Wilderness


I am officially at Woods Hole now, which I guess means it’s time to bid farewell to the Arctic as far as blog posts go.

We left Axel Heiberg on one of the windiest days I’ve ever seen.  Upper Camp, where we had been staying further north on the island, was experiencing some nasty cloudy weather, so we took a gamble and hiked a few miles south, in the hopes that the plane would have a better chance of landing there.  The clouds may have actually been better, given the incredible gusts ripping through Lower Camp, and unpredictably changing directions every few minutes.  If I unzipped my jacket and held its edges out like sails, the wind literally lifted me off my feet.

I’d secretly been hoping it wouldn’t be able to land, but in some crazy feat of expert piloting, the twin-otter managed to touch down at Lower Camp, after circling a few times to gauge the wind.

We were splashed with jet fuel as the pilots tried to fill up the twin-otter’s tank in the blustering wind.  In between gusts, I overheard the pilot say, “Young pilots think they’re going to live forever.  Me?  I’ve already lived forever.”

I wasn’t sure what exactly that implied for the flight ahead of us, but I guessed correctly that it was going to be a bumpy ride.  As we strapped down our cargo and began to buckle ourselves in, the co-pilot turned around and warned us:

Make sure you buckle those tight.  I mean … TIGHT.

Sure enough, it wasn’t long after the twin-otter took off from the tundra that we hit some serious turbulence.  We were actually weightless at one point, with all our jackets, cameras, and cargo floating right at eye-level.  I was videotaping the view out the window when it happened.  Unfortunately, I didn’t think fast enough to catch the floating stuff on camera, but it’s a fun video to watch nonetheless:

I get so wistful watching that landscape disappear below the plane.  I can’t wait to go back.  I’m addicted to the Arctic.

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I have, not surprisingly, been neglecting my blogging duties.  In a week, I leave for Woods Hole, where I’ll be taking classes on oceanography and maritime history and celestial navigation, and SCUBA diving my tail off. (Or my tail on? I strive for mermaidhood.) From there, it’s off to the Pacific Ocean, to bob peacefully up and down on a ship for a few weeks.

For now, here is a snippet on one of my favorite memories from the Arctic:  the toilet.

The toilet on Axel Heiberg Island is a rusting old fuel barrel with a plastic seat stuck on top, giving new, literal meaning to the phrase “sitting on the can.” You think your toilet seat at home is chilly sometimes? Try sitting on a metal cask in the Arctic.

Yet the view from this toilet made it all worthwhile. The chance to sit and stare at glaciers and mountains was my number one motivation for staying well-hydrated during my stay on Axel Heiberg Island.

Rob shared my sentiments, and made a short video on the subject. Watch it:

For your viewing pleasure: a collection of photos from the Arctic.  Stories that go with them coming soon!

click on a photo to enlarge it









Sigh. It’s back to reality for me. Back home from the Arctic. Back to the jolly unpredictability of automatically flushing toilets. Back to a dichotomy of night and day.

Since I was mostly without internet for the the duration of my Arctic adventures, I suppose I’ll fill you in on what happened. I will start from where we left off: Resolute Bay.

Resolute more or less consists of a small Inuit community (population 229) and an airport. I’m told it’s the northernmost place in this hemisphere to which you can take a commercial flight. When I say “airport” don’t think tarmac and terminals. The runways are gravel. The buildings are very small and very hearty. The planes, too, are very small and very hearty.

Resolute is also home to the Polar Continental Shelf Project (PCSP), which provides such exciting luxuries as hot running water, a pool table, and a kitchen. Outside, it’s foggy and frigid, with bare ground stretching to the left and right, and iceberg-littered water swathing the horizon. Inside, it’s a huddled group of scientists and explorers. Most of them are waiting for the fog to lift so they can hop a tiny plane to whatever wild, remote Arctic island is their destination. Many of them are wearing an endearing mishmash of down vests and woolen things. None of them are wearing shoes (a sign over the door in the entryway reads: Leave your boots here. THIS MEANS YOU! )

After dinner, the eight members of my group met for a round of icebreakers (which, of course, is a funny pun when you’re in the Arctic). We were assigned a tent, since the beds available inside the PCSP hut were already taken.

Above the Arctic Circle, the sun doesn’t set during the summer. You can imagine that waking up at 2:30am to broad daylight is disorienting. Waking up at 2:30 to broad daylight and roaring airplane propellers is even more disorienting.

The following morning we waited in a large warehouse before climbing the ladder into the tiny belly of our tiny twin-otter plane, and taking off at last for Axel Heiberg Island.

