“Camp is like the seven plagues of Moses. We get here in May and there’s cold and snow, which turns to rain and wind by the end of the month, in June clouds of blood sucking mosquitoes come out, and in July the wind and dust comes back.”
It had been a very windy night, and the sound of nylon tents flapping in the wind had kept everyone awake. When it’s light out 24 hours a day, a person’s circadian cycle becomes sensitive to light levels and when cloudy days come, everyone gets sleepy and walks around in a haze. And, when low clouds make the sky unusually dark, the camp is in low spirits.
On this particular morning, Jon Hawking and I were headed up to the ice sheet to help Michaela Musilova take some ice core samples for her microbial studies. My brain was barely on and I felt like I was walking around in a dream. Inside my head, child-like temper tantrums were raging as I imagined arguing with everyone about anything. I was in my grumpiest possible mood—it was the morning, I hadn’t had enough coffee, I had already spent hours trying to take my own samples, and now I was rushing off to spend six hours on the ice sheet manually drilling deep ice cores.
After the hour walk to the ice, my mood was only matched by the dismal cloudy weather and cold drizzle that was falling. At the edge of the ice sheet, the tension was almost palpable when Jon threw the first insult.
"Ben, your face is ugly."
I countered, "Jon, I was actually just about to tell you about this big gross hair growing out of your forehead. Too bad there’s no mirror to check it out, huh?"
We chuckled. A light was slowly coming on inside my head. Sarcastic banter was clearly the solution to all of our problems. I pulled out a bar of crack chocolate and passed it around (we’ve named a particular kind of candy-filled chocolate bar “crack chocolate” because of its highly addictive properties). Sitting on boulders next to the ice we munched away as we strapped on our crampons.
Jon and I ripped on each other a little more and started laughing hard. Our most vulnerable and sensitive feelings are related to our research and science, so we tend to tease the hardest about that.
"Jon, the iron under this glacier isn’t bioavailable and the North Atlantic isn’t iron limited. So, um, basically your research sucks."
"Ben, isotope mixing models are for little girls. Also, you’re never going to differentiate between the different end members. Loser."
Feeling satisfied with ourselves we turned our banter on Michaela. Michaela is the perfect person to tease. It always sets her laughing and she rarely has any comebacks.
We started out onto the ice. After one minute, it started. “Michaela, why can’t we just drill right here? This spot is perfect!” We spent the 30-minute walk to her field site asking variations on this question and several times we actually stopped and started drilling in mock protest of the "forced march." When we finally got to her field site and started drilling, we "gave up" after five centimeters and complained that she wanted us to drill to the base of the ice sheet.
We drilled a few cores, but unfortunately after the third core we had to head home early. When we got back to camp, everyone was in great spirits, like we’d spent the day at the park instead of fighting cold wind and rain all day. That night, just to be nice, we decided to let Michaela pick a movie.
"Michaela, what do you want to watch, Die Hard 4 or Rambo 5?"
Rob Raiswell is leaving camp after spending a month helping us. Rob is a renowned geochemist and glaciologist and we were extremely lucky to have in camp. His advice and perspective have been invaluable. One of the things he is famous for is his work on iron fertilization in the Southern Ocean via icebergs breaking off of Antarctica. His research has huge implications for Ice Age climate studies and even for carbon trading (As a side note in case anyone reading this is curious: Rob is very much against using iron fertilization in the Southern Ocean as a means to counter burning fossil fuels.)
But even Rob is not immune to the banter and in fact he’s better at banter than almost anyone I’ve ever met. Anyway, we were going to give him the nickname Iron Man (he’s an icon to iron geochemists), but that was far too nice so we named him Manganese 4+ Man. For us nerds this is hilarious. Manganese is sort of like the ugly stepsister to iron. Its behavior is similar but it’s not really that important or exciting. The 4+ is a reference to oxidized manganese. Basically not only is he named after a lesser metal, he’s also lost all of his valence electrons! See, get it? Hilarious, right?
Half Way Home
I saw myself in the mirror today for the first time in about three weeks. I was greeted by a tanner, hairier, and noticeably thinner version of myself. My beard looks almost like the lead singer of Iron and Wine, my face is dark brown, and my nose is red.
I’m tired. I don’t know if it’s the 24 hours of light and wind that makes it hard to sleep, the lack of any days off, or the canned-food diet. I hate to say it, but in the past few weeks my energy has been slowly siphoned off. No matter how much I eat, meals don’t seem to give me any energy. Recently I’ve caught myself hiking in a daze—head down, shuffling over rocks and hills trying to clear the cobwebs from my head.
I’m still happy and the team is in good spirits. We’re having fun and I’m still very excited to be here. The work hasn’t slowed; I haven’t had time to make it through a single book.
There have been some real bright spots. I stalked a caribou to within 30 yards a few days ago. The sky over the glacier has been amazingly beautiful at night. My wonderful amazing sister sent me a care package full of French coffee and chocolate. Everyone on the team is always ready to cheer everyone else up. We joke and tease a lot, sometimes spending entire meals ripping on each other.
I’m about half way through my field season. Six and a half weeks left. I called my dad on the satellite phone last night. He said, “Keep the faith and get it done.”
And so we will.
We’re headed back to camp right now, while a few more posts should make it out of camp, I’m not sure I’ll be out again till August.
A few minutes ago, I bought an entire caribou leg off a hunter to hike back to camp. I’m not sure how we’re going to cook it, but I do know that it was one of my best ideas ever.
Previously in this series: