Tuesday, October 2, 2007

The Journey to New Zealand

Arkansas is sprawled out beneath me as I fly from Detroit to Dallas. The quiet does me good. I need transition time to disengage from the world of mommy, wife, 4th grade teacher, lecturer, giver – and morph into a teacher and scientist of global relevance. For two months I will cast away the mundane trappings of my urban routine and become a researcher of Antarctica, of changes in the global systems, and a translator: to take the scientific findings and rewrite them, re-interpret them into language and a context that matters to K – 16 students, families, to every day people, and to people who make our laws.

This journey is partly about realizing and documenting the interconnecting webs between an insulated life in Michigan, or anywhere else, and Antarctica. The cars we drive, the setting of our thermostat, the source of our food, the types of light bulbs we choose: these things all have influence far beyond our state boundaries. The choices we make in our very insulated lives, and their impact on the global environment, reverberate through the planet, across those webs, until their outcomes are manifested all over – most notably in the polar regions.

Eventually the plane lands in Dallas and I make my way to the connecting flight, from Dallas to Los Angeles. I meet up with Julia Dooley, one of the other ARISE team members – from Delaware. We greet each other, overwhelmed with excitement that the journey is really here, upon us. The fact that we are BOTH there means that it is not just a dream – it is really true!

We fly together to Los Angeles where we meet up with the other U.S. ARISE team members: Joanna Hubbard, Ken Mankoff, Kate Pound, and Louise Huffman. We also meet up with other members of the ANDRILL Science team. We spot one another because we have all been given similar baggage tags that we display on our carry on luggage. We also find ourselves surrounded by employees from Raytheon Polar Services, the contractor who provides logistical support in Antarctica. Some of the contractors we meet are: plumbers, electricians, cooks, mechanics, engineers, the recreation director, even a bar manager! As we begin boarding the plane, we see that more and more people on the 747 are Antarctic Bound travelers. At least one fourth of the 747 are people headed for the ice!

The flight to New Zealand is long! After a nice meal, the lights are turned low, and most people go to sleep. At least it seems that way to me! I lay awake, wishing for sleep to come. But it just doesn’t!

I ponder the sight below me. It is a vast, vast lonely ocean out there. I see a few lights twinkling in the water - a ship of some sort. I have to wonder what it is like to be out in the middle of the sea without another boat in sight for days and miles.

I have to compare my journey south with the journey of my predecessors. Ernest Shackleton left England on his famous Endurance Expedition on August 1, 1914. More than four months later, still not within sight of the Antarctic Continent, his ship reached the first icebergs which would later destroy his ship and launch one of the greatest stories of Antarctic Exploration. Four months of treacherous ocean crossing – versus my 11 hours. The world has indeed changed a great deal in the last 100 years!

Upon arrival in Auckland, we claimed our bags and proceeded through customs. Many of the bags of my colleagues did not arrive. They reluctantly proceeded on to Christchurch with nothing but their carryon, with the promise that their bags would be safely delivered to them in Christchurch. 8,757 miles are now behind me!

The flight from Auckland, in the north island, to Christchurch, in the south island of New Zealand, the last 464 miles, was spectacular. By now it was morning and light. It was an hour and a half flight, and as I soared above the clouds with the tingling sensation of fatigue and liberation, the snow-capped peaks of the Southern Alps came into view. These mountains were named by Franz Josef, a European, and early explorer in New Zealand. He thought they looked so much like the European Alps that he named them the southern Alps! Look at the photo of these mountains on this page – aren’t they spectacular?

As we approached Christchurch the plane crossed beautiful braided streams and fertile farmland with sheep grazing everywhere. It was quite a pastoral scene.

The pastoral scene quickly gave way to uninviting cold as we claimed our bags (those of us whose bags arrived) and trudged through sleet and hail to get to the Antarctica New Zealand Headquarters, the control station for the New Zealand program. We were told that our team member from Germany was waiting for us there. But when we arrived, drenched and freezing, we discovered that he had already left. But it was hard not to think: “Boy, if this feels cold, how on earth am I going to survive in Antarctica?”

We eventually took a shuttle bus to a very quaint Bed and Breakfast where the entire ARISE team was going to stay. We threw our bags in our rooms, and headed out to find some lunch and to explore town. By now the sun had come out and, though it was still chilly, it was no longer hailing. We met up with a woman we were working with to do Educational Outreach for Gifted and Talented students in New Zealand the following day. Struggling to stay awake, we discussed our plans and plotted the next two days. We then took a walk in Canterbury Gardens, a magnificent garden that cuts right through the city. We were reminded that, indeed, despite the hail and sleet, it is spring in Christchurch. The flowers are in full bloom, lilacs are fragrant, and ducklings are being herded everywhere by their parents.
I recalled how, the day I left Michigan, the foliage was just beginning to show bright reds and yellows to usher in the fall. What a contrast this was!

We walked to keep ourselves awake, eventually met up with other ANDRILL scientists for dinner. There was great anticipation of heading down to the ice, and I as delighted to have kindred souls to share the excitement. I even met up with a man I did work with 22 years ago on the ice: Dr. Larry Krissek. Larry is a sedimentologist from Ohio State University. I worked closely with Larry and other Ohio State geologists when I was down on the ice in 1985-86, working on my Master’s Thesis in the Central Transantarctic Mountains. Unlike me, Larry stayed involved in Antarctic geology quite consistently in these intervening years – and we were thrilled to share stories and catch up on 22 years. I was reminded that the Antarctic Research Program, despite its international presence, is quite a small community. I feel honored to be re-welcomed into that world.

After dinner and conversation, I finally permitted myself to collapse into bed at 9 pm. Having been awake for around 48 hours, it was time for sleep!

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