Monday, May 4, 2009

Kiwi Land

After leaving the South Pole, I spent almost two months in New Zealand. It is an amazing country, with so much to do and see- incredible hiking, kayaking, wacky wild plants and animals, and 4 million sheep on the south island alone! I spent the first week driving around the coast of the south island with my friends Grace, Trudy, Chad and Jeremy. We rented a camper van and had a great time camping in quiet spots all over. After that, I spent a few days in Christchurch, just relaxing and greeting more friends who had just returned from the Ice. I stayed in a hotel that had pretty nice kitchens for the guests, so we went to the farmers market and bought all kinds of fresh fruits and vegetables (which we had desperately missed while in Antarctica) and did a lot of cooking.
My favorite part of NZ was the backpacking- I did three trips, and each one was fantastic. I started out with the Queen Charlotte Track, which follows along the coastline of the Marlborough Sounds. The trail climbs up and down a ridgeline that often has water on both sides and great views. After that hike, I took the bus over to Nelson and met up with Travis, Trudy and Storm for a week of sea kayaking in Abel Tasman National Park. The paddling turned out to be pretty easy, so we had lots of time to explore, watch the seals, and lounge on the beach in the sunshine. After kayaking, we decided to go down to Hokitika on the West Coast to the annual Wild Foods festival. I also hiked to the Welcome Flat Hut, home of a delightful hot spring with mountains all around, and then the week after that I hiked the Travers-Sabine circuit in Nelson Lakes. The Travers-Sabine is an 80km loop that goes up and over two gorgeous passes. I enjoyed the perfect weather and was just awed by the scenery, and how few people were out there!
In between the hiking and paddling there was a lot of reading, sitting around with good friends, and general relaxation. We all felt that we deserved it after working so much.

As you've likely figured out, keeping a blog updated is not one of my strengths. There are many excuses for why I haven't put anything on here in four months- sporadic and slow internet access, too much traveling, and laziness come to mind. But since I've been getting emails asking if I'm still in Antarctica (I'm not), I thought this might clear things up for some folks.
I left the ice on February 9th, bound for New Zealand. The last month of my time there was quite busy as we rushed to finish our work before the season ended. Looking back on that time, I don't remember a whole lot clearly other than being exhausted by the end of each week.
The crew I worked with spent most of the season building a new Cargo facility. This building, commonly known as the LO, will be home to supplies like food, building materials, new pillows, and all sorts of other things that are currently just stored outside. The LO and its two storage decks are all underneath a gigantic steel archway/tunnel that keeps the snow off. Ideally, once the LO is in use it will save a lot of work every year for the GAs, who won't have to spend all their time shoveling the berms every single year.

I mostly worked on the back deck, which is an enormous expanse. To build the deck, we started out by pouring water into plywood forms to make ice platforms. Back in the USA, a project like this would probably stand on a concrete foundation, but here ice serves the same purpose - providing a level, stable base that won't sink into the snow over time. Or so we hope. On top of each ice platform (we made 21 for the back deck, each around 3' by 19') we brought in a steel footer, and then connected each of those with a grade beam (a long steel girder, bolted to the footer below). On top of the grade beams, we put down a network of steel deck modules. The deck modules were one of the many frustrations with the project. The plans we had indicated that the footers and grade beams each had predrilled holes that should line up with each other so they could be bolted together easily, but in fact the holes were all about 4" off from where they needed to be. So a couple guys on the crew spent a lot of time with the acetylene torch cutting hundreds more holes. Once the deck modules were in place, we had to drill around 50 holes into each one so that we could screw the plywood decking on top. The plywood decking, which was 2" thick, needed to be screwed on from underneath so that there wouldn't be holes in the surface. In order to do that, several of us spent the last couple weeks crawling around on the snow in the dark underneath the deck and lying on our backs to hold the drill up over our heads. Those were some long days.

We would have had the project completely done by early February, but the South Pole with her tempestuous ways thwarted us. As we were moving the plywood decking around with the forklift, we discovered that we were 6 sheets short. This isn't any ordinary plywood, but 2" thick sheets milled to be 6' by 21 1/2" - not exactly a size you can just pick up at Home Depot. Besides, the nearest Home Depot is thousands of miles away. We did an exhaustive search of the storage berms, looking for the missing wood, but it couldn't be found. It might be buried under the snow somewhere, it might still be at McMurdo...nobody knows. But the deck won't be done until some more wood shows up, so we weren't quite able to finish it during our season.

