Time on Ice

by Janet Kjelmyr

4990 Shoreline Highway
Stinson Beach, CA 94970

Newsletter 79
Winter 1987-88

by Janet Kjelmyr

Much has been written about exploring Antarctica, about the arduous and
sometimes tragic expeditions, about the immense scientific endeavors, and
about the politics involved in maintaining peaceful coexistence within the
international Antarctic community.  There are some things, however, that
are seldom written, and they are the ones that I am most often asked.
Simply, what is it like to live in Antarctica?

For Geoff Geupel and me, home for the four months from October through
January is a 12-by-16-foot wooden field hut with an adjoining entry hall
and storage room, situated on the shores of Admiralty Bay, King George
Island.  We share this narrow strip of ice-free rock with about 18,000
breeding penguins -- Adelies, Gentoos, and Chinstraps -- and our nearest
neighbors live three miles away at Arctowski Station.

Our arrival on King George Island is staggeringly definitive.  There are no
roads out.  As far as we're concerned, the rest of the world has
disappeared.  We quickly rearrange our priorities, and the borderline
between necessity and luxury becomes cloudy.  As Antarctic explorer Richard
E. Byrd remarked in ALONE, "It occurred to me that half the confusion in
the world comes from not knowing how little we need."

We have a small generator that produces enough electricity for a few lights
and a small heater.  Mostly we rely on our Coleman heater and stove.  We've
become white gas junkies.  Early in the austral summer we melt snow for all
our water.  By December we fill our water jugs at a small stream fed by
glacial melt-water.  Our diet is simple -- frozen meat, pasta, and canned
vegetables.  Fresh fruit and vegetables are a rare treat.  Our outhouse
affords an unparalleled view of the Bransfield Straits, but the raw truth
is that visits to it in sub-freezing weather with icy gray gusts blasting
everywhere can be quite unpleasant.  We cross the glacier that separates us
from Arctowski Station about once a week to shower, replenish our food and
fuel, and relax in comfort.  The Poles are fine people, warm and generous.
They are our Antarctic family and make the isolation much less severe.

Little news reaches us.  When it does, it is old and stale.  Recently our
life has been complicated by the addition of a short-wave radio.  It brings
us friendly voices and sensational stories form all corners of the globe.
Sometimes it's comforting to know that the world goes on without us,
although our interest in the overall big picture diminishes.  Our work, the
weather, and the food are more important than the world at large.

One does not live here without being touched by the uniqueness of the
environment.  Once immersed in these austere surroundings, perception
changes.  It has unquestionably changed my life.  On many days what I know
about Admiralty Bay is concise:  wind, snow, birds, seals, and air as crisp
as chilled vodka.  Sometimes it's sapphire water and sky; sometimes emerald
water and pale sky; sometimes glassy gray water and ashen sky just before a
storm.  Visibility can shift suddenly from complete obscurity to startling
clarity.  The weather changes hourly.  A calm can be followed by a squall
of icy rain, followed by a sunburst that turns the sea fog orange.  Ivory
glaciers sown with crevasses gently roll across the land until they
abruptly meet the sea in magnificent ice cliffs.  The wind can sing.  It
can also howl and scream.  We have grown accustomed to the sounds of wind,
surf, penguins, skuas, and elephants seals, until they become another form
of silence.  The night is so short as to be practically nonexistent.  Light
lingers, and the boundary between days becomes vague and the notion of time

With the passage of days the reality of life at home becomes more distant,
and the cold and solitude join to produce nostalgia.  One turbulent gray
day as the ocean's surface tossed about angrily and a storm swept upon us,
I dreamed of the sun's heat burning through a thick coastal fog, the smell
of Douglas fir after a spring rain, and my dog turning in her circles as
she lay down in the shade.  I have felt a like nostalgia in California,
dreaming of the crash of weather and the polar sea, of jade-colored
icebergs dotting the ocean, and of diamond light dancing on Antarctic
water.  Here, memories come tumbling up as I work, read, or sleep.  Strange
how certain details become so vivid.  Holidays can be especially
melancholy.  I miss family, friends, familiar places, turkey with all the
trimmings, and the endless confusion that occurs when people gather.

A curious state of suspension sets in.  Often I do nothing but look and
listen.  I can't describe this privilege of simplicity, this luxury of
peace.  But the isolation sometimes overwhelms me.  Everything goes along
fine for a time, then the mood suddenly quivers and becomes fragile.  Time
bites, like the cold.

(Janet Kjelmyr and her husband Geoff Geupel, both of PRBO's research staff,
joined Wayne Trivelpiece's team in Antarctica in 1984.  The penguin study
on King George Island in the Antarctic Peninsula expanded that year to
include a rookery located about three miles from the Polish research
station, Henry Arctowski.  While encamped at the remote field location last
year, Janet composes this sketch of Antarctica. -- Editor)

Patricia A. Weeg
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