01-01-2014

Ice formDay one. And we’re off and running. Christmas has been celebrated, birthdays done and we sail  headlong and fast into a brand new year. Well, where did the last one go? Where will this one take us?

The grandchildren were over yesterday and one of them read The Serenity Prayer which I keep on my desk.

“Why don’t we say or know the rest of that prayer?” she asked. “It’s pretty good.

Many, many people know and have found new direction in the first four lines.

“God grant me the serenity

To accept the things I cannot change;

courage to change the things I can;

And wisdom to know the difference.”

The next lines gave my grand daughter new thought:

“Living one day at a time;

Enjoying one moment at a time;

Accepting hardship as the pathway to peace.”

And so it goes. With that in mind it is all we can do, one day at a time. I wrote, completed and published a novel in 2013. I plan to produce another this year. Finding Dermot (see Books) is off and running. I wonder how that will sell. I’m impressed and humbled by the comments I’m receiving. The question now is can I do it again. Check me out on 31-12-2014.

All the best for this neat new year. It started at our place with fresh snow overnight and bright blue skies.

(The full version and the original version of Reinhold Niebuhr’s prayer can be found at www.prayerfoundation.org)

 

Surprise visitor

BobcatLFWe’re not too sure whether this fellow had much to do with Santa’s visit to our place but boy were we surprised! We’d loaded the Jeep with food and gifts and were heading to the first stop of the day, a family breakfast. It’s our neat tradition on Christmas Day. What used to be around 6 am with small children is now 9 am with teenagers! As we passed the lane behind the house I spotted this critter just staring and watching us. A never-seen-before bobcat (a member of the lynx family) in the neighbourhood. Lois grabbed her camera and got this shot while I scrambled out, gently moved to the rear, opened the hatch door and retrieved my small camera from the pile. Bobcat sat and watched.

Bobcat1 I focused and he moved off towards our fence, leaped up and posed long enough for me to get one picture before bouncing off my white fence into the neighbour’s back yard. I raced into our yard hoping I’d get another chance. But no, he’d gone.

What a great start to the day!


That evening we
enjoyed a smaller family gathering around the dinner table. And that’s where I cajoled family and friends into trying out the Christmas plum pudding. I pulled it steaming from the warm-up pot. It dropped beautifully out of the bowl. Man, did it look and smell good. Underneath each slice I tucked a boiled and cling-wrapped loonie, a 2013 version of the small coins my mother used to mix into the pudding. Homemade ice-cream provided

Plum pudding

the final touch and we all tucked in, some more enthusiastic than others. Their reward for attempting this dessert was the loonie and the laughter we shared.

I think we agreed that my Christmas pudding would be a one off. But the nice thing is we did it.

Health and blessings as we wind out this year and face into 2014.

How silently. . .

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

For Christ is born of Mary, and gathered all above,
While mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love.
O morning stars together, proclaim the holy birth,
And praises sing to God the King, and peace to men on earth!

How silently, how silently, the wondrous Gift is giv’n;
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His Heav’n.
No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in.

O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;

Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.

We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!

A song for the season we’ve just passed through. I like this arrangement by Sarah McLachlan on her Christmas CD Wintersong.

Ready, set. . .

ChristmasRemember when as perhaps five or six year olds we were into the waitingest day of the year, when hours dragged and dragged and bed times had to come and the longest of nights endured as we waited, hoping, wishing, that Santa would lay a long expected treasure under the tree?

For me in sunny New Zealand it was getting through a hot summer’s night and looking forward to whatever the kindly gent we knew as Father Christmas might lay that special something at the foot of the bed; the agony of the wait and the thrill of that unexpected thing. In those post WWII days it might be an orange and a big new book. Further gains of the practical type would come later at the family gathering in the living room.

For 2013, the treasure lies in our extended family get togethers Christmas Eve, Christmas breakfast and Christmas dinner. We’ll enjoy the smiles and thrills as grandchildren rip apart their unexpected gifts. We’ve been through the prep, the buy, the wrap and determined the strategies. Countdown has begun. The music and songs of the season carry us through the intervening hours.

The other day, after weeks of muttering about it, we knuckled down here at out place and cooked a traditional Christmas pudding, something that has not been at our table for many a-year. Termed out of vogue by some, too rich by others, we thought it novel this year to give it a go. We steam cooked the pudding for a good six hours and it’ll get another plus two hours warmup before serving with a goodly dollop of homemade ice-cream. Mmmm! I’m having trouble waiting. Will it be as I remember the hours my mother put into the manufacture of this dessert. I’ll let you know.

Merry Christmas!

Elf has arrived

ElfThe Christmas Elf has arrived at our place. The weather has warmed from the frigids of the past week and southern sun finds it way into the corners of our living spaces. More snow will follow the flurries of the morning. Elf toils happily as she pulls her boxes from the cupboard under the stairs and the big unpack begins. She giggles and smiles to herself, lost in the world of Christmas as she carefully pulls the wrapping from each ornament, recalling the where and how it was acquired. Within the next few days these memories and symbols will be spread throughout, the lights will be up and flickering, Nativity tableaus will have their place and the tree will be adorned with homemade, handmade and friend made and given articles of the season. Elf knows the story behind each piece, many of which have travelled the globe with us over the years. These ornaments, baubles and what-have-you bring the tales and people of Christmases past into new focus as we quietly walk through this happiest of seasons. Family, friends and memories. I’m fortunate to have an Elf who finds love and laughter under the stairs every year.

Recovery

imageThe graders have just been by our place and done their thing in swooping the snow piles into the kerbside following the blizzard earlier in the week.  I watched out the window as first one and then another bladed their way by our frontage. I groaned when I saw the pile of traffic-hardened snow lumps  and ice pile up in a nice hill right across the entry to the driveway. Blast, I muttered, best I get out there right away and remove before it all hardens with the cool night temperatures, or if I have to get the car out in a hurry. Swaddled in clothing fit for the -20 or so temps I started carving into the hillock with the snow shovel just as the grader returned. I stepped back and the young driver lowered his blade into the pile and with one scoop cleaned the entry for me. I’m a lucky man! In return in went down the street a bit and cleaned off the hillock where the bus stops to let people on and off.

The snow business is just one more step in the recovery this week from the Spruce Meadows Christmas Marketplace. We did well overall with Tide Cracks and Sastrugi continuing to sell well, surpassing the Finding Dermot, the new book!

People seemed to prefer the real life adventures as opposed to the fictional, even though we emphasized the settings were real. Interesting to chat with the number of people who said they did not read, those who preferred ebooks, and the number who said they did not read fiction.

My task now is to get a few characters together and see where they want to take “the next book.” Feedback from early Dermot readers is very encouraging for this first edition print run. The global print on demand and ebook second edition is currently in layout and design at the publishers.

 

Christmas market

BoothWe’re into the final three days of hectic activity at Calgary’s Spruce Meadows Christmas Marketplace.  For the third year running Lois and I have a booth selling my books and Lois’ artistic creations — penguin calendars, framed penguin art prints, and yes, penguin book bags.

My two books have sold well the first two weekends of this fabulous marketplace which boasts more than 275 exhibitors spread throughout a variety of halls and kiosks. My first book Tide Cracks and Sastrugi: An Antarctic Summer in 1968-1969 continues to sell remarkably well and the new book, my novel Finding Dermot attracts attention for both personal reading and gift-giving. I’m thrilled at the attention our little booth gets and the large number of happy buyers who continue into the market with a book in their bag.

