Tuesday, April 30, 2019

One last Antarctic Adventure

I promise this will the be the last post.  But I wanted to share with you one of the most powerful experiences I had while on the Ice.  And it occurred within days of my leaving.

In my last couple of posts, I mentioned that I was given time to transition back to days after working nights for nearly two months.  I also used the time to pack and otherwise prepare to leave.  For some reason it was easier for me to transition back to days than going to nights.  My body somehow knew when it was time for me to be sleeping even though it was light all the time.

On one of these days, I was in my dorm preparing to leave when the electricity went out.  Because it was a sunny day, with little to no wind, and temperatures in the teens, I decided to take a walk down to Hut Point and take some pictures.  The sea ice continued to break up and blow out, and I wanted some pictures of the mountains with the open water in the foreground.

Hut Point with the Royal Society range in the background.

As I made my way past the ice pier and onto the point, I saw one lone Adélie penguin standing near Discovery Hut.  I don’t know if it was a male or female, but I’m going to refer to the penguin as a male.  There were only a couple of other people in the area.  We all kept our distance, in compliance with the Antarctic Treaty.  This is the time of year many penguins molt and do not want to be disturbed.  I guess it can be an irritating and painful process.

I stopped and took a few pictures of him before heading out to the point.  As I said, it was a beautiful, sunny day with light reflecting off the water, and the mountains across McMurdo Sound were beautiful.  For over three months all I saw was ice, but now could see open water, hear the sound of waves lapping on the shore, and enjoy the smells of marine air.  What a transformation.

One lone Adélie penguin near Discovery Hut.

Taking in the view of Mt. Discovery.

I took a couple of pictures of the cross at Hut Point, which is in memory of Englishman George Vince who drowned near in this spot in 1902.  While on the point I saw an Orca (killer whale) in the distance and a Weddell seal swimming along the coast line, a smart move considering Orcas prey on seals.

Vince's Cross on Hut Point.

After taking in the scenery for possibly the last time on this amazing journey and getting the pictures I wanted, I decided to head back to the dorm.  As I passed by the hut I noticed the Adélie penguin was still there grooming himself.  I took a few more pictures of him before walking a bit further to get some more pictures of the scenery from a different angle.  

Ice formations along the water's edge.

Looking across McMurdo Sounds to the Royal Society range.

As I turned back to take one last look of the little guy, to my amazement he started walking, or should I say, waddling towards me.  I couldn’t believe it.  I walked a bit further down the trail and sat down on a concrete block.  I was so mesmerized by his approach I put down my camera and just sat there.  

They are so funny looking when they walk.

Their wings flap and they waddle back and forth.

He stopped a couple of times and would pick up a rock, carry it a ways, drop it and then find another one to pick up, all the time moving in my direction.  He finally stopped just three or four  feet away from where I was sitting.  After arranging a small pile of pebbles, he laid down and closed his eyes.  

But they are so adorable.

We sat there for almost an hour.  It was such a powerful experience, I had tears streaming down my cheeks.  Neither of us made any noise, nor did we get any closer to each other.  For me, it was enough just to be in his presence.  Not to attach any human emotions to him for being that close to me, all I could figure out is that he wanted something alive to hang out with for a while.  I was very happy to accommodate him.

He has a determined look.

A couple of other people came into the area, one who saw the whole episode unfold.  We both looked at each other in amazement as he continued to get closer and closer.  Another person arrived after the Adélie got settled and took pictures of the two of us together.  She got my contact information and sent me a few pictures.  I won’t post any of them here as, without knowing the entire story, it might appear that I was invading the penguin’s space.  The pictures were nice, but I didn’t need them to validate the time I spent with one of God’s incredible creatures.  Thank you.

He took his time but knew where he wanted to go.

I shared my experience with a few of my fellow shuttlers and close friends, each time resurrecting the emotions and tears.  It was an amazing way to close my incredible Ice adventure.

As a by-line, I got an email from Shuttle Ryan a couple of days after I left the Ice, with the subject line being “Someone misses you”.  The message stated “Hi Rex, Someone has followed your scent up to 140 [Shuttles office building]. He's looking for you!”.  Well, it may have been the same little guy, as there were no other Adélie penguin sightings in the immediate area at the time.  But I doubt he could follow my scent.  Still, I was pleased to get the message as it brought back good memories, and more tears of joy.  Thanks Ryan!

