Monday, October 27, 2008

New People

The arrival of new people wasn't at all what I had expected. It started with a trio of pilots who slept over on their way to McMurdo, and rather than being the frightening unknown, they were just people. New, certainly, but somehow nothing more - simply routine visitors from abroad.

That all changed with the arrival of summer people. We've had two flights of inbound passengers, and now the station is crawling with new people. We winterovers - 3 of us having already returned to the real world - still outnumber them 57 to 34, but after a 60 to zero ratio for 8 months, that seems very high indeed.

It's a tradition at pole for the winterovers to spend months prior to the end of season raving about all the clever tricks we're going play on the new people when they arrive, everything from hiding in the subfloors to make the station look deserted, to putting up plastic sheets around the gym and quarantining them, to digging an enormous pit trap next to the runway.

Of course, none of these plans ever come to fruition (that's part of the tradition), but a couple of people did make some effort to dress up the station for the newcomers. One person ran a plank off the observation deck, complete with pirate flag and a pair of legs sticking out of the snow below. Another, realizing the US government is broke at the moment, decided to put the station on the market, replacing the NSF logo with a giant For Sale sign.
It's a strange experience to walk down the halls now and not know the people you pass. I hadn't realized how comfortable and familiar winter life had become. While it's very odd to see the new folks around station, mealtime in the galley is when it really hits home: winter is over.

As xenophobic as it sounds, I think I understand all the anti-immigration feelings in the broader world now. The small, tight-knit community we had grown into has been unbound by the influx of people coming faster than we can assimilate them. Every winter follows a unique trajectory, and each crew forms a distinct society - nobody will ever again experience our particular culture. While many here would argue that's a good thing for the world, nostalgia is a powerful force, and somewhere deep down inside, I'll always miss what this place was.

On the plus side, the new people brought freshies. I nursed my slice of tomato for a good 20 minutes, and am sure that I have never - never - tasted anything as delicious as the pineapple which came in on Sunday. Amazing.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Waking Station

The winter is rapidly drawing to a close, and with our first visitors from the outside world expected tomorrow, the station has become a hive of activity. The crew is dashing madly about trying to breathe life back into all the sections that have been closed down, frozen, drifted over, and more or less mothballed since station close.

Over the past couple of weeks, summer camp - the array of tents used to house the excess summer population - has been dug out, warmed up, and about a quarter of the winter crew has even moved in over there. (Some people really like the peace and quiet of living off station, despite the walk through -60F temperatures to get to the bathroom in the middle of the night.)

A smooth, hard packed runway has sprung up in the middle of my commute to DSL - it's a refreshing change to solid ground between sections of 4' sastrugi and 20' snow drifts. From my path, it disappears into the distance, lined by dozens of heavy black flags to help guide in pilots.

As I mentioned above, we're expecting outsiders tomorrow. This crowd won't be staying, as they're on their way to McMurdo, but with any luck they'll have freshies. From Mactown (nobody on the ice calls it McMurdo - always Mactown), they'll begin ferrying people back here to help with station opening. Our new residents start arriving Thursday.

To prepare for new folks, the entire crew got half the day off today to give the station a good and thorough deep-cleaning. Everything - walls, floors, cielings, desks, washing machines, etc - is getting scrubbed down. By dinner, the station should be gleaming and as good as new. It's funny how much crud has accumulated, and how little we've noticed it.

Over the past 8 months, life on station has been so predictable, repetitive, and almost sleepy, that we simply haven't noticed the changes that have taken place. The station has started waking up from its long winter slumber, and it's a bit shocking to watch the transition.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

South Pole Cooking

There was an injury among the galley staff the other day (nothing serious, don't worry), so they're a little short staffed in the kitchen at the moment. I've been meaning to cook more, and agreed to help out by making desert a couple of nights this week. It turns out that there are a couple of fairly fundamental problems with cooking down here:

First, we haven't had any fresh food or ingredients delivered since station close back in February. We're completely out of just about everything, so you sort of have to tailor meals to what's available.

Second, we're very high up, and nothing bakes quite right at altitude. Technically, we're just over 9,000 feet above sea level, but because of the earth's rotation, the atmosphere gets squished away from the poles and toward the equator. The air here is equivalent to anywhere from 10,000 to 12,000 feet, depending on the weather.

All that taken into consideration, I decided to try making a couple of cheesecakes. They're supposed to be relatively stable at high altitude, and I knew we had cream cheese, so it seemed like a likely possibility. After a quick recipe search, I thought I had found something we could do, and went to work.

