Monday, October 23, 2006

birdie dreams.

here's a photo of my cockatiel, boba fett, who lives with my friends christy and eli in a very brady bunch-esque yellow house with shag carpeting in bellingham, washington.

boba fett is almost ten years old. she was hatched in escondido, california in january 1997; I bought her eight weeks later. her favorite foods are cheese, boiled soybeans, scrambled eggs, millet spray, french fries, cherry tomatoes, organic kale, steamed broccoli, and a whole lot of other things. basically, she'll eat anything that she sees her mommy eating, whether it's good for her or not.

christy and eli have six birds of their own. all the birds, including boba, live in one room of their six-bedroom house. the room looks out onto the massive organic garden (pictured at left), the yard, the schoolbus that one of their tenants lives in, and the shed that's larger than their last house in seattle. when the weather is nice, the birds go outside (in their cages) for sunshine and fresh air. they eat organic produce all day and listen to eli play the piano and guitar. they fly around their room until it's time to go to bed at night, when christy covers their cages with cozy blankets and says soothing birdie things to them. when they're dusty, they go in the shower with eli.

in a future life, I would like to come back as one of christy and eli's birds.

moving back to the ice...
here's a photo of the 'chaladies,' which is what we girls who work in the Chalet like to call ourselves when we're feeling sassy.

the one on the left, who looks like she combed her hair with a rock, is me. then, L - R:

tami, who supports the NSF side of things. she works with the NSF personnel who deploy to the ice, baby-sits DVs (distinguished visitors), such as congressmen and -women and high-ranking military personnel, and is in charge of training volunteers to be historic hut guides. in her real life, she's a high-school social studies teacher. snacks almost as much as I do.

myrna, our pax coordinator. she makes sure that grantees have their post-ice travel plans all straightened out, which is no mean feat when you realize that many grantees are off like a shot to field camps as soon as they arrive at mcmurdo. myrna was a 'kennedy kid,' serving in the peace corps in chile way back in the early '60s. in fact, she was in chile when kennedy was shot. one of her many brilliant ideas involves developing and marketing a device that will prevent scorpions from crawling into beds. (she lives in arizona.)

christina, our admin assistant and first line of defense. among other things, she answers phones, greets visitors, keeps the chalet stocked and organized, and compiles the biweekly all-hands meeting presentation. christina works out more than any human being I've ever met. she also lived in japan for a while and taught english, so we have that in common. when I teach her how to do something particularly satisfying, such as importing something from Access into Excel, she likes to jump up and hug me.

dawn, the senior chalet admin from last summer season, who also wintered over. I arrived in late august and had five weeks of turnover with dawn, who then left on 10 october. for the past ten or so years, she has spent the austral summers here and worked as a tour guide in denali national park in alaska during the off-season. knits like a fiend.

I'm too tired to have an actual plot to my blog entry tonight, so here's another random photo. this one is of me and my friend amber, halfway up ob hill. as the days get longer and longer, night isn't really so dark because the sun sits just below the horizon. when it's clear out, the sunsets are spectacular. on this particular evening, mt. erebus was looking especially fabu-rous.

I've been spending too much time at work. last night I dreamt I was describing my job at the chalet to a FNG.

the night before that, I dreamed about the station org chart, which I've been working on every day for weeks.

when you've spent a whole week staring at org charts, conducting arrival briefs, updating phone lists, laying down pre-season expectations for your team, and doling out office spaces to visiting denver personnel, you sometimes need an opportunity to get out, blow off some steam, and shake shake shake your booty. if a venue is presented to you in the form of a party at the station's non-smoking bar, fantastic. if the music to which you plan to shake your booty in this venue happens to be from the 1970s (think The O'Jays, Average White Band, Isaac Hayes, and the Village People), even better. and if you happen to procure a really loud muumuu, platform sandals, and a wig made from orange feathers in which to make your appearance at said party, just doesn't get any better than that.

disco love,
XO cindy

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

charismatic. [kar'iz-mat'ik] adj. possessing an extraordinary ability to attract.

megafauna. [meg-uh-faw-nuh] n. land animals of any particular region or time, that can be seen with the unaided eye.

from 'the term charismatic megafauna refers to animals that have widespread popular appeal. examples include the giant panda, the asian elephant, and the blue whale.'

the highlight of my antarctic career (thus far).

sunday before last, I was asked to lend my assistance as a delta driver on a rec-sponsored trip to cape evans. as you may recall from last year's postings, deltas are large, boxy and ponderous passenger vehicles commissioned during the days when the US navy ran mcmurdo station (see photo below). they carry roughly twenty passengers in a box on the back of the vehicle, and the only way for the passengers (or pax) to communicate with the driver is via hand-held radio. the tires are large, smooth balloon tires that are taller than I am. and they are one of the few types of vehicles that are allowed to drive over the sea ice to cape evans, seventeen miles north of mcmurdo.

cape evans is the site of a historic hut built by robert falcon scott during the age of heroic exploration. the hut was designed as a base for groups who would lay supply depots on scott's planned overland traverse to the south pole, from 1910 to 1913. insulation was provided by seaweed sewn into quilts and placed between the double-planked inner and outer walls. over the years, the hut housed the men of two expeditions, their ponies, and their dogs. the detritus of their hard existence is still present, perfectly preserved in the cold, dry desert air -- rusted tins of cocoa powder, cloudy glass beakers and test tubes, photographic equipment, saddles and sleeping bags and a desiccated penguin carcass laid out on the lab table.

