3 December, 1999
It has been a very unpredictable and exciting 24 hours. When I last talked to you I said I might be on a flight back to Christchurch by now. Boy, how things changed! The southbound flights from Christchurch to McMurdo were cancelled due to weather. (BTW, so was today's, so the earliest I will get off the ice is Sunday.) So after scrambling to get ready to leave, I now had lots' of time. Then, Peter Webb, head of the Cape Roberts Project, came up to me and asked if I would like to go on a trip to the Dry Valleys. Peter often tries to arrange these trips for the CRP team members towards the end of the season, but recently, a New Zealand helo had a mechanical problem so there has been no extra flying time available.
A trip to the Dry Valleys is a very special opportunity for anyone. The McMurdo Dry Valleys are located across the Ross Sea on the continent. They are, without a doubt, the most unique environments on the face of the Earth. In the midst of all this ice, snow, glaciers and sea ice there are several snow-free landscapes of barren sand and rock that are the driest places on Earth. Liquid water has probably not fallen here for at least 2 million years. About 4 inches of water falls as snow each year, but it mostly evaporates or is blown back out of the valleys before it can melt, pushed by fierce "katabatic" winds that roll down from the high ice plateau beyond the surrounding mountains. To have the opportunity to visit this rare location is a treasure indeed. That was exactly what was being offered to me. I could not get the words "I'm there!!!!!!" out of my mouth fast enough.
We met at the helo pad at 6:30PM with our ECW gear. We were planning on being out all night. (Helo time for such "extra trips" is only available at night.) Gary Wilson, a geologist from Oxford University, would be leading the field trip. There would be 8 members of the Cape Roberts team along with two pilots on the flight. We donned our helmets and off we went. We flew across the Ross Sea and entered the first of the Dry Valleys, the Taylor Valley. As we flew up the deep, glacially carved valley, we saw many valley glaciers entering the larger valley from each side. We landed on a large rock mountain in the middle of the valley called Nussbaum Reigel. From this vantage-point we could see the nose of the Taylor glacier toward the top of the valley. On the valley floor we could see Lake Hoar and Lake Fryxell, two of the several frozen lakes found in the dry valleys. We then flew to the head of the Taylor Valley to Aztec Mountain. At this location, we looked for fossils in a coal bed high up the valley wall. We found some imprints of plants. Gary indicated these may be fossils of a plant also found in Africa and Australia and is one of the major pieces of evidence for the existence of the super-continent of Gondwanaland. We then flew to the top of the Taylor Valley and into the Wright Valley. At the top of the Wright Valley we flew over a spectacular icefalls formed as the Upper Wright glacier falls from the polar plateau down into the valley floor. We landed on a bare rock promontory in the middle of the valley. This gave us a spectacular view of the icefalls and Lake Vanda at the bottom of the valley.
The helo then flew down to Lake Vanda and dropped us off. The helo left to refuel. While they were gone, we had the opportunity to explore the area around Lake Vanda. It seems weird to see a frozen lake in the middle of all this incredible dryness. Obviously, there is enough glacial run-off to feed the lake. Lake Vanda even has an inlet stream, the Onyx River, from which we could get a drink. We walked out on the thick lake ice. It was like going ice fishing with my buddies. Except that there are no fish in Lake Vanda or any of the lakes in the dry valleys. There is, however, a very rich and diverse population of algae and plankton in the lakes. There are camps at each of the lakes and scientists are intensively studying this unique environment. We found a full sized preserved crab-eater seal near the Lake Vanda camp. This seal is probably over 100 years old and has been freeze-dried by the cold dry conditions of the valley. No one really knows how the seal got hear, but the sea is over 20 miles away and there is a large glacier standing in the way. This must have been one lost seal.
Our trusty helo then landed us at perhaps the most unexpected site yet. There on the floor of the Victoria Valley at the base of the Victoria Lower Glacier stood a field of perfectly formed sand dunes. This was visual proof that Antarctica is indeed the frozen dessert. Strewn all about the wind-blown pavement were ventifacts. Ventifacts are angular faceted and polish stones formed by the very strong winds in the valleys.
It was then time to return to McMurdo. As we headed back over the sea ice, the pilots detoured to the edge of the ice and the open water of the Ross Sea. There I saw a site I thought I might never get a chance to see. Lined up along the edge of the ice were hundreds of Emperor penguins, waddling, sliding and flapping their wings. It was truly a great ending to a fantastic trip. We set down at McMurdo about 3:30AM a little tired but more then a little exhilarated. For more information about the dry valleys, see the website of TEA Sharon Harris at: ../tea_harrisfrontpage.html.
Being in the McMurdo Dry Valleys was like being in another world. I think it as close to being on Mars as you can get without leaving the Earth. NASA thought so too. They used the McMurdo Dry Valleys as a model as they prepared for the Martian landings. I feel extremely fortunate to have had this unique experience. After all, I won't ever get to Mars. Wait a minute, that's what I used to say about Antarctica. Perhaps there will a Teachers Experiencing Mars (TEM) program I could apply for. Or maybe you. Who knows?
Here is the moment you have all been waiting for; the announcement of the name of my penguin buddy who has been with me through the entire journey and will continue to come along with me when I visit schools. There were many great names suggested, but I ran them all past my little stuffed friend, and there was one that he seemed to like the best. Thanks to Mrs. Kottek's 6th grade class at Highlands School in Appleton, my penguin buddy from now on will be known as Pengleton. Thanks to all of you who submitted suggestions.
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