Monday, June 30, 2008


I think I mentioned in a previous post that most evenings there are at least a couple of people playing pool in the game room. Pool is actually a significant source of entertainment on station, and one of the most popular pastimes.

Since just after sunset, the yearly 8-Ball tournament has been pulling in crowds every Tuesday and Thursday. Its a place to go, have a drink, chat with friends, and of course poke fun at the competitors. I never really thought of pool as a spectator sport, but life at pole has certainly proved me wrong on that one.

The finals were held just after midwinter, and enough people showed up to cheer that we had to call in the carpenters to build grandstands. Bleachers seem a little excessive when your entire social universe is limited to 59 other people, but I guess at this point in the season people are willing to do whatever takes to have a fun evening. And it was fun - the championship match was tight, and exciting to the end.

Pool spectating is a surprisingly pleasant way to spend the odd weeknight. Hopefully the 9-ball tournament will start up soon.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Son of Polestock

The midwinter dinner wasn't quite what I expected. Far from the upbeat, celebratory reprise of our Sunset dinner I was expecting, it was a subdued, quiet affair. Conversation was strained, and immediately following dessert, the whole galley cleared out and everyone went to bed. For the first time since arriving on station, I actually felt a bit lonely.

That said, I guess I should have expected it - the real party wasn't until Saturday.

Our resident bands have been working overtime since Polestock, preparing for the midwinter concert, affectionately christened Son of Polestock. Their repertoires had all grown impressively, and we were set for 7-8 solid hours of live music.

Everyone else on station was getting into the spirit of it, from the graphic design guys making fliers and advertising posters, to the crowd that set up a production line in the arts & crafts room to manufacture souvenir t-shirts.

The concert itself, though not quite up to the standard of the original Polestock, made for a fun evening. A crowd gathered, drank, danced, and for a couple of hours, forgot their problems. As with the dinner, it was more subdued than last time, but everyone enjoyed themselves, and our by now fairly tense winter crew was finally able to unwind a bit.

As for the bands, they were outstanding, and the production of the entire concert was well beyond anything I'd have thought possible here at the end of the earth.

Friday, June 20, 2008


Midwinter is the biggest holiday of the season down here - a sort of Christmas-in-July, only in June, and largely without presents. It's a milestone marking the halfway point of the winter, as well as a two day weekend featuring a fancy dinner and more or less continuous parties.

We've reached the darkest point of our long night - at least, we would have, if the moon weren't blazing brightly overhead. We still won't see the first hints of sunlight for another couple of months, but after today it's officially on the rise.

The formal Midwinter Dinner, social highlight of the year, is tonight. The galley crew has been working overtime preparing a tremendous meal, while the rest of us are busily decorating for dinner or preparing the gym for tomorrow's concert (more on that later).

The atmosphere around station isn't quite as happy and relaxed as it was at Sunset, but that's to be expected - the excitement of simply being here has largely faded, and a good fraction of station has begun to go slightly toasty after 4 months of isolation.

This weekend will go a long way toward restoring the mental health of the community - once the festivities begin, everyone should unwind pretty quickly. I think we're in for a wonderful Midwinter's celebration.

Friday, June 13, 2008


The moon's back, and the world is once again awash in light. All but the brightest stars and auroras have been frightened off, and the broad band of the galaxy overhead is no more.

It would be hard to exaggerate the change outside when the moon comes up. I know I already wrote a post about this earlier, but I think it's worth repeating just how bright moonlight is when the only thing you've got to compare to is the gentle twinkling of starlight or the unearthly light of the auroras.
We don't have a day-night cycle here. The sun rises in September, and sets in March, the rest of the time it's either full blazing daylight or the long winter night. Almost.

The moon rises and sets every two weeks, and makes for a fine substitute sun. None of us have seen the real sun in 3 months, and have largely forgotten what real sunlight looks like.

The light-dark cycle here, rather than being a daily occurrence following the sun, traces the month long lunar cycle. It's become easy to internalize these as extra-large days, not as bright as remembered from our previous lives, nor as frequent, but days and nights nonetheless.

A new day every month is still a far cry from ordinary, but compared to the yearly rise and fall of the sun, it's wonderfully frequent. The sun may not rise every morning to set in the evening, but at least the moon comes and goes on a timescale we can follow.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008


The station isn't a big place, and while a good chunk of the winterover crew does go outside fairly regularly, the bulk of our lives still take place indoors. There are two main corridors - one of each level - which run the length of the station, and these days you can always find people wandering along them, searching for something unknown.

