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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
This happens to me every season on ice: it’s 6 weeks until the end of summer and I haven’t put up a blog post in approximately eight million years.
One of the reasons I wanted to come back to Antarctica is because it helps me to notice things, to write. And I have been writing, but mostly to myself; journaling and jotting notes on surfaces, my hands, scraps of paper, napkins.
It’s 2015, did you notice? Do you make resolutions? Here are two of my many: 1) I am going to start paying more attention to gratitude, which I will mostly keep to myself but it might leak in here every now and then and 2) I am going to try and post more frequently, even if it’s just a photo.
So let’s start small and then I will back up and catch you up with Antarctic 2014-2015 goings-on, how does that sound?
Here is something I am grateful for: for the sound of fluttering ocean current under porous, melting ice. For wind ripples on open water and the blue of the ice under that water, so crisp in the sun. For the unlikely steam rising off of lava soil, and for one little penguin, very far away amongst the seals.
Did you make resolutions? Care to share them?
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.
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.
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.
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!
Somehow leaving makes you love it more.
Late fall in the midwest: cold wind on tired oak trees. Sunday night dinner, soup and wine and chocolate.
The last year has been a flurry of daily airports, new jobs, big decisions. Weddings. Funerals. Moving out again, pulling up the tiny roots. Finding myself back in the MSP airport, getting ready for 30+ hours of travel, deploying to Antarctica via New Zealand.
It’s good to be back.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.