The little guy in back of our office next to a van.
"Where is that guy?"

Parting thoughts:

In one of my first posts I provided some Antarctic Basics.  Below is an excerpt:

“This continent is the highest, driest, coldest, windiest, and emptiest place on earth. An ice sheet covers more than 99% of Antarctica. At its thickest point, it is 4,776 m (nearly 3 mi.) deep. Antarctica holds approximately 90% of all the world’s ice (by volume) and 70% of all the world’s fresh water. There are many penguins and abundant sea life along the coast – but there is little life in the interior, and there are no indigenous people.”

Think about it, 90% of the ice and 70% of the fresh water in the world.  Those are significant numbers.  We used to joke about Antarctica being a “harsh continent”, and it’s true.  But I also feel it is very vulnerable.  As the earth’s climate changes, the effects on Antarctica will need to monitored.  It is my hope that the Antarctic Treaty will continue into the future, and possibly be strengthened to protect the continent.

People from back home:

In my last post I recognized people I met on the Ice who added to my McMurdo experience.  Now I want to recognize people who helped me along the way from back home.

To my family, thanks for being supportive and for the encouraging notes.  And particularly Bill and Pam for the wonderful penguin blanket and coffee cup.  They are safe and sound with me here in Bend.

To Dave and Kelly, ex-Icers , thank you for taking me and picking me up at the Redmond airport, and for keeping an eye on my place.  And to the both of you and Pam, thanks for the chocolates!

To my neighbors, thanks for being extra sets of eyes and for clearing the snow from my walks and driveway.  And particularly to David who came to my rescue by changing some batteries in my wireless thermostat to keep the heat on in the house.

To John, Joan and Jessica, thanks for the words of encouragement and the care packages, which of course included See's Candies.

And a very special thank you to one of my best friends, John, who inspired me to create this blog.  He was also my secret editor.  It's amazing how many grammatical, spelling and punctuation errors a former teacher can find.  Thanks bro!

A couple of pictures from John's Antarctic adventure.

What's next:

I am enjoying being home, particularly sleeping in my own bed.  And it's been fun sharing my experiences with family and friends.  During these conversations, a number of people have asked if I plan to go back.  If someone had asked me that question before I left I probably would have answered, "I think once will be enough."  Now I'm not so sure.

The Ice has a mystique that keeps people coming back year after year.  For some, it's the camaraderie of the McMurdo community.  For others it's a place to study the changes that are occurring on the continent in hopes of staving off disasters.  And for others it a great place to save money while having all your expenses paid.  I probably saved more money by not spending money, as I earned.  I'm sure there are as many reasons as there are returnees.

For me, it started a few years ago when I decided I would like to visit all seven continents before I turned 70.  It's good to have life goals, even lofty ones.  I knew Antarctica would be a tough and expensive place to visit.  When I mentioned my plans to Dave and Kelly, seasoned McMurdoites, they responded by suggesting I work a season on the Ice.  At first I thought they were joking, but after talking with them further, I decided "why not?" and applied.  It took two years but I finally got a "primary" job offer last May (thanks again Shelley!).

I did some research and thought I had a pretty good idea as to what to expect.  But when I got off the airplane last October at Phoenix Airfield, I was not prepared for what I saw.  I expected an inhospitable and desolate environment.  And although it is all the things I described above (cold, windy, dry, etc.), it was also beautiful.  It is a stark beauty, but nonetheless breath-taking.  As one Air National Guardsman from Savanna, Georgia said, "Its not beautiful like Hawaii, but it is majestic."  Agreed.

The day I arrived at McMurdo.
I never tired of looking at the mountains, glaciers, and volcanos the entire time I was there. I appreciated its serenity and peacefulness.  People who know me well know that I love talking with anyone and everyone (I take after my older brother Bill).  So meeting new and interesting people every time I did a shuttle or taxi run was a joy.  I also loved the driving.  Fact is, I like to work, and will probably work my entire life.

