Flower Power in the Lab

Light snow is falling Calgary today and for some unknown reason this got me going into the files I have of newsletters I wrote for the guys at Scott Base in 1968/69. As a news junkie by profession, I really missed getting or producing a daily newspaper. That’s how I decided to wrap together a few snippets our Post Office techies could glean off the radio with some stuff of what was happening around the base. I had a slightly selfish motive  for my typewritten news sheet as I figured it would help me keep up with the the comings and goings of base activity and the real reason I was part of the team  for the New Zealand Antarctic Research Program that summer:  to get new items back to the New Zealand media. The first page was always news from New Zealand and perhaps significant items from overseas and the second page was the happenings of the people involved in New Zealand’s Antarctic endeavours.

I’m putting  a chapter together in my book summarising some  of the interesting events and also using the newsletter nuggets as excellent memory joggers.

One event I had completely forgotten until this week had nothing whatsoever to do with the summer scientific program but everything to do with how guys spent their time doing interesting things.

November 8 was far from a warm (southern) spring/summer day. The temperature was around minus 20 deg C with the wind wavering up and down to around the usual 22 knots. The big news of the day was the arrival of New Zealand’s largest airlift of supplies for the season. A Super Constellation aircraft brought  six tons of scientific equipment and food with most of the equipment destined for the new winter-over base at Lake Vanda in the Wright Dry Valley.  But tucked into the events around the base was a story I also wrote for the  New Zealand media about Keith Mandeno, a lab technician,who set about growing a few plants in the tiny laboratory hut which adjoined  the photographic darkroom I used.

Keith liked to potter around with plants and had asked his mother to send something down from her Auckland, New Zealand, home. The result was six pots arrived, some from the home garden and some from a local plant merchant who “guaranteed” to send plants anywhere.

Keith Mandeno with his plant in the Scott Base lab November 1968

You can imagine the conversation Keith’s mother had with the plant mnerchant when she told him to send the plants to Scott Base, Antarctica. He thought she was joking at first but he cheerfully accepted the challenge and sent all the plants south free of charge. It was no mean feat. The plants had to be packaged and shipped in such a way to travel from Auckland to Christchurch where they would wait for a suitable airlift to McMurdo Sound. The plants, two Lily of the Valley, a rose and a variegated ivy arrived in good shape. All Keith had to do was to keep them growing.

Unfortunately my report ends there. I never did find out how the plants survived in that foreign indoor environment.

(a continuing story)

Ahhh! Those love letters

These past few weeks I’ve mulled the how-to around building the bridge between me on the ice and my wife Lois and three daughters several hundred miles away in the warm summer sunshine of New Plymouth, New Zealand. My mentors at Writing It Real (http://www.writingitreal.com) were keen to know about this when they were privy to early chapters. Simply put they were curious to know  how I managed and was and how we were affected by the voluntary six month split in family relations. I can say here that it was not easy given the storms we had weathered in those first seven years of marriage and the births of our three daughters, house building, mounting debt and career aspirations.

This week I found part of the answer when I pulled out  a box of letters we have kept under the stairs. It is a wonderful treasure of information that will form an important link in the book between my life-changing challenges and the extraordinary burdens and challenges of everyday life Lois faced back home. After 41 years it is somewhat humbling to read what we wrote to each other. The faded, hand written letters on any sort of paper either of us could find tell a story on their own: of love, desire, frustration, struggle and growth neither of us had expected. Not only did the box contain mostly Lois’ letters but also pencilled pages from our daughters, nephews, and  nieces, as well as the newsy epistles from our parents, siblings, neighbors and friends.

I was truly a well communicated and cared for man in the featureless, frozen world I had chosen to experience. Amongst the core 21 New Zealand Antarctic Research Programme  personnel, Lois held the record for the most letters written/received. On mail days I could receive two, three or more letters. Those who got mail would scatter to read quietly. Often, after  supper there could be readings among mates, an event where we exercised care  out of  consideration for those who did not get mail that day.

Lois leafing through the stack of 41 year old letters

I am not sure at this stage how I will use all this new information in my book but that will come over the next few days I am sure. One advantage I have is that they do fill in some memory gaps as to what I was up to or what I was feeling. The one big problem we have is that neither of us bothered to date the letters. But through the  content we have been able to establish good timelines.

It makes we wonder about the world we live in now. I am a total email addict, a talent mastered through my years in the corporate world and the rapid development of  cyber mail over the past 20 years. I discussed this with one of my colleagues at work the other day following a news story that Canada Post is once again raising postal rates. With our discovery of the treasures under the stairs, I mused that perhaps letters and cards are now a lost art and folk would perhaps not be able to enjoy such a this link to days gone by. We have found it is more than just the words. The hand writing (good and bad) and the little sketches in the margins convey a delight all on their own.  As a person from a different generation  my colleague’s response to my silent generation (pre baby boomer) observations was simple: “Well, I keep the email letters I write and receive in a separate file on my computer,” he said.

