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The Last Place on Earth

Week 3: F 10 November 2017, 23:54. Cape Shirreff, Livingston Island, Antarctica

This past summer on Buldir I was entertained by factoids shared by Kevin and McKenzie from the book “The Last Place on Earth: Amundsen and Scott’s Race for the South Pole.” At the time, my
working in Antarctica was still in the hopeful phase. However, I’ve been interested in the Antarctic for ages, and the information I was given told me the book was well-written and rather entertaining.

At an impressionable age, Fridtjof Nansen’s crossing of Greenland and other polar expeditions inspired the Norwegian Roald Amundsen to pursue exploration. He grew up skiing, took the time
to learn the necessary skills for polar travel, formed a small crew with useful traits and meshable personalities, adapted to circumstances, and constantly worked on ways to improve gear.
When frozen in for winter in the Northwest Passage, he studied the Netsiliks’ (Canadian Eskimos) cold weather clothing and dogsledding skills. By traveling through the Northwest Passage he gained skills as an expedition leader.

In stark contrast, the Brit Robert Scott seems to have only pursued polar travels in the interest of promotion in the English Royal Navy. His personality and work ethic weren’t getting him
anywhere, so he tried the expedition route – despite the fact he himself once said he had no predilection for polar exploration. It sounds like he had a poor personality for leadership,
felt no need to learn skills ahead of time, ignored the lessons learned by those who travelled before him, and chose crew members based on whether he liked them or not – regardless of
skills or experience. He practically shunned skiing and dogsledding in exchange for manhauling and a custom motor sledge designed for snow travel… because he had no idea how to ski or
work dogs! He had no idea how to treat the dogs he took to Antarctica on his first trip, so his mushing endeavors were failures from the get-go.

I’ve lived in the Antarctic for about 2.5 weeks and can now verify what I knew before arriving. Why on earth – specifically the ice and snow-covered earth – would manhauling be the best
way of traveling to the snowy South Pole??? Oh yeah, because clearly skis aren’t helpful in snow, nor are dogs.

Oh wait, that’s only when you’re Scott and have spent no time learning how to ski and even less than no time learning about dog mushing. Reading his opinions on dogs is positively painful.

Reading about the way Amundsen’s team cared for ~100 dogs during their sea voyage from the North Atlantic all the way down to the Bay of Whales in Antarctica makes my limited-experience
dog handler’s heart happy. His top notch dogs chosen from Greenland were well fed, understood to bicker with each other and yet managed in a way to give them freedom on board, and cuddled
with by the ship’s crew. Now that I think about it, it seems that Amundsen’s ship would have been the perfect place for me: his ship, Fram, was quite the rocker and was full of puppies headed for adventure. That’s the dream!

I digress, though. Manhauling, while admittedly slightly satisfying and good for exercise, is exhausting. Nai, the 2nd year seabird tech with whom I’m working, and I have made trips
lugging a couple small fish boxes (large containers used for storage) and a large, heavy tripod on a sled. Snowshoes are a lot better than just wearing boots, but fresh snow sure creates
friction against a sled. When we got back to camp with one load, we more or less staggered inside and, when offered a drink, merely wanted water. We were beat.

That was from hauling one load for ~45 minutes. Robert Scott thought manhauling was a good idea for an entire expedition of hundreds of miles?

Let me help fix the public’s thoughts on Scott and show how utterly ridiculous the man was as a polar explorer. Where maybe I once would have respected him, I have lost almost all respect for his limited accomplishments. Help spread the word: He was a fool.

**I haven’t finished the book yet, but I don’t think I’ll read anything that will change my mind. It is a very entertaining read that clearly lays out the history of the race for the South Pole. Amundsen, on the other hand, was quite the man.**

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Commuting

Week 2: F 3 November 2017, 22:38. Cape Shirreff, Livingston Island, Antarctica

Plenty of people dread waking up on Monday morning and starting their work week. The concept of driving through traffic to sit at a 9-5 desk job for the next 5 days is so painful that
sorrows get drowned in mug after mug of coffee from the nearest drive-through coffee stand.

