Mysteries of the Sauna

January 25, 2010  |   Antarctic Peninsula Project, Blog   |   admin  |   0 Comment

Les Werner has made e-mail contact with a woman at the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  She, in turn, referred him to a USDA bureaucrat one level up.  The soil import permit drama continues, with Les vowing to e-mail APHIS everyday, if necessary.  Theoretically, the samples could be mailed to the U.S. from Punta Arenas.  But, in addition to the permit, mailing labels first have to be received from USDA and placed on the package containing the samples.  Our back-up plan is for Edgar, the English-speaking manager of Hostal Bustamente, to take charge of the samples and the mailing if the labels fail to arrive before Les leaves Punta Arenas on the 29th, the day most of us are scheduled to board our departing flights for home.

One day, I may write a polar thriller having to do with missing samples.  I hope it will be only fiction.  Meanwhile, the storm that blew in Saturday night blew the overcast out to sea.  Sunday was a cloudless day of sunshine and the first blue skies we had seen in the Antarctic.  We were told that multiple flights from Punta Arenas and back would be made that day to take advantage of the weather.  Our instructions were to pack and be ready to move out at 2 PM.  Sunday was also sauna day at Bellingshausen station, and a block of hours had been cleared on the schedule for our group to take advantage of the facilities.  We divided into small groups, and Ning and I went at 11 to the generator building to take our turn.

I realized that the pans I had seen lying about the shower room played a role in sauna-taking.  You fill a pan with cool water and take it into the sauna with you.  The sauna occupies a small, wood-paneled space off the shower room.  The heat was so scalding in there you needed to place a towel under you to sit on the benches.  Sweat runs off you as if you were all faucets.  My ears started to burn.  My nostrils burned.  I felt like the jungle explorer in the cannibals’ pot.  The trick, however, is to pick up a ladle and splosh cool water on you from the pan you’ve filled and brought in with you.  That makes it almost bearable.

Now, in the shower room are branches of a deciduous bush with a fragrant aroma.  The branches are tied together and form a rough-and-ready sort of paddle with which you beat the dirt off of you.  In the Russian orthodox version of things, someone else beats the dirt off of you.  But as there were no Russians present to whack us, we each self-administered the lash.  Vladmir later told me that the branches were too leafy for a true sauna-beating.  I can only imagine the sting of an authentic Russian “sponge-bath.”

The final act of sauna-taking involves jumping into a small, rectangular pool of water which is right outside a side door of the generator building.  The sauna cooks your skin to the point where the ritual can be performed without risk of pneumonia.

Meanwhile, a plane had arrived.  Our hut overlooks the dirt strip about a half mile from Bellingshausen station.  We had watched a Chilean C-130 land and depart.  Next we heard we would fly out when the Hercules returned.  The departure time was said to be 4 PM.  Later, we were told to be ready by 5:30.  The strip is illuminated with ground lights when a landing is imminent.  Some of us kept a watch on the strip, waiting for the lights to go on.  Eventually, they did.

Bulat, the glaciologist, helped us lug our bags down from our orange hut on the hill.  The station commander helped Ning find the hiking boots he thought he had lost, but which were lying in the vestibule of the mess building all the time.  Both Bulat and the station commander accompanied us to the airfield.  Hanno and Francisco, who will ultimately travel from King George Island to the Antarctic Peninsula to take ice cores, came to say goodbye and piled with us into the vehicles that drove us to the landing field.  Olga waved from the back of someone’s ATV as our caravan wound by over the gravel and mud.  A large number of Korean scientists were also flying out on our plane, and the commander of the Korean station was on hand to see them off.  He greeted us warmly when we entered the small waiting room decorated with photos of Chilean Antarctic expeditions.

Meeting good people from around the world and making friends was one of the highlights of the trip for me.  In fact, our flyout forced us to cancel a visit to Great Wall, the Chinese station on King George.  I will conclude these notes by listing some other personal highlights:

1.  Standing at the foot (and sometimes on the knees) of the starkest polar landforms and iceforms I have yet seen.

2.  Providing, on one occasion, an effective solution to a minor field problem.

While Ning was investigating the eastern moraine, looking for signs of carbon, he unknowingly strayed across a frozen pond and went through the ice.  He was in it up to his thighs and was having difficulty extricating himself.  I called Jay over, planted him on a firm spot, held out my left hand for him to grab, inched closer to Ning and stretched out my right hand.  We had him out of there with one yank.  I wonder though how effective I would have been had a dinosaur showed up.

3.  Something Bulat told me.

After Bulat gave a summer school lecture on his glacial studies, I asked him in a private conversation what, beyond the science, he feels and reflects on when he is alone up on the icecap.  He has limited English.  But this is what he told me.  “White,” he said, looking to one side.  “White,” he repeated, looking to the other side.  “White,” he said, turning half around.  “Boundless.  Especially when fog.”  Then he paused a moment and added, “Complete freedom.”

I knew what he meant.  Roald Amundsen would have said the same thing.

Sheldon Bart
Wilderness Research Foundation
© 2010

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