Don't get me wrong.  The hours were long and the weather conditions were not great at times.  But there is something about Working in the Land of Ice that is addictive.  So who knows.  I'll end by saying, thanks for an incredible adventure, and goodbye for now.

Time to say goodbye...for now.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Farewell to the Land of Ice

I promised to write one last post, but didn't think it would take over two months to do it. No excuses, so here goes.

As I said in my last post, during the last week in McMurdo I transitioned back to days and got prepared to go.  I was scheduled to leave the Ice February 15, but due to mechanical problems was delayed two days.  No big deal, especially remembering how the season began.  My trip out to Phoenix Field was memorable as I saw a group of Emperor penguins along the way, and I got to ride in the cab of the Kress with Shuttle Monk.  It was my first ride in the Kress.

Standing next to the Kress at Phoenix Airfield.

I was excited about flying back to Christchurch in a C-17.  The plane brought a large excavator, and it took a while to drive it off the plane.  Then they loaded a Kiwi helicopter before we were able to board.  We stood outside for almost an hour;  I was glad to be wearing "Big Red" and my "bunny boots".  

There were about 70 of us heading to Christchurch.
Preparing to load the helicopter in the C-17.

Once onboard, I found a jump seat on the side of the plane and settled in for the five hour flight.  My view was of the securely stowed helicopter.

The big passengers (cargo) get priority.

It took a while for the inside of the C-17 to warm up, but once it did I was able to shed "Big Red" and use it as a seat cushion.  The inside of the plane was very spacious but also very loud.  I was thankful to have my noise-cancelling earphones.  When we reached our cruising altitude we were able get up and move around.  The only windows in the cargo bay were on the doors.  I got a few pictures as we left the Ice.

One last view of the Ice.

The flight crew was very accommodating and allowed us to visit the cockpit, which was up a stairway on a second level.  Pretty cool.

Glad I was driving a van and not flying a plane.  So is everyone else.

It was a quick and comfortable flight, and we arrived in Christchurch around 8:30 pm.  We quickly got through immigration and customs and headed over to the Clothing Distribution Center to turn in our gear.  Goodbye Carhartts and "Big Red", you served me well!  I picked up my extra bag with my traveling clothes and headed off to my hotel a couple of blocks away.  After a quick bite of food, I hit the sack.  As I laid my head down on my pillow, I thought to myself, "Mission Accomplished!"

People along the way

But I can't end my story quite yet.  I'd be remiss if I didn't recognize some of the people I met along the way because they added to my McMurdo experience.

I will start with my fellow Shuttlers.  It was a great group of folks.  Shelley, our fearless leader, was incredibly supportive throughout the season, particularly at the beginning of the season when I was trying to get my footing.  She kept telling me it would take time to learn the names and locations of places in McMurdo, and all the procedures we needed to follow.  I did eventually get comfortable with everything but dispatching.  Again Shelley, thank you for your support and understanding.

The 2018-19 Shuttle Crew.

My other real supporter was Shuttle Bill.  He says this is his last season, and after nearly two decades of service at McMurdo, I think he deserves to hang up his Big Red.  That, and he turns 80 this year.  What an inspiration!  He is one of the best story tellers I've run across.  Whether or not all of the stories actually happened exactly as he recalled them or were embellished a little, they were always entertaining.   I appreciated his insights and suggestions.  Thanks Bill.

Shuttle Bill next to the Kress.  Happy retirement!

To the second half night crew of Jimmy, Bex, Darcy, Rick and our super lead Geoff, thanks for being such a great team.  Everyone pitched in and we got things done.  We worked hard but had fun along the way.

To Shuttle Jodie and her husband Windy, thanks for being such good friends.  I enjoyed the many meals we shared together.  Have fun on your trip to Alaska this year in your T-Bucket.

To Ryan, Monk and Dr. Harnish (Colin), thank you for helping me feel more comfortable driving our vehicles, especially the Deltas.  Once I understood the air brakes would automatically lock up if there was a problem, I felt much better driving over Scott Base Hill.  And another shout out to Colin for all the great photos he shared with me.

One of Colin's great wildlife shots; a pair of skuas.

And another of an Emperor penguin.