Fortunately some of us are smart enough to ignore the system and blaze our own trails. Literally. This morning I snowshoed through near white-out conditions on my way to work. When
thinking back on most of my jobs, I can honestly say the commutes were as enjoyable as the work I did.

– On the North Slope my commute varied between helicopter rides, skiff rides on the Colville River Delta, and hikes to the day’s search area.
– On St. George I got to zip around on an ATV and then hike along trails to music, podcasts, or silence.
– In New Zealand my commute took me through fields of cattle, horses, and sheep before crossing a log bridge that took me into the bush (kiwi habitat). A plum tree even provided me with treats on my walk home!
– My YK Delta commute included a boat ride across the Tutakoke River and then a focused effort on not getting my feet stuck in the sucking tidal mud.
– In the oilfields of Alberta I commuted on ice roads and had to radio out my location at every mile to alert big rigs. That was different!
– When working around Sacramento I did have a more typical commute in Sac’s traffic, but since I love driving and got paid for my commute time, I actually hoped for delays.
– Commutes on Buldir weren’t necessarily kind to my body, but I’ll always remember those hikes… and be thankful every time I’m Not hiking on a cobble beach.

My new commute takes about half an hour and can be skied or snowshoed. Snowshoes take me NW from our main camp, over Chungungo Flats. From there I drop down to Playa Chungungo and
continue following that NW, saying hello to Antarctic fur seals, Weddell seals, and the occasional leopard seal as I go. A short, steep climb takes me partway up Aymara, and then I hug the
slopes of it, Diaguita, and Pinguinera before reaching the back side of Enrique. Continuing north to cross Enrique’s ridge, I then turn west and walk along Enrique’s northern slope, which is where I reach my office: the Skua Shack.

The Skua Shack is the weathered building where most penguinas – historical nickname for the female seabird techs at Cape Shirreff- tend to base their days. The penguin colonies are all on
the northwestern end of Livingston Island, so returning to main camp for lunch or other duties is illogical. In addition to having a Coleman stove and propane heat, the shack’s windows
provide a fantastic view of chinstrap and gentoo colonies, breaking waves, and snow covered dramatic rock formations. It’s nice to have a warm haven for protection from the wind and snow.

What really makes my commute to the office a joy is the fact that my route follows a visible penguin highway. When there’s no fresh snow, I can follow their tracks to work. Many penguins
emerge from the water elsewhere around the island and then troop past our camp on their way to the northwest corner, meaning I encounter gentoos and chinstraps on my commute almost every
day. Their toddling, sliding, and dedication to the march makes for lots of natural entertainment. Who needs coffee, radio stations, or smartphones when there are penguins to watch?

Okay, It’s Real Now

Week 1: F 27 October 2017, 22:38. Cape Shirreff, Livingston Island, Antarctica

For months now I’ve been saying the phrase “It’ll feel more real when…” to talk about my then-pending Antarctic experience. The idea I’d really been given a position working with penguins and seals in Antarctica had always been a dream – not a reality. After briefly interviewing and then getting offered the position while working on Buldir this summer, the conclusion of the phrase kept changing with the times.

From Buldir: “It’ll feel more real when I’m back in Homer and dealing with paperwork.”

From Homer: “It’ll feel more real when my medical and dental checks are done.”

From Fairbanks: “It’ll feel more real once I tell friends about it.” & “It’ll feel more real when I start packing.”

From LAX: “It’ll feel more real once I’m in the minority on the international flight to Santiago, Chile.”

From Punta Arenas: “It’ll feel more real once we’re on the ship.” (Never mind the fact I’d been working with the season’s crew to prepare gear, eating delicious Chilean food, staying in my own room at a nice hotel, and bumbling through Spanish again for a few days.)

