Glacier, pine, moose

Arriving.

I wanted to go to Glacier before the glaciers melted.

M and I drove across North Dakota in September, through grey midday skies that drifted into the horizon. Flat and misty and shouldered in by hurrying semi trucks on I-94. We stayed in a tiny Forest Service campground the first night, woke to the prairie wind tugging at our tent from the inside.  The kind of wind that combs through the grasses. The kind of wind whose physical form you can see, smoothing the landscape with open hands.

Into Montana, shear rock faces snuck up on us, the way mountains sometimes do. We pulled into a deserted campsite, small and quiet in a rocky basin, and were too spooked by the bear-alert signs to stay there alone, so we kept driving to find people. The moon rose and the wind shushed in the tall pines, punctuated only by intermittent cars on the mountain highway.

tall pines with the moon rising behind them

Sunrise is slow in the mountains.

We packed up into the little red car as the sun was coming over the ridge, having been awake for a few hours, cold fingers holding coffee mugs and brushing wet pine needles from the footprint of the tent.

We drove through one-road towns, tucked in just a few hundred feet off the road. Decaying, fire-destroyed wooden buildings littered themselves down the slopes, and the Belt Creek ran beside the asphalt and under the road. The colors changed to a palette of rust, seafoam, and evergreen.

Rocks under clear water

East Glacier. 

Trees turned more gold and the temperature dropped as we drove north into autumn. We made it to Two Medicine camp in East Glacier that night. The lake reflected the gloaming moon and the post-sunset shadow mountains.

a person takes a picture of mountains reflected in a mirror-still lake

moon and pines reflected in the lake

In the early morning there was no wind, just the silence of the night animals except for one faraway owl.

One morning bighorn sheep tore through the campsite, galloping straight toward me on a walk back from the bathroom. I froze and then tucked myself into an empty campsite while they ate coal from the fire pit, huffing and startling each other.

bighorn sheep startle and begin to run

We read and wrote and hiked each day. Something I like about camping is that I get to wake up and be immediately outside, to get out of my head and into the trees.

As we hiked we found blue-green pools.

a waterfall comes out of the middle of a rock wall. the water is turquoise.

A moose drinking.

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Trees bent and broken from storms.

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The bears are getting ready to hibernate and are eating single-mindedly, constantly. They are more easily startled. We walked paths with hidden turns, hollering and clapping so bears would know we were coming.

It rained and stopped, rained and stopped. Clouds low and water breathing.

person looking at a misty lake

At night, the clouds cleared, and with them their insulation. Our tent was covered in frost and we stuffed army wool blankets into our sleeping bags.

(to be continued…)

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Perspective

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Two years ago I took these photos. The top in this series is a 4 mile long iceberg in the Ross Sea; the middle, a photo from the helicopter of frozen pools and volcanic dirt; the last photo a super-close view of the icy surface of Lake Hoare. I’ve been missing this beautiful continent a lot lately and thinking about how important the next few years of policy will be in preserving it.

Ice Caves of the Erebus Glacier Tongue

There are ice caves that grow and disappear within the edges of the tongue that ruptures out from the Erebus Glacier. Every year they are different, and the mountaineers who work with the Field Safety department discover them and decide whether they are safe for entry.

We went out on snowmobiles, cold air and two-stroke motor exhaust trailing behind us, stopped in sudden silence at the base, stark and soft like bones in the desert. Ethereal rooms with smooth sculptors’ ridges on the walls, fuzzy stalactites of ice dripping from the ceiling. Turquoise to violet ice, moving air in the farthest secret recesses like the glacier breathing on your skin.

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Ice Caves deep2

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Ice Caves jump

Sea Ice, Cape Evans and Scott’s Hut Photo Extravaganza!

In November my department had the opportunity to take McMurdo’s sea ice training course, teaching vehicle operators how to profile cracks in the sea ice to determine if the surface could withstand the weight of the vehicle and whether it was safe to cross. We’d identify a crack, shovel a trench across it, drill into the ice until sea water gushed out, and drop a special measuring tape into the water.

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Sea Ice Drilling copy

There were Weddell seals along the road, not paying us any mind, dappled skin stretched across fatty heft, sighing and breathing across the frost—the holes they came out of a few feet away, littered with expelled bits of ice and blood.

