Sunday, January 27, 2019

The Polar Star

After arriving in the area the middle of January, the United States Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star finally docked at the ice pier Thursday, January 24.  For over ten days it worked to create a channel from the ice edge to McMurdo Station.  It also created a turning basin in front of Station.

Note:  There is a webcam for the ice pier area if you would like to follow all the activities.

From my dorm, a view of the Polar Star. 

It was a long journey from Seattle to McMurdo for the 140 men and women on board, and I'm sure they were glad to be able to spend some time on land.  I took a tour of the ship to see first hand the living and working conditions.  Our guide, Nick, was friendly and knowledgeable. 

Heading to the icebreaker for a tour.
View from the stern of the ship looking towards Hut Point.
Inside the helicopter hanger, which is also used 
for spinning classes.
My brother Jim, who is a tug boat captain, would have loved the tour and could have understood all the technical stuff.  He would have felt right at home on the bridge, although his is probably a bit smaller.  For me, it was just nice to get a feel what it's like to live on an icebreaker without getting seasick.

The bridge.  Pretty spacious.
The view from the lookout deck.  Great view of my dorm.

I was surprised at the thickness of the ice near the pier.  Nick said it was probably 6-8 feet thick.  But out where the channel was created it was only 2-4 feet thick.

The thick chunks blue ice next to the ship.

The tour lasted almost an hour.  I stopped by the ship's store and picked up a couple of souvenirs, as any good tourist would have done.  And took one last picture.

It was a pleasant outing, and I appreciated their hospitality.  But I think I'll continue my sailing on cruise ships, equipped with stabilizers and all the finer things I've become accustomed to.  

Tuesday, January 22, 2019


Thought I would do a potpourri of short vignettes.

The annual softball tournament was just completed.  McMurdo has its own “Field of Dreams”, at lease for a week or so.  The field is adjacent to the ice pier and will be used as a staging area for the off-load and on-load of the supply ship, which is due in later this week.  The field includes team dugouts, stands, and a scoreboard.  

The field is red cinder rock, not the kind of 
surface for sliding into a base.
The bleacher seats and team dugouts.  

I’m happy to report that ATO (Antarctic Terminal Operations), the department Shuttles is in, won the tournament, beating the Galley team in the championship game.  I might add the championship game was played in a snow storm.  How appropriate.

The ATO Softball Champions!

A quick update on the Emperor penguin who set up residence along the snow road.  He is still there and I see him most every trip to and from Willie Field.  I have nicknamed him “Weather Vane” since you can always tell which direction the wind is blowing because he situates himself on the other side of the snow berm.  Hopefully his molting is going okay and he’ll soon be able to make his was back to the water.

Weather Vane staking out his ground.

Speaking of water, the Coast Guard icebreaker arrived in McMurdo last week.  It still hasn’t docked as it is working on widening the channel and enlarging the area where the supply ship will turn.  So far, open water is still miles from town.  Time will tell whether or not we see open water in front of the station this year.

The US Coast Guard icebreaker just off shore 
from downtown McMurdo.
The US Coast Guard icebreaker at the ice edge,  
taken from the Overlook.

With the arrival of the icebreaker, most of the seals in front of McMurdo area have relocated closer to Scott Base.  For them, open water signals possible danger.  Orcas (killer whales) and leopard seals prey on seals and penguins.  But as long as there is still a covering of ice, the seals and penguins are probably safe.

Castle Rock from the Erebus Overlook.

Finally, Arnita, Geoff and I hiked to the Erebus Bay Overlook last Sunday morning.  The trail to the Overlook takes off at the first apple (shelter) on the way to Castle Rock.  The weather was good, although a bit windy when we took off.  There was fog but by the time we reached the top of the Overlook, it had mostly dissipated.  We could see the icebreaker in the distance near the open water.  I also took a picture of the rabbit and buffalo I mentioned in the caption below one of the pictures in the Castle Rock post.  Use your imagination.

From Willie Field it looks more like a pelican than a rabbit.
Okay, humor me and say you can see the buffalo.

We left around 2 am and got back a little after 5 am.  Again, we had the trail to ourselves.  I sure have enjoyed my hikes here.  The landscape is beautiful and serene.

The view from the top looking towards White Island
Looking towards McMurdo with Mt. Discovery in the background.

I feel fortunate to have been able to see and do as much as I have.  As my time here winds down, my goal is to stay focused on my work and to enjoy each day I'm here.

Looking towards White Island with fog coming off the ice shelf.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

A Hike to Castle Rock

After our shuttles holiday party and mid-rats (the midnight meal for the night shift), three of us took off to hike to Castle Rock.  My friends Geoff and Arnita invited me to accompany them on the hike.  This is one of the hikes that requires filling out a trip permit form, checking in and out with the Firehouse, and carrying a hand held radio.

Castle Rock with Mt. Erebus in the background.

We left about 1:30 am.  It was clear with very little wind, perfect weather for hiking.  Along the trail there are two safety shelters, called apples, for hikers in case the weather changes or folks need a place to rest and warm up.

