stories from a reluctant naturalist
in the meantime, my interview with the Antarctic Sun can be found at:
Located on the Antarctic Peninsula, Palmer Station sits on Anvers Island among an archipelago of small rocky islands, the native granite rising steeply out of the Antarctic waters to form a wide variety of landscapes and habitats. While the Marr glacier covers most of Anvers and slopes down behind the station easily accessible for hiking, exploration of the area is mostly by boat. Protocol requires that at all times 2 persons trained in boat handling, safety and water rescue be in the Zodiac, the small rubber raft-like vessels equipped with outboard motors which are used for excursions from the base. Musician and composer Cheryl Leonard and I were both scheduled for Palmer Station at the same time. Sending the 2 of us together meant that we could buddy up on our outings without taking station staff away from their other jobs. Several Zodiacs are available to the grantees for use, and Cheryl and I were assigned 66, dubbed the artist boat for our stay. While we each had our own project to research and develop, we would be spending a good part of every day together, certainly on those days we wanted to boat (nights too, since we shared a bunk). And so we developed a companionable relationship which let us work independently while accommodating the needs of the other. Dubbing each other co-Captain, we ran our craft jointly, taking turns at tiller and navigation as our moods or the endeavor required.
Antarctica is so special that every day had at least one story worth telling. The following is just one of many. Still in draft form, there are plenty of details to add and facts to check. So forgive the inaccuracies. I'm working on it, but I thought I'd put it out there.
It was near the end of our stay at Palmer Station. The Gould was scheduled to arrive soon, and we'd spend our last 2 days packing, cleaning, and moving aboard the ice breaker. Even though we'd still be in Antarctica, our routines would be aborted, research and adventure shrunk down to the infinitesmal moments between logistics and chores.
In our typical state of teamsmanship, Captain Cheryl and I sat down to list out what we most wanted to do in the remaining free time. On our list was a Zodiac trip to the southern most boundary of the boating limits. We hadn't intentionally explored that border, although we had been in the general area. C and I made our daily plans during breakfast at the table by the window, our food snuck in 5 minutes before mealtime ended, the gash crew wiping tables around us each day. As soon as the plan was set, we'd disperse to do our packing.
While I was putting my lunch together this day, the Station Manager waved me into his office. "Denver" had replied to his query about opening Point 8 as an approved landing spot for both research and recreation. While it was approved for landing, access was restricted to those with a scientific purpose, protecting the fragile ecosystem from excess activity. In Pohlman's view, Cheryl and I as AAWP grantees were equivalent to scientists, and he was giving us permission to tie the boat up in the Point 8 vicinity. We had been boating around the area on many occasions, but a newly approved landing site is not to be passed up. The Captain and I gladly added a Point 8 landing to the day's agenda.
We were, in fact, more than a little familiar with the rocks and waters around Point 8.
Point 8 is a piece of land, a point I suppose, where the Marr Piedmont comes down to Biscoe Bay at a gentle angle, unlike most locations where the glacier crumbles vertically down 150-200 feet. It is somewhat southeast of the station. You could actually walk there from the base, first traversing the rubble field which grows 20-30 ft/year as the Marr melts back, then climbing the crusty ice slope to the top. If the glacier were reconned by the GSAR (glacier search and rescue) team, you would turn right along the sometime twin otter landing strip and reach the slope descending to Point 8 in less than a mile. I had already volunteered to record a recon expedition to open the way up as an r+r trail, but since the Point was only open for science, a glacier trail would never be staked out. So access to Point 8 was only by water - a mile and a half in the Zodiac, round the choppy waters of Bonaparte Point, past Shortcut Island, and into the broad bay southeast of the station.
