"Antarctic Reverie"    [ 01 ]   
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Jan 2015

"I would like ~ if I may ~ to take you on a strange journey..."

Once in a while, my girls go off on some adventure, I bet.. and I am left to my own devices for a change. I like to jump in our SUV and zip off to some art-house theater for an obscure documentary or somesuch that would undoubtedly bore them to tears, but I would find imminently fascinating. For reasons unknown, the concept of living in Antarctica has for some time now hovered along the edge of my investigative horizons like a skirting midnight sun, so on the last day of my Christmas holiday I caught "Antarctica: A Year on Ice". Here is the American trailer for it, and the quite-different-in-tone international trailer. Until now, my working knowledge of living in Antarctica has been limited to an oversized photo book I gave to my father last Christmas (who loves it) and Sokka & Katara from the Southern Water Tribe in "Avatar". But seriously, I wonder what it is really like to live down there for any length of time .. or maybe even winter through the dark, long, insanely cold night that lasts for months..?   :-|

Phoenix boasts two major theater chains (not counting the knock-offs and $2.00 cheapo independents). Of these powerhouses, Harkins edges out AMC if for no other reason than their stellar popcorn & soda deals. Nobody likes going to the movies and having to fork over another $20+ just for snacks ... you can get a large soda & an über-large popcorn at Harkins for a scant $3.00. Yes, it is that awesome. ~ But I digress . .

The two best art-film theaters in town are both Harkins: one on Mill Avenue, with a total of one (1) screen, and the other in Scottsdale, called the Camelview 5. The screen that usually shows the weird European animated films Jessi & I love (and other cryptic fare) is the last one down the hall, screen #5. That's where I found Antarctica in Phoenix, Arizona, in this tiny theater housing less than 60 seats. The screen itself seems not much more than a big-screen projection TV. Six other souls were there with me grokking previews for foreign films like "Winter Sleep" and "Two Days, One Night", and the "Jiro-Dreams-of-Sushi" wanna-be "Deli Man". These are all Weird Movies .. or at least many leagues beyond the standard-issue American Hollywood machine. The few independent &/or foreign films I manage to catch in any given year are absolutely captivating, often introducing to me completely new realities and world perspectives.  ~ I love it. ~

"Antarctica: A Year on Ice" was concocted by Anthony Powell over 10 years, and features some pretty epic time-lapse sequences. This is demonstrated within the first five minutes of the film with a time-lapse shot of another tracking time-lapse camera filming — what else? — the director constructing a time-lapse camera on his cluttered work bench. ( ~ so meta ~ ) But plenty of other TL showcases reveal the breathtaking span of the Milky Way galaxy fastened in a brilliant night sky overflowing with multi-colored stars, arcing gracefully over a dark frozen land... a one-day complete 360° panorama of McMurdo Station... solid ice formations moving over time... and the sun creeping behind darkened mountains like a thief of light. For the mere price of a matinee ticket you can journey to the end of the world and see things you never can, and never will, for as long as you live. ...With Popcorn. ~ So worth it!

My curiosity with Antarctica was not triggered by the onslaught of penguin movies flooding American theaters over the past decade. One of my musical heroes composed the soundtrack for an obscure 1983 documentary that I've never seen, featuring this sweeping anthem: "Antarctica" —( not the cheese-chopped short version found on his "Themes" compilation, but the 7½ minute opus in all of its glory )— And this was enough for me. But then a couple of years ago, I happened to catch this video online demonstrating "Condition 1" weather in Antarctica:

( Click this link to view this video in a separate Vimeo page )

After thinking, "What is Kathy Bates doing in Antarctica?" I watched it again and gave some real consideration to those statistics... -100°F/-60°C . . . I lived in Minnesota for a couple of years and know what -30°F feels like. Engine blocks in cars crack at that temperature if not plugged in overnight to a garage outlet. Though you can't see this, I know a little of what it feels like when The Weather flings open that door and immediately sucks out any residual warmth that may have been hovering around your face... And this is over twice below zero anything I ever experienced... Though this video is a preview moment from "Antarctica: A Year on Ice", there were no promotional titles in the original video when I first saw it. But it certainly did intrigue me... Is it like this all the time there? What are these people DOING there?! What kind of accommodations can maintain a human population indefinitely in such conditions? This movie answers all of these questions, and offers much much more . . .

