Of Dogs and Men

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Last week something very special arrived for me in the post. It was a
grubby off-white colour, and somewhat resembled a poodle. Christened
‘fluffdog’, this crocheted bottle cover, courtesy of wastebusters, has
certainly had an interesting life thus far, coming around the world via
South Africa and Ireland. Having crossed the equator, it seemed that
Fluffdog’s next mission was to get closer to the poles. Being a dog makes
such a goal difficult.

While huskies once provided the main form of locomotion in both polar
regions, these days there are no dogs in Antarctica. They were phased out
in the early 1990s, when new rules about introducing non-native species
came into effect. Goldfish, pooches, and any other introduced animals
were shipped out – humans being the only exception. Unsure quite how to
break this news to the crocheted canine, I did the next best thing,
shutting the grubby character in the freezer overnight. This snap-freezing
served the dual purpose of ridding Fluffdog of any residual biohazardous
greeblies, and neutralising the surprisingly authentic doggy odour
emanating from the fibres.

Unpleasant as it may be, I have to admit I have missed the smell of wet dog
whilst I’ve been away down south. There’s something comforting about a damp
dog steaming by the fire as the rain drums poems on the roof. (Come to
think of it, rain is something else that has been absent all summer – and
not because of drought in my case. Antarctica is the driest continent of
all, and any precipitation falls as snow). Fluff dog was reminder of home,
where such scenes are possible, and where the dogs still come just about
everywhere with us. There’s even a hitching rail at the local pub for our
pooches, which is fair enough – when you think about the hard work that so
many dogs have put in to make NZ what it is today, they deserve a large
communal saucer of water to quench their thirst.

Now the work of one dog in particular has been immortalised in the very mid
Canterbury town where my dog currently lives. With the recent unveiling of
a the police dog Rajah, Methven has a dog sculpture to rival the best. It
puts the town in a class with Tirau, Hunterville, and Tekapo, and
offers the chance to open a conversation about the roles working dogs have
played in NZ over many years. It also offers an irresistible photo
opportunity – someday soon Fluff Dog will be back to have a portrait taken.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

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Happy Cold Year

In New Zealand the longest day of the year coincides with the lead up to Christmas, so the extra hours of daylight are often spent in a daze of end-of-year work dos, school prize-givings and last minute gift buying. The longest day in Antarctica is somewhat different. Although many stations have work parties and will gladly accept Visa for souvenir and gift purchases, south of the Polar Circle there is only one day and one night. Summer – or daytime – is science season, so teams are often out in the field, scrambling to collect data during the slim window of accessibility. That means Christmas, while still observed, is not such a big deal as it is back home. Instead, midwinter dinner is the big celebration, marking the midway point of the winter-over team’s time on The Ice.

The midwinter tradition has a long history: Captain Scott celebrated the holiday over 100 years ago. Fine food, speeches and elaborately painted menus all mean that the event is weeks in the planning. These days it is also a tradition to take a mid winter portrait of everyone on the station and share it via email with those at other Antarctic bases. Penguin breast is no longer served up as an appetiser, but the sentiment of celebration and the sense of belonging to a long line of hardy individuals who have experienced a southern polar night remain.

We recently had the opportunity to discuss such traditions with the Ukrainian team at Vernadsky station, on the Antarctic Peninsula. Prior to 1996, when it was sold for the handsome sum of one British pound, Vernadsky Station was a British base, known as Faraday. It was there that the Ozone hole was discovered, so it has a distinguished scientific history. These days the station is more famous for a different reason – it is home to the Faraday Bar, and the home-brew vodka on offer is widely held to be the smoothest in Antarctica. With a Christmas tree in one corner and a model palm tree in another, the bar has a homely living room feel. The artefacts on the walls tell stories of the yachts and cruise ships that have visited over the years, and the many rows of midwinter portraits that line the staircase put a human face to each year of the station’s life. The delight on the faces of the men when we arrived with several crates of fresh vegetables – their first since April – also made tangible the isolation that they had endured over the winter.