It's been 4 months since station close, and most people have by now largely exhausted the entertainment they brought with them. Some, particularly the repeat winterovers, have even gone through the (fairly impressive) video collection at the store. After a certain amount of time in one place, a general feeling of restlessness takes over. We all spend an inordinate amount of time in our rooms and workplaces, and eventually need to get out.

The problem is, there's not really anywhere to go. Some people go for a walk outside, but many still fear for their lives when leaving station. (The rest of us are outside so often that we've probably just returned from a 2 hour walk.)

Instead, people tend to wander the two main halls, peeking in all the windows, seeing what's going on out in the wider station. There's usually some sort of entertainment to be had - a pool game or movie to watch, someone in the galley to have a drink with, or at very least a fellow wanderer to salute or chat with.

So far I've been kept busy enough that my wanders only come in the middle of the night after resolving a telescope alarm. Within a couple of laps around station, I almost always run into someone with insomnia, shuffling by in their pajamas, nowhere to be and nothing to do.

The wandering is bound to ramp up over the next couple of months, as we pass midwinter and people begin waiting with baited breath for the sun to return. I'm not quite there yet - still busy with work and enjoying the aurora-filled starscape - but the isolation has begun to take its toll on some of the crew.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Winter Commute

We're two weeks away from midwinter, when (in addition to the huge celebrations we'll be having) the sun hits it lowest point below the horizon. Midwinter is the darkest day of the year, and from that point on, it'll get lighter every day, with visible bands of sunlight starting on the horizon around mid-August.

For now, though, sunlight is a distant memory. It's pitch black outside (one person got lost on the 10 -foot square observation deck last week because they couldn't find the door to get back inside), but given time, your eyes still adjust enough to make out the gross details of the world. Buildings are black blobs against the slightly less black horizon. The ground is a uniform, featureless gray, and the flaglines a series of shapeless dark patches fluttering in the breeze.

Contrasting all that, the night sky is a marvel. Having your pupils dilated as wide as they'll go, and looking through some of the clearest skies on earth, you get an incredible display overhead. Our galaxy is the dominant feature, an imposing and irregular band across the sky. It rotates overhead, one full revolution per day, the enormous hour hand of a celestial clock.

Off to its side, the two Magellanic Clouds (small globular galaxies near ours) twinkle softly, while closer stars blaze brightly away, a million motes of light cast across the sky. And across it all, the constant showers of light from auroras, sometimes bright enough to illuminate the ground.

Barring bright auroral light, the path has become ever more treacherous. It's now nearly saturated with invisible drifts and dips, their shifting presence the bane of all polie wanderers. The days when we could take 5 consecutive steps without tripping are nothing but a fond memory now, and more than once my tripod/walking-stick has saved me from faceplanting into a snowpile that wasn't there the previous day.

The commute to DSL has changed considerably since the easy days of summer. The first couple of times you find yourself stumbling a kilometer through the snow, climbing over a never-seen hill of unknown height, or stopping to catch your breath for the fifth time in as many minutes - all in -120F windchills - it seems a titanic struggle for survival. Now, it's just the price of admission for the spectacular views, and one well worth paying.

Monday, June 2, 2008


People have a natural circadian rhythm (day-night, awake-asleep cycle) which is naturally slightly longer than 24 hours. In the normal world, our clocks get reset every day by the sunlight, so we keep fairly well synced up with the wall clock. Down here, the whole day-night thing only happens once a year, so we're more of less left to our own devices to work out a sleep schedule.

Since my arrival back in January, I've been having trouble hitting a regular schedule. For the first couple of months, I free-cycled. That is, I went to bed when I was tired, and I got up when I was done sleeping, time of day be damned.

Since sunset, that hasn't worked so well. Social opportunities through the winter are... limited, and after a couple of months away from civilization, quite necessary. Most of the crew works regular (7am-5pm) hours, so it's fairly important for mental health to stick to something at least vaguely resembling a normal work-play-sleep cycle.

I found out pretty quickly that without sunlight, it gets progressively easier to sleep longer and longer. After a 16 hour nap, it's pretty tough to go to bed again before putting in a 30-hour workday.

I've tried several options, but the only thing that really seems to work is to set my alarm to go off long before I finish sleeping, with the goal that I'll still be tired come evening. Since my infirmity last week, I've been trying this regularly, getting up at 6am daily, and its been a fair success so far. It's pretty tough to drag myself out of bed some mornings, especially knowing that there's no actual need for me to be up at that time, but on the whole, it's an improvement. (It also gives me an excuse to walk back and forth to DSL twice every day - before and after lunch - and delight in the amazing night sky.)

A lot of people get severe insomnia over the winter, only sleeping a couple of hours each night, and spending the days wandering around like zombies. All in all, I'm pretty lucky on the sleep front.