Monday, March 31, 2008

leap of faith.

aloha from hawaii! (I blame the long period of silence since my last blog entry on polynesian paralysis.)

D and I left the ice on 17 february -- our first trip on the same C-17. we had always deployed and redeployed on separate flights, so it was fun to experience it together for once. our flight left right on time and we were in christchurch by early evening. the flights after ours, scheduled for the 19th, 21st, and 23rd, weren't so lucky. they were victims of various weather delays, and the final summer pax didn't depart pegasus field until the 25th.

on this trip to NZ, I was determined to see more of the south island than I had before, so D and I rented the world’s cutest hatchback (painted a lovely sinus-infection color) and headed north to maruia springs, a japanese-style hot springs resort nestled in a green valley.

next stop was nelson, where we set up D’s tent in a hostel’s backyard. we spent the next few days lazing around, exploring abel tasman and farewell spit, knitting, watching movies on the laptop, and generally recovering from six-day workweeks.

D did most of the driving, which I was thankful for – I can drive on the left side if I have to, but I was nervous that I would forget and go barreling into the wrong lane, which would probably be cause for at the very least a dirty look and maybe a rotten kiwifruit lobbed in my direction. I kept turning on the windshield wipers instead of the turn indicator, which was embarrassing. on the way back to christchurch we stopped in punakaiki to see the famed pancake rocks, curious geologic formations that resemble stacks and stacks of pancakes piled onto each other. I started to think about breakfast foods and of course then I got hungry, so we had to leave.

after my first season on the ice, I hiked the banks peninsula track, a 35-km trail that originates and ends in akaroa on the south island. the track can be hiked in either two or four days, and in the interest of time I had done the two-day option. it was pleasantly rigorous and the two huts I stayed at were quaint and comfortable, but I made up my mind to someday return and do the four-day option to take in the stunning views at a more leisurely pace and to stay in all four huts. D hadn’t hiked it before (not properly, anyway – he had hiked most of the peninsula’s roads but hadn’t seen a lot of the coastline), so we signed up to do the track from 25 – 28 february.

it could not have been a more perfect hike. the weather was absolutely gorgeous, the views were just as ridiculously breathtaking as I’d remembered, the other two huts were something out of a dream, and our fellow hikers (five older kiwis from the north island) provided great conversation and company in the evenings.

being middle-aged, they would start out early in the mornings to get a head start, but D and I would inevitably pass them by 9:30 or so. there was lots of good-natured ribbing about this and also the fact that D was diligently working on a knitting project during the downtimes. one of the kiwi blokes, a guy named ross, took every opportunity to poke fun at D (in a chummy way) about his feminine qualities. D took no heed and produced a very respectable hat knit in stockinette stitch with a one-inch, 2x2 ribbed trim at the bottom and a pom-pom on top.

in the evenings, we would settle into our huts, cook up a simple meal and open a bottle of wine (available on an honor basis from the tiny stores that also sold staples like bread, milk, eggs, meat and canned goods). there were tree swings and bathtubs under the stars, dips in the cold southern ocean and hunting for clams on the beach. it was a perfect four days.

upon reaching akaroa, we said goodbye to our new friends and headed back to christchurch to meet up with megan and susie, who had just come off the ice. the four of us flew up to auckland and checked into a seaside cabin at orewa beach, a holiday community north of the city.

the weather was marginal for the next few days, but not to worry – we located the town’s one yarn store and went crazy. the four of us could not have been happier stuck inside the tiny cabin, drinking endless cups of tea, eating biscuits and working on our respective projects. the ducks that frequented the holiday park would waddle up onto the deck and even into the cabin looking for a handout, and ducks are inherently funny creatures, so we were never at a loss for cheap entertainment.

the real reason we were killing time in auckland was because – thanks to my friend benny, who plays bass guitar for santana – we had guest passes to the santana show on 4 march! as if this wasn’t enough, benny treated us all to thai food the night before, where I presented him with some proper antarctic schwag in return – a hat from the south pole and an icestock t-shirt. he was very excited and promised to wear the shirt on stage the following night. sure enough, when we showed up at the vector arena for the concert, he walked onstage sporting his antarctic finery.

