Thursday, December 12, 2002

Coming home after taking time out on the Ice

Published in the Current

If you thought this week’s cold temperatures were uncomfortable, talk to Ben Morin.

Morin of Cape Elizabeth just got home from a trip to the planet’s southern continent and can’t wait to go back.

He spent seven months, from March through early October, at\ Palmer Station, a U.S. research base on Anvers Island on the Antarctic Peninsula, the section of Antarctica stretching toward the very bottom of South America.

The company Morin worked for, Raytheon Polar Services Company of Englewood, Colo., flew Morin to Punta Arenas, Chile, where he boarded the research vessel Laurence M. Gould for a four-day trip across the Drake Passage to Antarctica.

“On our crossing, it was just as smooth as could be,” he said, calling one of the world’s worst stretches of ocean “the Drake Lake.”

Passing through the Straits of Magellan, at Tierra del Fuego, he said he felt like he was in “the loneliest place on Earth.” A nine-mile wide mouth of water separates Chile and Argentina, and the ship had to make its way between derricks in the offshore oil fields.

All Morin could see, he said, was empty land and flares of fire from the oil rigs.

He was heading south, though, to lonelier climes. As if to ease the way, dolphins began to chase the boat. Morin also saw seals and minke whales along the way.

After peering hard at the land ahead, someone pointed out the station to him. “All you could see was this little radio antenna,” he said.

After breakfast, the ship was close enough that he could see a big oil tank with a message painted on it: “Welcome to Palmer Station.”

Morin decided to go on the trip after looking at the Lonely Planet travel guide to Antarctica, and reading the chapter about working on the continent.

He wanted to go for the adventure, and because, he said, “no one goes there.”

“I’d always loved traveling,” Morin said. He had been interested in the stories of the heroic Antarctic explorers like Scott and Shackleton.

Arriving on the continent, he said, was a rush. “It’s pretty overwhelming when you first get there.” He was heading for winter at the smallest U.S. station on the continent. “You’re on this huge continent and there’s only 50 people there,” he said.

Palmer normally has about 15 or 20 people for the winter months, but a large construction project meant there were 35 people there.

“You really become family,” Morin said. The farthest away he could get from the station was a quarter-mile.

Morin was a general assistant, charged with taking care of a wide variety of tasks. Right when he got off the ship, he was told to head up a nearby hill and tie a tarp over a pile of machinery stored there. The tarp was blowing around, and Morin didn’t know any of the knots people suggested he use. But the effort was successful.

“I guess I did OK, because it stayed there all winter,” he said.

Life at Palmer was good. He saw wildlife all over the place, including Weddell, elephant, fur and leopard seals, Gentoo and Adelie penguins and even a humpback whale. He saw dozens of birds, mostly sheathbills, cormorants, sea gulls and skua gulls, though he also saw storm and giant petrels.

Work wasn’t exciting, but was interesting. With a faraway look in his eyes, Morin remembered the biggest part of his duties.

Known to him as the job code he had to put on his timesheet, “PC 9028” was what took up most of his time: snow shoveling.

With a major reconstruction of the biology lab in progress, Morin also helped with plumbing, electrical work and welding, all “stuff I’d never done before,” Morin said.

He also had to work in a boiler room, connecting pipes and equipment for heating as well as a water desalination unit to make drinking water. He was so pleased with how things went that he issued a continental challenge: “It
was the best-looking boiler room in Antarctica,” Morin said.

He made some close friends there, and wants to go back as soon as he can get another job on the Ice.

“The people down there are just so great,” Morin said. “The people were the best part.”

Some did complain about being there, but Morin thinks they have it wrong. “They should feel privileged to be in a place no one will ever go,” he said.

Morin said it was a good job for him, though he is studying for his master’s degree in English and wants to teach college.

After seven months with the same 30 people, he said adjustment to being back in the world was a bit of a challenge, though less so than he had thought. When new people began arriving at the station for the new season, some of them had personalities that grated on the winter staff’s carefully constructed social structure.

As far back as July, Morin said, “small talk had just been thrown out the window.”

As he left Antarctica, he went up onto the deck of the ship to watch the station slip into the distance.

“The sunsets at Palmer were amazing,” Morin said.

Some parts of being back are weird, like seeing lots of trees and bright colors. During the time he was away, he and others dreamed of what they’d do when they got home, like go to McDonald’s. But now that he is home, those things don’t seem all that special, he said.

What is special now, in fact, is Antarctica. “There is no other place on Earth like it,” Morin said.