Wednesday, November 30, 2005

thanksgiving aboard the icebound cruise ship.

this past weekend, mcmurdo station celebrated thanksgiving, that splendid profusion of food, football and handprint-shaped turkey decorations that commemorates the saving of the first settlers' collective ass by the generous native peoples of the eastern seaboard.

thursday and friday were normal workdays, but everyone (except for the poor galley workers, who were slaving over hot cauldrons) received saturday off, and a stupendous meal was served in the dining hall. because the entire population cannot fit into the dining hall at once, thanksgiving dinner was served in three increments -- at 3:00, 5:00, and 7:00 pm. people signed up for one of these time slots, and were also given opportunities to sign up to volunteer in the kitchen. because of my odd shuttle schedule, I had three days off in a row -- friday through sunday -- and, feeling quite blessed, I volunteered for two hours on friday and one hour on saturday. the chefs put me to work wiping down serving areas with soapy water and disinfectant, peeling and chopping a fifty-pound bag of red onions (the ventilation system in the kitchen is so fierce I only teared up once), and washing dishes in the pass-through window with a hand-held spray hose while wearing a full-length rubber apron and elbow-length rubber gloves. (apparently I look good in green rubber.) there are tricks to washing dishes in an industrial galley setting. when the dishes start to accumulate, you spray a little water into the side of the stack, which gets in between and loosens up the food until you can get to it. (this is a good thing to do when people bring back crusty dishes that have been in their dorm rooms for several weeks.) also, you have to angle the spray in the sink so that it gets the food off, but doesn't spray (and thereby anger) the person standing across from you. and due to the vibration of Big Bertha (the dishwashing machine), stacks of trays placed near its opening will 'walk' off and fall on the floor, so trays should be put in as they stack up.

but back to thanksgiving dinner. the food was amazing. most of what we eat down here is pretty good anyway, but the galley outdid themselves for the holiday -- turkey, garlic mashed potatoes, fruit-and-cheese platters, several kinds of fresh-baked pies and gallons of real whipped cream, and complex salads. there were bottles of wine on every table, and real tablecloths! it was strange, and yet lovely, to see everyone out of their work clothes and dressed up for the occasion. I gorged myself silly, to the point of not being able to breathe, rested, and then gorged some more.

sunday, the day after the celebration, was a truly stunning day -- about 25F, sunny and clear, with no wind. four of us decided that we ought to try to negate the effect of what we'd eaten the day before, so we set out to hike Castle Rock -- a there-and-back to a rock formation 3.6 miles from mcmurdo (see it in the background, right). the trail also offers spectacular views of Mr. Erebus, an active volcano and one of only a few in the world that actually has a permanent pool of molten lava in its bowl. most days, there is a plume of steam rising lazily from Erebus' peak, but yesterday it was steam-free.

we filled our water bottles, slathered on the sunscreen, donned long underwear and windproof outer layers, grabbed some trays from the dining hall for sledding, and checked out with the firehouse. (in the event that your party doesn't check back in on time, the firehouse sends out a search-and-rescue team. it is considered bad form, and is quite embarrassing to boot, to forget to check in and have them come after you for nothing.) we also had one of our party (a production cook in the galley) make us leftover filet mignon / bell pepper / provolone sandwiches for our lunch. and we were off.

we followed the well-flagged trail up and out of town and toward the rock, following the footprints of hikers who had gone out earlier. the first couple of miles were uphill, and a light powdering of fresh snow had fallen, which made for gorgeous views (see photo, left) but difficult hiking. I found myself slipping and sliding in my snow boots, and wished I had a trekking pole (or, at the very least, a didgeridoo) for stability.

a few miles in, we came upon an 'apple' (so named for its shape and color), one of the wilderness survival structures placed along the trail in which hikers can rest, warm up, and (if necessary) eat emergency rations or use the telephone. there was a sort of guest book in the apple, in which people had left comments such as 'glad to be not working in the galley today. kevin and keith.'

