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Antarctic Q & A

Do you like it there?  Do you like your job, even the boringness of it?

Yes – and no.  I love the people here.  I love the scenery, when it comes out from behind the clouds (which has been happening much more frequently these days).  I love the sunrises and sunsets.  I love the moments when the magic hits me and I have to smile and laugh and say WOW.  Those moments have been coming more frequently as well, which is a great comfort to me.  The first two weeks were devoid of magic and I had to question my reasons for being here.  If there’s no magic, there’s no point, for me.  It’s good to be back to feeling lucky and special and excited.  I don’t like the job.  I don’t mind it, I’ve certainly done worse.  For example, I’d rather be a dish washer than a janitor.  I don’t like that the job keeps me indoors all the time.  I’m jealous of the people who work here who have to travel all over the station in trucks and forklifts and loaders.  I’m jealous of the surveyors and engineers who get to work out on the sea ice runway every day.  And then there are the field safety people who routinely go on long trips out on the ice, onto the continent, into the Dry Valleys, out to other islands in the McMurdo Sound…now that is a job I could enjoy.

Are you warm enough with the clothes they gave you and what you brought?  How much time do you spend outdoors?

Plenty warm enough – when I dress properly.  As the days get sunnier, it gets harder to remember that it’s still fricking freezing out there.  Yesterday I went out cross country skiing on a seven mile loop outside of town, onto the sea ice, and literally froze my butt off because I didn’t have enough layers of pants.  It was -25 Fahrenheit, -54 with a 23 knot wind, and I was struggling there, for a bit.  Most days I’m only outdoors for perhaps an hour, all told, and I can get away with walking around in street clothes + big red (the parka).  But every Tuesday (my one day off!) I make a point of going out hiking, which requires: two layers of fleece/thermal pants, wind-stopping snow pants, thick woolly socks, my hiking boots, two thermal shirts, a fleece pullover (and fleece jacket if the wind gets up), balaclava, fleece hat, neck gaiter, goggles, glove liners, big wind-stopping mittens, and an outer jacket layer.  Usually it’s big red, but some days I try to get away with wearing the shell of my ski coat, just as a wind protector.  There are several nice walks/hikes around town, from half a mile to twelve miles, and I can usually find someone to go with me on the longer tracks.  Yesterday’s cross country trip was the longest time out yet – 4 hours – and I felt every second of it.  Cold.

Average temps?  When will you see the sun?

It’s typically around -20 to -10 Fahrenheit, but with the wind it can be as low as -54, -60 (which is where it’s at today).  Last week there was one day of +3 Fahrenheit!  They tell me it will eventually get up to +30, which at this point sounds impossibly balmy.  The sun is out!  The orb itself is only visible from outside of town.  The hills around McMurdo block it out for most of the day, but it’s climbing steadily.  In another three weeks it will stop setting all together; we’re all enjoying the rises and sets now, because they’re not going to last.  People are already saying their goodbyes to the moon and the stars and the clear black night sky.

Seen any wildlife?  What happens if you feed the penguins?  Can I have a penguin as a pet?  Can you go fishing?  Are there polar bears?  Are there dogs?

No wildlife yet.  It’s still winter – it’s too cold, and the ice is completely frozen in.  Much of the wildlife spotting depends on the sea ice.  The animals go where the open water is, and McMurdo Station hasn’t been touched by open ocean in about seven years, since two large icebergs migrated into the McMurdo Sound, blocking the ice from being blown out to sea.  The best chance we’ll have to see the blue, Antarctic water and all its myriad critters will be when the ice cutters come in January, clearing the path for the supply vessel, loaded with food, books, fuel, supplies: life.  There are some fishing trips!  Antarctic fish have something like anti-freeze in their blood, which lets them survive under the ice.  Fishing’s not a free-for-all, though; it’s a specific fact-gathering science project carefully regulated by the National Science Foundation.  The NSF has a stringent zero-impact policy when it comes to the environment.  I’m pretty sure they would frown on my feeding the penguins or tucking one under my jacket to mail home.  The zero-impact policy also means there are no dogs.  Once upon a time there was a sled dog program, but it was nixed perhaps a decade ago, a loss that veteran USAP participants still mourn.  The upside of the policy is that the animals haven’t learned to fear man.  To them, you’re just another funny-looking, red penguin.  And polar bears?  The word “arctic” comes from the Greek word for “bear” (which refers to the constellations Great Bear and Little Bear, located near the North Star).  “Ant-arctic” means “opposite of arctic” – opposite of bear = no bear.  Polar bears live only at the North Pole, though I’ve seen a number of clever comic strips down here which predict what might happen if polar bears ever discovered Antarctica.

