"Pen Pal Dog Ear"
Dr. Ralph Bovard - December 17, 1996
The Doctor and the Students: learning through letters

    From: Jefferson Elementary and Dr. Ralph Bovard, Palmer Station.

Over the past few months, Palmer's resident doctor, Dr. Ralph Bovard, has corresponded via e-mail with students from the 5th grade class taught by one of Ralph's old high school friends, Scott Peterson, and another 5th grade class taught by Scott's wife, Janet. These letters provide a fascinating portrait both of a place and a person, and also shows what interests young people about Antarctica and the unusual group of people who live and work there.

Mason City, Iowa, is the River City of Meredith Wilson's "Music Man" and Ralph's hometown. Ralph's folks still live there. His family lives up at Clear Lake in the summers which is where Buddy Holly played his last gig with the Big Bopper and Richie Valens before they were killed in a plane crash in February 1959. Some of these letters served double duty going both to family and the 5th grade class.

P.S. We really will try to find out why Ralph has the nom d'email, Dogear (or is it Doggear?)


Date: Tue, 17 Dec 1996 11:11:45 +0000
From: Jefferson Elementary
To: Ralph Bovard

Dog Ear,
Thanks for your last note. You're getting more kid friendly with each communication...what does that tell us about the effects of isolation?

I'm sorry if this note seems fragmented...this is the last week before our Christmas break and the kids are beginning to drive me nuts! Although, that's what makes me love this job... their view of the world... simple and exciting. Also, this will be my last communication to you until after January 6. We get quite a nice Christmas break this year.

Have a happy and joyous new year! I'll drink a toast to you by the fire on Christmas Eve.



From: Ralph Bovard
To: Scott Petersen
Subject: Update from antarctica
Date: Tue, 17 Dec 1996 14:28:07 -0500

Greetings Scott and 5th grade class,

Hello from down south here. I hope you received my last e-mail. Sometimes the system, amazing as it is, gets a little persnickety and "hides" or "loses" mail. Kind of like having a sibling around, eh?

Leopard seal on ice floe in Loudwater Cove, Anvers Island.

Ten of us from station were able to go with a group of the avian (bird) researchers to a location called Dream Island. We traveled there across the sea, skirting the coast from the station to the west, in 16 foot inflatable boats, called Zodiacs, with 45 hp outboard motors. We all have to wear bright orange survival-"float" suits in case a boat should sink or hit a big chunk of ice and flip, or should a storm come up. On the way we saw a big leopard seal sleeping on an ice floe the size of a kitchen floor. They are very sleek and have dark brown shiny coats. The Weddell seals are more mottled brown in color and the crabeaters are tawny and almost blondish-white when the sun hits them right. The leopard seals are the only really carnivorous seals, and sometimes eat penguins.

Dream Island is one of the most beautiful of the satellite islands which lie like a string of pearls around the southern end of Anver's Island. It is about 2 kilometers long and 1 kilometer wide and shaped like an hourglass, with a narrow inlet for its waist.

Line of Adelie penguins running, Humble Island.

There were a kazillion penguins there, both Adelie and Chinstraps (like the ones on the poster), lots of skua gulls, a rookery of elegant white and black cormorants with striking azure blue eyes (the Spanish word for blue is azul, correcto?),lots of Wilson's storm petrels (small graceful dark brown birds with white wing epaulets) which flit about like bats, and snowy white antarctic terns.

Lying on the sand bar or isthmus between the two halves of the island were 7 seals. A mother and pup Weddell seal, and 5 big ole blubbery elephant seals, on of which was the big male bull who probably weighed 1.5-2 tons. They were just snoozing the day away, with deep rumbles and belches every once in a while, as is their habit. They have big round, blood shot looking eyes, and often runny noses.

We hiked all over the island. There was a big cave under one of the rocky cliffs which would have made a great fort. Most of the birds have chicks now or eggs about to hatch so they are very protective. Still we can walk by within a few feet of the penguins and look at the tiny grey puffball chicks still tucked in beneath mom or dad penguin. The parents take turns sitting on the nest while the other one goes swimming to catch krill, tiny shrimp like creatures, which are their main diet. Penguins are amazing swimmers and porpoise out of the water as they swim like flying fish or... well, porpoises.

When it comes time to come back to land they literally leap out of the water and land feet first on the ground. And then waddle around like a two year old, however, they are amazingly nimble in hopping up and down the rocky cliffs and hill sides where they make their nests. And they when they find a snow covered hill side they slide and toboggan down, and UP, the slope with abandon. If they don't have fun, I don't know who does.

Researchers Donna Patterson and John Carlson measure Adelie penguin.

For a bird that weighs 3-5 kilograms they are very strong. The researchers often have black and blue marks on their legs from being pummelled with their flipper arms, and nip marks on their hands from the strong beaks. Lately the scientists have been weighing and measuring the penguins, eggs, and chicks.

As we were zooming back across the sea yesterday afternoon we saw a huge slab of ice "calve", or fall off, a glacier where it comes down off the island to the water's edge. It created a big wave that rolled away. The fragments of ice mingle with the slabs of frozen sea ice so that sometimes we have to slowly negotiate our way through in the boat. Sometimes if the wind changes direction ice is blown in from out to sea and can be packed so tight that even big vessels can be trapped, as happened to Shackleton in 1915. So we keep our eyes peeled and mind our p's and q's.

Time to go. How is everything in MC? When does Xmas vacation begin? Have you had snow yet? I sent another long letter that should arrive in a few weeks. Are all of you 11-12 years old? What are you all going to be when you grow up/older?

Some friends of mine here, Eric Holm, who had worked in the Peace Corp teaching English in Africa a few years ago,and his girlfriend Wendy Kozlowski, who is a scientist studying the ocean, are going to start writing to Mrs. Peterson's class at Roosevelt.

Merry Xmas and be nice to your siblings.
Best wishes,
Dr. Dogear

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