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July 19, 2003


We made it out. We left Kanger in the morning, and arrived up at Summit a bit before noon. The folks at the camp had already been informed that Bjorn and I were hoping to hit the ground running, and took care to get us set up first with tents out in tent village and with staging space in the Green House, a green building used by visiting scientists. Bjorn and I organized the GPS equipment, getting some of it ready for the afternoon, and went in for lunch.

[The Big House. Photo: Bjorn.]

The main living area up at Summit is called the Big House, and is plush. “I was looking for a pee flag,” Bjorn said, coming in from the Green House (usually the outhouses are for pooping and peeing is done at a flag staked into the ground nearby), “and then I saw the shower…” Showers, flush toilets, wireless internet. This place is deluxe. A kitchen for cooking, another sinked space for washing dishes, a bathroom. A big living area, with tables for eating and working on one side and on the other several couches arranged to face a TV next to a wall with shelves full of movies. A comms room, with the radio and some supplies. And nice people to boot.

And the food……

Well, it’s all about Kim.

After lunch, Bjorn and I set out, along with Meg and Sandy, to survey camp.

[Bjorn has some trouble getting ready. Photo: me.]

Sandy is science-tech/medic/whatever-extraordinaire, and Meg is the incoming science-tech who will be on the first winter shift. That is, she’s there from now until November. We split into two teams, the idea being that Bjorn and I would survey while Sandy and Meg served as guides, since they know the camp, and took notes. It worked pretty well. By dinner time, we’d surveyed almost everything.

[Bjorn. Photo: Sandy.]

[Me as an alien with a lovely Swiss woman whose name I can’t remember. (It was a hard one.) Photo: Bjorn.]

[Sometimes, it’s lonely out there. Sandy? Photo: Bjorn.]

We stopped to enjoy a good family dinner with amazing food (grilled halibut, some flaky Greek sort of thing, pasta salad with sundried tomatoes, etc. etc., with very rich coffee-flavored cake to top it off), and I was reminded of how good, fun people get into these programs. I’m stoked to go back to Antarctica.

After dinner, Bjorn and I surveyed a few last structures in camp and then headed out to the runway. Ah-yeah. We each had our yellow Trimble backpacks, each a skidoo, and we surveyed the three-mile ski-way (longest ski-way in the world) leap-frogging from one set of flags to the next. Now I park alongside the set of three flags and take a 15-second recording, and Bjorn buzzes past at top-speed to the next set; now I rev the engine and cruise on past Bjorn, each of us racing in some way, trying to get ahead, held back only when we have to take notes to mark special flags—these flags are labeled 2, these flags are red instead of black and probably mark the middle of the ski-way—which in some ways is good, because then the next run you get to cruise three flags ahead instead of two, gathering more speed, going farther, zipping that much faster past your partner.

When we finished the runway survey, grinning, we turned away from camp and towards the sun. And cruised, high speed, into nothing.

[Me heading into nothing. Photo: Bjorn.]

Nothing, and everything, white forever towards that sun. Earlier, when Sandy and I had been out to survey the approach flags, the wind was stronger, the visibility poorer. The ground was white and shiny, the sky white and flat, the two merging somewhere undefined, shiny to flat somewhere indistinguishable inbetween, no horizon, just white.

[Bjorn. Photo: me.]

[Me. Photo: Bjorn.]

We got back to camp well after 10 PM. We downloaded the data from our survey controllers onto my computer, and we did a preliminary run of data processing just to make sure our data was good. It was. Is. Looks good, anyway. We were done.

We got back in the Big House around 11:30 PM. A plane had just come in, a Hurc that we had briefly considered leaving on, if it looked like the weather the next day was going to be bad. You don’t want to leave tonight, Billy said at dinner. You’re right, I said. I don’t. I wanted to spend at least one night up there at Summit, and ideally have some time to relax and enjoy the place. When it became apparent that they would have to get a plane in the next day, and that the weather looked fine for it, the call to stay was easy.

