21 January, 1999
Hello to all!!!
Well I have been out of touch for a while now. I will be working to get my journals from the field up on the website so you can read about all the beauty, intense work and fun that we had in Beacon Valley.
I returned to McMurdo on the 19th of January to join Dr. George Denton and Dr. David Sugden on their project. They had originally planned to camp at Spike Cape and fly from there. But when they arrived in McMurdo, they realized that they could get more helicopter time if they were based in town. They fly each night from about 7pm until 6am.
Of course as with everything in Antarctica this is wholly weather dependent. This means both for the helicopter and for the project itself. Dr. Denton is taking photographs of various formations and landforms, while Dr. Sugden is making a map of these landforms in the mountain ranges to the west of McMurdo.
I woke up yesterday around 2pm. Then I went back to the foodroom to return the supplies that we had packed for the Spike Cape party. Dawn Needham, the foodroom czar, helped me uncrate all the rock boxes and put the food away. By the time we had finished it was time for dinner around 5:30.
I ate dinner with a group of United States Geological Survey (USGS)geologists who also fly at night. They are checking various GPS pins that they have placed and making maps too. Two of these scientists are involved in moving the pole every year. More about this later.
At 6:30 I met Dr. Denton And Dr. Sugden at the helo passenger terminal. We have to weigh in with all our gear which includes lunch and a camera. The helicopters we will fly in are called AStars and they can carry a limited amount of weight, so it is a trade off between passengers and fuel. We also carry survival bags and wear our ECW gear.
The weather was just gorgeous, so we were all glad since we couldn't fly the night before. We left right on time and flew over McMurdo Sound. On the ice below we could see many seals hauled out and basking in the sun. The Polar Sea, the ice breaker had just come in so we could see the swath of chopped sea ice that marked her path.
We first went to Marble Point, the refueling area for the helicopters to get enough fuel to last for about 2 hours of flying.
A good map to use to see where we went is the USGS map of Ross Island and Vicinity, 1:250,000-scale topographic map. These maps are reasonably priced and can be ordered via the web (look up the USGSon the web).
Our first destination was the Olympus Range. These mountains were named by the New Zealanders. they all have names from classical mythology - Mt. Orestes, Mt. Hercules etc. To get a look at these mountains we had to fly over the Wilson Piedmont Glacier and then over the Wright Lower Glacier. At the mouth of this glacier is Lake Brownworth. The Kiwis maintain a camp there. The first glacier on our left as we entered Wright Valley was Denton Glacier - yes this is named in honor of Dr. Denton and the work he has done in Antarctica over the last 35 years.
It is a quite acceptable glacier too!
Lake Brownworth feeds the Onyx River, which in turn feeds into Lake Vanda.
One of the places I longed to see when I was here was right at the head of the valley - the Labyrinth which is at the base of the Wright Upper Galcier. The Labyrinth is a jumble of channels that are large enough to fly planes through. There must have been a tremendous release of water at some time in the past to create these channels.
This was a truly awesome sight, definitely a breath catcher.
Now the AStar is a helicopter with lots of windows, so we were all snapping away like mad. Dr. Denton has a camera that takes several shots at once so that the f-stops are varied. In this way he can get the best possible picture. The AStars also have windows that open-so depending on where you sit you can get a shot out the window. Keep your fingers crossed that the pictures turn out!
One of the most striking things about Antarctica is its hugeness of scale. It is vast, many landforms are big, geological time is more apparent here than almost anywhere else I have been. Deep time seems more accesible here.
We nest flew north over the Olympus Range and over Lake Vida in Victoria Valley. This was Meredith Kelly's field area. Remember, she was on of the people who helped me at the University of Maine. We continued to fly up Victoria Valley and crossed the Clare Range, over Detour Nunatak and out over the Mackay Glacier.
Dr. Sugden was interested in looking at some features on Robison Peak more closely. We could see more evidence of flooding here-stepped waterfalls and scoured features. We then landed on the top of Robison so that Sugden could observe some things more closely and take some exposure samples. It was a strange feeling to be up on a mountain that very few had been on or when would the next person be there? . The surface looked very old, with many drilled dolerites - quite similar to Beacon Valley in this respect.
I walked out below where the waterfalls had been, while Sugden and Denton conferred and chose some rocks for exposure samples. I could see all the way down the Mackay to where its tongue sticks out into the sea.
By now we were low on fuel, so we went to the fuel cache for Denton near Black Pudding Peak. The cache consists of a black flag and 8 drums of fuel. It was tough to roll the barrels, because the ice was slippery. They finally got them over near the helo and Richard set up the electronic pump. This is a portable pump that the pilots can carry in a bag with the survival gear. Now we had fuel for 2 more hours.
We next went to Dotson Ridge and Flagship Mountain, but the features here were much less complicated so we did not spend that much time in this area. We did however stop on some nameless peaks just north of Flagship Mountain and have lunch in a sunny spot. We flew out over the Evans Piedmont Glacier and back up the Benson Glacier to Alatna Valley. This was as thrilling as the Labyrinth. Huge potholes and channels - more evidence of a great release of water.
We then flew down to the Ross Sea and flew over the remains of a primitive hut. This is near Granite Harbor near the Devil's Punchbowl. The hut was nothing more than some rocks stacked up in a rectangular shape, with a roof of sealskin. The sealskin was still intact, just peeled back a little. We could peek into the structure as we hovered. It looked like a dreary place to live, but Griffith Taylor did so in 1913 while he did geological mapping in the area.
The other place that we wanted to go - the Royal Society Range began to get socked in. Denton and Sugdent decided not to take the time to go over tonight. Sugden wanted to look at some things on Sperm Bluff.So we went back to refuel at the field cache and go on over to the Bluff and head on home.
By the time we got to Sperm Bluff, the weather had gotten very cold, windy and cloudy. There were few good places to land on Sperm Bluff, so Richard had to choose a snow bank, and he chose the tail wind too. This means you have to be very careful when you open the door. It was so cold and windy that even Denton and Sugden did not stay out long.
We set out for McMurdo about 3 am. We flew back in along the coast, and went past Cape Roberts. We could see the remains of the camp there. It was hard to believe that it was once the site of much activity just a few months ago.
We continued south along the coast and were soon treated to whales - many of them. There were a few Minkes, but mostly there were Orcas. Some solitary and some in large groups. These were huge Orcas with beautiful erect dorsal fins.
All of us were impressed, but the best was yet to come. The entire edge of the shelf was covered with Adelie penguins that scattered and slid on their bellies as we passed. There were still seals too. This was starting to look like a stereotypical Antarctic scene. Richard commented on how the Emperor penguins were gone.
We turned in to McMurdo and were following the channel the ice breaker - the Polar Star - had cut. It had just come in and left a wide swath of chopped ice. There were still more Adelies - too many to count. These must be this years birds. Then we saw something I will never forget: Right in the middle of the icebreaker path were groups of Orcas spyhopping - this is when the animal raises its self up head first so that it can look around - probably for seals!!
They came up repeatedly - so that it looked like an Antarctic Jack-in- the-Box.
After we hovered and took pictures we headed home; we were a little low on fuel because of the Orca scene. As soon as we turned around there was a group of Emperor penguins!!!
I was speechless. What are the odds that one could have this kind of wonderful night?
Well I must go and get ready for another night of flying.
Cheers from McMurdo
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