Night Sky: McMurdo, Antarctica

When it comes to night sky, it seems like South Pole generally has McMurdo beat. It’s so much darker, so much further South, and the aurora activity seems more common. However, every now and then, MacTown gets a beautiful show, and on top of it, the landscape there is so much more compelling. These pictures are from Deven Stross, who worked with me as a Materialsperson last summer at South Pole, and whose website you can visit here; keep in mind though, he’s still stuck at McMurdo with not-so-great internet, so most of the new photography isn’t showcased just yet.

These photos are from July, before the sun had begun to rise.

Time lapse photo with a human subject: standing still for 30 seconds at -26F.

Here is a more recent photo, where the sun is illuminating the nacreous clouds over Castle Rock. It’s just so beautiful, don’t you think?

Open Book: on writing, on classes, on not-travel.

I took a writing class at The Loft in the Open Book building in Minneapolis, ascetic but warm and inviting. There are classrooms and workshops, huge heavy printing presses and stacks and stacks of art books that seep simple beauty.

One of the things I’ve been struggling with lately is finding my writing voice as a person who lives in one place and goes to a normal job—at least for the time being—if I don’t travel, what will I write about? If I don’t write, where can I go? Am I writing for myself or for other people? I’m perfectly aware that many great writers are not constantly deluged with stimuli the way you are when traveling; that a good writer can take a very ordinary thing and make it compelling. Traveling made writing easy for me because I just had to write what was immediately in front of me and there was always something new and lots of things that weren’t ordinary at all. I suppose my challenge now is to find a way to write about things that are not that.

It is starting to become more real to me that I am not leaving for Antarctica this year. As my friends and colleagues scramble to get their contracts, to pack their lives into boxes to place in storage, to fill their suitcases with belongings they need for many months away from home, to get their medical screenings taken care of, I am very aware of things settling down in my life, not winding up. For the past two years the end of summer was the end of my time in Minnesota, and the beginning of a huge trip with long plane rides and new cities and cold, breathtaking arrivals heavy with meaning. Even though I know it’s the right decision to stay home, and even if only for a few seasons, it still hurts to remove myself from the velocity of that lifestyle.

And I have to think harder about what to write.

I always enjoyed school and I like taking classes like this one at The Loft because it helps me to hear other peoples’ takes on similar assignments. I like hearing other people read the same poem I just read, but in a different voice, because it helps me pull back from my own myopic interpretation of its words. I like being immersed in the output of others because it makes me think harder about what I produce, and because for me creativity begets creativity. The more I read and look at art and listen to music and watch performances, the more excited I get to write, to make, to dance.

Dazzling Winter Photography from the South Pole

Midwinter has just recently passed at the South Pole–the sun has been down for months, ambient temperatures have dropped below -100F multiple times throughout the season, and life in the name of science is presumably carrying on as normally as it possibly can when you are utterly and completely stuck in one of earth’s most unwelcoming locations.

I am not sure whether I have it in me to winter at South Pole–I want to, but in a way that is more abstract than real right now. On one hand, you are quite literally trapped, come hell or high water or cancer or fuel shortages. As much as the program does to screen for potential illness (physical and mental); and as much fuel as is saved in the emergency caches; despite the fact that the power plant runs four generators and that there is enough frozen food to last for a decade, I really don’t know how I would feel when the last plane of summer left. Maybe I would feel finally free, relieved that the summer contractor population was gone. Maybe I would slowly succumb to massive hypochondria. Not sure. Now, I’m being facetious, but the thought really does worry me a little.

The thing that draws me back to maybe-wintering is the night sky, the aurora australis and the neverending stars and the moon. Every picture I see reinforces the possibility.

Sven Lidstrom is a winterover who is responsible for the day to day running of the neutrino detector/telescope IceCube. For as many times I’ve heard and read the purpose of the detector and the definition of a neutrino, I think I’ll let their website explain: “IceCube is a particle detector at the South Pole that records the interactions of a nearly massless sub-atomic particle called the neutrino. IceCube searches for neutrinos from the most violent astrophysical sources: events like exploding stars, gamma ray bursts, and cataclysmic phenomena involving black holes and neutron stars. The IceCube telescope is a powerful tool to search for dark matter, and could reveal the new physical processes associated with the enigmatic origin of the highest energy particles in nature.” Sven was also my Scott-tent-mate for Happy Camper Training, which you can read about here.

These photos are all by Sven; please do not use them without permission and credit.