The film hops around a few points of interest, which are admittedly stark and limited in Antarctica, centering primarily on the largest settlement, the U.S. McMurdo Research Station. ◄ This Wikipedia link explains a lot about this outpost, offering a stack of great web·links toward the bottom. It's like some harsh frontier town ratcheted down against the cold and marred by permanent construction/re-construction efforts, muddy, torn up, and rough-looking, populated by denizens in puffy winter gear. Temperatures hover at a balmy 0°C during the summer months (October-February) but rarely drop to below -40°during the long winter. This is considered 'mild' compared to other international research stations peppered around the continent. The Transantarctic Mountain range protects McMurdo from the worst of Antarctica's interior cold waves. Other research stations and outposts are not so fortunate, like Neumayer Station (Germany) for instance, which braces nonstop against the ceaseless cold blast at the bottom of the world.

Antarctica is larger than the entire United States of America yet only about 5,000 souls live there during the summer months, with a hardy few 700 or so opting to winter over. There is No Leaving once you commit to winter there, and no sunlight for most of that time, just a horizon-rimming glow at either end of the very long winter... dead cold BLACK for months on end, punctuated only by the star field and auroras visible when the midnight clouds break.

 McMurdo Station

It is a land of ice, snow, and volcanic rock. That's it. During a number of opening shots, most notably showing "the Dry Valley" where no ice or snow remains, I thought this place is about as close to Mars on earth as could ever be found. With current talk about sending one-way pioneers to Mars in a few years, I wonder how much NASA training this place will see in the next decade? They will likely use this place as their base of operations:

Dry Valley (Wright Valley) — [ ROLLOVER ]
 Dry Valley

McMurdo Station is carved into the permafrost on one edge of Ross Island, though you would never know it's an island given how snow and ice cover everything, sometimes hundreds of feet thick/high. Looking at the hazy globe in the photo above, New Zealand is located at about the 4:00 or 5:00 position. If you go straight south from there across the Southern Ocean you will eventually find your way to McMurdo Station clinging to these frozen shores:

McMurdo Station at the foot ▲ of Mount Erebus (photo by Melanie Conner)
 McMurdo Station

McMurdo Station
 McMurdo Station

A man stands in the middle of a bright bleak sunny day and explains that it's 12:00 midnight during their summer.  :-\  Later in the film, he stands at the same spot in the blackest night to inform us that it is 12:00 noon, wintertime.  :-/  During the summer months, ships are able to navigate through the ice to their one port of call, bringing new people and supplies, and taking away collected refuse and folks who have had quite enough of the cold and the dark, thank you. Non-commercial flights are another way to get in and out there. But again, all of this ends between in March, when only the Winter People remain.

No pets are allowed at McMurdo Station, and no kids (obviously), but plenty of weird personalities. Mostly male. One of their cultural maxims for the few women daring enough to work there observes how "the odds are good, but the goods are odd."  Heh..  I guess you have to be a little off-kilter to commit yourself to these kinds of unthinkable extremes on purpose, which is ironic because everyone working there has to pass a psychological examination as a part of their application process. Even the international country code for Antarctica is weird (but also kind of cool): 'AQ'.

Everyone who stays there for any long-term period is there only For A Reason. Nobody just lives in Antarctica like you might live, say, in South Carolina. Everyone is either a scientist doing some form of research, or fills one of many specialized support positions like: electrician, engineer, food service, et cetera. I will include some links below for those interested in checking out what is required to actually visit McMurdo in Antarctica IRL (outside of ridiculous tourism) . ..

No single country claims sovereignty over Antarctica; rather, it is sliced into different political regions by agreement under the 'Antarctic Treaty'. Just three miles away from McMurdo is the much smaller New Zealand outpost of Scott Base. While McMurdo houses around 1,200 denizens during summer (200± in winter) Scott Base boasts a whopping 80 (10-14 in winter). McMurdo is by far the heaviest populated base or station on the continent, and closest of them all to Mt. Erebus (3,794 m / 12,448 ft). In case your volcanology is a bit rusty, Mt. Erebus is the southernmost active volcano in the world, located on good ol' Ross island about 10 miles away from party station McMurdo. I'm kind of kidding.. but kinda not, as the personalities there tend to give in to celebrations of any sort, playing instruments, dressing up in ad-hoc costumes, hosting plays and generally making merry with whatever props are handy. Being so near the South Pole, Christmas is naturally a big deal there. Most everyone dresses up as Santa. Another huge holiday is the Winter Solstice (June 21-ish) as described in this article. And their home-grown 'Ice Stock' rock festival has become a grander event each year over the last dozen years or so. Yes, seriously. Look it up .. people freezing and sipping beers all bundled up in poofy jackets occasionally hopping around in front of the bandstand to the sonic grooves of Steel Penguin, MüschKnückle, the Safety Band, and Banana Hog ... all in the open broad daylight of mid-summer.