And to the rest of the shuttle crew of Rob, Colleen (thanks for the flannel sheets), Renee (hope you are mending okay), Kathy, Stephanie and Claire, thank you for a great season.  We were able to accomplish a lot, making approximately 8,900 runs and transporting over 34,000 passengers!

I want to thank Geoff and Arneta, my hiking partners, for all the great hikes.  They are some of my fondest memories of my time on the Ice.  Best of luck this year on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.

Two of the most wonderful people you could meet.

Oh, I missed someone.  How could I forget my roomie Eric.  Probably the biggest concern I had going into the season was who I would get as a roommate.  We met in Christchurch, and after spending a little time together, Eric asked if I'd be interested in being roommates. It turned out to be a good move, hopefully for both of us.  We were both respectful of each others space and having time alone in our room.  It helped that we worked opposite shifts for most of the season.  The only picture I have of Eric is one I took of him in is Halloween costume, a greenish zombie, and I promised I wouldn't post it on my blog.  So thanks Eric for being a great roommate and fellow shuttler.

It takes a lot of people with different skills to make McMurdo run to support the science research.  Janitors, cooks, servers, dish washers, carpenters, people to maintain the buildings, utilities and roads, electricians, vehicle mechanics, and the list goes on and on, all play an important role.  I heard it takes anywhere from four to seven people per scientist to support the Antarctic research program.

The New York Air National Guard played a key role in delivering people and supplies to remote research camps and the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.  Flight crews and ground personnel were equally important in the success of the program.  Add to them the air traffic controllers, weather forecasters, and airfield maintenance personnel.  Ken Borek Air was another air services partner with a fleet of smaller but nonetheless important aircraft.  I feel fortunate to have met and talked with a lot of these people during my runs to and from the ice airfields.

A flight crew heading out to their plane.
DC3 operated by Ken Borek Air.

But there is one group I want to especially recognize, and that's the cargo crew.  Shuttles and cargo work in same building and are both a part of Antarctic Terminal Operations, or ATO.  While shuttles handles people, the cargo crew handles everything else, both big and small.  They work their butts off, but they know how to have fun!  They were a joy to be around.  

As with shuttles, we were split into day and night shifts.  I worked mainly with the same cargo crew all season.  At the risk of forgetting someone, I want to recognize and thank Shannon, Jeremy, Kevin, Cody, Stephen, John, Nikki, Toni, Melanie, Blake and Yote.  A special shout out to my favorite Santa and the King of Scott Base Hill, Oak!  Although on a different shift, a big thank you to Andres from cargo and his fiancé Katie for being such wonderful dorm neighbors.

Many of the cargo crew I mentioned above.

For many you're wondering if this is ever going to end.  The answer is "yes"- but not quite yet.  I have one more Antarctic adventure I want to tell you about.  I promise it will be in the next few days.  And I'll also give you some of my takeaways from my time on the Ice.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

My bags are packed...I'm ready to go

I couldn't resist borrowing the words from a John Denver song.  I will be leaving on a jet plane, specifically a C-17.  I was supposed to leave on Friday, February 15, but because of mechanical problems our flight was cancelled.  It didn’t look like I would leave until the 18th at the earliest.  Fortunately, space opened up on the Sunday flight, so I take off tomorrow afternoon with only a two day delay. 

Since my last post, the supply ship and the icebreaker have left.  The open water has expanded, and winter, or at least fall, has returned.  It is getting progressively colder, and we’ve been receiving snow, although it doesn't seem to accumulate.

The Ocean Giant leaving McMurdo Station at 2:30 am.

I transitioned back to days earlier this week as my last official day was Tuesday.  It’s taken four days, but I’m now sleeping through the night and feeling more rested each day.  I enjoyed working nights with the slower pace, the lighting was amazing, and we had a good crew.  I feel it added to my overall McMurdo experience.

Lots of open water with Mt. Discovery in the background.
It was novel hearing the waves splash on the shoreline.

Over the past couple of days I’ve ventured out to take a few more pictures, some of which I will include below.  I feel like I’ve gotten “the full meal deal” here on the Ice.  I’m glad I got the opportunity to experience a place like no other on Earth. 

