I have the pleasure of bringing you a really special interview for today’s post. I would like to introduce Janae, who works at the McMurdo Station, a United States Antarctic research center. I’ve asked her a series of questions about what it’s like to live and work at the bottom of the world and she has shared some awesome insights for us all. Enjoy!
You can read all about her adventures at skiddinginbroadside.com
Hi Janae, and thank you for speaking with me today! I’ve been eager to get in touch with somebody who has actually lived and worked in Antarctica, so I’m extremely happy to be interviewing you. First off, I think we’re all dying to know…what’s it like living in Antarctica?
That’s an interesting question, because I always find it very difficult to answer this. Most people expect me to say cold; yes, there are definitely days it is very cold. In fact, the coldest I’ve been in was -105°F with wind chill. Life here is unlike any other place on Earth for so many reasons. When I’m in Antarctica, I live in McMurdo Station (the U.S. also has Palmer Station and the South Pole). In a nutshell, and this is a perfect analogy because McMurdo Station could easily be described as a nutshell, Antarctica is truly beautiful. Life in McMurdo is very busy and very goal oriented. Most days we’re all so busy that you kind of forget that you’re working and living at the bottom of the planet. However, in those moments when I’m able to slow down, get out of town and remember where I am and look out onto the vast landscapes, it nearly takes my breath away. There’s a common saying here, “It’s a harsh continent”. Aside from the extreme climate, remote location and overall inherent risks and dangers, most of the day-to-day life for the average person here is out of the elements. I think the reason this place can feel harsh to some people (nowadays, at least) is because of the distance from family, the many sacrifices that we have to make to be here and the heavy work schedule. It’s not a place everyone can thrive in, however those who can, love it here and come back season after season. Really though, where the magnificence of Antarctica is, lies outside of McMurdo Station. For those blessed enough to venture out of McMurdo and see some of Antarctica’s gems, nothing compares. That’s what Antarctica means to me; the amazing fortune of being witness to these spectacular places with extreme gratitude and humility for the moment.
What made you decide that you wanted to move to Antarctica?
Photo credit (right photo) Jeremy Clark. http://www.billiejoandjeremy.com
Just to make sure there is no confusion, I definitely don’t live in Antarctica. Even though it might feel like it since I spend more time here than anywhere else in the world, Antarctica doesn’t have any permanent residents. Annnd…back to the question; it all started with chance. I met and fell in love with Dave, who is now my husband. We both wanted to go on grandiose exploits and see the world together. We sold most of our worldly possessions, bought a little sailboat and became live-aboard cruisers. We had been living on the sailboat for a couple years and wanted to mix things up. We were primed for that auspicious “let’s see where the wind will take us” moment. We were considering a few options, not quite sure where we wanted to venture next and not ready to fall back into the swing of a more traditional life. Antarctica kind of fell into our laps, we were in the right place at the right time, metaphorically speaking. Dave had recently been in touch with an old high school friend. They’d lost contact years ago, it seemed like she had fallen off the face of the Earth. It turns out she nearly had because she had been working seasonal contracts in Antarctica for the past 8 years. When he told her that we were selling our boat and looking for the next bold move, she suggested we apply for positions in McMurdo Station. So we did, we were both offered jobs, sold the boat in Florida, drove across the country to Arizona, hopped on a plane and found ourselves in Antarctica before the reality of everything had even sunk in.
What is a typical day like in Antarctica?
Step one, don your layers. Really though, the volume of layers is dependent on whether it’s summer or winter. Winter, for instance, I started the day by typically putting on seven different articles of clothing. This doesn’t include gloves, goggles, neck gaiter, beanie and boots. In the summer, you can get by with very little. I shuffle into the galley (still called this from the days when it was a Navy station) at 6:30am to eat my breakfast and arrive at work by 7:30am – this is when the work day starts. There are a variety of jobs here. There are waste technicians, carpenters, cooks, equipment operators, engineers, firefighters, administrators, comms technicians; I could go on. We each work to ensure the station is operating effectively and that science can be accomplished. McMurdo is a self-sufficient small town. Due to our isolation, McMurdo needs to provide its own energy, water, waste treatment, medical clinic, trades for repairs and maintenance – there are people from all different walks of life here busily working the day away. My husband and I are lucky enough to have positions that get us out of town. Dave works as a carpenter and will spend roughly half of his six month summer season in the field; spending anywhere from a few hours to a few days in the Dry Valleys and other work will require him to work for extended periods in the deep field. As a coordinator for the carpenters, I also work in the Dry Valleys occasionally. A typical day for a carpenter will entail a helo flight to the Dry Valleys or loading up a LC-130 Hercules aircraft and flying six hours or so out into a tent camp in the middle of nowhere, or driving a Pisten Bully onto the sea ice to set up a camp for a science group. Though, not everyone in McMurdo has a position that will take them out of town. Most people here have jobs that require them to spend their days in town. Ultimately, there is no typical day in McMurdo, which is why both Dave and I love it so much. When the day could be spent shoveling snow, or driving onto the sea ice for field work where you might see an Emperor penguin, or working inside because the weather is too severe, or catching a ride in a helo to the beautiful Dry Valleys to spend the day setting up a field camp and not knowing which of these it will be; that really makes you excited about your job everyday.
