Thursday, June 30, 2005

Chapter 8 - Labor Day Picnic on the Glacier

Labor Day Picnic - September 3rd 1989 (Sunday Night)

We had a picnic on the glacier for the Labor Day holiday on Sunday night. It was great. Everyone got bundled up in their warm clothes to get on a sled pulled by snowmobile to go up to the top of the glacier.

I was still sending out traffic, so I told the rest that I would hike my way up and meet them up there. It took me about thirty minutes to finish up what I had to do and soon I was on my way up the glacier at around 7:30 p.m.

I walked out of Biolab and past the carpenter shop, GWR and continued up the hill past the T-5 building and then behind the Clean Air Facility. The glacier starts at ground level at a dip in the rocks behind the Clean Air Facility and slopes at a nice 25-30 degree incline about one half mile up to the top. The top of the glacier on a clear day is a long flat surface of normally, snow-covered ice. During the summer months, the snow melts off this ice surface and is very slick to walk up in most places.

I couldn't see the campfire up top, but that wasn't too unusual as it was dark and there was a light mist in the air and a low cloud ceiling this night. Under normal circumstances, the light from the station reflects with all the snow and ice, illuminating the path to the top of the glacier. On a clear night from the station, you will see to the top of the glacier and all the stars above.

The trails up to the top are marked at the beginning of the summer season and then regularly checked for crevasses and marked with posts. When I first started my trek at the base of the glacier, I was able to see the posts and was using them as my guide. As I proceeded up the glacier, I hadn't noticed that the fresh snowmobile tracks I happened to be following had pulled away to the left of the posts that marked the trail.

About half-way up the path, I suddenly noticed that I did not see any trail flags. I was still able to see the snowmobile tracks but as I proceeded further up the glacier, the mist became thicker. I didn't have a flashlight and the light from the station had soon faded out of sight into the mist which was growing thicker.

Soon I found myself stuck in a no-man land between the station and the top of the glacier. It was something out of a dream with white mist on every side of me. I was hoping that I was still on the proper track, since I couldn't see light from the power plant any more and couldn't yet see the light from the campfire that was on top of the glacier.

A moment of fear gripped me and I suddenly felt lost. I started to second guess whether I was actually on track. I resorted to getting on my hands and knees at times to feel the freshly packed snowmobile track to make sure that I was still following the fresh snowmobile tracks.

Too far to the left and I would be in Arthur Harbor and over an ice cliff. Too far to the right and I would plunge down into Hero Inlet off an ice cliff. Would I see the ice edge or any hidden crevasses before the plunge in? I couldn’t hear them at the bonfire. Would anyone hear me if I did actually take a fall or plunge? The air was so thick with ice and fog that about all I could hear was hear the crunching of snow beneath my own boots.

I pushed my fears down and reassured myself that the snowmobile tracks that I had been tracking were, in fact, the fresh tracks. I reasoned to myself that we had just had fresh snow only yesterday. That covered up all other tracks; that much I knew. Now, I had to push down my fears of falling off the glacier or falling in a crevasse.

As I slowly continued, I started to see the trail markers to my right. The snowmobile must have cut a bit to the right at this point, bringing me closer to the path. This meant now, that I was between the path and the glacier edge of Arthur Harbor about 500 yards to my left. The snowmobile had taken a path up on the left hand side of the marked trail. At least now I had established my bearings and my fears started to subside.

The freezing mist quickly built into a icy fog, which made seeing any distance ahead difficult. But by this time I was finally far enough up to the top that I could see an orange glow like a sunrise at the top of the glacier. I couldn't see or hear anyone over that glacial horizon yet, but I had made it to the top and could breathe a sigh of relief.

As I walked up to the group, BJ looked at me and started laughing.

"What's so funny?" I asked.

BJ replied, "With that frozen mist all over your beard, mustache and clothes, you look like you've aged fifty years!"

At that point I felt like I had aged fifty years. I've never been lost in a forest, but now I know what it must feel like. The only difference was my forest was like being lost on a cloud where you can only push forward. Nothing ahead, nothing behind and nothing on either side but white snow and white mist.

A campfire was made in a 55 gallon barrel that was split in half and a grill was set up for a regular holiday cook-out on the glacier.