The cross at Hut Point with lots of open water.
A view looking towards Erebus Bay from Hut Point.

But it’s time to move on.  I’m going to meet my good friends John and Joan Henshaw in Sydney, Australia where we will spend five nights before boarding a cruise ship and sail around New Zealand.  Afterwards, we’ll spend three nights in Melbourne with friends they met on a cruise last year.  John and Joan will fly back to the Bay Area on March 11 and I will return to Christchurch for a few more days before flying home on March 17.

Hut Point with the Royal Society in the background.

I will do one last post after I get home to recognize some of the people I’ve met along the way and to share some parting thoughts.  But I’ll close for now by saying it’s been an incredible ride, or should I say drive.

A friend I met at Hut Point.

Monday, February 4, 2019

The supply ship has arrived!

The supply ship, the Ocean Giant, arrived at McMurdo Station on Wednesday, January 30.  I went to bed around 6:30 am and when I got up at 1:30 pm it was docked.  It’s pretty impressive, and there is a lot of cargo to unload.

The Ocean Giant soon after docking, with 
Polar Star in the background.

Off-loading began late Wednesday and should be completed by the end of the first week in February, weather permitting.  More on that later.  The focus at McMurdo right now is to unload and store all the incoming supplies as quickly as possible.  Besides food stuffs, most everything we need here to operate comes on the supply ships.  In addition, materials for two construction projects at McMurdo are on the ship.  A new Information Technology & Communications (IT&C) Facility and a new telecommunications site are slated to begin this year.

Additional personnel was brought in to McMurdo to unload and upload of the supply ship.  A U.S. Navy Cargo Handlers Battalion was brought in to direct the operation.  Among other things, they operate the cranes that physically move the containers to and from the ship.  

Most of the containers on the deck have been removed.  
Notice the open water in the background.

A group of men and women from the New Zealand Army were brought in to transport the containers from the ice pier to the cargo yards, warehouses, and construction sites.  The trucks they drive have been around for years kept specifically for this annual event.  It’s amazing they still run.

Each truck has a name.  Meet Mary Patrice and Aneeda.

With the other support personnel needed for the operation, called the “Evolution”, the total number of people at McMurdo to now over 900. 
The operation seemed to be going smoothly.  But then the weather changed. It started snowing early Saturday morning and continued throughout the day.  There was not a large accumulation of snow, just a lot of drifting.  The winds increased Saturday night into Sunday, and all dock operations ceased.

Wintery weather returns to McMurdo.

The snow and wind also caused the cancellation of all flights in and out of Williams and Phoenix airfields on Saturday, Sunday and Monday.  Hopefully flights will begin again soon.  As folks in the midwest and east coast states know, we’re all at the mercy of the weather.  There is little you can do but wait it out.

The flight board is usually full but not Saturday 
thru Monday.  Just a note from the day crew.

However, the weather had one positive affect.  When I woke up Sunday afternoon I went to the window to see how the dock operations were going.  At first I couldn’t figure out why the ice was black, but then I realized it was gone and I was looking at open water.  What just a few hours earlier was a sheet of broken ice was now gone.  With the ice gone we may see more penguins and whales.  I can only hope.

Open water, looking towards Mt. Discovery.

For you animal lovers, I am adding some bonus photos of a seal and penguins.  One of our shuttle drivers (thanks Colin!) is an excellent photographer and these are his pictures.

Waddell seal along the shipping channel.  Photo by Colin Harnish.
Adelie penguin near McMurdo Station. Photo by Colin Harnish. 
Emperor penguin near Pegasus Field.  Photo by Colin Harnish.

I’ll end by saying my time here is quickly coming to a close.  I leave on February 15, weather and aircraft availability permitting.  I plan on doing one last post before I leave, hopefully with some of my own whale and penguin photos.  I will do one closing post once I return home with some summary observations on my working in the Land of Ice, and some recognition of the people I’ve met along the way.  In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a photo from my last shuttle run on Saturday, February 2.

View of Observation Hill from the ice road as a snow storm approaches.

One last Antarctic Adventure

I promise this will the be the last post.  But I wanted to share with you one of the most powerful experiences I had while on the Ice. ...