Around mid-January, the daily dinnertime conversations around the stations switch from their usual topics (work, gossip) to the important question of "What are you doing in New Zealand?" For most Polies, spending a month or several in New Zealand with airfare home prepaid is one of the biggest perks of the job.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Happy New Year from the South Pole!

New Year's Eve seems to be the biggest holiday of the season here. Everyone has been living hard for the past two weeks, with three big parties packed into two work weeks, and TWO days off instead of one each week. In true Antarctic style, each one involved beer, dancing, and unexpected outdoor sports.
The first party of the holiday season was the FEMC barbecue, two weeks ago Saturday. FEMC stands for Facilities, Engineering, Maintenance and Construction and is one of the biggest departments here, and the one I work for. The party was hosted by the science carpentry shop, which is in one of the Jamesway tents. The carpenters carefully locked up all the sharp and dangerous tools, spread out a tablecloth with a fine spread of munchies, and invited all 50-100 people who work for FEMC.

Right outside the party was a large-ish pile of snow that the heavy equipment operators stacked up as they were removing snow from nearby buildings. As the evening progressed, quite a few partygoers dragged sleds amd even a sofa up the hill, only to tumble back down. I took a few runs, since you're never too old for sledding.

In the pictures above, you can see some sledding action, and one of New Hampshire's Finest South Pole Science Carps, the esteemed Chris Rice, parading through with some bloodied steak, fresh off the grill.

Four short days after that night, we celebrated Christmas Eve. My shift took Wednesday and Thursday off, and ate our fine Christmas dinner on Wednesday. The galley served beef wellington and lobster tails, and like Thanksgiving it was a fancier event that everyone dressed up for and enjoyed.

For New Year's, the gym here was transformed into a stage and dance floor and decorated. Several bands played a variety of music, including bluegrass and some danceable favorites from the 70s and 80s, and a good number of people got creative with their costumes. I had a great night mingling on the dance floor and getting to see some good friends on the day shift, who I no longer work with.

I hope that everyone enjoyed the start of 2009 as much as I did.

I have some great pictures of all these events, but the computers are acting up. Stay tuned for visual aids another night!

Saturday, December 6, 2008

James Brown Bingo and more

Last night was the first James Brown Bingo night of the season. It was a nice change from the usual Saturday night parties in summer camp. James Brown is one of the chefs here, and while he's no King of Funk (picture a short, buzzcut, tightly wound white man in chef's clogs- he kind of reminds me of the crazy Vietnam-vet chef from Wet Hot American Summer), he makes a great bingo caller. I've never played bingo before, but I had the impression it was the domain of grandparents gambling away their social security checks. Not at the South Pole. For only $1 per card you can buy into a fiercely competitive game with great prizes like cash, gift certificates to bars in Christchurch, and outdoor gear. Since it was Saturday night, the crowd worked their way into inebriation and got progressively more crude and more loud. I didn't win any prizes, but I'll definitely play again.
Today I am playing the first round of a Scrabble tournament. The only people who signed up for this tournament are the serious Scrabble players, so it should be very competitive. My opponent, Laura, is good. But if I lose the first round, there's a chump bracket too. After our game, I'm hoping to write some postcards, perhaps go skiing, and generally relax.
It's been a good work week- I am feeling a lot healthier. We have worked a lot for the Ice Cube project, laying the cable that connects their underground sensors with their lab and computers. This involves pulling the cable off of a gigantic spool and dropping it into a 8" wide and 4' deep trench, and then shoveling snow back into the trench to cover it up. It's always cold over at Ice Cube, since they are more exposed to the wind, but I really like getting to see how they set up their system. Their research is studying a subatomic particle called the Neutrino, by burying photosensitive sensors in an array under the ice.
In other exciting work news, yesterday all the GAs got trained to drive the shuttle van, which I will be doing once a week for the rest of the season. I also learned how to drive a snowmobile, which turns out to be entirely idiot-proof. Not surprising, when you consider the population of drunken rednecks who enjoy snowmobiling (that comment is for you, Uncle Paul).
One of the most exciting moments of the week is when the mail arrives. It usually comes once a week, and everyone envies the people who receive mail regularly. So, if you are inspired, I would love to receive mail of any sort, and will definitely send back a postcard with a penguin stamp. The address here is:
Molly Anderson, RPSC
South Pole Station
PSC 468 Box 400
APO AP 96598

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!

