Valley Boy

Once again, a special event has rejuvenated my season at McMurdo. Last year I went to the South Pole for a few weeks and the change of pace and scenery brought a little magic back to the continent for me. This year, in connection with my job at the Crary science building, I got to visit Lake Fryxell with Marci, one of the Lab Assistants, for an overnight trip to clean out field labs at Lake Fryxell camp. It was my first trip to the McMurdo Dry Valleys, my first ride on a helicopter, and it turned from one night into four. Awesome.

My last night shift of vessel offload ended on a Wednesday at 2am so I went to bed immediately in an attempt to start transitioning back to day schedule as quickly as possible. I made it through Wednesday with minimal napping and packed for my trip to Fryxell the next morning. My helo was scheduled for 8:45am so after a quick stop at work to check-in, I brought my cold weather gear and an overnight bag down to the helo hangar to weigh-in and get a helmet. There were 6 passengers in the 212, along with the pilot and helo tech. The first stop was F6 to drop off some communications staff and scientists, followed by a sub-10 minute hop over to Fryxell for Marci and I.

F6 to Fryxell

Fryxell consists of 4 science labs, a renewable power shed, two outhouses and a new main hut that was finished last year. When we arrived, the renewable energy staff was already there shutting off the power, mechanics were doing a bit of equipment cleanup for their department, and a couple field camp staff were doing general camp shut down (the very last people to go through field camps are usually carpenters who winterize the facility). Marci and I got to work cleaning 3 of the labs, getting any left behind items prepped for shipment back to McMurdo, cleaning tables and sweeping floors. Afterward I laid down for a nap (Marci was extremely understanding about my mid-shift transition state) while the communications staff stopped by and unhooked the phones. So, no phones and no power, but we had radios and propane for the fridge, stove and furnace. Not to worry.

All the other staff was picked up by about 4:30, so it was just the two of us for some dinner (largely snacks we'd grabbed from the McMurdo galley that morning), a little wine and a chat. There were a few wrap-up tasks we'd complete in the morning before getting picked up at about 9:45 and we'd be back to McMurdo before lunch. But you already know that didn't go as planned.

We found out the next morning that weather at McMurdo was preventing helicopters from flying on Friday, so Marci and I would be stuck at Fryxell until Saturday. We had enough food that we'd brought and that was left at the camp by others, we changed to a full propane tank so cooking and heat weren't concerns, and I'd brought some extra pairs of socks. And what's an extra day in the same set of clothes? With time on our hands, Marci and I hiked up to Canada Glacier for the afternoon. We saw a few mummified seals, ventifact rocks, approached the glacial ice falls, and put some stabilicers on to actually walk up on the glacier.  It was gorgeous and the perfect way to spend the afternoon. We returned home all tuckered out, made some ramen, and did the only puzzle in the hut.

I had a show scheduled in McMurdo Saturday night, so although I missed practice Friday night it wouldn't be the end of the world and all would go just fine. But alas, we woke up Saturday to snow on the ground and the news that McMurdo was getting it even worse. So no flight Saturday, the show would be missed, and since helicopters only fly on Sunday in emergencies, Marci and I were there until Monday at minimum. That was a bit of a sour moment for me, truth be told: missing the show, two more nights in the same small camp with just the two of us, no power and my phone was dead so no more pictures or music, and I'd be wearing the same clothes for a good 4 days. But our luck changed when the field camp staff that had been at Fryxell our first day invited us to Lake Hoare for the next two nights. Marci had prepared to convince me to make the trek, but I was already in.

Lake Hoare is, in many respects, the "main" field camp of the Dry Valleys and was a two hour hike across Lake Fryxell, around the toe of Canada Glacier, and across a portion of Lake Hoare. Beth had been the Lake Hoare camp manager all season and was a top notch host, Robin was there helping Beth close down, and Phil and Haley had been closing down Lake Bonney so they hiked over to Hoare for the weekend as well. Our six-person crew cooked and cleaned and prepped the camp for winter together (although I was the least helpful person there, being completely to the field). They had phones and power and internet (!) and a guitar and rocket toilets and a tent for me and gorgeous views of Canada Glacier and the mountains.

I was still working on my sleep transition, so I was first to bed and first to rise both days, but it allowed the two-day ritual of walking from my tent to the main hut, fixing a cup of coffee and sitting on the front stoop until everyone else woke up. It was glorious; the scenery was new to me and more beautiful than McMurdo, there were 6 people sharing the space instead of 900, and I forgot all about missing my show while watching the sun shine off the glacier and the dust give shape to the wind as it whisked across the Lake.

I've been looking forward to staying about 7 extra weeks after most of McMurdo clears out, diluting the restlessness of being in this place for over 7 months. But I'd already been feeling the restlessness creep in before 600 people make there way home. So the trip's head and physical space were exactly what I needed at just the right time.

Monday morning we helped load up a helo with cargo and watched it fly off. About an hour later our's arrived and Marci and I said goodbye to our field camp friends. Helicopter ride number 2 in my life was spent skirting the ice/open water edge and scoping penguins and seals all along it. Then our pilot John turned up the ice channel (cut by the Coast Guard for shipment and fuel vessels to dock at McMurdo) and we saw two whales by themselves and a group of 5 swimming together. Zero complaints.

Whales on the ice edge.

Flying up the ice channel.