After forty days, the waters receded and the ark came to rest …. woops! Wrong story! But really, 41 days in hotel rooms and I have finally made it back to the lands of ice and snow. Yes, that would be McMurdo Research Station, Antarctica.
This is my third season here on the ice and one of the most interesting deployments to date. With COVID-19 raging across the U.S., we knew it was gonna be a little difficult to fly through New Zealand on our way South for the summer season. It’s one thing to do the physical distancing thing back home where most people don’t believe in wearing masks, a whole other to be in managed isolation in a country that has managed to keep the pandemic at bay while locking its borders to those flying from the U.S. But, diplomacy and mutual agreement of science prevailed and began our journey to the ice.
Let’s be honest: Hotel living sucks. Even if you can wander the halls and go out onto the patio or into the back lot to get fresh air, there is a feeling of being trapped in place. Some people love it, others go crazy.
Even before we got into New Zealand, we started the process of isolating. It wasn’t very pretty. It was rocky. There were things the program learned for the next group (not sorry, main body folks). But those of us in the WinFly group arrived in San Francisco and began our journey south. But not before our first COVID test (and getting a stick shoved up not one but both nostrils because “why not?”).
Two weeks of Managed Isolation and then a flight south, right? Nope. Not even close!
So, we get to New Zealand. After a very long flight from San Francisco to Honolulu to refuel and then directly into Christchurch. Which was new for us, as we usually fly through Auckland before jumping down to Christchurch. And it takes forever to unload 130+ people from a plane ten at a time, because New Zealand has its mess together and knows how to keep the physical distancing thing real.
It took me an hour to get off the plane, and I was half way to the back. I feel sorry for the suckers in the back row. Okay, not really. But we were all glad to be off the airplane we thought was gonna fall apart mid-flight (it was making some noises no airplane should ever make).
Everyone freaked out about the idea of Managed Isolation. Honestly, it wasn’t bad. It was boring at times, but not bad. Morning Yoga through Zoom. Tablet Weaving. Watching all of the Star Wars Clone Wars and Rebels. More yoga. Waiting for food to be delivered (I felt like a cat waiting for my meals). Semi-daily temperature checks (I may have been skipped a couple times?). And another two COVID tests which is basically like getting our brain stem tickled through our nasal passage.
But lets take a moment to talk about food: EVERYONE complained about the food. How it wasn’t enough food. It was bland. It wasn’t very good. Well, I actually didn’t mind the food. Did I eat all of it every meal? Absolutely not. But I wont complain about food that I don’t have to pay for that is delivered to my door (even if I have to put my mask on to open said door and snag said foods).
Basically, any time you opened your door during Managed Isolation, you had to be wearing one of them fancy blue medical masks that the New Zealand government provided. Yes, the nurses would get upset if you wore your pretty, hand made mask. I support that decision. Wear your mask. Especially when they provide them.
We did have a small area outside to wander around in, but I didn’t really feel like walking down three flights of stairs to explore an area that was just bigger than my hotel room. Maybe it was a little bigger than that, but I didn’t really want to find out.
So, fourteen days go by and we are ready to escape down to Antarctica. And what happens during WinFly and, usually, the first couple flights of Main Body? Weather. Weather happens.
So we move to a new hotel, one with smaller rooms, while McMurdo got slammed by the storm of the century. Like literal tons of snow got dropped off around town and buried the airfield. And I really don’t want to be on the C-17 that attempts to land on snow drifts that cover buildings.
So, we didn’t fly. It happens.
Instead, we gained a little more freedom to run around the hotel. We had access to several conference rooms with TVs and games and actually had to leave our rooms to locate food, which was served in the lobby of the hotel. We got to socialize a little more, while still attempting to maintain our physical distance and wear our masks any time we were not physically eating or drinking something.
I still hid from almost everyone, only venturing out to get meals. But, lets talk about food again, shall we? Why does New Zealand have some of the best food?! Like, beautifully delicious food. It was amazing. Whoever says otherwise can go eat sand.
But really, I hid for the most part. Yes, I came down and socialized over meal times and caught up with friends from previous seasons and first-timers. I handed out my “When do we fly?” stickers I made for WinFly. But, there was part of me that was not comfortable hanging out in close proximity with people. Because the whole physical distancing thing. And COVID.
Eventually, people started getting bored and fed up with being cooped up in a hotel. People complained about everything from the food to the lack of entertainment to the fact that there was a weather delay. And there was another delay after that.
We had several higher up people in the hotel with us (NSF Representatives, Station Management, etc.) that took care of us as best as they could. They got the back lot expanded so we had more room outside. They set up a crafting room for us. They organized a “field trip” for us to spend several hours at a semi-local military base so we could lounge around the rugby practice fields. They set up a grab-and-go and supplied snacks for the between-meal and late-night muchies. They convinced the hotel staff to bring in their personal pets so that we could play with puppies and a giant rabbit. They took care of us.
NOTE: When I say “they” this includes multiple people in isolation with us, not just on the Station Management level, but also supervisors, returners, and the wonderfully amazing Kelly Swanson, who just happens to be the best Recreation Coordinator McMurdo could ask for. We love her.
Here’s the thing about Managed Isolation: everyone eventually gets bored. Some of us are better at keeping ourselves busy, but there are just so many movies one can watch before the screen is no longer your friend. I broke out my mandolin several times. I filled several pages in the ole sketchbook. I took several training courses. Had Zoom chats with family back home. Read a little bit. Watched TV (New Zealand and BBC have some of the best shows). Played video games (If you haven’t played Rimworld, I would highly suggest it). Slept in. Even then, I did get a little stir crazy at times, so I would walk up and down the flights of stairs at the hotel.
After three days in San Francisco, fourteen days of managed isolation, and an additional twenty something days of weather delays we finally woke up super early to find our majestic fleet of shuttles waiting to ferry us to the Antarctic Center, where we checked in and waited to board our flight further south.
Boarding the C-17 is always exciting. This year, even more so because we were leaving the world of COVID behind. Kinda? We still have to maintain social distancing guidelines and mask etiquette for a week following each and every inbound flight bringing new folk to station throughout the entirety of the season.
As much as everyone hates wearing a mask, I understand why we need to protect everyone down here on the ice. We need to remain constantly vigilant to ensure that COVID-19 does not have a chance to show its ugly head in Antarctica.
So, with that, I’m gonna go enjoy another day of dispatching in Antarctica! Stay safe. Stay sane. And wear your mask!