Monday, February 13, 2012

From the Ice to the Earth

After one hundred and sixty-eight days, nearly six month, I have departed the Ice for the living land to the north.  As I write this, I sit at a window seat on a New Zealand Air Force Boeng 757.  My little GPS tells me we’re currently flying at 538 mph, altitude 33,500 feet, heading 004° True, and after just over two hours of flying more than 1,000 miles from McMurdo.  As excited as I have been to have managed to draw a window seat, I’ve been disappointed to have an overcast sky shielding the continent and its waters from me for almost the entire flight.  I was hoping to scout the sea route for future expeditions of maybe someday living the dream of actually sailing myself to the Antarctic.  But alas, the continent is a harsh one and so is its weather. 

So instead of staring out the window, planning how I am going to someday navigate my ship through the pack ice like Shackleton and Amundsen, among others, I think about the last six months and the continent we leave to our stern. 

I sit on the plane and look up from the computer and see over a hundred heads, mostly contract workers, having come down to the ice for 4 to six months, some perhaps maybe even a year.  Now we all head home (or at least north) to friends and families, to other jobs, to travel - our wandering lives having come together for a number of months in a frozen land.  We also head to warmer temperatures, trees and plants, rain, night and the starry sky... dogs and kids, flowers and an unfrozen oceans and lakes.  One, including those sitting near me, might ask, why leave these middle latitudes of warmth and wonderful living things…

So I say, the Antarctic (and I assume Arctic as well) is a fantastic place.  The mountains, the frozen sea, the Minke and Orca whales that have been abundant in the turning basin of the fuel and cargo ships, the pleasure of being in a place that humans aren’t really mean to be, the strange feeling of seeing the sun rotate around the sky in an almost perfect circle at the South Pole, to stand in one exact spot on the Earth where all directions lead north…to stand on the rim of the southern most active volcano in the world and look down into it’s molten lava lake 1000 feet below…and to look upon the continent and see it almost exactly as did Shackleton, Scott, and Amundsen 100 years before.  

And then there is there is the community and the stations.  How fun to have set up a pickle ball league in Antarctica, to have some of the most fun indoor soccer I’ve ever played, to share American Sign Language through a weekly class.  How amazing to  have been one of two renewable energy stewards of the such amazing places.  Such stunning helicopter flights to such places that make me think I’m on the planet Mars!  In many ways I’ve felt like I’ve been on another planet, gone for more than just a trip to the moon, but a trip to a planet.  Things are different at home.  The season has changed, my brother now has a child, lives have changed and grown in my absence – and as I change each time I am here having learned, having been challenged, and having shared the wonder of wind and solar energy that’s all around us.  There were many times this season that I was up on a tower or landing the final wires into a solar panel, in a cold wind or bright sunshine, on the flank of a beautiful volcano or near the bottom of a stunning valley lake that I shook my head and laughed out loud, thinking, I can’t believe I am getting paid for this!

Word seemed to spread quickly through conversations with friends and my Facebook post that I was working on and had finished and submitted my application to NASA in hopes of becoming an astronaut.  I think some of my friends think I’ve already been selected despite my telling them of the slim likelihood of me beating out the other qualified applicants.  But it is wonderful to have such support on the ice as I do at home.  Thank you to all that root for me! 

And now I wonder how similar or different I would feel after six months on the space station…it is interesting to contemplate.  Instead of 4 months of daylight there would be only 45 minutes between the sunrise and sunset.  Crazy to think about.  Whether coming home from ice or from orbit I look forward to the first inrush into my nostrils of air filled with the smell of living plants and to the sound of birds in the air and the trees, and to the feel of grass beneath my feet, to the sound of the wind through a trees leaves, and to the feeling of the ocean all around me. 

I now set off to the North Island of New Zealand for a few weeks of surfing.  I was unable to rent the station wagon I wanted but for $2 more per day they have a 8-person “people mover” van for me.  It might just be perfect.  Party wagon!    for me and my surfboard, to whom I’ll probably do a lot of talking to.  I very much look forward to being in the water and to having the sun on more of my body than my nose and cheeks as well as the thin line above my glacier glasses and below my hat. 

I sit now in my seat, still mostly overcast skies below having traveled 500 miles in the time it’s taken me to write this.  The ECW clothing has been taken off and I sit in my Sunday or after work clothes of  my sailor jeans, a state radio t-shirt, and the green hoody that I’ve been wearing since high school (I’m sure many of you can picture it exactly) with a shaved face and head…wondering if maybe I’ll surf a little better if I have the look of surfer Kelly Slater. 

An hour and a half untill New Zealand; the clouds have opened up to reveal the desert ocean below.  New chapters to begin, new adventures to have.  Life is good.

My favorite passage that I read this season, from Shackleton’s Forgotten Men by Lennard Bickel: (The scene takes place about 10 miles from where I spent the last not-so-harrowing six months.)

“…Joyce went to the high window, stood on a box, peered through the glass, and suddenly yelled, ‘Ship ho!’  The hut broke into pandemonium.  Men were laughing, shouting, shaking hands, and then came the headlong rush to collect the few possessions each would carry away from those two harrowing years in the Antarctic.” 

I feel like I can picture it exactly and take great joy in imagining the excited pandemonium.

 And some of my favorites from the season: