For more photos and videos of our C17 ride, click HERE.
We left Antarctica today. Our flight left at 2:40 in the afternoon (that is 14:40 at Scott Base). After a lovely breakfast of fresh bread thanks to Scott Base’s incredible chef, and a nice salad/sandwich lunch, we gathered our remaining bags, and suited up in our ECW (Extreme Cold Weather) gear for the last time. As I pulled on my most familiar black overalls, and felt the weight of their straps over my shoulders one last time, I thought of the comfort of the small pocket where I have carried by Blistex sunscreen all of these many days, the mechanical pencils that froze up in the snow, and the cameras cuddled in the coverall pocket to keep them from freezing up in the blowing snow. As I laced up my huge boots, I thought of the snowy ice where we had walked, the cracks we had stepped over, and the dusty volcanic trail I walked last night to the top of the mountain above Scott Base. As I pulled on my ECW parka, the fluffy fur so soft against my cheek, I remember the tremendous comfort of tucking my chin and cheeks into its gentle space, escaping the raucous wind rasping crystals of ice across my face. As I put my sunglasses on the top of my head, I remember the beautiful see-forever Antarctic sun that never goes down (this time of year). And when I tucked my worn black windproof gloves into my pocket, I think of the excitement and thrill of creating a method for measuring ice that wasn’t here before, of the trials and the re-trials, and the challenges and the sheer Cheshire-cat joy when success finally peeks over the research horizon. I am glad I can take these gloves home with me, because they have touched more of Antarctica than I have.’
We had washed up our own breakfast dishes in the water efficient washing system, and taken them from the washer to the pile where they will be used for the next meal. We had stripped all of the sheets off our beds, preparing them for the young women who care for us all at Scott Base, putting them by the washer so the bunk rooms we had cozied up in were readied for another small troupe of incoming scientists, artists, visitors, journalists, and more. In the morning, someone was running the vacuum and mopping up the floors. Everyone helps here. We, the ‘visitors’ help. The CEO helps. The staff at Scott Base bend over backwards to help you in every way they can. (If you are 15 minutes late checking in from an outing, Gideon will get a page, and their search will be on …. Remember to check in, that is for sure!)
As we leave, the staff collect by the door, distributing hugs, well wishes, hand shakes, and cheerful banter. The lead officer of the base is the last one we shake hands with as we go out the refrigerator-style door and down the metal steps to the crunchy ice that is a little lower than when we first came. We board a red windowed van with extra high suspension and extra large tires. Our driver, it turns out, has lived in Sugarhouse, very near the University. He has a Texas accent, that is his home state. Everyone waves as we leave, and we wave back. Our friend, Greg, is video taping our exit, and Tim stands beside him, both in front of the green wanigans that have been our home. We wave happily at them as we go by.
We drive up the hill, overlooking the pressure ridges where we walked in a winter wonderland and saw two large seals just yesterday. We can see the extra ridges as the ice presses against the shore in cold expansion. We pass the antennas at the top of Crater Hill, antennas that David and I now know more about, thanks to a generous tutorial from Tony the radio engineer. We enter McMurdo base, which is run by the Americans. Scott Base is run by Antarctic New Zealand. The close proximity of these two bases (they share many critical support systems, an ice air field and flights, and even a few TV channels) was chosen to enable the excellent collaboration we have experienced between the American and New Zealand teams. We enter a metal building, where we are checked off to be sure we are the right folks going the right place (good thing, no flights going anywhere else today!), and we board ‘Ivan the Terra Bus’, a huge bus hoisted off the ground on huge struts with tires whose huge treads leave tracks nearly 4 feet wide. Many other American scientists join us as well. They are dressed in red, the assigned clothing for the American system. The Kiwi (New Zealanders fondly call themselves Kiwis) clothes we have been wearing are orange and black.
