Winters in northern Minnesota are cold and bleak, void of visual stimulation, and often leave one’s mind to drift aimlessly. Today is one of those days; bored, I stared out the window at the village of fish houses that dotted the frozen landscape. The dazzling December snow had given way to dry capped peaks, formed by endless sweeping winds, leaving a crusty wake over the surface of the lake. I felt detached from my body - a virtual stranger to myself – my mind drifting, swirling in and out of reality with the wind, drifting back to a more exciting time in my life, when I was a stranger in another frozen landscape.
Antarctica is the coldest, driest and windiest place on earth - technically a desert - due to the lack of humidity and precipitation. The inescapable isolation gets under your skin, and never leaves. You may leave, but part of you will stay, forever frozen in time like the fossils or the historical exploration sites of early Antarctic explorers. The time I spent there was the most breathtaking and memorable experience of my life.
I’ll never forget my first day on the ice. Stepping off the C-5 cargo plane that shuttled the many explorers and scientists to the ice, I took a breath. The air was deliciously cold and fresh smelling, but the intense cold immediately froze my nostrils, creating little ice rocks so sharp that my nose bled. Nevertheless, I was fascinated by the pristine beauty and serenity of the place. I could’ve stood in that one spot forever, taking everything in. Imagine, a landscape that has stayed the same for hundreds or thousands of years, changed only by the seasons and the glaciers that slowly made their way to the bay. Animals roamed the ice-crusted surface freely, their only thoughts of instinct, survival of the fittest.
Off in the distance, I noticed a group of Adelie penguins standing next to a series of colored flags – green on one side, red on the other. The black and white penguins had a white circle around each eye, making them stand out next to the colored flags. I chuckled at the sight, thinking they looked like they were waiting for a bus. I continued to scan the horizon, wondering aloud about the location of Mt Erebus, an active volcano, in relation to the snowcapped mountain range I saw in the distance. My companions, who were more seasoned than I, laughed at the “FNGY” – a friggin’ new guy. They told me it was not snow, but glaciers, that were slowly moving across the mountains until they reached the ice shelf; their ultimate destination the sea.
As I continued to stare in amazement at the frozen countryside, I considered myself very fortunate to be at McMurdo Station. I was part of an elite military detachment assigned to support the National Science Foundation in their research of Antarctica. As part of the maintenance department, it was my job to keep the UH-1N “Huey” helicopters and LC-130F cargo planes flying, a job I took seriously. We had to be ready to launch at a moment’s notice to search for a lost soul, who may have somehow gotten turned around in the savage wilderness known as “the ice.” I was happy to be of service to such a worthy cause, to be part of history, and just maybe make a difference. Knowing that I was standing on the very ground explorers had only discovered within the last century, gave me goosebumps - I shivered at the memory of those explorers who died in the name of science, for the benefit of society.
McMurdo Station, located on Ross Island, is the largest of three permanent research bases maintained by the United States. (The other two are Admundsen-Scott, located at the South Pole, and Palmer Station, located at the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula.) Each year the population soars from a low of 250 in the winter, to approximately 1,700 in the summer. The unforgiving climate can dip as low as -127° F with winds gusting to 200 miles per hour. It never ceased to amaze me how so many different people and cultures could live in such extreme temperatures without killing each other!
Later that summer, one of the mechanics working in the heavy equipment shop attacked one of his acquaintances with a claw hammer. The mechanic was on a weekend drinking binge, and needed more beer. A fellow working in the Ship’s Store refused to sell him more beer since he had already used his weekly ration. The mechanic lay in wait for the poor fellow as he left work for the day. The next day, the mechanic was shipped back to the States to await prosecution for murder.
In addition to studying the ever-increasing hole in the ozone, international scientists gathered in Antarctica to study the animal life – whales, seals, penguins, and Antarctic cod. Of all the animals, the Antarctic cod is the most hideous with an opaque body and huge jagged teeth that would be better suited to a shark. Aside from its appearance, the fish is very unusual in that it has a type of antifreeze in its blood.
Once in a while my shift ended early; all maintenance had been completed on the helicopters, and they were ready for the next day's mission. The day workers were sleeping soundly; out of consideration, the shift supervisor had forbidden us to return to our barracks. Looking for something to do, a couple of co-workers and I hiked across the rocky helo pad and down the steep hill to the water. The ice was thin, and had melted near the shore. Always curious, I reached out and put my hand in the water. I was surprised at the coldness; it was like putting your hand in a cooler full of beer cans and partially melted ice. Looking up, my friends, Tim and Joe, were crossing the ice floes on a makeshift bridge of pallets and plywood to reach a couple of huts known as “the aquarium.” Not wanting to miss anything, I quickly withdrew my hand, and hurried to catch up with my friends.
