Antarctica Winter-Over Journal, 1996

Matthew A. Nelson

What drives a man to leave his wonderful family, give up his reasonably safe and interesting job of seventeen years, limit his travel opportunities, etc., to Winter-over in Antarctica? Tracking satellites at the new NASA McMurdo Ground Station is one of the reasons. What are the others? I am not sure that I know the answers.

In Christchurch, New Zealand, the National Science Foundation has facilities to provide cold weather clothing and logistics for Operation Deepfreeze, the term given to the Antarctic program. New Zealand Customs people in Auckland are used to Americans coming down for the program. Due to bad weather on the East Coast of the United States, I came down here without going there first as originally planned. I didn't have the proper travel documents. The Customs man asked me if I had any identification to show that I was part of Operation Deepfreeze. The only thing I had with me was a McMurdo Coke and beer ration card with my photograph on it. That was good enough - he waved on through!

Flying to McMurdo takes approximately eight hours on an LC-130 aircraft. These are actually C-130 cargo planes, but the "L" means they are configured with skis. The planes are noisy, but somewhat more comfortable than commercial airlines, because one can walk around, stretch out on the cargo, and go up into the flight deck. The planes are flown by Navy Squadron VXE-6, and the New York Air National Guard. In the early part of the season, the New Zealand Air Force flies down here, but they have to land on the sea ice, since they aren't equipped with skis. All of these aircrew and maintenance personnel have my utmost respect. They will fly in almost white-out conditions to perform search and rescue. The mechanics change out engines in -30 F. weather without the benefit of a hangar.

The day after we arrived, Dave Hess, my co-worker, and I went to an two- hour snow survival class in preparation to go to Black Island, where there is some satellite tracking equipment we are to maintain. A few days later we flew to Black Island on board a helicopter from the Coast Guard cutter, the Polar Star. We were only there for a few hours, but eating Jill's homemade blueberry cheesecake convinced us that we would have to have at least another trip there.

Several ships in addition to the Polar Star (or her sister ship the Polar Sea) come to McMurdo during the Austral summer (October - February). My favorite is the Nathaniel B. Palmer, a research vessel just a few years old. Dave and I saw it the night it arrived. Now, even tourist boats are coming here, at a cost of about $7000 per person. Two of the ships that have come here this season are owned and operated by the Russians.

On Arrival Heights there is a new 56-foot radome, and inside that radome is a 33-foot satellite tracking antenna. The dome looks like a large golf ball, and is one of the most prominent man-made objects around here. Dave and I are tracking radar-imaging satellites. This is a new NASA project. Because this job is actually in McMurdo, I didn't think I would go back to the Pole this year. The old NASA equipment for the South Pole Satellite Data Link (SPSDL) that I used to work on wasn't being used anymore. However, some other people had ideas of using the SPSDL equipment there to track a Delta launch out of Vandenberg AFB, so I was there once in December, and three times in one week in January. Plus, I had two helo flights to Black Island. I came back on my second trip on the next-to-the-last day that VXE-6 is flying helos here. Kinda sad. You know the respect I have for VXE-6. Then I had a day of snow-mobiling to the "Room-with- a-view" for snow/winter survival training, and now they want to make me work for a living!

Dave is working with a teacher and some kids from Maryland on the Internet, to tell about life in Antarctica. I wrote a letter/story to the kids about the South Pole. Some of it I copied from some of my earlier works. The diary of Bishopdale (Teddy) Bear and his trip to the Pole with me will also become an addition to this story, but first I have to place it on the computer. One of the things I did while back in the States was to buy a digital camera. It doesn't have the best resolution, but it is fun to play with. Learning to use it and send images back to the States has already occupied some of my time.

Today is February 22, 1996.

As I type these words, I am listening to the William Tell Overture on my portable CD player. I have heard it said that sophistication is being able to hear the William Tell Overture without thinking of the Lone Ranger. I am not sophisticated. The only reason I bought this CD was to be able to listen to the music of the Lone Ranger while living in McMurdo, Ross Island, Antarctica.

Every place has vocabulary words unique to its environment. For instance, here in Antarctica we all live on "the Ice". Prior to leaving New Zealand for the Ice, every one receives two or three orange bags containing cold weather gear such as the red parkas and white bunny boots. When one is flying to, in, or out of Antarctica, extreme cold weather (ECW) gear is worn and carried in a hand carry bag. Hold baggage contains the rest of the gear. Thus, when one is going anywhere on a flight, whether to the South Pole, Christchurch, or a helo ride to Black Island or the Dry Valley's, one must "bag drag" both the ECW gear and the hold baggage, so the aircraft load masters will have an accurate weight of passengers and cargo.