outside the apple was a yellow flag, which was surrounded by patches of yellow snow. because antarctica is so sunny and dry, dehydration is a constant threat, and hikers are encouraged to drink insane amounts of water, 'copious and clear' urine being the objective. judging by the fact that I could see exactly where previous hikers had voided their bladders, there was lots of dehydration going on.

here is our hiking party. from left: zeke, the production cook from maryland; jessica, the general assistant from virginia; me; and jeff, the dining assistant from somewhere in florida, I think. we all met during deployment.

once we got to the rock (which, of course, needs to be spoken in a Sean Connery voice), we climbed up it and relaxed for a while. jeff suggested we do a 'christian rock band' photo, based on his observation that every christian rock band seems to have an album cover featuring the members of the band standing very seriously and looking out in different directions. quite an observation for a jew. here it is:

in addition to the fact that one can hike toward an active volcano and pee at a communal flagpole, one of the craziest things about Life at McMurdo is the seemingly boundless cornucopia (notice use of thanksgiving-themed metaphor) of extracurricular activities offered on station. today I was standing on Highway 1, the main hallway in Building 155, along which are posted notices and sign-up sheets for all sorts of goings-on. I found my eyes glazing over at the sheer number of offerings. there were fliers for:

computer class
rock climbing
requests for volunteer shuttle drivers for the weekly 'American night' at the Kiwi base
electrical skills 101
ross island yacht club (whatever that is)
chess club
guts 'n' butts
belly dancing
survival russian
vipassana meditation
volleyball league
dodgeball league
a lecture on solar heating and energy
swing dancing
independent-film screening at the coffeehouse (this week: Japanese Story)
stitch 'n' bitch
bingo night
a presentation on vintage tractors
live music at gallagher's pub
cosmic bowling
a tour of Scott's Discovery Hut (a historical site about .5 mile from town)
the annual Turkey Trot fun run
disc golf tournament (I have no idea what disc golf is)
christmas choir practice
a travelogue of one woman's trip to the Himalayas, and
annual firehouse expo.

keep in mind: this is one week's worth of recreation options. during the holidays, yes, but still, good god.

someone compared life at mcmurdo to being on a cruise ship, where there are activities at every turn -- shuffleboard, ballroom dancing, and other things that white people like. it's sometimes overwhelming, and one feels an urgent desire to withdraw and lock oneself in one's room with an iPod and a plate of brownies.

work is going really well. I've been driving Ivan more these days, and just last sunday I had to drive him through Derelict Junction, which is a kind of parking lot / courtyard in the center of town, while taking a load of Air National Guard guys to their dorm. I momentarily interrupted the rugby practice going on there, and several players stood back and watched, wonderstruck, as I skilfully maneuvered the orange beastie next to the ANG dorm, past the parked trucks and a skua that refused to get up, and back out. or maybe they were just peeved that I interrupted the practice. hmm.

my new work schedule, which started monday -- 7:00 am to 7:00 pm -- is indescribably lovely compared to the previous 5:30 am start time. I can actually socialize, read, knit, or whatever past 8:30 pm! woo hooooo! last night I went to the stitch 'n' bitch, to the coffeehouse, and then to a birthday party at gallagher's (the nonsmoking pub). out of control.

it's time to fold my laundry.

Monday, November 21, 2005

an Ice glossary.

big red.
1. cinnamon-flavored chewing gum, with 1980s advertisements featuring suspiciously wholesome white couples making out to the jingle 'kiss a little longer / longer with big red.'
2. gargantuan down-filled parka issued by the CDC (clothing distribution center) and modeled by co-worker kris at left. worn at mcmurdo station (polies have green parkas). piled in mounds at indoor events such as parties, sometimes ending up 'lost' and then sold on eBay. has pockets large enough to hold jimmy hoffa and a roll of mentos. I don't have a big red because the small size they offered me at the CDC was too big, so I opted for the brown Carhartt parka instead. it makes me feel like a total badass, and it's easy to find at parties.

