This Is Why I Came

Life has a funny way of self-correcting.

A couple days ago, I’d had a frustrating time at work. Nothing major, but just a bit of teeth-grinding. I headed to my room, trying to talk myself into a walk despite feeling like I wanted nothing more than to curl up in bed and escape to Rohan, Pemberley or Gene Genie’s fiefdom.

One of my roommates met me at the door, surprised to see me an hour early. She had her parka on and was excited to see me.

“Come to the hut! Come on!”

First I thought she meant Hut 10, the building nearby that people can reserve for private parties. Remembering that she parties even less than I do, I thought she meant hey, let’s walk to Hut Point and look at the outside of Discovery Hut, the supercool historic hut built by Scott (yes, that Scott) that is locked and only open for tours once in a blue moon and never when I’m not working.

“They’re doing a hut tour! Now!”

We’re on.

Discovery Hut at about 8:30pm local time

I pulled off my work clothes and threw on my parka and followed her out the door. You’re supposed to sign up for the tour, which is limited to eight people, but the guide leading it wasn’t keeping a list and didn’t seem concerned that there were suddenly nine, ten, thirteen people tagging along (though we were only allowed into the hut in groups of eight).

My roommate (far right), me and two of our next-door neighbors, giddy with history outside Discovery Hut

We walked the half-mile or so to Hut Point, site of Discovery Hut, built in 1902 as part of Scott’s Discovery Expedition. The hut was originally planned to be the onshore headquarters for the expedition, but proved so drafty that the men decided they’d rather stay aboard the ship. It ended up being used as a storehouse, at least for that expedition.

Shackleton (yes, that Shackleton) used the hut largely as a storehouse in 1908, with some of the men staying inside… though most preferred to camp outside in tents, believing it was warmer than the hut.

If you are noticing a theme, yes. The hut, built as a prefab in Australia to a Tahitian design, was woefully underinsulated.

The Terra Nova Expedition also used the hut as a staging point in the 1911-12 season, but its biggest dramas came a few years later. In 1915, a depot-laying team from Cape Evans, several miles to the north, lost all their sled dogs (let’s not dwell on that, shall we?) and due to weather and ice conditions couldn’t travel back to the cape on foot. So they spent three months living in the hut, using seals for food and fuel.

Mummified Historic Seal! Actual seal carcass left outside the hut since at least 1917

In 1916, another depot-laying team from Cape Evans (coincidentally with some of the same guys as the 1915 team) was stranded again for a couple months. When all was said and done, only three of the six survived… one died of scurvy and two set off on foot over thin ice and were never seen again.

Shackleton used the hut briefly again in 1917, after which it was abandoned. It was buried in snow and ice until the US Navy guys setting up McMurdo dug it out in the 50s… and found that the men who’d been there before them didn’t clean up after themselves (surprise, surprise…). Everything from seal meat chopped and sitting in a skillet to long underwear hung up to dry was left, as is.

Had there been a toilet I’m sure the seat would have been up.

The hut's only door is accessed beneath a low veranda

Door into Discovery

Walking into the hut, stooping low and then stepping up, I expected to feel the history. At first, quite frankly, I was reminded of that Himalayan-themed rollercoaster in Disneyworld. As you’re waiting in the line, you pass through a simulated expeditioners’ hut with all kinds of artifacts carefully arranged for that “I just threw it there, but isn’t it fascinating?” effect. Because yes, the stuff in Discovery Hut is just thrown about, as if someone popped out to buy another six-pack and never came back.

Once I got over the bizarre “so real it feels faked” atmosphere of the place, I began giggling.

Peering through a hole in the felt blankets the men who were stranded there hung up to fend off the drafts... actual historic junk in foreground!

Judging from the others on the tour, this is not an uncommon reaction.

How. Cool. Is. This.

Here we were, in the midst of history. And not just any history… Just about anyone, after all, can stand in Westminster Abbey or look at the Liberty Bell or buy a souvenir at The Alamo. This was big-time Antarctic history. Scott probably picked his teeth here! Shackleton almost certainly peed here! That… that can of herring on the shelf is historic herring!

Historic Herring!

Historic Dungarees! (The walls and surfaces are blackened, by the way, from all the seal blubber they burned to keep warm)

Historic Oatmeal!

Historic Snow! No, seriously... when they finally dug the hut out in the 50s, they left it as is, so this snow has been sitting on this stuff for decades.

(Sidenote: around here, everything is Scott this, Scott that, Shackleton this, Mawson that… No one ever mentions or names things after Amundsen, and he was the guy who actually made it to the South Pole. I find that amusing. Apparently he was a bit of a jerk.)

Historic fry-up! Seal meat chunks left in the pan... note the DIY credenza in background has been fashioned from boxes that once held "Special Dog Biscuits... Use on the Voyage." On the one hand, I thought that was so cool that they had "special" voyage biscuits for the dogs... but then I started thinking about all those dogs who died of exhaustion, starvation, disease or the need for a meal, and that made me historically sad.

Aside from the epic historicosity of the place, the freakish degree of preservation was fascinating… right down to the dead seals piled beside the door, their blubber still glistening like fresh-cooked bacon in the glare of our flashlights. The combination of consistently below-freezing temps and super-dry air is responsible for the preservation, though there is concern about fungal invasions and, with climate change, accelerated decay if the site warms up even a degree or two.

Historic blubber! Yes, this is a pile of seal carcasses just inside the door... The yellow, glistening layer near the bottom is exposed blubber. Mmm, rancid blubber. Makes the historic herring look downright tasty.

One thing we had to do to get inside was sign the guestbook on a table beside the door. No need to twist my arm. I happily signed it, then took a photo of my name in the same place where Scott probably got heartburn from all that seal meat and herring.

I am pointing at history! I don't know what's in those boxes and tins, but it's historic!

After the hut, with clear skies and a clear mind, I decided to go for a walk. It was already after 8pm, but the sun was hours from setting. From October 24 forward, in fact, we’ll have 24 hours of daylight. I walked up toward the Castle Rock trailhead, one of the few hikes around here that I haven’t done, because you’re required to travel with someone.

Meh. Just because a bunch of people have died on the Castle Rock trail over the years. (Only because they were idiots and walked off the trail and into a crevasse.)

From the road to the Castle Rock trailhead, looking back down towards town with Mt. Discovery on the far horizon. I like this photo because it shows Observation Hill in profile (on the left), giving you an idea of what it's like walking up that ridge.

Once I got up to the trailhead, I realized I had an utterly perfect view of Mt.Erebus. Not only was there no cloud, but the lack of wind meant that you could really see the volcano’s steaming fumaroles. I took a couple photos (okay, I took a lot of photos) of the world’s southernmost active volcano (and to think that earlier this year I thought it was cool to go to the world’s southernmost Starbucks! (In Invercargill, New Zealand)… this beat that by a mile) but turned back when my batteries, already taxed by excessive photo-taking in Discovery Hut, gave up the ghost.

An amazing end to what started as a mediocre day… and an evening that reminded me why I’m here.

Mt. Erebus from Castle Rock trailhead


One thought on “This Is Why I Came

  1. Coolness!!! And kind of creepy, too. But in a good way. Uncanny. Yeah, that’s the word.

    Btw, the way you feel about “historic stuff!” is the way I feel about manuscripts.

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