Hamburgers, hot dogs, and baked beans were all hot and ready for me to dig into. The beans were cooked two hours in the oven on the station and were still soupy until after the cast iron pot had been set directly into the fire. They cooked down to just the right consistency and were mushy in about half an hour! That and some good cold beer and we had a great time--all 13 of us. Tom, Richie, BJ, Ned, Dick, Robin, Pat, Marcia, Doc, Allen, Don, George and me.

By the end of a couple of hours, we were ready to go back, even if the beer kind of made me forget about the cold. Being on top of the glacier with no mountain to block the cold winds can send a chill through your bones fast.

The trip back down the glacier was memorable! Two guys took the food and supplies down on one snowmobile, three hiked down the glacier--following the flag-marked path and the remaining eight of us crammed on a sledge hooked up to the second snowmobile with a psychotic driver!

As we were heading away from the campfire, BJ was starting to shout that we were not going the right way. As the rest of us recognized this, we all started shouting at Pat, but were unable to get his attention.

At this point, BJ was prepared to dump himself off the sledge. We all finally somehow made enough noise that Pat stopped long enough for us to let him know that he was way off the path. Pat had taken the snowmobile to the far right, intersecting the trail at about a sixty degree angle. We were now on the opposite side of the trail that I had come up on and headed directly toward Hero Inlet. Pat had not seen the trail markers and blew right by them.

Pat pulled the sledge around to his right and we soon found the trail markers which would lead us back down to the safety of the station. Somehow we made it down alive! For a minute, we thought we would end up over the cliff into Hero Inlet! Wouldn't those headlines have been interesting?!

The next morning, we used the telescope to have a look at how far off the marked path the snowmobile tracks were for our return trip. The loop was pretty visible in the new snow; Hero Inlet almost had a new name.

Doc told us that he didn't know if he had enough body bags for that kind of a disaster. We would have just been put into the sub-zero deep freeze, stacked like cord-wood until someone could arrive to take our remains northbound.

05 September 89

Sorry I didn't get back to you when you sent that letter home. My sister just told me about your letter about two weeks ago and said that it has been sitting around back at home for four or five months now!

Everything here is going great. In fact, I was supposed to leave Palmer on the 14th of October, but was asked if I wanted to stay until the end of March! So I accepted the job, new contract and a 5% pay increase.

Winter is almost over here and temperatures haven't gotten all that cold. The coldest it has been has been -11 C. The British Base who we report our weather to, has said that this winter is one of the warmest since 1956. We have had almost no ice in the harbor. Even though there has been snow, there hasn't been that much.

It will be great to spend another (austral) summer here. The penguins should start coming back within the next month along with a lot of other birds common to the area during the summer. Hopefully, we will start to see more whales too. They only come down here on their migratory routes, but during the last summer, we saw them quite often.

Things are a little more relaxed during the winter, and when a good day does come along, we try to get off the station. Last week, we took a couple of Zodiacs and cruised around the harbor. We checked out the shipwreck of the Bahia Paraiso. The ship is settling more and still spewing out oil and diesel depending on the waves and the winds. Over the past ten months, we have seen the ship roll over more and sink further below the waters surface. Not very much of the one-time hospital/warship is above the water now.

Also went over to the Old Palmer Station about a half mile away. It's on the same island as we are, but you would have to cross the top of the glacier with all the crevasses, so the only safe way to get there is by boat.

I guess I haven't told you too much about the people that are here. Right now there are 13 people. We have a government sponsored artist who has been painting some nice paintings of the station and its surroundings. Also have two scientists on station now studying the ozone here. We have one woman who is in charge of the laboratory and its supplies. The rest are all guys. We all seem to get along well and enjoy ourselves a lot. The sun is now up from 7 a.m. until around 5:30 p.m., so the days are almost normal again. That will change come November when the summer days get real long--even longer than where you are in Holland.

Take care and say hello to all the family.

07 September 89

Don’t know if I’ve mentioned it before, but if you have any friends that operate on the HAM radio frequencies, Palmer Station operates on 14325 MHz with the call sign KC4AAC. Normally people are up from 0000GMT until 0400GMT or so. We had a communications blackout during the winter on most of our HF frequencies, but now HAM is coming back, so it gives us a chance to talk with friends and family back home. Some operators have phone patch capability and have been very supportive by putting collect calls through to our families back home.

We also have an hour on Saturday and Sunday that we can make calls out over the ATS satellite, collect from Florida, so we aren't always as isolated as you may think.