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Sea Ice Erebus

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Our teacher was awesome, taking us to see things nearby, profiling cracks along the way. We entered an ice amphitheater, a brilliant curved elbow hollow, pocked shining walls and gargantuan feathered veins running up 80 feet. We placed our hands on icebergs’ solemn, glistening faces, being present with bodies much older than ourselves.

Sea Ice Big Blue Berg

Scott’s Hut on Cape Evans was a few miles away, a hundred year old building where the explorers spent three winters. Penguin carcasses, primitive ice cleat boots made of fur and canvas, crates of tea and potted meats. A darkroom full of tiny bottles, old spooky chemicals. A dog’s skeleton, still chained to the stable. It smelled like dust and hay and seal blubber, and written on one of the bunks in very light pencil, “Losses to date: Haywood, Mack, Smyth, Shak (?)” (I read later that Shackleton was missing at that point, his fate still uncertain).

It was an amazing day!

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McMurdo 101

The US has three stations in Antarctica, and this year I’m working in McMurdo, the largest station (and formerly just a transitional jumping point to me when I was trying to get on a flight to the South Pole). It’s on Ross Island, and we fly here on a C-17, Airbus, or LC-130 from New Zealand.

hello from McMurdo

It’s a big station, around a thousand people in the height of summer (ie, now). There are dorms, admin buildings, a firehouse, power plant, water distillation plant, wharf, a store, three bars, three gyms, warehouses, and a ton of science (glaciology, marine biology, aeronomy and astrophysics, earth science, ocean and atmospheric studies). Three runways and a helicopter pad. And like a big old city there is above-ground water, sewer, telephone, and power lines.

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It was really cold.

It was pretty cold for a bit at the beginning of the season, though nothing compared to Pole. Lots of 50-knot winds, really poor visibility, and -30F.

It’s not too cold out right now, maybe 20F above zero. It smells like melt outside and there is milky mud water streaming down the hills toward the bay.

The photo below shows MacTown at 3am–the shadow across town, cast by Observation Hill, is all of the brief  “sunset” we get these days.

MacTown from Ob Hill

Building 211, McMurdo, Antarctica
This is my pretty little house…
...and my pretty little room...
…and my pretty little room…
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A construction zone or a giant Lego set.

In town, it’s kind of like living in a construction zone, loaders and pickup trucks driving everywhere, gravel roads, exposed fuel pipes and spools of cable. But the magical thing about being here is all the stuff outside of town–hikes and preserved huts from the old Antarctic explorers and ice caves.

Stay tuned for some of the icier stuff, coming soon!

Field Notes from the Single Lady Pilgrimage Trip: Part 4

I believe in slow-burn love. I believe in listening to that stewing, deep, under-the-surface yearning that you can’t always name. I believe that gravity can pull your ear down low to the ground, force you to listen to her heartbeat, telling secrets, speaking poetry. I believe in magical thinking, in asking for what you want, in looking the direction that you want to go.

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Do I have to know what I want in order to get it?

Something I like about traveling alone is that you get very in tune with what you want. The trouble with this is that if you don’t know what you want, things can get a little tricky.

I have recently been believing very deeply in the power of asking for what you want. You won’t always get it, but if you don’t know what you’re asking for, what your heart must be open to, I’m afraid you might miss it.

As I drove the last legs of my Iceland trip, I started to think more concretely about what exactly I needed from this voyage. I was in a mindset that I regretted letting still mark me when I no longer wanted it to. I started to imagine the crusty emotional shell that I had come to let define the edges of myself cracking apart and falling off in bits on the road I left behind me. It was meditative, and I listened to the quiet/loud road noise, driving back towards what I really hoped was my normal, grounded self.

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I spent an evening with three men (from France, Italy, and Colorado) who were all diligently writing by hand in their travel journals, which I secretly loved. I wrote in mine, quietly asking questions, wondering, feeling joyful and tired and just a tiny bit ready to think about going home.

~

Ice Queen.