rec was short of trained drivers, so I jumped in -- a not entirely altruistic move, as I had never been to the historic hut and was keen to get in and have a look. (these huts, per the request of the antarctic heritage trust, are only accessible with a trained guide and by appointment.) also, it had been a while since I'd driven a delta, and as they always make me feel tall and powerful, kind of like a superhero, I figured it would be a good way to spend a sunday afternoon.

the rec department had put a sign-up sheet on the rec board a few weeks before, with the caveat that preference would be given to those who had just survived wintering over. the sign-up sheet filled up like lightning, and so did a separate sheet for hopeful alternates. the deltas hold twenty pax each, and so we anticipated being able to take roughly forty folks on this trip.

the morning of the trip, everyone was told to show up at the handwashing station in building 155 at 10:45 am. we would push off at 11:00. the night before, the carp shop had thrown their annual party, and people were looking haggard and hung-over. to make things even more exciting, mcmurdo had switched to daylight savings time at 2:00 am, and several people overslept. as a result, the gaggle of alternates who showed up all got seats.

my friend andre (see photo), a firefighter who had just wintered over himself, was to drive the other delta. we had warmed them up earlier and parked them outside in the courtyard. we broke off into delta-sized groups and briefed our pax. rules of the hut: only twelve inside at a time. no food or drink allowed. photographs encouraged, but touching forbidden. no peeing in the snow around the hut. all peeing would be done out on the sea ice or in pee bottles borrowed from the berg field center. (poop was not even an option. either you did it while still in town, or you gritted your teeth and thought of other things until we got back.) rules of the delta: no one except the driver is allowed to open the back passenger box. the only exception to this rule is if you see water halfway up the windows. in that event, you would be best advised to open the ceiling hatch and let yourself out. everyone is to wear seatbelts. deltas are notorious for having no shock absorbers whatsoever, and people have thrown their backs out or cracked their heads open on windows when the delta took a bump too quickly. and, I told my pax, in addition to the occasional stops for bio-breaks, if we saw any wildlife, we would definitely stop for photo opportunities. I thought to myself, early in the season for wildlife anyway. maybe a seal or two if we get lucky, or an adelie if we're really living right.

everyone clambered in and strapped down, and we set out on the flagged road to cape evans. andre drove out front, and I brought up the rear. deltas max out at about 18 miles per hour, so this would be a leisurely hour-and-a-half ride one way, plus any time it took to dig the deltas out if we got stuck (a common occurrence on the less-traveled roads, especially after a snowstorm). there were shovels in the pax boxes, along with cabin-fevered winter-overs who were giddy with excitement about seeing the sun after seven months of darkness. andre and I joked around via handheld radio, and while it wasn't exactly sunny out, conditions were calm and the flags marking the road hung still. it was going to be a good day for a trip.

the two people riding in the front of the delta with me, justin and holly, were busy snapping photos of each other and the landscape, and handing me things like lip balm when I asked them to. all of a sudden, justin said, what's that?

there was something sticking up out of the snow about a hundred yards off to the right, and slightly to the front of us -- at about the 2:00 position. it was at about 3:00 for andre's delta. too tall for sastrugi, too pointy for a seal. what is that? I didn't want to hope, even when I saw the beaks. it had to be too good to be true. it couldn't be what it seemed to be, which was a group of penguins, a football field's length away from us.

I radioed up to andre. delta andre, delta cindy. copy?

delta andre here.

andre, wildlife sighting. two o'clock. I'm stopping.

I put the orange beast in park, set the air brake, and busted out of the driver box to run around to the back. my heart was beating madly. I could barely get the chain off the door.

I opened the pax door. the pax had heard the radio traffic on their handheld and were standing up, ready to jump out. take it easy, guys, I said. we've got penguins. bring your cameras but keep quiet. I let the ladder down.

we crept around to the front of the delta, whispering excitedly. there they were. there were a bunch of them. shutters started clicking. off in the distance, andre's pax stood in a tight group near their delta.

then, all of a sudden, the gaggle of beaks seemed to become more...interested. they stood up a little taller. then they dropped down to the snow. the penguins were scooting toward us on their bellies. straight toward us.

the penguins slithered along, pushing themselves with their powerful, scaly feet. they were big suckers -- at least they looked big to me -- meaty and rotund. the sun had come out. it glinted off their thousands of tiny feathers. no one breathed. no one moved. this was straight out of March of the Penguins.

when they'd come to within about thirty feet of us, they stopped and stood up again. some of them flapped their wings in what looked like a happy, excited manner. some of them were trumpeting. all of us just about died. people had recovered sufficiently to start taking photos and videos. there was much muttering. oh my god. oh jesus. oh my god.

this went on for probably about thirty seconds, but it seemed like years.

the antarctic conservation act, a federal law that put into effect in 1978, states, 'Any action that alters the normal behavior of wildlife may be considered harassment.' if it's reacting to your presence, you're too close. this is drilled into the heads of every USAP participant from the time they fly into denver for orientation until they leave the ice five or fourteen months later.

were we altering their 'normal' behavior? it depends on what one considers 'normal' penguin behavior. they of course would not have approached that particular spot, had there been no group of twenty strange-looking beings in red parkas. but penguins are naturally curious creatures. I have heard countless stories from grantees and other personnel who go into the field about their close encounters with these bold and guileless birds. could it be considered harassment? no. the penguins were completely unafraid and completely interacting with us of their own accord. there was no chasing, no herding, no attempt to take penguin pelts. as far as they were concerned, we were some other novel species of penguin, come to say hello. there was no violation of the ACA. our noses were clean. this was a moment designed for pure happiness and wonder.

and oh yeah, the historic hut was pretty cool, too.

here's a photo of a neck gaiter I knitted up recently.

more to come,
chalet cindy