photo: paul queior
There are beautiful glacier faces, rubble beaches dotted with massive elephant seals (by one count 35 on a stretch), and a newly discovered ice cave, which left the station a-bubble with after-work sortis as the resident staff, eager to break out of the sometimes groundhog-day nature of their tenure, found a new source of wonder and splendor in the remote and special landscape. The cave was a section of the glacier which had crumbled deeply along the water line as the summer melt and tidal forces weakened the structure of the ice. At this time of year waters of the Peninsula are filled with different shapes, sizes, densities of ice, remnants of daily calving. One past-time at the station was to try to catch these crumbling events on film (well, pixel now) or video, and the thunderous rumbles were ever present. Usually the glacier calves fairly vertically, the resulting rubble making its way out to sea, inanimate objects marching at a different pace each day. A new surface and profile left behind on the glacier's vertical face, full of silver, blue, and aqua, fissures, crags, and striped plains for us to marvel at. The Point 8 cave was unusual in that the glacier crumbled into itself, at the bottom only, the bergs washed out to sea each high tide, leaving a solid wall of ice lowering above. Word was that if you went at the right time in the evening, the setting sun bled into the space, illuminating the entrancing blue of the ice to even more impressive hues. The Captain and I had to see the ice cave for ourselves, and although there was no official landing spot, rumor had it there was landscape to sneak one.
Captain Leonard and I made a first attempt to visit the talked about Point. After a bumpy ride over, the weather quickly turned crappy - swells and snow - and while perfectly safe for boating, its the kind of sea that makes me queasy, and crabby, and cold. We retraced our way across the choppy swell at Bonaparte, big rolling waves the boat would run up, surf the top momentarily, and crash down slapping the base of the next roller, our route deviating from the shortest path so we could keep the boat at a stable angle to the menacing surge. Squinting into the biting snow and gripping tight to the grab lines, we vowed to try another day.
Thursday January 23rd was lovely, a balmy 34°F, mix of overcast and sun, great for photos of subtle ice patterns on the glacier face, and light winds from the South, felicitous for C's recording. Cheryl and I set out to take a look at the famous cave. Bonaparte was unusually calm, and we rounded the point easily, bouncing on the swell through Shortcut channel to the more open waters southeast. We scouted the area, spying the cave tucked in behind the Point 8 slope. Boating is restricted to 300m from the glacier face, so motoring up to the cave wasn't an option. But there were some friendly looking rocks where the glacier sloped to the water, and we thought about a quick tieup and explore. The swell was a bit high, and the rocks slick with seaweed. We nosed into a couple of places, the Captain and I each taking a turn as scout, but though no longer new to our boating skills we didn't dare a landing. Disappointed, we motored away from the shore.
We puttered slowly along the rocks which edged the shallow glacier slope, and rounded the back of the point into a calm cove, a place that became one of our favorite haunts. The gentle slope of the Point rose back to its vertical ramparts, forming a tight cove, sheltered from the weather of the more open waters. Rocks meandered down the back of Point 8 in scalloped form, offering several landing possibilities to the most novice captain. Even the easiest tie-ups come after negotiations with the elements. The cove offered some brash to wrestle with, medium sized ice bits 2-4 feet, remnants from the night's calving, caught against the rocks in the cove by the currents and tide, having missed the nocturnal march out to the sea. By this point the Captain and I already worked smoothly as a team, one on the tiller, the other oar in hand to poke at the crystalline impediments and shouting directions. We nosed the Zodiac in and out several times, seeking a trough deep enough where the boat would not get hung up by the swell. Each forward assay left a dark V of water free of brash, into which we'd reverse and reorient ourselves to the shore until we positioned the boat just right. With her mountaineering expertise, Cap'n Leonard tied the bow line to the rocks, while I raised the motor and tossed out the stern anchor, another skill proudly mastered.