08 September 89

Thank you for your letter back in June. You mentioned something about South Pole in your letter, but we are actually closer to Chile than to South Pole, believe it or not! We are located in the “Banana Belt” of the Antarctic and sit at 63 degrees south which is just north of the Antarctic Circle (70 degrees south).

I was just starting to get ready to leave when the opportunity came up to stay another five months. Probably won't get up to Punta Arenas until the first week in April. Then I'll do the traveling I was planning on in October. My parents are probably sure that I'm crazy now!

Last week we had a twin otter plane stop in. They were on their way south to deliver supplies and a sled dog to the Transantarctic Expedition which is now in the middle of the peninsula. It was the first time I have seen a domestic animal in eleven months. So we got to pet it and took our pictures with it.

I have been climbing the glacier more often to get some exercise. It is a great view of the area and the mountains behind the island. We went up to the top for the lunar eclipse, but the clouds rolled in just as the eclipse started. The weather hasn't been too bad, but is colder this month than last. We have stayed mostly in the lower 20's range this month, and have an inch or so of snow every few days. Got out in the Zodiacs and got to see some of the area again. It is nice to have the chance to get away for a couple of hours during the day.

The job is going alright, although communications with the satellite has been difficult lately. It gets hairy trying to get out my backlog of data after a couple of days of no satellite traffic.

I'm still working on my inventory and hoping I can finish before summer open during the first week in October. I may have a chance to get off Palmer for a few days in Punta Arenas. It would be nice to get away for a change. A couple of the guys who will be leaving on that ship are planning on renting a car and going down to the tip of Tierra Del Fuego on the Chilean side. So I may be able to break with them for that, then head back up to catch the Duke back to Palmer. I'll just have to wait and see what the time constraints are.

Today is beautiful out. The sky is clear and sunny and only a few clouds in the sky. The temps are colder than they have been, around the upper teens and lower 20's. Last week was the coolest week we have had all winter. We had an average temp of 27 degrees.

09 September 89

I started a letter to you in mid-winter and never finished it. I also wasn't sure where to send it. You move around more than me!

We had a plane come in yesterday and stay the night. It is surprising how little ski-way the twin otters need for landing. Our ski-way is on the top of the glacier about a half mile from the station. We have had about a half dozen planes land during this year up on the glacier. This plane that came in today had been trying to get here for three days, but the weather had been bad either here, at Punta Arenas or at King George Island. Weather needs to be good at all three sites so that the Twin Otter can make a complete round trip without an overnight if possible.

This letter is coming to you earlier than expected because the twin otter has been hired to come and pick up some scientific equipment that missed being loaded onto the Polar Duke when she left port in August. This little mid-winter plane visit has given us the chance to send out mail and they also brought mail in for us. So I was writing some letters to send through Chile. I got your card yesterday, but didn't have time to write a response due to the celebrating last night. They left this morning at 8 a.m., and it was hard getting up so early after last night.

10 September 89

It was great to speak with you, even if it was only for five minutes. The connection over the ATS on my end was bad, but good enough that I got some answers to the questions I had for you.

Still working on inventory. It has become the story of my life. I have been relocating parts and it can be a real pain. The satellite is still a little fickle. Sometimes it works great and other times it is just too noisy to get traffic in or out. I've been putting in some long hours too, but managing to keep my attitude up.

The weather was great two days ago. We had a perfectly clear sky and went over to Bonaparte Point just to wander around. Got some pictures of a fur seal and of the station. The temps have been cold this week and last week, staying around the lower 20's. Today it has been snowing, freezing rain and back to snow. Not much accumulation and generally a good day for sleeping and being lazy.

16 September 89

The excitement of the ship coming in less than one month has kind of caught everyone. I have been trying to work on my inventory completed before the ship comes in. I will still have to make all the updates in the computer file in Dbase III, which I will have to learn.

Monday, I will send off a telex with everyone’s travel arrangements. I haven't heard yet if Al is going to let me go on the ship to P.A., for the trip up and back. But I can't see any reason why he couldn't handle it alone until I get back. It would be nice to get away for a small break. If it happens, I will leave with the others on the 14th of October arrive on the 18th in Punta Arenas, then leave Punta Arenas on the 23rd to arrive Palmer on the 27th. I'm trying not to get my hopes up too high yet though.

The weather hasn't been real great the past couple of weeks, but we have had a few nice days with beautiful sunsets. A couple more inches of snow this past week and a lot of wind. Yesterday I got out for about an hour to take some pictures of a few gentoo penguins that were out behind the station about a half mile. We don't normally see too many around here since most of our colonies are adelies.