South Pole elevated station by moonlight and by Southern Lights:

TDRSS and GOES, the satellite dishes that link South Pole to the rest of the world:

Winterovers checking the fuel levels in the off-site emergency fuel cache at the End of the World:

This last photo is one of my favorites: these are the jamesway tents we lived in, which are slated for demolition sometime in the next few years, completely drifted under by blowing ice:

On death, breakups and Big Positive Thoughts

Death is not clean or punctual or forgiving. It has its own clock, makes its way through the beds of wet kleenex feathers full of snot and mascara when you have your eyes closed. Death sometimes comes when you have left for a sandwich, when you have gone to feed your elderly mother, or sometimes when you’re sitting right there, waiting for it. This breakup was bookended by the death of two sweet grandfathers, first my partner’s and then mine.

In February, a few weeks after redeploying from Antarctica to New Zealand, I found myself standing ankle-deep in the Pacific Ocean, feeling that odd vertigo that is specific to when the sea is pulling itself out from under you, eroding the very earth you’re standing on, one grain of sand at a time, creating heel shaped divots under your weight.

It all felt quite significant, like I was in a movie or something and the next thing you knew I’d be walking out and disappearing and the ocean would eat me and the credits would roll. I sang to myself, to add a soundtrack and expand the melodramatic fantasy. D had broken up with me about four days before that. I felt like shit. But I knew that realistically, instead of dying, I would rather go back to the hotel and have beer and pizza and talk more with him about what the future held for us, for him, for me. We had ten days in New Zealand to talk and process the highs and lows and confusing, hairpin-turn-roller-coaster delirium that ensued when our framework and the life we had together began to dissolve. It was kind of fun, in a contradictory way, getting to be painfully honest and brutally interrogative, to cry together and sometimes to even feel like things would be okay in whatever way they came to manifest. I’ll spare you the details, for privacy reasons. But we were seriously in it. We talked about everything.

What I will tell you is that I spent months after getting home (well, okay, I still feel like this sometimes) as a split self: part of me feeling really calm and collected, like the gift in all of this could be a new beginning, a rebirth, an infinite possibility of freedom. The other, smaller part was rebellion and ricochet, like certain isolated atoms of my being were on the verge of nuclear meltdown, destructive and explosive and very, very dangerous.

Everything inside of me felt visceral and raw, while simultaneously too-okay and oddly emotionless. I drank a lot of whiskey. I ran around the lakes, wrote pages and pages and pages of angry, confused words. I tried to do yoga, but it didn’t have the same physical release as running. I read a lot of classified ads, trying to assemble the puzzle pieces into something that resembled a life, and extended little prayer tendrils for good things in all directions, and tried to think Big Positive Thoughts.

After my grandfather died, I wish I could say that it gave me a new perspective on what things are important in life and what things are better to let go, but it didn’t. I just felt sad and panicky. Both of our grandpas’ memorials fell on the same weekend. I watched my grandmother cry wordlessly, a sad gift that in her dementia, she knew he was gone. I saw a lot of friends that have known us for all of the last twelve years as a couple. I felt immensely selfish, thinking about the breakup when bigger things were happening. Life and death things. It was terrible.

I’m not much of a prayer person. But Anne Lamott wrote, “here are the two best prayers I know: ‘Help me, help me, help me,’ and ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.'” And I can totally handle that. So I tried to ask for a lot of help, and I got it in a lot of different forms. So to those of you who sent love and positive energy; who sent me lots of supportive messages and gave me chocolate and wine and a place to sleep; who listened to my drunken narcissistic stream-of-consciousness rants and then made me laugh or cried with me; who told me your own stories of breakups that were far more traumatizing than mine: thank you, thank you, thank you. I really mean it. The little boat I’m in is lost at sea, paint peeling and leaks sprouting, but it’s still buoyant. So thank you.

Strange Ice

These weird stacked snow boulders appeared out by the RF satellite buildings over a grave shift one night.

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They were big.

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Almost big enough to hide a loader, but not quite.

I can still see you.

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South Pole Centennial Photo Extravaganza!

As promised, here is a glut of photos from the Centennial and the days preceding it. 

Tourists camping on hardened sastrugi and skiing for transportation and recreation:

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Polar Solar:

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The ceremony sound guy:

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Video in –25F:

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The ceremony itself:

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The unveiling of the ice bust of Amundsen:

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The press:

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The fashion:

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And the celebration:

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We went inside to get ready for the cocktail hour in the gym and the special dinner in the conference room.

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Centennial Menu

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Sydney Clewe, Dining Assistant by day and Graphic Designer/Artist by night, painted this amazing canvas mural especially for the dinner (as always, click to enlarge):

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The night went perfectly and the dinner was divine (I tested everything, especially the julekake, which brought me back to childhood Christmases).

