Monday, October 24, 2011

Put a bird on it, Antarctica style

Here's the ridiculous vista picture of the day to start us off.
Those three tiny figures are some friends of mine who were out watching a pregnant seal. This is the closest thing I ever see to darkness; the sun really doesn't get any lower than this, and even this approximation of a sunset will soon disappear as the season progresses. This was taken around 11pm. I walked out of the bar after watching the world cup rugby finals and decided that I needed to take myself on a long, meandering think. There's something to be said for perpetual sunlight and being able to charge off on a hike at any hour of the day or night. I will say, though, that it's giving me some mighty strange sleeping habits. By which I mean I don't really sleep.

What I want to talk about today is the prevalence of all things penguin related. As far as I can tell, there are two reasons for this overabundance of penguins: 1. Penguins are really cute. 2. There aren't really any other animals down here, so they win by default. I keep thinking of the put a bird on it Portlandia sketch (if you don't know what I'm talking about, you're clearly on the internet-- google it and watch)... Penguins are the unofficial mascot of Antarctica, and as such their likeness shows up on every sticker, patch, memo, sign etc. on station. 

I decided to walk about with my camera for half an hour to take pictures of every penguin related thing I saw in the course of my natural wanderings. I actually gave up after about 10 minutes because there were just too many penguins to photograph and I lost interest. But this gives you a pretty good idea of what I'm talking about.
 This is one of my favorites. Adorable!
 Bookdrop. I do believe that all libraries should have bookdrops that look like this.
 Penguins flanking the doors to the chapel.
 View from the chapel window. I love the fact that someone actually made a stained glass window in the shape of antarctica with a penguin in it.
Penguin banners in the library. There's a lot of strange art down here, and I'm gathering material for a future post about Antarctic Art.

While Antarctica has a lot of penguins, do you know what it doesn't have? Polar bears. Those only live in the Arctic. People apparently don't necessarily know this, and so someone made a very helpful t-shirt that is far and away my favorite item available for purchase at the McMurdo Station Store:
I've spent the last few years on a crusade to not own unnecessary possessions, and I have a pretty firm rule about not acquiring any sort of commemorative memorabilia T-shirts, but I might have to make an exception for this one.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Solidarity from Antarctica and a very cold hike

I didn't actually take this one, but I figured it was awesome enough to be worth nabbing and sharing. You might have seen this kicking around other places on ze interwebs, as it seems to have gone viral on facebook and reddit and other such things. Four of these folks are my roommates, and they took this a few days before I arrived. Kind of crazy how small the world can become...

Yesterday was my day off, so I waited around in the galley until I found someone else who doesn't work Tuesdays so I could kidnap them and go hiking. You have to take a buddy with you on most of the hikes that you can do around here, and you also have to check in with the fire house and get a radio and give a detailed account of where you're planning on going and how long you'll be gone. If you don't show up by your estimated return time, they start mobilizing helicopters and search and rescue. People have died while out hiking, so it's a very good policy, but the fire house gets very mad at you if you forget to check in and they have to send out helicopters when you're actually just back in your room drinking a beer.

One of the two emergency shelters along the route. They're pretty adorable. They're stocked with caches of food, extra sleeping bags, camp stoves, and a very random assortment of out of date reading material. One of them had a National Enquirer from 2009 in it.  
Complete with classy furniture!
They look a bit like flying saucers from the inside. 

...which is fitting because the landscape looks like another planet.
That little dome off in the distance is some sort of fancy science thingee. I'm going to go investigate it sometime this week. 
This is what I looked like by the end of the hike. It's a very strange feeling to not be able to blink properly because your eyelashes are frozen together. Also, this picture further confuses me as to whether my eyes are hazel or brown. I think I could argue for either?

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Observation Tube!

I am probably going to be saying this a lot over the course of the next handful of months, but I just saw something truly incredible. I've been taking a fair amount of pictures that I don't know quite how to work in, so I've decided I'm going to start every blog post with a picture or two of just how stunningly beautiful this environment is.

