Deane Rink - January 2, 1997

    From: Deane Rink, Palmer Station

(Deane is Video Producer and leader of the LFA 2 field team.)

A Palmer Portrait

The sky is overcast most of the summer, and on any given day, the brash ice is likely to blow in, propelled by the wind, clogging the small harbor. There are only two major buildings, but enough piles of discarded construction materials and millvans (containers for recycling and other shipments) to make the site, from some angles, resemble a city dump. The people who live here are circumscribed by a hostile ocean and a treacherous, crevassed, ever-calving glacier. They live on a small spit of land, a couple of acres at best. Their "backyard" is rock and ice. Even the inflatable zodiacs, the only means of island-hopping in the harbor, are limited to a two-mile radius, for safety reasons. The only recreation is a hot tub, albeit one with a view of a dynamic glacier whose aspect is modified by the changing light conditions. Sounds resembling sharp gunshots are liable to pierce the silence at any time, but they are only the creaks and groans of the glacier as it inexorably tries to push the base into the harbor as it flows downhill. Sounds resembling donkeys braying can also be heard on a still night, and these are the Adelie penguins from nearby Torgersen Island that seem to have a better toehold on life here than do the people. Perhaps this is as it should be, since the penguins have been coming here since before man ever penetrated this far south. The occasional south polar skua walks around unafraid in the rock-strewn front yard, and closer inspection reveals that this bird wears an aluminum band around its right leg. Perhaps it thinks it is human and is awaiting recognition from the 38 souls that inhabit this place in the austral summer. Perhaps it is fleeing from the group of massive elephant seals that lounge on the ice near the original site where this human habitation was first established. Old Palmer is now known as Elephant Alley. And if the sounds of the glacier and the penguins aren't enough, there are always the sounds of the elephant seals, barking across Hero Inlet from Bonaparte Point. They seem to do this most at night, which is odd, since there isn't really any night here, just a twilight that is a few degrees dimmer than the rest of the day.

The people that inhabit Palmer Station keep normal working hours, just like anywhere else. The two cooks serve breakfast from 6:30 AM to 7:30 AM, lunch from 12 noon to 1:00 PM, and dinner from 5:30 to 7:00 PM. Work hours are fit in between these meals, and the small galley is the social hub of the station, where construction workers and scientists, computer programmers and carpenters, daily rub elbows and trade stories, reminiscences, gossip, local lore. The station is too small to be impersonal, the people too interdependent to allow for reclusiveness. Everybody cleans their own dishes, and the entire galley undergoes GASH every night after dinner, a thorough cleaning

done by three volunteers that takes an extra hour, but even more so, bonds the 38 souls in communal unity. Every Saturday afternoon, works knocks off an hour early for "house mouse," a station-wide cleanup in which everyone participates. There can be no prima donnas here, as the ruthlessness of a small community weeds them out and lets them know in no uncertain terms what will be tolerated and what will not.

But don't let me make it sound too Draconian. Diversity is tolerated, even personal quirks, as long as the jobs get done and the overall morale of the people is not harmed. These 38 people are among the most isolated people on the face of the Earth, accessible under normal conditions only by ship, and even in these wired times, only able to see the satellite that gives them internet connections and e-mail, for four hours at a time, twice a day.
© 1997 Ann Hawthorne

New Year's Day is a time when people stateside watch a lot of football, and reflect on their families, their friends, their prospects for the future. New Year's Day at Palmer is a time where people cook for themselves because the cooks have the day off, and all gather in the lounge to show each other their slides. One couple shows slides of Bali, Nepal, and Thailand, where they travelled during their off-season. But the great majority of the slides are familiar to everyone; they are of Palmer and environs, of the people in the room in various poses, of the outlying islands and the marine life that populate them, of the multi-hued lichens that cling to the barren rocky surfaces, of the random, wave-generated iceberg sculptures that drift in and out of Arthur Harbor with stupefying regularity. The station doctor shows a slide of the boating coordinator's posterior, to reveal a three-inch long gash inflicted by a leopard seal who mistook him for a penguin. Cheers resound around the room as the boating coordinator blushes in embarassment. Slides of the last Hallowe'en Party also bring howls of laughter, as memories are refreshed by the sublime silliness of jury-rigged costumes, some so good that the people, who know each other like the backs of their hands, and who were all in attendance at this party, cannot identify their roomates through the disguises. Slides of the lab supervisor doing a cannonball off the dock, or of a skua skinning a baby penguin in the ongoing Darwinian struggle, or of the glacier bathed in pink, or of a flame-red sunset, elicit oohs and aahs from these presumptively jaded people who have seen these scenes more than anyone else on earth. Slides of a local hero para-gliding off some high peaks in Chile get polite applause, but other slides of the same person heaving off the deck of the Polar Duke in abject seasick misery draw raucous hoots and hearty backslaps. The isolation "in God's backyard," as somebody has termed it, has created a camaraderie unimaginable in the States, a closeness that almost feels privileged to participate in.

Having been here all of one week, I feel more comfortable than after a month in McMurdo, and McMurdo is also an intense place, not at all bad, more similar to Palmer than to the USA from which all these Antarcticans come. It is no surprise that the scientists work on their off days or contribute their time to review one more educational document that seeks to inspire high school students stateside to become inspired by the wild majesty of the Antarctic. It is only a pleasant surprise that the cooks, who, you'll remember, had the day off, have snuck back into their kitchen to prepare a tray of ginger cookies for the armchair travelers assembled in the lounge. It is with amusement that... the station lab supervisor, she of the aforementioned cannonball, can sing verbatim the song from "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" and have two others join in spontaneously. Suspicious, I check out the video holdings upstairs in the lounge, and "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" is not there. These are sharp cookies, ginger snaps all, in the land of the midnight sun.

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