Thursday, December 27, 2007

sleigh ride.

as I mentioned in a previous posting, this season I was selected with five others to be a harbinger of good cheer as a santa's elf. we were on weather delay friday and saturday, but sunday dawned clear and calm, and by 11:50 am we were aloft -- with packages of goodies, lots of spare camera batteries, and enough babbling, childlike excitement to power a small country.

we got dressed in our santa 'n' elf garb at the helo pax terminal. there were enough santa jackets, hats, and pants for most of us -- and a cute little mrs. santa dress for me. putting this stuff on over our ECW gear (which is required for all helicopter flights) was a bit of a challenge -- thank god most of it was generously oversized.

here I am with larry, the operations manager, who went as santa in place of terry, the NSF representative. terry was busy that day, so larry (who is more santa-like in appearance anyway) got to go.

we were to deliver boxes of goodies to each field camp, along with any post that had arrived for them. the boxes contained wheels of brie, sausages, and fresh-baked pastries and cookies from our hardworking galley staff. the boxes were loaded into the 'meat wagon' for transport to the helicopter.

once we were all dressed and had selected our helmets, weighed in and given our hand-carry bags to the helitech, we got a safety briefing. as in my experience a couple of weeks ago, when I accompanied the DVs to the historic huts, I learned how to use the radio embedded in the helmet, how to use the four-point harness seat belt, and what position to assume in case of a hard landing. here's jena pointing out our six destinations on a ross island region map. we would be visiting lake hoare, lake fryxell, marble piont, minna bluff, mt. morning, and black island.

we all posed in front of the helo pax terminal for a pre-flight photo. L - R: don the airfield operations manager, jim the heavy shop supervisor, kathy the postmistress (in the background), gerald the fleet ops supervisor, larry the operations manager, and mike the crary laboratory utility technician. most of these folks have several seasons of ice time under their belts -- gerald alone has nearly twenty-five -- so I was very surprised to be selected as their fellow elf.

first stop: lake hoare in the dry valleys, a field camp located smack dab next to canada glacier. (in case any of you are wondering, a glacier is basically a river of ice. it moves a lot slower than a river made of water, but it still moves. chunks fall, or 'calve,' off a glacier's front, which can make it an exciting place to be.) there is a permanent camp staff of two people, and various science groups use the camp as their base on and off throughout the season. the primary group at the moment is studying ecosystem processes and biodiversity in a cold desert environment.

we were greeted by rae, the camp manager, who escorted us into the kitchen hut and gave us tea and cookies. we might as well have been visiting a mining camp on the moon. there were tents scattered about, as well as huts containing various pieces of scientific equipment. and right there, looming next to the camp, was the unearthly white glacier.

then rae took us on a short nature walk around camp. first stop: the desiccated skeleton of a long-dead penguin. the dry valleys are a long way from the sea ice, but occasionally a confused or disoriented seabird or -mammal will wander up, away from its family and friends, to die a lonely death in total isolation. scientists have pondered what would make an animal do this -- perhaps a virus that attacks the part of the brain that enables navigation or orienteering, or an innate instinct that tells a sick animal to leave and not endanger the others.

here's rae, standing next to the six-year-old carcass of a seal that met the same sad, confused fate. what would possess a seal, so graceful underwater but ungainly and awkward on land, to haul itself miles and miles over gravel and scree to starve to death in the dry valleys? poor guy.

here's one of the grantees, a woman named andrea, standing next to a scott tent anchored by rocks. as if we needed anything to further cement the whole 'I'm on the moon' feeling.

here's another gorgeous view of a glacier. these sights were a dime a dozen. I had to pinch myself repeatedly.

we landed at minna bluff at the same time as another helicopter. an environmental crew was there to do some documentation and recovery, so it was an exciting time for the minna bluff camp. two helos in their front yard.

we lined up for another group shot. yes, it was kind of windy.

I took about a hundred and fifty pictures over the course of the flight, way too many to post here, but these were the highlights. it truly was one of the best days of my life. a chance to see the beautiful ross sea and environs from the air, with a experienced pilot and picture-perfect weather...and all while wearing a red poofy dress with cotton balls glued onto it. it doesn't get any better.

christmas in the mcmurdo ski lodge.

merry merry!

and back to work, the day after christmas.