Although I technically knew that I was coming down to Antarctica to work as support staff for the scientific research of the United States Antarctic Program, it somehow didn't fully sink in that I'm working, through one degree of separation, for the National Science Foundation. This is funny, because I've often complained about the fact that my preternatural ability to act as a magnet for scientists means that my day to day life is often dictated by science that I don't really understand. Ha. Clearly some part of me must actually enjoy this, because I have no one but myself to blame this time, and I'm LOVING hearing about the research that's going on down here.

There's a pretty stark division between the science that goes on here and all of us townsfolk who cook and clean and operate the heavy equipment that allows said science to happen. But there are definite attempts to make the research down here available to those of us contractors who want to learn about it. There are weekly science lectures, and we can go tour the labs, and sometimes we get to play with some of the scientific equipment that's not currently being used.

And some of that equipment is really, really, reaaalllllyyyy awesome. Like this thing here, which looks like one of them there tubes from Super Mario Brothers. This is the Observation Tube. And it is one of the most incredible things I've ever seen. Basically, this is a 30ish foot pipe that has been drilled through the sea ice so that the bottom length of it is underneath the water.

You climb down through the tube, and there's an observation chamber at the bottom. There's only room for one person at a time, and you shut the top so that the surface light doesn't interfere with the view. It's a tight fit. 
It was pretty much impossible to get a decent picture here, but this is one of the windows down in the tube. All the little white specks are krill, punctuated by the occasional jellyfish. Apparently seals sometimes come by.
The sea ice from below. I wish you could see the subtle variations better. It was pretty damn awe inspiring. 
This gives you a bit of an idea of what the observation area looks like. 

Yay for unused science equipment! 

Sunday, October 9, 2011

I'm in Antarctica!