Hidden Antarctic Secrets

I’ve been really fascinated by the news coming out of Antarctica these past couple of weeks as Russian scientists announce progress on their drilling project over the past couple of decades — to drill through four kilometres of compressed ice at the coldest point on earth to breach the hidden and mysterious waters of Lake Vostok. Continue reading

Busy Distractions

The headline is a bit of an oxymoron. A distraction can make you busy, but if you are busy you are not distracted. That’s it for whimsy today. I’m keen to let you know about the folks down at Ashland Creek Press (www.AshlandCreekPress.com) , in southern Oregon. One of the owners has fallen in love again with the venerable workhorse of yore: the typewriter and there’s a very tongue in cheek video on his blog. I loved it.

Without the typewriter I wonder how my careers might have gone. But then, after 28 years with a portable, I’ve since recorded 26 years with the development of the computer. But over in the corner  of my office is my much-loved green machine: a Hermes 3000 I spent the rent money on in the mid-60s. For me, it was the best and last of a line of portables I’d owned since I began life as a young journalist at 17. Continue reading

Diggers away!

Whew. Coupla days later and the diggers, waterworks and roadworks experts have all gone from outside my window. Life comes back to normal in this corner of the world. Our water main is repaired and my curiosity satisfied. Perhaps now I can get back to what I’m supposed to be doing: writing. Continue reading

Little distractions

Well, I dunno. Today was supposed to be a bit of a landmark. I’d promised myself that I’d start in earnest in creating a new book. This time a novel about a fellow who gets stranded in a Dry Valley in Antarctica for a long and dark winter. What occurs during those months and his life after is the stuff of my imagination.

I’ve actually got the opening down as well as a few lines into the first chapter. I’ve keyed in a bit of a synopsis so I know where I might go. I’ve brushed up on the technical aspects of Scrivener, my marvellous writing program, downed two cups of coffee this morning, played around with email and checked out a couple of New Zealand penguin websites. Still I procrastinate, on this, the first dedicated day of “real effort.”  Continue reading

A Very Windy Finale

Cold, the cold reminiscent of my Antarctic travels welcomed the happy crowds to this Spruce Meadows Christmas Marketplace a week ago. Today though, the final and sixth day of Christmas gift buying, opened with 40mph warm winds tossing the artificial hedges here and there and sending stock from the outdoor booths flying across the courtyard.

Christmas shoppers came early and within the hour of opening we’d sold our first book of the day. A happy rumble flooded through our barn as people moved from checking out the reindeer at the entrance (yep, all with the famous names given by Santa) through our booths to the next hall. The merry mood was enhanced further by choral singers swinging through singing the songs of the season. Continue reading

A New Vocation


It was – 24 degrees with a very chilling wind blowing. Light snow was falling. Yep, just the right sort of day to sit in a well decorated stable selling a book about Antarctic adventures. That was last weekend. Today, just a week later, Lois and I are back here again at the wonderful Spruce Meadows Christmas Marketplace to sell Tide Cracks and Sastrugi from our 144 sq ft booth (ummm, horse stall).

It’s a very interesting space to hibernate for a few days.  We’ve been doing our Christmas shopping here for several years but this is our first venture into having our very own sales booth. It is an amazing experience and a whole new community, most of whom are selling their own creations — images, child videos, coolers, jewellery, knitted goods and so on.

Continue reading

The presses are rolling

Ya-a-a-a-y. T’is done and the presses are rolling. I might be feeling just a wee bit excited right now. There were  many times this summer when I thought Tide Cracks and Sastrugi would never make it. I got distraught and frustrated. Thanks to the encouragement of good friends and family , an inspiring editor and an on target publisher, books are being being printed and bound. I picked up the test batch today and all looks good. Nice thing too, is that I already have orders.

My publisher has set up a couple of  launch signings: Cafe Books at Canmore, Alberta on November 12, 1-3 pm and Chapters Chinnok store on Macleod Trail SW, Calgary, on November 20, 1-3pm.

I have captured a booth as Old Antarctic Explorer in Reindeer Alley at The famous Spruce Meadows Christmas Marketplace over two weekends, November 18-20 and November 25-27.

I’m trying to get to grips with social media and got a redial surprise the other day when I added LinkedIn to my iPhone. I found this recommendation from the book’s indexer Tia Leschke: “I indexed Graeme’s book Tide Cracks and Sastrugi: An Antarctic Summer of 1968-69. I think this was the most interesting book I’ve indexed so far. I went right along with him as I worked (from the comfort of my desk). I had to stop myself from getting lost in the story and forgetting to index.”

Coupla tech specs:  the book is 7 inches by 10 inches, contains 290 pages, something like 130 pictures including about 100 colour pages.

Centennial year on the ice

Ready to launch, me with the rollaway banner we';ve created for the book launch and signings in November.

This is the beginning of October. But lets hike back 100 years and imagine the tension around two expedition camps — Framheim at the Bay of Whales on the eastern edge of the Barrier ice  and Terra Nova at Cape Evans on the western side of Ross Island in McMurdo Sound. At Framheim, the Norwegian Roald Amundsen was champing at the bit wanting to begin his run at the South Pole. At Cape Evans, the British Captain Robert Scott was methodically preparing his teams (ponies and motor toboggans) for his quest to reach the South Pole . Each party wanted to be first.

The challenge between these two expeditions has defined south polar history. Amundsen and his team returned victorious. Scott and his men succumbed in their tent in a bitter Antarctic blizzard, just 12 miles short of a plentiful supply depot. Earlier, and filled with disappointment, Scott diaried at the Pole:  “Great God! this is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without reward of priority.” Amundsen had beaten the Brits by some 34 days.

When Amundsen first saw the sun in late August after the long polar night, he was itching to get underway, believing that Spring would be something akin to his Arctic adventures. The Antarctic really does not have those shoulder Spring and Fall seasons.  It’s either sun or no sun.  He hung around Framheim and believing warmer temperatures were coming headed out on September 8 in something like -41degC. The mercury went the other way, plummeting to -57degC. On September 12, his team headed back home quickly but it did cost them a few dogs and almost the lives of a couple of his men.

The Norwegians waited till October 19 ( NZST time) before finally pointing their dog teams south to the Pole.

Meanwhile, over at Cape Evans, Scott and his men continued preparing their ponies and testing motor toboggans. The motor group left on October 24 and the ponies headed south on November 1. At this point Amundsen was already some 300 km ahead.

Fast forward 57 years to the 1968-69 New Zealand Antarctic Research Programme when October  was also an important month for my colleagues and I. In a year of economic restraint, our task was to assemble a tractor train and head northwest on the frozen surface of McMurdo Sound to the dry Wright Valley with materials to assemble New Zealand’s first mainland Antarctic winter over station. We billed ourselves as the last of the great tractor trains — a 12-year-old Tucker Sno-Cat and a D4 Caterpillar bulldozer each pulling three sledges, and two track-fitted Ferguson farm tractors, each hauling a rubber tired trailer.

This remarkable event is highlighted in my book Tide Cracks and Sastrugi: An Antarctic summer of 1968-69 which will be available through Amazon.com and others in late November. Copies will be printed here in Calgary and available through graemekc@telus.net. The B&W version sells for $25 CAD and the colour $35 CAD.

As the northern hemisphere slowly wraps up for winter, the southern hemisphere opens up to summer. It ‘s the same on the continent of Antarctica. But this year holds special significance  as a centennial year to reflect on those who pioneered the way.

