October 28, 2011 – October 29, 2011, Thursday – Friday
Happy Camper is a basic survival course that everyone has to take if they’re going to leave base. I was trying to keep my head held high, but I was definitely nervous. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing and didn’t really know the first thing about staying warm or surviving in this cold or extreme of an environment.
The class starts out with a couple hours in the classroom. We had three instructors and they took turns teaching us different aspects of working and living on the ice, things like learning risk management. We then got shipped out on a Delta which is basically yet another huge snow/ice vehicle where the driver is in one compartment up front and we’re all packed like sardines into a back section with no heat, but at least shelter from the wind. We had to use radios to communicate with the driver (radios are really important here at McMurdo) and clarify that we’re all secure. We drove over the hill onto the other side of the island, past Scott Base (which is the Kiwi station) and onto the sea ice. The Delta stopped at the main road and the instructors hopped onto ski-doos while we had to trek with our ECW gear to the location of the camp. Even though I started out cold by the time we got to camp I was hot and sweaty.
On the trek.
Here’s a big thing I learned – don’t sweat. Whatever you do, do not get wet because it is beyond difficult to try and warm up when you’re wet.
Layers are your best friend, you take them off when you’re more active and put them back on when you’re just sitting around. I didn’t know these tricks before camp. Which is why by the time we reached camp and had sheltered up inside of what looked like a shipping container to learn the rest of our lessons for the day, I was freezing and couldn’t get warm. I had to learn to put on more layers and to adjust. One of the instructors kept saying – if you’re cold DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT. Eating and drinking keeps you warm, putting on more layers keeps you warm, moving around keeps you warm. You can’t afford to be lazy and hope that if you stay still it’ll get better, it won’t. That was really good advice. Oh, and CHOCOLATE IS YOUR BEST FRIEND. Chocolate = energy = warm. Yet another reason to love chocolate.
Eventually we left the container for the last time that day and continued our lessons outside. We learned how to start little finicky camping stoves, make ice blocks, build an ice wall, put up tents, and anchor them in the snow and ice, and how to boil snow (for future reference you can indeed burn snow…you have to have water in the pot to begin with). After helping us get started with all of those tasks, the instructors left on their ski-doos to head back to shelter. They told us this isn’t boot camp and that they were on the radio and could be here in a couple minutes if they were needed. If someone just couldn’t get warm despite following all of the advice given, we could call them and they would come get us. That was such a huge relief I can’t even tell you how much that information meant to me, I thought we were going to be left on the ice with no where to turn and that everyone would be fine except me. I had a vision of me slowly turning blue until finally freezing into a Mee-ya shaped Popsicle.
I somehow took charge of the kitchen with one other guy named Kipp who is a dishwasher here and McMurdo and we boiled water all afternoon. We needed drinking water, we needed boiling water for our dehydrated meals, and we needed warm drinks. Mostly, we loved the warmth the heated water provided. Eventually Rachel, John, and I got bored and we decided to take a recreational “walk”, some people decided to build igloos or their own trench shelters for the night.
Me in front of Mt. Erebus
Our ice wall protecting our line of mountain tents
Me “cooking” dinner for my fellow happy campers!
Rachel and I waddling down the flagged path
John, Rachel, and I were all set up in a Scott’s tent, which is an amazing tent that easily survivse the extremities of Antarctica. Scott’s tents are commonly used in field camps and have been used in the Antarctic for decades. Scott’s tents are amazingly sturdy and can withstand the ridiculous winds of the Antarctic. The wind chill here changes how cold it is outside so drastically that it can make all the difference in how your day in the field goes. The tent is built for two people, but can fit up to four. It was freezing and we were only in Condition 3 weather.
In Antarctica there are three conditions of weather:
Condition 3: Weather is good and you can freely move about town without “checking out” with the station
Condition 2: Weather is a bit concerning, there is no recreational travel and anyone leaving base must check out.
Condition 1: No travel of any kind is authorized, including travel from building to building on station. Which means wherever you are when we go into Condition 1 is where you will stay until the status of the weather changes.
The conditions are based off of wind and visibility. It was beautiful and sunny with virtually no wind all night during our Happy Camper and I was still FROZEN. I could hardly believe it, but the last Happy Camper group before us was stuck in Condition 1 for the entire duration of their camping session! How could they survive in condition 1 while I was freezing my back side off in sunny windless weather? I realized after a couple hours that my sleeping bag would be significantly warmer if I cinched it up, but I slept like a caterpillar with both my fleece liner and the sleeping bag above my head. You wouldn’t have been able to find my face if you tried. I’ve never been someplace so cold that when you wake up in the morning your sleeping bag has a rim of ice/snow collected around the edge from the warmth and condensation you created throughout the night… Of course “night” is a relative term when the sun never goes down and you only slept 4 hours.
