Saturday, November 5, 2011

Christchurch ReCentered

U.S. researchers and support personnel have been transiting through Christchurch, New Zealand, since the modern research program began there in the 1950s. Before then, even the early explorers passed through New Zealand in their ships. In other words, the Kiwis are inextricably linked to the Antarctic, and particularly the U.S. Antarctic Program. The earthquake in September 2010, followed by the more destructive and deadly quake in February 2011, destroyed the center of the beautiful Garden City. But it did not kill its heart or the spirit of its people. I was fortunate to be passing through Christchurch a week after it had reopened a small strip of its pedestrian mall, re-purposing cargo containers for shops and a two-floor coffee shop. It's a start, but the Kiwis have a long way to go to rebuild the city.

A creative solution to rebuild commerce in downtown Christchurch.

This specialty store even sells haggis.

Scorpio Books was a familiar shop to Christchurch visitors.

Outdoor seating for the new coffee shop.

The new shopping mall with construction behind it.

A destroyed church. Many of the city's stone churches were damaged.

Scaffolding everywhere.

Buttressing a building in the Arts Centre, one of my favorite places in Christchurch.

How did you fix a crack like that?

Monday, October 31, 2011

Stormy weather

Weather at the beginning of the season has been pretty nasty. Just checked the McMurdo Intranet site, and it looks like most places are under Condition 1, which under the rating system, represents the nastiest weather. There's an official definition, but it boils down to snow, high winds and little visibility. It also means no flights in or out. My Ice flight isn't scheduled until Friday, so hopefully things will clear up ... Here's a screen shot of the McMurdo homepage.

Dusting it off

It's been an embarassingly long time since I've written a blog post, but now seems like a good time to dust it off, as I'm returning to Antarctica for my seventh time since the 2003-04 season when I wintered at the South Pole for a year.

This time around should be a little more special. Andrea is also headed back to the Ice after a five-year absence. Unfortunately, we'll be about a thousand miles apart, as she'll be at the South Pole Station, while I'll be mostly stationed at McMurdo. We will reunite briefly in mid-December with a few hundred other people for the 100th anniversary of when the first people reached the bottom of the world. It's promising to be quite the party, with the prime minister of Norway expected to be in attendance to celebrate his countryman Roald Amundsen's historic achievement.

Unlike last year, when I had the privilege of traveling to a deep-field camp in the mountains, I'll spend most of my time around McMurdo. There's lots of cool science under way on the nearby sea ice where seals and penguins can be found, though the ice has been difficult to work on because of cracks and weather, so we'll see what happens there.

The journey south is a familiar one: I fly from Denver this afternoon, then to LAX, where after a rather long layover, I'll head to Auckland, landing across the International Dateline and into the future on Wednesday. Then it's a short hop to Christchurch on the South Island. I'm excited about the trip but not looking forward to seeing a city I know has been much altered by the earthquakes of the last year, especially the one on Feb. 22 that wrought great destruction on the central business district. But apparently this weekend parts have reopened in makeshift containers ... Kiwis are incredibly resilient folk. (Hmm. I re-watched the Lord of the Rings trilogy over the weekend, and I seem to be writing in Middle Earth-ese.)

We only get two short days in Christchurch before flying down to McMurdo on a US Air Force C-17 cargo plane, though it seems as if weather and mechanical issues invariably extend that time by at least a day or two. It'll be a busy two days for me, as I have an interview set up with the head of the Antarctic Heritage Trust, which is working to conserve the historic structures in Antarctica, including Capt. Scott's hut at Cape Evans from which he launched his bid for the South Pole in 1911, losing to Amundsen by about five weeks -- and losing his life, along with his four companions, on the return journey.

Here's a few photos from my deployment last year to whet your Antarctic appetites:

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Brewing a New Hobby

You need a hobby, people are always saying.

Well, I've got a few, but the latest can seem more like a stressful part-time job. I've taken up home brewing.

The skeptic might wonder: What's stressful about making your own alcohol that you can consume whenever you want? Making beer, the naive optimist might say, is almost as good as making whoopee.

Well, unless you're on your first date or tying to score with a cheerleader who is way out of your league, it turns out making beer is much harder than having sex.

For one thing, you can get a little dirty when performing the latter. In fact, in some circles, it's required. But making beer requires a hallowed kitchen, an exorcism of every germ and bacteria within a mile radius. This is because any contamination of the beer can taint the taste. Or worse, make the entire batch moldy and useless.

I've also learned that something can go uniquely wrong each time you brew. The first time it took me an hour or more to cool the wort -- something that needs to be done quickly to avoid contamination. So, I bought the expensive, copper wort chiller. Check.

Another batch required me to throw handfuls of hops into the boiling wort every five minutes. Fine. No problem. No one tells you that's going to create a straining disaster as the hop residue coats the strainer like chia pet ground cover. Our faucet leaks more water than what was coming through the strainer. And, of course, I forgot to sanitize the backup strainer. Contamination!

Surprisingly, these mishaps didn't screw up the beer. In fact, the beer actually tastes like beer. Though at my current rate of equipment and ingredient purchase, I figure this hobby will start saving me money on actual beer purchases about the time the ozone hole over Antarctica heals.

But I guess hobbies were never meant to save money. As someone once said, "Relax and have a homebrew."

My first beer label for the Baker Brown Ale.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Torres del Paine

Finally back home in Denver with some time to catch up on the 5500 photos that I took while working in Antarctica and later traveling around Chile.

