Reflections of a Journey of a Lifetime!
I have been back in the world that I know now for almost 30 days and on many days I contemplate how others whose paths I crossed are doing, what the latest storm was like, how the sea looks with the sea ice melted, or yearn for the solitude and relative simplicity of life almost 16,000 miles south of Houston. I had set out to fill in one of those "white spaces” in my mental map of the world and have since gained a better perspective. These "white spaces” are places that even your furthest imagination or multiple versions of Hollywood films and PBS documentaries cannot completely conjure up the full insight despite the best intentions.
I set out a year ago to possibly be part of something that had only been a dream- Polar field work. I thought it was such a long shot, but as I tell my students, you never know if you don’t try and what is the worst that one could say is no, what if they say yes! So, after the disheartening month long battle that took my father and the greatest man I had ever known away from my mother and me, I had to be part of something to honor all that they both had instilled in me as well as my own personal ambition. As a geographer, I am in the social studies department but I am certified in both earth science and geography and it is not unusual to be denied the opportunity to be part of field programs since most people think geography is not a science. I was fortunate that ARCUS was not of this "geography is not a science” dogma that I hear too frequently. I teach an integrated physical and human geoscience course and am firmly dedicated to the school of thought that humans adapt to and alter the environment and the environment responds in return. The integration of these two worlds is essential to sustaining the world around all of us.
In March, I was ecstatic to receive the email that I had been selected to be a PolarTREC teacher and that I would be interviewed by the team. The team that initially selected my application was doing a study on the Bering Sea and the next day I was told that the environmental impact study in the McMurdo area was also offering me an opportunity to be on their team. I was extremely flattered to say the least. The opportunity to be able to go to Antarctica to do field work was a dream come true. The interviews with the team were on the Monday of Spring Break. I was in Galveston on a conference call with the ARCUS office in Fairbanks, Alaska and the research team and PI at Texas A&M! Need I say what a privilege it was going to be to not only be part of the team but part of a team of A&M Geoscience researchers. A year earlier I had just finished another M.S. in the College of GeoScience and already knew the GIS specialist, (Andrew Klein) who was part of the team. The dates for the study were perfect as it was the 3rd 6 week cycle in the school year and it was right where my course, IB/AP Geography, shifts from the physical to the human topics and I would not hurt my students in terms of preparation for their exams providing I structured everything just right! The first person I called was my Mom! I told her she had to come meet me in New Zealand with my son and that we would spend Christmas there. My goal was to not only share so much of this experience with my students, but also with other teachers, their students and my Mom. I knew that Antarctica was one of those places that she too yearned to see but if I could do this I could make it closer for her. Admiral Richard E. Byrd was my grandmother’s cousin so the opportunity to see what I had read stories about and had heard tales about from family members of his adventures was bringing a family history full circle. Ironically, before I had even heard about PolarTREC, on the first day of school, one of my students had asked if I knew who Admiral Richard E. Byrd was? I said of course, "he was my grandmother’s cousin”! It turns out he is a great nephew through his side. His expression that he was related to his teacher was priceless!
Within 3 weeks I was in Fairbanks, Alaska, (100 miles south of the Arctic Circle), for orientation, training, a webinar, and the opportunity to begin working with the most outstanding teachers all eager to participate in polar research and collaborate with colleagues around the world. The staff of ARCUS and PolarTREC was unbelievable. Everything was so smooth and well planned. I have been to many many teacher programs, but PolarTREC and ARCUS without a doubt are the most organized and well-planned training programs that I have ever been to. The training was excellent and could have easily last for a week or two. After the fact, I was much relieved that the survival training we went through was not need on my project at least. Raytheon and NSF have virtually every potential survival concern addressed several times over, to prevent any danger or inability to survive in Antarctica. It was –22F in Fairbanks the night we went out to the ice festival. I have been in Russia and Canada in the winter as well as many places in the upper Midwest but I had never been in weather this cold. But Antarctica was to come! And to think that in just 8 months I was going to be completely on the longitudinally opposite side of the world!
In late April, I went up (90 miles) to Texas A&M University to meet with the Steve Sweet, Andrew Klein and Chuck Kennicutt. Steve is the environmental research specialist at the Geochemical and Environmental Research Group (GERG); Andrew Klein is the geographer and GIS specialist, and Chuck Kennicutt is the PI, Vice President of Research at Texas A&M and a renowned oceanographer and Antarctic researcher. They went over the project with me and Steve and I went to a lecture that Chuck was doing for another professor’s class.