More soon,
Zena

waiting for our twin-otter planes in Resolute

Looking out the window of the plane yesterday, I was ecstatic when I realized that no, that’s not a very lost sailboat on the water down there.  No, indeed, ladies and gentlemen…

IT’S A HUGE HONKIN’ CHUNK OF FLOATING ICE

And it is not alone.

Yes, folks, welcome to the Arctic.  Resolute Bay, specifically.  We arrived here yesterday after roughly seven hours of flights up from Ottawa.  This will be our last stop before hopping a twin-otter plane to Axel Heiberg Island, two hours even further north of here. 

The word barren, while accurate, does not do justice to the Arctic.  It is starkly beautiful.

Sleeping in the tent last night was less than cozy (note to self: wear a hat to bed), but I am still excited out of my mind to be here.  We are hopefully flying to Axel in half an hour, but the fog may postpone our departure.  Visibility is maybe 200 meters at most.  Not prime flying weather.

It’s quite a hike from our camp at Axel to the nearest internet access, so this may be the last you hear from me for a while.  Stay tuned…

At eleven thirty PM three crazy gringos awoke from a carefully planned nap and packed every possible long-sleeved layer of clothing into daypacks. Considering we had originally assumed the weather in Guatemala to be appropriate of a blistering summer next to the equator – whereas it’s actually the rainy season, the one Guatemaltecos call winter – it did not take long for us to realize we were woefully unprepared. Six liters of water, six bananas, three bandanas and a pound of granola later, we were as set as we ever would be to conquer Santa Maria.

Conquer would prove to be a very relative term.

At twelve fifteen AM we piled into a van to take us to the peak’s base. Inside, we met our guide Carlos. Carlos is the man. No more than five foot five, he embodies the stereotypical Guatemalan – short in stature, long in character and wit, with a classic mullet to boot. Also, the man could climb a mountain like a goat. He was born to do it. On the volcano, he kept a brisk pace that had all of us, other than the triathlete among us, gasping for breath like chain-smokers in the thinning air. Carlos said he was making up for his last ascent, during which eight Dutch women had bored him with their sluggish eight hour pace. I cursed their country all the way up.

At four thirty AM we were literally on top of the world. One problem: we couldn’t see anything in the pitch black of the early morning. Carlos’ backbreaking pace doomed us to an hour of stagnancy and absolute vulnerability to the type of wind and cold that would make a northeastern winter proud.

When the sun finally lent some rays an hour later, we finally had evidence that 12,300 feet stood between us and the ground. Santa Maria’s massive shadow was perhaps the most impressive, stretching well into the opposite horizon, dominating the landscape at our feet like nothing we had ever seen. Another lesser volcano blew its top thousands of feet below. Mentally and physically validated, we tried to soak it all in. But there were too many colors and too many peaks. Before we could put it all together, we were ready to rumble. It was all just another day’s work.

Like Yousef, I have had a love affair with the Utah desert. I’m jumping on the blog post wagon (even though I haven’t actually left yet for this year’s adventures) because Yousef’s last post totally struck a chord with me.

It has been just about five months since I was last in Utah. Canyon country is, for me, even more than a humbling, stunning wilderness. It’s Mars on Earth. I spent my winter break out there, living in a 24-foot-wide cylinder–half landing pod, half glorified tin can–as a crew member at the Mars Desert Research Station. read about it here | see photos here

Buzz Aldrin famously said about the moon: “Beautiful, beautiful! Magnificent desolation.”

Desolation. That’s what excites me. I’m interested in things that might be living in places we once thought inhabitable … including Mars. Astrobiologists study the prospects for and origins of life throughout the universe. Here on Earth, we study the life in extreme environments because those terrains are the most like extraterrestrial environments. By studying what thrives in very cold or very dry areas on Earth, we gain insight into what might be necessary for life elsewhere in the solar system, where it’s even more difficult (by our standards, anyway) to survive.

My interest in astrobiology (along with a desire to wear a spacesuit and cavort around the canyons on ATVs with other space geeks) is what brought me to the Mars Desert Research Station last December. In the next eight months, my passion for studying life at all ends of the Earth will take me on a series of adventures from the Arctic to the Antarctic. In store for me: drunken parties with NASA scientists, nearly two months without a sunset, penguins, glaciers, pirate ships, icebreaker ships, lots of Dramamine.

T-minus two and a half weeks.

Ready as hell and counting down,

Zena Cardman

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