First up are some pictures from my four-day hike in Torres del Paine National Park, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve that is easily the most popular destination in Chilean Patagonia. It is touristy without being overwhelming, with no RVs or off-road driving. There are two main hikes in the park, a weeklong hump known as the circuit, which takes you around the heart of the small, but spectacular park. The other one is the "W," so named because of the sawtooth pattern you take up and down three valleys. This is the one I did.

I spent four nights in the park, carrying all my camping gear, something I've done before but not for that length of time. The first two days were difficult, starting with an uphill slog along Ascension Valley to see the famous Torres -- Towers -- themselves. Then about 10 miles to foot of the French Valley, the most exhausting day. The next two days were easier, with short treks to the camps followed by day hikes up the valleys.

The park offers a mix of free and paid camping sites, along with refugios and even hotel rooms. I free camped two nights and camped at two fee sites, which had the advantage of being equipped with food and drinks. Happy hour pisco sours were a most welcome way to wind down after a long day of walking.

The trails were mostly well marked, sometimes muddy but not impassable, and often rock strewn and dusty. I was fortunate to enjoy nearly four days of uninterrupted, blue-bird skies and nearly no wind -- a rare event in an area famously stormy and wind-blasted.

My pictures:

A chunk of ice calves off snow-covered mountain along the French Valley.

One of the free camp sites.

Gray Glacier, which is the focus of the third part of the W route.

Small islands in a glacial lake.

A rare calm day allows for awesome reflections in a lake.

A river runs through Ascension Valley.

The famous Towers of the park.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

On the Road Again

The blogs have been a bit spotty lately, as I was busy getting ready to leave Palmer Station, which I did on Feb 3, followed once again by the four-day crossing of the Southern Ocean between the Antarctic Peninsula and South America. I will have more to say about my time at Palmer, along with more pics, but that will require more time than I have now at this hostel Internet cafe (where it costs about 50 cents for an hour of surfing).

We returned to Punta Arenas early on Sunday, Feb. 7. Then followed a mad dash by me to try and secure a bus the next day for Ushuaia in Argentina, which competes with PA as the southernmost city. Ushuaia is farther south but smaller, so you decide ...

Miraculously, there was one ticket still available, so I booked a round trip for about 60,000 pesos -- about $110US. It´s about a 12-hour bus ride, and after yesterday I found out why ...

I got to the bus station in plenty of time, and it turned out there were two buses going to Ushuiaia, so I showed my ticket to one guy and he told me to get on the other bus. Of course, five minutes into the trip, when this fellow was going around checking seats, he told me that I was on the wrong bus and would have to transfer at some point. They were essentially caravaning. That wasn´t a big deal, as we ended up having to take a detour on some dirt road because of some sort of protest involving burning tires piled across the road to the airport. Fisherman protesting for more money apparently.

The trip was largely uneventful but the border crossing was what I would generously describe as chaotic, and it must have taken us close to two hours to exit Chile, drive the few kilometers to the Argentine border and enter the country. It looked like Argentina would be easy, as we got in quickly and got the passports stamped. Back on the bus, they told us to get back off and run our luggage through. Apparently the x-ray machine is usually `broken,´ but according to one Spanish guy on the bus, the immigration official didn´t like the bus driver or something along those lines, so we had to go back ... funny thing is no one was making sure we went back into the building, so some people didn´t even bother. And I don´t think anyone was actually watching the machine monitor, located away from where everyone just grabbed his or her bag and walked back out.

Got in around 930 p.m. in rain and light fog. The drive was beautiful for the last couple hours and actually reminded me of Colorado, esp. Lake Dillon, with mountains rising steeply up around a lake. The rest of the trip was more like eight hours driving through the foothills around Golden. Instead of wild deer or elk running acorss the road there were wild llama. And many, many kilometers of sheep farms, which eventually gave way to cattle ranches in Argentina, famous for it beef (and love thereof).

Going to try and do a little boat tour today on the Beagle Channel. First impression is that Ushuaia is a pretty touristy town, with two Irish pubs and lots of outdoor gear shops. Still, a nice break from the Ice and windy, dusty PA. The town sits right on the harbor and then climbs up away from the water like San Francisco. It is the main jumping off point for tour cruises to Antarctica, and ran into one boat crew last night, including a woman who has been to both Palmer and McMurdo stations as an expedition leader. The latter is particularly interesting since there´s really only one ship, the Russian Kapitan Klebnikov, that actually makes it to McM. I think she´s also friends with a guy I worked with at South Pole in the summer.

It´s a small world here at the bottom of the world.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Whale Watching

Yesterday was my second to last full day at Palmer Station. Technically, it was a day off because we worked on Sunday, but had a lot of work to do to get ready. I initially turned down an opportunity to go see humpback whales playing near the station, but when a second boat was organized, I decided to jump in, figuring by the time we go there the show would be over.

Thankfully I was wrong.

For about two hours we puttered around three humpbacks, which put on a quite a feeding display for us. There were even doing something called bubble feeding. Here's the wikipedia definition:

"A group of whales swims in a shrinking circle blowing bubbles below a school of prey in our case it was krill]. The shrinking ring of bubbles encircles the school and confines it in an ever-smaller cylinder. The whales then suddenly swim upward through the 'net,' mouths agape, swallowing thousands of prey in one gulp."

At one point we drove through a pink cloud on the water -- a cloud of whale poo, colored that way because of the pink krill (small crustaceans) that they eat.

A few pics and hilarious video (and, no, that's not me screaming like a little girl).

Mt. William on whale watching day. It's about 5,000 feet high.

The original whale tail.

Taking a gulp of krill.

We had lost sight of the whales and were stopped, when suddenly all these bubbles appeared around the boat.