Chuck has been back in Alabama for almost a week now. I turn green with botanical envy with his correspondences describing what a beautiful spring it is at home. He tells me out front yard is ablaze with hues of crimson Kurume azalea cooled by a now wall of white southern indica azaleas. The hostas, honeysuckle, roses, ferns, wildflowers, etc., in the back yard are in their colorful glory this year. In stark contrast, Palmer Station, now a month into the southern hemisphere or austral autumn is taking on an Ansel Adams black and white scheme.
Last week we had close to 3 days of non-stop gentle snowfall. What a difference a foot of fluffy white stuff has made in the appearance of our neighborhood. The rocky shores and cliffs of the small islands surrounding us now appear like those chocolate candies with white sprinkles. Air temperatures right at freezing and/or below have ensured that this snow is here to stay. Noticeably shortening day lengths and lower sun angles contribute to the undeniable fact that fall is here and winter approaches.
Not only meteorological signs signal the seasonal progression. The teeming penguin rookeries of summer are now quiet and deserted. A few straggler penguins remain in the vicinity. The same is true of the cliffs where throngs of cormorants nest, the crevices that are alive with squeaks and squawks of nesting terns and storm petrels. The black back gull chicks are now fledging and by the end of May the giant petrel chicks will be off the nest and the last fledglings winging away from station. Those rambunctious fur seals over on Bonaparte Point, across Hero Inlet from my room (camp site) are still in residence though.
This past Sunday I dedicated my morning off to enjoying a late morning dawn, a finally snow covered glacier and sharing a joy with a fellow Palmerite. I mentioned in a previous entry that I like to sleep outside when I can. Saturday, after darts, I put on my heavy thermal underwear and loaded my pack with a thermos of hot water, my coffee press, ground coffee, a boxed juice and sweetbread. Flashlight in hand I headed into the backyard to my room overlooking Hero Inlet. Stashed in a rocky depression is my bed: a bevy sack (personal shelter or tent that fits like a sleeve over sleeping bag) enveloping a down sleeping bag and thick foam pad. I keep my bed rolled up inside of 2 garbage bag to keep it dry and for security against high wind weight it down with a small wooden shipping pallet. To access my bag, I rotate the pallet upright and lean it against the rock behind. The pallet then serves as a lazy boy/back rest so I can sit up and read, watch the ice float, eat breakfast, etc.
Saturday night was wonderfully calm but cloudy and colder than other nights –3C (26F). I tugged a wool balaclava over my head, zipped up my bivy halfway, zipped up my bag entirely and cinched the inner collar of my bag around my neck. The only part of me exposed were my eyes, the rest of me was snuggled in blissful warmth, comfort and remarkable quiet. I reveled in the shifting clouds above, the occasional bird silhouette flapping soundless overhead, the gentle lapping of Hero Inlet on the rocks, and yes, the barks and yawns of those fur seals. I drifted off to sleep at some point (still wearing my glasses), undoubtedly content.
Sunday morning arrived with not a very colorful introduction. Hues of blue and gray but the winds were still calm and the clouds ensured that the atmosphere outside my bivy-ed bag would not be too hostile and cold. I scooted my ‘bed’ over to that upright pallet so I could lean against it and prepare my coffee. The thermos of hot water had been at the bottom of my bag for insulation and the water was still piping hot. Filled up my insulated coffee press with the water, sprinkle coffee grounds, snap in plunger/filter and lid and wait a few minutes while the coffee steeps. Ummmm- camp-made coffee is always marvelous and this brew was no exception to the rule. I leaned back, sipped my java and drank in to view of the ‘south’ islands and the peninsular mountains in the distance.
Ok enough lounging around. Time to make your bed and get out on the glacier and play. Change of boots, a short walk through the backyard carrying boards and poles, brought me to the base of the glacier. Its surface was blanketed with several inches of fluffy snow – no longer sheer ice. I skied up slowly, breaking trail essentially as my ski plowed through the dry snow rather than rode atop it. I wonder if the station’s recreation fund could budget a snow groomer to pack the snow down and make all us cross country skiers happy? Probably not, still pretty cool to ski Antarctica.
I skied up to the top, as far as I was allowed. My range was limited by the black flags, beyond which are crevasse fields. I ‘groomed’ a series of trails on the top flat portion by skiing in the same track several times. Tracked skiing like this is also called striding. If the wind doesn’t blow too much, they might hold until my next ski venture.
Naturally, while I was up on top the wind did pick up. It was pretty wild to see it coming: looking at a snowy ridge beyond the flagged zone I saw what looked like a line of dust devils or sand tornadoes that are common in the desert. Lifting, blowing snow was heading my way and within minutes, the black flags started wildly flapping. That chaos disappeared as quickly as it had reappeared – if you don’t like the weather, wait a few minutes is a common saying here.
The snow was dry and made for a slow downhill return. That was fine with me. I enjoyed the ride and was not in any hurry to get down. The sun was starting to flirt with a patch of blue sky and soon it was gloriously calm and sunny.
I returned briefly to station to see if Hla was still interested in skiing. Hla, as Chuck’s previous entry described is originally from Burma and as a young girl, her family moved to Winnipeg, Canada. Despite her new northern home, she had never been on skis. We had fun working on kick and glide basics of skiing at the base of the glacier. The boots she wore were too big for her and it made it very difficult for her to control her skis. That did not deter her smile. She vowed to try it again with properly fitting boots and is keen to try snowboarding.
As we at Palmer Station fall in stride with our seasonal offerings, I hope all of you in the northern hemisphere are springing into step with outdoor adventures and projects. Stop and smell the roses for us! Hopefully, you are not bothered with pollen-induced allergies – if so, geshundheit and have a beautiful spring!