At this point it was a little hard for me to understand why people would do this for fun…. Winter camping? Seriously? Then again… by the time I had made it through the night and two days out on the ice… I felt pretty intense, Mee-ya the indestructible. Ok, not quite indestructible, but I felt unbelievably capable. No matter how bad the weather gets here in Antarctica and no matter what situation I’m in, I know that given the right tools I can survive. I wouldn’t be helpless. That is a HUGE realization and honestly even though we learned a lot of skills, I think that may have been the take home message of the course.
Happy Camper Graduation picture!
Halloween McMurdo Style
October 29, 2011 Saturday
McMurdo runs on a schedule of 6 days on and 1 day off. Pretty much the entire station works Monday – Saturday and have Sundays off. Which means, that although Halloween wasn’t technically until Monday McMurdo was going to be partying it up on Saturday night and hung over all of Sunday. Halloween is a big deal here on station. The gym gets all decked out with decorations and everyone has been planning/creating their costumes for days if not weeks. You can buy drinks, dance to the music the wonderful DJ is cuing up, and participate, or at least watch, the costume contest! Jo had told us (more like warned us) that the party was going to be the same night as when we returned from Happy Camper, so I took a nap after we arrived back in town to make it through the night’s festivities. Rachel and I met in Jo and Allyson’s room at 7pm and began to get ready. We were going to be butterflies and the guys on the team were supposed to be butterfly catchers… The guys must not have been too psyched about the idea because they didn’t end up coming to the party. And although I was hesitant at first, I have to admit I thought we looked pretty cute when we were all together.
Halloween was awesome, we danced the night away and I met tens of people and would spend the next week trying to decipher who I met and what they actually looked like in “real life”. Let me tell you, being the new girl on base and meeting everyone at a gigantic Halloween party isn’t the best way to remember faces. Apparently Jo and Allyson have been re-introducing me to people by calling me “pink wings”. People work amazingly hard here and most people that work at McMurdo can’t leave base, so people work hard and play hard here. McMurdo is full of interesting people coming from all walks of life and it leaves you with a pretty epic opportunity to meet really cool people.
Station was pretty quite on Sunday and we took it easy as well. We had Sunday brunch and got to sleep in a bit. I finally got my computer set up for internet and could begin to check emails and start blogging. I had always heard horror stories about the food here. “Freshies” (fresh fruits and vegetables) were something you snuck into your pockets anytime you saw them (which was such a rarity). This year, however, I’ve heard rumors that the chef used to work at the Bellagio in Vegas and graduated from Le Cordon Bleu and that our freshies budget increased by 30 or 50%. Now, this is only what I’ve heard from word of mouth so who knows how much is true, but what I can say with absolute certainty is the the food is awesome. It’s probably the extreme cold, but I find myself thinking about my days via meal times. I am hungry nearly all of the time and I am the kind of person who is really easy to read when it comes to whether I’m hungry or not. If I’ve eaten I’m happy as a clam and when I’m hungry it is a quick exponential drop to doom, gloom, and being unproductive. I’ve found it’s a bit concerning when you walk into the galley (everyone eats in the galley, military, Raytheon employees, and grantees) and you see huge 200+ lb men walking around with heaping plates only to look down upon your own plate and realize it looks exactly the same as theirs…. I better be burning through all of these calories, or by the time I get home I’m going to look like a Weddell seal.
The women of b470
Sea Ice Training
October 31, 2011
Sea ice training was pretty interesting, we learned about the different kind of cracks and how to be able to discern whether a crack is cross able. Being in Antarctica on the ice is like playing a constant game of cross – no cross, bridge – no bridge. Although it is normally very dry in Antarctica, technically it is a desert here, this season we’ve actually had quite a bit of snow. Which means, that when you a approach a new crack it might not even be visible underneath all of the snow. The procedure is to shovel out all of the snow and to drill at different intervals in the ice and measure the depth of the ice. Once you’ve found the safe “edges” of the crack (where the ice is thick enough to be deemed safe), you can measure the distance of the “crack”, or thinnest part of the ice, and know if it is a safe distance to cross or not. Depending what equipment you’re traveling in, you can cross different size cracks. The weather was actually quite bad, it was Condition 2 although many people thought it really looked more like Condition 1. We went out on the ice and drilled, measured, and checked a sea ice crack in the hurling wind and bone chilling cold. I was surprised by how well our ECW gear worked. There wasn’t that much of a difference in terms of how cold I felt in the Condition 2 weather as I did when we were at Happy Camper in Condition 1 with minimal wind and lots of sunshine. I found this realization uplifting. Knowing that your gear really works and really does keep you insulated from the elements is a fantastic thing. One thing you want to be able to depend on, other than your team, is your gear.
