Our trip back to Arizona wasn’t focused on outdoor play like we had hoped, mostly due to the fact that every time we made plans to get out and goof around we would have to reply to urgent emails titled, “WE NEED IN 48 HOURS” demanding paperwork for our new jobs.
“New jobs?” you say. I know what you’re thinking, Dave and Janae don’t often go into the same sentence as ‘job’. Fluttering around here and there, always getting into odd and weird situations.
We landed jobs at the bottom of the planet working with the United States Antarctic Program. Yup, that’s right. You heard me. Antarctica. I hope my boat tan lasts long enough to hold me over for the next four months…
We flew Flagstaff, Arizona to Phoenix, Phoenix to Los Angeles, L.A. to Sydney, Australia – you lose a day on this flight, and finally Sydney to Christchurch, New Zealand.
The travel was a little hectic, mostly for Dave. We flew separately once we departed from LAX. Our 20+ hour flight from L.A. to Sydney would have been more easy-going if we had ventured together. I, at least, got to fly on the plush Qantas Airbus A380. New, clean, state of the art with carbon fiber reinforced plastic components and features to reduces traveller fatigue. Dave got stuck in LAX for a few more hours than I did and had to fly on an American Airlines 747. Lame. He was delayed in Auckland, New Zealand for over 8 hours before he made it to Christchurch at 1:30am ready to face our 6am shuttle pick up for our first orientation. American Airlines, you really need to take some notes from Qantas…
Side rant: Really, though American Airlines. You are a terrible company to fly with. Infact, I can’t think of a good airline to fly that is American-based. I hate to say this, but America, you really need to get onboard with air travel. Why have all the airliners opted to take the cheap route; cramming everyone in like cattle, feeding us flavorless generic Lean Cuisines and charging us for everything imaginable?! Have you flown with Qantas lately? Or Emirates? These are comfortable, roomy and enjoyable flights. Remember when air travel used to be leisurely and pleasant? I don’t either, but I know it existed somewhere in American history. Hell, even Vietnam Air has a cozier ride! American airline companies, you are on point. Shape up or ship out.
The United States Antarctic Program (USAP) handles a huge portion of its operations from Christchurch given that it’s one of the closest land masses to Antarctica.So, we’re going to have to learn how to translate the language in New Zealand. But wait, don’t they speak English in New Zealand? Kind of. I mean, technically yes, but when you hear it you’d almost swear it was some kind of pigeon-speak. They’re heavy users of slang, then pile on a heavy accent and suddenly the English language is no longer audible. Example, being told, “a fluffy bag of kittens” from someone, asking them to repeat, asking them to repeat it again and finally saying, “I don’t understand what you’re saying” and walking away. If they had been holding a fluffy bag of kittens it would have made sense, but they weren’t. So, yeah.
Orientation all day in Christchurch. Despite all of this time, really, we still have no idea what’s going on, what to expect, what happens next, where we need to go and where we need to be. We’re issued gear (yes, those famous red parkas), bunny boots, wind pants, goggles, gloves, fleece, neck gators, glove liners, coveralls, wool socks, beanies, etc…Tons and tons of gear issued.
At the crack of dawn the next day, we board the C-17. We got a chance to visit the cockpit to check out the control panel and the amazing view. It feels like flying in a space shuttle, with its interior having exposed controls and systems.
It’s about a five hour flight from Christchurch, New Zealand to McMurdo Station, Antarctica. However, there’s something called a ‘Boomerang’, which can turn your flight into twelve hours. If the weather gets bad at McMurdo, the flight is forced to turn around. They’re pretty conservative about this, because when you pass the 60˚ (latitude) “Point of Safe Return”, you have to fly to McMurdo despite any bad weather conditions because the plane no longer has enough fuel to return back to New Zealand. Fun!
Our gigantic plane landed on the ice shelf. Crazy. That’s where the runway is. On a bloody ice shelf. McMurdo Station is on a nearby island, though. When the hatch first opened, I couldn’t really get a sense of the temperatures outside. Once I took a step outside, it instantly hit me. It was -20˚ F with a wind chill of -45˚ F. We drove to town in a very slow moving vehicle, called the Cress. Its heater wasn’t working, which made for a frosty forty five minute ride to town. My hands felt like solid pieces of wood by the time we got there, painfully aching and frozen.
We’ve been working everyday since we got here. Training on our new jobs, training for life in Antarctica, training for how to sort your trash, training for how to drive a truck, training for just about everything. Dave is working as a field carpenter, which seems like it’s a pretty sweet job in an amazing department. From what everyone says, his job is quite coveted. He has access to tons of resources and his department is notoriously rowdy. His building is referred to as the “Carp Shop”. Walking up to it, the first thing I thought was, “This place looks like the Island of Misfit Toys.” Because it actually does. Turns out, it actually is. The carp shop is full of misfits and vagabonds. I love them.
I’m in Mac Ops (McMurdo Operations) – I keep tabs on field camps, people who travel regionally outside of station, emergency situations, fixed wing and helo flight plans, I get to play on VHF and HF radios all day. To make it more interesting for everyone who has to check in with me constantly, I’m testing out my sultry voices – I’m hoping to build a reputation this way. Make some friends. At the very least, make my listeners happy. Maybe get a fan club. Who knows! Dream big.
We definitely are adjusting to our roles in regards to one another. We instantly went from spending everyday together, to barely seeing one another. Dave expects to be sent out for weeks on end to remote field camps, while I’ll be working 12 hour rotating night/day shifts. Hopefully we’ll get time together here and there.
McMurdo is full of less-than-ordinary people…The word on the street is that McMurdo has more left handers (Janae) than right handers (Dave) – an anomaly in natural population dynamics. Also, the majority of the population here is the youngest child (both Dave and I fit this). There are also more light eyed people than dark, neither Dave or I fit this. What does this all mean? Who knows! Point is – the people down here are incredible so far. In a “normal” situation, Dave and I tend to be the more unusual couple with our lifestyle and history. Here? We’re the virgins of the group.We’re squares compared to the people here. Really. You wouldn’t believe some of the stuff…
We saw our first Weddell seals. They like to lounge around on the ice all day. That’s about all they do. I’ve thoroughly explained the life of the Weddell seal out of the water. The end.
Some days are beautiful blue skies. Other days, it snows lightly. Then even other days, the wind blows 65 knots and you can barely walk from building to building. Those are the days you remember you’re in Antarctica. Your fingers instantly ache if you’re not wearing good gloves and your head feels like you have brain freeze from eating ice cream too quick, only, without the joy of ice cream (which we don’t have here).
McMurdo is like a base on an alien planet where nothing makes sense and life outside isn’t sustainable, but it’s also a small town where everyone knows everyone and everyone knows your business. It’s a strange contrast, feeling so familiar and yet so lost. Sometimes it feels like home and sometimes it feels like hell. Sometimes you feel lucky to be here and sometimes you’d give almost anything to get on the next plane flying north. And there you’ll sit for months on end, swinging between extremes on the McMurdo pendulum.
Buckle up because there’s no other ride on the planet like the McMurdo ride.
I can’t post videos on this blog site – so below are some links to a few of the videos we’ve taken. Enjoy!