Do contract employees in Antarctica dream of electric blankets?

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They don’t advertise for contractors in Antarctica.

That’s what I was: ex-technician, ex-contractor, ex-patriot …

The author outside McMurdo Station, on Ross Island, Antarctica
The author outside McMurdo Station,
on Ross Island, Antarctica

Wait a nanosecond, they do advertise for contractors in Antarctica. New Climate, recreational facilities, the chance to begin again in a frozen land of opportunity and adventure. Right along Highway 1 on the bulletin board. And of course online.

And of course, there will never be the need to genetically engineer humanoid labor as long as there are contract employees ready to stand up, and sit down for the longest flight on Planet Earth. The closest you can get to the off-world colonies and the farthest outpost at the bottom of some shiny blue dot in the corner of the Milky Way. McMurdo Station.

Let’s clarify something. I’m not an expert on Antarctica, just like I’m not an expert on North America but I’ve spent a few twenty-four hours on the continent too; but I do know this: there are no polar bears in the land down under the land down under.

But a whole lot of everyone seems to get this wrong. I just read another mention in the New Yorker.

I subscribe. Not just for the cartoons.

Nice article about glaciologists demonstrating the effects of climate change — studying glaciers in the Himalayas. No surprise, they too are on their way out. Talked too about the dangers of the business, mentioning Antarctica: “temperatures reach seventy degrees below zero.” Then going on to talk about polar bears. Even lightning strikes.

Maybe at some glaciers … we do have lightening here at 45 degrees North in Wisconsin during thundersnow — in the land carved by the planet’s glaciers.

77 degrees South, 166 degrees East?


Off the Coast of McMurdo
Off the Coast of McMurdo

Snow. Ice.

Personally, I’ve had enough of snow, enough of ice. And those precious ice cores that tell the story of a changing world.

Yes it is cold.

Ice Cores.

I sat down to a galley dinner of some kind of tempeh stew and freshies. My co-worker Warren Shipley looked at me in horror, “You’re not a vegetarian, are you?” His plate piled high with deep fried this and deep fried that.

“No, I just like to mix it up in case all there is to eat is algae and eventually Soylent Green someday.”

One of the Kiwis at McMurdo during vessel working in dry storage said they had nothing to eat as it was all American.

American: meaning covered in gravy and fried, the woman from New Zealand said. You had options, you could eat very healthy or embrace that which make American fare American.

Yet when I was wandering around Christchurch, waiting for the weather to improve for the final leg of my way down, I came across a carryout joint, or shall I say a “take-away” joint as they say down there in New Zealand, a franchise called Burger Wisconsin.

Thinking … should I? I had to.

I walked in stating I was probably the only person she would ever see from Wisconsin actually ordering a Burger Wisconsin burger. The story goes that it’s named as such because the All American hamburger was invented in Wisconsin, just west of Green Bay, in Seymour. There is some controversy surrounding its validity, like anything. I had one. Using their local New Zealand raised beef, from animals that aren’t chock full of antibiotics. Theirs: grain fed, not like corn laden U.S. One of the best hamburgers I ever downed. Daring red meat ingestation.

I got on their email list for upcoming promotions, but the closest one from my home is anywhere from 26 to 47 hours by air, depending on how I choose airlines, according to the search engine that probably gets a kickback from the flights they come up with. I would save a hundred dollars if I fly Fiji Airways via Frontier and only have to spend an extra 17 hours in a metal cylinder squeezed up against the bulkhead.

The Eagle has landed
The Eagle has landed

17 hours.

Good thing there was a free seat between an Aussie woman and myself so we could get some sleep sharing that seat with our legs kind of sprawled sideways. That was as intimate as I would get for the next four months. I planned ahead for the long flight getting some books to read, some Philip K. Dick, no surprise, as my laptop’s battery wouldn’t last that long to read or write. And there are only so many movies you can watch.

Well that’s what I did on my way to McMurdo on the planet’s longest flight, at least up until it was surpassed this March by Air Emirates, Dubai to Auckland by a lousy half hour. 17 hours in coach on an Airbus A380 to Sydney from Dallas, the legendary Qantas Flight 8. Another 5 hours, another plane to Christchurch, New Zealand. And a military transport, a United States Air Force C-17 – finally to McMurdo: another 5 hours. Milwaukee to Dallas for the start before all the connectives legs, a veritable walk in the park.

We won’t even think about getting to the airport MKE on land too much as that was only 50 some miles. Thank you Teresa.

Or the trip from Pegasus to McMurdo in the vehicle that superseded the slowest bus on Earth, Ivan the Terrabus: the Kress. A veritable monster, only one, created by the Obama administration to get people at Caterpillar working in the wake of the great recession as a works program of sorts. The wheels, huge, human tall and almost spherical, to crawl through the ice and snow.

Blinding white hot ice and brilliant snow over the pass between Pegasus Field and McMurdo. Food awaited after the bag lunch that only went so far from the Antarctic Center, across from the CDC in Christchurch. The Clothing Distribution Center where you get your ECW, Extreme Cold Weather Gear and begin the adventure.

Burger McMurdo.

The New Zealand hamburgers were what was there in McMurdo, as a delicacy at the grill station along with vegan black bean burgers and hemp burgers too on occasion. Hemp?

A wee bit of a snacker, eh.
A wee bit of a snacker, eh.

I stayed away from that one.

And other interesting foods, Thai, Mongolian, brunch with one of the chef’s carving on demand and always omelets made to order every day. I missed the lobster that one evening as I was on the phone to the real world and ate after the line was taken down.

I was almost finished with the tempeh stew, not bad, when the pager goes off. Duty calls. I could always supplement my nutritional interruption with some 24/7 pizza later and a smear of hummus.

My mission: respond to an emergency at the Crary Science Building.

Now what?

Crary. The epicenter for research at McMurdo. I met my contact Dave Chu and he showed me a patch of ice on the floor and an icicle hanging from a sprinkler pendant in the freezer, a suite of rooms at -28 centigrade where the ice cores were being staged before being sent off continent for further study.

Inside the Crary Science Building
Inside the Crary Science Building

I explained in order to service it and really get down the matter of causation we would have to take down the fire system and open it up. I went on to say as long as it stays frozen it would not be a problem. I looked at how near the ice cores were to the patch of ice from the freezing drip, drip, drip. Now solid. The ice cores detailing the story of what happened over the millennia. Each one unique. Invaluable. Any one perhaps detailing the piece of the puzzle we all seek. And if something happens?

“Can you guarantee it won’t go off?” Dave asks, looking up at the icicle.

“I’m sure.”

“Are you twenty-million dollars sure?” he returns.

I kick the patch of ice on the floor.  All those scientists. All those helo pilots. All that support and hours spent getting them. Processing them.

I exhale and look up at the icicle.


Iced Car
Iced Car

The ice cores remained safe and the story of our Earth is under review.

I told Kathryn Knoblauch, one of the fire house dispatchers, I keep in touch with, in Berkeley, now off the ice.

“That’s all fine and good but when are you going to write about what really goes on at McMurdo.”

I exhale, kick the ice stuck to my car this one frigid Wisconsin spring and look at the Highway One sticker adhered to my car.

It’s really not that cold.


You can read Part 1 HERE  and Part 2 HERE.

All photos by Jeff Worman