Independent slacker

My WordPress log reminds me of how many days it has been since I last posted something to this blog (ouch!). For those who at one time may have followed progress on my book, I apologize for the procrastination. Having joined the ranks of the independent to self publish my book, I became involved in a process that started to consume me. I also found that the warm sunshine of our northern summer was an easy distraction and an escape from the tedium of process and organization in publishing a book.

Self publishing is not simply a case of writing, slapping in a couple of pictures and heading to the local print shop to get a few copies of the greatest manuscript since Somerset Maugham.

My book, Tide Cracks and Sastrugi: An Antarctic summer of 1968-69, is in the final stages before printing. Getting to this point followed a well defined trail laid out so patiently by my publisher Kim of Polished Publishing Group (PPG).When I thought I was near the end of the writing part, I sent it to my editor and she worked it, then worked me over to get it right and to make the script into what it is. Sheila’s builds and suggestions were amazing and she extracted much new material from the hidden places of my brain to complete a story of a very personal journey. She found in me linkages which would build value into the story.

Her valued advice meant I spent many a Spring day on major rewrites. This preceded whittling about a thousand photographs down to the handful that could be incorporated into the book. Because the book deals with just one small life on the frozen Antarctic desert at the end of the first decade of modern exploration, I really considered my old photographs necessary to illustrate the conditions of the time. That winnowing of a memorable collection took some time and while I started out at a limit of 80 pictures, I ended up with 130. PPG’s designer John proved to be a terrific ally in putting visual sense between the covers. I love his cover design and the treatment he has given Tide Cracks.

The back (left) and front cover

From weeks in the design phase, the book passed to another in the PPG team, Tia whom I now regard as Indexer Supremo. I was excited about the results of her work, the depth and cross referencing outclasses the content of the book!  Before this, I hadn’t recognized the art and expertise involved in indexing. To me an index was always something at the end of the book. I didn’t have a clue as to how it got there and was very relieved to know that this was an activity I would not have to sweat through.

With the index added, the book headed to the Print on Demand folk for a hard copy. When that returned to the publisher, it was Jen’s turn. She is a professional proofreader, combing through the text with fresh eyes and a fresh approach to ensure the book meets a totally professional standard.

Her changes are now being incorporated and in about a week I will get to see my first hard copy. I’m excited. I’ll get one last read through before signing off with the Publisher and receiving the files for printing.

I promise I’ll be back in a few days with an update.

CHRISTCHURCH, A GRIEVING CITY

Grieve with the people of Christchurch, New Zealand.

Devastation and tragedy are all around.

Pray for those who have lost family and friends

Pray for those still trapped in the rubble

Pray for the rescuers, for the medical teams, for the welfare teams.

This beautiful city and its people are crushed and hurting.

A mid-city scene as I saw it just a couple of weeks ago. What now?

Gateway to Antarctica 2

One of the final “Antarctic” places to visit before we left Christchurch, the New Zealand gateway to the south, was the city’s Botanic Gardens. And on a beautiful, very hot and sunny Sunday afternoon we picnicked on the lawn with family and friends before heading into an adjoining gallery of the Canterbury Museum to view a remarkable touring exhibition of  pioneer photographs from what is known simply as the Royal Collection.

First off though, the gardens housed a Magnetic Observatory  established in 1901 to assist Captain Robert Falcon Scott with his magnetic surveys in Antarctica. It was used by other early explorers and operated at the Gardens until 1969 when it was moved further outside the city. Since the 1957-58 International Geophysical Year this observatory as well as observatories at Scott Base and Apia, Samoa, (now operated by the Samoan government) provide real-time magnetic data to International Data Centres.

The Royal Exhibition, known as the Heart of the Great Alone, was magnificent.Lois and I toured around the photographic displays of works by Herbert Ponting from the Scott’s British Antarctic  Expedition of 1910-1913 and the Frank Hurley  photographs from Ernest Shackleton’s 1914-1917 Imperial Transantarctic Expedition.  There was also lots of memorabilia on display too. It was an interesting piece of time travel for me, having walked in a few of their footsteps around McMurdo Sound. At first I thought it was a bit ho-hum and I was a little disappointed until I realized I have been close to these pictures, stories and records for a number of years and had seen or read pretty well all of it. For Lois though, and others, it was a very focussed look at the trials and tribulations of early Antarctic explorers and the legacy they left for those that followed in the latter part of last century to today.

We missed the adjoining Antarctic Museum within the Canterbury Museum this visit having made a thorough tour just two years ago. The city has deep relationships with all disciplines in Antarctica and this had added to the cultural and economic  wealth.

Before leaving New Zealand we visited with Old Antarctic Explorers and families in Auckland including Robin Foubister (pictured) leader of my 1968-69 New Zealand Antarctic Research Program.

To cap the whole New Zealand trip off Robin took us out to a gannet colony at Muriwai. Like the gannets, we too are migratory– they go to Australia after the breeding season while we headed back to our home in winter Canada.

Gateway to Antarctica

Ooops! Yesterday I ended my blog with ‘Next: Back to Antarctica‘. I realized somewhere in the middle of the night that this could be misconstrued as meaning I was actually heading back down to the ice. How I wish! The line only meant that I was heading back to the book I am pulling together of my little adventures the summer of 1968-69. As far as the writing is concerned I am what you might say finished — some 70,000 words. Now the hard part is happening, following on the suggestions and amendments by my terrific editor (Sheila Bender of www.writingitreal.com).

But, back to my trip to New Zealand last month. We headed down to Christchurch which is the seat of all things Antarctic as far as I am concerned for it is there where Antarctic history has lived for  more than 100 years, from Captain Robert Scott’s Discovery expedition of 1901. Both Scott and Ernest Shackleton used the adjoining Port of Lyttelton as their final staging point before heading south to the Ross Sea and McMurdo Sound. In 2008 the fellows I had the privilege to be with for the New Zealand Antarctic Research Programme in 1968-69 held a first ever 40th reunion in Christchurch. It was a grand event and many of us have maintained contact ever since. We were certainly a merry band of intrepid explorers. Having reached my present stage in writing my book I wanted to catch up with the folks at Antarctica New Zealand, the government entity that looks after the country’s south polar activities. In my day this used to be known as the Antarctic Division of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research and was located in Wellington.

Lois meets up with a "scientist" in a Visitor Centre display.

Since the early 70s the group has been  located in Christchurch at the International Antarctic Centre close to the airport, the departure and logistics point for all US, Italian and NZ flights to McMurdo Sound. Next door is the fascinating Antarctic Visitors Centre, dubbed the modern shop window for Antarctica (www.iceberg.co.nz). It sports an Antarctic storm (clothing provided), offers educational programmes, live penguins and polar research displays. It is a fun and informative place to visit (and the cafeteria sells great coffee!). So while I was over at the offices, Lois, her twin brother and sister-in-law enjoyed the attractions. I had the experience of a small earthquake while they had the experience of  4-D extreme theatre.

The Visitor Centre Hagglund tourist thrill

Lois and her sister in law Robin had a thrilling ride in a Hagglund snow vehicle. Her summary was one of excitement but she was glad she didn’t know where or what the driver would do. “It was like a roller coaster,” she said. “We went up and up and then o-o-ver.” It was just as well she sat up front and enjoyed the front seat excitement as the vehicle splashed into a water hazard and floated!