Beyond that, wildlife is pretty sparse around these parts. The movie shows off a few seals, the indigenous Adelie penguins, and "IVAN" THE [GIANT] TERRA BUS, as well as 'WinFly' ("Winter Fly-in") if you're counting utilitarian transports... A bit of trivia for you: penguins only live in Antarctic regions, whereas polar bears live only in the Arctic Circle (North Pole). A whole planet literally exists between them, so they will never be found in the same habitat. (Great news for penguins!) So if you have seen otherwise = Photoshop.  :-]

Retail store
NZ heli-pilot
Operations Mgr 
i forget — —
...she works at Cape Bird?

The movie features a number of 'residents' in particular, some of whom are listed at right... And virtually everyone seems like just really excellent people, you know? They refer to their time there as "living on the ice"; hence the film's title. But the things they have to put up with are astounding, like after one of those Condition 1's blows through, we are shown how just a tiny crack near the ceiling in a cabin/shed results in thick cascading mounds of snow and ice covering virtually everything inside. He pulls open the door of a tractor cabin after the storm. The entire thing is packed full of snow. Packed. 100% top to bottom.

...and I thought scraping windshields in Minnesota was a challenge.

Wintering in Antarctica can be psychologically brutal even with all their modern amenities. Just imagine the world getting consistently darker and darker all the way through April until finally there just is no sun for the next four months solid... just dark, black, and cold ~ coldest in August ~ after which time the sun starts hinting back along the horizon's edge like some sort of Alternate Reality! (In a sense, it is precisely that) One common side effect of wintering over is the occurrence of something called 'Polar T3 Syndrome', which is a reduction in levels of the thyroid hormone T3, usually manifesting in fun, team-building effects such as...

  • Behavioral disturbances

  • Forgetfulness

  • Insomnia

  • Depression

  • Irritability

  • Cognitive impairment
T 3
T·3 'TX'

It can also bring about a fugue state known as the 'Antarctic stare' which sounds like some kind of cool music group at 'Ice Stock', but really is not. A fugue state is where you just seriously zone right the heck OUT for indefinite periods of time. —( Not a good time to be operating any heavy equipment in Antarctica )— For some people, this unique sense of foreboding begins the moment they watch the last WinFly clear off from the summer icefield runway. However, there are others who seem to thrive in the long dark night. Lots of books get read and passed around, moves are viewed, video games played and mastered, ad-hoc shows are hosted, and drinking abounds..

It is such a shame, too, because the night sky over Antarctica is so amazing, almost transcendental:

South Pole Stars (photo by Rob Isaac)
 South Pole Stars

Watching this roll across the night sky again and again, uninterrupted by any sunrise, brings to mind Scriptures describing the awe which is visible in God's interstellar design, evident to all the world over but all the moreso here...

The heavens declare the glory of God;
  the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
  night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
  no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
  their words to the ends of the world...
—  Psalm 19:1-4  
Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens:
  Who created all these?
He who brings out the starry host one by one
  and calls forth each of them by name.
Because of his great power and mighty strength,
  not one of them is missing.      —  Isaiah 40:26
He determines the number of the stars
and calls them each by name.    —  Psalm 147:4
South Pole aurora and stars (photo by Marie McLane)
 McMurdo Station

This, coupled with the occasional aurora, must be something incredibly profound to experience in-person, braving the other-worldly cold to cast your gaze up for as long as you can stand it. A permanent and very expensive telescope system is located at the South Pole, some 1,000 miles inland from McMurdo. It is eruditely called the South Pole Telescope, and if you ever want to visit, you could just drive there along the "McMurdo-South Pole Highway", also known as the South Pole Traverse. This route courses one thousand miles deep into the heart of Antarctica. Just think about that for a second... driving in some ultra heavy-gear tractor/truck thing, following a trail of flags on wavering poles that stick up from out of the ice every so often. That is your 'road'. Hope some of those flags haven't blown away... hope you don't break down. Hope a white-out storm does not descend upon you... There are no service stations of any kind ~ nothing for a thousand miles in every direction . . . Most people just fly to the South Pole these days to visit the telescope and the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. But for you real adventurers out there, I have mapped the route of the South Pole Highway in a light dotted line just to give you an idea:

South Pole 'Highway'
 Antarctica / McMurdo

The South Pole Telescope (photo by Keith Vanderlinde)
 McMurdo Station

In my zeal after leaving the theater, thoughts filled my head of, you know, maybe going down there myself one day just to check it all out, and maybe write a book about it, the people I would meet there, their stories and what brought them to Antarctica, where they are hoping to go next... But it turns out I'm way behind the times... Scores of others have done this very thing, chronicling their adventures to the frozen continent and sharing about the people they have met along their journey. This movie itself is just another facet in that chiseled jewel of growing knowledge and experience. So, as promised, I give you a heap o' lynx for you to explore from the warmth and safety of your own computer screen (just construction-dumped below much in the manner of McMurdo Station):

SHOULD you travel to Antarctica?  Here's a website that asks that question!

