On the Ice

26 Nov 2001

Paul Doherty Off to the ice
Paul Doherty with crossed camera straps, ready to go aboard the C-130

The Air New Zealand C-130 was meticulously clean, like a car ready for a competition, this made me happy since this four engine airplane was about to take me across one of the wildest stretches of ocean on earth on my way to Antarctica.

Inside the plane we sat pressed against our neighbors. Our feet interlaced with the feet of those sitting across the aisle. The bulky ECW, extreme cold weather, gear we were wearing exacerbated the space crunch. Our laps were filled with huge bag lunches. We tucked our carryon bags under our seats then stuffed our ECW gear and lunches behind the webbing which made our seats. We were then slightly more comfortable, but still quite crowded. Once we took off, the old pros sought out the first class cabin. They stretched out on top of the boxes of payload. (This is only allowed on New Zealand aircraft not U.S.)

An ice engineer in first class
An ice engineer stretches out in "first class."

After five long hours of flying south someone called out, "I can see ice!". I rushed to a porthole and stood there for the next three hours watching the endlessly changing panorama of ice. At first, small pieces of pack ice hardly bigger than a football field packed together in surrealistic patterns. The patterns reminded me of Arabic script. As we proceeded south, the ice covered a larger and larger fraction of the surface, and the individual pieces also grew in size, as big as a city block, then as big as a small city. We were approaching the motherland of ice, The Ice.

The first sighting of pack ice.

The ice covers more and more of the ocean.

Trapped within the pack ice were occasional icebergs that towered above the surface. Impossibly blue chunks of glacier ice rose above the pack ice like glittering jewels. Later we spotted a huge tabular berg, a table of ice. Its top was polished by the wind and it gleamed like an opal amid the flat white of the pack. These icebergs had calved off of glaciers. 100 feet of the berg towered above the sea 900 feet lurked below.

A glacier pours down from mountains and makes an ice tongue that stretches out to sea.

Another wave of excitement rippled through the plane when I announced that I could see land. Black cliffs stood out against the white background. Glaciers reached out from the land making ice tongues in the sea.

As I watched the ice covered landscape of Antarctica pass below me I imagined that I was looking down on the Sierra Nevada mountains of California 14,000 years ago. Back during the time of the last ice age when glaciers ruled the land as they rule Antarctica today.

The pilot announced that we had top return to our seats and strap ourselves in before we could see Mt. Erebus and McMurdo station. I was disappointed in missing the air view, but soon I would be seeing McMurdo from the inside.

The plane landed, the crew opened the door, and bright white light flooded in it was time to step out onto a new continent. It was like the opening scene of the movie,"The Blues Brothers" where John Belushi steps out of the gates of Joliet Prison surrounded by bright light...except that I was stepping into the light.

Paul leaving the C-130 on the sea ice runway.
Out of the dark inside of the plane and into the bright and the glare
There stepped a writer, fresh from the States, on his way to adventure somewhere.

Return to Antarctica.

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Scientific Explorations with Paul Doherty

© 2001

31 July 2000