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.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Frisbee Golf at the End of the World

Life at the South Pole

My McMurdo interviews temporarily caught up, I was manifested for another flight. At long last, a childhood dream was about to be realized. The Pole at last! Once more I would be taking an Air National Guard LC-130 from Pegasus Airfield.

First though, we had our safety briefing. If cabin pressure goes whoosh, the pilot, when he can, will start to drop to a lower altitude. (Given the size of some of the mountains en route, not too low I hope. Some of the Transantarctics are just shy of 15,000 feet.) Until then the plane reached better altitudes, in an emergency we had plastic baggies to stick over our heads, with temporary packets of jiffy-pop oxygen inside. About half probably wouldn’t work so if there were a real emergency, we were encouraged to keep trying—there were plenty of extras on board.

We took off on time and begin the climb towards the Polar Plateau. Some read, some slept, others went back to snatch a lie-down among the cargo pallets.


For me, the magnet was the porthole. Our course to the Pole ran a diagonal transect through the huge, sprawling Transantarctic Mountains, one hundred miles wide and two thousand miles long, and each minute of flight took us past unclimbed cliff faces, over immense ice falls that could swallow a city skyline, and along side glaciers flowing onto other glaciers. Who knows what is buried under all of that ice? A hundred new Yosemites wait to be discovered—and, maybe, diamond mines and oil fields, one reason the various research nations (China, Russia, Chile, Australia, and so on) want to keep a presence “on the ice.” The U.S. base at the South Pole is a premier science lab but it is also a factor in a geo-political chess game. None of that mattered on this flight.

The immensity of it all defies narration. You could set Switzerland down in the middle of this mountain range and it would be as small and lost as a child’s sneaker left behind in the mall parking lot. Antarctica is bigger than the mainland United States.

After three hours, we landed at the South Pole.

As with the WAIS-Divide camp, the plane delivered AN-8 fuel, which had to be pumped off, and as that was being done, ground crews began to reload the plane the outbound cargo, a mix of leftover construction materials from the new base (2008), materials from the previous two bases (going back to the 1950s), and the simple, expected things like trash and science cargo, including more meteorites—and about them we will talk in just a moment.

The main station is on stilts so that it’s not buried by accumulating snow. (The previous shape, a lovely Logan’s Run 1970s dome, had not worked out.) With the right control of air flow (manipulated by sculpted berms up- and down-wind), the wind scours out the snow around the footings. The whole complex rests on hydraulic jacks, so as the inevitable snow does accumulate over the years, the buildings can be raised up another few levels to stay above it.

Just in case anybody might suspect that I am actually in Hawaii, listening to Don Ho on my iPod while I download South Pole images off the internet, here’s the obligatory self-portrait at the geographical Pole proper. This “is” the South Pole. With windchill, air temp is just touching -40 degrees Fahrenheit. I did not leave my face mask down for long.

Adjacent to the geographical Pole, there is a symbolic photo-op South Pole, with flags of polar-associated nations and a chrome-ball topped barber pole. This shot below is sort of a double self-portrait, since you can see the tip of my bunny boot in the bottom foreground. You also can see the flags, just barely, reflected in the edge of the mirror ball.

Inside the U.S. station the floorplan is a modified “W”; here are the dorm pods. Additional summer berths are in huts out of view from this shot. In the main building the rooms are small but Ikea nice, with a bed, closet, nice work table, plenty of electrical outlets, and (best of all), no roommates. South Pole workers (and some visitors) get their own rooms.

During the summer there are 200 on up to 275 people working here, though anything past 250 really begins to feel a bit too crowded I am told—not enough bathrooms, not enough space in the galley to get lunch. The winter-over crew tallies in at 25% of this, fewer and, I would say, braver. They spend a winter in darkness—no sun at all, just the eirie light of the aurora australis turning the sky into curtains of blue and green—and a winter in isolation, since no planes can land, except in the most extreme medical emergencies. All their mail, their groceries, their change of hair-color dye—anything they need has to come in either before the flights close for the season or else wait until next year. One thing they do get to do in the winter is to grow their own fresh food.

Welcome to the greenhouse at the South Pole. No soil is used: plants are rooted in little cubes of sponge and given water and nutrients under growth lamps. Music plays and there is a sofa, so when the endless snow and endless winter get you down, you have a place to come and try to re-center. I think it must be one of the most coveted spots on base, any time of year.