At the South Pole, we celebrate Thanksgiving on Saturday instead of Thursday. It's one more way for Raytheon and the NSF to squeeze more work out of us, but everyone is pleased because it means we get a 2-day weekend instead of the usual 1-day weekend. The kitchen staff and a group of volunteers did a great job making a special occasion out of the day. They decorated the galley with Christmas lights, real linens, and candles, and make a fantastic meal. We started with appetizers and wine and live music in the hallway at 3:30, and then ate a great Thanksgiving dinner in the galley. A number of people volunteered as wine stewards and came around to each table refilling wineglasses as soon as they got low, and bringing slices of pie and whipped cream towards the end of the meal. Dinner was served in three sittings to accommodate all the shifts. After dinner, some friends and I took a break to digest while watching Elf and drinking the complimentary sangria, after which we played pool, went sledding on the "hill" made out of snow that the heavy machinery operators have piled up, and hit both of the dance parties. It was a great night- not your usual celebration with family, but a lot of fun.
Today (Sunday) we have scheduled a photo shoot out by the pole marker for the NH contingent (there are somewhere between 15 and 20 of us here). I met a guy who went to ConVal last night at dinner! He lives in Peterborough, although I had never met him before. After the photo shoot, I'm hoping that I will have the energy to go out skiing- although it's much more likely that I will fall into my Sunday habit of watching movies, reading, and spending all day sitting around talking.
The Internet has been very slow lately, and my laptop is having problems, so I apologize for not doing the best job of posting pictures. I will get some up soon.
Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

