"Paradise" J. S. Sweitzer -- Jan. 14, 1995
This was my first day back in McMurdo Station. It is a much bigger base than the South Pole. I think there are over one thousand people here. They divide into three main groups, depending on who one works for or is funded by. The first group is Navy personnel. Traditionally, they have always been here, as part of something they call Operation Deep Freeze. This is because Richard Byrd, who really began American Antarctic exploration, was a Navy Admiral. Currently, the Navy's primary role is to fly the many aircraft that travel in and out of here. They get help from the New York Air Force National Guard, which has some Hercules aircraft too.
The second group, and probably the largest, are ASA (Antarctic Support Associates) employees. The ASA is the private organization that the National Science Foundation contracts to provide support services in Antarctica. They take care of all the day-to-day tasks necessary to run this place as well as new construction.
Finally, there are the people directly supported by the NSF. This includes NSF employees, themselves, in addition to the scientists who are supported by NSF grants. I belong to the last group. We have been nicknamed "beakers" by the Navy and ASA groups.
Unlike the South Pole, in McMurdo, you can see the ground, the sea and even mountains. The ground is dark-brown, volcanic soil containing small sharp-edged rocks. Nothing grows on it, so when it's wet it turns into a rocky mud. Unlike back home, where if you dig deep enough you reach ground that doesn't freeze, here the ground remains frozen for much of the year. As a result, pipes cannot be buried. So, when you walk around what you see is pipes on top of the ground. To walk over the pipes there are small wooden bridges.
This is the "big city" in Antarctica, comprising about 100 buildings and small structures. Some have likened it to a large, wild-west town. All the buildings are, by in large, very functional, dull and drab. Some are decades old. The science lab (Crary Lab) is only a few years old and is the nicest place here by far. The largest building with the most people at any one time is the one that houses the galley. In addition to being the place to eat, it has other offices, small shops, a library and berthing for Navy officers.
On a regular workday, the predominant sounds you hear outside are those of the vehicles. There are no cars, only trucks, tracked vehicles and helicopters. The constant movement of bulldozers and large-wheeled trucks makes it feel like a construction site. When you don't sense the ground rumbling because a bulldozer is behind you, you are most likely to hear a helicopter. There are approximately half-a- dozen "helo" flights each day to nearby research stations and camps. My room is near the helo pad and I must feel the "thwop, thwop, thwop" of the helicopter blades a third of the time.
One vehicle in McMurdo doesn't make any sound that I can hear. That is the icebreaker. Today it came within sight, maybe a mile or two away. It will gradually chop and widen a sea lane in the ice covering McMurdo Sound so that other ships can come in. This is the way large and heavy supplies reach the continent for this and other US bases. Since it's here now, I might go look for penguins tomorrow. Once I saw half-a-dozen penguins standing on some broken ice watching the ice breaker at close range.
Far beyond the ice that the ship is cleaving is a range of distant mountains. I know one is called Mt. Discovery and is in the direction of the South Pole. Another is called Black Island.
McMurdo Base itself is located in a sheltered spot of Ross Island. Hills surround McMurdo every direction but South. They are bleak and brown this time of the year with a little snow here and there. The white slopes of Mt. Erebus, the nearby active volcano, are blocked by the hills to the north west.
When I walked out of the galley after breakfast today I heard someone say to his newly-arrived companion, "Welcome to paradise".