If the green house is in use, still, diversion abounds, all year long. Many of the summer-only employees at the South Pole will go do interesting jobs up north in the off season. They might be rangers in Alaska, deep sea fishermen, scuba instructors, or archaeologists. Crewing yachts is one casual, low-paid, but always interesting way to see the world, and this poster advertises a “how to” information session.

Music is popular (one of the first things I saw when I walked in the front door of the base was a Sousaphone); behind this closed door I could hear the Grateful Dead cover band rehearsing. I am pretty sure that Jerry Garcia is looking down from his rainbow in Heaven, taping his foot in encouragement.

This notice on a lab door caught my eye. It’s hard to read but it’s a subtle spoof on light spectra; note the range set aside for Google secret projects, and also for Death Star lasers. In the galley, a computer monitor scrolls a packet of information, including in-bound flights, timelines of when satellites will be overhead so that Internet access will be available, and today’s weather. On the weather page, for the graphics part, there is a seemingly endless set of adventures with Star Wars storm troopers, who rappel of toilet paper rolls, fight with dinosaurs, and host tv game shows. Gotta love the energy and humor of these people.

Why a bowling ball? Somebody (now redeployed?) used to drink shots out of the finger holes at parties. Why is it still in the dorm hall? No answer. Maybe it’s a legacy thing: perhaps the successor to the bowling-for-shots game is due in soon.

Outside, the arts also flourish. Spoolhenge was very dear to my heart, since some of the AVC faculty have been over to see “Hoodhenge,” an eight-foot tall limestone sculpture in my back yard. Legend has it, it used to be taller. I like it just like this.

Ducts and tubing from previous bases have been made into a kind of open air sculpture: part barn, part sci-fi movie set. This is also part of the best Frisbee Golf route in the world. Just through the end of the tunnel (rather blown out in this exposure) you can see a goal basket.

Here is a better shot of the course.

Not having a Frisbee with me (that so was not on the NSF approved packing list), I had to use snowballs.

Fun is fun and work is work, and sometimes the two mix well. With the arrival of a Twin Otter from a remote field camp, that meant a meteorite crew was back. This was a reconnaissance team out scouting new sites; they still in one austral summer were able to bring back over three hundred meteorites. Main teams, working elsewhere, brought back 900 this field season.

They let me hold one of the large ones, which was unexpectedly heavy. (Well, duh, Hood, you know how dense iron is?) It was probably made of chrondite and was most likely around four and a half billion years old. AVC can get its own meteorite by putting in a request to Johnson Space Center; we maybe have oodles already in the Geology Labs on campus—I must confess my ignorance of what rock samples we archive—but if not, I know now who to contact at the meteorite center to ask for some for us. Once I check with my colleagues over in geology, that’s on my to-do list when I get back.

The woman in this picture has just come back from living on a glacier for five weeks. She is married and has an eight-year-old son. She’s a Ph.D. planetary scientist whose main job is working with missions to Mars. Antarctica always interested her. At a conference, she met some of the meteorite people, and wrote a letter asking to come along as a volunteer. The next year she wrote another one. The year after that, she wrote another one. I want to put something in bold caps here, since this is important: PERISENTENCE pays off. Good things are happening in her life because she went out and made them happen. Nobody is going to hand it to you for free—ask Dr. Fisher, our college president. You need to put up with set-backs and just work through it. In my case, the fellowship I am traveling on I first began working on just under four years ago. I talked to former award winners, I did research on what was being done and had recently been done, I lined up academic sponsors, I got publishers’ endorsements, but most of all, I kept my résumé active: I had a list of projects and artist-in-residencies already completed, to prove that I was worth their time. If you want something, go out and make it happen.

Staying active and being involved may something as simple as helping to offload fuel drums. Just out of view in this shot is one of the most senior meteorite guys of all, somebody who’s been doing this for thirty years. If anybody deserves special treatment, he does. Yet he and I interrupted the interview a number of times just to do something basic like help carry loads. Team work means helping out, no matter what work has to be done.

Back from five weeks the field, the meteorite crew was not done. They had showers, grabbed some dinner, then agreed to meet in the lab. There was a lot of GPS and GIS date to download and transcribe. (We have a certificate program specializing in this, just in case you want to know one way an AVC education ties in to cool future job plans.)