a situation in which a flight is turned back from its destination and forced to return to its point of origin because of bad weather or mechanical problems. this is a common occurrence with transantarctic flights, for obvious reasons, and much dreaded. sack lunches given to passengers before flights contain two sandwiches and lots of snacks in case of a boomerang. with C-17 jets making the trip from Christchurch to McMurdo in about five hours, a boomerang is potentially 10 hours long...but a prop LC-130 takes eight and a half hours, for a potential 17-hour boomerang.

a boondoggle is a trip out of town, sometimes on a helicopter or a snowmobile. they are offered to us as a 'bonus' of sorts, or as a morale booster, by the national science foundation through our supervisors. GAs (general assistants) seem to go on lots of boondoggles, especially the ones that require a lot of snow to be shoveled, because that is what GAs are mostly paid to do. the trip could be to a dive shack on the sea ice to put radio collars on seals, or to 'penguin ranch' to herd penguins into a corral (see photo), or to cape evans for ice fishing. I have yet to go on a boondoggle, but I hope to be selected for one before the end of the season. to this end, I have been e-mailing pictures of myself in various capable poses (with ice drill, outfitted with spurs and lasso, etc.) to the NSF representatives.

bunny boots.
white rubber boots issued by the CDC as part of extreme cold-weather gear package. have air-valve to release air trapped between two layers of boot for extra warmth. ugly as sin and heavy as a lead brick, but they do keep your feet warm. I only wear mine on station-sanctioned trips such as sea ice school, preferring my sorels for work and for short hiking trips.

shorthand for christchurch, pronounced 'cheech.' the nearest city in the civilized world to mcmurdo. full of amiable kiwis, ginger beer, and pretty trees and flowers.

a catchall term for the flu/cold that affects everyone, every season. because mcmurdo is such a small, insular community, germs spread quickly and hygiene seems to be an obsession. signs in the bathrooms and kitchens urge everyone to wash their hands after peeing, making mud pies, using computer keyboards, playing rugby, and so forth. echinacea and vitamins are available for free in the clinic, and there is a multi-person handwashing station in front of the galley (in the photo at right, Hilary, one of the janitors, is restocking paper towels). I think I'm starting to get a little obsessive about cleanliness myself. today I saw a girl use the restroom and leave without washing her hands, and I almost ran after her and spanked her. bad, bad germy person!

pronounced 'finjee' and stands for 'f*cking new guy.' used to describe anyone who is a first-season mcmurdoite. neutral in tone, sometimes derogatory. can also be used as a verb, as in 'we FNGed together in 2003, but he went back and got a job in denali national park and I wintered over.' see winter over, below.

all food is flown in by cargo plane, and while most of what we eat is cunningly and deliciously fashioned by the capable galley workers from frozen or canned supplies, sometimes fresh salads and fruits appear in the dining hall. these are collectively known as freshies. people rush to pile their trays high with green salad and cantaloupe. the salad bowl is the size of my niece's wading pool (see photo, right), and it empties in a matter of minutes. (there is also a small greenhouse on station that produces things like mint and butter lettuce, but it is run more as a hydroponics experiment and less as a source of roughage.)

green brain.
small dark-green notebook issued to all workers; used to keep notes, wish lists, phone numbers, dark thoughts regarding having to get up at 0430 every day, etc.