Even from the Laurence M. Gould icebreaker: “It’ll feel more real when we’re rocking across the Drake Passage.” (Unfortunately we had a very tame ride. Once in camp I even declared that the Drake’s got nothing on the Bering Sea!)

The night before our scheduled arrival date: “It’ll feel more real after my last shower.”

Well, it took all of the above and a little more to make me recognize reality.

Bering Sea-like fog made me feel right at home on our approach to the South Shetland Islands in the afternoon of Tu 24 October. Disinfecting our boots before climbing down a 5 foot Jacob’s ladder and stepping/falling on cue into the waiting Zodiac rocking in the waves below made me acknowledge I wasn’t leaving the Tiglax and bound for Buldir. This wasn’t the big kids’ league; we had moved up to the minors.

The scientists and logistics team bound for Palmer Station crowded on upper decks to watch and photograph our hardcore departure. They’d be headed roughly south for another 24 hours to dock at Palmer and live in a station with running water and normal electricity for just a couple of months. We were a 5 member crew headed to 5 months without running water, internet, standard electricity, or guests.

As we rode the waves and Doug issued directions from the GPS to the marine tech driving the skiff, reality started to hit. Just shy of 16:00, we finally saw the land of Livingston Island through the fog. Fortunately our landing beach was much calmer than the surrounding waters and we were able to land the skiff without a problem.

Once Doug, Nai, Adam, and I had climbed into the shin-deep water and started passing our plastic-protected bags of valued possessions – laptops, cameras, wallets, and passports – from the skiff to the snow, I could finally believe it.

While we moved gear and started digging stairs to get us up above beach level, a gentoo penguin emerged from the surf not 20 feet away – and proceeded to go about its business.

Surrounded by snow-covered rocky outcrops, pristine white snow, frigid water, and a couple penguins, I finally had to announce with a smile, “Okay, this is pretty real now.”

Sorry for the lack of posts, but having just under a month and a half of internet between remote gigs made other things the priority. After returning to Homer I spent about 10 days there wrapping up data and putting away field gear. I went up to Fairbanks to walk the lovely Equinox Marathon and have a week with my Dad at the tail end of his 3 weeks of moose hunting.

Then I proceeded to bike, enjoy beer, and watch all of the football I could, since football season is now over. I’m in Punta Arenas, Chile, and will board the Laurence M. Gould icebreaker tonight. Tomorrow we’ll be bound for Livingston Island, Antarctica, where I’ll be studying chinstrap penguins, gentoo penguins, brown skuas, Antarctic fur seals, elephant seals, and leopard seals until mid-March!!! I’m headed back to summer.

Farewell, internet! I’ll do my best to post through email like I have on Buldir.

 

Going Out with a Boom

Saturday 26 August 2017, week 15: Buldir Island, 22:44

finished Monday 11 September 2017, week 18: Homer, AK – while watching MNF

“If our mountain was erupting, the earth would be shaking, right?” asked McKenzie, voice full of nervous excitement. For a moment, Buldir’s cloud blanket assumed a dusky violet color before disappearing into the darkness again.

One one thousand, two one – BA-BOOOM!

Nerves of electric excitement moved as Kevin, McKenzie, and I peered through the windows of the main cabin. We’d just finished watching Planet Earth II “Grasslands” and had been moved by images of elephants, rhinos, lions, wildebeest, bison, foxes, and caribou when the forecasted rain picked up its intensity. Kevin and I just barely caught the first flash through the window and were wondering if we’d imagined it when we heard the first crack of thunder.

YES! It was happening: our final storm of the season. Unlike our last “storm” that turned out to be rather disappointing, this one brought the full show. Way out in the western Aleutians – where these things hardly ever happen – we found ourselves in the middle of a Midwestern thunderstorm.