All summer I ran plans through my head and restructured how I was going to cover content areas when I was gone. I increased the amount of time I was working out with a trainer to 3 days a week, lost 65 pounds and gained muscles that I thought would never exist on my body. I read adventure stories, scientific briefs, news releases, disgruntled employee stories and survival stories about Antarctica. I wanted to have a frame of reference about what the author’s saw to compare to what I will experience later on. Every month it was getting closer and closer, but secretly I was afraid something would happen and we wouldn’t go- fortunately that never happened.
The eager anticipation was building up by the middle of October and my departure definitely seemed imminent when Lollie Garay (another PolarTREC teacher) and I participated in the Rice University/ Christa McAuliffe Science festival and she reminded me that I was leaving in 2 weeks! In that remaining time I met with my substitute to go over the binder of instructional materials for every day I was going to be gone, the folders of handouts, outside readings, power points, videos, lab simulations, quizzes, exams, answer keys, all my passwords, and the keys to my school life. Julia White was fabulous! I could not have had a better substitute.
Thanksgiving has always been the holiday in my family that was the big celebration and I have been the one who has taken over most of the preparation. In addition to packing, repacking and leaving behind stuff, sorting out the next 8 weeks of my dogs lives and getting my son and husband situated to take care of more then the TV, I decided that my Mom should still have a Thanksgiving dinner. We celebrated Thanksgiving on November 10th and I left the next morning for the 21 hours of flights to reach McMurdo.
Within 24 hours of our arrival in Christchurch we were going through all of the extreme cold weather clothing that was issued to us by Raytheon Polar Services at the CDC. Everyone in the women’s clothing area were going to Antarctica for the first time except for an artist so she was helping the other 4 of us figure out how to put different parts on, what was worn how, and what was too big or too small. I think I exchanged everything except the socks and gloves for smaller sizes! My secret delight! Everything fit into the 2 issued orange bags and my suitcase. Within 12 hours, (2:30am), my team and I would return to the CDC to get dressed in the required ECW gear and board the next flight on a C-17 for McMurdo Station, Antarctica!
The flight to McMurdo was another of many new experiences. My first trip on military transport! Fresh food, scientific equipment, mail, construction cargo, support personnel and researchers were all packed in for the 4.5 hour flight to the bottom of the world. I think the oddest thing that has stuck with me is the idea of flying inside of a plane that you cannot see out through a window. It was really a different sensation. I was eager to see something and Terry kept checking this one window that was used to check on the wing area of the aircraft. This small peep hole window gave me my first view of the TransAntarctic Mountains and the massive glaciers almost 4 hours into the flight. I finished reading my 5th book on Antarctic exploration sitting on the floor of the plain against this huge pallet of research equipment strapped down on rollers just in time for our arrival at McMurdo.
After our initial briefing, luggage collection, survival training scheduled, and dormitory assignments we checked out the lab space and settled in for the next 4 weeks. Everything was a new experience from the cold, to the operations of the lab and human survival adaptations. The first several days were spent going to required training and April and I also had Happy Camper School and Sea Ice training. Remember, you cannot cross an area on the ice that is not at least 1/3 the depth as the length of the vehicle. All the vehicles are huge and if you are short it compounds the challenge to crawl into them. By the end of the first week we had finished all of our required training programs and set out to collect the specimens that were to be analyzed in the lab and back at Texas A&M. The dive holes were mapped out and drilled and the dive huts placed over them. The divers were impressive. The extreme caution required to dive in Antarctica does not have any room for mishaps. Their professionalism and the ease with which they carried out the dives were truly admirable. I was really surprised how different the core samples of the sea floor differed from each of the depths but also each of the four different locations. The sea creatures remained fairly consistent but the soils appeared very different. After the marine sampling was mostly completed we moved on to the terrestrial sampling in and around the McMurdo Station area. With the exception of sliding on the ice a couple more times then I would have liked to, the collection process was very interesting. There was never a question about what we were doing when we went into various staging areas. The soils did have different characteristics in a macro sense. There was no doubt that there were bioorganic compounds in the soils around the fuel tanks but the biggest difference was in areas where rock/soils had not disintegrated into smaller grain sizes. We collected random, repopulated and site-specific samples all over McMurdo station and on the surrounding hill sides.
Thanksgiving was on Saturday instead of Thursday to give station employees a 2 day holiday break. This extended the opportunity to go around the station area on short hikes or cross country skiing. My roommate introduced me to several of her friends and I enjoyed hearing about the changes on the station since the Navy days as many of them have worked on the ice for 15 or more years. Jules, my roommate, was awesome. She has worked in Antarctica for 28 seasons and drives a bulldozer out at the ice runway keeping it groomed for the planes. She made me feel welcomed and told me about the history, logistics and the personalities over the years on the station. She is a wealth of information and a terrific person!