Did you know that there are still people out there who think a secret Nazi stronghold is in Antarctica?

There are also people who think there are aliens buried in the ice down here.  Perhaps the aliens and the Nazis are working in conjunction to bring down the civilized world?

Do you know where the secret Nazi stronghold is?

No, although there is a top secret building on station.  Seriously.  The janitors who clean it have to sign official documents swearing that they won’t tell anyone what they see in there.  They’re not allowed to look at the computer screens when people are working, either.  Nazis?  Aliens?  The janitors aren’t talking…

Have you made a snow angel?

No.  It’s too damn cold to be lying down in the snow.  Ask me again in November when it’s summer.

What’s the food like?  What is your main food source?  Since you run the food place, can you design meals?  Does your station use sporks?

Excellent.  It’s a little bit like eating at your favorite restaurant all the time, though…I’m getting tired of the richness and the heavy flavors and spices.  The selection and quality is impressive, though, considering that our main food source is a warehouse packed with a two year supply of frozen meats, vegetables, dehydrated milk, canned fruit, cereal, butter, and grains that are all two or more years past their official expiry date. Fruits and vegetables (“freshies”) are a treat that comes in on the planes.  There are always two meat dishes, one vegetarian protein dish, soup, veggies, and a cold line of composed salads and canned fruits.  There’s also a deli with sliced meats and cheeses.  The vegetarian options are phenomenal.  Jeff, our vegetarian cook, is a tofu grand master.  The best thing, though (and the most dangerous), is the bakery: three full time bakers make all of our baked goods – from scratch.  Bread, cookies, pies, cakes, brownies, mousse, tortes, pastries, donuts, cinnamon rolls… I don’t get to design the meals, but I do get to put in requests, and I’ve got the run of the kitchen when I want a midnight snack.  We’re a well-fed bunch, and we eat from proper plates with proper cutlery.  No sporks here!

Is your roommate hot?

Not quite…her name is Susan, and she’s a woman in her late forties, very quiet and friendly.  We aren’t best friends, but we share our space well.  Our schedules run opposite, so we both get the room to ourselves quite frequently.  It’s a good set up.

Any cute guys down there?

A few, a few – the ratio of men to women is about 75/25.  Let’s just say I haven’t had to buy myself a drink once since I’ve been here.

Do you have a computer all to yourself or is it in a lab?

Computer labs.  I’m lucky – I’ve also got two computers connected to the network in my dorm, so on mornings like today when I don’t have to be to work til 11 I can stay in my pajamas and do some writing from the comfort of home.  I am looking into buying a laptop, though, sooner rather than later.  Any recommendations?

Do you have your camera with you?

Yes – but I have no way to develop the film until I get back to NZ.  However!  I have just purchased a Canon 300D, a digital (digital!) SLR, complete with a (relatively) wide angle lens and a 100-300mm telephoto!  My friend Atlas is upgrading to a Canon 30D (lucky lucky), and gave me a wicked deal on the whole package.  The camera is sweet, and the novelty of digital is going to take quite a while to wear off.  What does this mean to you?  The pictures going up on my photo website will be mine!  I’ll still throw in some from friends when appropriate, but now you can be assured of seeing my view of my world.  New ones up today!  http://community.webshots.com/user/susanm483

Where does your energy come from?  How is it heated?  Since you’re used to cold temps outside, are the indoor temps cooler than at home as well?

The station is powered by massive generators.  Electricity.  I have a few friends who work in the power plant who have promised me a tour, and I’ll be sure to pass on the info when they deliver.  The heat is all forced hot air, radiators, and indoors is almost always overheated.  It’s hard to remember to dress for the sub zeroes outside when my room is 90F.  There were a few nights last week, though, when our heat went out and we shivered in our beds in 40F.  It doesn’t matter that 40F is about sixty degrees warmer than outside.  It’s still too cold for sleeping.

When can we send you something?

Anytime!  The sooner the better, because then the chances are good that I’ll actually get it while I’m down here.  We won’t see any mail for another three weeks, and then there will be a massive flood with the first several mainbody flights. Send me letters!  Send me news!  Send me pictures!  Send me comic strips!  Send x-mas presents and maybe I’ll get them by x-mas!  I would love to hear from all of you, and promise to respond with Antarctic postcards and stickers.

I should have more personal experiences to write about soon…fun things have been happening.  But until then…send the questions my way and I’ll send you answers.  Cheers :)

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