Delayed, then back to ‘the Ice’

Posted Oct. 16, 2008, at 10:11 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 5:53 a.m.

“DELAYED” read the piece of paper tacked up in the lobby of the Christchurch YMCA. “Personnel moved to flight P004: Meg Adams …”

It was day five of my stopover in Christchurch, New Zealand, and still no flights had been able to make it to Antarctica. The weather at McMurdo Station was preventing all air traffic — the few flights that had tried to get there had been forced to turn around and come straight back. “Boomerang flights,” said a member of the Air Guard. “Those winter-overs waiting to fly out must be going crazy down there.”

“Look at this,” said one of the Antarctic meteorologists, also waiting in Christchurch for his flight to the Ice. He held out a computer printout of a weather map showing the Antarctic coast. “Look at that giant pattern over McMurdo.” He pointed to a swirling cloud that obscured the part of the Antarctic coast we were aiming for. “It could be days before we make it down to the Ice,” he said.

He grinned suddenly. “So. Maybe we should head down to the pub, eh?”

With a week’s worth of flights delayed, Christchurch is bursting at the seams with Antarctic employees waiting to get down to the Ice. Work schedules are already getting behind, and we’re not even there yet. And the people who have been down there all winter are anxiously awaiting their replacements — us — so they can leave.

Not everyone is unhappy about this turn of events. In fact, some people are downright excited.

“I’ve got four flights to go before mine goes,” one woman told me as she loaded up her newly acquired rental car. “I’m going hiking.”

I have to admit, Christchurch, New Zealand, is a great place to be if you’re stuck for a few days. The southern Island of a two-island nation is just coming into its spring season, and while temperatures hover in the 50s and 60s, everything is covered in flowers.

This is possibly one of the few occasions in my life when the word “delay” will be greeted with cheers and another round of pints.

Christchurch is used to Antarctica-bound “Ice” people, wandering the streets and the outdoor stores, crowding the restaurants and cafes. As the jumping-off point for McMurdo Station, a hub to most points in Antarctica, the town sees the majority of U.S. Antarctic Program employees pass through. We are the people with back-packs and sturdy footwear, looking for fresh fruit and good deals on long underwear.

I have a small room in the Christchurch YMCA, right next to the city’s vast botanical gardens. If nothing else, in this unexpected delay, I’m soaking up my last dose of green for a long while. With yet another extra day to roam through Christchurch’s gorgeous botanical gardens, it seems hard to believe that my life already is being dictated by the Antarctic weather. But that’s how it goes: The first Antarctic law is that of the weather conditions; the plans of the United States Antarctic Program, the National Science Foundation and the Air Guard come second.

Finally, on day six, flights start to take off. If all continues to go well, I should be leaving in 48 hours. Ready to call it a night, I feel a tap on my shoulder. I turn around, and there, grinning at me, is Liz, just arrived in Christchurch from Antarctica, where she had spent the last 12 months. I shriek with delight and almost knock her over.

After our austral summer together at South Pole last year, Liz had wintered over at McMurdo Station through the six-month period of darkness, witnessing its annual sunrise. Now, finally, she is experiencing “the real world”— humidity, plant life and all — for the first time in a year. “What’s it like to be back?” I asked her.

“Great,” she said. “There’s so many people, it’s a little bit intimidating, but I’m really happy to be here.” After living with only 200-some people for the last year, as Liz has, Christchurch is a bit of a shock.

I spend my last days in New Zealand catching up with Liz and tracking the flight board. Liz is eating the first produce she has seen in months; I, meanwhile, am eating some of the last that I’ll see for a while.

Day eight, and my flight is ready to go. I change into my issued gear, donning the boots, parka and insulated overalls that I will wear for many months to come. As I walk onto the plane, I take one last deep breath of warm, humid New Zealand air.

Back to the Ice once more.

Meg Adams, who grew up in Holden and graduated from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and Vassar College, shares her experiences with readers each Friday.

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