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Personal Hygiene

Week 10: F 15 February 2019, 22:50. Cape Shirreff, Livingston Island, Antarctica

A few years ago I caught a ride from Fairbanks to Seattle on craigslist. Due to an unusual medical condition that kept him unable from easily getting around, the driver was offering a free ride in exchange for some help with driving and assistance with getting gas. We’d spend the few nights of the drive camping in his Roadtrek Sprinter campervan – him on his bed in the back and me in my sleeping bag on the reclined passenger’s seat.

On the drive Jim made a comment that I’ve been proud of, one that’s stuck with me. At one point during our days together, he said, “You’re pretty much the definition of low maintenance.” I guess he got that impression because I did my best to never request bathroom stops, I didn’t mind the lack of real bed or shower, and I was game to eat whatever, whenever he felt like stopping.

Those traits sure have come in handy for a life of fieldwork. Living in places without running water for months at a time really is no big deal to me. After all, I did spend half of my college career living in a dry cabin in Fairbanks, and those truly were the days.

Here at Cape Shirreff, life is pretty sweet; it’s just that none of us smell sweet.

Since seabird work is based in the penguin colonies around the Skua Shack (1 mile from camp), Laura and I spend less time in camp than the others. Because of that, we end up showering less. When you work for months without a day off, spending your precious free time in the evenings to heat up water and then shower is more hassle than it’s worth. I have showered 4 times since our arrival on 11 December, at increments of 13 days, 13 days, 15 days, and 13 days. Apparently I’ve grown even more low maintenance than last season when I found myself on an 11 day shower cycle. Oops.

When my face feels gross from day after day of sunscreen application, I wash it with baby wipes. When my feet have too much funk, I wash them with baby wipes. When any part of me feels too dirty, I wipe down with baby wipes. When I’m done in the outhouse, I wipe with a baby wipe.

Ahh, the outhouse. Here at the main camp on Cape Shirreff, we have the luxury of a double seater: one seat with a bucket for #1 and a seat right next to it with a bucket for #2. The pee bucket gets dumped daily, and the poop bucket gets dumped and cleaned weekly. When we’re by the penguin colonies, squatting is our only option. And if extreme duty calls in the middle of the day, we have to visit the intertidal area.

Beyond my 4 showers, I’m pleased to share that I have washed laundry twice since 11 December. Yep, 2 times. Washing laundry takes even more time than showering, so why would I do that very often? Pantiliners keep underwear clean enough, in case anyone was wondering. For socks, I alternate between 2 pairs of liners and wool socks every other day. One pair airs out while I wear the 2nd pair. I get to don clean socks and underwear after I shower. It seems I should also share that I’m sleeping in my 3rd set of sheets for the season. I changed them after shower 2 and shower 4, and I don’t expect to change them again before our departure in a month.

Living in a very windy, humid environment has even made me proud of my “snot rocket” skills. Because I’m always sniffing and aware of the wind direction, I’m capable of completely turning around to blow a snot rocket and then spinning back forward in my direction of travel without missing a step. Considering I didn’t adopt the snot rocket until mid-season last year, I’d say I’ve grown a lot as a person.

Clearly I lead a clean life. I admit I am excited for the next shower; I keep smelling funk in different places. It’s not worth using that many baby wipes.

Note as of emailing this post on 19 Feb: I have now showered 5 times. The 5th came 14 days after the 4th, and it really was time.

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Week 9: Su 3 February 2019, 8:13. Cape Shirreff, Livingston Island, Antarctica

Imagine you’re sunk in a Kelty camping chair – the kind you spread open and sit in around a campfire – in a 6-man American Antarctic camp. From the coziness of your navy blue fleece sleeping bag (blankie), you’re watching “The Big Bang Theory” with your crew. Being 2230 in late January, you didn’t need to close the window covers to darken the room for watching the show projected on the pull-down screen. You have a belly full of turkey enchiladas made with leftovers from yesterday’s Turkey Tuesday Thanksgiving dinner. Melty chocolate cookies continue to tempt you from the countertop. All is as it should be.

Then you hear what sounds like a knock on the door. Confused, you look around and wonder if you imagined it, only to hear a crewmate say, “Come in!” You next experience the most bizarre sensation of the season when the door opens and you hear unfamiliar, accented voices. What??? The Chileans who were in the next door camp have been gone for at least a week! How, who, what, etc. is here outside the door?

Being so utterly shocked by what seems to be happening, you surprise even yourself by being the 2nd person to go to the door to see who’s outside. There you find 3 brightly dressed men, at least one of whom is good-looking and looks roughly your age. They’re welcome to visit.

