Moai on Easter Island

Moai on Easter Island

Friday, March 20, 2015

Karamea: End of the Road on the West Coast of New Zealand

If you drive far enough north along the remote west coast of New Zealand the road eventually ends in an anti-climatic parking lot.  This is the trailhead for one of the ends of the Heaphy Track.  Luckily we had parked our van here before the hike and caught a bus to the other end of the trail.  We decided to spend a few days exploring the area surrounding the tiny town of Karamea, which sits just a few miles from the end of the road.  Thanks to a guidebook called New Zealand Frenzy we found some beautiful and less touristy places to explore.  This book is now called our New Zealand bible. 
The giant tunnel of Oparara Arch.
Oparara Arch
Caves were the name of the game for most of the exploring around Karamea.  There are a number of caves with glowworms inside.  If you don’t want to pay to go on a guided tour to see these critters then this is the place to go.  Headlamps are a must for getting through these smaller caves.
Glow worms in the Tunnel Cave along the Fenian Caves loop.  

Moria Gate Arch.
There is also a host of giant caves and arches, which I would argue are actually natural bridges, to explore.
Looking out the Moria Gate Arch.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

New Zealand's Heaphy Track

The Heaphy Track is one of nine of New Zealand's Great Walks.  These are multi-day hikes through what is touted as some of New Zealand's most scenic landscapes.  While most of New Zealand is beautiful and it is even more beautiful when there aren't hoards of people along a trail like there are on the great walks, but the Heaphy Track was still beautiful.

Who brings extra shoes to leave on a pole while hiking?
The first, third, and fourth day of the hike are through a green tunnel of strange trees and ferns and small fantail birds that hop and fly around you to defend their territory as you stop for a snack break or larger flightless chicken-duck birds called weka's that will steal anything from underwear to food out of an open pack or picnic table.

The second and fifth days hold the most spectacular scenery.  Day two takes you from the highest point along the trail (just over 3000 feet) through high grasslands and open river valleys with the only real view of surrounding mountains along the whole hike.

Day five takes you along the violent west coast with waves crashing just feet from the trail and palm trees dividing the ocean from the dense rain forest.

After 5 months in Antarctica everyone on the hike wanted greenery and rain and ocean.  That's exactly what we got.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Exploring Western Antarctica

It seems strange to write about my time in Antarctica while I'm 
sitting in the sunshine surround by trees and wearing flip flops.  

A three and half hour flight from McMurdo Station on a LC-130 will bring you to the US Antarctic Program's biggest field camp: WAIS Divide.  WAIS stands for the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.  This is almost at the location where the ice sheet divides and flows into two different oceans.  The elevation of camp sits over 6000 feet, but the ice there is over 10,000 feet thick.  Wrap your mind around that and leave a comment on how that is possible.
Under that hatch at the bottom of this pit is a drill hole that goes down 10,000 feet!

Ice crystals on the wall of the drilling arch where 10,000 feet of ice cores were removed.

I was working with a group of scientists and grad students from the Polenet program.  We were flying out on a twin otter to GPS and seismic sensors and digging them out of the snow.  These measure isostatic rebound as the glaciers melt thanks to global warming.  But due to the government shutdown last year none of these sites were serviced so each of them was buried under 10 to 14 feet of snow.  Each one had to be dug out and set back on the surface of the snow.


After.  Thanks congress.

The first site was surrounded by flat white with the exception of a few volcanos in the distance.
The second site we visited was called Bear Peninsula and was one of the prettiest places I've visited in Antarctica.  The flight was a few hours via twin otter from from WAIS Divide.  The peninsula is along the west coast-the other side of the continent from McMurdo Station.
Looking out toward the ocean from Bear Peninsula.

I found living things at Bear Peninsula!

Mountaineering with a Twin Otter.  Often the plane land in a safe spot and taxi for miles to the sites...just like snow machining in an airplane.
Mountains along the west coast of Antarctica. 