I'll try calling next weekend over the ATS-3 or over HAM if I can't get through.

18 September 89 11:50 pm

Sorry I haven't written you a marsgram in awhile. I did send off a letter via Chile when the plane came in, so I hope you have received that by now. I sent along a couple of polaroids with that letter too, hope you liked them. I got your letter when the plane came in and I just received your marsgram tonight, so I figured I would get another letter off to you since I'm on watch tonight.

I haven't received that last box you sent me yet, but it is on the manifest for this ship coming down the beginning of October. So hopefully, if you have sent this other box off by now, I might get it the beginning of November or so. It just depends on the space available in the shipments sent off from Paramus. Thanks again for taking care of these boxes for me.

Oh, stand by, I have to go do a generator check. It's midnight. I'll be back in a minute.

OK, I'm back. Had to make sure we would still have lights and that the reverse osmosis and desal is still making fresh water.

The weather here has been overcast the whole week. Also had watch last night and when I finished at around 2:30 a.m., I took a nice dip in the hot tub--oops, strike that--the therapeutic bath. It was snowing hard and the water was so warm. We had about eight inches of snow last night after temps around 36 degrees the whole day! It is going to be great to see the full change of seasons come summer-time here.

You commented in one of your letters about me being lonely here, but I'm really not lonely. We live in such a tight-knit community, that everyone is kind of like family. We all miss our families, but I wouldn't say that we are lonely.

The mood is really starting to get high here with the ship due in in less than a month. Of course, two weeks out on the Duke and crossing the Drake Passage twice just for a boondoggle makes it sound like I'm a real gluten for punishment!

If you have never been sea-sick, you will never know what I mean! Mine usually passes after the first day (and a couple of Dramamine!). It is like having the flu, only worse because your head is woozy even if you lift it up off the pillow. Most people get seasickness to some degree at some time or another, if you make the trip enough times. You should hear some of the horror stories!

I'm going to close now and do my last round for station watch. Take care of yourself and hang in there. Thanks again for packing that stuff up for me and for keeping such good letters with me. I'll be looking for your letters and the boxes and I'll let you know when I get them.

21 September 89

It's about 1 a.m. right now and I'm on watch, so I thought I'd drop you a quick letter before my final watch.

It will be a big change to go from 13 people to 45 again, but I think I need the change again. I'm still working hard to complete my inventory and traffic is starting to pick up with the preparations for the upcoming summer season.

You wouldn't believe summer is right around the corner with the weather we're having this week! Yesterday and today we have had minimum 30-35 knot winds constant with gusts up to 60 knots this morning. It has been snowing some, but mostly blowing and drifting all over. The harder snowfall didn't really start until late in the afternoon and we will probably get another six inches now. It is funny to think back on how rocky it really is under all this snow during the summer.

Guess we will have our share of tourism again this summer too. It will be nice since the Polar Duke will be heading over to McMurdo during December-February. At least we will have a way to get mail and freshies (fresh veggies and fruit). Our cooks are able to trade things we have for things the tour ships need. The tour ships also will take mail out to the States and bring mail down from Punta Arenas on their way down.

I haven't received any final word on going to Punta Arenas for those few days, but I'm pretty confident that I will be allowed to go. Al can handle this place while I'm gone, probably on his head if he wanted to. Of course, this is not a pretty picture. A man who wears a tunic with nothing underneath but what nature intended, standing on his head in the comm shack!

How, you might ask, do I know that nothing is worn underneath the tunic? Well, I’ll tell ya. Not so long ago, Karen, one of the science coordinators on the Polar Duke was out on a cruise with the scientists. Al was on that ship and just so happened to precede Karen up the ladder to the next level on the ship. Suffice to say, Karen was somewhat shocked but apparently not scarred for life at this display. So now we are all socially aware of what nature intended to be worn underneath a tunic and probably a kilt. She told us about this at the bar during the summer season; I swear!

It’s late, I’m tired and about goofy right now. Guess I'll close now and get ready to make my last rounds.

22 September 89 11 p.m.
The past few days haven't been too pleasant and we have had a lot of wind and snow. Temps have been staying in the high 20's and 30's most of the time.