Unfortunately, I hadn't inspected our stores since June, and most of what I needed was long gone. For example, we have no graham crackers - the only way I could make crust was by scavenging some "crust mix" from a pile of expired no-bake Jello cheesecake mixes. (They turned out to be "chocolate" flavor, though you'd never know by eating them.) Having resigned myself to a rather questionable crust, I went to tackle the main cake part.

Much to my chagrin, cream cheese separates when frozen. Not just into liquids and solids, but into about 5 different components. You have to take the package, scoop all the various chunks and juices into a food processor and blend it all back together. From there, things sort of went downhill.

Our eggs recently ran out, so I had to use a carton of rather chunky and unappetizing "frozen egg product". Egg yolks were replaced by a bag of thick orange goop. For cream, I resorted to reconstituted milk. Even the lemon juice has run out, and after a bit of searching, sweetened lime juice from the bar subbed in.

Oh, also, the springform pans were the wrong size - too short by an inch.

Anyway, after substituting more than half the ingredients on the recipe, it was time to bake. Things were a little tense at first, as both pies rose dangerously above the edges of their pans, but eventually things settled down and ended up looking - much to everyone's surprise - pretty much like cheesecakes. Even more surprising, they were not only edible, but quite good!

Cooking at pole this late in the season is an exercise in both creativity and ingenuity; I have no idea how the cooks do it day in and day out. I will say, though, that it's quite fun, and surprisingly gratifying when, after what appears to be a complete debacle, everything mysteriously works out.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

My Toast

Throughout much of the season, I've managed to maintain a fair level of mental health. I was thrilled by the sunset, enjoyed the darkness, and got a second wind along with everyone else at sunrise. Since then, however, things have started to unravel a bit.

I never really hit the irritable or angry phases of toast, and it came on so subtly that I didn't notice until it got relatively serious. I skipped straight over the hiding-in-the-room and anti-social stages, and simply stopped paying attention to things.

It's not that I became distracted, mind wandering off during conversations. My attention is still as focused as ever, there's simply less of it there. It's as if I'm still aware of all my surroundings, but many of them don't fully register. I still behave as before, and do my work as easily and efficiently as ever, but several times a day I'll realize that I have no idea what I just did. Or what had for breakfast, what I had planned that evening, or what someone just said to me. For three days this week, I had a mild suspicion that it was Tuesday.

A more common variant of this is the Antarctic (or Thousand Mile) Stare, where people gaze off into the distance, eyes glazing over, mind slowly shutting down. People all over station have begun doing it, but it's not quite what I have. My eyes still focus, my mind is still running. I'm just not paying very close attention to life anymore.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Orange People

In less than two weeks, we'll be meeting new people for the first time in over 8 months, and that's kind of scary.

The official station opening, when it becomes "summer" and the population skyrockets to 250, is Nov 5th. Because winterovers are notoriously bad at dealing with the masses of summer folk, many of our replacements will be arriving earlier than that on smaller planes, during a so-called soft-opening. That allows us to do all the turnover training before the population gets too high and we become too dysfunctional. It also means much of the winterover crew leaves Nov 5th as the masses begin to pour in.

Anyway, in 12 days, the smaller planes that operate through the soft-opening period will be passing through on their way to McMurdo. Two days after that, they'll be back with freshies, people, and who knows what else. While I am looking forward to fresh produce, the people are a little more mixed. To repeat myself, we haven't seen anyone other than we 60 winterovers in over 8 months. We're all tremendously comfortable around each other, know each other's personalities, histories, interests and quirks, and the prospect of new - unkown - people is quite frankly a little frightening.

That may be hard to understand, coming from the outside world, but isolation like this builds quite a group mentality, an us-versus-them way of thinking. Everyone one station is now thoroughly toasted in their own special way, and one of the end stages of toast is an inability to deal with anything new, particularly people.

I'm sure we'll be as nice as we can be to the summer folks, but according to previous winterovers, when that first plane shows up, there's a moment of panic that runs through the assembled crowd. Even old friends from off the ice are somehow a little more than we're prepared to deal with, and the winterovers quickly retreat to their rooms.

Adding to the distinction, none of us have had any sun exposure since arriving last summer. For me, that's about 10 months; for some, it's been as much as 16. We've all very gradually gone very very pale, and now, no matter the ethnicity, we're one and all quite white, verging on transparent. The lore is that anyone from off the ice, regardless of how mild a tan they may have, will look thoroughly orange by comparison.

Summer arrivals are the Orange People, and they bring with them an exhilirating mix of newness, excitment, and - to the toasty mind - a mildly threatening otherness. Also, freshies.