Cleaning up After Science in Antarctica. Part 2 by Brian Birkenstein


Daily life in Antarctica can be a bit dreary, if you let it. One week, The Antarctic Sun (the weekly paper) had a little side section that asked three people what they would be doing if they weren’t on the Ice. The options in the outer world are much greater as indicated by the three responses.

The hair stylist from McMurdo said “I would be studying massage on Maui, while hopefully living in a yurt that is as energy efficient as possible. However I currently am very satisfied with life here at McMurdo.”   Not a surprise that she was happy, because that is the same hair stylist that I mentioned who may be the best paid (with tips) person on the base.

Phil from Palmer said “Brewing, skiing and curling” He must miss the winters while here in Antarctica.

Will from the South Pole said “I would be helping to open a Mexican restaurant in Perth, Australia.” Apparently Will likes isolation. After leaving the remote South Pole he will go to Perth, the most isolated major city on the planet.   Maybe he should go to Tristan da Cunha next. When flipping through the Lonely Planet Antarctica (2005, 3rd Edition; Author: Jeff Rubin) I came across this sentence: “People are much more isolated in Antarctica than they are almost anywhere else on earth, save perhaps those people living on the remote mid ocean Islands, such as Tristan da Cunha.” Having an insatiable love of the globe, maps and geography, I couldn’t let that one go without looking it up. Apparently the Island group is a dependency of the British Overseas Territory of St Helena and has less than 300 inhabitants. It is in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean, more than 1500 miles from South Africa and more than 2000 from South America. It is remote to say the least, maybe Will should go there next… I’ll bet they do not have a Mexican restaurant there.


So those are some of the activities people were looking forward to taking part in when leaving the Ice. On the flip side of that though, I heard a lot of people say they never had enough free time down here. At first glance, people would think that there would be nothing to do and we would be sitting around twiddling our thumbs. But someone must have realized that because the activities department does a great job at keeping idol hands busy, especially the thumbs. After all, they are the devil’s playground. Idle hands that is, not the Recreation Department. We also had to create some of our own fun down there and people were quite creative. Some of the things we got up to would seem very odd in the real world but we kept ourselves entertained and that’s what’s important. I have often been asked by outsiders what we did down there besides work, how we filled the free time. Even after my whole season on base, there were many buildings I had not seen, or whose function I did not know. But I tried to explore as much as possible. Very early on in the summer, this was my assessment of what comprised the base.

My journal tells the tale.

On base, we have a two-lane, manual set up bowling alley. We have a coffee house (which is my task to clean in the afternoons)) a smoking bar and a non-smoking bar.  A mini movie theatre, in the coffee house and a church.  A gym, two weight rooms and a library.  A dining hall, a greenhouse (with a few hammocks) and a helicopter pad.  Several science buildings, since that’s why we are down here, after all.  One of them has a stuffed penguin.  I may have to go take a picture, if that turns out to be the only one I see. There are many other random (to me) buildings, but I have yet to explore the whole base.


Interestingly, the church had Catholic, Protestant and Mormon services but nothing else. Fortunately, despite having a Jewish background, I am not religious and was not in need of a Rabbi.  I did find it interesting to hear that during its lifetime the church had burned down on more than one occasion.  I guess if you are searching for which religion is the true faith, you might take this as a sign to rule out the three religions practiced there.  Or maybe it is one of them but that God doesn’t care to share the church with the other two.  Or maybe the fire crew was just too hung over to get there in time.  Hard to say really; we’ll just have to wonder.

We all would have liked more free time down there. With so many hours a week filled with work, another bunch used for sleeping, a handful spent on eating, showering and misc. activities, it doesn’t leave much.  What is left is filled with activities and social life.  For that amount of time leftover, there was certainly more than enough, or even too much to do.

There are a lot of diversions down here to keep you busy. In fact most people are heard to complain that they are too busy.  I mean we work 60 hours a week and then try to have a social life down here.  Between dorm style living (which leads to a lot of impromptu stuff) trying to see and do as much of Antarctica as possible and partaking in the activities that the Recreation Department has planned, it’s hard to keep up.  Speaking of what Rec has planned, I became a contestant in the beard-growing contest.  I entered the beard-growing contest because essentially what you have to do to participate is nothing.  I excel at that. I figure that if I may get a prize for doing nothing, why not be involved?  In fact there are only 9 contestants and there are supposedly 5 categories (including best overall, thickest, heaviest (weighed to the gram), worst and something else, so my odds are pretty good.  As I write this in fact, I am doing my darndest to grow the beard; I only have six weeks left.  I also need to start studying for the Geography Bee that Rec is putting on.


This is one week’s listing from the Little Mac section of the Antarctic Sun, which told us what was on.

