Three Months

I’ve left the field. I’m back at McMurdo and in one more day I’ll be off the continent. I was in the Valleys for 3 months.

Month 3: Finished, complete, happy

The Dry Valleys are without a doubt the most incredible place I’ve been. What enamors me about this continent is how little of it is known and how much remains to be discovered. More than half of what I’ve learned about Antarctica has been from the people I’ve encountered. Most of the stories, the history, and even the scientific and geographic details of the continent are housed within the memories of seasoned residents. There is no Wikipedia page for many of the places I’ve been and the only source of information are facts passed from person to person. Indeed, many of the most interesting stories here aren’t written in any books, though it means I have no way of checking their validity. For instance, during World War II the Nazis apparently flew over the continent and dropped flags as a statement of military prowess. There’s also an old abandoned Soviet base covered by snow, where a statue of Lenin pokes out of the ice as the last remnant of past inhabitants.  Whole mountain ranges, lakes, and rivers are known to be trapped under the 2 kilometer thick ice of East Antarctica. In Beacon Valley, there are rock covered glaciers with the oldest ice in the world (8.1 million years) that are only now beginning to be analyzed. And no one really knows why Blood Falls is Blood Falls in Taylor Valley.

I’m only left to imagine what else lies outside of my brief glimpse of the continent. My experience here has been one of relative comfort in a polar desert, devoid of dramatic Antarctic wildlife. The Valleys are one of the driest places on Earth, an irony that has been hard for me to grasp given my daily work with rivers and streams.

This experience has been the realization of a dream I had for three years. I am not a winter person, so Antarctica seemed like a logical ambition. I pursued the idea of working in Antarctica harder than any plans I’ve created before, and the excitement of getting this position has only been matched by the enjoyment of living here. What I thought would be a singular pursuit has become something I plan to make a career out of. Just hours away from leaving, I’m consumed with thoughts of how to come back next year.

My last night in the Valleys I stayed up late to enjoy some peace and quiet as the others slept. It was a windless night as I sat out in the 3 am sun. The silence of that evening was unique to this part of the world. No humans were awake, no cars or planes or generators were running to disturb the night. The valley had no birds or insects to create a droning hum. It was in this stillness, the lack of everything, that you could hear the Earth move. Candle ice shifted on the lake with the faint sound of breaking glass. The glacier creaked and groaned as its weight shifted. Sand would slide softly down the hill. But as the temperature cooled, signifying the coming winter, the thick lake ice cracked like a gunshot and the boom echoed across the valley.

I’ll miss this place.

Transport

As the nomadic team of the Dry Valleys we had the most helo hours of any of the Long Term Ecological Research projects. The fact that many of our streams are on opposite ends of Taylor Valley, Wright Valley, and within the greater Dry Valley region meant that we had a lot of helicopter flights. I’ve been so spoiled.

The biggest helicopter available to scientific groups in Antarctica is the Bell 212, commonly called a ‘Huey’. These double-engined beasts are basically all-purpose flying pickup trucks. They’re used down here to transport as many as 8 passengers and huge amounts of equipment. The popular model during the Vietnam War, we generally only used these helos when flying with heavy loads of gear or with more than 3 passengers.

Fancy truck

Bell 212 landing at F6

The AS350, or ‘A-Star’, is the model that we flew on most of the time. Built to accomodate 4 passengers and a lighter cargo weight, these zippy helos are my favourite to ride in. Large passenger windows, car seatbelts, quicker loading/unloading process, and a hell of a lot smoother ride makes the A-Star infinitely more comfortable.

The 3-bladed A-Star

Not bad to look at from behind

At the beginning of the season I had never been in a helicopter before. Now, after a total of 43 hours in a helo, I’m well and truly addicted.

The other night I was talking about my love of flying to one of the helo mechanics. He replied: “Are you effing crazy? 40,000 moving parts all held together by one little pin. There’s no way I’m getting inside one of those.” It was like listening to a chef say he doesn’t eat his own cooking.

I’ll admit it. I’ve looked into getting a pilot’s license.

Home

It’s a hard concept to define.

The season is coming to an end and it’s sadly time to close down camp. I’ve lived here for 3 months but have hardly mentioned it, so here is a description of the place that gives me pangs to pack up:

We’ve spent most of our time at a place called F6. Named for the stream site it sits next to, it’s comprised of a small hut surrounded by several flat tent sites. The building itself is divided into two sections – one half is a dedicated lab space where we dress up in white coats and pretend to be important, and the other half serves as a kitchen/eating area. The building is small – each of the two rooms is only 10ft x 20ft – but it fits three people incredibly comfortably. It’s a prefabricated structure, and so while tiny, it’s so heat efficient that we only turned on our heater for a total of 2 weeks out of our 3 month season. The roof is painted black to increase the absorbtion of solar radiation, and the double-thickness walls are stuffed with baby-penguin feathers and imported kittens to serve as insulation.

Guests from base help pack up the lab

Our lab has supplies for filtering water samples, a fume hood for toxic gases, and enough scrap supplies to rebuild a gauge box in the event that it’s destroyed by wind/glaciers/the second coming. Several different sorts of emergency eye washes and absorption towels line the walls on the chance that we are unfortunate enough to have a chemical spill.

Our gym?

Between the lab and the kitchen is an exciting area of the hut that we often refer to as ‘the doorway’. This underappreciated space contains not only our refrigerator (seemingly redundant in Antarctica), but our pull-up bar that serves as our only means of staying fit.

Disassembling the kitchen

After an exhausting 6 foot distance to the opposite end of the building, our kitchen contains the precious Cinnamon Toast Crunch and coffee that provide me the motivation to wake up in the morning. We have a propane stove top and a sink fixture that leads into a grey water bucket. The technical piece of equipment in the right hand side of the photo converts and regulates the input from our solar panel to our storage batteries. There is no electrical lighting in F6 – the 24 hour sun provides quite enough light for both indoor light and for our power needs: our solar panel is sufficient for our limited power draw and we rotate it by hand 4 times a day.

Renewable Energy

Outside of the hut there are a number of rather unsightly items that are necessary for running a field camp that is off-the-grid and self-sufficient. Several 55-gallon barrels are stacked near each other. While hard to distinguish, they have different contents: most are grey water/urine barrels, one contains AN8 fuel, another is regular gasoline, and some are propane.  The fridge and the stove run on propane while our ATV runs on gas. I’m still trying to figure out what we have that uses AN8.

My tent at F6

There are no living quarters inside F6. This means that we live in 4-season mountain tents and -40 degree sleeping bags for the entire season. I slept wonderfully. The constant exposure to the sun meant that I could wake up to a tent that sometimes reached a blazing hot 25C (77F). On cold nights the dryness of the air meant that no condensation would form inside the tent. Spacious, warm, and dry, it is difficult not to feel at home.

Room for two

A view to wake up to

The outhouse. I’ve decided to spare readers the grim reality of it, so to describe it succinctly: a bucket. But damn if the view’s not good.

The great outdoors

F6 will be missed.