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Camping on the Ross Ice Shelf

Sometimes it is a major luxury to not have to carry everything you need in a pack on your back.  Back in the “real world” car camping always seems like such an amazing luxury.  Well in Antarctica if you need to carry gear someplace you through it on a helicopter or a plane or some sort of tracked vehicle.  And if you want to set up a camp on the Ross Ice Shelf you load thousands of pounds of camping gear and science equipment onto cargo planes and fly it to the middle of flat, white nowhere.

I worked at a camp called RIS (Ross Ice Shelf) or Yesterday Camp for a bit this year.  It was called Yesterday Camp because it was just across the international date line so according to local time it was yesterday there.   Three LC-130 Hercules planes dropped off camp and science gear and the camp was in place for a month.

The massive camp at RIS surrounded by flat white nothing as far as  you can see.
Lines of cargo at RIS. There were 3 LC-130 flights that brought cargo out to camp, but only 2 to take cargo back to McMurdo so packing pallets of cargo to return had to be done strategically. 

Another view of RIS camp.
All of the field sites looked exactly the same: flat white.  I was with a science group that was installing seismic sensors to investigate the effects of waves on the ice shelf.   Some of the sites were visited by snow machine from camp.

Other sites were visited by twin otter.  I would consider a twin otter the ATV of Antarctica.  They can land on almost any snowy terrain and can taxi along snow and ice for many miles to get to places that aren't safe to land.  It really is amazing where these planes can go.

The first of two camp take out flights via LC-130.

I was working at the camp with one other person and we flew back to McMurdo on a twin otter and the next morning we flew out on an LC-130 to retrieve the rest of the cargo.  The black dot through the center window are the last few pallets of cargo and the horizontal line is the groomed skyway that I rode hundreds of miles (along a 10,000' strip) to flatten for the plane to land on. 

In the deep field in Antarctica the only way to load a pallet is to attach a few straps and two snow machines to it and hope it doesn't dig into the snow on the way to the plane.  Most of the air force pallets weight about 3,000 pounds to getting them to move forward was quite a task.

After all the pallets were loaded we pulled up an empty pallet to the back of the plane and drove the snow machines onto it...all done with the plane engines still running.

Those were then winched onto the plane and nothing but flat white was left.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Early Season in Antarctica

As is the norm lately I’m super late getting blog posts up, but I do have a pretty good collection of photos from the first part of the season down here in Antarctica and figured it was better to share them a few months late than not at all. 

The summer season at McMurdo Station is called mainbody and runs from early October through the end of February.   Much of the early season work is on the sea ice, which is one of my favorite parts about being down here because it’s one of the only dynamic things down here that can drastically change from day to day.  And being on the sea ice is the best chance to see wildlife, well besides some of the strange creatures that work in McMurdo. 

Here’s a small collection of photos from the McMurdo Sound area in October and November.  

I was bartending on Halloween night and when we closed at 1am and was far too hyped up to go to sleep.  So I grabbed my camera and went for a walk. Even though the sun didn't set,  it was still low enough in the sky to create the last sunset/sunrise colors that I saw for the rest of the season.

October was full of horrible weather, with only a few days clear and calm enough to get outside and get work done.  On this clear day Mt. Erebus was still covered in lenticular clouds meaning super high winds high on the mountain. 

Shackleton's Hut at Cape Royds hides a plethora of gourmet food, such as these cans of 100 year old beef loaf. 

In mid-November I helped out a group of seal biologists.  They tag Weddell Seals as part of a seal population study that has been going on for over 40 years.

I only saw penguins one day this year out on the sea ice, but that day I saw over a hundred Emperor Penguins waddling and sliding across the ice.  We stopped to sit and watch the first few groups, but as the day went on penguins sitings became comparable to seeing cows on the side of the road while driving though Montana.  

Exploring an ice cave in the Erebus Glacier Tongue.  The open space inside this cave is from a crevasse that was sealed off by snow and wasn't revealed again until the glacier tongue broke off while floating into the ocean. 

Emperor Penguins hanging out along the sea ice edge in McMurdo Sound. 

The Royal Society Range from the sea ice during a traverse carrying fuel and cargo across McMurdo Sound to Marble Point which is a helicopter refueling station for the Dry Valleys. 

The Adelie Penguin colony at Cape Royds.

Home Sweet Home:  McMurdo situation on the southern tip of Ross Island.