All afternoon the ocean had grown more angry as it worked itself into frenzied whitecaps. Tall grasses appeared at half height, blown sideways northward by the 30 knot southerly winds pushing up North Marsh. Late in the afternoon we noticed the first sheets of mist flying their way north over the grass.

The first lightning struck shortly after 22:00, and buckets of rain began falling closely behind. Our final tempest had arrived.

After watching the storm from inside for 10 minutes, the 3 of us moved to the bunk cabin for tooth brushing and bed. The problem was that we couldn’t see the lightning very well from inside, which is how we all ended up standing in the lee on the deck of the cabin’s north side. McKenzie and I wore raincoats to help stay a little drier, since the wind was causing our roof’s run-off to fly toward us rather than fall down. Whenever I stuck my head around the building’s northeast corner, my face immediately got washed by the pelting rain and driving wind.

As buckets of rain drenched Buldir, the thunder and lightning kept coming. Since thunderstorms are so rare in the Aleutians, we kept watching the sky for the next bolt of lightning, as well as listening for the coming thunderclap. We didn’t withhold our gasps, wows, and comments, instead choosing to appreciate the storm’s intensity together.

“I saw the bolt that time!” McKenzie exclaimed. Being in a typically cloudy and foggy locale made the show even more exciting. Most bolts of lightning fell over the top of the ridge behind camp, but some carved their way across the sky, illuminating the darkness for a moment. When those bolts came, we were nearly giddy like schoolchildren.

We spent about a half an hour standing outside before deciding to move back inside the main cabin to each claim a window. After all, when nature puts on a show, going to bed needs to be put on hold.

“I don’t want to hear Steph complaining about this storm,” Kevin said as we finally all crawled under our sleeping bags. I definitely had no complaints and was happily tucking myself in to the sound of rain absolutely hammering the south wall of the cabin, about 10 inches from my head.

While peace and quiet is preferable to road sounds at night, I’ll take storm petrels, ocean waves, or cabin-shaking wind and pounding rain over silence every night. Even with the thought of a very wet mid-night pee run, I couldn’t contain my smile as I slowly drifted my way to sleep.

Relaxing

Monday 21 August 2017, week 15: Buldir Island, 22:39

As the wind strengthens and the rain intensifies, I find myself alone in our main cabin, writing in the dim light of day that remains. The clock above me ticks away the seconds that make up minutes, but I can’t help but notice it’s also ticking down the minutes remaining in my second season on Buldir. Today was our final day off of the summer, and the Tiglax will be here to pick us up next Monday afternoon.

Whenever someone wishes me a “happy Friday” in an email, I have to laugh; in field camp, days of the week have almost no meaning. AK Maritime pays us for 6 days a week of work, expecting us to take one day off per calendar week. That day depends on the needs of our work schedule and very rarely falls on an actual weekend. The whole idea of weekday vs. weekend is laughable in a remote field camp; it’s not like we’re going to hit the local bar or catch dinner at a restaurant.

So what happens on a day off in a remote field camp? This summer I’ve gotten in the habit of watching episodes of “The Office” late at night. Knowing I don’t need to wake up for a particular hour makes it easy to let the episodes slide by. Although I love sleep, there’s something about that show that makes it hard to turn off earlier than midnight.

The morning of a day off starts at a different time each week, but usually gastronomic interests get me out of bed. I enjoy having the main cabin to myself and listening to music while preparing food in the morning, so I often am the first to rise. Although Kevin, McKenzie, and I generally don’t have rushed mornings of quick breakfasts, we tend to cook something a little more complex and crew-wide for a day off brunch. Oatmeal pancakes, sourdough pancakes, or potatoes with/without corned beef hash are the usual suspects. This morning we had potatoes and also finally cracked open the jar of salmon that our friendly neighbors on distant Chowiet had sent us. Our bagels and Alaskan lox were divine.

