from. I was tasked with picking up travel lunches at the galley on my way in. Great stuff in those lunches, including juices, sandwiches, fruit and two jumbo-sized chocolate/almond Cadbury candy bars, which are traded as currency here on the base. Another reason boondoggles and ice trips are so sought after.
We were briefed in the helo hangar before leaving. The briefing included specifics on what type of pictures were to be taken when we reached each location. And of course the Navy pilots were giving us the safety briefing and handing out helmets while telling us to make sure our 'gun belts' were securely fastened so we could lean out of the helo. (yikes!)
When they asked me if I had anything to add that was pertinent to my mission there, I explained how we needed to stop every now and again to switch batteries, download the pictures, and I looked at the crew chief and added: "...and she told you I get to fly the helicopter, right?"
That stopped conversation for a second or two as everyone looked at me, then carried on with the pre-flight talk like nothing happened... (I could feel any number of unflattering descriptive insults crossing everyone's minds for a moment)
I had 20 extra AA batteries in my pockets, an extra PB battery, six extra rolls of 35mm film for the Stylus, my camcorder, the QuickTake and everything else hanging off my camera strap around my neck. I was constantly fumbling, twisting and dropping things all day, but I wanted to get everything recorded, start to finish.
Our first stop was Marble Point. About 30 minutes across the sea ice. Marble Point consists of a few mil-van shipping containers, a series of giant flat fuel bladders and a landing pad. It's the refueling stop for all the outbound expeditions. Our mission there was to photograph a spill kit right next to the re-fueling cans. No challenge there.
We traveled across the sea ice at about 500 feet above the ground. Even from here it was a stunning image. The windblown snow flowing by beneath us, so pristine and blue-white in the extreme sunlight, the incredible vastness of white all the way to every horizon. Once we were out of sight of McMurdo we really got a feeling of how small our presence is here. The desolation is truly new awareness for me. Snow and ice, completely flat from the mountain ranges to the edge of the sea on the horizon, the otherworldly snow textures and the occasional pressure ridges in the sea ice. Very humbling sight to behold.
The pilot and I seemed to hit it off pretty well early on. A friendly guy who was enchanted by this magic of being able to record an image and view it moments later on a computer screen. He and I would spend some time together later that evening. Always eager to score brownie points with anyone higher up on the McMurdo food chain, I was sure to get pictures of him and his buddies standing next to their "nine-passenger weed whacker" at every stop.
Eventually as we neared Marble Point, we could see on the horizon the ice edge, where the ocean actually meets the Ross Ice Shelf. We never got close enough to see the penguin rookeries or any other local life, and the helo pilot mentioned that no one had reported seeing any whales there yet. However, on the way home we were told of how the Soviets are making a regular practice of bringing tourists down and letting them wander around along the shoreline. Unfortunately, they've also found groups of tourists marching around some of the more sensitive unattended science installations, and the language barrier has been difficult to bridge as the pilots were tasked with shooing them away. (but that's an entirely different story altogether-- back to our adventure...)
As we had to photograph all of our visited sites from the air, they were very cooperative about banking steeply in to our subject sites as closely as we requested. It was an incredible rush to lean out of the open door of the Huey with my cameras as we orbited around the sites. Through the semi- wide camera lens it was easy to forget how close we really were. "Objects in view are closer than they appear" should be stamped on the inside of every camera...
After landing, our guide wanted a few pictures of the helicopter being fueled, with their EPA spill-kit in the foreground. Quick stop, the rotors never stopped spinning. I had the pilot take a picture of me in front of the chopper. Of course, it looks like your standard "here-I-am-standing-right-in- the-middle-in-front-of-this-thing" vacation snapshot.
Wide lenses seem to confuse and mystify your average non-photographing public. I figured there would be other opportunities before the day was out.
What an experience to be lifting off from such a visually (and spiritually) exciting place. All the noise and vibration of the helicopter as the snow slowly drops away and the aircraft pitches forward and picks up speed. You can almost forget the noise and vibration and begin to hear angelic strains of Vangelis or Enya playing in your own mental background. I know video tape will express the image in a clear and factual light, but the feeling and inspiration of being there is unfortunately a uniquely individual experience. The memory of it will live as an experience thoroughly interwoven into my mind forever.
Our next stop was at Lake Hoare, a camp at the base of the Canada glacier's edge, where we met with one of the other NSF program directors and picked up Kim Stanley Robinson, the author of the 'MARS' trilogy sci-fi novels. Every stop along the way, the helo pilots made every effort to make an exciting and picturesque experience for us. What an incredible rush to come into this camp, low over the glacier, then suddenly see a tiny camp at the base of the hundred-foot vertical ice walls. I could write science fiction stories for the rest of my life from the images I've stored in my mental hard drive here.
