Summer Camp

At 3:24 a.m., with bright light streaming through my window, I finally managed to put my finger on it, and peg that gnawing discomfort as homesickness. It’s not a familiar sensation for me, and it was hard to pick out of all the other constant, gnawing discomforts that visit a Polie those first few weeks. Fatigue – you just don’t sleep well here until you’re fully acclimated, and I was trying to wean myself off the Ambien. Dry – at less than 1% humidity, your hands, face and lips crack and ache. Your sinuses burn with almost every breath. Cold – the Jamesways are individually-heated. They’ve got a furnace blowing hot air through a “backbone” duct that feeds 6” vent tubes leading into the apex of each partition. It’s warm at the small peak of the partition, but unless you’ve brought a fan, the closer you get to the floor, the colder it gets. First night in J7, I left my water bottle on the floor and found it frozen solid in the morning.

I guess I better spend some time explaining what Jamesways are. The main building of the south pole complex is The Station. It’s a massive, high-tech structure with triple redundant life support that can sustain a crew without external assistance for close to a year, if need be. I still have a hard time not referring to it as “Moonbase Alpha”. It’s where the galley, the science labs, the computer lab (where I work) and about half of the sleeping quarters are.

J7 – my little slice of heaven

It’s not, however, where I’m living. I, along with the bulk of the junior Pole crew, live in one of a collection of Jamesways collectively – and euphemistically – referred to as “Summer Camp”. The Jamesways are Korean-war-era canvas Army tents. Very high tech for their time, mind you, but “Korean-war-era” and “Army” are the operative terms. As I said, they’re heated and insulated, and each partitioned into roughly a dozen 7×7-foot wedges connected by a central corridor.

Some of the important words that are open to interpretation with Jamesways are “heated”, “insulated” and “partitioned”. The heating, I’ve already talked about. The oil-fired furnaces, powerful as they are, can be balky, and prone to “going cold” at inconvenient times. We’ve got handheld radios so we can call Operations to send a fuelie or UT out to kickstart them when that happens, but without the constant stream of hot air, “going cold” is an understatement.

Hallway of J7

“Insulated” is another one. I’ve mentioned the floor; we’ve got a layer of industrial thin-pile carpet on top of the plywood and insulation, but oh, how I wish I’d brought something thick and colorful to slap on top of it. The outer wall is another consideration. Given the tight geometry, you’re either sleeping with your feet against the outer wall, your head against the outer wall (don’t sit up!), or your entire body against the outer wall. Insulated as it may be, the cold just pours off this wall into the room. Some partitions abut the zippers that hold segments of the tent together; the insulation here tapers to nothing, and previous residents of such unfortunate locations appear to have bribed carps (one of the carpentry team) to construct makeshift baffles to block the polar winds from getting through.

Finally, we get to “partitioned”. These were clearly constructed with the Army sense of “privacy” in mind, meaning that, while the side walls of each partition are a thin wedge of plywood, you have only somewhat of an olive drab shower curtain separating your space from the central hallway. Again, over the (many, many) years that Summer Camp has been in use, about half the shower curtains have been replaced by odd-sorted plywood walls with jury-rigged doors of one kind or another.

I was one of the lucky ones. Not only do I have a plywood door, I have one of the most coveted features of the entire tent: a window. Yeah, there’s a neverending debate on whether the window is a feature or a bug. It’s always blinding daylight out, but without that little double-insulated square of sunshine, you’re dependent on a clamp-on desk lamp, or any other lighting you can scrounge, to bang your way around your dingy little bit of personal space. Me, I’ll take the sunshine, and a square of cardboard to tape over it when I need the dark.

Now, back to Summer Camp. It’s located about a quarter mile downwind of the station, a ten minute slog over crackling tractor-torn snow past the cargo buildings and cryo facility. It’s called “Summer Camp” because that’s where the summer overflow from the station live. And because it’s uninhabitable except in the balmy mid-minus-forties of the polar summer (have I mentioned – recently – how cold it gets here?).

I can’t help but assume that the name also draws a bit on the legacy of Erik the Red who, banished from Iceland, enlisted pre-millennial marketing to lure settlers from (obviously frigid) “Iceland” to (obviously verdant) Greenland. Yeah.

Summer Camp

But summer camp is a rite of passage for Polies. You need to build a few years of ice-time, or have a location sensitive job (e.g. Firefighter), to be “upstairs” in the station. So we bear it, and build camaraderie with our fellow summer campers over stories of discovering the idiosyncrasies of our particular little slices of heaven. (Note: if hell is defined as an inferno, what else could this be but heaven?) It is, in so many ways, summer camp for all of us.

Anyhow. So there I was, at 3:24, curled up, groggy, and homesick, wondering if our Jamesway had gone cold again. It hadn’t, but pinning a name on this sensation really helped. I’ve been so deeply immersed in this experience, in the adrenaline and newness of it all. I guess we all have, and it’s been part of the bonding experience. But among us fingy-folks, the bonding can’t get very deep; we’ve known each other for two weeks, tops, and beyond that, everything is alien.

Of course, the adrenaline lasts only so long, and when it runs out, you need a place to land, something familiar to latch on to and let yourself sway. If you’ve ridden your adrenaline rocket into the stratosphere, it’s a long way down to that landing. Me, I’ve been pretty lucky; a lifetime of travel and miscellaneous misadventure has given me a good sense of when my tank’s running low, how and when to coast, and where to find good place to set down. I’ve been using it, too -Pole has a well-appointed and – as far as I can tell, entirely unused – music room with a couple of gorgeous full-bodied guitars. I’ve been spending time there every night when my shift is over. I’ve also been writing (you noticed!). Writing grounds me better than almost anything.

But I guess there were headwinds; the unfamiliarity of it all, coming up to speed in the field in 10-hour shifts of constant Go! Go! Go! troubleshooting. The fatigue, the dryness, and the realization that I’ve not showered in three days has gotten to me. And the cold. Yes, still the cold. At 3:24 in the morning, I realized that I’ve come up short of the runway this time.

No, don’t worry, I’m fine. It’s Saturday, which means we get tomorrow off. When I get off shift, I’m going to shower [limit: 2 minutes of hot water, twice a week], put on a fresh set of thermals and go to bed early. I’ve already picked up a honking big, heavy comforter and flannel cover from the skua [leftover stuff exchange], and am eager to try it out for as late into Sunday morning as I possibly can. A good night’s sleep makes almost everything better, so I just need to get through this day. I’m still wild as hell about being out here, honored to be a part of the program.

The walk to the Station from Summer Camp

[Sunday morning: Heh. Sorry for the delay in posting – Saturday was a bit of a mess. We had three different satellite connectivity problems, keeping our network and sat techs scrambling much of the day, tromping out to the RF shed in the antenna field to keep kick-starting things and rebooting servers. My part was easy: keep telling people that yes, we knew the internet was down, and no, I didn’t really understand the exact problem, but yes, we were on it and expected that we’d have things fixed before the next satellite pass. And then, when something failed at the start of the next pass, cheerfully and empathically repeat it all again.

As of 2045NZDT last night we were still down, and I think Kevin was out in the RF shed trying to debug. I couldn’t do anything to help at that point, so I headed back to summer camp for my shower, and a long lovely evening enjoying my comforter. Much better this morning.

Woohoo! Looks like the GOES pass has connected – time to post before something else fails!]

One response to “Summer Camp

  1. Sympathy. It seems inevitable you'd have nights like that sometimes. But still … sympathy.I'm glad a long warm (relatively speaking) night under your comforter helped.And I'm personally as well as altruistically glad that writing is grounding for you.– Lori


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