Back home the solstice dates often pass like any others, but just to our South things are done a little differently. Although it has a young human history, Antarctica has traditions that are just as important as those celebrated back home.

http://represantarctic.wordpress.com/2014/12/31/merry-solstice-a-very-cold-year/ 

Who Am I? Ice Edition

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Image: Anne Noble

 

Antarctica. The word often conjours to mind images of eery icebergs, immense glaciers, classical symphonies, and penguins. Lots of penguins. For most people it exists on the very fringes of their existence, as that white smudge protruding from the bottom of the world map, or an exotic location ventured into only by explorers, scientists, photographers and madmen. For others it is the face of climate change, projected onto screens in living rooms throughout the globe, where it exists as a symbol but is disconnected from its physical presence of 14,000,000 square km of ice.

Antarctica is much more than the ice at the end of the world, or a convenient location from which to shoot footage of calving glaciers to accompany reports on the state of the environment. Instead it is a continent, host to many dynamic ecosystems, diverse environments, and a sprinkling of scientists who live and eat and sleep and go to the bathroom sheltered in the haven of their Antarctic bases. That’s right, I just used ‘bathroom’ and ‘antarctica’ in the same sentence. It’s a side of the continent we don’t often think about, but for the 5000 summer and 1000 winter workers who live there, it is far more ‘real’ than pan shots of emperor penguins or the brilliant reflections of icebergs under the midnight sun.

Antarctica has been cast in many ways over the past 100 years – so many, that if the continent were a film star it would be guaranteed an Oscar or two by now. The Ice, as Antarctica is known by those who live or have spent time there, has been used to stand for many different ideas. Whether or not they represent reality is another question, but some of the most prevalent associations are below:

Untouched Wilderness. This is the version of Antarctica that is typically accompanied by a soundtrack of howling wind and panning shots showing snow, ice, more snow, and maybe a wee small man in the corner, where he remains dwarfed by the expanse of white. You know the typical man-never-set-foot-here-before kind of a heroic pose, featuring the subject leaning into the blizzard, and typically presented in grainy black and white even though it was shot in full colour high definition in billboard resolution? Yeah, that’s this idea in a snapshot, capturing the moment the untouched becomes claimed. And this leads us on nicely to…

The Last Frontier. Once upon a time California was the wild west, a place where cowboys roamed, gold was abundant, and adventure guaranteed. These days you’re more likely to see film stars than bareback riders in LA, but down South the romance is alive and well. Antarctica may be the most surveilled place on earth, but satellite imagery doesn’t hold the same sort of appeal as flesh and blood, traipsing just that little bit further in order to stand where no man has ever stood before. The untapped oil resources (which will remain untapped under the current provisions of the Antarctic Treaty System) just add to the mystique. Then there is the visual side of things, namely…

Beauty, or The Sublime. These two concepts have a rich history, and have been distinct since the eighteenth century. Beauty is pleasing and pleasurable, while the sublime is overwhelming and too much for the senses to handle. Sublime goes beyond beauty, extending into the realms of terror. Traditionally, the Great Ice Barrier and the tempestuous weather of Antarctica have been associated with the former, but these days the line seems to be getting blurred. When travelling to Antarctica involves a 5 star cruise liner rather than a wooden sailing vessel, fear tends to take a back seat and aesthetics take the lion’s share of the emotional response to the landscape. That’s a pity really, but just in case you were thinking the dangers had all been conquered, just shift your gaze to the next version of Antarctica, where the melting ice is used to…

Personify Climate Change. You know the images: The Larsen B ice shelf breaking up and departing from the Antarctic Peninsula, as viewed from space; chunks of the Pine Island Glacier tumbling down into the sea below. Because we believe that melting looks a certain way, we seek out images to match. Forget the invisible effects of ocean erosion as the sea gnaws out the ice from below, and leave the complicated dynamics of the ice cap to one side, lest anyone ask questions that require technical knowledge to answer: calving glaciers tick the box. Antarctica may be located at the end of the earth, but we are slowly realising that our whole world is driven by an interconnected system. Plus all photos taken in Antarctica are automatically photogenic enough to make the cut come prime time news.

Photos may make Antarctica seem closer and more familiar to an everyday audience, but its geographic remoteness holds the key to its appeal for those travellers wanting to tick off all seven continents. For those who have been to Africa, Asia, Europe, Australasia and the Americas, a two day crossing of the Drake Passage is all that stands between 85% and a full seven out of seven. Visiting Antarctica is a pilgrimage that allows such travellers to ‘collect a set,’ as it were.