It was just a wee taste of Antarctic travel.

(Next: Farewell to New Zealand)

Back In Boots

My feet are back in boots. Once again I tread the ice, snow and slush with sealed up feet. Its what happens when winter is all around. Yet, just two weeks ago my bare tootsies felt the wonderful (ouch) heat of ironsands beaches and the delightful rush of seawater smoothing over them as the waves rippled up the shore. I could gently wiggles my toes and feel my feet sink into the sand. Ahhh, that has to be something close to bliss.
Lois and I have just returned to our Canada home after 16 glorious days in New Zealand, the land of our birth and early life. For me, most of the journey was about business, to catch up with Antarctic contacts and friends to get this book of mine completed. In between and along the way we delighted in the company of family and friends. The bonus in all this was ample sunshine, sunburn, the beach, little clothing, semi-shod feet and a neato tan which is slowly slipping down the drain now. In the time we were there we only struck one bad day of very high winds and rain which caused a bit of destruction in some parts of the country known to us as Aotearoa –the land of the long white cloud.
Before we headed to Christchurch and the International Antarctic Centre we explored our old hometown of New Plymouth, a deep sea port on the west coast of the North Island. What a delightful place this old colonial settlement has become. We have been back many times over the years but this is the first time in more than a decade that we have ventured south in their mid-summer. Great ingenuity, foresight, creativity and initiative have transformed our town into one of the nicest places you could hope to visit. Trees and color have replaced tramlines and powerlines. Walkways, open green space, gardens and bridges have replaced the railway yards in the centre downtown. The changes over the past 40 odd years are dramatic. I wanted to spend a lot more time there but airline scheduling around aeropoints at this time of the year meant they were in charge of the dates. Still, in coming months we will amass another round for another summertime visit.
The first thing we did was to shed travelling clothing from minus 30 here to the plus 25 or so there. In shorts, a tee and runners we headed to the coastal walkway which stretches a magnificent 14 kilometres or so from the port through suburbs and the centre of town to beaches on the northern side of the district. The city has truly capitalized on this mostly rocky seaside frontage. The nice thing is the concrete walkway follows the terrain up down and around. It is open to the sea for the full enjoyment of being close to the waves. It is truly a walkers, joggers, cyclists, paradise. And it is accessible from almost anywhere along its length.

Now this is what I call a bridge. The Te Rewa Rewa bridge along the coastal walkway. Reminiscent of a breaking wave or even a whale skeleton, this fantastic structure was, designed, built and funded by local contractors and fabricators in conjunction with the District Council. Like the walkway, it is an award winner. And in the background, Mt Taranaki, at 8260 ft it crowns and majestically rules the province.

(Next: back to Antarctica)

Peace, quiet, focus

This was one of those get-clear-of-the-fray, get-a-little-adventurous times. I left the city and headed south and west to one of my favorite places in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies. It was a beautiful drive south with clear blue skies and sunshine. Temperature around zero  getting to as high as 9c as I headed west to the Highwood Pass. Here, in our little A-frame camper, I’m getting the fix I need and renewed oomph to get on with The Book. I’ve been at the keyboard for a couple of hours and the temperature is dropping, the skies are clouding and by the time I get to go home I suspect I’ll see a snow flurry or two. I wanted peace and quiet and a fresh outlook and I have it here, about 120km out of the city surrounded by snow-capped mountains, the silent spruce forests and naked aspen along the river. There’s a bit of snow on the ground, a sign that winter is slowly closing in. The stream is still chuckling over the rocks and ice crystals lace the banks, slowly broadening towards the middle. The wind has dropped but there is still enough breeze to chill the fingers and nose.  I am snug and warm in my den on wheels. It has a small propane furnace to chase the cold. Coffee on the stove, baked beans and toast for lunch.

This afternoon I cleared my head of accumulated junk and found renewed interest in piecing a story together of my mid-1900s life in Antarctica, the opposite end of the globe from my home here in Canada.

Highwood River Valley, Alberta, Canada

I’m armed with the notes and suggestions from my mentor and friend and professional editor Sheila Bender (www.writingitreal.com) who lives in Port Townsend, WA. Her first edit calls me to reach deeper into the memory tank to keep reader interest. This is the tough part of writing and at the same time the most satisfying. I see Sheila’s recommendations adding vitality and life to my rambling prose. I am excited at what I’m doing. The tough part if keeping focus and staying with. In the past few weeks Lois has been encouraging me to get on with it and get with the program. My response has been well, I am thinking about it…trying to recall stuff in my personal life that will add the interest Sheila suggests.

Today has been great and given me the kick I needed. Now I want to get back to the city before dark.  I may get another couple of trips out here before the real snow flies. Thankfully, the signs I had earlier in the day have blown away. The skies have cleared and I’ll have a great drive home. It is beautiful country. When this valley does get the full winter snow, it will be closed to human traffic till the Spring, leaving the meadows and the solitude to the resident population of bear, moose, deer, cougar, mountain sheep and the like. They will get to enjoy a winter of peace and quiet.

A Prayer for Christchurch

Well, I sure am sad. After spending the past couple of days reviewing all that is unfolding in Christchurch, New Zealand, in the aftermath of a monstrous earthquake, I am humbled by the power of people as they dust off and set to getting their city right again.

We are so thankful that no-one has been seriously hurt in this big shakeup but it is mindblowing to review the destruction in this very beautiful place on Planet Earth.

Christchurch is the garden city and second largest city in New Zealand. I have never lived there but have visited often, the most recent being two years ago for my New Zealand Antarctic Research Program 1968-69 reunion.

A plaque in the sidewalk recognizing the efforts of the New Zealand men and women who have worked in Antarctica over the 50 years from 1957 to 2007.

For more than a 100 years now the city has been the jumping off point to polar expeditions heading to McMurdo Sound. It continues to be the staging point for deployment of US personnel, supplies and equipment and therefore will hold a special place in the hearts of many around the globe.

It is very sad to see the wonderful architecture being ripped to the ground as crews remove battered, shredded buildings in the call for safety.  Workers and volunteers are tired after days of tough work, long hours and the psychological battle to stay chipper in spite of the more than 100 aftershocks. Businesses overnight have been simply wiped out. What shape and color is recovery?

My first visit to Christchurch was to compete in the 1958 New Zealand Surf Lifesaving Championships. For me as a teenage surfie it was a wonderful experience even though my key event was washed out due to very rough sea conditions. Forty-two years ago I journeyed through Christchurch on my way to a summer on the ice.

My career has taken me to the city many times in the intervening years and Lois and I are scheduled to make our next visit in January to attend a Royal Exhibition of historic Antarctic photography.

I am thankful that my Christchurch friends are safe and well and they took time away from the drama around them to send me and other international pals a note.

I can but pray for the city and its people and for strength for those who toil to make a difference.

Couple websites worth noting are:

www.tvnz.co.nz

www.stuff.co.nz

Christchurch the Garden City.

Antarctica 100 years ago

My grand daughter announced in public the other day that she had not read a fresh blog for a while. It has been a week or two or more and the ultimate excuse comes down to summertime and chasing the sun across western Canada to the sea. That completed, there’s the post vacation lethargy and a renewed and refreshed urge to the book completed.

Well, the good news is that my manuscript is now winging its way courtesy of Canada Post to my editor/mentor for editorial evaluation. The fees have been paid and now I wait. I wake each day and wonder aloud to my wife “has she got it yet?” The vacuum of wait. I expect to hear back from her sometime early September. So, wait with me.