We drive through the streets of McMurdo on our way to the airfield. McMurdo is many separate buildings, most of them brown metal, that hold bunks, garages, laboratories, and even a store. It seems like a small town compared to the smaller Scott Base (where all of the buildings are linked together by hallways so you can reach every place on base without re-tying your ECW boots!). There are several yard areas with wooden packing crates, a small wooden building where someone has added green wooden cactus, and people wave at us as we pass. How can anyone resist waving at Ivan the Terra Bus! Others have told us that McMurdo is different than Scott Base, but they haven’t quite described it in the way that we now feel it. McMurdo feels kind of like an Old Western Town, and I almost expect an outlaw to jump out with six shooters! It is a military base, used for science. Perhaps it feels that way because we have not lived here and made it our quiet home. The other scientists joining our plane from McMurdo seem to have developed the same family that we have on the ice. Ice can bond things together. Things like people.
Scott Base is quiet, so quiet and peaceful. The sleeping rooms are separated from the work areas, and they are kept darkened round the clock. They are the ONLY dark places in Antarctica right now, I think! When you enter or exit your room and the main door, you close the door very quietly, gently folding back the door knob so that the click is quiet as can be. Someone is likely to be sleeping there, having worked a long night. With so many people, strangers by definition but friends by purpose, living in such close quarters, having a calm and respectful living place helps bring us all together because we are not irritating each other apart. And somehow this quiet respect extends beyond the metal walls and insulation of the warm and cozy Scott Base. It extends to how everyone here treats the only continent in the world that we have not messed up.
We move out onto the ice, driving bouncily towards the huge US AirForce C-17 awaiting us on the ice. It is HUGE!!!!!! Its big belly is going to take us and our equipment and gear, and all of the other scientists and their equipment and gear and even a few artists and musicians and THEIR equipment and gear back to Christ Church New Zealand. (Last night Dave Dobbyn, a favorite Kiwi singer, entertained us with his guitar at Scott Base.) There are no boarding passes, the security check is just asking everyone to remove the sharp things from their bags, and no beeping scanner for tickets (just a pleasant young man checking our names off on a clipboard). We walk across the ice in our ECW boots, wave at Ken who has the video camera, and walk up the stairs into the huge aircraft. The guts of the tremendous aircraft are wide open! We can see the air vents for the engines, the wiring as it courses down the ceiling of the plane. Everything is open visible metal, and it really is cool! There are no windows except a few portholes that are not next to anyone’s seats. David, Joyce, Ken and I have pull down seats on the side of the plane facing into the center. It is more leg space than we have ever had on a commercial flight!
We drive a long distance to the runway, and we imagine we know where we are going because of where we were when we came in. The plane turns, facing into the wind, winds up its 4 huge whirring engines, and races down the ice runway we imagine beneath its huge wheels. We are airborne in a large leap, and our ears pop and whistle. The plane is noisy. There is nothing to absorb the sound of the engines and the air rushing by as the plane tears through the atmosphere high above the ice-filled ocean. We were just down there measuring that ice and looking up in amazement at the planes (even this very plane!) just a couple of days ago.
On the plane, I take out my lunch bag, carefully packed at Scott Base by the chef and a helper or two, all people we now know, and enjoy. There is a nice homemade sandwich on thick slices of home baked bread, an oaty bar (!!!! We ate BOXES of oaty bars in our camp, and it makes me remember the red zippered food boxes and how excited we all got to rummage through them for our favorite discovered treats.) , an apple (FRESH fruit, such a luxury flown into a frozen continent) and two nice homemade cookies wrapped in saran wrap. I have the overwhelming sense that this was a lunch made with love. I feel embraced again, as I have felt so many times already in the icy volcanic Antarctica. I have the sense that I am leaving more than a place. I am leaving an entire continent. Drilling, measuring, sleeping on, resting and playing and working and thinking on her frozen ocean ice, I feel like she has become home very very quickly.
Part way into the flight, it is warm, and everyone starts to doff their ECW gear. First the big boots, laces now tied neatly together beneath my seat. Next the outer jacket I am sitting on to pad my seat. Then the overalls, the weight easing off my shoulders. Finally on with the tennis shoes. I have even taken my socks off, and it feels so good! We know that in a few hours we will be back in New Zealand, which felt totally tropical when we were last there. Paul Woodward (Woody) will pick us up at the airfield and help get us to our local hotel.
Thank you, Kiwi Antarctica, for such a warm welcome and a warm farewell!
We are on our way home.
For more photos and videos of our C17 ride, click HERE.