1. a mediocre 1968 film about a playful volkswagen beetle.
2. a storm out of the south, usually of the condition 1 variety. derived from a combination of the words 'hurricane' and 'blizzard.'

nickname for the LC-130 (ski-equipped) and C-130 prop planes that bring pax and supplies to the Ice.

the Ice.
a generic term for antarctica, as in the saying 'the first year you come to the Ice, it's for the experience. the second year, it's for the money. by the third year, it's because you don't fit in anywhere else.' (jerri nielsen, the doctor who wrote a cheesy book about her 'heroic rescue' from the south pole after she was diagnosed with breast cancer, used the phrase 'of the Ice' to describe herself and others who have worked in antarctica. no one I have met here has ever used or heard that phrase.)

short for 'midnight rations,' the midnight meal served to night-shift workers from midnight to 0100. also well-attended by people who need drunken munchies after a night at the bar; but the night-shift workers get served first provided they have their ID cards and don't smell like beer.

shorthand for passengers, as in 'cindy, why do you keep that axe handle behind the seat?' 'I use it on unruly pax.'

someone working at the south pole station. rumored to be a crusty, hard-core lot with overgrown ZZ Top-like beards (Tom, right, has trimmed his). wear green parkas instead of Big Red. apparently also see McMurdo as a bit of an overcrowded luxury resort, and McMurdoites as a noisy, spoiled group of FNGs.

1. an aggressive, scavenging gull-like bird; hangs out near the galley on station and has been known to swoop down on people carrying trays of food back to their rooms. relatively fearless; one was run over by the Terra Bus last year after it refused to budge from the middle of the road. I took the picture at left standing two feet away from the skua, who stared at me with beady, soulless eyes. I feel certain it was sizing me up as a potential hot meal.
2. a general term for the practice of reusing and recycling things that you no longer need, such as clothing, room decorations, electronics, books, and so forth (usually at the end of the season, when you leave to go backpacking in new zealand and don't want to take the sweater that aunt faye made for you). can also be used as a verb ('where did you get that awesome framed print of bob marley?' 'oh, I skuaed it from 210.') or a location ('have you been in skua central lately? there's nothing there but stretched-out wife-beaters and some dirty socks.')

winter over.
refers to the season from february through october, when most people leave antarctica and a skeleton crew stays behind to keep things running. temperatures drop to a horrific low and, except for the aurora australis (southern lights), the sky is dark for seven months. pluses: everyone gets their own room, the station is quiet; lots of time to work on personal projects; impressive beards; no problems finding a table in the galley. minuses: a tendency to not finish spoken thoughts, simply ending mid-sentence and drifting off; lots of blank staring; depression.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

a day in the life of a mcmurdo shuttle driver.

0430. my watch alarm goes bleep-bleep-bleep. I reach over and turn it off quickly, lest it disturb my roommates: sarah, the utility technician with huge biceps who fixes furnaces and reads up on combustion systems for fun; and alison, the rail-thin firefighter-turned-bakery-assistant who brings us cookies to derail our diets. they both start work at the much saner hour of 0730 and are still fast asleep. I gulp half a nalgene bottle of water (in 10% relative humidity, you always wake up thirsty), tiptoe down the ladder from my upper bunk, grab my towel and toiletry basket, and head to the restroom shared by the women of our floor. (having never lived in a mixed-gender dorm situation before, I always feel faintly giggly when I see guys on the hall. one of these days I will grow up.)

still half-asleep under the harsh fluorescent lights, I brush my teeth, wash my face and make a half-hearted attempt to do something about my mophead (see extremely flattering photo, left). since my hair is under a bandanna or knitted hat all day, it doesn’t really make sense to invest a lot of time or effort in styling it. I think I've actually started to plan outfits around my hat.

back in my room, I pull on long underwear, a long-sleeved shirt, fleece vest, two pairs of socks, my (pink!) sorel boots that are rated to -40F, a hat, leather work gloves and insulated carhartt overalls. hmmm. it seems I've done this dressing routine before...somewhere in central asia.

0455. I grab my parka, keys, lip balm, sunglasses and water bottle and head downstairs to the galley for breakfast. the hot food line opens at promptly 0500, and I have to be at work by 0520, so I hurriedly grab a couple of pieces of bacon, hash browns, something that's supposed to be scrambled eggs, half a grapefruit, a cup of tea and a glass of juice and wolf it all down while reading the latest New York Times Digest (eight pages of domestic and world news briefs that comes to us by fax daily). but for this small gesture of connection with the outside world, I could, for all intents and purposes, be living on another planet.