So, there you have it: five sides of Antarctica. The continent is not a pentohedron by any means, and there are many more sides to be explored. 900 words is barely enough to make a dent, but at least the icebergs, symphonies and penguins have been given a nudge to make room for the new perspectives that are waiting in the wings.

On Penguins and Polar Bears

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New Zealand, or ‘Godzone’, is often characterized by its plusses: rivers, forests, beaches and birdlife. It can also be defined by its lacks: no snakes, bears or hungry predators out to get you every time you head bush. There is no bush to speak of in Antarctica, but it shares some similar traits: provided you don’t freeze to death, fall down a crevasse, or get on the wrong side of a hungry leopard seal, it is fairly safe as well.

Penguins are the epitome of the benign wildlife of the south. Dressed like little waiters and sporting the IQ of your average chicken, they are synonymous with the South Pole and have been used to promote everything from open source software to salt and vinegar ships. We encountered several varieties on our trip, each with their own quirks and customs.

Adelies look like they have had five cups of coffee too many, constantly darting left and right with a slightly crazed look in their glassy eyes. These are the downtown commuters of the ice, making their way to the edge of the bergs in packs that resemble crowds on a railway platform, then spilling into ocean en mass, mirroring the five pm office exodus.

Gentoo penguins are somewhat larger, with white patches over their eyes that resemble chic noise-cancelling headphones. They could do with such accessories too, as their call has the timbre of braying donkeys. During the summer months much of the cacophony comes from the chicks, triangular fluffballs with bottomless stomachs that are constantly pestering their parents for a feed.

You can see the penguins, you can hear the penguins, but what the postcards and nature documentaries don’t tell you is that the birds could do with an industrial-scale drenching in coco chanel. In short, they stink. The guano combination of fish and krill that coats the rocks throughout the rookeries can be seen from afar and smelt from even further.

This aroma did not deter early scientists from getting up close and personal with the wee waddlers. The ‘Fit for a FID’ cookbook details researchers’ recipes from the 1950s, and has a whole section dedicated to penguins. The author prefaces the section with the admission that ‘when cooking penguin, I have an awful feeling inside of me that I am cooking little men who are just that little too curious and stupid.’ These days penguin is off the menu, and we photograph penguin nests instead of devouring penguin breasts. Nevertheless, some people come up with interesting new ways of communing with the colonies. Turning around to find two human-sized penguins posing with their Lilliputian relatives was a surprise, to say the least.

Antarctica is much more than penguins and photo opportunities, but no trip south would be complete without a mention of both. Sure, if you lie still photographing the penguins for long enough a southern giant petrel may decide you resemble a tasty snack, but at least there are no roaming polar bears to finish you off. In that respect, it’s just like home after all.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

South and South-er

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This week I find myself writing from a location that is far further south than I ever bargained for when I moved to the Mainland. Forget Canterbury’s balmy 43 degree latitude:  these days I have become intimately acquainted with the Antarctic Circle, thanks to a summer stint lecturing on a cruise ship that is South Pole bound.

Now, I’m no stranger to sea air. Auckland is the city of sails, with harbours and islands galore, and the one thing I have missed most whilst living in Methven is the ocean. Getting on board a ship that spends four out of ten days out of sight of any land appears to be the perfect antidote to any salty cravings I may have experienced whilst living in the mountains.

Nevertheless, living in a ski resort town has primed me well for Antarctica in several regards. First, the snow. Winters in Methven have toughened me up enough to be able to face icebergs with pluck and only one pair of gloves, purchased from Four Square at the end of the ski season. It’s been great to get up and personal with the kind of tabular icebergs on which our local ovine hero Shrek was shorn some years back. Not even sub zero temperatures can detract from the delight I gain from seeing guests’ faces when I tell them this anecdote from my homeland.

