Antarctica, March 1967
It didn’t seem that long ago when he first visited in the spring and looked east down the valley, awestruck at its hugeness and the rare beauty of sunshine lighting up boulders and sand, browns and blacks, umbers and yellows, a 3 mile wide by 50 mile landscape untouched for millions of years. Mountain ranges rose 6000 feet on either side; glaciers tongued from the peaks but stopped short halfway down. Remarkable, intriguing and likened only to the planet Mars.
Today, massive dark clouds crouched to the west, pulled by a vicious gale force wind over this mysterious, frozen, ice-free place.
Inside the tiny orange hut at the western end of frozen Lake Vanda, darkness closed around and through Dermot Strongman, the only human within this 2000 square mile desolate inhospitable corner of Antarctica.
University dropout, carpenter, field technician, fiancé.
He flipped the radio switch to standby, slumped back in the steel-folding chair and unthinkingly smashed his pencil on to the crude unfinished plywood bench[-1] .
“No-o-o-o,” he shouted into the gloom of his hut. “No, no, no.”
Five months, maybe six months trapped in this piece of no man’s land. Routine, they’d said. Nothing in Antarctica is routine! This was supposed to take two, maybe three hours. What do they mean the helicopters have gone home? The sea ice hasn’t frozen over. No one can get here! What do they mean? Dermot shook, a mixture of fury, anger, bitterness, panic, and terror. He stood up suddenly; the chair folded and slammed to the bare wood floor.
Just go in and close the place down for winter, they’d said. Chopper will take you in and call back for you in a couple of hours en route from another job. That was two weeks ago. Weather and the approaching winter now isolated the strange and beautiful valley.
“No-o-o-o,” he moaned. “I’m supposed to be getting married on Saturday. What now, WHAT NOW!” He collapsed on his bunk, tears rising from his toes as he let it all out.
The wild wind swooped down from the polar plateau smashing hour after hour on to the wooden hut. Every few minutes the wind pulled back, mustered new strength, and sandblasted its way east to the coast of McMurdo. He’d now missed the final flight home, the last of the summer season, already delayed because of him. Nothing could be done now to get him home to Amanda. She’d already waited seven months for him. Would she wait another six?
He covered his ears and yelled at full lung for the constant 25 miles an hour wind to go away. Two days earlier the wind didn’t seem too bad. It was acceptable then as help was seemingly on the horizon. But now, as the mighty katabatic winds roared down into the winter-darkening valley, he feared for his very existence. Marooned and alone, cold and hungry, he could see no end. The cloaking Antarctic winter darkness now confirmed there would be no rescue from his accidental confinement. With each shuddering blast the hut seemed to shift on its foundations. The steel guy wires cemented into the rock holed their wind song and sand peppered on the tiny window.
Sheep Valley, Canada, January 2012
Flurries softly settling on the shrubs outside the studio window were sparse at first and slightly granular. The sky darkened and the tiny white crystals danced in the updrafts, softened and grew to full size snowflakes. Within the hour the ground was blanketed white in a swirling snowstorm.
Blossom O’Sage picked up her coffee and gazed across her yard. She loved this aspect of her prairie home and now, distracted from her writing, figured she’d head outdoors and enjoy the soft wet flakes on her cheeks. She’d been at the computer keyboard for several hours of the early morning. A brisk walk followed by a warm shower and breakfast would be just the thing to sharpen her mind to complete the long article she’d been writing about early coal mining ventures near her little community of Sheep Valley, tucked in the foothills of Alberta, Canada.
Donning her warm goose down coat and wrapping a scarf around her neck and chin, Blossom pulled on a snug woolly cap, and in her new fluffy-topped leather boots stepped outside. At about minus 5 degrees Celsius it was fresh and wonderfully quiet without traffic, and picture postcard perfect. Snowflakes layered the spruce and pine and slowly mounded on fences and parked cars.
She headed west towards the river park and felt the keenness of the light wind as the snow brushed her cheeks. She poked out her tongue to gather in the cool wetness of a flake or two. Blossom was the first one out this morning and she turned to see her lone footprints scuffed along the sidewalk. Canada geese honked their formation overhead in the snowy gloom, eager to get to a lake and settle. By herself and with no one watching she hopped and skipped and recalled the fun she’d had with her cousin, Brewster, making mystery footprints, three-legged, two-legged and one-legged. It was their game until they finally fell laughing and giggling into the soft banks to leave snow angels.
Blossom entered the closet silence of the small park, shuffling along the pathway under the leafless aspen and green spruce canopy. Along the riverbank she stopped to watch the snow hit the water and be gone in a blink. Just inches away the snow layered into white caps on exposed rocks.
“Hi little bird,” she said to a chickadee, flitting just out of reach. “Looking for breakfast?” She wished she’d tucked a handful of sunflower seeds in her pocket. There were times when the cheerful birds would alight on her outstretched hand, beak up a seed and go smash it on a branch for the hidden kernel.
