Now that I’m back in the States, I’ll recount the details of my last weekend on the ice.
Saturday, 12 Jan 08, was the official dedication of the new South Pole Station (a.k.a. the Elevated Station, the South Pole Station Modernization, the habitrail, etc.). In a series of daylong ceremonies, the torch was symbolically passed from the Dome to the new Station. Early in the morning, a group photo was taken in front of the Dome for all interested Polies. I’d guess that maybe 75-100 of us showed up for the photo.
Once the photo was taken, the US flag that had been flying over the Dome was lowered and passed hand-to-hand from the Dome to the new Station. Everyone got a chance to hand the flag along, and since there was more ground to cover than people, many people got to hand it along twice. The official flag raising was scheduled for the afternoon, so the flag was securely stowed in Comms, and then the ceremonial Pole and its bevy of attendant flags were moved. This involved a whole parade of folks from different nations and ethnicities. For instance, a Kiwi moved the New Zealand flag, a Japanese-American moved the Japanese flag, and a Norwegian-American moved the Norwegian flag. Once the ceremonial Pole was moved so that it was centered on the new Station, we once again assembled and another photo was taken with the ceremonial Pole in the front and the station serving as a background.
You might imagine that all this pomp and circumstance would take some time given that there were a hundred or more people involved. In reality, we had the whole thing done in less than ninety minutes. The weather that morning was a bit on the chilly side and even when you’re dressed for it, cold can be a great motivating factor.
A couple of hours later, the DVs started flying in for their part in the ceremonies. For the most part, this involved speechifying to each other in the gym and being driven around on a tour of the Station and its outlying science projects. In the afternoon they all trotted outdoors in their ECW to watch the flag raising at the new Station. Shortly thereafter, they all went back into the Station for a dinner of lobster tails, filet mignon, fancy hors d’oeuvres, and table service before starting their journey back to NZ. Us working schlubs were, of course, working during all that and there definitely wasn’t any table service at our dinner. Regardless, we got the same food and I shared a bottle of wine with some co-workers during dinner that improved the food a bit.
On Monday I finished packing up my room and caught an LC-130 flight back to McMurdo. It wasn’t a terribly crowded flight, maybe nine people total. Then I got to spend a night in McMurdo, which only reinforced my perception that things are generally better at the Pole. Tuesday, around noon, I rode in a shuttle out to Pegasus, the ice runway where we would catch the C-17 inbound from Christchurch for our flight back to the so-called real world. While we were waiting for the cargo in the plane to be unloaded, four Adelie penguins went running and belly-sliding under the C-17 and off towards open water. This was fun to see, and let me assure, penguins can move fast when they want. Of course, these were completely unperturbed by the massive airplane, all the people, the refueling operation, and the machinery to remove cargo from the hold. Eventually, the plane was emptied and refilled with cargo headed back to NZ and we were allowed onboard. Once we got onboard, the plane taxied back onto the ice runway, and proceeded to sit there. After five minutes of just sitting there with all the engines running, the pilot came over the PA system to announce that the plane couldn’t take off because a penguin was on the runway. Another five minutes elapsed, and the penguin finally cleared the runway so we could take off.
Five hours later we landed in New Zealand. As usual, the humidity and smells of New Zealand were overwhelming. When you’ve spent over a month in a place with 0-3% humidity, the humidity in the air of a city on an ocean is delightful. Even more delightful (most of the time), is the acute sense of smell you develop on the ice. When you spend all your time in the so-called real world, you are constantly assaulted with smells and they all blend together in a miasma that is difficult to parse for individual scents unless one is particularly overpowering. On the ice, there simply aren’t many sources of smell. The galley is one; the smell of people not bathing regularly is another. The handful of cleaners and solvents used on the ice have smells as do fuels. BO doesn’t really register with your nose unless you’re around someone who just skied in and hasn’t seen a shower for a month. Other than that, there aren’t many smells to occupy the nose and it gets fairly sensitive. When you get off the plane in New Zealand there is suddenly a world of scents competing for your attention and you’d be surprised at when you can smell. Sarah and I would be walking down a street in Christchurch and a man or woman would pass us in the other direction. I would recoil from the almost crushing scent of their cologne or perfume and Sarah wouldn’t smell a thing. We’d walk by entire beds of flowers at twenty feet or so and I’d comment how nice they smelled and she’d say that she couldn’t smell a thing. In about a week or so, your nose returns to a semblance of normality, about the time that your skin starts to recover from the extreme dryness at the Pole.