A skua is a local scavenger bird that is like a gray seagull. Instead of throwing out items that someone else can utilize, "skuable" stuff and junk are placed in lounges and at the end of hallways. There is even an entire building that one can hunt for "skuables". Watch out Bag Ladies, when people leave the Ice, you will have strong competition. My most treasured skuable is a Wyoming Centennial license plate (1890 - 1990), from Natrona Country, which is where I was raised. Even more meaningful, in January, 1991, four people flow the Wyoming Centennial flag, along with the Wyoming state flag at the South Pole. My friends, Nora and Dana Van Burgh gave me the Wyoming flag years ago.

Last week, my roommate finally left. Now I have the room to myself, and in order to make it more livable, I tacked many of my photographs on the walls, next to my Wyoming license plate. Most of them are from the mountains of Wyoming. Besides the deer and mountains, there are also photographs of the Space Shuttle, sail boats, and a couple of South Pole shots.

Hanging on the spare mattress leaning against the wall is a brochure of Ford trucks. With the money I save, and the tax money that, hopefully, will be refunded, I plan on buying a new 4X4 next year. If I can remain focused on staying here until Thanksgiving, instead of going home in October, I could pay cash for a new vehicle for the first time in my life. I have heard from many sources that if one is working out of the country for 330 days, the income taxes pertaining to that job will be returned. It didn't used to be that way in Antarctica, but after two guys died here in 1986, their families sued the government, and the government said this was foreign territory, so they weren't responsible. Thus, the tax laws changed in favor of the people working here. Now, President Clinton is trying to have the laws repealed that give people working overseas a tax break. Just my luck!

Yesterday, the last LC-130 plane flew away to Christchurch, New Zealand. The night before last, the Coast Guard Cutter, the Polar Star, sailed away. Today, the Nathaniel B. Palmer research vessel is leaving. There won't be another plane here until August, when the next summer's season main body of people return. We don't even know if the traditional Mid-Winter's air drop will occur in June. The government is trying to save money. It is OK for a general to fly around the world in an empty aircraft, but why send mail to the people who Winter-over in Antarctica? After all, they volunteered, and they have e-mail now. People in jail don't want to be there, so they have the right to receive mail. From our standpoint, it is difficult to receive chocolate chip cookies by e-mail.

Anyone who knows me probably wonders how will I be able to stand at least six months not being able to hop a plane on the spur of the moment. I have asked myself the same question, and I don't know. I guess I will have to keep busy working, reading, writing, studying, working as a lay reader at the Chapel of the Snows, try my hand at building a few model airplanes, ships, and a GMC truck that really wants to be a Ford when it grows up.

Seeing that last plane leave tugged on the old wanderlust strings. Fortunately, my dorm window looks out over McMurdo Sound. Last night was the first sunset. Daily, I look at the changes in the colors from the sun reflecting over Mt. Discovery, the glaciers of the Royal Society Mountains, White and Black Islands, the Chapel of the Snows, and the ice around Hut Point. From what I have been told, the Winter brings continuous and fantastic color displays, so I have these simple pleasures of anticipating. Mt. Erebus, which is not directly visible from McMurdo, can be seen in clear weather from Arrival Heights. As the sun has lowered, the colors reflecting off of this mountain are incredible. We have to drive to the antenna every day to change tapes, which offers us the opportunity to see Mt. Erebus in its splendor!

Last week, there was a single Adelie penguin near Hut Point that was taunting a seal. Both were on small ice floes. Initially, the two were separated by a small floe which was almost a perfect hexagon, perhaps ten feet across. The penguin waddled to the edge of his floe, hopped onto the one in the middle, as if to say, "Catch me if you can". The seal was stretched out on the ice, with his tail towards the penguin. Had he been more hungry than interested in a sun tan, the penguin might have become lunch. Chump!

One of the three pre-fabricated huts that Robert Scott and others used in the early Antarctic exploration years is located on Hut Point. The hut was placed there in 1902. This hut is described in more detail in my earlier story, "Antarctica Reflections I". Walking down to Hut Point is one of my regular activities while in McMurdo. A three weeks ago, when the ship, "Greenwave" was in port unloading cargo, I took a detour while walking to the Point. After eight trips to the Ice, I finally visited the statue of the Holy Madonna which is a memorial to a Navy enlisted man who died in the early days of Operation Deep Freeze. William's (Willie) airfield, the permanent ice runway, is named for this man.

I am not sure if it is worthwhile to place dates on sections of this journal as I write it, but then they may serve as some point of reference. (Perhaps some shrink reading this in the future will be able to tell the changes in my moods as the seasons change.) Later on, I may delete the dates. For now, I will inject them sometimes as I go along.

February 25th

I have Sundays off now. There have been times when I worked two or three weeks without a break. It sure is relaxing to have the time off. I started my day off by making a cup of coffee in my room, then going to the Chapel of the Snows, and having Sunday Brunch. During the summer months, I could read the Sunday paper, the Antarctic Sun Times, That is one thing I miss now that the Times is not published in the Winter. During the afternoon, I called home. It beats the old days of using Ham radio links, ..."Can you hear me? over.. What did you say? Over".

