Alejo Contreras, the first Chilean explorer to ski to the South Pole, has a beard a foot long (in the shape of an inverted “v”). He was, I believe, the first climber of any nationality to scale the Ellsworth Mountains (a range discovered by Lincoln Ellsworth.) He knew Norman Vaughan, the last surviving member of the first Byrd Antarctic Expedition. If I got the story correctly, Alejo helped Vaughan, then in his 90s, climb the south polar mountain that Admiral Byrd named for Norman. Alejo works in logistics at the nearby Chilean station and considers anyone who comes to Antarctica to be a member of his family. He also dabbles in science. He invited me into a little hilltop hut next door to ours where he’s conducting a solar energy demonstration project. Inside, dozens of heavy-duty batteries were being energized from solar panels outside. “We’re showing the world,” he said, with a crusader’s enthusiasm, “that you can have electricity and power, same like you have now, from the sun!”
In the meantime, Bellingshausen Station is powered by generators running 24/7 in a gray metal building well back of the admin building and the mess hall. That’s also where the showers are. The powerhouse is as warm as it is loud. The shower room is off in a spacious, wood-paneled corner of the building. On one side of an anteroom, you hang up your clothes. On the other side are three washing machines. Two out of three are German machines with instructions in German and far more options than the machines in my neighborhood laundromat. The third has instructions in Spanish. There are no dryers. You hang your clothes on clotheslines overhead.
Passing through an inner door brings you into a square space the size of a New York living room. Here you find one set of faucets over a table on which one of several large pans lying about can be placed for I don’t know what. And to the right, descending from the large ceiling is a shower spout. The water is good and hot, and the facilities are nicely heated courtesy of the droning generators. Off in a corner to the side is a wooden door leading to the sauna. Our group has booked the sauna for Sunday the 24th. I’ve heard rumors about branches to beat one’s self clean during sauna-taking and will probably have more to say about it in a few days.
The generator building doesn’t have a sign on it, but it’s not hard to identify. You just follow the roaring noise.
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I sent off an emergency e-mail to the President of the American Polar Society, a past president, and three ranking APS members to see if any leverage can be exerted on the Department of Agriculture to get Les his soil-entry permit so he can get both his and Ning’s samples into the US. Les is about my height but with a fair complexion and a more solid build. He wears a crew cut and a closely-trimmed beard, and is married and an avid hunter. Both he and Vladmir are close to my age.
“Your idol is Byrd, is he?” Les asked me at dinner the other day. I had devoted much of my lecture on Antarctic history to the Admiral.
“Yep,” I said.
“I have one too,” he admitted. “Chuck Yeager.”
In his pre-earth science past, Les wanted to be an Air Force pilot and had applied to the Air Force academy, but was only an alternate selection. He was delighted when I loaned him my Jimmy Doolittle autobiography.
“Those guys had balls,” he said, contemplating the B-25 on the cover.
Yesterday, he and I and most of the rest of the group traversed the peninsula we’re living on. It started with a guided tour of the mezzanine level of the glacier. The guide was Bulat, the stalwart glaciologist. Bellinghausen, where Bulat returns annually to continue his field studies, is on the east coast of a peninsula down near the bottom of the island’s southwestern limb. The glacier is some two miles north of us. It sits above the peninsula and extends through most of the rest of the island. A series of moraines girds the glacier on what I call the “mezzanine level.” The moraine we were on yesterday swept off to the west like a dark, angular spine. We were right on the crest.
Its texture is soft like clay and studded with pebbles. The minister and the director were along, and I had a hunch this tour was staged in their honor. The area is apparently geological heaven. Much ado was made of fragments of sea shells which can easily be seen mixed in the loam. The moraine is evidence of the movement of the glacier, as heaps of sedimentary trash are dragged along by the retreating ice. Nearby, a stream of melt-water rippled over a hard, black rock formation. It was volcanic, Bulat said, and much discussion followed.
