On a morning of marginal weather, especially to the north, we get the word that Inexpressible Island should be ok, at least for a few hours. We load up supplies for collecting fresh guano, and get a ride over with Stu. We are dropped on the north end of the colony, while Steve is flown further south to confirm some GPS readings he took at our earlier sites. We trudged out to the beach to set up, then used Jurekís hammer to break up the frozen guano from a recently-used mound. The guano washing was simplified by the rocky nature of the beach, but it still is a rather odious job. We washed our three buckets, and were set to start surveying for more ancient sites when Steve noted that the weather back towards Terra Nova was deteriorating quickly. When we called in, Operations agreed that we should be picked up immediately, and within minutes Dave was landing to pick us up. The flight back was a little scary, as it was the first time we had to duck under a low ceiling. Dave calmly explained that as long as we could see the landmarks on the ground, everything was fine. Things get tense, he explained, when everything goes white and you canít tell where the sky ends and the ground begins.
A short snow storm precluded any travel the next day, so we washed up all the sediments we had collected. By Monday, predictions looked good for Inexpressible again: with 7 knot winds in the morning, dropping off in the afternoon. We flew over once again and were dropped off near the snow cave site. This location has a very interesting history, if only a tale that is fairly common from the heroic age of Antarctic Exploration:
Scottís Northern Party was dropped off by the Terra Nova at Cape Adare in February, 1911. It was made up of 6 team members, led by Victor Campbell. They spent a harsh winter in a hut they built next to the one built by the Russian Borchgrevink in 1898. The snow conditions prevented them from doing much in the way of exploration that winter, and they were picked up by the Terra Nova in June of 1912 to continue southward down the Victoria Land coast. They left the ship again in early January at Terra Nova Bay, planning to explore the local terrain for about 6 weeks then rejoin the ship in mid-February. When the ship returned early, pack ice was already collecting in the bay, and the captain concluded that they could not risk waiting any longer. They left a sledge full of food, and set sail for New Zealand. The Northern Party came over the hills nearby only hours after the ship had left, and did not find the sledge full of supplies. They dug a small snow cave on Inexpressible Island (so named after they spent the winter there and could no longer find words to express how miserable they were) and laid in a stock of penguin and seal meat, their only rations. After spending a desperate and boring winter here, they left the cave in September of 1912 and walked on the sea ice to reach Ross Island, surviving by finding food caches along the route. They eventually reached Hut Point (McMurdo) in November, and found a note stating that the Scott Polar Party had not returned. They went on to Cape Evans (the Terra Nova hut) and recovered. The search party that had found the final resting site of the last of the Polar Party (Scott, Wilson, and Bowers) returned to the Terra Nova hut on November 25th *(McGonigal & Woodworth, 2001). The sledge full of food left by the Terra Nova was not found until 1985, by a Kiwi historian who was researching the story of this amazing epic.
Today all that is left at the site are a couple of signs [sign 1] [sign 2] [details of sign 1] commemorating the event, and a small bit of debris. Our surveys around the area, however, uncovered the carcasses of at least 10 Elephant seals, with evidence that they had been butchered. Steve was surprised that Elephant seals even existed this far south, but suggested that they would have been the prime choice for the party to take because of their immense size and blubber yield. I would like to see one of these impressive beasts alive, with canines like these they must be something to see.
The recent snowfall altered our plans for excavating a site near the snow cave. So we walked back to a ridge to the south of the colony where Steve had noted some old sites, and picked a promising one with many lichen on the surface rocks, suggesting old age. The area was scenic, but the winds had not dropped, in fact they felt to be about 20 knots now, so finding somewhere out of the wind for lunch was important. The one larger erratic in the area gave enough of a windbreak to serve our Inexpressible lunch. The site went deeper than we expected, to 7 levels, until we hit permafrost. The sediments quickly turned light-colored and dusty, which bodes well for this being a very old site. We backfilled the pit, and Steve decided that he now has more material than he has funds to date, so unless we make it to Adare or Beaufort Island and find something remarkable, we a finished with excavations this year. We packed up and headed down the colony and beach for a last look around. A large area of the colony is covered with penguin carcasses, mostly young just-fledged birds, that didnít make it to the water for the first time. Steve says it looks like the aftermath of some mythic penguin battle, like a scene from Lord of the Rings. A couple of Weddell seals had hauled up on the beach, and we spent some time watching them as well as the activities around the colony. Shortly before our ride home arrived, we celebrated with an Inexpressible toast, and then Mike flew us back to Terra Nova. For the immediate future, we will finish up all our processing (washing, drying, dry screening, and picking coarse sediments) as well as cleaning up our lab spaces and getting ready to depart Terra Nova. They will be able to use the space, as 26 new people have arrived in readiness for the return of the Italica and the marine focus of their field season. Our formerly quiet bunkroom is suddenly full to bursting with a symphony of snoring, so it seem appropriate to be planning to leave. I will write a final update before departing McMurdo.
*McGonigal, David and
Woodworth, Lynn, 2001.The Complete Story of Antarctica, Random House
New Zealand, Aukland, New Zealand, 608 pp.