Sunday, January 23, 2011

Final Chapter: Boondoggles and Bag Drags

A Visit with Erebus, Odin, and Other Stray Gods

In local slang, “boondoggle” is a good thing, a coveted thing. While in general use it means to scam somebody or put in a bogus government contract, around McMurdo the best employees are rewarded not with a cash bonus (though they get those too), but with boondoggles. There’s a verb, too—“Whatcha doing? Just booning on up to New Harbor Camp for the day.”

There are working boondoggles and just straight fun boondoggles, but the premise is the same: a worker usually stuck at McMurdo for the season is allowed to tag along with a science crew or be assigned to a work party going off base. After months or years of steady drudging labor, at last you get to get the heck out of Dodge.

Of course seen in that way, I think my whole life has been one long boondoggle.

It has been cold in McMurdo lately and factoring windchill, has been getting down to zero even in town. (All blog temps are in Fahrenheit by the way, and shame on me for not being clear sooner. Sorry Dr. Yorke!) When I went to bed, stray confetti bits of snow were kicking around like tiny wads of trash. A change came overnight and the morning was clear, calm, and even nearly almost sort of warm. A perfect day for a helicopter ride.

I had an hour of flying time still allocated to me on my NSF account and a spare back seat going unused, so by prior arrangement, two McMurdo workers got to boondoggle along with me today. Please say hi to Jules and Dean. He’s got an academic’s ponytail and is taller than I am, and she lives in Idaho when she’s not here—many workers here are from Alaska, the Rockies, Idaho, all those cowboy and free spirit kinds of places. Some people just don’t like to be hemmed in. Jules also holds title as the longest continuously working person down here. She really doesn’t want to be hemmed in.

We weighed in and got helmets fitted, and in the waiting room I studied this chart. I realized if it were an emergency, one button would look like the next, so I took a picture. I guess I was thinking that as the ship goes down, I will fish out my reading glasses, squint at the back of my camera, and calmly read out the directions for others to follow.

We had several destinations today, as I continue to put air operations into a coherent perspective. The first was to cross the now-disused sea ice runways close to town that are operational from spring through early summer. As the ice thins, all ops shift out to Pegasus, five feet of tamped snow on top of 150 feet of glacier ice. This is where the opening blog shots came from, as I stepped off the C-17 from Christchurch. Pegasus was our second goal, and as this shot below reveals, finally now I could see the infrastructure and relationships better, as we surveyed the packed-snow runways 700 feet off the deck. It is a bit like a model train set with a whole lot, lot, lot of Styrofoam.

Done with that leg, we began to climb towards Mt. Erebus, an active volcano and unfortunately the site of a number of aviation disasters, including a famous crash of Air New Zealand Flight 901, which in 1979 took the lives of all 257 people on board. Shaped almost like a child’s drawing of a classic sno-cone volcano, this is one big mountain. The summit is 12,448 feet tall; smoke plumes trail from it, and inside the caldera is a pool of molten lava. (I have seen it from a webcam in Crary Lab, but it’s not the kind of thing you fly a helicopter into.)

This shot may look a little psychedelic, since the sun was bending in interesting ways through the front window. Most of the shots in today’s post were taken not through the windscreen but from open air, as I put the camera (and my hands) outside via a small side window. At this elevation, air temp was minus 22 Fahrenheit, plus there’s a pretty substantial windchill due to our airspeed, so nobody can claim I don’t suffer for my art.

These white knobs along the ridge are taller than houses. They are pillars of frozen steam, a kind of ice stalagmite marking vent holes on the side of the volcano. As Susan Lowry would say, Cool Beans!

History, not geology, brought us up this high. In 1971 a Coast Guard helicopter lost power and crashed, though luckily everybody on board survived. (I guess they did not need to take a round robin vote on who remembered the safety poster in the hanger.) I had heard of it and wanted to see the grim yet oddly compelling wreckage. It almost looks like a sculpture of modern art, snowed up after a museum has gone out of business. In mythology, Erebus is the son of Chaos. The wreck certainly is a reminder of the reality of what all of Antarctica is: large, beautiful, and unforgiving.

Those last three words prompt me to include a shot I made just for my own private art collection—maybe to go up on the wall as a large print, maybe not—but these crevasses also are large, beautiful, and unforgiving. As glaciers descend down a mountain’s slopes, the ice bends and cracks, sort of the way wedding cake would look if you zoomed in macro close to the break where the knife pushes through the frosting. These fault lines have an odd beauty, at least to me. And these are immense: the entire AVC library could disappear inside the deepest central crevasse, leaving nothing showing on top. Large, beautiful, and unforgiving indeed.

To get back to McMurdo we took a swing out to open water, where last week there had been an active pod of minke whales. They have found better hunting elsewhere, though the scenery was still just as grand. The helicopter rotor blade has dipped into this wide-angle shot.

As if to make up for the missing cetaceans, along the edge of the ice numerous small flocks of Adélie Penguin (Pygoscelis adeliae) waddled, slid, and dove. They are named for an explorer’s wife and the word is pronounced “ah-DELL-ee,” sort of like the city in India. They eat krill, fish, and squid. When the icebreakers clear the shipping lane in to McMurdo, the open water can lure these cute little guys within a half mile of town.

As an earlier blog says, two large ships need to make it into McMurdo this year, a fuel tanker and a regular cargo freighter, the second of which brings in supplies but also takes out things like the refrigerated containers of meteorites. With the U.S. Coast Guard vessels all busy elsewhere this year, a chartered Swedish ship, the Oden, has been working on making a clear path. It’s certainly up to the task, since this same ship on a different mission once pushed through the ice all the way to the North Pole.

In English, we know the name “Oden” as the mythological Norse figure usually spelled “Odin” with an “i,” a god of war, death, wisdom, and poetry. Working its slow way up and down the McMurdo shipping lane it reminded me less a warrior doing battle and more of an ox hauling a plow, a reliable and sturdy beast doing its steady work in the fields, day after day after day. Somehow I feel like I can relate. A newspaper reporter helping ferry loads into his daughter’s college dorm once said, “Dads are the oxen of family life.”

The pilot taped his watch. Cinderella’s coach was going to turn into a pumpkin, so we followed the ship channel back to McMurdo. That is Erebus in the far top left, and in the lower bottom left, a finger of brown land is where Hut Point holds the freeze-dried time capsule of Scott’s 1912 supplies.

It’s an ugly sort of place, yet has begun to feel like home.

Tonight I have bag drag, and tomorrow afternoon, if the C-17 makes it through, I will drone my way back to New Zealand, home of kiwi fruit and backdrops for the Lord of the Rings movies. A mix of feelings rises in me. After Tybalt wounds Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, the dying Mercutio darkly puns that the hurt will turn him serious (but also dead): “Ask for me tomorrow and you will find me a grave man.” I feel a touch that way too.

Ask for me tomorrow and I may be a bit grave, a bit sad.

For now though I am still high from the glories of the helicopter trip, as this final coda picture shows. The question is, do I look so giddy because I plan to dream of helicopters and frozen geysers all night long, or is it because a rumor has been flaring through camp like an oil well fire—can it be true? Dare I hope? Is it true—is Frosty Boy finally fixed for good?

I will smile all the way to the Galley.

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