The Long Winter Nights Begin – Copyright 1999 Jack W. Cummings
For those of us wintering at Hallett Station, the long winter’s night or our period of isolation began with the departure of the Icebreakers from the waters of the Antarctic. Until the bay ice froze over, we would have no way of preparing the ice runway for aircraft. Since the age of tourism had not yet begun in the Antarctic, there were no other ships in the area. We were truly isolated. If one of us were to be injured or get sick, we would have to be treated by whatever means available on the station. I had not thought about it much before now, but we were a lot like future space travelers. If there were problems, we worked them out on station. I can not recall when the day arrived that we were in total isolation. I guess my feeling was that once I arrived at Hallett, I did not expect to leave until a year had gone by. If you dwelled on it I guess it could have become a problem. So I busied myself with other things.
In 1961 the station was made up of seven major structures and I will list them in order of importance to my life, as they would be where I would spend the majority of my time. First was where I worked and slept – the radio shack. I would spend at least 12 hours of every 24 on watch and another 6 to 8 sleeping, probably another hour or so just hanging out. Since we were an “open” facility, we usually had someone to keep us company; usually someone struck a case of the “big eye”.
Second was the mess hall. Our cook “Pav” would fix three very good meals a day, except Sunday and then we were on our own. We would also gather there after the evening movie to fix a snack. On Sundays it was open kitchen for anyone who wanted to prepare a meal. My specialty was chili. Normally cooks are very possessive about their kitchens, but Pav was not. He was so easy going, unless you did not clean your plate. During the year I don’t think I saw him sit down and eat a meal. He used to stand at the serving counter with a fresh can of Miller beer close at hand. Because cooks were so integral to the moral of the station, they have, by tradition, not been required to do KP, and were not required to prepare meals on Sunday. Other members of the crew might have jobs that required their presence seven days a week, but not the cooks. Pav’s kitchen was the first place that I ever ate Canadian bacon. It was packaged in long rolls like salami. A favorite after movie snack was thick slabs of Canadian Bacon, grilled on toast. So good!
Next came our recreation room which consisted of a combination movie theater and pool hall, sound system, for playing records, the ham shack and photo lab. This was in a building shared with the weather observation folks. I am not sure how many movies we had on board, nor how many records, I think they were all 33 1/3 speed with a lot of Armed Forces Radio broadcasts. I do know some movies were so bad that we would attend them with our backs to the screen. Pav would come to every movie with two cans of Millers in each pocket of his field jacket. I don’t think he ever saw the end of any movie. We all made sure he made it to bed safely, as his quarters were a couple of buildings away in the front part of the dispensary. We took very good care of him.
Of course one had to make at least one trip to the “facilities” each day. As I recall that is where our washing machine and dryer were located, not that I used them that much. Regular bathing and clothes washing was not encouraged. We must have all smelled pretty bad at times, but I don’t recall that being a problem, as we were pretty spread out in our own spaces, and we did not run around in t-shirts. I think our noses just became accustomed to the smell. Clothes that were worn day in and day out tended to take on a life of their own. Socks could almost stand by themselves and were always put on the same foot, to avoid any discomfort.
All water was obtained out of the saltwater bay and distilled through evaporation. It seemed like the “evaps” were down for repairs more than they were in operation. It was quite a process to access the seawater when the bay ice was frozen solid. Dynamite “shape charges” were used to blow open a hole, and this hole had to be attended to constantly while the water was being pumped. I don’t know what the whole process entailed, but it must have been quite a chore. The evaporators were located in a large building which was referred to as the “shop” which was not one of my regular places to visit. The station generators were located in this building and were on line twenty-four hours a day. It was a noisy place. There was also space to work on and garage all of our vehicles.
The science building housed living quarters for the American and New Zealand scientists as well as the equipment for their disciplines. I would occasionally visit to chat or just observe the projects they were working on. The “Kiwis” were great people, and were competent in several vocations. They also had a bizarre since of humor, which would not become apparent until we went into isolation. In 1964, a fire destroyed this building. Fortunately it did not get out of hand. The building was never rebuilt
There were a series of seven or eight Jamesway huts that were set upwind from the camp. They were stocked with emergency provisions in case of fire. I think I remember one of them being used for science programs by the “summer scientists”. Buildings were not grouped tightly together nor connected by tunnels for the same reason.
