Sunday, January 28, 2001

Bottom of the food chain

Published in the Antarctic Sun

Every meal. Every break. Every glass, plate, fork, knife, spoon, pot, pan, sandwich, juice container…. Every time a dining room attendant (DA) turns around at McMurdo, there’s more to do.

But too often to diners on station they’re just the blue-clad bodies moving a rack of glasses right in front of you or the faces at the dishroom window.

Most of the time, the DAs are smiling, and that’s a tribute to their resilience. "It’s the most difficult job on station, and they probably work harder than anybody else," said Jan Jasperson, the winterover food service supervisor, who said that if he could do anything for them, it would
be getting DAs paid more than the $350 a week they earn.

The DAs play a role in every part of the galley operation, except one. "We don’t cook food," said lead DA Ginger Alferos.

The DAs clean and restock dishes, prep food and salads, make sandwiches and flight lunches, make sure the food lines are stocked, and clean the whole place when the meals are done.

"I do different jobs: deli, floating, pot room, dishroom, it all depends on your mood," said DA Amanda Dow.

The pot room is really where the legends of DA-dom are made. While sitting in on their "family meal," at a strange time like 9:30 a.m. for lunch, the stories come out. Many of them involve the cramped rectangular space called the pot room.

The din in there can be deafening. With big, metal pots and pans resounding while they are moved through stainless steel sinks, the shift starts out loud. Add the music, the singing along and the joketelling and it’s a big party, albeit crusty food in abundant attendance.

In the background is a periodic rumble of the disposal, a giant one, almost the size of a five-gallon bucket. And, as one story goes, a DA once dumped a big pot of mashed potatoes into it instead of scraping the pot into food waste first. As if it were karmic retribution, the disposal exploded, spraying ground-up food everywhere and covering the operator’s face with a big white cloud of potato glop.

It seems gross. It is gross. But then the DAs think it’s funny, which gives insight into how they survive.

"The people make it fun," Dow said. Some of their on-the-job entertainment comes from people who pass through the galley. The DAs keep tallies, like how many people lick their fingers before touching serving utensils. At times they’ll take surveys, asking questions through the dishroom
windows as people stack their plates. It’s a good way to keep their minds active while working a mindless job.

Their presence is appreciated. "There’s no way we could do what we do without them," Jasperson said. In the rest of the world, Jasperson said, the jobs akin to the DAs are held by high school students. But in their lives back home, these DAs are food-service workers, teachers, outdoor guides and other professionals, including a nurse and a geologist.

It can be a good leg up for future jobs in the U.S. Antarctic Program, though. DAs can prove their ability to endure hardship and show their skills with the community.

"They’re our front-line defense," Jasperson said, explaining that the DAs are the first to hear feedback from the community and take the most heat for problems in the galley.

They put up with it because they want to get to Antarctica and they stay because they’re here. There is some appreciation from the community, the DAs say, but there’s no such thing as too much. The folks in the galley, though, know the value of the grunt work.

"We love our DAs," Jasperson said.

Sunday, January 21, 2001

Preserving the huts: Protecting the heritage

Published in the Antarctic Sun

Almost exactly 99 years ago, construction began on the first building on Ross Island: Robert Scott’s Discovery Hut. Now, researchers and fundraisers are stepping up the effort to preserve and restore the historic huts in the Ross Sea area.

Ross Island’s three huts – Scott’s on Hut Point and Cape Evans and Ernest Shackleton's on Cape Royds – are the primary targets for preservation, though there are over 30 historic sites in the region, including memorial crosses and supply depots left by the early Antarctic explorers.

"We have the responsibility for the practical management of Heroic Age sites in the Ross Sea area," said Nigel Watson, executive director of the Antarctic Heritage Trust, a New Zealand-based, non-profit organization.

To date, the AHT has hired conservators to come to the Antarctic to slow or halt the decline of metals, woods and fibers at historic sites. The trust also maintains a collection of artifacts in Christchurch, which are being worked on and will eventually, Watson said, be returned to their original locations.

But the trust’s work so far has only slowed the rate of decay of rare historic artifacts. "We really haven’t halted the decline," Watson said. "As you look through the huts you can see the decay. Don’t take it for granted, because one day it might not be there," he said, noting that one of the two buildings at Cape Adare is no longer standing.

Watson said the trust is now looking at different approaches to maintaining each historic hut site, ranging from a possible full restoration of the Discovery Hut to its original condition, to preserving a hut at Cape Evans or Cape Royds in something close to its current condition, though treating the materials to prevent future decay.

This could cost several million dollars, Watson said. The AHT relies on donations from the public for its operating budget. The money must fund responsible care for the huts, Watson said.

To that end, the conservation effort is backed up by scientific research. Bob Blanchette of the University of Minnesota, and Roberta Farrell of the University of Waikato in New Zealand are conducting a joint effort, funded in part by the U.S. National Science Foundation, to study the decay and deterioration of wood in the historic huts.

The main source of damage to the wood is erosion. High winds sandblast the outer walls of the huts. This is visible, Blanchette said, particularly on the beams supporting the verandah of the Discovery Hut.

There is also chemical deterioration. The high salt content of the snow in the area, due both to the nearby seawater and to gas emissions from Mount Erebus, weakens the wood fiber.

Further, Blanchette said, fungi within the huts are attacking the materials that are sheltered from the storms to which the outer walls are subjected. In addition, there seems to be a soil fungus attacking the wood foundations. It is not clear, Blanchette said, how this fungus arrived at the historic sites or how it retained its ability to attack wood in a wood-less environment.

"The fungi that we’re finding are very unusual and appear to be unique to the Antarctic," he said.

Part of the research is also looking at the impact of visitors to the hut, who introduce dirt, heat and moisture into closed-up buildings. Blanchette’s group has installed temperature and humidity monitors in the huts, and is trying to keep close track of the length of time visitors spend in the huts.

Blanchette and Watson are optimistic. Watson noted that the centenaries of the construction of each hut are coming up within the next decade. That provides a unique historical angle on fundraising, he said, which may have very positive results for the huts’ preservation.

Blanchette also believes that research and conservation can work hand in hand to restore and protect the huts before they disappear.

"It’s not too late," Blanchette said.