Camp Hoare is science camp on the shores of frozen Lake Hoare. Our objective here was to document the NSF's efforts to minimize their environmental impact on the area. We focused on how their ATV's were parked on the lake ice and not the gravel shore, how the fuel for the generators all had drip pans underneath. And the generators there are used only as a supplement to the primary energy source, solar photovoltaic (PV) panels.
The rest of the camp consists of a few more buildings housing supplies and outhouses, some satellite antennae and a dozen or so tents (where the researchers actually live for the season). What a futuristic Martian settlement image this made! This collection of tents, crude buildings and high-tech equipment at the base of this immense shiny blue-ice wall. I will have to apply for an art grant and come back here to paint watercolors. I hope the images will stay with me long enough to paint when I return.
I was surprised that there was no one waiting for us. I guess helicopter landings aren't always announced or planned beforehand. We wandered up to the center of camp on a low hill above all the residential two-man tents and a few small stilted fixed structures. We were welcomed into the camp's main building, a shipping container-sized box that held six bunk beds and a galley area. The local NSF grand poobah introduced himself to me and thanked me for my help on this mission. We downloaded our first batch of pictures and showed off the technology to the scientists and Navy guys there, then took a couple more pictures of them and the local dignitaries, which included our science fiction author. Quite a personable guy. We got to spend some quality time together later in the Victoria Valley area.
Our takeoff from Hoare was as exciting as anything, with a steep banking orbit around for photographs. All the more exciting as the camp is in the bottom of a steep rocky valley whose sides extend vertically a good three thousand feet on either side of the frozen lake. We could see the sides of the valley coming at us all too clearly in the pristine atmosphere. Glad to know the pilots were completely focused on flying, undistracted for the moment by the sheer beauty of our surroundings.
Blood Falls, Taylor Glacier
Our next stop was to document the environmental impact of some water flow meters at the base of the Taylor Glacier. Kristin's mission with the NSF is to assess the level of impact by all the science being performed in the area, so they can then determine how to control the placement of certain experiments based on that impact. Basically this means determining whether a certain type of experiment impacts or alters the natural environment for ten years, a hundred years, or one year, then recommending which experiments can be placed or supported and which can't. This may sound like another layer of self-supporting bureaucratic job security, but later this day we would fly over a deserted encampment over 40 years old, where there were still vehicle tracks clearly visible in the dry gravel of the valley floor.
The place where we set down was at the base of a mineral formation called Blood Falls. Blood Falls is a fifty-foot tall mound of rust-colored sedimentary rock deposits that (they theorize) is being pushed out from under the glacier as it advances down the valley. The glacier wall itself is about a hundred feet tall and absolutely beautiful in its stark icy abruptness. At the top is miles of snow, stretching out between the mountain peaks to the horizon, and at the base of the hundred-foot vertical edge where we were standing was brown mud, the "till" that was being ground and expelled from beneath the glacier, acting as a wet lubricant of gigantic proportions helping the glacier in its slow geologic march down the valley. All around us was the sound of dripping water and house-sized chunks of solid blue-white ice.
Very humbling to be so small in the face of such hugeness. Your sense of scale is easily miraged here. On your first glimpse, everything appears pretty comprehensible, as your mind scales the scenery to whatever your best frame of reference is. In my case, I was seeing ice chunks that were as large as the rocks in my back yard. Amazingly they grew as we walked closer. I found myself stopping a few times along the way to the glacier's edge, my mind confused by the immense scale that seemed to change with every step. I found as I got closer that I wasn't as close as I thought. It seemed as if I was getting smaller and smaller as I approached, the ice boulders getting larger and larger, until I was just a tiny mouse next to these huge shiny icy behemoths. I climbed onto one for a picture and took a couple of our guide for her holiday card photo collection (which seemed to be a secondary objective during this trip).
Here is where we ran into the first of the most haunting and mysterious enigmas. Lying at the junction between the stream draining from the glacier and the gravel field surrounding the frozen lake was a mummified seal. Completely preserved, lying here untouched for hundreds of years. Stretched and dried, its teeth bared in a permanent smile, its eyes gone from their dried and sunken sockets. Kristin talked to it like a pet, patted its nose and told me that there are hundred of mummified seals in the area and one of the mysteries of the area is how they got so far (25 miles) inland. If there was ice here when they came in, how could it have receded fast enough to strand them, and if there was a water route, the river would have had to have been flowing inland and at an altitude of several thousand feet.
