Moai on Easter Island

Moai on Easter Island

Monday, September 30, 2013

A Long Year In Antarctica

My first views of Antarctica from the window of the contracted Australian Antarctic Program's Airbus A-319.
A year ago today I arrived in Antarctica and it has been a pretty crazy year.  I’ve learned a lot about myself and a lot about Antarctica.  I’ve been introduced to dynamic people and weather and ice like I never could have guessed existed.  When I arrived here I was excited to be living in one place for four and a half months since that is the longest I’ve spent in one place in years.  I never thought that a year after my initial arrive I’d still be here and have almost two months left.  I’m really excited for travel in New Zealand, Fiji, the US, South Africa and Turkey over the next six months, but I’ve also realized that I need a home to come back to.  Missoula will always be home, but I look forward to the day when I live there (or somewhere else in the mountains of the West) and I don’t get asked how many days or weeks I’m in town for.  I don’t want travel and adventure to end:  I’ll still guide mountains and come back to Antarctica, but I want a more concrete answer when I’m asked where I live. 
October 2012: Just a couple of weeks after I arrived in Antarctica I was doing some monitoring work on the sea ice and saw a few black dots in the distance.  This group of curious Emperor Penguins  slid and waddled up to us to investigate us.  It was definitely one of the coolest experiences of my life.
November 2012: Many of my field days during my first few months were spent on the sea ice of McMurdo Sound monitoring cracks and ice thickness.  The Barne Glacier is an iconic feature north of Cape Evans that I never get tired of seeing.

December 2012: The Dry Valleys Region of Antarctica is filled with bare rock and dry glaciers.  This area is known for its strong winds that flow off the polar plateau and wear away at the boulders and ridges leaving valleys full of strange rock formations.  I was fortunate enough to spend three days in the Taylor Valley on a search and rescue training trip.

January 2013:  I spent most of January at the South Pole and high on the polar plateau at one of the most remote sites on earth.  While it was a neat experience to be at the bottom of the world and at such a remote place I hope to never have to go back.

February 2013: Half of February was spent in a daze working nights while the shipping vessel was unloaded.  The sea ice had melted and McMurdo Sound was busy with a Russian icebreaker, fuel tanker, cruise ships, research vessels and finally the Ocean Giant shipping vessel with a year's worth of supplies for that station.

March 2013:  After (what we thought then was) the last flight of the summer on March 9th life slowed down quite a bit.  We all settled into our winter routine while there was still sunlight.  The month was full of amazing sunsets over the still open water and periodic ice flows.

April 2013: It is funny to look back and remember how excited we were for the sun to finally set for the winter.  I remember staying inside the Arrival Heights building soaking up the last few rays of sunlight through the window.  Four months later we did the exact same thing through the same window with the first rays of sunlight.  Each time left my eyes burning.

May 2013:  In May the dark started to encapsulate us for most of the day.  The moon and a glow on the horizon was the only glimmer in the fading light.  While the sun had been down for weeks the reality of the darkness hadn't fully set in yet.

June 2013: Although I saw my first auroras in late April the darkness of June allowed us to see them at all hours of the day.  This photo was from a late night above McMurdo viewing one of the best displays of the year.  The time lapse video from this night is on my Facebook Photography Page.

July 2013:  In the middle of winter I felt like the darkness would never end.  Now it seems so fleeting and I wish there were a few other night photos I could have taken, but in July the glow on the horizon told of the sun on its way and that was almost all I wanted at that point.

August 2013: August brought lots of change.  The sun arrived, the moon and venus and nacreous clouds put on an amazing one-night-only display and many new people arrived on station.  It was both scary and a welcome awakening.

September 2013: "Wake me up when September ends."  That has been my theme this past month.  All the 54+ hour work weeks from the last year have been catching up to me and I'm exhausted.  But the sun is up and gives everyone the needed boost.  The end is also in sight...the end of my winter job and a welcome change back to my summer job for a fantastic finish to my long season in Antarctica.

I don’t know what I’m going to feel like when I leave here.  I don’t know if I’ll remember how to shop for groceries or cook or even how to digest a real vegetable for that matter!  It’ll come back just like riding a bike I suppose.  The first few days after I arrive back in New Zealand in late November I just want to sleep and feel hydrated after living in the driest desert and eat real food and see and here animals and sounds besides just diesel engines and smell and feel plants that only exist in my mind now.  A year ago one of my coworkers told me to take care of myself because it is a long  (4-5 month) season.  That was a year ago.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

An Antarctic Spring Awakening

Well, the sun is up--finally.  Winter and the constant darkness don't seem real anymore.  In the evening twilight I try to remember how, just a month ago, the brightest part of the day was equivalent to the light hours after the sun now sets, but I can't seem to wrap my mind around that anymore.  The sun is up for over nine hours a day now and soon I, again, won't feel darkness until I leave here at the end of November.  Which is fine because I know I will be sunburnt to a crisp during my travels in New Zealand and Fiji on my way home.

Clouds above Mount Discovery and the Royal Society Range tell of a coming storm.
I've heard that this is one of the most beautiful times of the year in McMurdo.  If you are only in town I disagree.  So far the sunsets/sunrises haven't been as spectacular as they were in April.  But in April there wasn't the chance to get out onto the sea ice and get further away from station.  

Hundreds of frozen starfish reach for the winter sky at Cape Evans
Quite the contrast with the frozen landscape.
On a recent trip to Cape Evans I was able to experience the evening light away from station in a different way than when I was shooting sunsets from my window or from next to buildings in McMurdo like I did in April.

It was a much needed day on the sea ice. Just a little teaser of moving back to my (Antarctic) summer job in October and hints of the freedom that will soon present itself beyond Antarctica's frozen grasp.

Throughout the last 343 days in Antarctica I've seen a lot of pretty amazing things: I first thought my experience was complete after seeing Emperor Penguins up close on day 10.  But that was just the beginning.  The auroras completed my winter before the sun had fully set and the Nacreous clouds completed my spring before the sun had risen.  Seeing hundreds of starfish washed up on the shore at Cape Evans and frozen in place while reaching for the sky was one of the more unique things that I've seen here. 

Grounded icebergs near Cape Evans.  Only 10% of these show above the (frozen) water.
Amazing lighting on these icebergs and a fantastic sunset completed the day as we returned to McMurdo in the twilight.  I'm almost sad that the complete darkness seems so surreal now, but the sunlight is such a welcome phenomenom that it can't do much at this point except for burn the darkness from my memory.

The sun shines brightly over Big Razorback Island.

One of my favorite photos from that day.

I know I said the sunsets in April were better, but this one tops it.  I did absolutely no editing of the color in this image.  It really looked like this!