Beyond geology, I was thinking of four words Byrd had written in a 1925 magazine article about his flight that year over part of Ellesmere Island in the High Arctic. “Magnificent, stupendous, terrible awful.” He was describing the topography beneath the lower wing of his open-cockpit biplane. He said that nature had wrought something fierce and astonishing down below. I think I know now what he had seen from the air. The dark vertebrae of the moraine we had climbed extended far to the western horizon. Rock formations glazed with snow—large, jagged, stark—framed the view to the south and southwest. Ahead, another long moraine, this one as flat as an aircraft carrier, ran perpendicularly up from the southwest as if to meet the spine we were standing atop. Over our right shoulder, the mountainous whiteness of the glacier rose to the sky. Nunatuks—islands surrounded on all sides by ice—protruded from the glacier here and there, like the summits of buried peaks. Magnificent, stupendous, terrible, awful. Very well-chosen words.
After leading the group a bit further along this desolate mezzanine, Bulat left us to check his remaining 15 study sites on the glacier. He ascended high into the whiteness, dwindling to a tiny orange figure, a man supremely attuned to one of the most unique geological structures on earth. Irina took over as guide and led the way west and south. Irina is pleasant, short, stocky and blonde, and has a shrill laugh. I gather she is beloved by everyone connected with polar science in Russia. She never once glanced at a GPS handset or a compass, but proceeded unperturbed. Following her, we crossed one melt-off stream after another, along the length of the long, flat moraine that, with respect to the glacier, came perpendicularly up from the south. It reminded me of the Putnam Highland formations I had explored on Baffin Island in the Arctic.
Alternately splashing through the pebbly streams and sinking to the ankles in tundra-like vegetation, we arrived at the west coast of the island where fur seals lazed on the beach under another overcast sky. These animals look like brown mounds with round faces and round eyes. You come upon one unexpectedly because they lie mostly still and seem a part of the landscape. They are placid and unconcerned with the doings of people. We even passed a dreaded leopard seal that paid us no nevermind.
Further south we reached a Russian “station” where Irina had once lived for a few days. It was the size of a small van and was presently occupied by German students who study the seals by day and reside at Bellingshausen by night. Here we found a picnic tables and stopped for lunch—bread, salami and cheese procured from the mess hall.
* * *
Les and Chris found sites along the jagged moraine they want to study. They broached the subject with the station commander last night and received permission this morning to go out there. This augurs well for us. Ning and Jay are with Bulat on the eastern rim of the glacier today, while I’m at Bellingshausen on KP. They expect to select their study sites by tonight. They’ve been testing the $20,000 LI-COR apparatus to determine the ambient—or background—carbon signature. The station commander is an effective, low-key fellow who looks like Humphrey Bogart with a crewcut. He has been super to all of us. If he has no objection, we may be lugging the machine out to the field tomorrow .
* * *
Olga showed us yesterday another short film she made. It was a highly poetic and cinematic documentary about a small Russian expedition to a volcanic island in the tropics. She has made 8 short films and is working her way up to features. She had wanted to film life at a Russian drift station in the Arctic, but the authorities felt that that environment was too confined and therefore unsuitable for a woman. She has a lot of talent and also huge brown eyes and perfect teeth.
Also on last night’s program was a fine lecture by Lindsay on how scientists can best communicate science. She introduced the professors and graduate students in attendance to the art of talking points and other p.r. tips. When question-time rolled around, Vladmir wondered if making more young people aware of science was good for science. Some people, he said, think there are too many scientists already. Others took up the question.
I could see a very large boat here—the Queen Mary—that was being missed. “It’s not surprising,” I said, “that when a senior staff member of a science museum talks about effective communication, a roomful of scientists get into a theoretical discussion about the number of scientists in the world.” Much laughter. “Lindsay,” I continued, “is showing you how to increase your outreach to make your NSF proposals more competitive.” The National Science Foundation will reject a grant proposal if it lacks an education component.
I think that only Hanno Meyer, with whom I discussed fundraising on the hike back from the Uruguayan base, got the point.
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A note on kitchen duty at Bellingshausen: The Russian custom is to thank the cook and the cook’s helper after each meal. Olga, the station commander and everyone else thanked me as they deposited their dishes in the window where I received them to stick them in the dishwasher. A slight difference from KP at Company A, 7th Battalion, 2nd Training Brigade at Fort Jackson, South Carolina.
Wilderness Research Foundation
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