Secondly, wide open spaces. Both Antarctica and the South Island are renowned for their photogenic nature and their wide uninhabited expanses. Down here there is a distinct lack of sheep, famous or not, but the glacial valleys are reminiscent of an icier version of the Milford Sounds. The seals that lounge around their fringes more than make up for any woolly deficit: with several million such seals to a human population that numbers in the thousands, they far outdo the efforts of their four legged friends in the mammal to man ratio.

Thirdly, living in a small community. When I first moved down from Auckland I could not have imagined living in a town of 1000 people. Working on board a ship with just over 100 staff, a four digit population count starts to sound like the busiest of bustling metropolises. Having visited several Antarctic Bases where the tour of duty exceeds two years and the population count barely makes double figures, I have come to appreciate the new blood that floods into our area with each new ski season. Our small town will never seem small in quite the same way again.

I’ve swapped sheep for shags and pigs for penguins as I get up close and personal with the source of our biting southerly winds, but I would not swap this experience for the world. There are so many new sights and sounds to experience every day, from breaching humpback whales to the unmistakably fishy smell of penguin guano. Heading south off the map to a place where the sea and the mountains come together under snow has put life back home in perspective and made me appreciate both latitudes all the more.

Originally published in The Ashburton Guardian

An Antarctic Address Book

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The Southern continent has been making its mark on New Zealand of
late, with snow falling low into the Canterbury foothills on the end
of an Antarctic breeze.

In the past few weeks I have had a taste of what it is like to live
even further south, thanks to our guided tours of several Antarctic
research stations: China’s year round Great Wall Station, Argentina’s
Almirante Brown summer base, and the British museum of Port Lockroy.
Despite the geographical distance, there are more similarities between
such stations and my house in Methven than you might think.

Otherwise known as ‘The Penguin Post Office’, Port Lockroy is one of
the most known tourist sites on the Antarctic Peninsula. Built in 1944
as part of a secret wartime military operation, it was then used by
British scientists up until the 1960s.

These days it acts as a museum, illustrating what life was like in
Antarctica half a century ago. On my first visit I was surprised to
see that the Esse coal stove in the kitchen was identical to the one
in our kitchen at home. While everyone else was oohing and aahhing
over the antique appliance and muttering about the chilly draft, I was
quietly impressed by the place. Compared to a weatherboard house from
1925, the hut was rather cosy.

Great Wall Station was much better insulated, with buildings built on
stilts to resist the buildup of winter ice. The large blue building in
the middle of the complex was reminiscent of the Blue Pub, although
the station’s population would not have filled our local bar. The
summer maximum of 40 inhabitants suddenly made all the rural
settlements in our area seem like bustling metropolises.

There are now over 60 research bases in Antarctica, with the peninsula
being the most populated area. It takes a special kind of person to
spend a whole year in Antarctica, let alone two or more. At our visit
to Brown Station we saw evidence of what happens when you put the
wrong sort of person in such an environment: the charred remains of
the original 1984 base are courtesy of the station doctor. When told
he would be required for a second winter season, he promptly burnt the
place down to ensure a ride out of there. Luckily we have State
Highway One heading through Ashburton, so if the going gets really
tough, there is always the option of taking an excursion to the Big
Smoke.

Down here in Antarctica we’ve enjoyed tea with the Chinese, strong
black coffee with the Argentinians, and admired the English Esse, but
I really am looking forward to a steaming mug of milo on my return.
There are many different places to visit, but there really is no place
like home.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

Ice Songs

“O penguin, have you ever heard the bagpipes play? Have you ever watched knees freeze beneath a kilt of Scottish pride? Have you ever been tethered and sung for your freedom and inspired headlines far across the globe? Go. Collect your stones. Remain ignorant of the nuances of tonal music. Raise your beak in salutation so the photographer can pretend that he, too was really, truly THERE.”
 
While this sort of behaviour may not be condoned in Antarctica anymore, music is still very important down on the continent. From homegrown band nights to trippy wildlife soundtracks, there is far more for the ears to discover than the famed Antarctic silence.
 
Before leaving Christchurch I asked my musical friends to recommend music that would enhance the Antarctic experience. One thing I’d noticed was that all of the films of the continent were accompanied by sweeping orchestral tracks, designed to tap into one’s emotions and make one really feel in awe of the sights. In light of this, I decided I needed a soundtrack of my own in order to maximize the experience. Pieces suggested included Sibelius, Nielsen, John Cage’s string quartet, Ralph Vaughn Williams’ Sinfonia Antarctica’, and, more bizarrely, ‘Antarctica’ by the Weepies.
 