November 3, 2011 Thursday
The last couple of days have been a mad scramble. Jo and Allyson have been going out every day, weather permitting, in attempt to collect enough FLIR (Infrared) images. We need photos of at least five recently hauled out animals before we can start deploying instruments on the seals. The infrared images allow us to see the “cold spots” and “hot spots” on the seals and that tells us where the ideal location for the heat flux sensors would be. No one has really taken a wide range of FLIR images on Weddell seals before and we don’t know if the hot spots are a consistent factor that doesn’t change, or if hot spots and cold spots move/change over time. Roger and Markus are busy completing the finishing touches on the tags as well as working on “the onion”. The onion is the name of our tent that we will be using in the field. Having a tent in the field that we can put up around the seal while we are working helps us stay out of the elements and really focus on working on the animal. Plus it warms up a bit in the sun which is a really nice feature when dexterity is something you constantly have to fight for. The tent is really quite impressive, we can literally erect the tent in about 2 minutes, 5 minutes if you include the time it takes to screw in the ice screws. John has been helping everyone finish they’re tasks, as well as creating data logging sheets for the project. He is in charge of data management , amongst several other things, which means coming up with the most efficient and organized ways of storing and sorting our data. Data sheets are physical work sheets that we will fill out in the field; every time we touch a seal, we fill out a data sheet which will later help us remember exactly what we did while working on an animal. Rachel is preparing for field work, putting together all of the medical supplies that she will need including an emergency kit.
Jo on the Piston Bully (also known as a “PB”)
Jo taking FLIR (infrared images) of recently hauled out Weddell seals
A mother and her pup
I have been extremely busy trying to stay on top of all of my tasks. I have been frantically trying to get caught up on posts for Hailing Frozen Thoughts, I have quite a bit of updating that I need to do for publicity on the project (updating PEARL’s facebook page and notifying different departments, especially the Marine Mammal Institute on how the first week has gone), as well as prepare everything I need to do for photogrammetry. Although photogrammetry was NOT something that was originally written into the description of my internship position it is something that has kind of fallen into my lap as a great opportunity. Basically , photogrammetry has become my contribution to the team. It has become my “project”. As an undergraduate honors college student at OSU we need to complete an undergraduate thesis and I asked Markus earlier this summer if he’d be willing to be my mentor for a project. We’re going to sit down and finalize the objectives and details this week, but basically my thesis will be surrounded around photogrammetry and specifically with the data we will be collecting this season. The hope is that my thesis will be a scientific paper that I get published! It’s all theoretical at this point, but I’m pretty excited about the prospect. A huge reason as to why I loved the idea of working on this project, was because of how small the team is. On a team of only seven people, me being the only student, I knew I would have to be somewhat integral to the project – at least for the season anyway. Now, however, I feel like I am getting the opportunity to play an even larger role and take on a larger part of the project as my own. I will eventually be making 3D models for seals we work on and with the model I will be able to calculate body volume as well as surface area. Both volume and surface area will be integral when Allyson is creating the energetic models in year three (the final year) of the project.
Which means I have been busy putting the final settings on all the equipment and cameras to ensure that when we go out in the field (hopefully Saturday), the photogrammetry part of the deployment will run smoothly. We do have a little bit of wiggle room in that, I will be coming home every night and taking a look at the photos we took that day and running them through the program in a very basic way just to ensure the photos are usable. If they aren’t, we can take photos of the seal again on recapture when we find the seals and remove the equipment we placed on them (roughly a week or so after deployment). John and Rachel have both been helping me a out quite a bit with my work load and I don’t know what state of mind I would be in right now if I hadn’t had they’re help yesterday.
Skidoo training was absolutely fantastic! It was by far the most interesting training we’ve had thus far and definitely the least painful. I couldn’t really start the skidoo, which was a small problem. I stood there for several minutes with Toby (the instructor and lead skidoo mechanic) trying to figure out how to pull the rope crank hard enough to start the engine. He was able to do it in a second, but I’m also not a big burly skidoo man. Eventually I did start the engine, but it had lost it’s allure at that point. After an hour of classroom, we were ready to go out on a skidoo obstacle course, and after I finally was able to pull start my skidoo I was riding it. It was SO much fun! Going around sharp turns on a skidoo is actually quite difficult, especially if you’re not in very good shape (ahem… ) and you’ve gone through this slalom type course about three times. In order to turn on a skidoo you also have to put your weight into the turn. You don’t lean into the turn like with a motorcyle, but rather shift your weight from the right or left side of the skiidoo to help with momentum. Basically on some turns I would probably have to hang off one side of the skiidoo in order to make it. Luckily, there aren’t a whole lot of turns, stops, trees, or obstacles in Antarctica. For the most part I am probably home free.