Living at the other end of the earth

Alaskans at home in Antarctica

Posted: Sunday, February 04, 2001

Looking across the frozen Antarctic landscape, Lee Parker sometimes sees her Alaska home.

Shadows on the ridges of sea ice create the mirage of waves and Parker easily imagines she is looking across Lynn Canal at the Chilkat Mountains, instead of across the Ross Sea at the Royal Society Mountain Range.

"It feels comfortable," said Parker, who has lived in Juneau more than 20 years and in northern Alaska before that. "I felt at home right away."

Parker is one of 62 Alaskans working as support staff in Antarctica through the southern summer. Only Colorado and Washington state have more people in Antarctica, but when you consider population, Alaska has them beat. About one out of every 10,000 Alaskans escaped the dark, if not the cold, by working in the deep South this season.

Some come for the money. Jeff Day has saved enough working as a laborer at the South Pole to take the summer off and kayak the entire Inside Passage. Saving for a long trip like that would be hard to do while paying rent on his substitute teacher's salary in Juneau.

The seasonal nature of work in Antarctica also complements Alaska's seasonal economy. Many of the Alaskans spend northern summers working in the tourist trade around Denali National Park or other parts of the state, then head south for the austral summer.

Parker came for the adventure. Last March she heard about the opportunity to work in Antarctica for Raytheon Polar Services Co., the contractor that provides logistical support to the scientists. She was ready for a change after five years as network administrator for Tlingit and Haida Central Council, and Antarctica sounded perfect.

"It's the closest I can come right now to going to the moon, or Mars, or going to a space station," she said. "It's not likely I can get there in this lifetime, but I can get this far."

When Parker was offered a job as e-mail administrator at McMurdo research station, she forgot to even ask what her pay would be. In early October she landed on the Ice, as people in Antarctica call their temporary home. Though she'd come 10,000 miles, her first impression was of familiarity.

 

"When I stepped off the plane and looked toward the hills where McMurdo is, I thought they pulled a trick on me and really landed me in Alaska at one of those small seaside villages right at the coast," Parker said.

McMurdo does have the utilitarian, weather-beaten look of a northern Alaskan town. It's often compared to Bethel. The buildings are blocky warehouses painted in drab browns and greens. Short staircases bridge the knee-high pipes that carry water, fuel and sewage over the frozen ground.

Parker doesn't mind the cold and wind, which almost always combine to create mid-summer lows in the negative numbers.

"I've lived in Alaska so long in enough places that I've dealt with the extremes in weather - wind and extreme cold weather that can kill you if you're not prepared," Parker said. "I've learned not just to survive it, not just to endure it, but to enjoy it."

 

She's had weather to enjoy in Antarctica. On a two-mile walk back from the nearby New Zealand base the weather took a turn for the worse. The wind blew so hard Parker staggered against it like a drunk, almost knocked to her knees a few times.

"Yet it was fascinating, mesmerizing," said Parker, who watched the curtains of snow blow through the air. "Some of the best experiences in life aren't when the weather's great. It's when nature shows you all her power."

The temperatures are even colder at the South Pole, where Day is, but he's gotten used to it.

"I've found myself outside on windless sunny days at negative 20 degrees Fahrenheit with a T-shirt on," Day said. "It's almost always sunny and clear, with wisps of clouds up high."

The weather at both ends of the earth is hard to predict, said John Gamash, who forecast weather in Anchorage before dropping everything to come to Antarctica. In both places the weather changes quickly, and when it does it's often for the worse. Gamash watched two herbies tear through McMurdo Station soon after he arrived.

 

"A herbie is like an Antarctic version of a hurricane," Gamash said. "It was totally amazing to see all the energy in those things and the havoc it wreaks on the ground."

Gamash watched as wind sensors in nearby hills clocked gusts of 70, 80, 90 knots before going out. The wind picks up dry snow from the ground and tosses it around in thick clouds, like a desert sandstorm. Visibility was just 20 feet.

Gamash has seen winds that high around Anchorage, but she hasn't seen them with blowing snow.

"It was different here because in Alaska the wind happened in clear air," Gamash said. "Here it happened with a storm and it was total, complete whiteout."

The weather is similar enough to Alaska in the Antarctic summer that Gamash was prepared for it. Gamash already had the right clothes in his closet, and plenty of experience with cold.