it was an amazing show – full of blistering solos by benny and his bandmates, infectious afro-caribbean rhythms, and the unbelievable musicianship of carlos santana himself – but the icing on the cake was backstage access after the show. benny graciously introduced us around, and we were properly starstruck – but the band members were acting like WE were the celebrities, having just come from antarctica!

here we are, L-R:
drummer dennis chambers
bassist benny rietveld (

the band manager even expressed interest in getting the band down to the ice for a concert. perhaps I will have to go back for another season after all.

here is benny modeling the latest in antarctic concert t-shirt fashion.

coming down off the santana concert high, we then took off for three days on the coromandel peninsula east of auckland, an area reputed to have the best beaches in the southern hemisphere. some family friends, john and juanita, maintain a holiday home (or ‘bach,’ as they are called in NZ) there and had invited us to come check out these beaches for ourselves. we were only too happy to oblige.

john and juanita proved the consummate hosts, stuffing us full of food and wine, introducing us around their holiday community, pointing out such essentials as the hammock and the lounge chairs, taking us to a private beach accessible only by a fifteen-minute hike, and providing scintillating conversation. in return, we duly told them more than they had ever wanted to know about life on the ice.

all too soon, the three days were over, and as we packed up our car to leave, john mournfully said We didn’t know what we were going to do with you before you got here, and now we can’t imagine what we’re going to do without you.

truly some of the best people I know.

back in auckland, we said goodbye to susie and megan and flew off to sydney for a week and a half in australia. D attended ‘uni’ in wollongong for a semester and still has a number of good friends in the area, so we crashed with some mates of his before flying off to perth. a highlight of our time was a rugby game at aussie stadium – my first! D’s friend cameron is the strength and conditioning trainer for the sydney warratahs, and we were able to get tickets through his connections. I found rugby much more exciting than regular old american gridiron football, and more complicated than soccer. a very entertaining evening.

the next day we flew to perth to visit with my friends marilyn and allen, as well as marilyn’s son scottie, a chef who is staying with them while looking for work in australia. marilyn was feeling stronger and looking better than a year ago, when she had recently completed several months’ worth of cancer treatments, and it was a joy to see her back to her old vibrant self.

the three of them treated us to a week of gourmet meals, leisurely beach time (they live two blocks from the indian ocean, which was much warmer than the water in NZ), knitting tips for me and D, and day trips to nearby sights.

we picnicked at serpentine falls and made friends with the local kangaroos; and took in a sculpture exhibition at cottesloe beach; but the highlight of the week was a visit to penguin island, a nature reserve where marilyn volunteers.

penguin island is home to several orphaned fairy (or little) penguins, the smallest penguins in the world. we got to see them being fed and then strolled around the island viewing the other wildlife. it was clear to us that this was a very dear place to marilyn, and it was truly magical – a refuge from the hustle and bustle of the real world, where the birds would practically eat out of your hand.

our time in perth at a much-too-soon end, we flew back to sydney and took a day trip to kiama, a lovely little seaside town south of wollongong (where D had attended a semester of uni). we spent several hours dipping our feet in the salt-water swimming pool, strolling around the quaint downtown area, and soaking up the local ambience (mostly in the form of meat pies).

as the crowning touch to a great trip, we were able to get an audience with one of the world’s newest people, my friends doug and belinda's six-day-old son finn. he was charming, debonair, well-versed in the various nutritional properties and benefits of breast milk, and only pooped once (to my knowledge) while I was holding him. what an absolute cutie.

on the 19th, it was off to hawaii for a few weeks with my family. today is the 31st, and it’s been nothing but mellow good times with friends and rellies (including susie, who stayed with us for four days), swimming adventures with tate, house-sitting for my sister’s boss high above honolulu in st. louis heights, catching up with pals (old for me, new for D), lots of potlucks, and – now for something completely different – my first skydiving experience.