Hey! I'm in Antarctica!
Well. I had all these ambitions that I was going to write some sort of thoughtful summary of everything that came out of riding my bike across the country, but one thing led to another and now I am solidly in the middle of the next adventure and can’t seem to summon up much retrospective contemplation at the moment. So instead I will just briefly say—it’s been a wonderfully crazy year, and I feel extraordinarily grateful for all the marvelous adventures and partners in crime that have entered my life since I decided to throw myself out at the world to see what would step up to catch me. These past seven months feel like they’ve held at least a few years’ worth of inspiration and joy. And now I’m in Antarctica!
I’m currently writing this from the coffee shop (yes, there is a coffee shop; it also serves wine and whiskey) at McMurdo Station, where I’m working as a cook until February. It’s hard to know quite where to start in describing this place, so I’ll begin with my most frequently asked question: Why the hell did you want to work in Antarcitca?
There were a few reasons I wanted to come down. The main one was the simplest. To quote the explorer George Mallory when asked why he wanted to scale Everest: “Because it’s there.” I applied for this job while I was still riding my bike, at the time, I felt like the last thing I wanted to do was just get a day job and settle into some sort of normal living environment. So this seemed like a good middle ground. It wasn’t traveling per se, but it certainly wasn’t the anemic domesticity that I’d been living in before and that I desperately wanted to avoid returning to.
It seemed like the perfect way to experience a strange and fascinating place-and its equally strange and fascinating populace- while fostering a temporary sense of home and roots. And, after spending so much time being an itinerant painter, I was pretty excited at the prospect of a steady paycheck.
I was also curious to see how I would respond to the isolation and the weather. For those of you who know me personally, you are probably well aware of the fact that I hate the cold. Not just a little bit, but a lot bit. Kind of to the extent that it is one of my defining personality traits. Somewhere between Los Angeles and Maine, my bike ride began to foster a fascination with testing my own limits--with seeing how many second, third, and seventeenth winds I had in me. I have always been an extremely stubborn person, and I find some measure of perverse joy in putting myself in situations where I have bitten off more than I can chew and am then forced to rise to the occasion. So I figured I’d get myself to the coldest place on earth. Thus far, I’m doing fine, but it’s apparently quite warm for this time of year. It was 12 degrees when I landed, and the coldest I’ve thus far been outside for (I’ve only been here two and a half days) has been -2.
So I applied while I was on the road: I sent in my application from New Orleans, and my written interview from DC. I had my phone interview from New York, and found out that I’d got the job while in the mountains of Vermont. I’d had to hike up a ridgeline to get cell phone reception, and it somehow seemed very fitting to be doing my excited holyshiti’mgoingtoantarctica dance in that setting. 
And then I came back to Seattle for two months, and completely fell in love with a city for which I’d previously harbored nothing more than grudging apathy. The universe basically slapped me in the face with all the things that I’d complained that Seattle lacked, and I left feeling like I had many things that I wanted to stick around and explore. It was certainly funny timing to be dashing off on this crazy adventure at one of the few points in my life where I was actually full of curiosity and excitement over where I already was.
Alright, enough of this rambling backstory stuff. So! Antarctica! 
Actually getting down here involved a truly stunning amount of bureaucracy. I won't go into the details, but I think I probably heard at least 25 safety lectures, all of it covering the same material. I understand where they're coming from-- we are, after all, working in an environment where you can actually die of exposure quite quickly if you go out unprepared and all... Anyways, after about 3 days of lectures and informational videos in Denver, we headed out to Christchurch, NZ and were issued our cold weather gear. We are provided with everything we need for the outdoors, and out most noticeable layer is our Big Red, which, as you can see, is an enormous red parka. Everyone who works down in Antarctica is issued one of these, so at times the station looks like a pack of red penguins waddling from point A to point B.  
Sitting in a lecture at the Clothing Distribution Center in Christchurch. A sea of red parkas.
 We also got issued these things called Bunny Boots, which are enormous, insulated boots with valves on them so you can regulate the inner air layer. They are HUGE, and remind me of those ads for moon boots that used to be on TV when I was a kid. Anyone else know what I'm talking about? They were like little trampolines for your feet....
Here's my bunny boot next to my shoe for a size comparison.

We flew down on a military transport plane. The cargo bay was crazy loud, so we all had to wear earplugs and couldn't really have conversations.
Most people opted to just curl up in their Big Reds and go to sleep.
These are the transport vehicles down here. They all have nicknames and the insides are covered in stickers, and riding around in them makes me feel a bit like I'm in a science fiction movie and am in the infantry on some foreign planet and about to step out and wage war against strange creatures. Most things here make me feel like I'm on a foreign planet.
Antarctica is a place of contradictions. The sparse landscape is every bit as impressive and daunting as one might think, but McMurdo itself is gritty and industrial and everything that goes into actually living and working down here is... uh... well. It's not austere and romantic. It's greasy and poorly organized and slipshod and generally looks like a construction site.
A view of my home. There are a bunch of weird sculptures lying around, I'll post more pictures later.

The people down here are very much my peoples-- no one can really give a straight answer to the question of "Where are you from?" so instead everyone asks, "Where do you store your stuff?" It is lovely to be in a community where being a vagabond places you solidly in the majority. I'll write more about the people later, I have to dash off to work now. I'm working ten hour days, six days a week, so I'm kept pretty busy. Hilariously, they're serious about uniforms here, so six days a week I'm wearing an immaculately white doubled breasted chef's coat. I'm going to try to update this blog fairly regularly (heh, we'll see how that goes), but in the meantime, I would love to hear from everyone back home! Email me and say hi: Also, send me mail! If you write to me, I'll write back and I'll draw you pictures of strange things I encounter down here on the ice. Flat mail gets here waaayyyyyy faster than package mail, so either send two dimensional things, or use a padded mailing envelope. I can be reached at:
Tessa Hulls, NANA
McMurdo Station
PSC 469 Box 700
APO AP 96599