I have mentioned Adrian Raeside, the Canadian cartoonist (The Other Coast) who last year published his book  Return to Antarctica, the story of his grandfather and great uncles who accompanied Robert Falcon Scott on his final expedition to the south polar region. It is a telling story and a very good read of courage and survival taken from the diaries of the men who were there through unimaginable hardship. It is a wonder any of them came home at all.

Adrian has a related project on the go and you might like to take a boo at his video

A Midwinterish Tale

The tradition amongst many OAEs (Old Antarctic Explorers) I have the pleasure of knowing is to celebrate in a convivial manner the shortest (midwinter) day of the year. And this year as June 21 rolled around I was hardly in a position to wing my way to New Zealand to join in festivities with some of my colleagues of 1968-69. It may seem strange but in all my association with things south polar I have never had the pleasure of attending such an erstwhile gathering. This is mainly due to the fact that soon after leaving the ice in 1969 we scattered. Some remained in New Zealand while others departed for global pursuits in such places as Australia, the US, South Africa, and the UK. Me? I found my path to the Fiji Islands from where I emigrated to Canada two years later. Add in marriages, children and careers, and contacts (no internet or email, remember) disappeared into the polar night.

The reunion I spoke of in an earlier post kinda reversed all that and now with the benefit of email the world has shrunk and I was able to wish all OAEs a great Midwinter Day, the celebration of which is obvious as the shortest then moves to the longest. For me, Lois and I went camping to celebrate…you’ve got it…the longest day when we can sit outside and read the newspaper at 10 o’clock at night, even though we are still waiting for that good hot Canadian prairie summer. Alister, our Welsh OAE, marked his longest day in the Cayman Islands by making sure everything was battened down for the start of the hurricane season. I even had the technology to send out an iPhone picture and message from our sunny Rockies campground!

The surprise we had  in that week was a visit from Bob, a high school chum of Lois and her twin brother Lynn. The visit was brief and we enjoyed the company of Bob and his wife Joy in our home and I got to relate a bit about what I am doing for this book. Lo and behold, Bob who has lived in Australia these past 30 years or more,  dropped into the conversation that he too had enjoyed the rigours of Antarctica during his years as a geology student at Victoria University, Wellington, New Zealand. He’d had two trips south for short exploration forays into the Dry Valleys in 1963 and 1965. Following his 1963 trip he co-wrote a technical paper “An Ablation Rate For Lake Fryxell, Victoria Land, Antarctica.”

Lake Vanda in the Wright Dry Valley, Antarctica, 1968

Lake Fryxell is in the Taylor Valley, south of the Wright Valley. It has similar characteristics to Lake Vanda, the object of my team’s affections!

(a story continued)

Among the penguins

When folk visit my home, especially children, they often make a comment about the penguin souvenirs or pictures we have scattered around. Even the screen saver on this computer. The answer is always simple in that I became fascinated with the Adelie penguin after visiting Antarctica. It is hard not to be and most of the penguins of the craft variety date back to when our own children were growing and we developed a family passion for the little guys I’d had the good fortunate to see, hear and smell in their natural habitat.

When I returned home from my sojourn on the ice I brought with me beach towels featuring a very large penguin motif. These were favorites with our daughters. Who else had such a towel, at the beach or at the pool? They lasted a good many years before being reduced to car cleaning cloths.

Before going south, the only penguins we had seen were the Little Blue Penguins which frequented  beaches in New Zealand. There were always some around the offshore islands at our home city and occasionally they would find their ashore at night.

It was some weeks into my Antarctic adventure before I got up close and personal with the Adelie penguin, the iconic tuxedo clad fellow we are probably most familiar with, thanks to cartoonists around the world. My initial encounter came while on a field trip across the sea ice from Scott Base on Ross Island to Cape Evans, the site of Scott’s last expedition winter-over quarters.

We were happily trundling along in a SnoTrac when we came across a quintet tobogganing their way along the ice. They weren’t greatly fussed about us and in all likelihood had never seen a human before. I was ecstatic.  You could see their little pink clawed feet going nineteen to the dozen driving them forward at great speed. They stopped, stood up and proceeded to waddle on their way completely unconcerned about clicking cameras.

Adelie penguins at the Cape Royds rookery

A  few weeks later I had the good fortune to visit the Adelie rookery at Cape Royds, further up the Ross Island coast from Evans, and the location of Shackleton’s 1907 expedition. Wow! There were thousands around this little bay. It was nesting time and by just standing there the curious fellows came right up to me. Some  just looked longingly up at me and allowed me to “stroke” their head while another would come up and batter me round the legs with his wings. They sure were wonderful to watch. I was fascinated with their  game of pinching a stone from a nearby nest  and scurrying back to deposit the stone in their own nest.

There are only 17  different penguins in the world and all of them live in the southern hemisphere. The northernmost is the Galapagos Island penguin. Cartoonists would have us believe there are penguins in the Arctic. Sorry, the last time I looked Santa does not have any living with him at the North Pole.

(a continuing story)

Perspective from a tent

When  I started on this book writing adventure  it was really at the urging of my granddaughter Veronica coupled with a lifetime of  encouragement by Lois and our daughters. Apart from referring to the five month Antarctic adventure from time to time , it was one of those life events that was put in the “been there, done that” drawer.

I often wondered what sort of a story I had to tell and with the technology now available to me I figured that perhaps I could put a simple book together  using  mainly pictures and captions. This would be a story for the kids.

Things started that way but the whole project slowly took on a life of it’s own. When I exchanged a couple of chapters to a writing conference I attended as part of a cruise to Alaska, I received impartial  encouragement and an insistence that I should complete the book for  possibly a wider audience.

The conference was neat in that I was able to combine two, let’s say three, loves:  a cruise up the inside passage from Vancouver, Canada, to Alaskan ports, time out to get back to writing, and  a great adventure with my wife Lois

Today, somewhere around half way through the book, I have the opposite problem  in that its no longer a case of  what to include, but what to exclude. Ratting around in my boxes of stuff  these past few months has uncovered a heap of material to assess from notebooks, diary notes, news clippings, letters and photographs.

“Make sure it is your story,” is the repeated advice from one of my writing mentors. Her words are always in my head as I sit at the keyboard and allow the words to flow through my fingers to the screen.

These same words came from another direction this morning as I sat in church and listened to our pastor’s message. “Tell your story…”

Five months of an Antarctic adventure was the start of something deep down inside of me. For it was there that I first encountered the presence of something far bigger than anything I could imagine. It was there that I firmly placed my life and the future of my family in the hands of a God whom I did not know.  I lay in my sleeping bag in a tent on a glacier miles from anywhere and in the gasping moments between life and death made a plea to God for the care of my wife and daughters far, far away in New Zealand.

That “almost” from  carbon monoxide poisoning started a journey I live today celebrating  42 years since then of being on life’s deranged pathways.  Life is not a mathematical process, and I am happy with that, taking on each day as it comes, the mistakes and failings, the triumphs and victories and everything in between.

Now, back to the book….

(a continuing story)

An Antarctic husky

I was thumbing through some of my 1969 news releases and came across a short piece I wrote about Toby, a six-year-old Scott Base husky who died February 6 at the US Navy’s sick bay at McMurdo. In our time  on the ice we’d all pretty well grown to love the dogs we had there even though their major use in our year was recreational. The visiting film crews also loved them and would shoot hundreds of feet of film as the dog handlers put them through their paces.