As they begin to emerge from puffy layers of red-orange, blue, and green insulation, you learn they came by snowmachine (“Ski-Doo”) from across the glacier. They’re Spaniards from the Juan Carlos Primera base, which is somewhere on the southern side of Livingston Island. Arkaitz, Alberto, and Pablo are mountain guides who work in the Antarctic to facilitate scientific research, and they’ve traveled to Cape Shirreff to leave some bulky GPS device behind to receive or transmit for a few days. They’ll return to pick it up in 5 or 6 days.

Having adjusted to having multi-lingual company, you turn on the Christmas lights and pull out more chairs. Over tea, cookies, and a beverage gifted by your guests, you learn that there are about 50 Spaniards at Juan Carlos. What a metropolis! Your crewmates notice that 2 of them seem to have some frostbitten fingers. Arkaitz and Alberto are from the Basque-speaking area of Spain and can talk without Pablo being able to understand. Both being curious about the other team, you swap questions about each other and slowly wind down for the night. They’ll sleep in Little Chile (Chilean camp) and join you for breakfast.

As you drift off to sleep, you think, “How unexpected and fun!” A few Spaniards had shown up 2 years ago and thrown everyone off, but you hadn’t expected to have the experience yourself. For being such a remote camp, it was a truly Antarctic day.

Week 8: Su 27 January 2019, 8:13. Cape Shirreff, Livingston Island, Antarctica

#1 We arrived offshore on 10 December but didn’t move on-island until 11 December because the wind and ocean’s swell were too high for safe operations.

#2 We’ve been busy, and I haven’t been doing any writing, journaling, or reading.

#3 When I made my first trip to the intertidal zone to poop back on December 11, there were 3 penguins watching me. It was great.

#4 There was a rather pathetic amount of snow on the ground when we arrived, so I didn’t get to do any sledding or skiing this year. I have still been sliding down every snow patch that will allow it, so ‘Red Rocket’ lives!

#5 The penguins picked a bad year to start their breeding early. They started so early and we arrived so late that Laura (this year’s new seabirder) and I spotted gentoo chicks while on our second visit to the colonies on 14 December. YIKES. That was 12 days earlier than last year. Chinstrap chicks appeared on 20 December, only 4 days earlier than last year. I even found a brown skua chick during our first day of skua rounds on 21 December, which was 9 days earlier than last year!

#6 There was a king penguin waiting for us on Playa Bahamonde (near the penguin colonies) the day we first visited the colonies. I saw it on the beach out of the corner of my eye and quickly grabbed my binoculars, saying, “That looks tall…” Nice treat!

#7 A blonde fur seal puppy is born every x number of years, and this is the year! Fortunately for Laura and me, it lives on Playa Nibaldo, which is a beach right next to the penguin colonies. When we first saw the golden cutie, I said, “It’s like the golden ticket from ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.’ It’s Charlie!” So we’ve given progress reports on Charlie daily, because the pinnipeders love him.

#8 We had no time to celebrate South Pole Day (Amundsen’s arrival at the South Pole) back on the 14th or 15th of December, so it was recognized but not observed. On my night to cook this week, we had South Pole Day (eaten). I tried my hand at Fårikål – Norwegian lamb and cabbage stew – as well as boiled potatoes, a Cape recipe known as “Matt’s Corn Thing,” and molasses bread. For dessert we had banana cream pie. I love having this kitchen!!

#9 I tied shoelaces for the first time since 2 December on 23 January. XtraTuf life.

#10 The U.S. government is a joke made up of 5 year olds. Fortunately I got paid over the course of its uselessness because I’m a contractor rather than an employee of the government. Although if I hadn’t been paid, it wouldn’t have mattered because I currently have no expenses anyway!

Okay, it’s Waffle Sunday, meaning we didn’t have to be out of bed until 9:00 instead of 8:00. Time to eat!

  1. Penguins are my friends.

    gentoos

    They’re holding flippers!