The reality about landing a job in Antarctica...

Q&A: "I Spent a Year at McMurdo Station in Antarctica" - couple of years old, but seems brutally honest and informative.

Opportunities to travel/work in Antarctica . . .. and another one . . . and another one. More work: here. A practical guide on How to Travel to Antarctica on a Budget by Victor's Travels. And some notes on Antarctic Culture ... (??)

 Oceanwide Expeditions

The Boring Details of Life at McMurdo Station by Scott Afar.

Here is a young man's video tour of the South Pole Station (30 min).

Here is a Trip to Antarctica video (16 min) and a documentary "Under the Antarctic" (52½ min).

A bunch of tourist [!!] pix at this photo-filled site!

Oceanwide Expeditions (logo at right) offers Antarctic adventure tours in a price range they call "Exclusive" ~ just a guess, but I'm betting it's a bit beyond my pay scale...

Bonus Link: "The World's Craziest Road Trips" features a photo from the South Pole Highway.  :-)

And just because this is brand new news and incredibly fascinating in its own right, here are a couple of links about more of those crazy scientist antics down there, drilling through 2,500 feet of ice down to the heart of the Antarctic continent itself (called the "grounding zone"), only to discover liquid water and LIFE down there — short article / long article — opening a window to conditions that could be similar to what might be found on Europa, a moon of Jupiter!

How wild is that!?

Another visit-to-Antarctica movie came out a few years ago: "Encounters at the End of the World" (2007). It got mixed reviews, with one critic writing:

Watch this, and see how he interviews his subjects. He is trying to cast them as beautiful souls doomed be a part of the ugliness of humanity. Some of the interviews are staged or rehearsed. He admits this. I know the words are genuinely from the people who speak them, but the narrative is false. Herzog has this notion — this essentially Austrian notion — that nature is only full when it is cruel, stark and dangerous. Humanity is unnatural; only a few butterfly souls escape, and they are to be cherished.

So look here: we have his usual Wagnerian chorus, using internationally fused sounds. We have some nature, always presented as cosmically unfriendly. We have episodes that underscore the hopeless weakness of society. And we have characters that engage and inspire. But it all seems so desperately constructed here. Whether he likes it or not, he has simply made a penguin film, but with humans.

And another book records a not-so-flattering journey through the South in 2005's "Big Dead Place" by Nicholas Johnson & Eirik Sønneland. Doesn't sound too promising, eh? "Antarctica: A Year on Ice" is not so sardonic as these. It is a refreshing and eye-opening experience filled with wonder and interesting characters. I am certain I'm not the only one who was so impressed with it. I post my own perspectives in this blog... others might start clicking on the links provided to work out a plan to visit the place themselves! Follow in Amundsen and Shackleton's ski-prints... ~ I'm not sure I could be ready for that.. still have a couple of kids to raise...  But who knows? I think I might possibly like to check out that loooong night sky for a while...  Seems ** awfully ** COLD ** though .. .  :-]

 "The Thing"

I don't know if I will watch 'Encounters' or read this book, but I am intrigued by the real stories of what it's like to really go there. In the meantime, I scored a copy of John Carpenter's sci-fi/horror classic "The Thing" (1982) ~ not for the squeamish. I'm not kidding. If you have never seen this movie, it goes so far off the rails when the creature starts mutating that you might need a barf bucket and some Holy Water to clean yourself up with afterward. It's a perennial favorite down South, along with "The Shining", which I'm not linking to cuz I don't favor it as much. Such video faves are not mentioned in 'A Year on Ice'; I just sort of found out while gathering resources for this entry. But if you watch "The Thing", it is equally as nasty as "The Fly" (1986) if not worse ..  ( you've been warned )

Ooh! I just found another book by yet another soul entranced by the Great White South, "Antarctica: An Intimate Portrait of a Mysterious Continent" by Gabrielle Walker. I might have to check that one out, too.. . She not only chronicles her own travels, but also writes about the 100-year history of humans in Antarctica — .. the same sort of stuff I would have collected into one narrative years ago had I thought to journey there to Write ... oh well.  :-]

I leave you with this link to three live cameras positioned around McMurdo Station — Antarctica·Cam!  However, these are "often obscured due to harsh and unpredictable weather conditions." (Heh.. I'll bet...) At this writing, it is the height of their summer season, so chances are good that they will have plenty to show. For now. Just click on the tabs across the bottom when you get to their web page . . .

 McMurdo CAM

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