Toby

Toby was a favorite but we had to call in the McMurdo medical officer Lieutenant-Comander Roger Case about 7.30pm to see if anything could be done for Toby who was in great pain. The dog had a great ambulance ride back to the sick bay. He was dosed with pain killers and given xrays.  In spite of the attention he got, Toby died around 2 am from a ruptured bowel and severe peritonitis.

Earlier we’d received a report of a dog wandering in the pressure ridges not far from our dog lines. Dog handler Noel Wilson went and rescued Toby. “That’s the first time he has ever slipped his collar, Noel said. “He must have known…”

Toby was frozen and  sent to the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch for a future life posing in the Hall of Antarctica.

I did not have a great deal to do with the dogs but it was enough to give me the opportunity to race a team in the 1972 Yukon Sourdough Rendezvous  in Whitehorse, Canada. I was editor of the Whitehorse Star at the time and owner Bob Erlam had a dog team. It kinda went with the territory. I became his dog handler and when not working on newspaper stuff I was out running the dogs. We entered the rendezvous event, a gruelling race over 15 miles each day for three days. Seemed like fun to me as we worked the team and myself to competition level during the winter. Come spring we were ready and Bob put a lot of effort into getting a smart lightweight race sled to replace our training sled. The first day was great. We ran well and finished in the middle of the pack of 28 starters. Not bad for a New Zealander. Race favorite Wilfred Charlie of Old Crow, Yukon, and a good friend of Bobs broke his sled. We gave him our racing sled so he could continue and I returned to running the training sled. Second day was freezing. We started in a -33C temperature with a  big wind which allowed the CBC to broadcast wind chill at something like -90C. Yep, it was cold. We ran hard and as fast as we could. and again finished in the middle of the pack.

A cold second day finish in the 1972 Yukon Sourdough Rendezvous

A good race but boy was I cold. My feet were blocks of ice and it took something like a couple of hours to thaw them out. It warmed for the third and final day and we had a good run though I had to bring one of the dogs home riding in the sled, a good photo op for the television boys. I think I finished about 14th on the aggregate and was thrilled. Wilfred Charlie won to great cheers all round.

(a continuing story)

A man and his valley

As with most people, I like surprises. And when that surprise is of my own making it is even more satisfying. Many years ago I put away a magazine for safekeeping. It contained an article very dear to what I am doing these days in writing a book of my Antarctic adventures 42 years ago.

A couple of weeks ago I found I needed more room to store my collection of National Geographic magazines. This meant a major revision of my bookshelves. Tucked there at one end was the “carefully stored”  Canadian Magazine of September 7, 1974.

This copy was an insert in the Edmonton Journal. The reason I kept it was because of the  five page spread on Canadian Sir Charles Wright, known to his friends as Silas in his days as a member of the famous Scott Antarctic Expedition of 1910.

Back in the 70s I held the notion that I would one day write a book of my adventures for the family. The Wright story would provide good background. Besides, I wanted to go visit him and talk about my adventures up and down that awesome valley of his name. The story would help. I did make contact with his family at the time but it was not till 1976 that I was able to travel out to Vancouver Island.  As a young immigrant family we just did not have  the funds for such an adventure. Sadly by the time we could travel on the grocery money Sir Charles had died.

Magazine feature of Canadian Sir Charles Wright

My personal interest in the story of this man from the heroic age of Antarctic exploration was because much of my work in 1968-69 related to New Zealand’s activity in the Wright Dry Valley. Wright himself was a member of Scott’s Western Party charged with mapping and naming certain landmarks in the area. The huge Taylor and Wright valleys cover roughly the same area as Great Salt Lake at 4500 sq kms and are are probably the driest deserts on earth. Silas Wright would have been one of the first people to ever venture into the area.

Silas and his fellow sledgers hauled everything on their backs. I had the advantage of motor transport and helicopters. We also had the advantage of radio contact with Scott Base.

Silas’ grandson Adrian Raeside has written a fascinating book Return to Antarctica, published last year. He wrote the book based on Sir Charles diaries as well as those of his great uncles Griffith Taylor and Sir Raymond Priestley, also members of the same expedition. The book added fresh depth to my knowledge of  early exploration in this most fascinating part of our planet.

And yes, it was Sir Charles Wright, Silas then, who discovered the bodies of Scott, Bowers and Wilson in their lonely grave  on the Barrier Ice.

(more to come)

Writing at the 49th

OK. So what does a wedding anniversary and writing a book have in common? Not a lot, except I used one event to achieve  some of the other. April 8 was a 49th anniversary for Lois and I and I had the bright idea of celebrating Number 49 at the 49th parallel.  For us that simply meant heading south from Calgary for  something like three hours to Waterton National Park — the northern half of the Glacier-Waterton Lakes International Peace Park straddling the Alberta-Montana border. I’ve loved that place ever since my first visit in the late 70s.

It’s quiet and it’s peaceful. At this time of the year there are not a lot of people around. There is no commercial activity in the village so you have to amuse yourself and eat at the only restaurant open during the winter months. The weather for the 3 1/2 days was a mix of snow, wind, rain, and wonderful sunshine, a bit like most of southern Alberta.

Happy Anniversary!

Arriving on the actual day of our wedding 49 years ago, we wandered the windy streets to the peace marker on the lake edge, hung Lois’ camera in a tree, set the timer and snapped a picture for posterity and to send to all the rellies and friends. We dined well afterwards and enjoyed the quiet comfort of our hotel room marvelling at the wind whipped snow swirling outside. We were well satisfied with our own conversation, sharing a crossword puzzle and reading our books.

All in all it was a fitting and quiet, isolated backdrop to the next part of our mini vacation — editing and polishing a couple of chapters on my Antarctic book.

I had a couple of chapters I wanted to complete to submit to a writers’ conference we are heading to this coming weekend in Port Townsend, Wa. Lois had already given me some very positive feedback and I used her good information and suggestions to re-edit and improve the manuscripts. Each chapter is approx 2500 words.

The conference is organized by Writing It Real (see links). We attended a similar conference a year ago. That was good fun with the bonus of being built into an Alaska cruise. I used a couple of chapters of the book for the group sessions and found the comments and suggestions from writers like myself to be especially stimulating and worthwhile. These folk talked from a reader’s point of view and once I incorporated that feedback found that it really changed the tone of my book and the information I was providing. The emphasis from them was that it was my story and I should lose the “journalist approach”. Good words, kinda tough though so I have endeavoured to find the middle ground.

Between exploring Waterton once again and finding new delights to photograph and talk about it was a stimulating weekend with much needed focus on a couple of difficult sections in the book-writing process. The scripts were emailed as soon as we got back to Calgary and now I look forward to new input and suggestions from the 12 writers in my group sessions and also from a one-on-one encounter with a member of the conference faculty (also a publisher).

Waterton was restful and enjoyable. I was able to write, think and enjoy a few days dedicated to a task that excites me  in the company of a person who continues to dazzle me each day with her smile, wit, wisdom and creative talents as an artist.

(Much more to come)

A welcome email

In my last blog I spoke of my brain getting a bit overheated. Well, that knocked me out for a few weeks and even the joy of writing eluded me as I shut down a lot activities just to come to grips with that energy sapping condition we commonly call depression.

