25 October 2004

"There's more than one way to cream a turkey"

Mike D on the mic.

Just another boring day in Antarctica today. While Bob and Kathy went diving at the Jetty (with Andrew and our volunteer Helena tending), Stacy, Rob, Elizabeth and I flew over to Cape Chocolate in a helicopter to do some site reconnaissance for our upcoming field trip. After donning are flight helmets and being “manifested” (= checked in) by “helitechs” (= helicopter technicians), we all doze off in the passenger terminal during our one-hour delay.

My imagination runs wild when I think of Cape Chocolate will be like. Mmmmm.... Cape Chocolate. As my heavy eyelids begin to fall, a small bead of drool begins to slowly leak from the corner of my mouth. Cut to dream scene: I see myself, Homer Simpson-like, daintily prancing through a soft-focused landscape of fudge mountains and white chocolate glaciers, pausing frequently to partake in the sweet bounty. I find myself skipping along a rocky road cobbled with marshmallows and chocolate chips, and stop to dip my cup into a lazily flowing river of Hershey’s syrup. Looking toward sweet-tooth heaven, I open my mouth as a gentle snowfall of white chocolate sprinkles begins to flutter down from the sky, punctuated by brief hailstorms of malted milk balls. Alas, I wake with a start from my Willy Wonka-like daydream to the rousing of the helitech shouting that it’s time to board.

We strutted across the helo pad to our waiting bird in slow motion (like the footage of the Apollo astronauts) clad in our flight helmets and survival gear.

It was a tight squeeze in the helo with the four of us (due in part to yours truly) and the load of gear we were dropping off.

Despite the bulk of one of the passengers, the helicopter did indeed manage to break the clutch of gravity, and we sped off across McMurdo Sound at an altitude of about 500 feet. Rob had been diving the day before the flight, so we stayed low to keep his blood from fizzing like a shaken up can of Coke.

The view out the cockpit window

After about a half hour, we arrived at Cape Chocolate. While there were no rivers of chocolate or edible glaciers as I had secretly fantasized about, it was a stunningly beautiful, albeit stark, landscape of sea ice, mountains, and glaciers. The glacial outwash plain from the Hobbs Glacier, now frozen but obviously created by running water, was one of the few hints that this land was ever released from the grip of perpetual winter.

The goal of our recon mission was to scout out a crack in the thick sea ice through which we could dynamite-blast out a dive hole for our upcoming trip (the drill rigs don’t venture too far from base). At first, the prospects didn’t look so hot – it appeared that the sea ice hadn’t gone out in our area of interest for at least a couple of years. Nevertheless, Rob, Stacy, and our pilot spotted a likely crack near a small island off Cape Chocolate, so we gingerly set the helo down for closer inspection.

Stacy found the crack shortly thereafter when she fell into the snow-filled crevice up to her thigh. Luckily there was no open water below, or she would have had a chilly morning bath and we would have to thaw out a Stacy-sickle. We proceeded to dig out the snow from the crack, and Rob fired up the ice drill to see exactly how thick the ice was.

Luckily for us, and contrary to our necessarily pessimistic expectations, we hit paydirt: the ice was only 9 feet thick and the water depth was between 60-70 feet, which was perfect for our dive objective.

We looked around for a few minutes at our future campsite, quickly unloaded some of our gear that we’d be using in the next couple of days (like a generator, dive tanks, etc), then jumped back in the helo and headed back to the station.

I got a window seat on the trip home, and was treated to a different perspective of the howling wilderness around us.

One of the many frozen meltwater ponds on the sea ice

As we sped over the rough sea ice below, I wondered if Shackleton and Scott ever imagined in their wildest dreams that traveling around Antarctica would become so easy in the century that followed them. It makes one wonder how the implements of exploration will change within the next century, and the one after that – assuming that our species persists that long, of course. Will exploring and venturing out in Antarctica be as easy and commonplace for the average Joe of the future as it is for us presently to drive down to the neighborhood supermarket? Will our brief excursions into the icy waters with thin rubber suits and tanks of air be seen as an inefficient, dangerous practice of the past? As with any forecasts of the future, some come to fruition and some don’t, some seem downright silly, and some things were never seen coming. And some things don’t change at all (or much, at least), like the Scott tents that R.F. Scott used in the early 1900s that are still in use today.