Despite having lofty aural aspirations before taking off, Bryan Crump’s suggestion of an “Anti ice atmospheric track” featuring Abba, A-Ha, Aqua, or JPSE turned out to be closer to the mark. Upon landing on the ice and boarding Ivan the Terrabus to be ferried over to Scott Base we were serenaded by the Beatles’ good old Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band. Not exactly the coldest of tunes, but it set the scene for what would be an aurally interesting few weeks.
 
In our group we were lucky enough to have Sue Ferrar, who is not only the granddaughter of the geologist from Scott’s Discovery expedition, but also an accomplished musician. Her desire to travel to Antarctica was motivated by her family connection and she wanted to play her violin in the Discovery hut as a tribute to her grandfather. Listening to the violin articulate her version of the setting as the strains wafted over the hessian curtains at Hut Point was spellbinding. An improv musician, she let the violin tell the story she could see, and while she did so, people hardly dared to breathe.
 
The rest of our cohort were not so musically talented. The lad in charge of Christmas carols was not accustomed to celebrating Christmas on the summer side of the globe either, so while he was belting out the words to ‘Winter Wonderland’ we were all scratching out heads and thinking of the Beaurepaires ad. Sure, ‘Christmas on the Beach’ would have seemed a bit out of place on the Ross Ice Shelf, but the majority of us had had no experience whatsoever of ‘roasting chestnuts on an open fire’.
 
The local wildlife put our own caroling ambitions to shame, with the song of the Weddell seal trumping even the best of our Chrsitmas choristers. Whales sing underwater symphonies, but Weddell seals out-zane Led Zeppelin. Shooting stars ricochet under ice, strobing and zigzagging and bouncing off your eardrums inside of your brain in ways that the drab speckling of their blubber and rock-pool shine of their eyes would never have you believe. Rock-stars in disguise, they party to the underwater trace, enticing those more accustomed to the whales’ sigh to change the channel, dare to experiment, live a little. Next time we’re playing a party game and I have to choose an animal that knows how to party, lemurs are out and Weddells are in, baby.
 
All in all, Antarctica offers a very interesting soundscape and one quite far removed from the one I imagined before going down there. While it’s not really the done thing to force penguins to listen to our musical preferences these days, I will be tuning in to see what else comes out of the ice in years to come.

The Longest Day

PetePics_1003As the morning light seeps through the blinds in downtown Ashburton and stains the fridge golden, it’s hard to believe this is the same sun that stood watch over my entire Antarctica trip. It’s a good place to start a narrative though because although most of the trip was like an action movie on fast-forward playing out in a giant freezer, the sun stayed lazy and took its time.

During the summer months it never gets dark in Antarctica so in some ways it is like walking right into a Dali painting, the kind where the sky hangs like treacle and melted clocks prevent the future from ever happening. For my 14 University of Canterbury classmates and I that didn’t matter, because we had made it to The Ice for our two week field trip and were in no hurry to return home.

Upon arrival the first thing that struck me was the noise. Antarctica is renowned for its great silence, but we were welcomed by the rumbling engine of our C17 and serenaded by The Beatles on our way over to Scott Base. Not exactly the coldest of tunes, but it set the scene for what would be an interesting few weeks.

After two days of field training at Scott Base we climbed into two Hägglunds and made our way out to the deserted ice shelf at Windless Bight. We were being treated to the ultimate polar experience, camping in the same sort of polar tents Scott and Amundsen used on their race to the pole. The weather must have been prewarned about our desire for authenticity because on day two the wind picked up, visibility dropped to 50m and the wind chill let us know what ‘cold’ really meant. Hunkering down and weathering the storm whilst reading the diaries of explorers who did the same was somewhat surreal.

Luckily the storm was short lived and we had brilliant blue skies under which to conduct our science over the next week. Measuring snow density, doing a seal census and doing a geological survey were all on the menu and designed to give us a taste of what field work in Antarctica is really like.