After eating, activities vary throughout the day. With the ship coming so soon, none of us needed to wash laundry. (Yay!) If we hadn’t had the start of a wet weather system coming through, we would have been more inclined to leave camp. Today I continued reading one of the books my parents sent at resupply, A Walk Across America. While I read, Kevin and McKenzie worked on updating their CVs to send off for their next round of hopeful work. For the career seasonal wildlife tech, this is a never-ending task.

When I decided I’d sat around reading for long enough and needed to satisfy my baking urge, I whipped up a batch of muffin tin brownies. Last season I was informed that brownies baked in a muffin tin provide every brownie with the center’s usual softness and the edges’ chewiness. Brilliant! Unfortunately these were just mixed from a box because we’re nearly out of flour. Still, I knew they’d be appreciated by all of us.

Post-baking I returned to reading and then back to watching “The Office.” While the rain we’d been expecting hadn’t quite materialized, the vegetation was wet and the sky gray; donning raingear on a day off lies near the bottom of every Aleutian field tech’s activity list.

After drinking a few rounds of hot beverage, eating a light lunch while trying to ignore brownies, and finally writing some overdue emails, it was time for me to get out of camp to stretch my legs. The air had been dry for awhile, so I switched from Crocs to Solomon shoes and grabbed my binoculars and camp pager for a mosey down the beach to NW Point.

While I slowly walked on the dry rocks, I basked in the novelty of wearing footwear other than XtraTufs. Along the way I watched a mother eider paddle away with her 2 ducklings, murres dive beneath the water, cackling geese nervously fly off the beach, and puffins fly by on their way home from fishing. To the west of NW Point I found that our poor weather didn’t appear to be coming from that direction; the sea was calmer and the sky not quite as gray.

On my return walk, I decided I needed to do what I’d nearly forgotten about: take my dip in the Bering Sea that happens every time I live on its shores. Although a previous day off of blue sky would have been preferable for a swim, I knew I’d regret not taking my plunge. My northern soul needs its summer swim in cold waters.

Kevin and McKenzie had both showered by the time I returned to camp, leaving me free to heat a pot of water for my own shower. As that heated on the stove, I mixed up a batch of cornbread to go with Kevin’s chili. I pre-set my post-shower clothes in the hanging net of the shower stall and changed into a swimsuit before mixing cool water with boiling water and pouring it into the shower bag. With shower water in place for a nice hot shower, I walked through a light mist down to the beach.

Surely the gulls wondered what I was doing, seeing as I hadn’t brought out our slop bucket to dump for them to scavenge. I dropped my towel on rocks and entered the water, adopting my “no time like the present” or “don’t think, just do” cold water swimming mentality. After carefully walking out to waist depth, I took a breath and dove forward to submerge myself. Either the wind provided just enough nip to the air to make it actually feel cold, or I’m getting weak. Instead of having my usual thought of “this isn’t so bad,” it took me 4 or 5 breaths to recover from hyperventilating, and I acknowledged the Bering Sea was cold. For once I immediately turned back toward shore, but I caught myself and turned parallel to swim a few strokes to make my plunge legitimate. Although I was cold, I was happy I hadn’t skipped out on my polar bear swim.

On my way to the shower, I coasted through the main cabin to pop the cast iron of cornbread into the oven and let Kevin and McKenzie know they didn’t need to rescue me. Then I entered the shower stall and basked in the hot shower; it was my most-appreciated shower and final field shower of the summer. After all, all good things must end.

The evening brought warm chili, fresh cornbread, and entertaining conversation questions provided by the Chat Pack we’d been gifted at resupply. Kevin, McKenzie, and I know each other well enough to predict each other’s answers, which makes it humorous on multiple levels. McKenzie’s answers will most likely be related to outer space/the space station, Kevin’s answers will be related to McKenzie, and my answers will be related to puppies, biking, or New Zealand.