as an end-of-season thank you gift, myrna and christina had gifted me with a skydive. I was touched and suspicious all at the same time. what does it mean when your co-workers tell you to jump out of an airplane? anyway, I didn’t want to read too far into the gesture, so we set up the appointment for monday the 24th. christina and her boyfriend brian would be meet us there. susie didn’t want to jump (she had done it once before) and so she would be the event’s documentarian.

we met out at dillingham airfield, on the western point of o'ahu, bright and early. it was perfect weather -- clear and sunny with very little wind. we checked in, signed about sixteen pages of legal waivers, and met our tandem instructors to get into our harnesses. after a short briefing, we walked out to the strip.

our airplane was a tiny twin-otter-like craft, with two benches and a rolling door. all four of us went tandem, so there were eight of us in the airplane. we trundled fast down the airstrip with the door open. my instructor, jason, rolled it shut just before takeoff, placing himself precariously close to the opening. I didn't know whether to be terrified or relieved that this was such a casual affair.

D and his instructor jumped out first. they went to the door of the plane and -- POOF -- they were gone! christina had warned me that it would be weird to see a friend there one moment and gone the next, and it was. it wasn't like they had just stepped around the corner and were hiding -- they were gone! next it was my turn. for some reason, I wasn't nervous, just very focused. they don't give you time to think or to be scared -- it's very streamlined and efficient.

maybe I wasn't nervous because jason was a very laid-back dude wearing shorts and chaco sandals. he had done over nine thousand jumps, so I figured he knew what he was doing. and if something went wrong and our chute didn't open, least my death would be quick.

jason gave me a few brief pointers, we went to the door, he counted one two three and out we went. I thought I would go mad for the first few seconds when I felt like I was falling. I REALLY hate that feeling. but very soon we reached terminal velocity and it didn't feel like falling anymore, just like we were in a wind tunnel. I kept trying to breathe normally and relish the freefall because I knew it would be over too soon, and of course it was.

jason tapped me on the shoulder twice, a signal that he was going to open the chute, and then we SCREECHED to a halt and started floating. it was much calmer and easier to take in our surroundings once the chute went up, and very peaceful. he did a few turns so that we could get a 360-degree view of mokuleia, and then it was time to land. he maneuvered us perfectly onto the landing field and we trotted to a stop.

sorry it’s taken me so long to update the blog – thanks for reading this far! I hope this finds everyone well and enjoying either spring or fall. D and I will be back in seattle on 9 april and are looking forward to catching up with that contingency.

until the next entry,
parachute love,

Friday, February 08, 2008

eclipse craziness.

the christchurch airport has been closed due to an attempted hijacking. this means our C-17 will certainly not launch on time -- it was scheduled to off-deck in CHC at 1000 this morning.

what complicates matters is that there are 15 pax coming out of the south pole station via LC-130 this morning as well. they were destined to land at pegasus airfield at around the same time as the C-17, get off one aircraft, and get on the other -- and head straight on to CHC. they are what we call 'straight-thrus.'

if the C-17 isn't there to meet them, this complicates matters. do we have enough beds in mcmurdo (our maximum bed space is 1100)? do we have shuttle operations to support transporting them from the airfield back to town? if we're going to keep them at the airfield and have them wait for the eventual arrival of the C-17, do we have meals for them at the airfield galley? what about their baggage, if they do come into town -- does it stay on the baggage pallets or come off?

the whole business of sending people off the continent (redeploying them), whether from mcmurdo or south pole or a field camp, is a tricky one. at the end of any given season, there are a finite number of flights that have been agreed-upon, long before, by the military and the NSF. with each flight costing hundreds of thousands of dollars of USAP money, these numbers are not taken lightly. the aircraft have finite numbers of seat pallets on them. this year, in contrast to previous years in which a C-17 held 140 seats, we only have 126 seats per there is a shortage of usable seat pallets due to the war in iraq.

this means that each space is even more coveted, and flight manifests are even harder to build. hundreds of people have to redeploy over a three-week time period, and every single one of those people believes wholeheartedly that their redeployment date is a sacred, untouchable thing.