Spending a day out on the sea ice reading seals’ tags was a highlight of the trip and the closest we got to Antarctic wildlife, save the two very lost penguins who visited out camp at Christmas. Whales sing underwater symphonies, but Weddell seals out-zane Led Zeppelin. Their calls ricochet like electric guitars under ice in ways that the drab speckling of their blubber and rock-pool shine of their eyes would never have you believe. Rock-stars in disguise, they party to the underwater trace, enticing those more accustomed to the whales’ sigh to change the channel, dare to experiment, live a little.

We did a lot of experimenting over the course of the trip, mainly with layering and unlayering clothes. While the nights required down jackets and inevitably led to frozen boots, the reflected light created a far better sun bed than any white sand beach and some days the sun felt warmer than back home. That may have had something to do with our black thermals soaking it up and causing us to pose as if we were in an advert for Speights as ‘Southern Women’, but being hot was not something I expected to experience in the coldest place on earth, not even in summer.

Back home in NZ everyone knows that summer equals sunscreen, and it’s no different in Antarctica. No different except for the fact that there is no ‘no burn’ time and protection is essential even at 2am. It was a bizarre feeling to be reaching to the SPF100 well past midnight and even stranger having to remember to dab it up into your nostrils because of the strength of the reflected UV rays. It was equally bizarre to be digging a snow cave at 1am and still have our pit lit up like a stage. We figured the whole sleep thing could wait until morning and the hyperactive sun did nothing to dissuade us from that view.

Santa, however, did. The next morning was Christmas and we were woken by his cherry ‘ho ho ho’ booming through our snow palace. It was time to get up and about, dig a Christmas table to sit around, partake in Shackleton’s finest whiskey and warble tunelessly about the white Christmas we no longer had to dream about. The Whiskey was a replica of the bottles found in Shackleton’s hut and perfect for making toasts to explorers past and present, especially given that we were celebrating exactly 100 years after Amundsen and Scott’s race to the Pole.

History played an important role in the trip and our last stop was Scott’s hut at Cape Evans. It was from there that Scott and his men launched their fateful expedition in 1911, bound for the South Pole. Packed full of artefacts that had been painstakingly restored, the detail of the place was astounding and the hut was full of memories, concentrated within the white landscape in the one wooden structure. Standing inside, the term ‘frozen in time’ took on a new meaning, but it was also a reminder that our time was coming to a close.
I was struck by the amazing light, where the shafts of sun seemed to hypnotise the dust, trapping it in limbo. That light has stayed with me as an indelible memory of my time in Antarctica and my longest day, even as the sun slides off the edge of the fridge and is gone.

Hanne Nielsen was a student on the University of Canterbury’s Postgraduate Certificate in Antarctic Studies course over the 2011/2012 Summer, run by Gateway Antarctica. Article originally published in The Ashburton Guardian. Photo: Peter Wilson

M(Ant) Progress Report

(i)
On the top floor of the library
a book lies sideways
on the top of the shelving
losing its identity
under layers of dust

(ii)
Without the disguise of a dust jacket
aging fabric yellows
as the worlds inside the pages
batter against the spine,
afflicted by locked in syndrome
of the literary kind

(iii)
Paperback versions
of the end of the world
congregate on my dresser
like a jenga tower.
Ice sandwiches knowledge
in seasonal layers,
waiting to be drilled
and perilously close to collapse.

(iv)
$4.25 may not sound like much
but for a grad student
who has just dodged a fine
for late library books,
it’s a small victory.

South Wind I (Autumn)

The wind grows fat, fed by the polar ice
Forecasters predict a cold snap as she flexes her muscles
Prompting ripples that collect into swells
And parade their taughtness against the cliffs of the west
Boy, can she pull a punch!

She twists her lithe body through treetops and powerlines
Doing pull ups and resistance training
Until the branches and wires can resist her grasp no more

She tries out her lungs, howling like a newborn
Screaming like a teenager
Sighing like a mother with furrowed brow
Grumbling, groaning, whining, puffing,
growing

Until she is ready to step into the ring
Rattling the windows
In search of a worthy opponent:
Wake up!

Her hibernation is over.
As summer slinks out the back door
She comes in the front
With a BANG!