The pathway rose up to the road bridge and from there the sidewalk led to the village center. From the river park she headed east through the small retail area stretched out over three blocks. She felt a slight chill as she faced into the morning breeze.
It was far too early for any stores to be open on this first day after the New Year break. Besides, not much would be moving as the snowstorm wrapped itself around the village. The main street was devoid of traffic so far, though wheel tracks proved that there were others up and around. It still felt faintly odd, though, to be the only person out walking. She passed the church on the short hill and passed the village welcome signage and a couple of aging vacant buildings. On past the drugstore, the bank, a couple of variety stores, a small restaurant, gift store and galleries, their mustard, tawny, red, olive or brown painted frontier-style facades and now flower-less and shrub-less planters providing a rustic flair to a village that has seen it all yet bursts with a desire to attract the next entrepreneur. As she walked she began to remap her agenda, realizing it would definitely be an indoors day. The coal story was a paragraph from completion. She’d do that as soon as she got home, then shower, then eat. Maybe a quick nap and then perhaps a start on the next assignment, revamping a graphics manual for an oil and gas services company to get it off her desk by week’s end. Then what?
Blossom had abandoned her decade-long career as a financial accountant for a life as a freelance writer. This was the career of her heart in high school. But her enviable affinity with numbers and good organization skills, her counsellors, family and friends had convinced her of the advantages of life with a ledger, “because you’ll always have something to fall back on.”
Before making the big leap though, Blossom, under a pen name, had found modest success writing short articles for business magazines about the ups and downs of the accounting profession. Armed with a couple of writing and editing contracts, she’d sold her mid-city condo and moved out to Sheep Valley with enough funds to keep her going for a year. If it didn’t work out well, nothing lost, she “had something to fall back on.” That was now more than two years ago. She had not missed a beat. Her bank account had grown, her reputation had grown and she had regular clients in the corporate world. Every day was new.
Across the street and down a bit she heard the familiar scrape of a snow shovel. Someone else was up and about. It was Nat, the owner of the coffee shop, doing her best to invite customers to the cozy warmth of her little espresso bar, a converted two-storey former hardware store.
Great idea. Nat’s coffee was always good, her cinnamon buns fresh out of the oven, and today’s newspaper ready to read. Blossom crossed the street and waved to Nat. They’d become good friends and often she would sit in the little shop with her iPad working on early drafts or dealing with emails. Blossom had poured her heart and soul out to Nat as she created the day’s cinnamon rolls. They were both in their early 30s and both unattached, determining their own lives. Blossom’s meltdowns usually stemmed from uninvited contact from an ex-almost husband.
‘C’mon in,’ Nat called from within her hooded ankle-length sheepskin coat as soon as Blossom neared the shovelled sidewalk in front of the old-fashioned storefront. “Happy New Year! We’re all ready for you, though you’re not the first of the day.”
“I thought I was the only one out and about this early,” Blossom said as she stamped her feet on the wooden veranda, kicked the post to clear off as much snow as she could and brushed her coat free of the white stuff. “With this snow I think you’ll be back out in half an hour!”
The aroma of coffee and baking met her in the doorway where she paused to take it all in and allowed her eyes to get used to the room, cosily old fashioned with dark oak chairs and tables picked up from an antique store. Paintings and photographs by local artists decorated the plain and lightly coloured walls. Partway along the wall was a rickety brown bookcase, its shelves stuffed with the bright yellow spines of National Geographic magazines. Sections of newspaper littered the top. She looked across to Nat: “Yep, usual, low foam latte and the biggest cup you’ve got.”
“Cinnamon roll?” Nat inquired. “These are not long out of the oven. Still warm. What brings you out in this weather?”
“I’ve been up since about three working to a magazine deadline and the fresh snow inveigled me outside.” She smiled. “So, before I fell asleep at the computer I figured a nice walk would be just the ticket. It’s lovely down by the river. I never tire of it.”
“Oh, you’re always down there,” Nat said. “You should have a dog, you go walking so much…butter with your roll?”
“I had a dog once, for many years,” Blossom replied, “but she died and I’ve just not been able to bring myself to replace her. Besides, I’m away a lot now on various assignments and who would look after her?”
The steamer hissed and the milk frothed. Blossom took off her bulky down coat, dropped it on the coat rack and turned to go to her usual table in the corner near the front window.
“Hi Blossom. I didn’t expect to see you here this morning and with this snow,” came a cheerful voice. “Come join me.”
“Fisher!” exclaimed Blossom, moving to the booth by the street window. “How good to see you. Happy New Year! What brings you out on a day like this? I haven’t seen you around for a while. I thought you’d disappeared from town. Tell me what’s going on. How’s the magazine? How was the last issue? What’s your next cover story?”
“Whoa! Steady on. It’s only early yet.” Fisher grinned. “And you well know I don’t like to be pushed till the coffee has settled.”