Some of the camp staff was still busy offloading the plane, and organizing the newly-arrived goods. Fresh food, new supplies. After the offload, we sat around and chatted, chilling out at the end of the day—now past midnight.

I slept like an all-star. I slept in my clothes, in the puffy sleeping bag they had issued me, in the bright yellow Arctic oven. I slept warm, and I slept hard. I surfaced at around 9.

[Tent city. Photo: Bjorn.]

The morning was pretty relaxed. Bjorn wanted to try out the wireless internet connection in the Big House, and we sat for a while on one of the couches playing on our computers. At almost noon, Cathy, the camp manager, told us the Hurc had taken off from Kanger. We finished readying our equipment in the Green House and came back in for lunch. Grilled cheese and tuna, with plenty of sides.

The plane would not arrive until 2 or so, and would need at least 30-45 minutes for offloading before they were ready for us, so there was no hurry. Sparky took us on his 50-cent tour, which for us consisted of a trip down into the science trench. There is a wooden shaft, with wood stairs, leading down into a wooden room within the snow. The purpose is to allow for clean snow and gas sampling in a space protected from the influence of pollutants coming from camp and from the planes.

Shortly after, it was time to get on the plane. This time, there were three passengers—Bjorn and me, and a man from Kanger who came up to set up an HF radio. Once again, tons of space on the plane. But once again, I didn’t need it.

As I boarded, the military man who boarded right behind me asked, “Do I know you? You look familiar.” Yeah, whatever, buddy. We’d all come up for the same flight week, so I figured he had probably just seen me on the way down and forgotten already. I said this, but a little nicer. “Maybe you can ride up in the cockpit. Have you ridden up there before?” Women are very commonly asked to ride up in the cockpit. As Bjorn pointed out, the male-female ratio of scientists and contracters is often close to 1:1 or, probably more reasonably, 2:1, but there are far more men than women in the military groups. Women get preferential treatment. I felt a bit guilty about this until both Bjorn and Sparky said, “Work it. Oh, yeah, take full advantage.” So I replied to this man, “Yes, but never on this flight—just from Raven.” “Well, we’ll see if we can get you up there,” he said.

Within 5 minutes, I was up in the cockpit. Sorry Bjorn and other guy.

When you sit up front, you get to wear radio headphones and listen in to the flight banter. Going through checks and, more interestingly, talking about the flight. In this case, we had a strong crosswind, and the pilot and copilot were talking about take-off strategies. If they couldn’t get it in three attempts, they’d use jado, the rocket-assisted take-off. I was stoked. Bjorn says it’s really cool—there you are taxi-ing the runway, and then the nose lifts, and then—Zing!—you’re trying not to tumble towards the back of the plane. They use the rocket-assisted take-offs when the snow on the runway is soft, and they have a hard time lifting off. But, the plane got up on the second attempt.

The man who had brought me up front turned out to be the colonel. He was still trying to figure out why I looked familiar. Have you been to Antarctica? he asked. Yes, last season, I said. When? he asked, and nodded when I told him the dates. Yes, he said, that might be it…. Were you in Crary? Crary is the name of the science building. Yes, I said, and he said, Did you give a tour? You had pictures of…. Ah, yes, and then it clicks for me, too. Erebus, I said, and he said, Yes! He had been a very interested member of a military group who had been brought through on a tour, where I was asked to give a spiel on the Erebus project. He wasn’t just using a line after all.

He chatted me up for much of the flight, some of which—the longest spiel, of course—I couldn’t understand at all through my earplugs and the headset and over the noise of the plane. His breath smelled of coffee. I smiled and nodded. He offered the crew coffee which had been sent along by Kim, and when he turned to get it he bent in such a way that he was practically sitting in my lap, his butt up against my leg. “Pardon my butt,” he turned and said. Smile and nod, smile and nod.

