On the next to the last night in McMurdo, I took what would be my final walk out to Hut Point.
I went alone, to have time to contemplate what this place means to me. This vast Antarctic continent grabs a hold of you and mesmerizes you with its massive landscape, giant icebergs, sweeping valleys, and slow moving glaciers that grind their way over the land. The Transantarctic Mountains have become a part of my everyday life for the past two+ months, and it’s hard to imagine a day now, where they won’t be in my view.
Not only did I focus on the larger bits, but noticed the unique shapes, textures, and colors of every volcanic rock on my hike that night. I also thought about the wealth of marine life in the water right below me. Large or small, everything here has its purpose and place in the environment.
As I wandered past Robert Scott’s Discovery Expedition hut, one last time, I stopped and just stood for a moment, thinking about those men back in 1902…seeing this incredible place without any other structure around. I can’t imagine how beautiful it would have seemed, totally unchanged by the hands of mankind.
I looked out on the horizon, imagining teams of dogs pulling sleds over the ice and snow, and the perseverance of the early explorers; how they had their own Antarctic dreams. After three visits to this icy continent, I leave today, I wondering if I will ever be back.
Certain sounds will stick with me: helicopters thrumming overhead, pulling sling loads of cargo back from a field camp; flags that mark our routes on the ice…flapping wildly in the wind; the crunching sound my bunny boots made when walking on the ice in the early days of my time here; penguins squawking at us out at Hut Point.
My hike gave me the opportunity to look back at Observation Hill…thinking about the four times I’ve climbed it on my three trips “south.” Just two months ago I stood atop Ob Hill on a picture-perfect early December day, with no wind, blue sky, abundant sunshine and 360 degree views of Mt. Erebus, Mt. Discovery, Mt. Terror, the Ross Ice Shelf, McMurdo Station, Arrival Heights, and a frozen ocean down below. Now, that sea ice is cracked and breaking apart. I’ve not been here this late in the season before, and it has been a new experience for me seeing the open water, longer shadows as the sun dips lower on the horizon and cooling temperatures again…as winter is slowly creeping its way back to Antarctica.
Having had the chance to come here as part of three incredible scientific projects has allowed me to learn more about the process of science and discovery from those who are leaders in their field of study. I will be eternally grateful to the TEA (Teachers Experiencing Antarctica and the Arctic), ANDRILL (Antarctic Geologic Drilling), and WISSARD (Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling) projects/programs, who trusted me to be the eyes and ears of the scientists, work alongside them, and convey their work to so many students, teachers, and individuals for the past fifteen years. Rest assured…that work will continue, even beyond my life as a classroom teacher.
The work of scientists is critical to understanding this planet we call home, and its many inhabitants. Microscopic plants; geologic features; ice and snow; creatures roaming ocean, or sky, I have had the responsibility to learn about these things and teach others. Thanks to the National Science Foundation (NSF) for recognizing that educators play an important role as part of the science that takes place around the world, and for including us as ambassadors of science, technology, and engineering through outreach programs which they fund. Thanks to Ross Powell, Northern Illinois University, who invited me to be a part of the WISSARD Project’s education and outreach team and for the support both Ross and Reed Scherer (also Northern Illinois University) have given me throughout this project.
(Photo above: Susan Kelly; Reed is to the left, Ross to the right)
These opportunities charted the course for the most robust professional development experiences I could ever have hoped to take part in. Going beyond the walls of my classroom to learn and consequently pay that knowledge forward to others has been a gift to me as an educator, but I’ve also earned it.
Not once will I ever look at a globe in my classroom again, without thinking about this special place at the bottom of the Earth…how it changed my role as a teacher, and changed my life.
(Photo above: Susan Kelly)
Walking with penguins in their natural habitat, witnessing seals popping up through holes in the ice to flop down and lounge in the summer sun; seeing the wisps of steam lifting up from the top of Mt. Erebus (the world’s southernmost active volcano); and walking in the Dry Valleys have all been moments I will not forget.
I’ve been on helicopters, huge military planes (a C-141 Starlifter, LC-130 ski-eqipped Hercules, and a massive C-17), and on this trip I was fortunate enough to have a chance to fly on a DC-3 Basler. I’ve ridden in crazy vehicles like Ivan the Terra Bus, Deltas; and crazy track vehicles like a Pisten Bully, Hagglund, and Mattrack. There have been many snowmobile experiences; riding out to the WisSpot test area this season, but many other longer trips such as out to Cape Evans to see Scott’s Hut or Big Razorback Island to visit with scientists studying seals.
Years ago I was able to climb down a ladder into ice caves in the tongue of the Erebus Glacier. I’ve slept (well, sort of…not really “sleep” just shivered all night) inside of snow mound structures called quinzees, sawed snow bricks to build walls to shield tents from the wind, slept with boiling water bottles that turned to solid ice overnight, and have now experienced a true night of camping in the Antarctic with this year’s 51 mph wind and snowstorm with little to no visibility in our camp.
Thinking back on just this season alone, I’ve interviewed the three lead scientists of WISSARD who travel the globe in search of answers to glacial, geologic, and biological questions. The young students of WISSARD (be they undergraduates, graduates, or those working on their PhD) have inspired me with their enthusiasm and talents. We had a great team of scientists for this project…with innovative new ideas and the ability to meet the challenges that Antarctica can throw our way.
(Photos above and below: Susan Kelly)
I ‘ve talked with astronauts, medical personnel, a team of scientists collecting meteorites, a female scientist who has devoted 30 years to long term ecological studies in the Dry Valleys, and researchers launching long duration balloons to carry equipment that collects data as the balloons circle the continent. I had a cup of cocoa with a woman who was on the team of the first four women who skied to the South Pole…hundreds of miles in a little over two months. Absolutely every day in Antarctica provides an opportunity for learning and for meeting such interesting people. I’m in awe of their varied talents and experiences. They teach me, so I can better teach others.
All of these moments are ingrained upon my memory, and as my great friend Matteo remarked (I mentioned this yesterday, too) when we disembarked from a helicopter on a sunny day at Cape Bird, Ross Island in 2006, “This is a day for all our lives.” I’ve had many of those days here in Antarctica. I’ll never forget them.
So as I boarded the LC-130 Hercules to leave Antarctica, and watched from my tiny window as the icy continent slipped out of my view, I know I’ve had the experiences of a lifetime; three times!
Summer sun is fading, sea ice has broken apart and icebergs drift away from where they calved from mighty glaciers.
I headed north to Christchurch, New Zealand…back to sunsets and darkness at night, vegetation, smells, colors and so much more. I hope you have enjoyed this journey with me as I have enjoyed sharing it with you. Always keep reading and learning, traveling if you can, experiencing new cultures, friends, and landscapes. Ask questions to enhance your knowledge, because that’s one of many things a good scientist does…asks questions. Keep science and discovery a part of every day. So long from the “ice.”
Note: This blog post was written while sitting on a LC-130 Hercules…at 25,000 feet in the air!
Headed back to Illinois…looking forward to seeing family and friends very soon!