But yesterday I got an email from a very good friend who simply wanted to know how I was doing? He is in New Zealand and at the time he was either reorganizing his children’s bookshelves or heading out to his garden. I am in Alberta where we are enjoying the early stages of spring. The robins have arrived, and today heading to church we saw gophers (Richardson ground squirrels) frolicking around the boulevards.

Robin Foubister is a rare and trusted friend and our friendship goes back some 42 years when he, as the newly-appointed leader of the 1968-69 New Zealand Antarctic Research Programme, selected me out of a list of 90 or so applicants to fill the role of information officer/photographer. That was the first time I met him. Our friendship grew over that summer in Antarctica and has continued on through the rest of our lives even though our journeys have been hemispheres apart. In the snail mail days there might have been the odd letter and then in the 80s we were able to renew ties when I worked and lived in New Zealand with Mobil Oil. In the 90s he and his partner Sue visited me in Calgary. Then came email and best of all the exciting reunion I spoke of in my previous blog.

Robin Foubister

On the ice the two of us might choose a sunny Sunday afternoon to go for a walk  and I recall one such excursion where I think we had to get some fresh air in our heads after being badly bruised through the week by the political bullying of our masters far away in New Zealand.

We wandered through the pressure ridges near Scott base, fully equipped for such a hike. It was dangerous stuff as snow hid the ‘slots’ or crevasses and we could break through at any step and maybe drop into the sea and an icy grave. There is a special way of walking with an ice axe firmly held across the body to break a fall should a slot open up underneath. And it happened. The sun reflecting off the snow had lured us across a patch of sea ice as we went to say hello to a basking seal. Plop, I went down. The ice axe held and my backpack provided extra support. Robin came to my rescue, pulled me to safety and we both just lay on the snow laughing our silly heads off. Tensions of the week soon dissipated.

Foubister (left) and then Governor General of New Zealand Sir Arthur Porritt raising the flag at the opening of the new station at Lake Vanda.

Robin proved to be an exceptional leader and one of the best to fill the role in managing New Zealand’s undertakings in Antarctica. With his guidance the year’s programme was completed, I am sure that under his leadership  US-New Zealand relations improved, we hosted and provided the logistics for Italian and Japanese exploration parties, entertained many VIPS including the Governor General of New Zealand and his sons and completed the new winter over Vanda Station.

I always felt that the 100% attendance of our small party at the reunion a couple of years ago was a testament to his leadership. And we will never ever know why he did not qualify for the New Zealand Antarctic Medal. Right now he is the oldest surviving leader of Scott Base.

(more Antarctic tales to come)

Two Journeys Recalled

The past couple of weeks have been very mixed for me and I have not been able to get into the book and blog as I would have liked. My brain got kinda overheated and diverted from the words. I’ve spent heaps of time working through the hundreds of photographs I’ve  scanned and now transferred from PC to my new iMac. Probably a crazy thing to undertake in the middle of a major project but I’m glad I’ve done it and  find  the transfer relatively easy. The photos I’ve scanned are all the ones I shot  in the ’68-’69 season. Most of them are the original black and white negatives and I’m impressed with how the quality has improved.  And as of today I can say there is a lot of useful stuff there. My color slides have been scanned in as well though many of them have not stood the test of time and my travelling ways. We lost a lot of slides during our time in the tropics. Mould invaded the collection and much of the emulsion has deteriorated beyond any sort of repair. Still we will have a good collection for the book.

It has been fun trying to make some organized sense out of the collection. The work left now is to catalogue for easy retrieval when I come to add illustrations to the text to make the book lively and interesting.

Seeing all the youthful faces of my  fellow OAEs (Old Antarctic Explorers) has encouraged the old memory tank to keep the fingers at the keyboard.

This is a fine collection of OAEs sitting outside in the lee of a Scott Base hut having morning coffee/tea. What you might call a rare shirtsleeve day and a chance to find some relaxation in the warm sunshine. I recall the day. It started with just a couple of blokes sunning themselves and then word quickly spread. It was a very convivial 20-30 minutes and then back to work.

Contrast that group with 40 years later and the picture I took at our first ever reunion in Christchurch, New Zealand, in October 2008. During this once in a lifetime event we all gathered at the Canterbury Museum to check over the exhibits and the memorabilia from “our day”.  The reunion was quite remarkable in that all of our core NZARP party attended with the exception of our two colleagues who had passed on and our seafaring cook who could not make it. We came from many parts of the world to attend, the NZARP summer and winter groups as well as university and work party members. It was like the intervening years had not happened. We just picked up where we left off. Most of the faces in the sunshine group are in this reunion group.

So that for me, this past week, is two journeys recalled: the original and the reunion.

(a continuing story)

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)

Christmas recalled

After the discovery that we were not suffering from some inner ailment (previous post), several of us “family guys” had logged time for phone calls home to New Zealand. I think I was the first up with my call to Lois and our daughters and I spent my three minutes in the phone booth in tears listening to all they had to tell about Christmas and me being so far away. With such a wet face I had to wait a few minutes before leaving the booth only to find the room full of fellows awaiting their turn. As soon as I emerged Chippy spotted my tear soaked face and boomed to the crowd : “Look at him, look at him look at his eyes….ha, ha, ha! ” Lots of laughter and lots of ribald comments too. In reality my months in Antarctica were the first time I had ever lived solely in the company of men for any extended period. Levity, in such closed quarters, is often found in basic terms! There was not much I could say so I just went and looked out the window hoping for some level of composure. Robin, our expedition leader, came over and ruffled his hand through my hair and said the tears must have something to do having three daughters. He had four sons.

Around 3.30pm we sat down to a most sumptuous of feasts and gorged ourselves on food and wine. But we did remember the 24 people  (18 New Zealanders, four Italians and two Japanese) we had working in the field camps in remote parts of the McMurdo Sound area. Their Christmas Day was brightened simply with a bottle of New Zealand wine and then it was back to work. Field groups working in the Wright Valley converged on the Lake Vanda station and supplemented the usual field rations with a couple of chickens, a Christmas cake and a goody box of nuts, biscuits, potato chips and sweets sent out from Scott Base. The loneliest Christmas was spent by two guys ferrying fuel on the Wilson Piedmont glacier but they also got to enjoy a similar addition to their field rations cooked over a spirit stove. We also had university research groups working at Cape Bird, further north on Ross Island and another group working in the Boomerang Range area way, way west of Scott Base towards the polar plateau. They celebrated Christmas as best they could and kept right on working.

Two Italians, guests of New Zealand, were working well away from any point of Antarctic civilisation up in the far reaches of the Wright Valley. They celebrated Christmas in their way with a bottle of good Italian vino.

For me, this most unusual of Christmas celebrations was part of a spiritual awakening deep inside. Following a life/death experience on the Wilson Piedmont Glacier a few weeks earlier I had come to realize that there was something more to my life that I could not get a hold of. The all-male chorus of a Silent Night, of shepherds, a Virgin birth and a baby in a manger stayed with me for the next seven years when the whole spiritual battle came to a head and I answered the call from God to end my erratic and irresponsible behaviour and find peace and new life in the Jesus Christ of the Christmas story.

(To be continued)

A Christmas Eve

So This is Christmas goes the song. Another year over. And we say in unison where did it go? I know that the older you get the faster the year goes. I am not much good at math but the expression seems to hold true if I compare the now with those halcyon days of youth. In a the lifetime of Christmas’  I’ve enjoyed, the best have always been with our daughters and the grandchildren. Each year somehow seems to get better. But the most unusual Christmas and one of the most memorable I have experienced was the 1968 Christmas at Scott Base, in the shadow of Mt Erebus.

