Flying south in pursuit of sunshine and dreams

Posted: Sunday, November 12, 2000

Alaskans often go south in the winter in search of sun - California, Hawaii, Mexico. If a little's good, a lot must be better, right? So I'm going south this week too.

And then further south.

I won't stop until the midwinter sun shines 24 hours a day - in Antarctica. It's obviously not a beach vacation. I'm going to scrub floors and take out trash, cleaning up after the scientists working at the main U.S. station there, 850 miles north of the South Pole.

I'll even wash windows if I'm asked. What I'm doing doesn't matter, but where. It's a land so barren NASA used it to prepare for space exploration. A continent untouched until the 20th century. The only land that is not a country.

Do you have a dream? A crazy, out-of-this-world, never-would-happen dream? Antarctica has been my dream since my first geography lesson as a child, when someone asked "If you could go anywhere, where would you go?"

Never-Never Land? The moon? Neither were practical, so my parents pointed out places on a globe and there, at the bottom, was a blank slate. A place without a people; an opportunity to explore.

Great adventures start with dreams and I've always believed people should pursue them, but Antarctica was so distant. Only scientists live there, and I'm no scientist. Nor am I willing to spend what could be the down payment on my first home for a week long cruise that barely touches the tip of the ice. Living in Juneau, we know how little tourists really get to see of life here. To know Antarctica I must experience the day-in, day-out mundaneness - and, if I'm lucky, the glory.

When I first realized about 3,000 people work at the U.S. research stations in Antarctica, most of them laborers who keep the stations running, I was disappointed. The land of my dreams already was inhabited. Then I became excited. If they could go there so could I. I can cook. I can clean. Shoot, I do both every Saturday for free.

Getting a job in Antarctica, even a menial one, is not easy. Last spring I filled out about 30 applications for Raytheon Polar Services, the company that provides all the cooks, dishwashers, mechanics and other support staff for Antarctica. My cover letter opened: "I'd go to Antarctica for free, but I'd rather you pay me."

Eventually I recieved a thick envelope announcing that I was selected as a Dining Attendant Alternate. That meant if whoever else actually got the job was hit by a truck or something, a position clearing plates and refilling salt shakers was mine.

I started calling each week to the Raytheon personnel manager assigned to me. "Hi Paula. It's Kristan. I just wanted to check where I am on the alternate's list."

The first week I was three down, and somebody else had just moved off it, Paula said. The next week I was in the same position, but would I be willing to take another job if it came available? Say, janitorial?

"Of course. I'll do anything."

That's what it takes to make a dream come true.

On Halloween I left my weekly message for Paula, only this time she called me back.

"Come on down, girl," she said, mimicking a gameshow host. "It's your turn. How soon can you leave?"

My heart spun like I'd won a Pulitzer.

They gave me 11 days. Eleven days to suspend my car insurance, finish up stories at work, sublet the spare room, say goodbye to friends and family, find safe homes for eight houseplants, and pack four months of supplies into 65 pounds.

At 3 a.m. I wake up thinking about what to pack in those 65 pounds. I only have room for five photos. Which five should I take? My husband, my mother, my best friend.

Sometimes packing reminds me of school word problems. If I wash my hair three times a week for four months, using a tablespoon of shampoo each time, how big a bottle do I need to bring? How many swipes can I get from one stick of deodorant? I wish toothpaste tubes listed servings per container the way food does.

I'm not too worried about cold weather gear. They'll supply 40 pounds of thermal underwear, Carharts, mittens, parkas and other extreme weather clothing. Just wearing it will be a workout.

I'm not the only one putting a career on hold to sort garbage. Claire Steffens, an Anchorage attorney, called the day after I was hired.

"I'm the other janitor," she said.

Steffens is taking a sabbatical from her law practice to "improve my cleaning skills."

"I'm really, really excited," she gushed over the phone.

Not what someone usually says when you ask them to take out the trash, but then, as she tells people who raise their eyebrows at a successful lawyer turned scrub-woman "Hey, you can't get down there any other way."

We fly out today, first to Denver for orientation, then to New Zealand to be fitted with cold weather gear. Within a week, I'll be on "The Ice."

Thinking about the trip, my heart pounds like I'm in some race. When I first told my husband he asked, "How do you feel?" Excited, of course, but also scared, like I'm about to rappel off a cliff or enter a room of strangers. No, more like I'm rappelling into a room of strangers. I'm going into a great unknown. Great because it is unknown to me. I may absolutely hate the cold, the drudgery, the absolute emptiness, but that doesn't matter. Going to Antarctica is worthwhile because it is my dream and it is coming true. I will never be able to say "I wonder what would have happened if..."

Kristan Hutchison is a staff writer from the Juneau Empire on leave for four months to work as a janitor in Antarctica. Her e-mail on "The Ice" is

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