There are a few reasons I haven’t posted in… wow… weeks.
One reason is a lack of exciting new experiences, such as getting within spitting distance of a bunch of Emperor penguins.
Another (big) reason has been Vessel Evolution, the official title for the week or so of annual chaos and mayhem that descends on McMurdo when the supply vessel arrives, loaded with All The Stuff that station higher-ups have determined will be needed for the coming year. Everything from milk powder and frozen chicken thighs to plywood for field camp construction to t-shirts to sell in the store to a new and giant, lumbering personnel carrier.
It all comes on the vessel, and gets offloaded by a horde known as NavChaps – back when McMurdo was a Navy base, it is said (I haven’t been able to confirm this) that the American and New Zealand navies sent down their most unruly rogues for the backbreaking job of resupplying the station as punishment for assorted offenses, most of them involving too much alcohol. Hence the term “NavChaps.”
Over the years, however, it seems the NavChaps have themselves evolved into lots of young 20somethings from the US and New Zealand military services who get picked to come to Antarctica for a couple weeks as a reward.
One thing hasn’t changed, however, and that is their reputation. Deservedly or not, their arrival prompted meetings and e-mail reminders to lock your room doors (most of us had been leaving them open) and that, for the duration of Vessel Evolution, there would be no alcohol sold anywhere on station.
As with everything here, everyone I talked to had a story but, curiously, when pressed (old habits die hard), every tale itself evolved from “I saw a guy lose an eye to a NavChap with a fork in a brawl!” to something more like “well, I heard from a guy a couple seasons back that a couple seasons before that there was a fight.”
I had only a couple NavChaps experiences – one when two drunk guys with Kiwi accents started ramming the wall beside the men’s room with a desk as I happened to be emerging from the women’s room (they giggled drunkenly and ran away before I had the chance to give them a mocking single eyebrow raise). The other was when I was working alone in the bakery at around 0200 and two slightly soused Kiwi army guys came in begging me for Anzac biscuits. Neither incident rose even to the level of irritation, nevermind danger or menace.
So, while I remain doubtful that the NavChaps are really as bad as everyone says, I do know this: they ate. Dang, they ate. Between them and all the folks returning from the South Pole and from field camps closing for winter, we have been busier than at any other point in the season.
In addition, all the offloading of supplies requires that the supplies then be put away… resulting in large stretches of the station being closed to pedestrian traffic as forklifts and trucks careen about, most of them taking the 5mph speed limit as more of a suggestion. Trails were inaccessible, too, and there seemed to be far too many people everywhere.
Once the vessel was offloaded, it was, well, onloaded. All the recycling, all the food waste, all the biohazard material (pretty much anything contaminated with human goo of one form or another) gets put in shipping containers and trucked down to the vessel to make the long trip back to California, to landfill sites and recycling centers.
On Saturday, happily, blissfully, it was all over. The vessel chugged away, disappearing into the mist of the Ross Sea, and the NavChaps were herded onto a C17 and returned to Christchurch.
Now, a new exodus begins. While people have been trickling back to New Zealand since early January, the deluge starts now. In the span of a fortnight, McMurdo’s population will go from about 1100 at the peak of Vessel Evolution to less than 200. Already it has begun – we are down to 850 or so just in the last couple days.
This entails a new kind of mania. The laundry room is a mess as everyone hurries to do that one last load. The halls are littered with suitcases and Housing-issued linens and laundry bags that need to be returned upon checkout. The skua bins – garbage cans where people pile useful items they no longer need for others to scavenge – are overflowing, some turned into mounds as tall as I am.
As for me, I’m happy to be watching (and, on occasion, picking through the skua mountains to see if there’s anything of interest). I’m waiting on a few final packages to arrive before the last inbound flight (February 25), and to hear my winter room assignment. I start my new “winter” job next week, returning to the day shift, and am looking forward to that.
Most of all I’m excited about winter itself. Those freakish heatwaves of 40F weather are already over. We’re still mostly above zero (Fahrenheit) but the wind chill has started nipping us down into the negative teens. What’s been most amazing, however, is the light. The sun here has never risen, gone up and over the sky and then set on the opposite horizon like it does in the real world. It has always spiraled, slowly, lazily, rising since late August and circling us, higher and higher until the solstice in December when it was about halfway to the center of the sky. Then it started spiraling downward again, its descent barely detectable until late January, when it seemed to fall, measurably, almost by the hour. That in itself took some time to get my head around.
Now, however, the sun stays low, scraping the tops of the Royal Society mountains and disappearing for hours behind Ob Hill and the ridge just north of McMurdo itself. On February 20, we will have our first sunset since late October. Already the light, no matter what time of day, feels like that of a late afternoon in a Wisconsin winter.
After that, the sun continues its long slow spiral down until it disappears altogether sometime in April, not to be seen again until August.
As long as none of the shipping containers offloaded last week contain vampires, I can’t wait.