I have to know…what is the food like in Antarctica?
It can be all over the board. We have chefs, bakers and galley staff that work really hard everyday to feed a lot of hungry people. The layout of our dining situation is similar to a small buffet restaurant. It’s set up to provide different options to choose from during each meal. For instance, for breakfast we have eggs to order, along with some other options like potatoes and bacon, yogurt, cereal and bagels – pretty standard. I’ve had seasons here where the food has been consistently really, really good and other seasons where it’s been a source of despair. Though, some of the seasons I’ve struggled with the food other people have raved about it so really it comes down to preference. Most of the food that comes down on vessel (the annual resupply container ship) is processed and preserved in order to make the journey down here and be able to last for extended periods of time. While it makes sense programmatically it can definitely start to wear on people here, eating so much processed food so often. A typical dinner will have options like chicken breast, steamed carrots, mashed potatoes, tempeh and quinoa, and freshly baked bread. Fresh fruits and vegetables are usually shipped on nearly every flight that comes down, but the frequency of flights can vary drastically creating periods that can last for months where you won’t see a piece of fresh food. I will say, though, the bakers have always been fantastic! I often joke that I come down for the baked goods – because the breads and desserts are out of this world! This can be a slippery slope at the end of the season, though, when you’ve got your eye on a tropical beach and suddenly find yourself with a few more pounds than you had before the ice – all thanks to those yummy desserts. Throw on a pasty-white complexion…and you’re ready for beach fun!
What kinds of things do people do for fun in Antarctica?
Ah, yes, the activities of McMurdo. This is where McMurdo shines like a diamond in the rough. In my opinion, due to the nature of life and work here, the program often attracts some very colorful people. These people are in abundance in McMurdo and create an amazing array of art, music, and activities that never cease to amaze me. There is good (sometimes phenomenal) live music occurring regularly, yoga classes, group hikes, music lessons, language lessons, a library, art shows, live performances – this list is broad and always changing. There are also two bars where folks can get together at the end of the day and enjoy some drinks (we usually have a couple craft beers to offer, in a bottle or can, of course), a weight room and exercise room, bicycles and cross-country skis to check out from the recreation department, a quaint little “movie theater” in the local “coffee house”. There are some local hikes to do around McMurdo, ranging from around a mile to over 10 miles. Scott Base, the New Zealand station, is just a stones throw away and they host “American Nights” weekly, this gives us a chance to have a Kiwi beer, check out their store and the great view and make some friends. A good portion of free time is spent with friends made on the ice. It’s a special environment where we work together, live together and play together, making some pretty strong bonds between people. I think that’s one of the major draws for so many of us, is the amazing people we share all of this with. They’re my favorite people in the world.
How hard is it to get a job there? Do you have to have special qualifications, or can average Janes (like myself) go there, too?
It’s not hard to get a job on the ice but you do have to be serious about it. I say this because you will fill out more paperwork than you thought possible. Plus, there’s the health screening, background check and you’ll need to do all of this while successfully executing the hokey-pokey. In other words, there are a lot of hoops to jump through. Like I said earlier though, there are folks of all different walks of life here and you might be surprised what position you land. For instance, I know a guy who has a Ph.D in volcanology and works in cargo driving a loader. A lot of people start out as janitors or galley staff and then are able to move positions in following seasons. There are a lot of really great entry-level positions for folks who aren’t sure if their particulars skills would be applicable. I always recommend to people to apply for as many positions as they’re interested in and/or have pertinent skills for, along with some entry-level positions and see what happens!
What is your job?
I’ve had several jobs on the ice. My first two seasons, I worked as a communications operator in ‘Macops’, keeping track of field parties, flight movement and local check outs. After that I moved into the carpentry shop, where my husband works, and took the position as the coordinator. I’ve really enjoyed this job and have done it for two seasons, almost ready to head back down for my third. I just finished a 10 ½ month stint on the ice, where I worked for a summer and winter season. During the winter, my coordinator job wasn’t available (since no field science happens during the winter, no field carpenters are needed and neither was my job) so I worked in supply operations. This is a common approach for those of us in the program, to bounce around from department to department, try out different positions – I always enjoy learning about a new facet of program operations as well as new skills and have found each position has it’s benefits. Like, this winter I learned how to operate an IT-28 loader, which was really exciting for me – it wasn’t something I think I would have ever done had I not been in the program. It’s just another check mark I get to tick off: can operate large machinery, check!