The inside of one of the shelters.

Me in front of the shelter.

There were great views along the way, particularly of Mt. Erebus and the Ross Ice Shelf. But as we got closer to Castle Rock, fog started forming over the ice shelf, making its way up towards us.

Mt. Erebus puffing away.  Do you see 
the rabbit and the buffalo?

Fog forming over the Ross Ice Shelf.

In the picture above, where fog is forming over the ice shelf, you can see the ice roads that I drive on a regular basis.  Where they split, the one to the right goes to the Phoenix Airfield and the one to the left goes to Williams (Willie) Airfield.  In the foreground, before the split in the roads, is the staging area for the South Pole Traverses.  There are three traverses during the summer season most years that take fuel and supplies to the South Pole, being pulled behind tracked vehicles.  The Amundsen-Scott Station at the South Pole is over 800 miles from McMurdo.

Near the base of Castle Rock, the trail continues 
on and connects to the ice road.

Geoff and I decided to climb Castle Rock while Arnita headed back to the second shelter.  And it was a bit of a climb.  I was appreciative of Geoff leading the way, and for the ropes along the climbing route.  It was foggy near the base but it was clear on top.  And what a view.

Looking towards McMurdo with Mt. Discovery 
in the background.  The trail is readily visible.

Another view of Mt. Erebus.

Proof I made it to the top of Castle Rock.

It took us about an hour to climb up and back down, and to get back the second shelter. There we met Arnita and began making our way back to McMurdo.  It was a wonderful hike.  The only people we saw the entire trip were within a half a mile of the trail head.  We had the place to ourselves.

My friends Geoff and Arnita.

We got back to McMurdo around 5:30 am and checked back in with the Firehouse, ahead of our scheduled 6:15 am return time.  We figured we hiked a little over 8 miles.  Thank you Geoff and Arnita for inviting me to join you on that incredible hike.

Monday, January 14, 2019

More penguins!

And this time there was more than one!  I had gone down one evening on my day off to see the Adelie penguins spotted off of Hut Point and was disappointed there were none to be found.  But later at 4 am I decided to head back down, if for no other reason to see how the ice breaker was doing.  But low and behold, there were 10-11 Adelie penguins laying on the ice just below Hut Point.  They appeared to be sleeping, or at least resting.

Persistence pays off.  Finally, Adelie penguins!

I stood and watched them for a long time, hoping they might get up and move around.  I had my binoculars and could get a close up view of them.  They appeared very fluffy and shiny.  

They appeared to be sleeping except for the
one standing in the middle .

They were bigger than I expected, maybe up to 2 feet tall but definitely smaller than the Emperor penguin.   Hopefully I'll get some pictures of them standing and moving around.

One lone guy hanging out by himself.

I stayed around watching them for almost an hour before I started getting cold.  How they can lay on the ice or swim in the cold water is beyond me.  I went back the next day to take another look but they had moved on.  Hopefully, as the ice breaks up, more will show up.

Sunday, January 13, 2019


Okay, well a penguin.  An Emperor penguin showed up along the Willie Field ice road not far out of McMurdo.  He first appeared on one side of the road but when a storm with high winds moved into the Ross Ice Shelf, he moved to the other side of the road to find shelter behind an ice berm.  Smart guy!  I took the picture below using a telephoto lens. I was probably over 150 feet away.  He is probably 2-3 feet tall.

This gives a perspective of how tall they are.
The flag on the left is about 5-6 feet tall.

I guess they molt far away from the water so they are not tempted to go into the freezing cold for food before their feathers are once again waterproof (a layman's description of what goes on).  Others got closer but still kept the 40 feet away from the little guy.  

Kind of minding his own business keeping out
of the wind and drifting snow.

Adelie penguins have been spotted near Hut Point, just a short walk from my dorm, however they were gone by the time I got down there this evening.  But I've been assured other will appear once the water opens up.

Speaking of that, while I didn't see any Adelie penguins, I did see the Coast Guard ice breaker, albeit a ways out.  I now have a sense of how someone stranded on an island might feel after seeing a rescue ship on the horizon.  I thought to myself, "We're saved!" but realized that might be a bit melodramatic, especially since I'll be flying out of here.  

The ice breaker should arrive here in the next week.  It takes a while for it to cut through the ice and clear a channel for the supply ship that is scheduled to arrive at the end of the month.  I also just learned that there will be a cruise ship coming to McMurdo, once in January and once in February.  So if you think you'd like to visit McMurdo Station in style, there's hope (assuming you have lots of money).

Below is a picture of the ice pier (the blocky looking thing) where the ice breaker and supply ship will dock.  I've been watching with interest how all of this works.  The ice in the background should soon become partially open water.  If there is a lot of open water I may even see orcas and Minke whales.

The ice pier being prepared for the
ships docking at McMurdo.

The ice pier area earlier in the season.