South Pole, Week One

So much has happened since arriving at the South Pole almost a week ago. It feels kind of like college, living in close quarters with a lot of other people, seeing friends at every meal, catching new gossip every day- but instead of going to class and studying, I spend nine hours every day working, and try to move as little as possible in the evenings. There are quite a few things I could write about, but since it takes up most of my time and I’ve gotten so many questions, I’ll start out with what I do at work.
Every morning, the six general assistants meet with our supervisor to get our assignment, which can be pretty much anything. Most days, it involves shoveling. We work for the FEMC (Facilities, Engineering, Materials and Construction) department, and each day we might be working on a different aspect of that.
My first day (Tuesday), I shoveled for Ice Cube on the berms, but we only worked probably four hours. Ice Cube is one of the research projects here. I’m a little unclear on what exactly they are doing, but I know it involves drilling deeps wells into the ice and studying the samples they pull up. Most of the Ice Cube staff just arrived this week, so they are just getting started for the season. Shoveling on Tuesday was exhausting, mostly because I was having a really hard time breathing. The station here is at over 10,000 feet of elevation, so the first few days everyone is very out of breath. The first hour of shoveling, I remember struggling to pace myself by inhale:scoop, exhale;toss, pause, repeat. I’ve already gotten much better at figuring out the most efficient way to shovel (mostly by kneeling down, so that I am working at my waist level or above) and figuring out what shoveling does and doesn’t need to be done.
The next day (Wednesday), four of us GAs got farmed out to the electricians. We spent all morning over at Ice Cube helping them to wire three different generators, in three different buildings, by unspooling and stretching out giant cables for them to connect. These cables are probably 4" in diameter, and weigh about 8 pounds per foot (the 150 foot spools weigh over 1000 pounds). When you cut a cross section of them (which we did later in the day) there are four separate thick bundles of copper cable. Anyway, it is incredibly strenuous to drag these cables around, and it was –70 with the windchill. The fun part was seeing how the different buildings linked up, and how logical it was. The not-fun part was being cold, not knowing what to do, and the fact that the electricians apparently don’t take a morning break! After lunch we went back to the electrical shop and found out that our assignment for the afternoon was to cut up the old cables that we had removed into 3’ lengths so they could go on a pallet for recycling. It was just the four of us GAs in the shop and we had a great time playing music, using the portable bandsaw, and appreciating how much easier it is to work in a heated shop.
The following day (Thursday) all of the GAs were assigned first thing in the morning to shovel out all the outdoor fire exit stairwells for the main station (there are 5). It was really fun, because the snow was so light- we joked that a broom would have been more appropriate than a shovel. After we finished that, we shoveled down below the elevated station. The heavy machinery crews were working on grooming the snow that had drifted between the columns over the winter into a smooth, tightly packed surface. They had us shovel out right around the columns, where they can’t drive the machines. That was pretty satisfying, since we could see results right away. After lunch, we went out to the berms and shoveled, uncovering the loads and loads of construction-related crap that it appears Raytheon has been storing for decades. After about an hour of that, Joe came over and asked me and Lauren to come help one of the electricians. She was un-wiring and scrapping all the pieces of a modular shed that I guess had previously been some kind of electrical transfer point- there was a transformer, a couple circuit breakers, a lot of the same cable from yesterday, and some other mysterious-to-me stuff inside. Lauren and I went to work with the bandsaw, the saws-all, and a couple screwdrivers taking things apart and cutting them down to scrappable size. After stripping all the copper parts out of the transformer, I got to put it back together (well, screw the sides and top back on), which was fun. I learned the names and uses of a bunch of new tools. Cara, the electrician we were helping, was really patient and great at explaining both the big picture of what we needed to do and the details. We were also out of the wind, right behind the science carp shop, which was nice because we got to chat a bit with the carpenters (who, incidentally, are almost all from NH).
On Friday, when we shoveled, shoveled, shoveled all day long.
On Saturday, I shoveled for a couple hours in the morning, spent an hour in the FEMC office cataloging a bunch of drills that were recalled by the manufacturer and need to be shipped back to the US, and then spent the afternoon in meetings and on a tour of the station with our supervisor. He took us down into the ice tunnels underneath the station, where it is always –65. We also got to see the power plant, the fuel tanks (if I remember right, they have storage space for 450,000 gallons of fuel, and they use jet fuel instead of diesel for pretty much everything because it has a lower freeze point), and some of the construction projects.
Last night was the first Saturday night of the summer season. Yesterday we all sat through a few lectures yesterday about making sure that nobody got themselves in trouble by drinking too much while our bodies are still adjusting to the altitude and climate. I took it easy, watched a few episodes of Arrested Development in the station, hung out with Lauren, and briefly stopped in at the party in the summer camp lounge, where it appeared that most people had not heeded the advice about overconsumption of alcohol. Today (Sunday), I’m planning to get this blog post up (the internet is only available from 5am until 2 pm every day), watch some more AD, do yoga, and generally relax and enjoy not having to work.
The pictures below are from the flight in to the pole. I haven't had time or energy to take pictures here yet, but I will.


Most travelers to the South Pole stop at McMurdo station on the way. It's the largest US base in Antarctica, with somewhere between 1000 and 1200 residents for the austral summer. I spent two days in McMurdo on my way to the pole. We flew there from Christchurch on a giant military jet. Everyone is required to bundle up in their cold weather gear, in case of an emergency landing, but the plane was actually quite warm. It's very different from a commercial flight - they outfitted the plane with passenger seats (and a lot of legroom!), but we were in the same compartment as all the cargo, and even with earplugs in it was pretty loud. I slept most of the way, but woke up to go up above to where the pilots were to look at the ice (see pictures).
My time in McMurdo was kind of a whirlwind of getting adjusted, meeting a lot of new people, worrying a little about the trip to pole, and trying to get out and see as much of the area as I could. I took the walking tour of town, visited the coffeehouse and greenhouse, and went hiking and skiing. There are well-maintained trails to several points near town. My new friend Lauren and I hiked Observation Hill, and went for a short ski on the trail to Castle rock.
I also attended the Sunday night science lecture, which is a weekly event. This one was on the Weddell seal population in McMurdo Sound, and featured many cute pictures of seal pups. The science talks at pole will all be about astronomy, ice, seismology, and other branches of science that don't involve cute animals.