After washing the dishes in our Rubbermaid dish basins, I settled into a chair to write a few more emails before 21:00, our radio check-in hour. Lisa chatted with the Tiglax before calling us to hear about our day. Although some of the camps have too weak of transmissions to make radio call worthwhile, we thoroughly enjoy hearing what the ship and other camps have been up to each day. Lisa’s ever cheerful outlook makes for nice day’s end conversation.

Being a book-based camp, we read until our beds called us to come read there. These days the daylight for good reading is gone by 22:15 – a sign of the season’s change. Fortunately we all have Kindles and reading lights attached above our bunks.

Tonight I’ll be drifting off to sleep to the sounds of rain and wind, knowing that our final day of relaxation has come to an end. It’s bittersweet to know the end of such simple life is so close, but my personal horizon looks pretty good.

An Eruption of Stars

Tuesday 15 August 2017, week 14: Buldir Island

“Steph, the volcano’s erupting,” Kevin calmly stated as I walked toward him in the twilight.

Over my left shoulder lay the comfort of camp, the dark mass of Buldir Eccentric – our volcano – beyond North Marsh visible behind it. As we watched, a glow rose around Eccentric’s back side, illuminating its crestline through the darkness. The moonlight crept its way up the sky as the moon inched its way to the summit of Eccentric; as the moon peeked over the top, the eruption began. Eccentric was erupting the moon and bringing our seasonal lives full circle.

Instead of going to bed, we had been setting up mist nets for this year’s first night of fork-tailed and Leach’s storm petrel diet sampling. Last August our final session of storm petrel diet sampling had occurred on a similarly clear, starry, moonlit night. Since those nights come just a handful of times a season, we were in awe of our good fortune to be surrounded by stars late into the night. After we’d taken down the nets and put away our gear, the 3 of us stood on the deck and enjoyed the starry heavens. We gazed in all directions as we tried to identify constellations and watch shooting stars while we brushed our teeth. It was the perfect way to wrap up our final diet sampling of the season.

Never did we imagine we’d be blessed with the timing of storm petrel diets and starry nights again this year. It happened, though, and the eruption of the moon brought out a clear night for stars and a plethora of Leach’s storm petrels. Fortunately they don’t possess the same self-entangling skill as the parakeet auklets, nor do they have the strength to make their bites very painful. Our setting for sampling storm petrels is also nicer: we spread the nets above visqueen in the tall grass between North Bight Beach and Main Camp; the walk home takes maybe 3 minutes.

Although typically we spotlight storm petrels to draw them to the net, we weren’t being very effective. Then for unknown reasons, the birds began to seemingly appear in the net. From ~ 01:00 to 02:30 we’d no sooner have shone a light on the net to verify its emptiness than one of us would begin removing a Leach’s and call out, “I’ve got 3 other birds in the net down here.” The air was full of mostly Leach’s storm petrels. By the time we managed to find both nets empty, we quickly closed them up and just stood under the stars and swooshing storm petrels. The moon, hanging just over the ridge behind camp, still provided enough light for us to make out the birds’ silhouettes and wow us with their numbers. The bubbly murmurs of the Leach’s and the pig-like squeaks of the fork-taileds played the soundtrack of the night air we’ve slept to all season.

As we wrapped up the late night we once again found ourselves brushing our teeth under the stars. It’s a good life.

Afterthoughts on 16 August: We did our 3rd round of storm petrel diet sampling last night, and guess what? God treated us to another night of stars. With no moonlight it felt like we were working beneath blankets of constellations and galaxies. The sky was so inky dark and the stars so present that I wasn’t the only one having trouble focusing on spotlighting birds. I’d follow a bird with my light until it’d rise above the background ridge’s height and become harder to track, and then – well – my light gained its own life as my eyes got distracted by the stars. I couldn’t help it!

Today was the 3rd day in a row of Eccentric and most of the island being clear of fog and most clouds. Since this year has been wetter than last year, this stretch has been a treat. We even went exploring a new corner of the island on our hike back from Spike a few days ago! With the days quickly winding down, we’re enjoying all the nice weather we can get.