What’s your favorite thing about living at the bottom of the world?
The people and the travel opportunities. It’s even better when I mix these two together and get an opportunity to meet up with ice friends around the world. That makes me feel really grateful about it all.
What is the worst thing about living in Antarctica?
Missing family and friends at home, missing out of certain events – like, my brother getting married and missing his wedding because I was in McMurdo, or worrying about someone’s health while you’re there. Oh, pets and plants. I really miss having these things in my life. You can’t really have anything that requires regular T.L.C. when you have to be away so long.
What was the most surprising thing about life down there?
For me, it was mental. It took me a few seasons to get over my disbelief that I work in Antarctica. Hell, even still I have times it just seems too weird to be true. I love those moments when it all comes back to me and I stop, look around and think to myself, “I’m in Antarctica…” It’s beyond my wildest dreams.
What was your most memorable moment?
When I was a kid I was obsessed with Orcas and wanted to become a Marine biologist so I could study them. When that didn’t happen, like a few other childhood dreams, like becoming the tooth fairy or having a pet wolf, I had to set my sights elsewhere. My next best option was to see them in the wild. Last season, as the ice began to break out in front of McMurdo Sound, creating cracks in the ice where the ocean was exposed, I was in a helicopter that spotted a pod of Orcas swimming through one of these channels. It was one of the highlights of my life. It was a truly awesome thing to witness, a pod of wild Orcas in Antarctic water. Wow.
You spent the winter in Antarctica. What was that like?
photo credit Josh Swanson. https://500px.com/j-swanson
Wonderful. The stars were such a blessing to see after having spent a summer of 24/7 daylight. The auroras were dreamlike. It feels like hunting for ghosts, trying to spot these strange apparitions in the sky. The population was low, around 150 people, so it has a very intimate and quiet feel to station, which is also a blessing after a more crowded summer season. I was really lucky to share my winter with amazing people, they really made the winter special for me. Funny enough, even though I’m on my way to Australia to warm up for a month before I head back down to the ice again, it was very bittersweet to leave them all, knowing I’d never have another season like my first winter. Is it too weird to compare it to losing my virginity? The first time is always (or at least supposed to be) special. Ha!
You must be really good at dealing with the cold. Any tips for people venturing out into extreme cold?
Yeah…the cold. It can be tricky if you have to work outside, for sure. It took me three seasons to finally get a system down that worked for me. Everyone finds what works best for themselves, since we all have different levels of tolerance. In my opinion, the most important thing is layering, this is crucial. However, the material you layer with will make or break it. Luckily, it’s so dry there it helps cut down the complexity of layering in wet/cold conditions. In dry/cold conditions, Merino wool, fleece and down (synthetic down also works) are what you what. Multiple layers do three things; they block the wind, they insulates and they enable you to remove layers as you warm up to prevent excess perspiration, which will make you wet and then make you cold. Insulation is one of those words that gets lost in interpretation for people, I think. It kind of did for me. When I heard the word insulation, I thought of a thick layer, like the insulation in a house. What insulation really is about is trapping air between layers, which in turn is heated. In clothing, it’s better to wear more loosely fitted clothes to help create better insulation. This way, your body will warm up the air between the layers of clothing, keeping you nice and toasty warm. If your layers are too tight, it’s creates poor insulation and you’ll get too cold. I found this to be particularly important with gloves. I had always used gloves that fit and felt like they gave me the best dexterity. However, this failure was keeping my hands really, really cold. Once I moved my gloves up a size, my hands stayed much warmer. I sacrifice dexterity but it doesn’t do you a lot of good anyway when your hands feel like solid chunks of aching wood. I’m no expert but these were skills I was lacking in and often find this to be the case with others.
Any advice for people who might want to follow in your footsteps and live life at the bottom of the world?
I usually try not to dish out advice, but I guess I’d say, give it a shot. I occasionally hear, “I wish I could do that”. I’m not different than anyone else. Anyone can do it.
What are your plans for the future? Are you going to stay down there?
My future plans are always open. In the near future, I’ll be in Australia warming up and getting some sun. Then, in August I’ll be headed back to McMurdo for another summer season. After that my husband and I have plans to build our own house (owner-builder) in the mountains of Colorado. We’ve been working on this for a couple years and hope to have enough money to begin and finalize the build. This is a pretty large undertaking, so I can’t say I have any plans following this. We’re just going to take this one day at a time until it’s done. Once it’s done, maybe we’ll head back down to the ice, maybe we’ll see where the next breeze takes us.
Anything more you would like to mention?
Sure do – thank you so much for this opportunity! I can’t tell you how happy I am to do this! I’ve really enjoyed being able to share this information and I really hope it sparks an interest for some. I’m always happy to answer questions; I won’t claim to be an expert but I’ll give you the best to my knowledge (you can contact me through my blog). Happy travels!