Mmmmm, so easy, eh! Not sure I am that organized, though I confess to finding it impossible to keep my inbox at reasonable levels. And those files will never ever crinkle and fade like our box of treasure.

(a continuing story)

A windy connection

The news from my homeland of New Zealand this week included a snappy little TV piece (Google: Antarctic Wind Farm) about wind power for Scott Base. Three ginormous towers now whirl electricity into the New Zealand base as well as the US base at nearby McMurdo. The turbines are 37 meters (121 feet) tall and 33 meters  (108 feet) wide generating 330 kilowatts of power. Their windy location on Crater Hill means this is the world’s southernmost wind farm and will reduce diesel consumption by almost half a million liters per year.

My connection to this enterprise is Hugh, the H of Habnag, who has been on location for several weeks each summer for the past couple of years assisting with the construction. It has been great for me as Hugh first told us of his involvement in October 2008 just a couple of weeks before he headed south. I had not seen Hugh for some 37 years and was rather envious that his skill as a heavy equipment operator and entrepreneur had given him a lasting connection with the south polar landscape.

The $NZ10 million venture was officially opened on January 15 is expected to be followed by others with solar generation also being evaluated. The Ross Island turbines are not the first to be built in Antarctica. Australia’s Mawson Station runs two turbines  further north on the frozen continent.

Hugh emailed me a few pictures  during the construction phases and as well Antarctic New Zealand maintained a webcam which I was able to show off to my friends and colleagues here in Canada. It’s a far cry from the diesel generators from 41 years ago when I was working at at Scott Base.

My sole connection with electricity and generation only came every 10 days or so when I was on nightwatchman duties. Something all base personnel had to do if they wanted a shower! We had to walk the entire base every hour and check all the huts for fire. As well we had to check the oil temperature and level of the generator (pictured). All I can recall about that is the generators were yellow which means they must have been Caterpillars. They made a lot of noise and I think the first night I was on duty I might have checked the oil every five minutes as I was deathly scared of screwing up. And I have never told anyone that!

(a continuing story)

New pastures for a tractor

Base Engineer Allan Guard of Fairlie at the wheel of a Massey Ferguson tractor at Scott Base Antarctica, 1968.

I think I was only about eight years old when I first got behind the wheel of a Ferguson tractor. I was living on a South Taranaki (New Zealand) dairy farm at the time and the farmer let me “drive” the tractor in and out of the milking shed and also while feeding out.  I was fascinated by the little grey Fergie. My next real encounter with this icon of the 100-acre Taranaki dairy farms was six to eight years later when I worked during the school holidays on a North Taranaki 68-cow farm. There I could do much more with the tractor, including harrowing, hay baling, feeding out and general farm stuff. The cows didn’t seem to mind me at the wheel either.

You could say that by the time I penguined across the ice of  Antarctica I was an “experienced” Ferguson operator ie meaning I could make the thing go forwards and backwards. We had the little red and grey models which resulted from the marriage of Canada’s Massey Harris and the UK’s Ferguson. Two of these little beauties (with tracks)  formed part of the last great tractor train taking supplies to the Wright Dry Valley to be ferried up the valley to Lake Vanda by another farm-style Fergie with tyres best suited for the frozen gravel and sand terrain.

The “little grey Fergies” were originally made famous in Antarctic lore when New Zealand’s Ed Hillary (later Sir Ed) of Everest fame drove them to the South Pole in 1957-58 to become the first motorised vehicles to do so. Hillary and his party had driven them from Scott Base, laying supply depots for the TransAntarctic Expedition of Sir Vivian Fuchs coming in from the Weddell Sea on the opposite coast.

I was super delighted on our tractor train to get a shot as relief driver on the Fergies as we clattered over the sea ice of McMurdo Sound from Scott Base to the Wilson Piedmont Glacier. And when I was not at the wheel I could be found riding on the drawbar. In spite of the well-below zero temperatures I found it “warmer”  than inside the big SnoCat. Besides, by travelling at the back of the train I was aware of the many picture opportunities I might get of the vehicles struggling over the sastrugi —  wind-blown, hard-packed snow ridges or waves if you like.

I do have a little bit of the daydreamer Walter Mitty in me and it was easy to count off the rattling, bouncing miles in the brutal cold believing I was an heroic explorer of the very intrepid kind. My bear-mitt hands clung to the mudguards as I stood astride the drawbar yelling back and forth to the driver about how thick the ice was and how deep the Ross Sea beneath us. And then there were hop off times as we walked along an open lead (crack) in the ice to find the best place to cross. Mostly though we left that sort of a decision to Bill, the leader of the train because of his previous Antarctic experience. There was cold comfort in our bravado: you’d succumb to the icy water before you ever hit the bottom!