there's a definite science to manifesting people according to their priority level. top-level priority is any medevac. this brings its own set of problems. a medevac usually requires an attendant in the form of a flight nurse or flight surgeon. and if the patient is on a litter, that takes up the space of four seats. so a total of five people can potentially be bumped if a medevac needs to get out.

the next-top level of priority is someone who has been terminated. for obvious reasons, a recent termination is a potentially dangerous (at the worst) or mischievous (at the least) person. for this reasons, terminations have to be timed carefully, especially in light of possible weather or mechanical delays.

next in line is a patient transport, which is someone who is being sent north for medical reasons that are not dire. for example: earlier in the season, delaney took a soccer ball in the eye at close range. a week later, the pain was gone, but his vision was still blurry, so he went north to get a second opinion from an opthalmologist there.

next would be someone who has not been terminated, but has resigned voluntarily. getting this type of person off-continent is still a priority -- the longer they're around, the more resources they use (to put it in a mildly heartless way), without being productive community members in return. supposedly, several seasons ago, someone quit during winter but, due to flight schedules, remained on-station. he walked down the main hallway, borrowed a hammer from the housing office, returned to the galley, and attacked a co-worker with it. he was later apprehended back in the main hallway swinging the hammer and whistling 'mary had a little lamb.' ever since, resignations have been sent away as quickly as possible.

as far as those who rank at the bottom of the totem pole, there's a science to that too. when planning redeployment, everyone is asked to designate themselves as one of the following categories of traveler:

first available (FAA), which means just that -- put me on the next available flight home.
actual with flight priority -- I know what date I want to travel home, but it's not immediate. and in case of a delay in getting to christchurch, I want the actual flight to take precedence over total time spent in christchurch.
actual with hotel priority -- I know what date I want to travel home, and in case of a delay, I want the number of nights in the hotel to take precedence over the flight date.
open -- I have no idea what I'm going to do yet. I'll figure it out once I get to new zealand.
the most bumpable pax are those who work for the contractor -- raytheon polar services, as opposed to a grantee or someone who works for the NSF -- and who have designated themselves in open status. by definition, they're undecided, and so are the most expendable.

due to the fact that one can be bumped at any time due to pax prioritization, mechanical difficulties with the aircraft, or the threat of bad weather, USAP participants are urged from day one not to make any kind of expensive or hard-to-change onward travel plans. nevertheless, someone always does. a woman in the supply department was told by her supervisor upon signing her contract not to do this. she was told again repeatedly over the course of the season. so what did she do? once she learned of her redeployment date, she booked a flight from christchurch back to the states and then on to frankfurt, germany. for the next day. predictably enough, she got bumped to a later flight due to overcrowding -- and now has to eat the cost of making changes. silly woman!

yesterday afternoon we had a partial solar eclipse. the moon slid in front of the sun for several minutes. the skies and the water in winter quarters bay darkened, everyone rushed to a window or door to look, and I think I heard a dog howl.


knitting pretty.

I've been making pompom hats for people now that the craft fair is over and I can devote more time to individual projects. here's michelle, one of our dining attendants, wearing one of my recent creations.

and a week after I got to go to the south pole, D got to go too -- on a morale trip! never one to sit idly, he made sure to take his current knitting project with him on the plane -- a scarf knit on the diagonal.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

the swedish are coming!

last month, the swedish icebreaker Oden steamed into the ross sea en route to mcmurdo station. for the last two years, the swedes have been hired by the NSF as the primary icebreakers, whose job is to open a channel in the seasonal sea ice surrounding mcmurdo so that the annual fuel tanker and resupply vessel can get to the station. this job used to be filled by the US coast guard with one of their two icebreakers - the Polar Sea and the Polar Star. however, there are myriad costs built into the price of hiring the coast guard vessels -- for example, upkeep and maintenance of the gargantuan ships (compared to the small Oden) and training costs for the crew members, who are required to participate in things like homeland security training. the price of hiring the swedes is but a fraction of renting the coast guard. like shopping for furniture at IKEA, getting the Oden to break ice is a good deal -- neat, stylish and practical.

