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.
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.