28 March, 2000
64 46 s, 64 03 w
Anchored off Palmer Station
Temp 2.3 C (28 F)
Winds 12 Knots (14 mph) SW
Barometer 1017mb, rising slowly
Sky overcast, clear underneath, no precipitation
55 m (180 ft) depth
It would be easy to miss Palmer Station if we didn't know it was there. There are no billboards or exit signs to guide us, and nobody to give directions.
The Nathaniel B. Palmer slows and threads its way between some flat rocky islands. The first human constructions we see are the tops of a few antenna towers, part of an ongoing very low frequency radio research project. A pink plastic flamingo on the seaward end of a small island comes into sight next. Then we come around the corner of a third island, and see a tiny cluster of blue-green buildings. They sit on a rocky spit dwarfed by a glacial dome and countless black and white mountains. There are people outside the buildings waving at us, and we wave back.
I've been out on the bow deck with some others, but we are asked to leave in preparation for anchoring. The anchoring winches are heavy and powerful, and dangerous if you aren't careful. The ship idles into a small bay, turns into the wind, and I hear heavy chains rattle as we anchor for the night. The little harbor is bounded by low islands, the stony point with the station, and the large blue-green walls of calving glacier. There is no airstrip here, so everything must come and go by sea.
We are going to be leaving some people and cargo at Palmer Station, and picking up others. Guy Mathieu and several others, together with their CFC and oxygen analysis equipment, will wait at Palmer for a few days until the RV Lawrence M. Gould arrives. They'll continue their work aboard that ship. Twelve individuals will board the Nathaniel B. Palmer for the three day trip to Puentas Arenas. The summer scientific season is winding down at all stations, and both scientists and support staff are leaving.
We put on orange float jackets and climb down the rope ladder into the Zodiac. It's nearly dark as we head across the harbor, around the tip of a loading dock, and up to a rocky shore. The outboard slows and the Zodiacs bow climbs up onto a sloping rock, from which we can step out onto solid land, the first my feet have felt for six weeks.
From the shoreline Palmer Station resembles a Newfoundland fishing outport. The rocky shore and weatherworn buildings, the small boats tied up, the board walkways, and the utilitarian look of the place remind me of Canada's easternmost province. Newfoundland outports don't have big glaciers as backdrops, though. Palmer Station is probably visited more frequently than most outports also. A dozen or so adventure cruise ships and four or five private boats find there way here each year. Sometimes Chilean fishing boats bring mountaineering and adventure parties.
The Nathaniel B. Palmer rides at anchor in the harbor, an island of light. A spotlight shines from the top of the bridge, illuminating the glacier front. The crew uses this view to tell if the ship is dragging anchor. I walk the stony paths around the dozen or so buildings, and then
out of the circle of lights into the darkness beyond. I am conscious of a sound that's missing, the throb of the ship's diesels. As a substitute I hear night bird (unidentified, probably Skua) sounds, and the washing of waves against the rocks.
Back in "town" I find a small gathering room and some new faces to talk to. Palmer Station is a small but convivial and relaxed place. The walls bear pictures of wintering parties dating back to 1965 (when Palmer was a US Navy outpost.) The Southern Cross sparkles high overhead on the ride back to the ship.
I get up early the next morning to catch a ride back to the station. We won't leave until noon and I'd like to get a chance to hike up on the glacier, and along the shore. I follow my last night's path uphill past the last buildings. A few hundred meters of rock and gravel outcrop brings me to the thin edge of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, at a point where I can unceremoniously step up on it. In the valleys to the left and the right, where the glacier calves into the bay, crevasses form concentric circles back from the edge. I climb in the middle, between the crevassed areas. It's a steep climb, and slippery in places, but definitely worth
it. After twenty minutes of climbing I stop and turn around. It is so quiet that I can hear my ears ring. The only sound is the quiet rasp of the snow blowing at my feet. The smooth white snow mounds of the glacier surround me, running into the distance where they end in walls of black and white mountains, under a roof of gray clouds. I turn around and gaze seaward. There's Pink Flamingo Island, icebergs, calving ice fronts and the Nathaniel B. Palmer, looking remarkably small.
Returning by a different route, I reach the shore at a point where sky, ocean, glacier and rock meet. I find a sheltered place to sit down and rest. In the harbor, penguins swim about, infinitely more graceful than they are when walking on ice floes, porpoising in unison around and under bits of blue floating ice. Rattles and pops emanate from the glacier, and occasionally small pieces of ice collapse into the water. A seal, maybe a Crabeater, swims along the ice front, unconcerned at the possibility of being beaned by a chunk of falling ice.
I walk back along the shore to the station, and am surprised to see lichens and moss growing in sheltered, north facing areas. Then, wonder of wonders, I spot little tufts of grass, somehow holding on in the frozen, rocky landscape.
Getting closer to the buildings, I begin to see small refuges people have constructed, little shelters, tent platforms, or rock walled enclosures. The station is a small world, population 46 in the summer and 23 this winter. I'm not surprised that people construct these small hermitages to find a place to be alone.
The image of the landscape at Palmer is like a freshly caught fish; its beauty and life fade rapidly. You can look at pictures, but the best thing to do is to come see this place yourself.
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