0515. I pull on my parka and gloves and go through the double galley doors into the cold. although the sun hasn't set all night, its thin slant of light offers no warmth in the face of a chilling -10-degree polar wind. with my hood up and sunglasses on to protect me from blowing volcanic dust, I cross the gravel street to Building 140, home of the Shuttle Ops office. the night crew is just getting ready to leave after their own 12-hour shift. they've checked the fluid levels on my vehicle and warmed it up, and have even set out my ECW-gear bag and handheld VHF radio. all I need to do is sign for the radio, grab my bag, fill my water bottle and I'm out the door.

0525. my first duty this morning is ice runway shuttle, which means driving back and forth between town and the ice runway on the sea ice every thirty minutes. my van can hold ten passengers ('pax') plus myself. on some runs, I have ten pax -- on others, none. I unchock the tires, climb into the van and turn the dash and handheld radios to Channel 1, the channel on which shuttles communicate with each other and with the office. careful not to cut across the path of a forklift or fuel truck, I pull out and head for the bus stop in the middle of town -- Derelict Junction, better known as DJ. there is already a crowd waiting to be taken out to IceTown -- a motley mix of Air National Guard guys in green flight suits, fuelies with diesel-soaked gloves, and cargo people wearing overalls and parkas like me.

they board my shuttle, some of them greeting me by name. having done this run for a few weeks, I'm starting to piece together who's who -- the air-traffic controllers, the guys that fly the Twin Otter prop planes to the field camps, the power plant technicians. we pull away from DJ at exactly half past and drive slowly through the station, down the hill toward the transition where land meets frozen sea ice.

out here, away from town, I'm allowed to go the astounding speed of 25 miles per hour. the heavy-machinery fleet has already graded the road, taking away most of the bumps and drifts. I'm driving on six feet of frozen-solid seawater. this is rad.

we pass jamesway huts and huge trailers, weddell seals lolling on the ice like giant leeches, and the ubiquitous green flags on bamboo poles until we reach IceTown. I drop everyone off at the galley except for the Guard guys, who need to go out to their plane for a mission to the Pole this morning. they pick up their emergency survival gear (weighing 53 pounds per person) from Hut 18, and we drive to the staging area, where I radio the airfield supervisor for permission to enter the ramp:

'MC1, this is Shuttle Cindy. Copy?'
Go ahead, Shuttle Cindy.
'Permission to approach Skier 92 with crew?'
Yup. You're clear.

0545. I click on my hazard lights and crawl out onto the ramp at the requisite five miles an hour. the ski-equipped LC-130 crouches next to the fuel pits, sucking fuel through a six-inch hose like a mosquito lunching on a meaty thigh. the guys thank me as they file out and head for their plane. as new drivers, we were warned that Guard guys can sometimes be a hassle to deal with -- big egos, small minds -- but I have yet to encounter one that is not polite and cooperative.

0555. I radio the MC1 to let him know I'm leaving the ramp, drive slowly back to the galley, and wait and watch for the plane to take off. it roars by and lifts into the sky, headed south. it'll be back in the afternoon, or sooner if the temperature at the Pole is too cold. it has to be warmer than -50F for the plane to land. in the meantime, I've got more taxi runs to do.

to be continued, probably on a bad-weather day.

oh, and here is a photo of me and Ivan. he's my new boyfriend. he weighs 67,000 pounds when at his 56-passenger capacity.

cute, yeah? like a roach next to a dishwasher.