Sunday Dec 10

LDS Service, chapel

Catholic Mass, chapel

Protestant Service, chapel

Coffee House Cinema- A History of Violence

Crary Lab Tour

Community Christmas Choir, chapel

Arts and Crafts Fair, dining hall

Swing Dance Class, Gallagher’s

Coffee House Cinema- Capote

Burger Bar, Gallagher’s

Coffee House Cinema- Dancer in the Dark

Science Lecture- dining hall

Monday Dec 11

Tap dance classes, Laundry room

Alcoholics Anonymous, chapel

Chess Corner, dining hall

Travelogue- Columbia with Isaac, Dining Hall

Tuesday Dec 12

Open yoga, 203B lounge

Morning Coffee, coffee house

Outdoor Safety Lecture, Crary Lab

Stitch and Bitch, 208 second floor lounge

Guts and Butts, laundry room

Wednesday Dec 13

Yoga, chapel

Burger Bar, Gallagher’s

Intermediate tap class, laundry room

Science lecture, Crary Lab

December Birthday Bingo, Gallagher’s

Thursday Dec 14

Morning Coffee, Coffee House

American Night, Scott Base

Guts and Butts, laundry room

Coffee House cinema- Richard Prior Live, coffee house

Karaoke, Gallagher’s

Live Music, Coffee House

Friday Dec 15

Yoga, chapel

Burger Bar, Gallagher’s

Saturday Dec 16

Outdoor Safety lecture, Crary Lab

Women’s Soiree pre event social, dining hall

Women’s Soiree, dining hall

Sounds like a lot to do, and it was for our limited free time. Within the limits that were forced upon them the Recreation Department did a good job filling our plate. But with a few exceptions, it was the same stuff week in and week out.   It was good for a while but people did start to get a little stir crazy by the end. We wanted new stimuli.


So the Recreation Department was responsible for a lot of what we had to do down there. However, a lot of our activities were self-created. Some of the things to do we created on our own are as follows:

Beer Pong

I think it was my first weekend down there that we had a beer pong tournament. After all, it was like college all over again in that we did live in dorms, so we might as well fill our time with silly drinking games. For those of you who don’t know beer pong, it involves trying to throw ping pong balls into the opposing teams beer cups, forcing them to drink the glass down in one long gulp. The team with any full beer glasses left at the end is the winner and moves on to the next round. When my mother was proofreading this part she had a lot of questions about beer pong. Maybe I didn’t explain it well or maybe my mother has never been to a Frat party, probably both.

Oddly, there were no girls involved in the game. It gave the night the feel of a frat party, early on before the sorority girls arrived. Sadly the Delta Delta Delta sisters never showed up. The event was organized by Janitor Travis, again.   Come to think of it, a lot of my drinking stories down on the Ice involve Travis. He was just out of college (University of North Carolina) and apparently well practiced at the art of social drinking. Most of the participants were from the fire department, they loved to drink, but there were others as well. There were probably about 25 people in total. We got put into teams by Travis, I was paired up with Night Janitor Nick. Nick was wearing a shirt that said “Nobody knows I’m a lesbian’” or something like that, so our team name became “The Lesbians.”   We didn’t do very well, losing in the first round, but we had fun just the same.

A couple of the firemen won and they got a certificate and everything. Well, by certificate I mean a piece of paper that I printed in the computer lab that said “First Annual McMurdo Beer Pong Champs.” I think they cherished the title while they were down there. The award ceremony is even immortalized on video and displayed on You Tube. I didn’t know it got put there and found it randomly one bored evening of surfing about a year later. Of course the two new champions knew just what to say when asked on camera what they were going to do now. They simply replied “we’re going to Disneyland.” In reality they weren’t going to Disneyland, they weren’t going anywhere for a while.

Writing Club

Not surprisingly, I like to write. My first week on the base I saw a sign up sheet for a writing club and I put my name down. I figured it would be a good way to meet some people and give myself some motivation to write. I think I made it to the first meeting and that’s all.

First of all, I joined it to meet people. But at the first meeting I think there were only five writers, including Josh the guy leading the club. Two of them I already knew and that sort of defeated the purpose. One of the two I already knew was Josh, as he was my next-door neighbor. Then there was Rob who I flew down with and I had sat next to on the bus from Raytheon Headquarters to Denver Airport. Then there was Jim and some lady from the

galley who I didn’t already know. Jim and I actually ended up saying hello a lot after that but I didn’t really connect with some lady. She was a night crew baker and seemed to forget who I was at a certain point. So much for the meeting of people.

Then there was the fact that Josh turned out to be more of a specialist in poetry, not prose. I have little interest in poetry and I wasn’t sure what I could learn from him. I am by no means an expert on the subject of writing (I got you to buy this book-but you’re probably related to me) but I wasn’t enthusiastic about Josh’s take on writing. I also didn’t really care for the pressure to write. I thought it would be good for me but I didn’t know that first week (when I signed up) how tired I would always be. I didn’t need the pressure of homework down there. If you recall, Josh left the Ice early, after only six weeks. His small class was obviously disbanded and I didn’t feel as bad to have left it.