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.


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