Sunday, December 23, 2007


here's a pic of me at this year's arts & crafts show, which was held on 9 december. this year I decided to crochet flower pins (like the one ann curry was wearing in the picture earlier in my blog). the freshie hats were a big hit last year, but they were pretty labor-intensive; it took me about three hours to make one hat. I can make a flower pin in less than thirty minutes. so I was able to make forty-five of them. and most of them sold during the two-hour show. I keep seeing them pop up around station -- at least four made appearances on performers' outfits during the women's soiree, which took place the following saturday.

Friday, December 21, 2007

I'm running on 3.5 hours of sleep. a nap is in order very shortly.

this week has been anything but uneventful. two nights ago, a DC-3 aircraft carrying ten souls departed a remote field camp called mt. patterson. due to some mechanical difficulties, the pilot decided to turn around shortly after takeoff and try to land. the landing damaged the plane, rendering it unfly-able, but amazingly, none of the passengers suffered any serious injuries.

my boss and the NSF representative were summoned by pager shortly thereafter, around 9:30 pm, to a 'war room' of sorts called the EOC - the emergency operations center. the EOC is set up lightning-quick in a conference room normally used for interminable supervisors' meetings and teleconferences, with a bank of telephone lines, radios, key personnel, and a whiteboard. it becomes the command center for dealing with whatever emergency is at hand -- a late check-in by a party traveling off the established roads, an injured hiker, or something like this.

christina, my co-worker, takes the meeting minutes for an EOC callout. the command team determined that she was needed starting at 2:30 am. she got up, reported to the EOC, and started taking notes.

by the time I got to work yesterday morning, david and terry had been up all night and christina had been working since 2:30 am.

the passengers were eventually pulled out yesterday afternoon using two smaller Twin Otter aircraft, brought to mcmurdo, and evaluated for emotional, mental and physical soundness. some were sent north on the C-17 this morning, and one reportedly has an injured ankle, but word is that all fared amazingly well for having just crash-landed in an aircraft that is over sixty years old.

that was yesterday. last night, delaney and I reported to Hut 10, a small building used to house distinguished visitors and that is available to 'rent' per night the rest of the season by anyone with a $50 deposit. Hut 10 is a popular spot to host parties or dinners or sleepovers, especially on weekends, because it contains a stereo system, a large-screen TV, three bedrooms, and -- most importantly -- a functioning kitchen. because all our meals at mcmurdo are prepared by the galley staff and cooking in dorm rooms is forbidden, many people rent Hut 10 simply to prepare meals, bake cookies, or host parties -- in short, to feel somewhat human again -- which is a nice escape from the ordinary in a town that resembles a cross between a mining camp on the moon and a beer-scented college campus.

delaney's roommate matt is the sous chef for the long duration balloon (LDB) complex, a field camp about thirty minutes from mcmurdo that exists to help a large and disparate group of scientists launch huge plastic balloons into the atmosphere to collect weather and atmospheric data. matt has thursdays off, so as a christmas present to me and delaney, he offered to cook us a real meal at Hut 10 last night.

we showed up at 6:00 pm to tantalizing smells wafting out of the kitchen, an open bottle of pinot on the dining table, and james taylor and moby on the sound system. we knew matt had spent the day preparing a lavish five-course meal, but we had no idea what was on the menu -- except for the fact that it would not contain mushrooms (per my request).

check this out.

first course: a buttery, perfect avocado half sprinkled with gray sea salt from matt's own stash, cracked black pepper, and minced parsley and adorned with a lemon wedge. I've never tasted anything so amazing. (keep in mind that we go for days, sometimes weeks, without freshies -- even during the summer season -- and the winter-overs can go for months. matt had appropriated these freshies through his galley connections, and I only felt guilty for a second -- then I was too busy eating.)

soup course: cream of cauliflower soup drizzled with white truffle oil (also from matt's personal larder) and handmade croutons. we tore into this before we could get a proper photo, but trust me, it was real pretty until we demolished it.

pasta course: fresh angel hair pasta made from semolina flour matt had brought down himself, and hand-cranked through a pasta machine he had sent ahead of him. served over roasted eggplant and asparagus and topped with a shaving of creamy emmenthaler. heavenly.

entree: pan-seared sea scallops over melted leeks, pan-fried potato cakes, and steamed green beans, and finished with a yellow pepper coulis. almost -- but not quite -- too pretty to eat. the scallops, despite being the only frozen ingredient in the entire dish, were tender and sweet and melted in the mouth.

