It's spring, but something is missing

Posted: Sunday, December 10, 2000

McMurdo Station in Antarctica is just like a small college set in a mining camp thousands of miles from anywhere and anything except ice. Which is to say, it's like nowhere else in the world.

Take the industrial area around Costco, with its utilitarian metal buildings and heavy machinery. Remove all plants and animals, everything green and living. Plop it on the bottom slopes of some black hillsides that curve around it to shelter the wind. Cover everything heavily with snow, then populate it with 900 people all wearing red parkas.

That's McMurdo, a.k.a. Mac Town. It's got all the comforts of home, kind of. The cafeteria serves four meals a day, breakfast, lunch, dinner and mid-rats or midnight rations. There's a coffeehouse, two bars, a church, gymnasium, barbershop and greenhouse.

It's not much to look at really, but why would we, when we can look out. Out is South, across miles of flat, white, sea ice covered in snow. The Royal Society mountain range decorates the horizon. It's like looking from Eagle Beach across to the Chilkat mountains, only there are no trees and all the water is frozen.

And like the Chilkats, the Royal Society mountains often are hidden by clouds and precipitation. Except here, in the equivalent of mid-June, the clouds carry snow. Lee Parker, another Juneauite, has been here since October and said she's forgotten what rain feels like. She stands in the shower sometimes, water splashing on her face, trying to remember.

We may forget rain, but not wind. Wind is a powerful and unpredictable force. One of my first mornings at McMurdo I tried to go for a run. I dressed like a bank robber, black leggings under heavy wind pants, black polarfleece top, balaclava covering my face, sunglasses and black gloves. Only my tennis shoes were white. Starting up a hill into the wind, it felt like I was wearing a 50-pound pack and nothing else. The wind sliced right through my top and chilled me. I had to hold my hands together to keep them warm, but when I turned a corner so I was running with the wind to my back I began to sweat and find a stride. A lesson in windchill.

Another day started sunny and warm. Some icy spots on the road had turned to mud.

In the time it takes me to eat dinner and buy a few Christmas gifts, the electrical wires turned into musical instruments. The wind played them, bringing out high whistling noises like children blowing on blades of grass in their cupped hands, only the wind never runs out of breath. It blows six wires at once, while making whirlpools of loose snow. The walk from the cafeteria building to my dorm, which I made so blithely an hour before, was now a determined trudge. I leaned against the wind, clasping my arms in front of me where the cold tried to creep past my zipper.

A few days later the sun returned. Sunshine is a mixed blessing. On really sunny days without wind the temperature soars to 37 degrees and I can carry the trash outside without stopping to put on my parka. But the sun also melts the snow, creating small creeks and puddles in the dirt street. It's spring, only something's missing. No smell, not even the smell of dirt.

Usually as snow melts away and the ground thaws the air becomes alive with the scent of things reawakening after the winter, the buds, the living earth, the crocuses and grass. Here there is only volcanic dust, which smells a little like dry concrete.

As the snow disappears the hills are exposed as piles of black volcanic rock. It's like being in a quarry, stripped of all vegetation and left with only lifeless rubble. The bare hills around McMurdo are a dirty little anomaly on this clean, white continent. Only 2 percent of Antarctica's 14 million square kilometers is exposed land. A huge sheet of ice, containing 70 percent of the world's fresh water, covers the rest.

I'm told McMurdo has three seasons: Ice, Mud and Dust. This year the season of Ice lasted longer than usual. November was unusually cold, averaging 15 degrees Fahrenheit, with snow falling much later into the summer than normal. Now the season of Ice is melting away in muddy rivulets and, speaking as a janitor, I don't look forward to Mud and Dust.

I won't be speaking as a janitor much longer though. Through some amazing twist of fate (act of God, predestination, call it what you will) three days after I arrived a reporter resigned from the Antarctic Sun to become ... a janitor. (No poison or foul play was involved, I promise.) Of course, I went straight to the newspaper office to let them know that (in a pinch, twist my arm, oh sure) I'd be happy to fill that position. It took a few weeks of scrubbing toilets and vacuuming hallways to get all the paperwork through, but as of Monday I trade my mop for a pen once more. So bring on the dirt.

Kristan Hutchison is a Juneau Empire reporter on leave for four months to work in Antarctica. Her columns appear every other Sunday. Her e-mail is 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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