Monday, November 07, 2005

okay, I lied in my last post. I was a hula girl for halloween, complete with fake palm tree.

it's been an eventful week. besides wowing the party scene with my tropical foliage-accessory, I drove Ivan the Terra Bus on two round-trips to Williams Field (a snow runway six miles from town) in Condition One. (if you remember from my earlier post, Condition One means one or more of the following: wind greater than 55 knots, visibility of less than 100 feet, or temperatures lower than -100F.) my job was to transport about thirty FEMC (facilities, engineering, maintenance and construction) workers out to the building there. I drove them out at 6:45 in the morning, then went to rescue them after lunch once the snowstorm hit. Ivan was the only vehicle allowed by the station manager to make the trip out there, as the hard-packed "eggshell" snow road had been completely obscured by blowing and shifting loose snow and any other vehicle would have gotten stuck. verily verily I say unto thee, the experience of driving a forty-four-foot bus with three axles, six balloon tires (all taller than I), a 56-person capacity, a motorized stairwell, and a driver's seat ten feet above the ground in a snowstorm so dense that it looked like we were driving through a sea of skim milk, was completely exhilarating. the 'road,' once you leave the safety of land and pass over the transition to drive on the frozen sea, is marked only by a row of green flags attached to bamboo poles, placed about a hundred feet apart. the storm had blown several of the flags down, resulting in large gaps between flags. I was doing less than fifteen miles per hour, giant engine in fifth gear, crouched low over the horizontal steering wheel, peering intently through the swirling white in front of me and stopping when the next flag on the route was obscured. several times, I could see only the flag nearest us and would have to stop until the storm parted just enough that I could see, faintly in the white distance, the little green nylon blip that signaled the way to go. and so on, until we reached land and the safety of the station. a couple of the guys approached me afterward to congratulate me on a job well-driven.

here is a photo of what Ivan looks like, taken from its manufacturer's Canadian website. our Ivan is orange, not green and yellow, but you get an idea. I will try to include a picture of the both of us so you can get a sense of our size difference.

so, why am I here?

my friend chris raised the above question -- a good one. why am I driving huge vehicles through three-foot snowdrifts, going days without fresh fruits and vegetables, living and working in temperatures, as my fellow shuttle driver lonnie says, 'colder than a witch in the morning,' and missing my friends and family, at one of the world's furthest outposts? why is there a station here, with generators and bulldozers and dormitories, at all?

McMurdo Station is the largest of three stations run by the United States Antarctic Program, which is funded by the National Science Foundation in the interest of doing scientific research on the highest, driest, coldest, windiest, emptiest continent on earth. there are grantees here studying everything from seismology to geology to glaciology to the ozone layer to cosmic rays to the antifreeze properties in penguin blood. the other two US stations are Palmer, which is located on the Palmer Peninsula across the Drake Passage from the southern tip of South America; and South Pole (referred to simply as 'Pole', as in "how come I haven't seen chris at yoga lately?" "oh, he left for Pole last week."). if I have to tell you where that is, we need to have a word with your third-grade teacher.

most of us -- shuttle drivers, forklift operators, galley workers, janitors, nurses, firefighters, IT technicians, carpenters, painters, recreation specialists -- are here to support the scientists' work by making the township of McMurdo run. and fun. (see Halloween photo above for proof.) and of those groups, most work in the austral summer season -- october through february -- with a few intrepid souls 'wintering over' every year in complete darkness and temperatures that are way, waaayyyy lower than freezing.

here is a picture of me from sea-ice school a couple of weeks ago. a bunch of us went out a few miles in a hagglund (photo below). shuttle drivers are required to take this day-long course, designed to help you evaluate cracks in sea ice and determine whether they are safe to traverse in a vehicle. amazingly, a thickness of only 30" is required for any size vehicle, even a big forklift. who knew?

the next course I am scheduled to attend is 'happy camper' school, at which I will learn how to build and sleep in a shelter made out of blocks of snow. that won't be until christmastime, so the weather should be nicer then -- 'nicer' being a relative term.

** update 11/11/05: oops, forgot to add the pic of the hagglund. here it is. so cute, yeah? **

today is monday. I'm off from work, which is good because I've got a light case of the antarctic crud. stuffy nose and sore throat. it's about 18 degrees F, very little wind, sunshiny blue skies and light clouds. sending big fuzzy emperor penguin chick hugs to everyone.