I have usually felt guilty about coming down to Antarctica and having modern conveniences, such as the phone, e-mail, heated dorms, etc. I knew that I was not as tough as the early explorers, or even the people searching for meteorites out in the field camps. Then one day I realized that the early explorers were using the best technology that they had available, and it is almost the 21st century, even here. So why not enjoy telephone calls home, and e-mail to friends?

As I write this, the sunset is enticing me away from this electronic box. Across McMurdo Sound, from left to right, are White Island, Black Island, Mt. Discovery, and then a long range of mountains and glaciers that compose the Royal Society Mountains. White Island is about the 10 O'clock position, Black Island is at 11, Mt. Discovery is at 12, and the mountains stretch from 1 to 2. The sky between Black Island and Mt. Discovery is glowing pink right on the horizon. The sun moves in counter-clockwise direction; the sky is a kaleidoscope of colors. About three hours ago, one of the many glaciers in the Royal Society Mountains was illuminated as a single strip of silver ribbon. All the other glaciers faded into a pale gray. The sun was hidden in an upper layer of clouds. The evening continued, and the next lower layer of clouds glistened in the reflecting light. As the sun moved lower out of the upper layer of clouds, the reflected light across the ice was that of a single beam.

With an irradiance that only Mother Nature can give, the top clouds near the volcano Mt. Discovery danced as if distant forest fires were leaping from cloud to cloud. Tonight, the peak of Mt. Discovery is above the horizontal layer of clouds. At one time, a sheath of gold shrouded the peak. I am told by Dave Rosenthal, an artist who is down here solely to paint, that the split-second greenish flash of sunset known to sailors for centuries may last several minutes. He saw it the other night, and said it was the most brilliantly bluish-green color he had ever seen.

February 26th

It's 2 AM - really the morning of the 27th. Each evening, after the sun sets, it becomes darker outside. The sky over Black Island and Mt. Discovery has a faint reddish glow. So far, it has only been twilight. Today was one of those days that makes the Antarctic experience worthwhile. Most of the day was cloud free; when I woke this morning, the Royal Society Mountains lived up to their majestic name. Some of the glaciers flow down to the sea. It doesn't seem possible that this mountain range is fifty miles away. The ruggedness of the peaks remind me of the Tetons.

In years past, the annual ice of McMurdo Sound dissipated in January and early February. Except for the channels opened by the ships, especially the Coast Guard icebreaker, this year most of the ice has remained intact. Within the past twenty-four hours, much of the ice had blown away. Hut Point had open water around it, so Dave and I decided we would go there on the chance we might see a penguin or two. We were pleasantly surprised to see eighteen Adele penguins. What a treat! The most I have ever seen close up was three. A couple of times I have seen twenty or more, but they were always at a distance. I had left the digital camera back in my room, so we came back for it and batteries for the one that belongs to NASA. Within an hour or so, Dave had sent these to Mrs. Weeg, the teacher in Maryland. A half an hour later, photos of these penguins were on the internet.

February 27th

A fresh snow covered the dirt of McMurdo when I woke up this morning. One of my e-mail messages said Casper, Wyoming had eight inches. We only had about one half inch. Somehow, I think the people in the States will be the ones feeling sorry for me in July, but I am the lucky one. No heat, humidity, nor mosquitoes!

People reported that whales were having penguin omelets for breakfast, so Dave and I had to retrace our steps to Hut Point. No whales were spotted, but the same group of penguins that we saw yesterday were huddled in the same spot, undisturbed by the snow on their backs. While walking up the hill at Hut Point, four other penguins dived into the water from ice about one hundred yards off shore.

This past Saturday left me feeling like the kid who doesn't receive any Valentine cards when every one in the class are smiling about theirs. The last mail until next August was distributed, and I walked away empty-handed. Yesterday, Sally, the mail clerk, called me and said that she had missed my name when she typed the list of people who had packages. Today, at lunch, I stopped by her office. The stereo that Karoline had mailed three weeks ago is now playing Johnny Cash as I type this. Karen, my OLDER sister, sent me a birthday present, but I can't open it for a few more weeks. She said the only reason I hid away in Antarctica for my up-coming 50th birthday is to avoid the retribution plans she has been talking about for a year. She turned 50 before me, and will be 60 when I will be 58!

February 28th

This morning, Dave called me at my room (we work different shifts), and told me that there were whales at Hut Point. I looked out and saw an Orca. So another trip to the Point. By the time I arrived, the whales were gone. But the same group of penguins was still there, plus three seals. I thought the penguins might have been nesting, but they just seemed to be going through a feather changing stage. More photographs!

Tonight, Dave Rosenthal told me to check out the sun dogs. These are rainbow-colored spots, sometimes seen in the sky near the sun. However, tonight, the sun was near the horizon, facing McMurdo, between two sun dogs reflecting on the mist above the Ice. It was as if seeing the very bottom legs of a rainbow.

Matt Nelson

Patricia A. Weeg
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