  2. Spanish is much more useful than German. Visiting Teri at her Peace Corps assignment and traveling in Mexico during January and February 2017 happened at the best time, as it gave me the chance to learn the traveler’s Spanish that I’d need in Chile that same October. I used it to travel in Chile and Argentina in March and April 2018, and I just finished up 2.5 more weeks of travel in Patagonia in November 2018.
  3. The Bering Sea is my home in Alaska. Whether I’m on the Tiglax, in a skiff, or living on an island (St. George, Buldir, or St. Matthew), I’m comfortable.

    skiff

    Driving a skiff in the waters around Attu, the end of the Aleutian Islands

  4. Wearing shorts, riding bikes, and eating fresh peaches across the country makes for a wonderful summer. After living on St. Matthew for a month, I traveled through Colorado, Minnesota, Wisconsin (bus ride), both peninsulas of Michigan, Texas, Wyoming, Utah (bus ride), Idaho, Montana, Washington, and California from mid July to late September.

    fruit

    The delicious, delicious taste of summer

  5. Sometimes you unexpectedly meet someone who coaxes out the good cry you’ve apparently been needing. Have you ever pulled away from a week-long Wilderness First Responder course in tears, telling your passenger that you’d be stopping for ice cream before starting the drive back to Denver – and then proceeding to tell her things that your best friend only recently learned? And alternating between crying and laughing for the first hour of a drive? It was intense.
  6. Jason Isbell is incredible. Listening to the music of a talented artist while sitting with friends (one of whom has an amazing voice himself) in the coolness of a summer night on a grassy lawn at KettleHouse Amphitheater in Missoula, MT, gave me the chills. Isbell’s lyrics are beautiful, and here are a select couple:   From “Cover Me Up” – Home was a dream/One I’d never seen/Till you came along      From “Traveling Alone” – And I know every town worth passing through/
But what good does knowing do/ With no one to show it to
  7. I am not going to bike throughout an Alaskan winter. When it’s time to spend a winter here, I’m going to invest in one of those fancy 4-wheeled contraptions. After all, I’ve gone 11 years of being based in this state without one.
  8. This lifestyle is lonely. … but I love travel and have no skills or interest in jobs based in town.
  9. As long as Kirk Cousins plays for the Minnesota Vikings, they are my team. I started following the Washington Redskins while he played there, and now he’s sporting purple. As a fantastic person and former Spartan, he’s got my support more than anyone else in the NFL.

 

Top Birds

Friday 1 June 2018, 9:01. Aboard R/V Tiglax at sea: N 53º 52.1916 E 177º 48.2466

After pointing out and identifying another species of bird nesting on Alaska’s North Slope, my first field boss Matt said, “Steph, people pay thousands of dollars to see these birds.”

My response? “Oh.” It’s not that I wasn’t excited to be seeing the birds that inhabit a remote landscape; it’s just that birds weren’t necessarily what got me out of my sleeping bag each morning.

There I was, the summer after my sophomore year of college, finally working my first field season in remote Alaska. Having had no prior fieldwork experience, I’d known landing a summer job in wildlife biology would be difficult. Fortunately I’d been active in UAF’s student chapter of The Wildlife Society, and my friend (also the president) had given me the best advice. “Apply to everything. It doesn’t matter if you’re qualified or not. Just apply,” he’d repeated.

When I saw a position working for a graduate student studying spectacled eider on Alaska’s North Slope, I barely knew what an eider was. Having not yet taken ornithology, I sure didn’t know my birds. The experience sounded amazing, though. The opportunity involved living in a tent-based camp of 4-6 people on the Colville River Delta for ~ 6 weeks.

The site would have a bear-deterring electric fence around a communal Weatherport (used for cooking and lounging), along with 8 foot x 8 foot “Bombshelter” tents for each of us. An outhouse, a Conex trailer – the containers found on cargo ships – for food storage, and a shower shed could be found apart from the enclosed area.

The position described spending time mist netting over ponds for spectacled eider, boating to islands around the delta to search for spec eider nests by hiking around every pond, and assisting with the capture of spectacled eider and red-throated loons for satellite transmitter attachment. It was only when I interviewed for the job that Matt revealed the biggest highlight. For the first week and a half of the season, he’d take one field technician to the village of Atqasuk, from which a small helicopter-enabled outfit would set out to camp near lakes that looked promising for the presence of spectacled eider. He was planning on having me go along for that stint. A helicopter for my first field job?! Are you kidding me?

Even though funding was still slightly up in the air, I was completely sold on the project. I even turned down a guaranteed job working at the Fairbanks Public Lands Information Center – FAPLIC, a National Park Service-run information center about parks and refuges around Alaska – in the hopes that the funding would come through.

Fortunately God had my back, and everything worked out. Because of my walking stick and love of Lord of the Rings, I was nicknamed Bilbo and proceeded to love field life as much as I’d anticipated.

And that was pretty much that. Once I’d proven my mettle in one field season, the following jobs were easier to come by. Birds just kind of happened to me. There are so many more positions working with birds than mammals that the experiences have stacked up over the years. Although I’m still not a birder, I can’t deny that birds have found their way into my heart.

So without further ado, I present my 5 favorite birds – as of May 2018.

