Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Follow the Leader

I had no idea what to expect from the time that we spent in New Zealand, and had barely thought about it at all before arriving there. A trip to the pole typically begins with a day or two in the lush city of Christchurch, which is summery and cheerful this time of year. The USAP (U.S. Antarctic Program)operates flights from Christchurch to McMurdo Station, Antactica, and passengers stop over for a time to get equipped with their Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) gear and wait for the next available flight south. Normally, the clothing issue process takes place a day after you have arrived in Christchurch, giving you time to adjust to the time zone changes and the disorienting seasonal sunniness and warmth before thinking about the next step. Then after you are issued your clothing, you have a day to wander around and enjoy the city before leaving and heading south in the morning.

For some reason, I ended up on a flight into Christchurch that arrived the morning of my scheduled ECW gear issue rather than the day before. So that meant walking straight from the airport (after nearly 20 hours of travel) directly to the Antarctic Center to try on all of the heavy clothing that I will be wearing for my time in Antarctica. I had been feeling pretty good after all of that travel, all things considered. I slept a bit, and I wasn't even feeling all that icky. But there is no way that you can try on 20-30 pounds of heavy Antarctic protective gear without getting sweaty and sticky and rumpled all around.

All of the cold-weather clothing that you need is issued by the USAP. There's a lot of it, and when you pick it up it loosely fills two orange duffel bags. The clothing includes two sets of long underwear, heavy wool socks, fleece pants and tops, coveralls, a windbreaker, a bunch of hats and gloves, a pair of heavy mittens called bear-claws or gauntlets, and most importantly, a giant puffy red parka with your name on it. I noticed immediately that the tags on my bag and on my parka read "Dr. Kathryn Miknaitis". I'm not used to thinking of myself as Dr. Kathryn, so that feels funny and formal, and was one of the first things that made me chuckle. It was one of many little details that sometimes make this whole experience unreal, like a science fiction movie instead of my actual life.

After I was done trying on all our gear, and had settled into my hotel, I went downtown with some of the other members of the SPT team. I'd arrived on the same flight as fellow Chicagoans John Carlstrom (the PI for the project) and Steve Meyer. Driven as if by a motor, John led us on who-knows-exactly-what errands in the city. I knew we were trying to track down some of our colleagues from Berkeley, but he also kept mumbling about banjo strings and metric size-8 screw-hole taps. Sometimes the best thing to do is just to follow the leader. So my first hour or so in Christchurch was spent mostly just watching for the back of John's head, hoping I wouldn't get too lost.

However, after a while of this we managed to accumulate a handful of other SPT members, and eventually a destination appeared.

Not a bad start, after all!



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