on board the ship, along with approximately twenty salty crew members, were about twenty-five scientists. these scientists were along for the ride to perform 'science of opportunity' on the way to mcmurdo, and once they got within helo distance of our station, the plan was to helicopter them off and send them north with their scientific samples and data via C-17.

because these grantees (and one cook who had a medical condition) would be coming off the ship and spending some time in mcmurdo prior to the flight north, they needed to be briefed on certain information, just like any other arriving pax. every arrival brief needs to contain the following USAP tidbits:

what number to call in an emergency (911, just like in the states)
touching or harassing the wildife is a big no-no
no smoking indoors unless you're in a designated smoking area
you must have your laptop screened by the IT department for viruses before you plug in
don't download copyrighted information or anything offensive once you do
don't be a poopyhands -- please wash your hands before going into the galley
etc., etc.

I must have been living right, because the day before the Oden was to burp its scientists out onto our shores, I got a phone call that I was headed to the ship via helicopter to perform their arrival briefing.

I hurriedly doctored my existing powerpoint presentation (weeding out a lot of the stuff that is only pertinent if you're staying at mcmurdo for an extended length of time) and ran home to put on my ECW gear and grab D's camera. the NSF station manager had asked me to get some shots of the ice channel from the air, and delaney has a sweet pentax that would be just the thing.

the Oden had already broken a channel about ten miles into the sea ice and had stopped to let us board. there were several of us -- the point of contact for vessel operations, two guys from the science cargo department, two guys from the hazardous waste department, a helitech, and me. in addition to scientists, the ship would be offloading scientific samples, waste and lots of gear. mark and doug would ensure that the haz waste was properly contained and labeled. same for michael and keith with the scientific cargo. jena would weigh all the passengers and calculate the flight load of each helo trip. and once my arrival brief was delivered, I was cheap labor along for the ride.

we whup-whupped out to where it sat perched on the edge of the channel and touched down delicately next to it. they had set out a little ladder for us to climb up to the deck.

we got out of the helicopter, walked over frozen sea ice and clambered up in our bunny boots. a blond middle-aged woman welcomed us aboard and showed us where to stash our snowy boots and hang up our coats. the floor was smooth parquet and the lighting was warm and homey. there were still christmas decorations up, including a christmas tree in the galley. the floor felt smooth and clean under our stocking feet and there were good smells coming from the kitchen. we would be there for lunch, and were informed that today was spaghetti day.

some of the framed prints -- of leaves and flowers and trees -- hanging on the walls looked vaguely familiar. I realized that I had seen them on sale at IKEA in seattle.

a few minutes later, all the scientists had been mustered in the galley. I introduced myself and the reason I was about to make them sit through a short presentation, and launched right into it.

my spiel only took thirty minutes, but it would be several hours before I could board a helicopter back to mcmurdo. there were only two helicopters allocated to shuttle scientists, all their gear and baggage, and us back to mcmurdo, and they were going to have to make several trips. so we relaxed, ate some spaghetti, marveled at the cleanliness of the ship (the kitchen was so clean you could walk around in it barefoot), helped schlep baggage out to the deck so it could be lowered over the side with a net and crane, and took photos.

by mid-afternoon, everyone but the mcmurdoites had been ferried back to mcmurdo. we climbed aboard, strapped on our helmets, plugged in our radios, and lifted off. the pilot let me sit up front this time, and dipped this way and that so I could get views of the seals lounging on the sea ice.

just another day at work.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

playing in the snow.

a few pictures from this year's icestock, the annual outdoor music festival.

Friday, February 01, 2008

a fun picture of our bike rack from a snowstorm a couple of weeks ago.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

international cooperation.

this is one of those stories that I get to hear because of the nature of my job, and I think it's both funny (except for the poor guy's thumb) and a good illustration of the international nature of the seventh continent.

yesterday we got word of a chilean crew member aboard a spanish ship near the french antarctic station cutting off his thumb in an industrial accident. he will be picked up by an italian twin otter aircraft, which is piloted by canadians, and brought to the american station, where he will be evaluated by medical staff before being flown to new zealand and on home.