Scott tent on the ice shelf, under the ever-watchful eye of 12,444 foot Mt. Erebus

Enough philosophizing. We got back to the station mid-morning, did some stuff I don’t even remember now (Tuesday morning, as I write this), and then had a HOT lunch for a change (since we’re usually out diving during lunchtime). Following lunch we had our FINAL bit of training: how to not kill ourselves with chainsaws, All Terrain Vehicles (ATV’s), portable generators, and “Hotsys” (glycol-circulating heating appliances that we melt dive-holes with). Our instructor Tony gave us a whirlwind tour of these devices and made no secret that he wouldn’t be upset if we let the Hotsys melt through the sea ice and keep on going till they reached abyssal depths. Apparently these devices make him angry. He went so far as to say that if he ran McMurdo station, no science projects that required use of these devices would be granted funding. Apparently, his sentiment is shared by the rest of the team that has used these little gems before, primarily because they require the operator to refuel the tank every 4 hours, day or night, until the hole is melted through. By the effort it took for all of us to keep our eyes open during Tony’s animated monologue, we concluded that we were fed animal tranquilizers in the Salisbury steaks we had for lunch. While I was nodding off, apparently the others in the group voted me “chainsaw man”. It was a good thing, then, that between winks I caught the key points of chainsaw “kickback”, and something about burying the tip being “bad”, etc…

We all seemed to perk up when training was over. Andrew, Jennifer, Elizabeth and I got stuck with the awful task of snowmobiling out to our dive hut at Cinder Cones to chip out the ice from the safety hole, which is outside the cozy digs of the hut and susceptible to freezing over.

Unfortunately, Jennifer didn’t know her own superhuman strength and accidentally pulled the starter cord on one of the machines too hard, thereby rendering it useless.

Sans Jennifer, we fueled up and moved out, liberated by the opportunity to break the speed barrier of 15 miles per hour imposed by both speed limits in town and the maximum velocity of our usual transportation (i.e. Pisten Bully). It was so much fun it was very difficult to refrain from maximum throttle, but alas, that would be against policy.

Elizabeth zipping across the sea ice with a backdrop of smoking/steaming Mt. Erebus, the low-angle sun reflections off the sastrugi (wind-sculpted snow) and snow-covered mountains and glaciers.

Andrew dutifully keeping his eye on the speedometer to ensure compliance with the posted speed limit of 25 mph

It’s a good day to be alive…

“Chipping and dipping”, as we affectionately call the process of hacking out the ice that’s formed in our dive holes with a heavy steel bar, then scooping out the chunks of ice with a dipnet. We use an insulative styrofoam "cookie" in this particular hole to deter ice formation (in theory)

We also have to chip and dip a hole in the ice near the station where our current meter is deployed.

The view from the hole, toward Hut Point

Andrew demonstrating the “Oliverian" method of chipping ice from the dive hole.

Meanwhile, back at the Ranch, Jennifer didn't miss out one bit - she was having a great time cleaning up the lab. Note that her hand was scrubbing the counter so rapidly that a camera shutter speed of 1/ 1000 of a second couldn't even capture a sharp image!

Quote of the day: “There’s more than one way to cream a turkey” – Bob Zook, on the creative culinary techniques of McMurdo chefs when it comes to incorporating leftovers in soups and stews

Bob was feeling a little green after the cream of turkey soup. He later endorsed Kermit the Frog's contention that "it ain't easy being green"

Daily weather stats: Maximum temperature: 14° F Minimum temp: +5° F Minimum windchill: -27° F Maximum wind gust: 36 knots

Lets see the next day!