VXE6 (Airdevronsix) Ice Falls
We left Blood Falls flying over the Olympus Range to a concave box canyon ringed by immense ice falls, thousands of feet high. The falls are named for the Navy squadron that served the area for years, VX6, which is now known as VXE6. After this season, the Navy will no longer be providing air-transport services, a private contractor will be assigned the duty next year.
The falls are formed by the incredibly immense and slow flow of ice spilling down over the mountain range from the Wright Upper Glacier into the Labyrinth Dais. An amazing sight, and totally defiant of the mind's ability to judge its scale. Standing thousands of feet vertically, the falls seem frozen in time. Huge ice fragments spilling and flowing over a mountain range as if a gigantic continent-sized pile of whipped cream had overflowed the mountain range containing it and was spilling over into the valley below, then frozen completely solid in time. As we flew closer for the photographs, I could not believe the incredible enormity of its scale.
Here we were, a tiny orange gnat-sized speck against Herculean glacial flows, (That's it. I've run out of hyperbole to describe these images. You'll have to make up your own from here on out as the pictures cannot convey the feeling or the scale.) Buzzing around, doors open with our feet and camcorders hanging out in the sub-zero freezing dry air. Most invigorating. Most inspiring. Most amazing.
The Labyrinth Dais
The Upper Wright Glacier spills over the confluence of the Asgaard and Olympus mountain ranges into an area known as "The Labyrinth". The Labyrinth is a series of narrow canyons that curve and serpentine away from the ice falls into an immense dry valley where Don Juan Pond is located. The tops of the canyons and the gulleys preceding them are an interesting sight as Kristin explained that they are formed without the influence of water erosion. Amazing structures and spires of volcanic rock carved by dry airborne sand particulates blown up and down the canyons for millions of years. Eerie and strange, it's no wonder K.S. Robinson chose this place as a source of inspiration for his Mars books.
The helo pilots explained that it used to be a popular sport to crank and bank their machines through the canyons at high speeds for sport, but that was now forbidden in this last year of the Navy flight contract. Too hard to explain a crash there if one went down. That's not to say we didn't get a slower version of the canyon run to impress us all. Now THIS was an immense rush as I was allowed to hang out the side of helicopter with my camcorder all the down into the Wright valley. I was not wearing gloves at this point but my jaw was firmly clenched as my hands froze solid in a few seconds. I could not pass this up, or miss even a second of it to put on gloves. Well worth the discomfort, and more exhilarating than the best amusement park ride. Way too cool.
Don Juan Pond
We descended two or three thousand feet through the Labyrinth canyons to Don Juan Pond, another strange enigma of the area. With temperatures so cold here, every bit of open water everywhere we went here is frozen solid. Except Don Juan Pond. This is a shallow little body of water at the bottom of a broad dry valley, that somehow never freezes.
The saline content here is suspected as the cause of this, but no one's completely sure. We wandered and waded and took dozens of pictures everywhere. At one point I removed my glove and dipped my finger in the water and tasted it in my mouth. It stung and burned and choked me-- like battery acid! Yikes! Burned for a moment and left a strong salty after taste that I will never forget.
First rule of interplanetary explorers: don't eat anything larger than your head, and don't put anything in your mouth unless you see someone else do it first... Ick!
Again, the photographs cannot possibly convey the wonder and mystery of being there. I had to stop trying to process what I was seeing and simply mentally record everything. It was almost sensory overload to see all this and consider all the mysteries of what I saw. Now I'm feeling like I didn't take nearly enough images, or tape or film pictures. There was so much now that I missed, I'm wondering if I may not remember it all. I'll remember the wrong parts, concentrate on those and forget the subtleties, and miss the major anomalies.
Half the valley was in shadow, and standing there gave it all a mighty eerie feel. The flat lighting and strange rocks everywhere put us all in an other worldly state of mind. I could very easily imagine geodesic, pyramidal, interplanetary settlement structures clustered together at the far end of the valley, with slow-moving explorers wandering around in bulky environment suits in the half-gravity of Mars.
The mountain peaks riming the valley were sharp and clear, thousands of feet above us. All the more stark in the crystalline cobalt blue sky. Remember we were at an altitude of over 10,000 feet in the coldest, driest air on the planet. It could have as easily been a picture of the Colorado high country except that there was absolutely no life around whatsoever. No plants, no trees, no grass, no tiny mammals scampering around behind the rocks. Totally barren.
The helicopter left us here on our own for a little over an hour to wander around and do what we will.
Our OPP rep went jogging, in ECW gear, bunny boots and all. Stan (Robinson) and I hiked up the bench above the lake and shot endless rolls of images of all the ventifact rock formations. This was a wonderfully satisfying time as we had all manner of "author" things to talk about, home things, writing things and art-things. We were both inspired by how much the terrain resembled a Martian landscape. So totally, completely desolate, dry, empty, pristine, and unearthly. He told me that in his first 15 minutes here he learned and saw more about Mars than all his years of research. Here he was telling ME how he should have written this detail or that image differently in his books after seeing what he saw here.
