Saturday, January 9, 2010
Welcome to Palmer Station
I am writing this post from the combined lounge and dining room in Palmer Station! Through the big windows I can see the spires of brilliant white icebergs in the harbor, and snowy mountains over the water to the south. This isolated field station is situated on Anvers Island, on a rocky strip of land at the foot of a dome of ice called the Marr Ice Piedmont. I had never heard the term “ice piedmont” before now but it seems to be a small ice cap. This one covers most of the 38-mile long island. The station is only accessible by boat, and in summer is supplied roughly every month by the research and supply vessel that I arrived on.
There are 45 people on the station now in the summer, about half of which are scientists and half are science support staff employed by the United States Antarctic Program and Raytheon Polar Services. The scientists come and go through the season but the support staff members stay for 5-9 months. The science here focuses on the ocean and the small islands nearby: collecting plankton and krill, studying insects and birds on the islands, taking water samples.
The station feels like a combination of a small town/summer camp/youth hostel/co-op, but whatever you call it, the sense of community here is strong. There is a fire brigade, which consists of about half of the people on station, which drills frequently, as well as a glacier search and rescue team and a marine search and rescue team. The “store” is a closet filled with toiletries, souvenir t-shirts and duty free alcohol. There is also a bar that people stock themselves with alcohol from the store: if you buy a bottle of wine, you leave it in the bar and you can drink it yourself or share with others and drink some of what they have bought. It’s all on the honor system but it works well.
We have an FM radio frequency that broadcasts NPR from the US. In addition, everyone on station has a communication radio that we use when we’re out on the water but also to contact people when we’re at the station. It’s not unusual to hear over the radio that a seal is visible on an iceberg floating by. We also gather to listen to the band formed by station employees, or to hear tales of their travels during their time off. One night there was a “drive-in movie” projected onto the side of a white shipping container outside, complete with popcorn. Sundays are disc-golf days, played on a course in the “backyard,” the 300 meters of rocky land between the station and the glacier.
Art by employees, scientists and visitors adorns the station: watercolors, oil paintings, metal sculptures. The doors of the sleeping rooms are painted with a beautiful bird, each one different. In the main dining room there is a woodburning stove with a beautiful metal sculpture of a breaching humpback whale. Years ago, someone welded together a roasting spit that can accommodate a whole pig. Oh and the hot tub! Originally a fiberglass fish aquarium, it is now used on most clear evenings and is the spot to go after taking “polar plunge”!
This small society is incredibly organized and efficient. Everyone washes their own dishes, and once a week participates in Galley And Scullery Help: cleaning up the kitchen and dining room after dinner. And this is serious deep cleaning, not just sweeping the floor. On Saturday afternoons everyone picks a task out of a hat, like cleaning bathrooms or washing windows. Then we turn up the music and work! It’s like the co-op where I lived in college except that the tasks actually get done and the place is spotlessly clean.
Tonight we’ll also gather to listen to the lab manager compete on the NPR news quiz show Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, which was taped several days ago. So my first week at Palmer almost over and the little community here has already enveloped me.