On the Ice With Education Week, Page 5

By David J. Hoff — January 18, 2001 7 min read
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Assistant Editor David J. Hoff and Photo Editor Allison Shelley are filing periodic travel dispatches from Antarctica, where they are on assignment covering a National Science Foundation program for teachers. In this entry, Mr. Hoff gets a taste—well almost—of life in the Antarctic “Dry Valleys.”

Jump to January 18

Lake Hoare, Antarctica (Jan. 16)—In a shack the size of a mobile home, I’m watching a woman cook Thai food.

The scientists I traveled with for the day have dispersed around the grounds of this camp in the Taylor Valley, one of the Dry Valleys that are the focus of a long-term ecological study here in Antarctica. Some scientists are in the makeshift laboratory that, from the outside, looks like an outdoor freezer at an ice cream parlor where I once worked. A couple of others are testing the equipment they want to use in a soil experiment they’ve designed. One just boarded a helicopter that will take her to the top of an adjacent glacier. She’ll take some snow samples and hike down for a late dinner and an overnight in the surrounding city of tents.

I sit at the table, jotting down notes from the day. But mostly, I’m watching Rae, the camp manager, as she makes a peanut sauce, sautés vegetables, and defrosts shrimp. My mouth waters as I write.

Rae and others like her pave the way for much of the scientific work that goes on here. As she cooks, she wears a radio in a harness across her chest. She listens for bulletins from the helicopter pilot who is on his way to pick me up. She talks to scientists who announce they’re done for the day and will begin a two-hour hike back to camp. She halts her cooking to show one of her guests the empty tent on the grounds that he can claim.

The author pitches in to help the research team as the Matterhorn and Suess Glacier loom behind.
—Allison Shelley

I’ve just concluded what will probably be my last day in the wilderness of Antarctica. The helicopter will take my colleague Allison Shelley and me back to McMurdo Research Station in about 30 minutes. In two days, we fly back to Christchurch, New Zealand, and eventually, home.

We’ve had a rather typical day on this continent. The schedule has been in flux since we woke up. Although we had been scheduled for an 11:45 a.m. helicopter ride, we get word at 8:30 that we’ve been moved ahead to 10:15 a.m. We get to the helicopter terminal on time, but have to wait. Visibility is too limited. We finally take off around 11:15.

Once in the valleys, we unload cargo dropped at the site that includes the parts and tools needed to repair soil plots that have weathered over the winter. Then we chip away at a lot of the projects the research team is undertaking to understand how microscopic worms survive in an environment that may be the harshest in the world.

I tramp around the valley with a researcher to collect wind-blown soil in Bundt-cakepans. In a similar setup lower in the valley, this research team found that the silt blown in the heavy winter winds contained two dead worms. It verifies a hypothesis that one of the worms’ survival instincts is to rely on breezes to take them to habitable soil.

The remains of a misguided seal decorate the valley floor near Lake Hoare many kilometers from its natural habitat.
—Allison Shelley

As we walk from station to station, we find the skeleton of a seal that wandered up from the valley from the Ross Sea and died there hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago. The intense winds in the valley have blown away the skin and blubber, leaving only the bones, still set perfectly in place, and a thin layer of blubber lying underneath them. Sandy soil has started to pile inside the body’s cavity. I take a few minutes to examine the seal and then to study the glacier in the background.

When the work is done, the group traverses the ice of Lake Hoare on its way to camp. I ride on the back of an all-terrain vehicle driven by one of the scientists. The others walk because they brought along cleats they attach to the bottom of their shoes to give them a grip on the ice.

Everything about the day typifies life in Antarctica: the wait, the well-planned experiment, the shock of seeing something I’ll never see anywhere else.

Detail from the Canada Glacier in the Taylor Valley.
—Allison Shelley

But once Rae starts cooking, my sense of order is upside down. Since I’ve been here, I’ve had all my meals at a cafeteria or from a camp stove. I haven’t had the sensory experience of watching someone cook in three weeks. She thumps the knife against the cutting board to chop garlic and ginger. She drops the vegetables into a cast-iron pan, and they sizzle when they hit the hot oil. So many sounds and smells of home.

With every moment, I begin to hope the helicopter won’t arrive anytime soon. Maybe the fog will return before dinner so we can have some of this fresh Thai food. It’s no wonder scientists want to escape McMurdo.