My favorite example is of how he wrote that the Martian colonists pumped fresh water out of the interior of the planet to create the oceans into what would drive the terra-forming effort. The bodies of water there would be completely opposite from the waters of Earth. The rivers and streams would be totally salinated and the oceans would be fresh water.
The ground there is unusual as wind erosion leaves it so fundamentally different in appearance from water erosion. All the lighter sand particles are blown away, leaving the actual ground surface being gravel sized rocks seemingly floating above the fine sands. All the windborne particulates sculpt the larger rocks into the strangest aero-dynamic, fluid, organic shapes I've ever witnessed. Whole insides of rocks are eroded and polished away, leaving smooth, natural-looking rock shells and interiors. Absolutely amazing how the rocks have taken smooth, aerodynamic, almost organic shapes.
Bonney Lake, Lake Vanda
We lifted off slowly, leaning sharply forward and headed down the valley. Never exceeding 200 feet off the deck, we flew over Bonney Lake and over to Lake Vanda. I don't know where they got their names, but they were beautiful and frozen solidly. Vanda had an amazing lattice of cracks all over the surface, like a broken windshield, with no regular pattern to it. And beneath the ice surface was black.
Very interesting. The image is most striking. Our OPP rep told me it's because the water temperature underneath the ice, at the bottom of the lake is over one hundred degrees.
Amazing. And beautiful. Another wondrous irony in this mysterious land.
One of the many anomalies we saw on this trip was the phenomenon of "patterned earth." As we flew overhead, we could see great patterns in the ground below, like an immense caked and cracking dry lake bed surface, except on a larger, most enormous scale. These were fundamentally different in that they were rounded random channels a few inches deep running through the frozen dirt in great polygons-- covering whole acres of land. As there is no water erosion causing this, the speculation is that they are random collecting places for permafrost that alternately collect, expand, then evaporate, leaving these immense patterns across the landscape. Stan explained that the same phenomena has been observed on the Martian landscape, but the cracks were kilometers across! Might be a good idea to find out what's causing this before we head out there for a visit.. All this was whizzing past below us as we flew farther out away from the high polar plateau. A majestic sight to behold.
Our next stop was in the Victoria Valley, location of a site they call "The Dunes." As we were flying over the rough terrain between mountain ranges, the pilot and Kristin explained that this was an area where they usually put down and allow the DV tours to jump out and pick up their souvenir desk rocks. One area is called the "Alien Landing Zone" where the wind has blown away the dirt, exposing a flat, streaked rocky area. Unfortunately, the camera was frozen again and I didn't get a picture of it.
We landed near there in a soft sandy hilly area, but the landing here was a little more exciting than the others as they aborted the first attempt, circled around and dropped a flare to see the wind speed and direction. Lucky thing, too as there is nothing there to indicate either. No trees, no water, no grass.
The smoky purple flare showed a stiff 20-30 mph wind and allowed us a more measured approach onto a large soft brown sand dune. The sand was soft as the beach, but the a little colder than any beach we visited this summer, close to 30 below. We sunk in to our ankles as we waddled around in our white bunny boots and shot more pictures. The wind made things absolutely treacherous, so I bundled up good, put on my goggles and covered every inch of skin.
We wandered around, took a bunch of photos and climbed back aboard after a much shorter visit than the other sites we visited. I got one picture of myself and Stan Robinson standing by the helicopter, then tried to take one more glamour shot of the helicopter from the base of the dune, but the camera batteries were already too cold to take another picture. This seemed to be a recurring problem as I spent the day taking three pictures, then swapping batteries for warmer ones in my breast and pants pockets. As the batteries warmed up, I was able to take more pictures again, constantly recycling the same batteries all day long. Looks like I'd better get back to the Apple engineers and let them know that they were right about how extremely low temperatures might affect battery performance.
Albert P. Crary Science & Engineering Center
Welcome to the Albert P. Crary Science & Engineering Center, a $50-million science and engineering laboratory on Ross Island, Antarctica. An exceptional facility boasting all the most modern equipment and communications hardware, as well as the most talented and intelligent scientists and researchers in the world...
The entrance to the lab greets every visitor with a fascinating display of historical and scientific artifacts gathered and preserved from 95 years of research and discovery on the Antarctic Continent. These items are historical artifacts recovered from bottom of McMurdo Bay. They are believed to be from some of the original explorers' missions.
Located in the section of the lab furthest down the hill, the aquarium holds large tanks of cool sea water and hundreds of live specimens for ongoing study.