I did get word just today that the credit card arrived at the office in Paramus this week. Thanks for getting that to me. You will probably have to do the same thing with my Visa card in December. Before the extension, I would have been home to receive the new card. Also, let Debi know that the box she sent off for me has arrived in Paramus and was being taken to the shipping department. Hopefully, I will get it the end of October.

It is hard to believe that the ship will be here in less than two weeks now. I don't know where the time is going to. It seems like just yesterday that the winter season started! I'm still not done with my inventory and Marcia has volunteered to help me update the inventory records that I've been making corrections to all along. With her help, I should be able to finish about the time the ship gets in. The satellite has been behaving most of the time, but it can really be a pain when it acts up, like tonight. Take care of yourself and say hello to all for me.

24 September 89

I got word from Paramus that the second box that you sent out around the 12th has arrived in Paramus and was being sent to shipping. With any luck, I may get it in November. Since there is a lot of stuff still to come down, it may have a chance of getting loaded into a container sooner. I will get the first box when the ship comes in this time around. I also found out that I will get to go out on the ship for the two week break!

The weather has been nasty tonight. We are in the middle of another snowstorm with winds around 25-35 knots steady. Visibility is only about 500 feet and the snow is drifting all over. Some of the people that have been traveling between the buildings look like snowmen when they come back in!

Since winter started, we’ve been going through what looks like a three pound “coffee-cans” of mixed nuts in the military olive drab color. They have probably been around here for twenty years or so, but are still fresh and go very well with mixed drinks, beer and good conversation.

The other night, a group of us are over at the bar just chatting and drinking. As I’m drinking, I’m looking through the bowl of nuts and not finding any almonds. I’d eaten through the almonds and hazelnuts and dumped a few more nuts from the can, only to discover no almonds at all. Finally, Doc and BJ can hold back no longer and just bust up. They knew my love of almonds and gone through the entire can and removed all the almonds to see my reaction.

But I’m not the only one that has been providing entertainment for the group. Since we’ve settled into the winter-over mode, Ned has gradually evolved into watching like four or five movies, over and over and over. Having discovered Ned’s weakness, BJ has hidden Ned’s movies from him. Oh the humanity! No “Wizard of Oz”, “Godzilla” or “Gamora” among the essential classics Ned has seen week after week into the wee hours of the morning. I don’t know if BJ has slipped them back into the movie collection yet. I think it is still payback for all the pounding on the punching bag Ned did all those weeks that drove BJ and me crazy!

29 September 89

One more week until the Duke gets in. I'm really pushing hard to finish this darned inventory. I am hoping to put in a few extra hours and finish the main inventory during the weekend. I am going to wait to inventory the tools until I get back at the end of October.

I was informed this week that I will go out on the science cruise during the six days out at sea from October 7th until the 13th. Then I will remain on the ship when it leaves for Punta Arenas. Wow, what a vacation! I will still help out when and where they need me, but it will still be a break from the routine at Palmer. I think I will be ready to get back to work after twenty-one days aboard the furthest thing from the Love Boat! It will be a good rest though. So if you have any other pictures to send off, you need to do that soon. The ship is going to be leaving Punta Arenas around the 23rd. You should be able to get a letter through the Chilean post by then.

I had to laugh about your comment from Dad about my decision to stay. It makes me wonder if I'm doing the right thing when he compliments me on a decision I've made!

I still am looking forward to going to Europe when I get back. My German friends have been keeping me up to date with what's going on there too. I'm still writing in German and keeping up on it, so speaking it should come back to me fairly quickly.

As far as the “haps” here; the seals are starting to pup. I haven't gotten out to get any pictures yet, but a bunch went out today and got pictures of a new elephant seal pup. There is also a Weddell seal pup in Hero Inlet not far from the station here.

The weather has been pretty overcast most of the time, but the temps are fairly comfortable and the winds aren't too bad. But then again, comfortable to me is cold for you now. Mom was saying that the temps have already dipped to 35 F. Here that is a heat wave, we're talking T-shirt weather!

I'm going to miss fall again. Fall is my favorite season and now I've missed two. Not only do I miss the leaves turning, but I miss trees, period! They say that after such a long time away, it is like sensory overdrive when you get back up north the P.A. Up there spring should just be starting. I'm looking forward to the trip north.

I'll write you a novel on the ship when I have more time. Say hello to everyone for me and take a break. What would Julie Brown say? "Hey, like chill out and have a mental margarita!"

Miss ya,
Love, Dave