Close to the ice edge, I got up and stood up against the window on the side of the cockpit, watching the ice turn to wrinkles and then drool off between the low ridges in fat tongues. We flew low, and when I thought to look for musk ox I saw two immediately. We flew out past the runway, and then banked to turn and approach it from the other side, and only then did they ask me to sit. Another glorious flight.

We got in just early enough to borrow a truck, go to a couple stores up by the airport to find everything chincy and overpriced, and make it do dinner within the last minutes of serving. Mystery meat stroganoff. After dinner, we changed to shorts and t-shirts—so balmy in Kanger! So warm!—and headed off walking to a barbeque Robin, one of the VECO folks, told us might be interesting to check out. The barbeque was being thrown for a commercial flight full of people who had gotten stuck due to mechanical failure of the plane, and we heard rumors of whale meat. We can’t confirm whether the rumors are true, or even if the barbeque had anything to do with Greenlandic culture, because once we made it the two km over there we got intimidated and just turned to walk back. We expected a large, mingling party, and what we found was a small group of people seated, not really the sort of thing you can just wander into unnoticed.

We learned while walking back that we were a little overzealous when we donned the shorts and tees. The sun had sunk a bit lower in the sky, just behind a ridge, and walking in the shade above the Arctic circle is cold.

We still had enough energy, so long as we didn’t sit down or otherwise stop moving, to go have a beer in the Roost with the military folks. We ended up there a little longer than anticipated, talking mostly with Mike, a New York (born and raised) reporter who lives outside Schenectady. He’s never been west of the Mississippi. Except Kansas City, he was in Kansas City once. Why go west? he said. What?? Bjorn and I said. Mostly me. We listed reasons to go, like open space and mountains. And besides, Kansas City is hardly the west, I said. St. Louis was the gateway to the west, he said, and Kansas City is west of that. Oh, these outdated east coast notions. Look on a map, I said. He mentioned skinheads and Nazis and cannibalism. I may have pointed out that he wouldn’t be going west AND traveling through time (regarding the cannibalism—and besides, they were survival situations, not cultural), just going west. And the skinheads are easy to avoid.

The evening came to an end when we were walking out and both got caught up in last conversations. Bjorn got the nice, good-natured, funny photographer, Jim, and I got three young drunk military guys trying to convince me to stay out with them and then go to the Klubben (dance club). Come on, said one, it’s a once in a time life opportunity. You seem like the type of person that likes to go out, experience life, meet people and make friends, said another. I hope you come out with us, but it’s your decision.

Bjorn and I headed back to our dorm rooms.

The rest of the story is uneventful. On Saturday morning, we woke at 6:15, breakfasted, packed in for a full flight, got out around 8 as planned, almost all slept a good portion of the 6-hour flight, and landed back in New York. We got a taxi to the airport, had a couple hours to kill in Albany in which we ate a decent meal (although I did have a chicken sandwich with the most ridiculously small piece of chicken I’ve ever seen), flew to Chicago, waited, flew to Denver, waited, bussed to Boulder, were picked up by Jocelyn, Bjorn’s wife, and I was dropped off here at Ico and Aga’s, where I’m housesitting, around 11:30 PM. That’s 3:30 AM Greenland time, adding up to a 19 1/2-hour travel day. Exhausting. I saw signs of Ico and Aga, thinking maybe they were still actually in town, so rather than going directly to their bed I lie on the floor, just to rest and figure out where to go next, and awoke sometime around 1:30 AM and transplanted myself to bed. I’m still exhausted.

What a rockstar trip. I loved it. It was beautiful, I met some great people, I saw some cool stuff. Not at all a bad thing to get paid to do.

Posted by beth at July 19, 2003 2:51 PM


so the older part of the ice cap suffers from the same side affects that people experience - wrinkles and droll. loved the cleverness of that sentence!

Posted by: wilma, mother of beth at August 1, 2003 9:36 AM