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Sunday, 13 February 2000
My trip to the Dry Valleys last week was sensational. I am so excited that I got to go. We took a helicopter across McMurdo Sound to the Royal Society Mountains. It is very strange because all season long there has been this particular mountain that has caught my eye. It is not terribly high or anything like that, but just something about its shape and patterns I found very attractive. I bet I have taken a hundred photos of it all throughout the season. I finally got a map and found that it is called Mt. Barnes. I have felt drawn to that mountain all season long.
It turns out that Lake Fryxell is just on the other side of it. The helicopter ride took us about 45 minutes. It was amazing to see how much of McMurdo Sound is no longer frozen. There were whales everywhere. The weather was perfect. It was a beautiful flight. I really love riding in helicopters. This is only my second flight, but it is wonderful. And as a side note, the pilot for this trip turned out to be the same one I had on my first trip. And I got to ride in the front again. It is amazing to me how the ice cracks in such straight lines when it cracks on its own.
The dry valleys are just that. Dry. Rocks everywhere. It was a little bit of heaven for a rock hound like me. I had been told that it is usually quite cold there, but it just so happens that this particular day was perfect — 30 degrees with no wind. It is usually quite windy there which is what helps to keep the dry valleys dry.
There were two glaciers nearby and a lake near the camp. The lake was frozen on the surface, but you could see that there was water underneath. I broke through the ice a little bit at the edge because I had heard that the lakes were slightly salty. I tasted it, but it did not taste salty to me.
The work I had to do there was minimal. There are six small buildings in the camp — one generator shack, 4 labs and a jamesway for cooking, dining and community. First I had to unhook the 12k generator because it has not been working properly. There was also a 6k generator there. They flew the 12k back to McMurdo and two mechanics tried to get the 6k working. No luck. Meanwhile I also had to run some new receptacles in the jamesway. They had wanted me to look into trying to balance the load but as we could never get power while I was there, that job was impossible. Whoever put the camp together to begin with didn't do such a great job. The only other thing I had to do was draw up some 'as–builts' so people in town would know what was out there.
I finished my work around noon and we all cooked our own lunch. I was in the process of making a cheese tortilla when someone discovered a few cans of smoked oysters. What a great treat that was. After lunch another girl, who had been out there to work on all the exhaust systems, and I went hiking.
It was tough trying to decide whether to walk over to one of the glaciers or hike up toward the mountains. We opted for the glaciers. I was amazed at the variety of rocks out there, and at how the whole character of the landscape would change in just a few short feet. There were different types of rocks every 50 feet or so. Strange.
Also out there are lichens — yes something alive growing in Antarctica! VERY unusual and strange. They were pinkish and grey/green in color. Quite amazing.
Needless to say I picked up rock after rock. I wanted so much to bring so many of them home. However, according to the Antarctic Treaty, we are not allowed to take anything from the continent. There are rocks down here called ventifacts. They are pyramidal in shape and are carved that way from the wind. Usually they are black — apparently the black rocks carve the easiest. The place to find those would have been higher in the hills, but I found a few that were on their way to being pyramidal. Unfortunately the really good ones were too big to put in my pockets.
I was impressed the most by the quiet. No engines, no birds, footsteps — nothing. It made you want to hold your breath and just listen. But then I heard the ice. It is the most amazing sound. It creaks and groans and sounds almost like recordings I have heard of whales. At times it can be quite loud. I would love to spend a week at a camp like this to experience this more completely. The most amazing part of all was when I realized that I was standing in a place that only a handful of people in the entire history of the world have ever stood. I could have been stepping on rocks that no one has ever stepped on before. It was quite overwhelming.
We got back to camp around 3:30 P.M. and packed up our things. I was told that there was a petrified seal not far from camp, but as I was getting ready to walk there I could hear the helicopter in the distance so I did not make it.
Richard, our helicopter pilot, said that he was through for the day and had a little time on his hands. So he flew us further into the mountains and we got a look at Lake Hoare, Lake Bonney and the Taylor Glacier. Beautiful.
Then we went whale hunting on the way home. Richard is very good at spotting the whales in the distance. He would land the helicopter on the ice and let us take pictures of the whales. And then we would fly to another spot and land.
Whale photos courtesy of McMurdo Station's I-drive
We also saw Emperor penguins and Adelie penguins. I think we landed about 6 times on the return trip. The 45 minute trip took us about an hour and 10 minutes. It was divine.
Emperor penguin photos courtesy of McMurdo Station's I-drive
As a follow–up to the last story about ships, the Green Wave (below) finally made it to town and almost everyone in town is involved in getting her off–loaded. After that everything that is to be shipped out will be loaded on. Most of the packages I mailed in the last month will sail on her so I don't expect to receive them until sometime in April.
The research vessel, Nathaniel B. Palmer (below), is also in town. It is staying out in the harbor and won't actually dock here. I am not sure what kind of research they are doing but it is also leased by Antarctic Support Associates — the company I am currently working for.
Yet another cruise ship, the Marco Polo (below), is here. It has been ferrying tourists in and out of town for two days. This looks more like a real cruise ship than the Kapitan Khlebnikov did. This is an Orient Lines vessel.
I am still in McMurdo. I could not get myself put on Friday's flight so I am scheduled for Monday. However, Friday's flight had mechanical problems and did not take off. It was rescheduled for Saturday. Saturday's flight and the rescheduled Friday one didn't take off on Saturday because we had a terrible blizzard. It stopped snowing for a while, but has started again. We are hoping that both those flights take off today as there was nothing originally scheduled for Sunday. Then perhaps I can get out on Monday. I hope so. Those flights were scheduled to be C–141's which are bigger and faster aircraft. However, if the C–141's can't get in, there is talk of putting people on C–130's. They are smaller and slower (8 hours to Christchurch as opposed to 5 hours on the C–141), but they are on skis and can get in and out of this weather more easily. I do not much care as long as I get to Christchurch.
I have been so fortunate this season to have seen as much as I have. I understand that first–year people don't usually get to go too many places or get very many boondoggles. Not true in my case. I have gone to and seen most of the things I wanted to see this season. It is really quite amazing. I know people who have been down here for 10 years and have not been half the places I have been to. So I have really been lucky this year. Now if I can just get lucky and get out of here on time!
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McMurdo Station, Antarctica
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