Other kinds of science happen here too, more than I can list. Taken on a less sunny day than the other shots, this facility shown below is the famous IceCube neutrino lab, using sensors buried in ice cores in a one kilometer x one kilometer grid. The sensor strings are a mile long. The IceCube project does cutting edge work in particle physics. There have been tv specials and entire books about it; if you want to find out what a neutrino is and how we see them, there’s a good summary on Wikipedia under “IceCube Neutrino Observatory.” Note the spelling (all one word): get it wrong and you’ll dial up entries on the rapper Ice Cube or the kind you put in your iced tea.

A variety of astronomy projects take place at the Pole. I have a really, really good overview article on it from a technical journal . . . I have it at home, that is. Back in Palmdale, in my home office, my files bulge with articles and the bookshelves bend under the weight of my polar library. Coming here, I just brought down a stripped down sampling of materials with me. This photo is the astronomy building and inside here, um, somebody does something interesting, I just can’t remember what.

Taking pictures at 40 below zero is probably not my favorite thing I have ever done. There are reasons why I took a job in a desert and not, say, Fairbanks. Several people have emailed to ask me what I wear here. When I am suited up, I have about all of the grace and dexterity of an intoxicated astronaut, and so far I have been very glad not to drop a lens cap, since Nikon lens caps cost 27 bucks a go, and I could easily see myself unable to pick it back up.

The white halo around my face in this shot is condensed breath freezing onto my parka ruff. Authentic polar parkas should be trimmed with wolverine fur or wolf fur, since supposedly your breath won’t freeze when it hits those products. The under-fur of the musk ox makes a kind of ultra-soft, hyper-warm wool called qiviut (Scrabble players take note of the spelling), ideal for scarves. NSF is an animal-cruelty-free employer, so no baby seal mittens or musk ox fur face masks for us. We make do with “Government Issue,” starting with the Korean War white bunny boots visible in a lot of these shots. I wear them with three pairs of socks (light, medium, heavy, just in case I have to share with Golidlocks). For the legs, I went out the day of departure to Sport Chalet and upgraded my Patagonia long-john bottoms to a heavier weight of fabric (and am glad I did). Over that layer, at the South Pole I wore a pair of regular fleece pants (on sale at a discount barn in Bishop, years ago), and over that layer, a pair of very thick pile fleece pants that were part of my gear issue in Christchurch. And on top of that goes double-heavy bib overalls, uninsulated but windproof.

Top-side I have two wicking mesh t-shirts, and from a shop in New Zealand, a wicking synthetic fabric field shirt. I bought it because it has large, zippered chest pockets, so I always have a (thawed) pen and sketchpad on one side, and on the other, my reading glasses. Over that goes the heaviest wind-proof pile jacket that Patagonia makes, and over that, “Big Red,” the program-issued down jacket that weighs something like 15 pounds and leans in a corner, standing up, it’s so stiff. Spare camera batteries were kept inside the Patagonia pile coat. Nimble ice climbing gloves by Black Diamond go inside generic Thinsulate mittens. I could photograph in the mittens but not well, and to change settings at all, had to work with just my glove liners on. My hands got cold quickly but so far, so good: look ma, no frostbite.

From the shoulders on up, we top off the outfit with a thick pile neck gaiter, a windproof balaclava (named after a site of the Crimean War, the war that gave us the Tennyson poem “Charge of the Light Brigade), and last, my own private snowboarding goggles, also from Sport Chalet, because they’re polarized and new and hence not scratched up, none of which would have been true about the goggles the program issued me. I am a fiend about top-quality optical glass, and have with me two back-up pairs of very expensive, very top-end glacier glasses. (I also have four back-up pairs of gloves, most with me most of the time, and who knows how many piles of dry socks. My wife was very firm when I left, about the not-coming-back-with-frostbite part of the agreement.)

After two days at the South Pole, I checked in with the comms center to see the status of the inbound LC-130 flight. Despite a grey day and blowing snow, they were en route and on schedule. I had just enough time to grab lunch and pack up.

