I wait for the plane at the edge of the runway, shifting the fork loader I’m sitting in into idle. The packed snow of our landing strip shines in the sunlight that gets lower and more golden every day. Just above the horizon, I see the shape of an LC-130 approaching. It lands in a small puff of frozen exhaust and flurried snow. My headset crackles to life. “Comms, this is Flight Deck. LC-130 on deck.”
I have a pallet piled with baggage on my forks, ready to load onto the plane. It’s the luggage of the next group leaving the South Pole.
We’re leaving South Pole Station in batches of 30 now — a flight of outgoing passengers leaves every day. The owners of this luggage wait at the edge of the apron, a huddled clump clad in red parkas, waiting for us to load and fuel the plane before they board. Friends and work mates surround these outgoing passengers, saying their goodbyes. Some of the well-wishers will see them soon in New Zealand; others, those staying behind for the long, dark winter, will not see them again for eight or nine months.
As the plane parks at the fuel pit, I rev up the loader and pull out onto the runway. Behind the plane, the roar of the engines blocks out most other sound, and a respirator protects me from the exhaust. The luggage tags flap in the wind where they stick out from under the cargo net. Once the cargo is loaded, a loadmaster marshals me away from the plane. “Cargo is clear,” announces my headset. “The LC-130 is ready for passengers.” Right on cue, the fuels operators guide the line of red-clad people around the nose of the plane and on board. Their forms look very small and bright against the white Polar Plateau — poignantly so. Soon, all but 50 will be gone. The engines roar, the plane taxis and lifts off: northbound once more.
“Comms, Flight Deck, the LC-130 is off deck.”
When I go up to the station for dinner, the galley seems quiet and empty. With our station population dropping daily, finding a seat is no difficulty. I’m used to a cacophony of hungry workers, and the relative silence is strange.
Even outside, the station seems emptier. The carpenters who usually hammered at the station’s walls are gone. Everything is being buttoned up for the winter. Even many outbuildings are gone, tucked away for the long, cold night to come. The workshop I passed on my way to work, a temporary building on a sled, has been pulled off to where it will be protected from drifting. Our very landscape is changing as we batten down the hatches for winter.
“You should start mapping where we’ve stored everything,” my boss says to the materials and supply workers who will be here for the winter. “You’ll want to know exactly where everything is before you have to go outside for something in midwinter, when it’s dark out.”
When the last plane leaves, it will fly over the station once, twice, three times, dipping its wings in a goodbye wave.
That night, according to tradition, the winter-overs will gather in the gymnasium and watch the 1982 film “The Thing,” a horror movie set at the South Pole. It’s a macabre ritual, perhaps, but that kind of black humor gets crews through the highs and lows of an austral winter.
I leave on one of the final flights. Soon it is time for me to drag my own luggage down to be weighed and put on a pallet. I say goodbye to the friends and work mates who have become my family. So much of adventuring, it seems, involves saying goodbye to someone. “We’ll see each other in New Zealand, I hope.”
“Let’s all meet up at the pub in Christchurch in three nights.”
I leave my fluffiest blanket with a friend who will be wintering. “Don’t forget to write,” I say.
“Even if I go crazy?”
“Especially if you go crazy. I could use the entertainment.” We grin.
Before I get on the plane, I take one last look around. The station stands stalwart against the wind, drifts of white snow surrounding it like hedgerows around a town house. The colors of the South Pole — colors I have grown so accustomed to — surround me: blues and brilliant white, as far as the eye can see. It’s minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit. And yet, thinking about the good times I have spent here, I feel warm inside. It’s hard to know if, or when, I will come back to Antarctica. But Antarctica, I am sure, will never leave me.
Meg Adams, who grew up in Holden and graduated from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and Vassar College in New York, shares her experiences with readers each Friday. For more about her adventures, go to the BDN Web site: bangordailynews.com or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.