1. Long-tailed duck: I first encountered these on the North Slope and was struck by their coloration. They’re beautiful, but I typically describe them as just plain cute. Their calls are also adorable, a sound I typically mimic as ow-owuua.

2. Kiwi (North Island brown, to be specific): No reason necessary. I got to live in my favorite place and work with a unique bird that most people never even see. How many people can say they have a scar from an endangered species?

3. Spectacled eider: Quite simply, they’re the bird that started it all. Their markings are also quite striking.

4. Bar-tailed godwit: These birds embark on one of the most amazing migrations. It’s amazing not only because of the distance, but because of the start and end points: Alaska and New Zealand. No fair.

5. Gentoo penguin: The band of white speckling behind the eyes and over the top of the head is striking, as are the orange bill and feet. I’d even go so far as to call their markings sexy. The fluffy, teddy bear appearance of gentoo chicks is so strong that the urge to cuddle is hard to resist.

Every list needs a bonus member, and New Zealand’s morepork wins the slot for my favorite birds. Morepork are small owls whose presence I had the good fortune of enjoying when doing nightwork in New Zealand. To check on the development of kiwi eggs, we had to sit in the native bush during the night to wait for the kiwi to leave their nests. During our walks into the gullies and while sitting, we were treated to the voice of the little owl breaking through the quiet to say, “Morepork.”

Learn from Everyone

Su 22 April 2018, 22:24. Rooftop terrace of Windmill Hostel, Mendoza, Argentina.

Considering I entered Antarctica knowing virtually nothing about fur seal or penguin biology, I learned a lot over the course of my first season at Cape Shirreff. Doug, Jesse, Sam, and Adam taught me about seals. Jefferson and Nai taught me about penguins and skuas. Because of his short stay, Mike mostly taught me about baking sourdough, which I could argue is the most pertinent skill for the rest of my life. Last, but certainly not least, a few Antarctic fur seal puppies taught me about survival.

I’ll explain. The backbone of the Antarctic fur seal research conducted at the Cape comes from a busy period that runs from late November through the first third of December; the official name for this time is perinatals, the phase surrounding the time of birth. This occurs after the bulls have established their territories and the pregnant females have come ashore to give birth.

During this period Nai and I continued to monitor our penguins, who were in the thick of egg laying for both species. In the afternoons our work changed to helping the pinnipeders, which made for some longer days.

The pinniped team would identify adult females with a day or 2-old pup to capture, and while they worked on measuring and tagging the mother, Nai and I would take some measurements and basically babysit the puppy. In order to keep track of study pups, we bleached marks into the fur on their backs. (Note: The puppies molt off their thick coats after they’re a couple of months old, so the mark doesn’t last long.)

puppy

~1 day old Antarctic fur seal puppy

The bleached marks came from the names the puppies were given, and that’s where all the puppies’ teaching starts to come in. Penguinas – as female biologists studying the penguins are typically called at the Cape – are tasked with naming the puppies. It’s a rough life. But, as much as naming is completely up to us, we let the puppies show us their personalities first.

With roughly 26 puppies to name and the letters A to Z, numbers, or basic symbols at our disposal, there were many options. Thus, before perinatals even began, Nai and I held multiple puppy name theme brainstorming meetings. For the 2017-18 season we ultimately decided on the following:

Breakfast foods: Yogurt, Omelette, Waffle, Mimosa, Pancake, Leftovers, Grits, Burrito, Tea and Crumpets (twins), Coffee, Cavejuiceman, Fruit Loop, Bacon, Donut, Biscuit and Gravy (twins), Mr. Dashman

Types of dance: Waltx, Twerk, Bachata, Tango, Robot, Polka

Body parts: Face, Kidney, Follicle, Uvula, Socket, Miss Nipple, Pinky and the Brain (twins)

As I mentioned, we let the puppies show their personalities before assigning names. Some puppies were full of milk and therefore very sweet and sleepy, such as Waltx. Others were, well, just read below to see the personality notes we recorded for these four puppies.

Burrito – a fucking handful, aggressive, voracious, pooper, biter, little devil, cute face

Tango – likes going left, twitchy, adorable short sounds, less social, looking for partner to tango though

Coffee – made strange bubbly/grumbly noises, pooper, rowdy and bitey, gurgled, little sleepy at beginning, energy

Miss Nipple – fell asleep twice, sweet, but grumpy and bitey when woken up to return to mom


The pinnipeders recorded the presence or absence of the mothers and puppies on the study beaches daily, which gave them ample time to watch the puppies’ personalities grow and change. Sadly, only 4 study puppies made it to the end of the season; the others died from starvation or predation. Yet from the 4 survivors we all learned some valuable lessons to apply to our own lives.

old puppies

~ 3 month old fur seal puppies

I present the Proverbs of the Four Survivors:

Burrito – Resist change. Only grow physically. Defend your bubble aggressively. Don’t explore.