Opening the door to the first hut, we were disappointed to see nothing but a chair, a hole in the ice, and a basket with a long nylon rope attached. I picked up the rope, noticing a series of knots tied every 12 inches. Tim picked up the basket and lowered it into the water. We watched silently as the rope dropped further and further, counting each knot as it disappeared into the icy blackness. At the 15-foot mark, I was amazed that the basket hadn’t touched bottom, yet the hut was only eight to ten feet from the shore. My friends and I discussed the various theories behind the hut’s existence, and the black hole in the ice, as the basket was quickly hauled up. I wasn’t surprised to see it was empty, and we moved on to the next hut.
The Aquarium was a fairly large hut, approximately 100 square feet enclosing five large round tanks of seawater. A large fluorescent lantern hung by the door and we switched it on as we entered the room. The huge, fish tanks were dark, but I could vaguely make out the silhouette of a large fish. I leaned over the side of the tank to get a better look, and suddenly a gaping hole of teeth was in my face. “Ahh!” I cried, jumping back. “What the heck is that?” “Don’t get too close,” said Tim. “Those fish’ll eat anything.” “Gee, thanks for the warning!” I shot back, humbled once again in my fingyness. As I circled the tanks from a safe distance, multicolored starfish, and sea urchins caught my eye, and I thought I recognized a sea cucumber from a picture I saw in a National Geographic magazine. I also saw a few small codfish in the tanks; their translucent bodies seemed to glow in the fluorescent light of the lantern. We tapped on the glass to provoke the fish, but they didn’t bite, and after a few minutes we left the aquarium to seek out and explore the hydroponic greenhouse near Observation Hill.
For each scientist on the ice, there was four support staff, each person having their own reason for being there. Like me, some people came for the unique work experience; others came to escape bill collectors, the reality of a bad marriage, or the human race in general – it was easy to do in the forgotten, isolation of the Ice.
Because I worked the night shift my day began promptly at 5:30 pm. Groaning, I slipped out of the warm darkness of my bed and rushed to the “head” to shower. The tiled floor was cold under my bare feet, and I shivered waiting for the water to warm. Ignoring the posted signs limiting showers to five minutes, I lathered slowly, allowing the hot water to warm my cold muscles. It seemed I could never get warm enough, but I reluctantly turned off the shower and dressed quickly for work. Leaving the warmth of my dorm, I squinted as my eyes adjusted to the partly sunny sky. It seemed to promise mild temperatures for the time being, and I hoped the weather would hold long enough for a plane to come through with mail and fresh vegetables. Trudging slowly down the hill to the helo hanger, the wind gusted suddenly and I felt icy crystals pelting my face. “Not a good sign,” I thought, pulling the hood of my parka closer to my face. I picked up my pace and hurried toward the bright lights of the helicopter hanger.
Working nights in the helo hanger meant that my team did the majority of the work, but luckily there were hidden benefits. We were there when the last flight of the day returned, bringing back the latest and greatest news reports from the ice camps. It also meant we got to see rock samples containing fossils from the dry valleys. These samples supported the theory that the continent was once been home to a tropical jungle. We were also there to scavenge through any remaining skua bags – bag lunches – unwanted leftovers from the passengers and flight crews. Skuas are very aggressive birds, similar to sea gulls, and will eat literally anything they can pick up. Skua bags often contain highly prized treats like, unopened bags of chips, pudding, boxes of juice and Cadbury bars from New Zealand, and sometimes, fresh fruit.
One evening a pilot came back and asked if anyone wanted to fly out to the edge of the ice shelf. There weren’t any electrical gripes I could work that evening, so I gathered up my ECW gear (extreme cold weather), grabbed a helmet, and jumped onboard.
As the helicopter began its ascent, the crew chief hopped out onto the right skid and watched the clearance between the ground and us. It was his job to ensure the helo did not collide with the rocky landscape. Once clear of the pad, the crew chief climbed back in and we were on our way! Shortly I heard choppy communications through my head set. It was the pilot asking if I, or my fellow passengers, had ever “shot the gap.” Being “fngys,” neither my companions nor I knew what he was talking about. An evil chuckle in our headsets let us know that we were in for the ride of our lives. “Hang on!” the crew chief called, as he slid the side crew door open, locking it in place.