The last weekend before we left was busy. Finishing the processing samples, packing them for shipping and cleaning the lab as well as visiting the various evening establishments at McMurdo kept us going. Andrew arranged for me to go out to a seal study site with Dr. Marcus Horning from the University of Oregon on Saturday. At the last minute he had an extra spot and April came along as well. We had a blast! We rode the snow mobiles out across the sea ice to Razorback Island to the Weddell seal colony he was finishing up working with. A geologist from Italy and the ANDRILL project came along as well. After Dr. Horning told us that there was no way that we were going to tip the snowmobiles over, April and I discovered that 70mph is a really good speed on the open sea ice! The seals were just finishing weaning their pups for the season so there were mostly pups and their moms lying on the ice near the tongue of the Erebus glacier. The seals were all fairly used to people around since all of them had been tagged for several years. They were very docile and it was incredible to be able to be so close to them. His study involved oxygen retention in aging seals and he tracked them with GPS devices and monitored digital oxygen and blood gases over the course of his research season.
We had one final data collection and another incredible experience left- the penguins and the control site at Cape Bird! It was amazing and that is an understatement. My first helicopter ride and the first time to see open waters in Antarctica was the day before we left and the third and final attempt to get out to Cape Bird. Due to weather and flight conditions we had been delayed, this was our last chance and we only had 3 ground hours. It was a packed 3 hours! The breaking sea ice that we skirted along was beautiful from the air. We quickly climbed to the top of the bluff and collected the 16 samples. I wanted to spend as much time wondering through the Adeline Penguin colony as possible. Steve, Andrew, Terry and April climbed across the glacial ridge but I went to the beach! I love the beach and anywhere I go that is my goal to be able to see the beach area. Of course, this beach had frozen ice waves that did not move and it was wonderful watching the penguins slide, hop and jump through the breaks in the sea ice waves.
The Adelie colony must have at least 10,000 penguins that nest from the beach all the way up the hillside. It was amazing to be able to walk through them and not have them run in fear. Each of the nesting areas had a "guard” that was watching over their set of nests. The structure of the penguin colony was completely not what I expected, but I am not sure what I really expected of a relatively harmless animal. I would just stand and watch a group of penguins sitting on their nests keeping their one egg safe from the ever-attentive nasty skuas and keeping it warm in the December sun. The researchers at the New Zealand station that were monitoring this colony said that these were the males sitting on the eggs and the females were out fishing and playing. While watching different groups of nesting penguins, many of them would watch me and then stand up showing me their egg. This happened on multiple occasions and it was as if they were showing off what they were responsible for or maybe they just wanted me to tell their "wives” that they were being good daddies and taking care of the baby. Regardless, this was incredible. The area of the rookery was very loud with chattering penguins, some just talking at me and others arguing with each other. On the other side of the Cape it was dead silence. A silence that was eerie but also a completely different experience. Even at McMurdo there is the noise of the town, the white noise of lights and heating, and the noise of life but at Cape Bird there was no noise- no waves, no movement noise, nothing... until the helicopter came over the saddle and toward the landing pad. I had walked back from the glacier at the edge of Cape Birds away from the chattering penguins and sat up on the hill side at the beach to just take in the sensation of no noise, no waves, the magnitude of the ice, the penguins in the distance and the unexplainable feeling of what it was like to be "at the bottom of the world” and what an incredible privilege it was for me to be part of this experience.
This was the most amazing 4.5 weeks and definitely an experience of a lifetime. I think for those who work or are researchers in Antarctica the knowledge that they will be back in the next season lessens the initial amazement with this place, but I do not know if I will ever have that chance again and I can only hope to. The return trip was not a sad experience as I am still immersed in the experience and the outreach activities of Polar research and IPY activities and this allows me to continually reflect on this opportunity. This did not only make an impact on me but also on many of my own students and those that were following along that I have been able to meet with. I have repeatedly heard comments of wanting to go into geosciences so they can work outdoors, or so they can see the far ends of the earth and so they can be better stewards of the Earth. If just one of them pursues this then I did make an impact on the life of a student and the benefits of this experience became even more immeasurable. My deepest appreciation and gratitude are extended to the staff at ARCUS and PolarTREC who oversaw all of our logistics and much much more, the National Science Foundation for the funding and outreach support, Raytheon Polar Services, Jules- my awesome roommate at McMurdo and especially for my team for an outstanding experience as well as dealing with a teacher on their project. With all my sincere appreciation and admiration for Texas A&M University and Chuck Kennicutt, Andrew Klein, Steve Sweet, Terry Palmer, and April Gossman.