Kitchen staff, waitstaff and runners:

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Antarctic waitress brigade:

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Snow

Today snow is falling: real snow. Fine, nearly imperceptible flakes that you can barely see unless you hold your head really still. Real snow is so rare here, mostly the ice crystals just blow around, and every time I see snow it makes my heart hurt because I feel so homesick for Minnesota. For winter, for snow, for sunrise and sunset, for family and winter bonfires and for dogs to play with and real evergreen trees, for frozen lakes and ice skating and hearing snowflakes fall by streetlight. I usually feel like I’m too busy to be homesick, except on Sundays, and this season has been no exception.

The Centennial of Roald Amundsen’s arrival is in just one week, and the first tourists have already begun to arrive. Some in planes, some in trucks, and they have started to set up little tents that we can see looking out from the galley windows over the ceremonial South Pole. The ski-in expeditions will start arriving soon, as will the Distinguished Visitors from Norway and beyond. The station is buzzing; the carpenters have built a visitors’ center, the head executive chef is planning a special dinner for the Prime Minister and his party, and the IT folks are busy preparing for a live broadcast to Norwegian television the morning of the centennial. It is so exciting.

Two weeks ago we celebrated Thanksgiving, which is really not the same as it is at home but still really nice. We slept in, showered, ate a ton like you’re supposed to, went sledding in our formalwear on a hill that has been removed by now, and went to a dance party in summer camp. I think I’ve been to more dance parties in Antarctica than I have even been to in my entire life combined.

Here is a panoramic photo of sledding behind the elevated station, taken by Daniel. More sledding soon. Click to enlarge.

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South Pole Partial Solar Eclipse 11-25-11

When I was in elementary school, my dad found a broken welding mask in our alley and, after carefully removing the glass, taped it neatly into a crisp cardboard box, covering the chipped corner. He brought it to my class one day when we were due to have a solar eclipse, and the whole class got to look at the sun, one at a time, thanks to my dad. I felt famous.

Yesterday we experienced an eclipse here at Pole, with about 75% coverage, and I carried on the tradition.

The sun started to peek out just a few hours before the eclipse was to begin after a full day of icy haze. Excited, I went to the B2 Science Lab and a scientist from South Pole Telescope helped me attach a piece of welding glass to my telephoto lens to take pictures of the sun directly. You should have seen my bag; I looked like a one-woman band getting ready for a performance. A welding mask, blank CDs, hand warmers, aluminized mylar squares, a cup of coffee and a sieve borrowed from the kitchen. We went out to the ceremonial pole, cameras in hand.

The sieve was really neat. A scientist had volunteered to make pinhole cameras in the galley before the eclipse, and the sieve was like a hundred pinhole cameras put together. See how all the pinholes are crescent shaped?

Summer Camp: You Sleep Where?

About half of the population of South Pole Station sleeps in tents. They are semi-cylindrical canvas and plywood structures called Jamesways that stand on platforms a bit off the ice and are heated with AN8 jet fuel. Summer camp is about 1/4 mile downwind from the Destination Zulu exit of the main elevated station. There are 13 or so Jamesways in summer camp that have approximately 10 rooms each, and the rooms are divided by plywood walls and/or curtains.

You can smell everyone, dirty and gassy and covered in cologne, and you can smell the history of the last 30 years of shower limitations permeating the canvas walls. Some people are lucky enough to have doors, but many people have only curtains, and you can hear every spoken word, bodily function, and footsteps of a person passing through to their room. You can hear tractors groaning up and beep beep beeping back down snow mountains outside, plowing all night long. You can hear the military planes landing on late missions, sounding like they’re so close that the wing might just clip your canvas wall and take out your pillow. Oh, and the bathrooms are a shared facility that requires going outside to get to, which can be very disconcerting if it’s 3am and the sun is shining like midday, so many people pee into water bottles or salsa jars they get from the galley. I say all of this in the fondest manner possible: I really do like living in summer camp. You can read more about the little details about living at South Pole and in Summer Camp here.

This year we are lucky–we have a double room with a door AND a latch that works, a full bed and a window. Last year when we lived in J8, we had two twin beds side by side, which was okay until you tried to roll over to snuggle and then, with a little swish, the two beds would slide apart and down you would fall into the crack. And once last year we came home to a half inch of snow on our bed(s). Not cozy. Daniel had a coworker in Jamesway 5 (J5) his first year that would get bonked on the head through his curtain every time somebody walked through with a duffel bag. Privacy is a luxury.

Over the winter season the Jamesways are closed (because who wants to sleep in a tent when the ambient temperature is -100F and the windchill is -150?) and the summer camp area drifts over with blowing ice crystals.

(Pictures by Daniel–click to enlarge)

A typical room looks like this and is about this size:

Or this:

They’ve been a part of Pole housing for a long time–decades–and they have a lot of personality. Some of them have really bad personalities, but they are interesting nonetheless.

Some of the rooms are nicely personalized, and often people will request to come back to the same room year after year.