Last week we had the chance to visit one of our more remote and less visited sites: Garwood Valley. Located 30 minutes fly time south of Taylor Valley, it’s significantly smaller and quite distinct from the place we live. To get to Garwood we fly over the Kukri Hills that form the southern border of Taylor Valley and descend upon the massive Ferrar Glacier.
The Dry Valleys are located next to the immensely long Trans-Antarctic Mountain Range that divides the entire continent into West and East Antarctica. The East Antarctic Ice Sheet is the world’s largest piece of ice, and the Trans Antarctic Range prevents this sheet from moving into the valleys for the most part, keeping the Dry Valleys dry. The Ferrar Glacier is actually a lobe of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet protruding through the Royal Society Mountains (what we call this part of the Trans-Antarctic Range). The glacier is so large that rivers and lakes exist on its surface and are easily seen from a helicopter.
After descending a mountain range not named on my map, we landed at Lake Colleen in Garwood Valley. The only place of residence is a small, uninhabited field camp run by the Kiwis by the side of the lake.
Garwood is a seldom visited valley and has remained in pristine condition due to the relative lack of science that occurs there. Our team has historically sampled this site only once a year, so it was a privilege grab a flight out that day. My teammate and I were dropped off at the upper end of the valley; our plan was to hike around the terminus of Garwood Glacier and follow the river down the entire length of the valley to the ocean. As the helo took off it was an incredible feeling to be alone, able to walk through an area that few will get to see.
The ‘river’ that we followed was relatively powerful compared to the small streams that we’ve been gauging this season. Garwood Stream is the most unique feature of this valley – it goes subterranean. Twice. It winds along on top of the ground for several miles but as it approaches Garwood glacier it cuts into the side of it and disappears underneath. The stream flows through the bottom of the glacier. As we walked near the edge of the ice, we could hear the raging water echoing from within the glacier. It sounded like a massive cavern was being carved into the ice. The stream emerged at the other end of the glacier’s terminus for a brief 300 hundred meters before vanishing again, this time into a large dune of dirt.
I’ve been told that a few years back a massive landslide covered the stream. Eventually, the water eroded the bottom layer of soil and created a tunnel underneath. One of our sample sites is where the stream reemerged as a thick brown gush of water.
Our 5-hour hike was extraordinarily pleasant. The only bit of drama occurred when we were walking along the loose boulders of the glacier’s moraine (a moraine is a buildup of dirt and rocks that the glacier deposits in front of it as it recedes. Glaciers act like large conveyor belts.) I stepped on top of what looked like a solidly placed rock, but the soil underneath shifted and the boulder rolled. I fell onto a soft, pointed rock, breaking my fall with my ribs. After a few minutes of massaging a bruised chest but an even more wounded ego we continued on.
As our time in Garwood was coming to a close we came across a relatively rare sight in the Dry Valleys – a mummified penguin. Penguins are actually much more likely to enter the valleys than seals. However, their skin is much softer than seals so when they die their bodies are picked apart by skuas and are much more susceptible to weathering. So while it’s not uncommon to find penguin skeletons, it much less likely to come across a penguin with mummified strips of flesh. What a treat.