No such luck. The helicopter pilot is talking on the radio. He’ll be landing to pick us up in three minutes. It’s time to pack our bags and put on our parkas. We’ll be making it back to McMurdo for dinner—cafeteria-style.

Christchurch, New Zealand (Jan. 18)—“Just throw it all in a pile on top of the red parka,” the man at the Clothing Distribution Center says.

He’s here to collect the cold-winter clothing I’ve worn for my two-week stay in Antarctica. I’ve already changed out of the long underwear, fleece clothes, and huge rubber boots that I wore on the eight-hour flight from McMurdo.

I drop all the other clothing on the parka, and then unload from two orange bags the spare mittens, hats, and underwear—much of which I never wore.

“I’ve lost one pair of gloves,” I tell him.

“No worries, mate. Just sign here.”

I leave the center, wearing jeans and my own fleece sweater. As I wait for a shuttle into town, I realize I’m overdressed. I peel off my sweater. It’s summer here.

The view upon arrival in Christchurch. At least the propeller is working this time.
—Allison Shelley

Just this morning, I rode in a mammoth passenger bus along with the other 40 passengers leaving the Antarctic continent. As the bus drove to the sea-ice airfield, I looked out across a white plain at Mount Erebus and Mount Terror one last time. They still look like foothills to me, no bigger than the Appalachian Mountains, a couple hours’ drive from my home. I know from studying maps that Erebus and Terror are 30 or more miles away and a couple of miles high. As we drove past, I studied them, still not believing they’re as distant or as big as they appear.

-- Stepping off of the bus in 70 degree weather wearing our cold weather issue clothing.
—Allison Shelley

We climb aboard the plane and settle into our seats. After takeoff, I peek out the porthole window to see the mountains and the sea ice one last time. They look as majestic as they did two weeks ago when we arrived, but now they feel commonplace. It’s like living in Washington for 12 years. After you’ve been there for a while, the White House and the Capitol don’t inspire much awe anymore.

The flight is unremarkable. I read a book. I nap. I think about things unrelated to Antarctica.

After the plane lands and approaches its parking spot, I look out the window of the emergency-exit door. As we pass the plane hangar, I see the letters starting to scroll across the window. U-N-I-T. I know the sign spells out “UNITED STATES ANTARC-TIC PROGRAM.” When the plane stops, all I see is “ARCTIC.”

Funny, I think, is that irony or foreshadowing?

Mass chaos ensued at the Clothing Distribution Center with a planeload of arrivals returning their cold weather issue gear.
—Allison Shelley

After we clear Customs, we walk the two blocks to the clothing center. I feel out of place and out of time, wearing these winter clothes in this summer climate. A Danish tourist stops us to ask where we’ve been and what we’ve been doing there.

As I approach a flower bed, I pick up the scents from 20 feet away. Deprived of greenery in Antarctica, I feel as if I’m smelling a flower for the first time.

After we return our clothes, my colleague Allison Shelley and I agree that we’ll meet the two journalists with whom we’ve shared this journey at a sidewalk cafe for dinner.

Allison and I arrive first, and Lee Hotz, of the Los Angeles Times, and Ernie Mastroianni, of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, wander in. We are freshly showered and wearing clean clothes.

We talk of our trip. What we did. What we didn’t do. How odd it is that we haven’t seen darkness for two weeks.

“I never thought I’d go to Antarctica,” I tell them. I recall an evening when I left an igloo at the site where we learned outdoor-survival skills. In the two hours I had been inside the shelter talking to other campers, clouds had disappeared, and the sun shined the brightest I had ever seen.

View from the Heritage Hotel: our first dark night in over two weeks.
—Allison Shelley

“I’d take 10 steps, stop, look around, and say: ‘I can’t believe I’m in Antarctica.’ I did that for about 20 minutes.”

As we eat, the sun starts to set. We notice the twilight covering the sky and periodically discuss whether we’re in dusk or darkness.

We return to our conversation about the amazing, beautiful, and unbelievable place we’ve visited.

“Look, a star,” Lee says. It’s dark now, we all agree.

Our Antarctic expedition is over.

Photography made possible through a generous donation of digital equipment from the Eastman Kodak Company (


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