All barriers between the ground and me were now gone, and it made me nervous; my heart was in my throat, and I felt like I was going to be sick. Looking away, I saw two huge rock spires directly in front of us. “Oh, no,” I thought. “We’re not going to make it!” My life flashed in front of my eyes, as the helicopter tilted sideways and we whisked through the gap between the spires with inches to spare.
Once I caught my breath, I realized that everyone was laughing. “Shooting the gap” was part of the OAE initiation ritual. I could now call myself an Old Antarctic Explorer. Looking out the door in embarrassment, I was amused to see a group of penguins running away from the noise of the helicopter. The fleeing penguins gave me a chance to gather my composure and hide my fears. Not long after, I saw a blast of water shoot up from a hole in the ice. “Look down there!” the crew chief said, pointing toward a hole in the ice. “We’ll set the bird down near that hole.” Once more the crew chief climbed out onto the skid and called the clearance to the pilot.
On landing, the crew chief grabbed his auger and attempted to drill a hole in the ice. I watched with growing skepticism. Why would anyone intentionally drill a hole in the ice? We were not here to go fishing! But I kept my thoughts to myself, not wanting to ask any stupid questions. After a few minutes, the crew chief decided the ice was thick enough to hold the weight of the 9,000-pound helicopter. The pilot shut the aircraft down, and everyone climbed safely out onto the ice. Periodically the crew chief would grab his ice pick and test the ice here and there, making sure the ice was safe to continue, and that no one would fall into a crevasse. A crevasse is a narrow opening in the ice. If anyone stepped into it, their body would melt the ice walls around them, causing them to become wedged, or worse, slowly fall deeper and deeper into the ice before freezing to death.
After what seemed like an hour, we spotted a group of Adelie penguins. A few members of our crew were slowly inching their way toward the penguins, not really sure what the penguins would do. During the squadron’s pre-deployment brief, we were told that some penguins would attack humans if they felt threatened. I kept trudging along, not really wanting to be pecked by a penguin. After a few minutes I looked back and noticed my fellow crewmembers were standing among the penguins. I quickly pulled my cameral out and took a picture. “This should be good blackmail for some beer,” I chuckled.
Shortly thereafter, I reached the hole in the ice where we had seen the spout of water. There was a large pod of killer whales swimming around. At first I stood back away from the water. I heard that Orcas would eat humans if they mistook them for a seal. But soon my fears subsided and I found myself kneeling down to pet a baby whale. The whale’s skin was smooth and cold, almost like plastic. He wasn’t afraid of me, and soon a bull whale surfaced nearby. Not sure what to expect, I backed up. Just then the whale jumped up into the air and splashed back down into the icy black water. Everyone was amazed at the whale’s behavior. We weren’t expecting an untrained whale to behave as if he was at Sea World. The whale continued to jump into the air, as if showing off for his human audience. Our entertainment continued for about 20 minutes, each whale taking a turn leaping into the air. When the whales tired of this activity, we left them alone. They were too big and dangerous to aggravate, and I didn’t want to become whale food. I looked back toward the helicopter to get my bearings and spotted several Emperor penguins standing near our landing area.
The birds were as curious about me as I was about them, and as I walked toward them, they scooted along on their bellies toward me. Once they got closer, I could better appreciate the beautiful birds. Emperor penguins stand about four feet tall; they have a shiny, jet black “tuxedo” with a pearly white “shirt” and yellow feathers that looked like an inverted teardrop beside beady, black eyes. A black bill with a yellow-orange streak offsets their large head. I fumbled with my camera, hoping to get a great shot before they moved away. Hearing the shutter click, the penguins scooted off on their bellies in search of new adventures.
About that time, the crew chief shouted that everyone had to get back to the helicopter. Reluctantly, I walked toward the helicopter that was to take us back to civilization. Pausing a moment, I turned to get one last look at the great, frozen paradise, and the animals that captured my heart. A group of Adelie penguins had been following me as if I were the Pied Piper of Hamlin. Adelie penguins are very shy, and will drift away from outsiders trying to get a closer look, but they are also curious. Wanting to freeze that moment in time, I quietly took a picture. Once everyone was onboard, the helicopter rose and we began the journey back to McMurdo Station.