I came around a bend in the highway one morning to what I thought might have been a wave crashing up against a bridge, and when it didn’t come down, my heart caught in my throat. It was ice. It was breathtaking. Even though I was expecting it, it gave me butterflies. Have you ever fallen in love with part of the earth?

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Jökulsárlón is a lagoon at the foot of a glacier, a tidal pool filled with icebergs that break off and crash into the water, that breathe and creak and heave with the ocean rising and falling underneath them, a live animal corralled by a bridge. Seals slipped in and out amongst the bergs. Everything was blue, luminous and glowing and milky despite the haze and the rain. Icebergs were streaked with centuries-old ash from volcanic eruptions, the water’s surface calm in the rain’s pause. I watched other tourists taking photos, popping bright umbrellas, putting their fingers in the clear glacial water.

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I bought a spot on a zodiac boat and motored out to the edge of the glacier, the air growing sharply cooler the closer we got. We were zipped up in waterproof coveralls, kneeling on the floor of the boat which was rubber like the sole of a shoe. Every now and then there was a sudden underboat jerk and a drag of ice along our kneecaps. The sun had come out and water was dripping off the ledges of vaulted ice, the spray salty, everything glittering and moving imperceptibly.

Jökulsárlón coveralls

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Field Notes: Part 3

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IMG_3952Smoked arctic char (trout) served with geysir bread, which is a graham rye that is buried under the ground as dough and comes out 24 hours later cooked by geothermal magic.

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Myvatn thermal baths + snow. Take off your clothes and hop in!

~

Isn’t it strange how time passes?

It’s been four months since I came home. I have so much to tell you, but let me start where I left off: Northern Iceland, September. Snow was falling heavily in a premature winter storm, and the sky was low and grey as I pulled up to a farmhouse, hoping for a place to stay.

A room of one’s own.

The house matron Ásta showed me to a single room with a gable window flanked by warm birchwood walls, lace curtains, no art, a small bed with white sheets, and a writing desk; unexpectedly perfect. I sat and wrote for two days as the storm groaned outside the window, breaking my scattered focus with great, loud gusts. Snowflakes stuck to the glass, drawn to the heat, melting on the way down. The roads were icy in one direction and closed in another, and the news was reporting people stuck in the mountains, farmers losing entire herds to the freeze.

After three days, the road reports weren’t getting any better, and the few other travelers staying with me checked conditions at breakfast, talking about the weather in the way that you do when you don’t have any control over it (which is always, but you feel a lot more powerless when you’re trapped).

We lost electricity and running water, and a man who spoke quiet French offered me a ride to the grocery store. I accepted, and from inside his car we watched the snow melting on the windshield. I bought a loaf of bread, a cucumber, a lump of cheese and some wool mittens. With two sets of lungs and very little common language between us we drove in silence, the heartbeat of the wipers thumping, left, right, left, right. 

Dimmuborgir.

That evening, emboldened by the grocery store outing, I cleaned the snow off my car with mittened fingers, determined to go on an adventure. Nearby were the Dimmuborgir lava fields, and dusk was creeping in as I parked in the vacant, snowy lot, a kilometer down a dead-end road, stubbornly convinced I might get a decent photo despite the weather and the waning light. I climbed down slush-ridden paths with black lava formations rising around me like galactic clouds, crows flying backward on the wind draped in gnat-like clouds of clotting snowflakes.

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Feet getting wetter with every step in the sloppy ice, I imagined slipping and falling and busting up a knee and not being able to walk (and no one finding me until at least the next day, dead and frozen, because no one knew I wasn’t in my room). I berated my imaginary broken-knee self. “Who do you think you are, National Fucking Geographic? What are you doing out here?”

I kept with it for a while, and drove home in the dark, slip-sliding along as the road zipped itself up against the wind.

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Hallelujah, the great storm is over.

On the first day of calm skies, it was time to leave. I caravanned through flat open fields and mountain passes with a sweet Canadian couple. The roads were still quite icy, and the drive was beautiful but frightening. Lava formations encrusted in ice watched us drive like frosty prairie dogs waiting for the danger to pass.

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And then, like it had never happened, I was through the mountain passes, walking on a beach with kelp & bird bones & matted feathers & split mussel shells straddling the wet sand. Waves crashed up behind the break wall, and I was on my way.

~