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Sunday, 6 February 2000

    The end of the season is really here. People are leaving and the "winter overs" are arriving. This little town is busier than I have ever seen it. We are trying to finish up old projects and start new ones, and we are getting ready for the ship off–load. Field camps are being closed for the winter, and everything is bustling around here.

    The weather has still been rather warm. In fact some people have been seen sunning themselves on the beach, even though the water is still frozen — yes, in bathing suits!

Enjoying the beach weather on the Ice
Beach photo courtesy of McMurdo Station's I-drive

    However, winter is fast approaching. We don't really have a spring or fall down here. Friday we had quite a snow storm and on Saturday morning McMurdo Station looked quite like it did when I first arrived — everything was white again. Today it has warmed up and the snow is melting. I am really starting to get a little tired of the cold and I am looking forward to some warm days in Christchurch. Also, while the sun has still not set below the horizon, you can tell that it will start soon. Evenings are definitely duskier than they have been. We had a partial solar eclipse last night — about 60%. That was rather fun.

Solar eclipse
Eclipse photo courtesy of McMurdo Station's I-drive

    The Russian cruise ship Kapitan Khlebnikov has been in town. It is an old icebreaker that has been converted to a cruise ship. I don't know how the accomodations are, but the ship looks rather old and ragged. I understand that the tourists aboard paid really top dollar for this experience. The ship is not actually in port, but has wedged itself into the ice out in the harbor. The tourists are brought into town via two Russian helicopters. I really have not seen too many tourists nor had the chance to talk to any of them. I have heard from other people that they are from all over the world, not just Russia. It would be very interesting to come down here as a tourist sometime. I would certainly love the opportunity to travel more and see many other things. I have been remarkably lucky to have seen as much as I have seen.

Kapitan Khlebnikov in McMurdo Bay

    Also recently in port was the fuel tanker, Richard G. Matthieson. This season we have built 2 new fuel storage tanks, each able to hold 2 million gallons of fuel, and pipeline to reach them all. The ship has off–loaded 8 million gallons of fuel to last us until next year.

The Richard G. Matthieson

    The icebreaker, the Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star, has continued to work throughout the past few weeks. Last weekend they took the entire town out for a cruise, half of us on Saturday and half on Sunday. I went on the Sunday cruise and we sailed north past the ice edge into open water.

United States Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star

We also cut a new channel through the ice. That was very exciting. You could hear loud creaks and cracks as huge chunks of ice would break and the ship would really shake because of it.

Ice breaking (this ice is about 2-3 feet thick)
Ice breaking (this ice is about 2-3 feet thick
Ice floes

There were whales, seals and penguins all over the place.

Whale photo courtesy of McMurdo Station's I-drive

We sailed way out into the ocean where there were enormous icebergs over 100 feet tall. Some had penguins on them. The weather could not have been more beautiful. The sun was shining and it was only about 25°F so it wasn't too cold.

Adelie penguins on an iceberg

    One of the electricians on board gave me a tour of the engine room which was very interesting.

USCGC Polar Star engine room
USCGC Polar Star engine room

We sailed for around 6 hours. It was a memorable day.

    We are expecting the ship the Green Wave soon. It was supposed to be here today, but we heard that they lost two cylinders in the engine and were going to be several days late. The Polar Star sailed out day before yesterday to assist. The Green Wave is the ship that brings most of our supplies for the next year. We are expecting a whole shipment of new vehicles this year. A lot of the food and alcohol for the base is on this ship as well. There are many people who will be involved in the ship off–load and putting things into storage.

    We had a golf tournament last week. It wasn't like an 18–hole course or anything, but they mapped out a course out on the ice shelf and took everyone out there in one of the Deltas. The golf balls of course were orange rather than white. One of the men in my department won the tournament.

Golf tournament participants
Golf photo courtesy of McMurdo Station's I-drive

    Next week, on the 9th, I am supposed to go to Lake Fryxell to dismantle the field camp for the winter. Lake Fryxell is located in the one of the Dry Valleys. I am very excited about going because it seems to me to be one of the more interesting places in Antarctica. The Dry Valleys formed because the mountains grew up faster than the glaciers traveled down and trapped the glaciers in place. It is also a very windy place which keeps the area snow–free. So the dry valleys are exactly that — dry. There is never any snow or ice there. And I am told that there has not been for 2 million years. The only ice is in the rivers or lakes in the area. It is still cold there although it looks like a rocky desert. I am told it is more like Mars than anyplace else on the earth. In fact NASA sends astronauts there to train. Anyway, we take a helicopter across McMurdo Sound to get there. I am told it is about a 45 minute helicopter ride. Lake Fryxell is in the Royal Society Mountains on the mainland. If the trip comes off, this will actually be the first time I have set foot on the mainland of Antarctica.

    As a follow up to the Long Duration Balloon flights, they were both a huge success. The first flight, the Flare Genesis program, made a perfect circle of the continent. It looked as though it was going to land right back where it started from, however on the last day of the mission the winds changed and it turned southward, so they gave the command to drop the payload and it landed safely about 200 miles out onto the Ross Ice Shelf.

Flare Genesis payload track

The second payload, MAXIS, flew most of its mission further outside of the first, and it was a bit more difficult making a landing. They finally decided to bring it down on the Polar Plateau about 80 miles from one of the field camps called Midcamp Station.

MAXIS payload track

    As I was leaving Willy Field last Sunday, I finally got to see one of the phenomenon that I have heard about but never seen. It is commonly called a sun dog, but its real name is a parhelion. It is an optical illusion caused by sunlight passing through ice crystals in the upper atmosphere and creates the illusion of a second sun. It was really exciting.

Sun dog

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Irma Hale
McMurdo Station, Antarctica

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