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Thanksgiving in a Tent

November 29, 2014

Tent_1The week of Thanksgiving I slept like the Pilgrims, in a tent below freezing outside without plumbing or fossil fuels. However, there was 24/7 solar as well as my own body heat. Here is what it looked like, Monday morning. This particular tent I inherited from a taller student who couldn’t sit up straight in it. Each tent is positioned in a “historic” spot where tents have been before. This is part of the NSF extreme attention to minimizing human disturbance of the protected Dry Valley ASMA (Antarctic Specially Managed Area). Other areas are more restricted; for example even overflights are prohibited over the Barwick Valley region.


After unzipping the main door, here is the front porch of dry valley sand. The rock holds my sleeping bag to keep it from sliding downhill into the back of the tent. My right foot has an extra sock because my toe is sore and won’t fit into a boot today.


And here is the view. A cloud layer crosses the glaciers today—that’s new, for this desert.

As I climbed down to the camp, my sock foot worked surprisingly well in the dry sand. Why don’t they make boots more flexible, like a sock? But the camp was horrified to see me without a boot, so they called NSF for a Medivac (medical evacuation). That is, a first-class seat on the next helicopter back to McMurdo. Conveniently, this would be the today’s helo, which Amy’s group needs to get their live samples back to the lab for assay. Amy’s group is assaying whether the lake microbes are more growth-limited by nitrogen or by phosphorus. “Growth limited” means that which nutrient falls short first, ending microbial growth. If you provide  the nutrient, you get an algal bloom—like lakes in Ohio.

But the weather has changed. It’s snowing.


It’s actually snowing in the Antarctic desert. If you look closely, you can see the big frosty flakes. Across the lake, the mountain is beautifully etched in snow like powdered sugar.


This snow may not look like much, but meanwhile around McMurdo we hear there are tons of snow, and even Condition 1 weather (the kind where everybody is ordered to stay indoors). So there will be no helos today. Amy’s team will have to resample fresh microbes from a hole tomorrow.

The good thing is, my toe cleared up fine with Ibuprofen. But NSF refused to rescind the Medivac order. NSF works on an abundance of caution; safety is always the first priority. Thus, old-timers say they never report injuries unless they’re half dead. So  I still have a first-class seat on the helo, whenever that will be.

 The camp needs comfort food. It’s my turn for dinner, so I used what ingredients we had to bake something like my mother’s lasagna. There was plenty of mozzarella, but the ricotta was actually mayonnaise.

Meanwhile, Rachael has compiled results of our time-course experiment. Much of the data collected here is long term, and won’t be analyzed till later. But Rachael has used the fluorimeter in camp to measure the densities of green algae and yellow algae at 15 meters depth, over the past several weeks.

The data show that the yellow algae are outcompeting the green algae at this depth, the depth where the most organisms live. This is interesting because yellow algae are mixotrophs; they can gain energy from eating organic foods, in addition to photosynthesis. It’s as if they are combination animal-plants. The green algae, with the strongest photosynthesis, dominate in the surface water, where the light is most intense; but at the lower depth, the yellow algae do better, perhaps feeding on the falling bodies of the green algae.

Every day now the “helo ops” tells us when the next flight is scheduled; there is always a schedule, even though we know the valley is full of clouds and the flights are down. But the helos always say they are looking for a “weather window.” So Amy’s limnology team has to obtain new samples every day. Someone gives me a dark look, muttering that all the unusual bad weather happened just when I arrived. This is typical camp humor; the newest arrival is always suspect.

Actually, I did bring the bad weather. I looked down the valley and asked the storm goddess to keep the clouds around a while longer. Whereas Amy has been here eleven seasons, I just got here, and if I leave now, I might never get back to the field again. Every day without helos is a win for me.

One day we had to drill a new hole for Amy’s samples. This is because if you take samples from one hole, the water layers are disturbed and you have to wait a while before sampling. The mention of the drill wakes up even the most depressed of the boys. Drilling a hole in the ice is a Freudian activity (I’ll post the video when bandwidth allows). All the boys want a chance to do it.


The ice is so thick that you have to chain one drill bit onto another, drilling each one through in turn.

As the drill breaks through the bottom of the ice, water gushes out (Freudian, like I said) and you have to pull out the whole thing.


Wednesday the helo ops say that they’ll definitely fly on Thanksgiving. Down the valley, the storm goddess has had enough. Knowing this is my last day, I skip sampling and spend the afternoon on the mountain, rock-tripping.

The wind-carved rocks are so mind-blowing that you need no drugs for a psychedelic experience. Every rock is a trip to another world. This one is a stack of pancakes:


And this one, a sleepy brown bear:


The colors of all the different minerals give you kaleidoscope eyes:


On Thanksgiving morning (a day ahead of the USA), I hike down to the kitchen in bunny boots, expecting to leave. But the helo ops has called off all flights for the day. The camp is in uproar; everyone is fed up. Most of them leave to hike four hours to Camp Hoare for Thanksgiving dinner. I watch them leave, knowing they’re wrong.

Those of us who stay behind catch up on internet, revising manuscripts. Our diesel fuel is nearly gone, but the solar electric is strong. The students decide to use the day’s useless lake samples to shower or wash hair (they haven’t showered for two weeks). All of us badly miss our families. Wei’s computer plays “Hey Jude,” then another hour of Beatles medley. Rachael’s plays Irish ballads: “Fare thee well, my one true love, although I am far away.”


For dinner, we have no turkey, only this turkey-shaped rock. Wei and Mie make chicken chile. They compare notes on holidays in China and South Korea.

After dinner, the helo ops calls. The helo is on its way to pick up everyone. With no time to waste, it will swoop down like a Valkyrie to scoop up everyone, with propellers running.

But students have showered in the sample water, while others are out at Lake Hoare after Thanksgiving dinner, well hydrated but in no condition for a hike, if you know what I mean. So at Bonney they rush out to the ice hole to quickly get more samples. Sure enough, around midnight the helo swoops down through the valley, stopping at Lake Hoare to pick up the well-hydrated scientists, then back to Lake Bonney.

Now the Valkyrie has a pit stop. A mechanic was brought to fix the original helicopter, long parked on the helipad. Stepping out, the first thing he does is snap photos; he’s never seen this lake before. Meanwhile, we cannot leave until the original helo is flying. The mechanic’s work takes three hours.


Much of this time the mechanic spends lying on the top of the helo; you can see his boot hanging down. He is amused by the parking ticket, although the helitech says he will contest the charge of double parking.

It occurs to me that the mechanic is really the most crucial part of the whole science operation. The mechanic’s work has to be perfect, otherwise none of us can survive out of the valley. In fact, huge numbers of other essential support personnel in McMurdo toil in the background supporting our mission. This will be the subject of my next post.


One more salute to East Knox High School. Like this helicopter, you have endured many challenges and setbacks; but the Bulldogs will prevail.

Next: Mactown–Special People
Index: Antarctica


  1. November 29, 2014 12:52 pm

    Cool rocks, Joan! (Mayonnaise for ricotta?–I don’t think so…) Stay safe (or, better, stay safer–and take care of that foot!).

  2. Dawneva Cole Evans permalink
    November 29, 2014 8:58 pm

    Love the rocks too. Aside from the seal skeleton, do you see any wildlife?

  3. November 30, 2014 2:54 am

    Today I saw seals lounging on the sea ice! Will post later.

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