As the new arrivals were taken in for the briefing, the outbound "pax" (passengers)—myself, a mechanic, and four meteorite researchers—practiced our Spanish at the edge of the fuel dock

And then it was just the long droning propeller flight back to McMurdo. We are given earplugs, and boy, do you need them. At last we landed. Wind was up, temps were down— with windchill, it was a surpising 2 degrees below zero when we set down. Normally that might have felt rather bitter, but compared to the Pole, I hardly bothered to zip up Big Red. Nice day we’re having! Who’s up for beach valleyball?

If this blog has made people want to come down here, McMurdo almost always needs dishwashers for $350 a week, room and board and flights included. When I came into the Galley for dinner after my return Pole flight, I saw these new spa posters put up, advertising for dishwashers. (At least, I think that is what they are advertising for.) Hmm, a long time ago I used to wash dishes up at Sequoia National Park, so perhaps like Kevin Spacey in American Beauty, I maybe ought to think about getting back to my roots and simplifying my life. But do you really think it will make me look younger?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

An All-American Garage

In Praise of Texas Dave

As an earlier post showed, helicopters are an essential part of Antarctic science support, and while there are “night” flights (since it’s never truly dark, the term doesn’t mean much), the main fleet is generally busiest during the working day. (McMurdo and the South Pole are on New Zealand time, since that is where our nearest land connections are and since 95% of staff come here via that entryway. Our “day” is not linked to Washington D.C. or any specific US location.)

That makes sense, but if they fly by day, that means they get fixed at night. Head wrench Dave let me sit on one of the repair sessions as they overhauled 7 Papa Hotel.

It’s cool but not cold inside the hanger, no wind of course, and as with so many garages all across America, the tools are out and the music is on: in this case ZZ Top. No beer in this work place: these are seriously professional men, and no nudie calendars, ditto, but otherwise I could be back in East L.A., 1965, listening to the dads change the oil or figure out how to make two bucks stretch to three.

I envy this crew’s competence and their ability to be independent within the larger team. Each of them had a job to do in the larger whole, and each did it, no bitching, no slacking. Their shift starts at 5 p.m. and some nights when things are just running that way, these guys will stay until 7 a.m. to be sure the aircraft are all in perfect shape when the morning flights lift off. When I interviewed scientists, they all praised the pilots, but when I interviewed the pilots, all praised their ground crews.

You don’t get this in academia, not so immediately anyway. True, I sit on committees, get involved in collaborative art projects, and while it can be productive, even fun (the art more than the committees), you never get this sense of pooled effort building step by step into larger and distinctly completed tasks.

Is it just the tools? The things I need for my own work—books, ideas, maybe a 4 gig thumb drive—don’t have the material heft and presence that garage tools do. A good camera can come close but is not quite the same. Sometimes I like to go to Lowe’s and just walk up and down the tool aisle, admiring the elegance and timelessness of most hand tools, and thinking vaguely praising thoughts about the sorts of people who can just take a screwdriver, a saw, and a hammer, and just start doing things until bingo, they have built a house.

The order of this kind of work place appeals to me too: that old cliché of a place for every single thing, and everything in its place. Maybe I just wish that my garage at home was as big as a helo hanger, complete with spare part rooms off the side entry. Maybe it’s just the order of it all that is so reassuring: I can’t even keep my pens from disappearing from my pen drawer, let alone remember where the caps and refill cartridges are. I still have the silver pen and pencil set I got for 6th grade graduation, or at least, I still have the empty box. The actual items themselves are still around, somewhere. I just couldn’t tell you where.

Is it the memory of past projects done well that makes a garage such a wonderful place to hang out in? English teacher Bill Vaughn lives near me in Palmdale, and I must have finished twenty or thirty home repair jobs or art projects in his garage. (Why his and not mine? His wife is a fabulous cook, but the plain truth is, Bill has more tools—and more cool tools—than anybody I know. If you want it done right, take it to Bill’s house.) I get happy just walking into his house. We may not even solve the next problem, but who cares? The tools are there, the music is on, and work gets done.

Inside the hanger tonight at McMurdo, the music was playing and the bolts were coming off in their carefully planned order, but I had a lecture to catch in Crary Lab and these guys did not need me cluttering up the work space.

I left them to it, knowing that by the first mission of the day, 7 Papa Hotel would be done, back out on the pad, fueled up and ready to go make science happen. Thanks, guys, for inviting me over.