Christmas Eve we were invited to a couple of parties over at the US base at McMurdo. The four mile hike over the hill was easy knowing there was food, beer and conviviality at the end. We enjoyed the evening in several “refreshment spots”, wined and dined like kings and taught our hosts how to talk like a “Kiwi”. Somehow it did not matter that we were in the “middle” of the southern summer with a wind chill of minus 25c deg or more outside. A young Texan in the Sergeants’ Mess introduced me to his BBQ — located outside the escape hatch! Open the hatch, check the steak and close it back up again. No fuss, no smoke. Over at the USARP headquarters (United States Antarctic Research Program) I was introduced to Byrd Station ice with my Scotch. This ice had been brought in especially from the bottom of a drilling hole, thousands of feet deep where the scientists were drilling through the ice cap to the land mass (below sea level). They cored the drill hole and could read the ice like rings on a tree. The ice we were using was figured to be defintely BC, pre-Christ. It was so dense one chunk would last almost all night in the glass. And you could hear the ice popping and crackling around the crowded room.

Getting close to midnight a group of us found our way to a large Quonset building for a special allcomers church service. The fullness of what Christmas is really all about  had not settled with me at that point in my life’s journey. But in view of an experience I’d had in the wilds of Antarctica’s Wright Valley some weeks earlier propelled me to “go to church”. The memory puts me in a dim lit hall adding my Flat D to the bass’, baritones and tenors of hundreds of men singing Silent Night. That was a remarkable experience and the echo is with each Christmas now as I celebrate the wonder of Christ’s birth with family and friends.

Before heading back to our bunks at Scott Base we stopped in at the McMurdo infirmary to share a spot with our medical friends. We enjoyed their home made punch and cooled off on the trip home.

I was up pretty early on Christmas Day and being one of the first to awaken headed to the washroom for a much needed bladder break. I was totally shocked to find my stream was red. “Oh, no,”  I thought, “blood. What do I do now?’

I sat quietly in the main hall with a cigarette and a coffee until Chippy, our carpenter came in. He was very quiet. Got his coffee, asked for a cigarette and sat down. After five minutes of nothing, he blurted out “I’m pissing blood!.”

“Mmmm, me too,” I said. and we agreed to not to say much and wait till after breakfast and the next bio break.

Our leader came in a bit later, grinning. “Just been talking to the doc and he wondered if any of you jokers were having trouble having a pee this morning.”

The joke was on us. Our stop with the medics was the cause. They had doctored their punch with a harmless red dye!

(to be continued)

Bless this mountain and all who work beneath

I chose this picture of  3795m  Mt Erebus to adorn the top of this blog. It is something I looked forward to seeing each day during my five months at Scott Base. This picture was shot on my “brand new” Canon FT single lens reflex camera in October 1968. State of the art technology in those days and it featured through the lens metering. The camera sits on top of my desk today. Erebus is a beacon to the explorer. It has been the scene of both triumph and utter tragedy (the Air New Zealand crash in November 1979 with the loss of 257 lives). The mountain is an active volcano and most days you can see a plume of steam rising from the crater. The grandeur of the solitary peak has remained with me through the years. Why, when I first arrived back in New Zealand after my term on the ice I had Lois create an oil painting of Erebus with the Scott Base pressure ridges in the foreground. That picture is still with us. I have it fixed to the wall of my garage so I see it every  time I drive in. It is a treasure.

“I have seen Fuji, the most dainty and graceful of all mountains, “writes Apsley Cherry-Garrard (a member of Scott’s last expoedition) in his book The Worst Journey in the World. “And also Kinchinjunga:only Michael Angelo among men could have conceived such grandeur. But give me Erebus for my friend. Whoever made Erebus knew all the charm of horizontal lines, and the lines of Erebus are for the most part nearer the horizontal than the vertical. And so he is the most restful mountain in the world, and I was glad when I knew that our hut would lie at his feet. And always there floated from his crater the lazy banner of his cloud of steam.”

For me, I grew up in the shadow of a wonderful mountain known today as Mt Taranaki, a solitary, lonely volcano on the west coast of New Zealand’s North Island. The stories of our youth boast about skiing in the morning and yacht racing on the ocean at our doorstep in the afternoon. That mountain determined our weather and like the chilling southerly winds that blew straight off its 2500m summit right into the very bones of young fellows like me delivering the evening newspaper. And it would rain. Cold, icy, in-your-face, dripping, soaking wind-driven rain. But Taranaki reigns unique as one of the world’s first national parks, a protected watershed that keeps the grass green, the cows mooing and dairy products flowimg into world markets.

It was on this “hill”, a perfect cone often mistaken for Japan’s Fuji, that I developed my mountain skills. It was where I learned to ski and it was where I found what developed into a lifetime enjoyment of the white stuff we call snow.

With Taranaki at my back and Erebus now at my front I was in for a very interesting sojourn on the south polar continent.

(to be continued)

Summertime and the weather is freezing

Two years ago I figured I should put into book form the adventures I experienced some 40 years ago as information officer photographer with the New Zealand Antarctic Research Programme.

This was something I had swept into the broom cupboard of life experiences a long time back but as my grandchildren grew and my wife and daughters continued with their promptings “to put it on paper” I reached the point where I at least dragged the boxes of stuff out from under the stairs.

I looked through the clippings, found my old notebook, and looked at a few mouldy photo slides, Maybe there was something in all this I could tell the grandchildren about. Around this time a couple of my fellow intrepid explorers from the great adventure of 1968-69 came up with the idea we might have a reunion.

All well and good, I thought. They were all in New Zealand while I was firmly established with a business and family in the prairie province of Alberta, Canada. Still, I thought it was a great idea and almost flippantly suggested we could time this event to the 40th anniversary of our small team taking on the responsibility of a year’s scientific activity with the Antarctic Division of New Zealand’s Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (now just known simply as Antarctica New Zealand, but still a government entity).  This boiled down to the fact that we had less than 12 months to find all our colleagues and organize an event in Christchurch, New Zealand, in mid-October 2008.

While all this was happening with the aid of modern technology, I set about putting together a booklet just about the voyage aboard HMNZS Endeavour eight of us summer only types had from McMurdo to Lyttelton. That very stormy voyage home via Campbell Island and the Antipodes Islands was an adventure in itself and creating a booklet around that proved to be a great deal of fun. My family and friends loved it. I printed off a bunch “for the reunion”.

We were very fortunate, due to some extraordinary digging, to locate and contact all the members of our party as well as a large number of the university teams and support people who made our time on the ice most memorable. And being together over three days, most of us seeing each other for the first time since 1969, gave me the push I needed to write my book.

It started out as just a summer’s tale of adventure, with a whole bunch of pictures. But as I got into it and shared the story with others, the book took on a life of its own. I now labor on, researching, recalling events, time and places, and bugging the life out of my old colleagues for long forgotten details. I’d targeted this past October as the due date for completion. That has passed and it will not be completed before Christmas. Perhaps I can complete it this winter with an April publication date. I’ll work to that deadline and see what can happen.

Last May I shared a couple of chapters with fellow writers and faculty at a Writing It Real (www.writingitreal.com) conference and received huge amounts of encouragement, advice and direction. We have another conference coming up in April 2010 in Port Townsend, WA.

I wonder what I’ll be able to put on the table this time!

(a continuing story…)