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What we’ve been up to

Week 6: Sa 2 December 2017, 22:10 … through Week 7: Sa 9 December 2017. Cape Shirreff, Livingston Island, Antarctica

And suddenly it’s December. In just another month we’ll be at the halfway point when we get our resupply and camp leader swap. What have we been up to since our arrival the last week of October?

For the first few days we focused on opening camp, which included lots of shoveling snow, unpacking totes of food shipped from the U.S., setting up our weather stations and wind turbines, and killing mold that had grown everywhere over winter.

Toward the tail end of our first week, Nai and I made our way to the Skua Shack to shovel, remove more door and window covers, turn on the solar energy system, set up our weather station,
and scout for penguins. Since the chinstraps (aka chinnies) weren’t around at all and the gentoos were mostly showing up later in the day, our days consisted of drinking tea and listening
to podcasts while drawing lines in our databooks. In the afternoons we’d walk through our penguin colonies to resight banded birds. Until the penguins started building nests – but really,
just laying eggs – our season didn’t fully begin. Hence, we did a little sledding.

Our first chinstrap egg showed up on November 15, and the first gentoo egg appeared on November 18. From that point on we kept sharp eyes out for eggs in the plots we’d set up inside the
colonies. We marked plots with large rocks painted bright orange for non-disturbance plots and green for standard reproduction plots. By keeping track of the number of eggs present and
which mate is on the nest daily, we monitor the 5 nests closest to said rocks. Regardless of location, Known Age birds’ nests are marked with blue rocks and monitored in the same way.

We began banding penguins associated with our study nests around the last week of November and just finished that up a few days ago. From experience I can say that penguins are strong!
Holding a squirmy bird between my legs while trying to keep the left flipper accessible for banding and keep the right flipper contained was very difficult. Throw in the fact that they’re
not the happiest about being handled, and you’ve essentially got a bite-prone torpedo just waiting to burst free. The 22+ bruises on my arms from bites have almost all faded now.

Mid-November also meant the beginning of Skua Rounds. Brown skuas hold territories and nest on most of the hilltops around the cape, so Nai and I each climb about half of the hills and
search for skuas every 4 days. We found our first eggs on November 29, and we’re finding more nests with each check. Checking the territories takes about 3 hours and gives us more
exercise and great views, as well as opportunities to slide back down the hills we’ve climbed.

From the end of November through present Nai and I have had long days of 2/3 seabird work, 1/3 pinniped work. During perinatals, the time when female Antarctic fur seals are pupping, the
pinniped team needs our help. After helping with the capture of a female, Nai and I take its 1 or 2 day-old pup off to the side to collect some samples and puppysit while the
pinniped team works on the female. Many of the puppies have been fairly sweet, a few were little devils, and all of them now have fitting names.

In the evenings we have often elected to pull out the comfy camp chairs, pull down the screen, and project something to watch. More often than not, something was automatically the show
“Sherlock.” For anyone who hadn’t seen it (like me), it’s quite the roller coaster. Some nights we’ll each go about our own business, eventually disappearing to our bunks one by one. Since
Sundays are our day to sleep in until 9, Saturday nights are typically later and feature socializing.

Despite the disappearance of snow, life is good here. By wearing my rubberized Grundens bibs, I can still slide down the really wet snow. Today I created my 4th slide off of ridge 29; as
the snow goes, my slides reveal rock, which doesn’t really work for sliding. I’m dedicated to sliding until I’m forced to walk downhill, though!

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Let it Snow

Week 5: Sa 25 November 2017, 18:29. Cape Shirreff, Livingston Island, Antarctica

Possibly never in my life have I had such mixed feelings on blue sky and sunshine.

This is Antarctica. It’s supposed to be snowy and cold forever, right? Actually, no. Little by little, the sunshine is melting the snow and tearing our camp apart.

Nai and Sam are on Team Melt. Adam and I are on Team Snow. Our clever conversations go something like this –

Snow: Yay! It’s snowing!
Melt: Noo-o. Melt, baby, melt!
Snow: But it’s so pretty. Even Wonder Woman thinks snow is magical. Melt team + Doug: If she shows up, let us know over the radio.

There are many reasons I don’t want the snow to melt. My primary reason is functional and lies in my preference for skiing over snowshoeing. The sooner the snow melts down, softens, and
becomes slushy, the sooner our days of skiing are over. Not only is skiing more fun – it’s also faster and a better cardio workout. In one small spot today we finally lost all of our snow
and had to negotiate around the revealed rocks at the top of our one downhill. It was a sad moment.

Snow also keeps everything cleaner. My bibs, gaiters, and boots are always splattered with mud and poop when I leave the penguin colonies. Snow helps clean some of that off on my walk back
to the Skua Shack. Once the snow is gone, layer after layer of “mud” will build up on my gear.

Maybe most importantly, the longer the snow sticks around, the longer I get to sled. Body sled, real sled, whatever. IT’S THE BEST! I have 2 different chutes for body sledding on my
penguin colony rounds, and I’ll be heartbroken when I have to just walk down hills. The ride down from ridge 29 is initially a steep drop, but it mellows out as it continues to the flats.
With below freezing temperatures lately, the surface is frozen enough to let me set new distance records! There’s always a part of me tempted to climb back up the ridge just so I can slide down again.

A few nights ago our evening activity turned out to be everyone else watching me sled down El Condor, the steep hill behind camp. The slog uphill with large sled in tow was taxing, but the
ride back down was guaranteed to be pretty epic. It was the tail end of a beautiful day; the skies were muted dusky colors, and the setting sun turned the surrounding hills a pleasant
shade of orange. The distant snow-covered mountains were out in their glory, and the air was clear. I turned the sled around at my Launch Point and had a moment of questioning my sanity,
as I noticed a steeper drop near the beginning of my descent. Nonetheless, I radioed camp with the message “This is a little intimidating, but I’m ready to go.” As the crew gathered
outside camp, I did my classic “act before you can think about what you’re doing” and jumped headfirst on the sled, which was already pointed downhill.

Whoosh! With ski mask in place, I shed no tears from the wind but instead had a clear view of my path toward Playa El Modulo. It was Awesome! Once I came to a stop, I learned from the crew
that jaws had dropped as they observed the speed of my descent. Next time I think that needs to be measured.

Clearly life is better with snow. If that means taking away our sunny days that make me want to play tourist and take lots of pictures as I make my way through my work, I’ll be okay with that. Just send me more snow for summer.

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.**

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.