"For outdoorsmen in Alaska coming down here, it wasn't a real stretch as far as being prepared," Gamash said.

Alaskans also are uniquely prepared for the isolation and bare-bones facilities. While folks from the city miss take-out food and other modern luxuries, Don Wray and his wife, Tina Green, come to Antarctica for the conveniences they miss at home. The couple lives in a 16-by-16-foot cabin they built between Sutton and Chickaloon, northeast of Anchorage. They use solar power and an outhouse and go to town for showers or to make a phone call.

At McMurdo, Wray and Green get flush toilets, hot showers, a phone in their room and unlimited Internet service. Wray is taking the opportunity to create a Web site for their summer guiding business, Exposure.

"I have better access to the Internet here than at home," Wray said. "TV everywhere, computers and we don't have to pay for showers."

Despite working 54-hour weeks, their lives are also more social, Green said.

At home in Alaska they live at the end of a rough dirt road, so meeting friends is an expedition. Here their neighbors are on the other side of the wall or hall.

"We don't have to drive 25 miles to go drink a beer," Green said.

Alaskans are spoiled in other ways though. Coming from a land of snowy peaks and massive glaciers, they are less impressed by some of the Antarctic scenery.

"It's a beautiful landscape here, but it's like a bald cat," said Hiram Henry, who grew up surrounded by Juneau's rainforest. "You don't quite feel comforted by a bald cat."

The glaciers in Antarctica often are buried under snow, the jagged blue we're used to seeing on the Mendenhall Glacier softened by a solid white frosting.

"The glaciers in Alaska are much bigger and prettier," said Nik Sinkola, a NASA technician from Fairbanks. "They call these glaciers. I think these are just nothing."

But if you crawl inside an Antarctic glacier it's another world. Slender icicles hang down, coated in fragile crystals. Snowflakes encrust the walls like jewels. It's so quiet the crystals tinkle when accidentally brushed.

The glaciers in Antarctica move so slowly, it's imperceptible.

"I felt perfectly safe sitting in the ice cave down here," Parker said. "In fact, I felt I could pitch a tent in it overnight. There's no way I would have thought that in Juneau."

Going near Alaska glaciers is always a risk, since house-sized chunks of ice can break off at any time. In Juneau the glaciers creak and moan. Water is always dripping down their sides, running in turquoise rivers along the top, then cascading through holes to pour through hidden channels. Water shapes caves and crevasses in Southeast glaciers.

"Here the only thing shaping it is movement itself," Parker said.

Sinkola told his friends in Fairbanks that Antarctica was just the same, "minus the trees and the moose, but the roads are just as rough."

He misses the independence Alaskans cherish though. In Antarctica nobody is allowed to leave the confines of the small station alone, and when people do go out, there are only four or five trails to follow.

"There's no freedom here. I don't get to jump on my snowmobile and go for a ride," Sinkola said. "My only excursion is I get to go to T-site and Arrival Heights with the truck," he said, referring to two locations at the edge of the station.

Parker shares the frustration. In Juneau she's used to just getting up and deciding to take her dog, Sobaka, for a hike on a whim. They often wander off the trails to explore. Not only did she have to leave her dog behind to come to Antarctica, she could lose her job for going off a marked trail. Even a short hike takes planning.

"You're supposed to check out. You're supposed to go with someone. You're supposed to carry a radio," Parker said. "There's a lot more restrictions on freedoms than I'm used to."

Henry is frustrated by the restrictions too. He spends his summers leading students across the Juneau Icefield, but then he comes to Antarctica and isn't allowed off the flagged route.

That's one of the reasons he's not coming back next year, at least not as an employee. Instead, he's applying to graduate schools with strong glaciology programs and hopes to return as a field assistant on a science project. That would take him away from the noise of McMurdo Station, with its constantly rumbling generators and machinery, into the Antarctic wilderness.

"A lot of people seem to leave with the phrase 'The most beautiful place I've ever been.' " Henry said. "It's not the most beautiful place I've ever been, but it is the quietest.

"If you happen to be skiing out on the iceshelf and the wind stops, you can hear all the way to the other side of the continent."

Kristan Hutchison is a Juneau Empire reporter on leave for four months to work in Antarctica. She can be reached at sabbatkr@mcmurdo.gov. A Web site with daily updates of her experiences, plus photos, movies and links to other Antarctica sites is at http://www.ptialaska.net/~crayola/antarctica.html.



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