Tango – Be ugly in someone’s eyes. Pay no attention to proper proportions. Don’t do anything. Exist. Live in the moment. (Adam was highly critical of Tango’s appearance.)

Coffee – Run away from everything that’s not your mother.

Miss Nipple – Make them think you’re dead. Never stop exploring.  (She hadn’t been seen for a few days and was basically in the “no hope” category before she was spotted inland in a totally new area for her.)

Hey, if these worked for fur seal puppies, why not us? Pick and choose as you see fit. 😉

The End

Su 25 March 2018, 18:30; written from in a colectivo (shared cab) in Punta Arenas

… finished M 2 April 2018, 23:26; written from night bus traveling from Puerto Natales, Chile, to El Calafate, Argentina

As I stood with an armload of groceries in the checkout line of Lider, it finally hit me. Searching for a smile, I looked hard at my package of TimTams as I tried to fight back the tears beginning to well up in my eyes. It wasn’t working.

Before hailing a ride out to the mall, which is where the Walmart-like grocery store is, I’d said a preliminary goodbye to Sam, my last remaining crewmate in Punta Arenas. Tonight he and some college friends are leaving for Puerto Natales and the famous Torres del Paine; in the morning I’ll catch a bus heading south to Ushuaia and Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego.

In the last month of our time in Antarctica, as well as during our voyage north on the Gould icebreaker and our few days in Punta Arenas, I told the crew that they’d get to see me shed tears at our farewell. For some reason Adam said he was looking forward to it.

At certain times during our final weeks, I teared up briefly. I had to blink back some sorrow the day we closed the Skua Shack, for although I’d be back in October, I knew it’d be different without Nai’s “chaotic happiness.”

We have a tradition of “Scotch guarding” – sipping scotch – in memory of fallen Antarctic fur seal study pups. With scotch, beer, and wine to consume the night before our pick-up, we toasted a few other happy and sad moments. With all of my bread baking and some help from the others in camp, we’d managed to use all of the white flour in camp by the last night– something Jesse, our resident NOAA Corps officer, did not think could ever be done.

Feeling proud of that fact, I raised my last Alaskan beer and toasted, “To the death of the flour!” When Jesse asked a second later, “Wait, who was deflowered?” I couldn’t handle it. In the Christmas light-lit darkness, first laughter came, then a few tears slid down my face as I recognized that the individual humors of our group would be gone from the norm in roughly a week. When someone saw the tears on my face and asked if I was crying, I had to step outside for a moment.

As the final Zodiac skiffs made their last laps between the beach and the Laurence M. Gould, I faced away from the beach and looked into the fluffy snow that was falling softly, adding to the few inches that had accumulated over the last few days. “Winter is coming,” I’d been telling the crew, and it made me less happy to leave than ever. Another few tears slid down my face as I gazed at the snowy scene that had been so unknown just 5 months earlier. It was home.

With those and other forgotten moments of sorrow, I thought the tears would flow easily at our goodbye in Punta Arenas. After all, I’d openly cried at the mere memory of New Zealand for practically no reason just a few weeks earlier. (It was pretty impressive. One minute the others were talking about rough break-ups, and when they asked about me, all I had to offer was a comparison of leaving NZ. Bam. Full on tears.)

Yet when the time for farewells outside the hotel Cabo de Hornos came, hugs were exchanged and brief words said, and then most of my friends were gone. Jefferson, Jesse, Nai, and Adam left for the airport in a van, leaving Sam and me standing on the sidewalk. How do you say a proper goodbye to the only people you’ve been around for months? Simple hugs, thank yous, and the suggestion to visit don’t do that kind of relationship justice.

No, the reality didn’t hit me until I was alone in the grocery store where we’d bought cartfuls of fancy cheeses, sausages, wine, and alcohol months before. My season had come full circle, and while I tried to use Nai’s rushed line of “It’s fine, it’s fine, it’s fine,” – normally used when she was close to dropping a heavy tote on her head or running to check something in the oven – I smiled, but hearing that really only made me a little sadder.

 

** Don’t worry, I ended up with 2 more goodbyes to Sam. We ended up meeting again in Punta Arenas after our respective trips, and then he followed me by bus up to El Calafate. Seriously, he sat in the row behind me on 2 buses.