Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Back to Mac Town

This past month has absolutely flown by.  I thought I was ready to go back to town.  I thought hey a nice shower and a comfy bed in a dark room sounds awesome.  I couldn't have been more wrong.

The flight back to town was something that I will absolutely never forget.  Here is the beginning of the flight.  A photo which tears my heart out.  This when the helicopter is leaving the actual continent.

The helicopter pilot told us that there were a bunch of whales around now that parts of the sound had broken up, so we were going to take a little detour on the way back in the hopes of seeing some.  The helicopters are not permitted to fly over open water down here because of the dangers of going down in water, so we had to follow the sea ice edge.  This works out pretty well if you want to see whales because this is where all of the whales, penguins and seals hang out.  When we got to the edge it wasn't more than about a minute of flying along the edge before we first spotted some orcas.  There were about four swimming in a pod.  They were pretty easy to spot because they were swimming near the surface breaching frequently to breathe.  We saw a lot more before we arrived at the channel that the ice breaker had cut.  We began following this channel back to McMurdo.  We spotted a pod of about eight orcas swimming down the channel and the pilot told us to hold on.  He began circling the pod by tilting the helicopter nearly horizontal and flying in tight circles.  We were about 500 ft up, but right above them.  You could see their distinct white markings, and the mist when they exhaled.  They were swimming in a v-formation right down the channel.  It was such an unbelievable sight I wish I could have taken better pictures, but I was on the wrong side of the helicopter.  He circled with the left side facing down at the pod.  He did this same maneuver for a couple more pods of orcas and then we found a couple of minke whales to check out.  This whole time you could see tons of little penguins marching around the ice edge, jumping in, swimming around. This experience was even more enhanced by the effect of living for a month in a desert that is void of any animals.  This helicopter ride was absolutely spectacular, and it certainly lessened the impact of leaving such a special place.

Here is the channel that the icebreaker broke out.  There is a pod of whales down there although you can't make it out in this photo.  You can see the extreme angle the pilot banked the helicopter at, so much fun!

Here is the icebreaker from the helicopter.  Tonight we are going to tour the Palmer Research Vessel which is docked right now.

Right after I landed, I ran into some people that I originally flew down with and they hardly recognized me.  It is probably the beard and sunglasses tan line.  I sat down and grabbed dinner with them and we exchanged stories about how our seasons went.  They are part of the automatic weather station team out of the University of Wisconsin (they are pretty alright for being badgers)  and they had gone to the South Pole station which sounded pretty cool.  They were pretty intrigued by the Dry Valleys and what camp life was like out there.  They laughed and didn't quite believe me when I told them we had better food out there than the galley food in town, even though it is 100% true, especially when Rae is cooking at Lake Hoare.

I finished up and headed to my room to shower.  I was pretty excited to take a shower after having only one sorry excuse for a shower for a whole month.  It felt really great at first, but my mind was elsewhere.  I couldn't stop thinking about how much I already missed Taylor Valley.  That strange landscape had been home to me for about a month and I feel like I was just settling in.  I also really enjoyed the pace of field camp life.  Everything that can be done with the flip of a switch or the turn of a faucet in town takes extra time and consideration at camp.  These weren't difficult chores, just simple things that needed to be done like collecting drinking water from the lake, changing out propane tanks, or changing the gray-water barrels.  Chores would take up some of your free time after working hard all day, but they kept you occupied instead of doing something worthless like sitting on facebook (which I also did plenty of).  

It is hard for me to describe, but I loved the schedule once we got into the swing of things.  We would wake up at 6:30 am and get coffee and breakfast and pack our packs for the day.  Then we would head out and commute to where we were going via boots or helicopter.  We would work outside in the cold all day, then head home have some snacks and warm up.  Then evening chores began while someone cooked dinner.  We would eat dinner, drink beer, and have a little down time before we would pass out from exhaustion at around midnight.  Then do it all again.  It is a simple, but enjoyable lifestyle.  I think the quality of the people I was living with had a huge impact on how great it was too.

Anyways, I finished cleaning up and the shower was nice, but I just wanted to be back at F6.  I went to meet the badgers at the coffeehouse for drinks which was fun.  There was a kiwi KBA pilot sitting with us who was pretty funny.  KBA is a Canadian airline company that is the contractor for the fixed wing aircraft operations down here.  They provide and fly the smaller planes, like twin otters, down here.  I learned that they take a spectacular route home to Calgary every year.  They fly from McMurdo to the south pole, then up the Antarctic Penninsula, across the Drake Passage to the tip of South America.  They then fly up South America following land until they get home.  The route is designed due to the limited distance that the smaller planes can fly before refueling, and the dangers of losing an engine.  He works a lot of smoke jumping operations in Canada during the summers, and was stationed on Lake of the Woods for a summer.  We swapped some walleye fishing stories and both wished we could get some fresh shore lunch down here!  I have met so many people down here with insanely cool jobs.  I really, really want to move to Alaska now.  I hope my family doesn't mind too much.

I have finished up turning in my field gear, and finally have to get down to doing some actual science.  I better get to work.  


  1. It has awesome reading your blogs. You are very lucky to be able to have such an adventure. I think there are even more in-store for you. Everybody at the gig last night has been reading and say hi. Tell the folks hi when you see them in nz. Nyle

  2. I know exactly what you're saying ... If this is in any way hereditary I'd like to apologize to your mom and dad and say ... Field camps of all kinds and types of extremes in all parts of the world rock! and I hope you go to Alaska it's gorgeous :-)

  3. Hey Nyle and Jill. That sounds like a blast! I wish I could have been at the mad cowboys gig. I love playing music with those guys, and if you guys are reading along I hope you rocked the house down. You are right I am really lucky to have had the privilege to come down here on such an amazing adventure. Thanks for reading along, and I'll tell my folks high in NZ for you guys.

  4. Hey Natalie. Haha I think you may be right, it might be slightly hereditary. I think I am going to have to follow your advice and continue exploring, because this was such an awesome experience. Now I want to see what all else is out there. I may have already asked you, but what was your job down here?

  5. I was a lowly janitor ... Of the Crary Lab, among other places. Some of the scientists thought it was funny that an archeologist was working the other end of archeology - the trash that some future archeologist would study :-). I like the job - left a lot of time to explore, and to poke my head in science labs to ask what the scientists were doing (I was fast at cleaning). Loved the weekly science lectures - what you write is true, the support staff then realy feel like they're supporting, helping out with something amazing.

  6. Hope you're catching some fish in NZ!!