There are things still to see and do before I leave.  But the time is getting short.  I am scheduled to leave February 15.  In the meantime, I will cherish each day I am here in this amazing place.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Holidays on the Ice

So what's it like spending the holidays in McMurdo?  Well, there are a lot of similarities but also some differences.  Good food and fun times were still part of the formula.  Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners were delicious and shared with my Shuttle co-workers.  The community Christmas party was fun with a couple of music venues, nice hors d'oeuvres and Santa.  But the highlight was New Year's Eve and the 30th annual IceStock music festival.  The final event was the Shuttle's holiday party.  One of our shuttlers prepared a delicious meal for us (thank you Claire!) and it was held in place reserved for distinguished visitors, known as Hut 10.  The white elephant gift exchange was a hoot. 

Below are images from the different events:

Images from Thanksgiving

Quite the spread with traditional dishes at Thanksgiving.

Turkey and ham for Thanksgiving and 
crab legs, lobster, and beef for Christmas.

Images from Christmas

Decorations in the galley at Williams (Willie) Airfield.

Santa reminding us to wash our
hands before eating.

Rex on Santa Billy Joe's lap at the
Community Christmas Party.

Images from IceStock 2018-19

The IceStock 2018-19 lineup.

The Monotones, and they were!

A high energy band.

The countdown just before midnight.

Happy New Year!  Ringing in 2019.

After midnight I decided to take a hike around Observation Hill and wind down a bit.  I never tire of the scenery.  And after all the excitement of ringing in the New Year, it was nice to get away for an hour or so.

The view from the Observation Hill Loop Trail.

Image from the Shuttles holiday party

Shuttle Colleen was thrilled with her white elephant gift.

So it was a fun and unique holiday season, one that I will always remember.  However, I missed being with my family and friends and look forward to spending the holidays with them in 2019.

Friday, January 4, 2019

More Antarctic adventures

Before I talk about a couple of more Antarctic adventures, I should mention a recent change in my work schedule.  Some of you already know, but about a ten days ago I transitioned to working nights, from 6 pm to 6 am.  I was asked to move to nights after one of our shuttle drivers was hurt and had to return to the States.  (We miss you Renee!)

It’s taken a while to adjust. But considering I am writing this at 0300 (3 am) on my day off, and I’m not sleepy - I think I’ve finally made it to the dark side (a local expression).  I’ll be on this schedule until the end of the season, which for me will be the middle of February.  I like the slower but steady pace, and the quietness of the community at night.  I should also mention, as I have in the past, that working nights does not mean it’s dark outside.  Feel like reading a book outside on the back porch at 2 am? It's possible, but maybe a bit chilly (15 degrees with the windchill).

Now to the Antarctic adventures.  A few weeks ago I was invited to join a group going to an old airplane crash site (1970) near the now-retired Pegasus Field.  Phoenix Field, where I landed when I flew into McMurdo, replaced Pegasus Field in 2014.  What made this particularly interesting was being able to travel to the crash site in a Hagglund.  It’s a tracked vehicle that is boxy and can go just about anywhere, although going out we followed the ice road.  It’s also fairly comfortable to ride in. 

Riding in style out to the Pegasus crash site.

On our ride out we spotted an young Weddell seal out on the ice shelf.  We stopped and the pup scooted up close to us.  (We are not allowed to approach the wildlife but if they approach you without any coaxing that is okay.)  Unfortunately it was headed away from open water and a food supply meaning it was probably not going to survive.  I spoke with some seal biologists afterwards, and it’s not clear why this happens.  It sure was cute and seemed very playful.  

Looking like it could use a pal.
Well adapted for the cold, ice and snow.

We also stopped by Phoenix Field to watch a New Zealand C130 take off.

Ivan the Terror bus delivering passengers
to a Kiwi C130.
The C130 taking off with White Island in the background.

At the Pegasus crash site, the plane (a C-121 Lockheed Constellation) is mostly-buried under snow and ice.  On the ride out we were given an account of the ill fated flight but fortunately none of the 80 people onboard were seriously injured.  We explored the site and got a group photo on the tail section.  

The tail section of the plane.
Our group photo.  I'm the third one in from the left.

We took a direct route back to McMurdo.  It was a fun trip with some very nice folks.

Looking back at McMurdo from the crash site with
Mt. Erebus looming in the background.

I also took a tour of Discovery Hut, located a short distance from McMurdo on Hut Point. The building and its contents are well preserved, and entry is controlled.  The inside is much as it was over 100 years ago.  

Discovery Hut at Hut Point.
The plaque outside Discovery Hut.

The early explorers did not live in the hut as their ships were much warmer and better suited.  So it was used for storage and a laboratory.

Boxes from the early expeditions.
Glad I have light bulbs instead of lamp oil.
How about some really old biscuits?

I tried to imagine what it must had been like back then.  I had a new appreciation for what they endured but was happy to get back to my nice warm dorm room.

One last photo then off to bed.  It's after 5 am and I need my sleep.  I walked out to Hut Point earlier around 2 am to get a picture of the plaque above and finally saw a Weddell seal in the water.  I watched it dive under the ice and swim around for a while before I got a decent picture.  As I said above, they are well adapted for the cold, snow, ice, and water.


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. ...