So that was pretty much my world. You just did not go drop in on someone at their quarters or workspaces after normal working hours were over. It was also not a good idea to go wandering around the camp in storms or in darkness unless you were with some else. In times of severe wind and blowing snow, we did rig lifelines from building to building. When you were out in the elements it was necessary to protect as much of your body as possible, and your field of vision was narrowed by the hood of your jacket and face protection. A “quick” dash between buildings without proper clothing was certainly not recommended, nor prudent. I remember one night during a windstorm I left the recreation room and headed the hundred or so feet to the radio shack, and was literally blown off the trail by the wind, without realizing it. I started to get a little concerned when I did not reach my destination when I thought I should have, but I kept going until I walked into the side of the Jamesway hut that was along side the radio shack. I took me a few minutes to realize just where I was! That was scary, but in time I managed to work my way around to the front door. It was always a good idea to let someone at your destination know, by intercom, to expect you.
On days when we had good weather, a favorite pastime was to walk along the shoreline on a track that led to the bluff to the south of the station. We had to be careful though as this was the flyway from the Skua (sea gull type bird) nesting site to the mess hall. (For some reason the skuas found out that there were easier pickings outside the mess hall, than in the rookeries). Sort of the same caution one would take while walking along a shore popular with sea gulls. One of the scientists happen to look skyward one day on his walk and took a direct hit in his beard. As we walked this track, adult penguins making their way to the water in their forays for food would cross it. To be able to observe, on a regular basis, this cycle of new life was worth the hardship of isolation. From the reunion with a mate from the previous year, or the selection of a mate for the first time, this process was always a noisy and animated affair. Once the mate was selected, the task of building and rebuilding the nest was undertaken. Traversing through the rookery was a bit akin to trying to make your way through a rock concert audience, with everyone you passed trying to take a bite out of your backside or slap you with a flipper, penguin and man got the same treatment. Once the nest was built and the egg(s) laid, there came the task of not only protecting the eggs and later the chicks from marauding skuas, but keeping the nest from being disassembled by thieving neighbors. When the chicks were old enough to get around on their own, the nest would be abandoned and the “thieving neighbors” would become a part of a collective “day care” system. Several adults would always be on guard, scanning the skies for the “bad guys”. The chicks seemed to increase in size before your very eyes, as the parents worked overtime to keep them fed. Feeding was done through the process of regurgitation as the chicks would stick their head in the adult’s mouth and down it’s throat. As these chicks matured the “down” that they were cloaked in from the time they hatched, began to molt away. This was the sorriest looking bunch of critters you ever saw, covered with a mixture of penguin guano and mud. When a parent would return from the sea, their bellies bulging with food, they would be relentlessly chased by their offspring. I never did figure out if this was part of the identification process or not. The chicks seemed to always know which adult to chase, or so it appeared. Once the molting process was complete (or almost completed) swim lessons began. This was not a lengthy process as time was of the essence and the chicks must be completely on their own and able to find their own food as they start their journey toward water that will remain ice free during the winter. By the time the chicks loose their down, they are nearly as large as their parents and the only way one can quickly tell them apart is the juvenile’s white vest will extend higher up the head than the adult’s. In 1961 the thought among the scientific community was that these juveniles will not return to land for a couple or so seasons, whether this has been absolutely proven, I can not say. The first water challenge these youngsters will face will be how to survive their first encounter with the underwater predator, the leopard seal. The “leopard” will wait just beyond an ice floe until one of the unfortunate flock either takes the first plunge, or gets shoved into the water by the press of the crowd. Once the “sacrifice” has been made, the others are free to make their getaway. The method the leopard uses to dispatch his prey is swift, but not a pretty sight! Soon the rookeries will once again be silent, all evidence what they were there will be blown out to sea or covered with snow, a harbinger of the long winter night.
It is also time for the crew to make sure that all supplies that were brought in during the summer, have been put away or safely secured from the winter winds and drifting snow. The face of the station would soon change. We have said our good byes to the summer visitors and completed our final weather observation for the aircraft, as they head back to New Zealand and eventually the states. There must have been some feelings of despair and abandonment, but I just can’t seem to find those experiences in my memory. As I said in the beginning, to fret upon your situation at this time, would have been for naught. Daylight would still be with us, but not for long. Soon we would only have the night sky with its beautiful star filled heavens and magnificent displays of the Aurora Australis, to mark our progress through the sunless winter.
Next “Part VI – Into the Dark”