The cove seemed a far hike to the ice cave, so we set up for some research close to the boat. Cheryl recorded sounds and video, and I drew, engrossed by the gnarly crenellation of the ragged glacier face on the far side of the cove. Radio transmission to the Station at this spot is blocked by the glacier, so one of us climbed to the top of a rock every 20 minutes or so to check in. "Palmer Station, Palmer Station, this is Points East." "Come in Points East." "Still in the vicinity of Point 8 and Dead Seal." "Vicinity of Point 8 and Dead Seal, at fourteen-twenty" the station would repeat, logging us into their records. Minor interruptions to a peaceful and productive landing, we didn't want a Search and Rescue team to be sent out for us. (One alert per residency is enough. We'd already used our quota, but that's another story.) Even in warm sun, sitting on a cold rock (on a frozen continent) can be chilling, and at some point I realized I was getting cold. As I stood, I noticed the wind was picking up. So I packed my drawing supplies and went to find Cheryl. She was over the other side of the rock in the e-seal cove. Facing the southern bay, it was even windier there. Agreed that we should relaunch, we hurried back to the boat, finding the water suddenly choppy with sizeable swells. More brash had blown in, locking the boat to the shore. The famously changeable Antarctic weather was proving true to tale.
We worked rapidly. C packed her equipment. I loaded the boat, warmed the engine, and pulled out the 2 oars for ice management. The challenge was to shove off before a swell stranded the boat on a shallow rock, and before the wind, waves and brash got more forceful than we novice captains could manage. C untethered the boat, hopped in and I reversed us out, a delicate maneuver, skirting a rock ledge to the left, grazing an iceberg to the right, motoring straight into the oncoming waves, a couple of feet in height now, which threatened to spill into the stern and stall the engine. Captain Leonard shouted out directions as I focussed on the speed of the engine and the brash enveloping it. Backing further out, hard and straight, on Cheryl's call we swung hard left, the best direction for a tight turn because of the position of the backup motor (redundant safety measures everywhere), and at full speed we drove out of the cove, head on into wind and waves. Bucking up and down in our own spray, now on a steady course for the station, the 2 Captains mighty pleased with their swift launch and perfect teamsmanship in the impending storm.
We radioed our return as we motored back to station, the winds picking up further to 23 knots, gusting to 28. They would have recalled us if we had not been on our way in.
Captain Leonard and I never did manage a sanctioned landing at Point 8, although we have been there several times since that first adventuresome visit. The place had so much to offer each of us for our AAWP projects, and the cove was so captivating, the landscape friendly to visit in almost any weather. We returned for other drawing and recording sessions, one fine afternoon hiking over the ice slope to peer down at the cave from above. But on that day the Point was officially opened to us, we cast-off from the station with Point 8 and the southern boating boundary on the agenda and made our way slowly out the mouth of Hero Inlet marvelling at the sea full of brash ice overlaid by a layer of fluffy snow.
The Antarctic summer was drawing to an end, and the weather was noticeably changing. Snow from the occasional sqalls had more permanence. This morning, the shapes and colors and sounds of the ice were unlike anything we had yet seen in our month at the Station. The brash, usually sharp edged and crunchy, had an out-of-focus softness which teased the eyes to distinguish between top and edge, ice and snow, and the snow sat between the ice on the water surface, a slushy compound defining a place between solid and liquid.
The boat slid through the grey field that bunched up densely as it was brushed together, and expanded again in our wake. We meandered from clump to cluster, slowing down, and greedily taking it all in, with a final agreement to cut the motor and draw and record for a bit. Shushing as we passed, the slush cracked apart along zigzaggy fault lines, which closed and reopened in the gentle swells. The boat rose and fell on shallow waves - more like oversized ripples, which in the breezeless air were smooth and glassy and kept the mysterious snowcrusted ice undisturbed.
Cheryl and I happily drifted along, the engine off, her water mics trailing under the surface or tucked into the soft silver soup. I had my camera out along with "Rite-in-the-Rain" notebook, the dreamy environment dutifully recorded. After 2 hours, we hadn't made it 1/4 mile from shore, and in the end we wouldn't make it back to Point 8 or points east again.