(a continuing story)

The Vanda Tractor Train

It is minus 26 degrees here in Calgary, Alberta, Canada today. Chilly as we say but the sun is shining and we have a lovely blue sky and the promise of warmer days to come. In my book, Summertime and the Weather is Freezing (working title), I am writing about the time I visited the South Pole by aircraft means. We’d flown the route the early explorers used a century ago, across the Ross Ice Shelf and up the Beardmore Glacier to the polar plateau and south to the Pole itself. The fellows working under Shackleton and Scott did not have it so easy though. A good modern read on their struggle is contained in the book Adrian Raeside published last year: Return to Antarctica.

That got me to thinking about our own exploits in 1968-69, of our tractor train and the vehicles we used. The big hauler was Able, one of the Tucker Sno-Cats used in the  2000 mile TransAntarctic Expedition of 1957-58 across unexplored territory from one side of the continent to the other, finishing at Scott Base. The Sno-Cat is a fascinating vehicle. I am not too sure how the New Zealand Antarctic Division acquired this beast but it was a key part of the 60s vehicle fleet and lives on in the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Our tractor train set tp leave Scott Base with the pressure ridges behind

Our tractor train set tp leave Scott Base with the pressure ridges behind

The US built (Chrysler/Dodge) machine weighed three tons and could carry one ton inside and up to two sledges with up to 2.5 tons on each. And (gasp) consumed something like a gallon of fuel every 1.5 miles! Thirsty 200hp beasts of burden that were reputed to travel at 10mph fully loaded. Not sure we reached this heady speed. The appeal of the Sno-Cat in its day was the ability to “float” over the surface on four giant pontoons. Each flat bottomed pontoon was eight feet long with open ladder type tracks. The front and rear pontoons could be steered opposite to each other allowing full power to be maintained through a turn.

Oops, Able finds a crevasse!

On our tractor train Allan and Alan were just great at keeping Able mobile. On our trip alone they had to crawl around in freezing conditions, handling frozen parts to repair or replace broken springs, broken differential, and broken tracks, not to mention the sledge hitch. And we had to get it out of  a crevasse high up on a neve overlooking the Wilson Piedmont glacier.

A taste of Antarctic motorised travel mid-century!

(a continuing story)

Habnag revealed

New Year’s Day and a cool -20degC here in Calgary, Alberta, Canada this morning but with a promise to head upwards by about 10 degrees during the day. The chickadees and nuthatches were out in the trees this morning letting me know they required seed in their feeder. Their twitterings (the original twitter) sounded like spring is coming as I shovelled the walks and driveways surrounding  our house and our neighbors.

It set the scene for today’s news that I would unmask Habnag. Silly me figured I had created an acronym no-one would be able to guess. I put the thought out on my network of close Antarctic colleagues and suggested there would be a prize for the first to deliver the correct answer.

I think it was by return email that I got the “easy” from Robin Foubister, a lifelong friend and brilliant leader of the New Zealand Antarctic Research Program of 1968-69. I should have figured he’d be first in with the correct answer: after all he was the guy who hand picked his team from hundreds of applicants. I think there were 90 applicants for my position alone!

Anyway, the correct answer is: Hugh Clarke, Allan Guard, Bill Lucy, Noel Wilson, Alan Magee and Graeme Connell. Take the first letter of the first name and voila! …Habnag. It was something I had to dream up on the spur of the moment as the original names I had were all taken when I ventured into blog world.

Habnag fits as it represents the team that set out in October 1968 to do something that had not been done before on what we termed the last of the great tractor trains. With an aging SnoCat of TransAntarctic fame, a D4 bulldozer and two tracked Ferguson tractors towing seven sledges we crossed from Scott Base on Ross Island to the Wright  Dry Valley on the western shores of McMurdo Sound. It was a frigid and harrowing journey across the sea ice and up onto the Wilson piedmont glacier, repairing vehicles and sledges to keep going and finally extracting vehicles from crevasses. In spite of the trials and tribulations the train was a success in landing supplies for the about-to-be built New Zealand winter base at Lake Vanda. It was NZ’s first winter-over base on mainland Antarctica and the scientific efforts of the winter over group would reveal some of the mysteries of the Dry Valleys and Lake Vanda.

The picture shows the tractor train crew:  Standing, from left: Bill Lucy, Hugh Clarke, Noel Wilson, Alan Magee, and in front, Allan Guard and myself, Graeme Connell.

So that is Habnag.

Oh, yeah, one final thought on the prize. I have sent my valued friend and mentor a copy of Adrian Raeside’s new book Return to Antarctica, the amazing adventure of Sir Charles Wright on Robert Scott’s journey to the South Pole.

(to be continued)