dessert: homemade orange-zest shortbread in an apple, pear, and blueberry compote. at this point I was too full to breathe or think, but somehow found room to put most of the dessert away.

went to bed at around 11:00 pm. got up with my alarm at 2:30 am to check the ETA for the C-17 that had launched at 2100 from christchurch. yup, according to the flight info scroll, it had landed at 0237. I got dressed and headed down to the chalet, expecting to host an arrival brief at about 0330 and go back to bed. unfortunately, I wasn't counting on ivan the terrabus getting stuck in the snow halfway back to mcmurdo, containing the 45 or so pax that were headed to the chalet. two smaller vehicles had to be dispatched to rescue the pax while fleet ops labored mightily to dislodge ivan. at 5:15, the last of the pax straggled through the door and we started the arrival brief.

I finished up at 6:00 am, had breakfast, changed into my ECW gear for my santa flight, and came back to work, only to find that my santa-and-elf helo flight has been cancelled for the day due to weather. it's not terribly stormy out, just breezy and overcast and threatening to snow. we'll see if it's on for tomorrow. right now, I'm headed back to bed.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

the holidaze are upon us.

this is how I spent the night before thanksgiving: emitting roughly three gallons of sweat at the Berg Field Center (BFC) party. the theme was cheesy 1980s. the music was awesome. the air was sultry. the costumes were tacky. (think day-glo, ripped sweatshirts, leg warmers, members only jackets, side ponytails, tight-rolled jeans, and eye shadow.)

thanksgiving dinner this season was a lovely affair as usual. here I am with delaney and jared. not sure what exactly was going through my mind at the moment, but I seem to be mulling it over carefully.

my co-worker christina had a surprise birthday party on november 14, thrown by her scheming boyfriend bryan. I love christina. she's my personal trainer, relationship coach, common-sense sounding board, and cat herder rolled into one ridiculously fit body. watching her play volleyball is like listening to 'hitch a ride' by boston or eating nine flavor beef at lee's asian restaurant in west seattle: pure perfection.

here's my other lovely co-worker myrna and me at thanksgiving dinner. myrna is one of those people I never, ever have to worry about. she's a self-contained dynamo who can assist dozens of grantees at a time with redeployment travel arrangements, donate a gazillion grains of rice every week to the UN Food Program at, and still find the time to assist with the christmas choir or create lovely centerpieces for the holiday tables in the galley. we've been sitting four feet away from each other for months and haven't tired of it yet.

thanksgiving, it seems, was just yesterday. and christmas is a week and a half away.

I've somehow found myself in the position of holiday choir coordinator this season. as of a couple of weeks ago, no one had stepped forward to take up the reins, so my friend martin convinced me to jump in. having been involved with (and emotionally scarred by) the choir effort two seasons ago made me a bit wary, but the response has been more than enough to assure me that it was the right move -- lots and lots of people who love to sing have showed up at rehearsal, and have tackled the old favorites with gusto.

we're holding regular practices and are slated to perform in at least two venues over the long holiday weekend: the heavy shop party and caroling at mac ops. I alluded to these two years ago during my first season on the ice. the heavy shop hosts the big bash of the season, for which they degrease the floors, put up decorations, clear a space for dancing, set up a snowmobile on which guests can pose for pictures with santa, and load tables with all kinds of delectable goodies. there are usually one or two fistfights during the course of the evening, to make things interesting. always a good time. and caroling at mac ops to the field camps and south pole over the radio, and hearing them sing back, is enough to make even sometimes-scroogy me feel the holiday spirit.

one thing that will definitely help to put me in the holiday spirit is the fact that I have been selected, with five others, to be a santa's elf this season. every christmas the NSF representative dresses up as santa, takes half a dozen people from the community as his elves, and flies out to the field camps in a helicopter to deliver gifts and holiday cheer. my co-worker christina coordinates the selection process, in which supervisors nominate their employees for the honor, and the final decision is made by the NSF rep. I was informed three days ago that christina and david (my boss) were in cahoots to get me on the list. I'm still in shock. weather permitting, we'll go next thursday or friday. one of the destinations is the dry valleys, a specially protected area of great environmental interest, that receives almost no moisture or precipitation of any kind. this, coupled with extremely low temperatures and relatively high salt accumulation, produces a unique ecosystem in which scientists can research geological formations and processes in a virtually untouched setting.

off to lunch. some sort of lentil loaf is on the menu. I believe I'll be visiting the sandwich bar.

elfin love,