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Antarctic Mid-Winter Festivities

Updated: Apr 11, 2020

The winter solstice, or mid-winter, is a big deal in Antarctica. To be honest, I never realized how big a deal it was, and I think it’s hard to fully grasp its significance until you’ve spent a winter on the Ice. I think our Station Manager, Ken Keenen, said it best:

“On the Ice, we celebrate the austral winter solstice as a midpoint in our Antarctic winter season. We have this in common with even the most distant bases, like the Australian Base Mawson or the French Base Dumont d'Urville, thousands of miles away in different directions, but on the same continent. There are about 40 year-round bases on and around Antarctica that belong to 20 different countries. These lonely outposts are separated from one another by sometimes vast distances (although is some cases they can be right next door to each other), harsh weather, different languages, and political ideology, but we all share a common purpose: the Antarctic Treaty, which sets Antarctica aside as a place beyond geopolitical lines and as a place all countries can devote to science and research.”

He pointed out to us in our weekly station meeting that for each of our positions here at Palmer Station, there was someone filling an equivalent position at the Indian Maitri Station, or the Chinese Great Wall Station, or perhaps the Australian Casey Station. It was a humbling thought, and a very unifying one. There were other men and women, from other nations and cultures sharing in the same experience. Also missing their loved ones back home, also longing for the light to return. It takes a certain type of person to actually want to spend the winter in Antarctica too, and although we come from all walks of life and all backgrounds, each of us have that in common too.

Despite our many similarities, the stations are all, for the most part, quite different. Some have small winter populations, such as the British Bird Island (4 people!), and the South African SANAE, Polish Arctowski, and German Neumayer (all with just 8 people). Other stations have larger winter populations, like the US McMurdo Station. The stations range in latitudinal location from as far north as South African Gough Island to as far south as you can possibly go at the US Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. Yet here we all are, united by our common purpose. It’s pretty awesome really.

It is a tradition for each station to send out a mid-winter’s greeting card to all of the other stations. We took our group photo a few weeks back and I think it turned out really well.

Mid-winter greetings from Palmer Station!

To help illustrate where all of the stations are located, Ken K. printed out a large map of Antarctica and then proceeded to post the printed greeting cards sent to us from around the continent and it’s sub-Antarctic islands. This is the finished effect on the wall in our galley:

Mid-winter greetings from around the Antarctic continent.

Here's what Julia has to say about what we did that day:

The day started as just any other workday but the anticipation of the day’s events grew as we approached the time to polar plunge. The solstice occurred at exactly 12:54 which aligned perfectly with our lunch break. After eating a quick lunch (attempting to not be too full) and changing into swim suits, all the jumpers met out in the boat house with ‘JUMP’ by Van Halen playing over the intercom for extra motivation. Right as the clock struck 12:54 station manager Ken Keenen led the polar plunge with a loud “Happy Mid-Winter!” and a crisp dive into icy water. The rest of us following suit and jumping into the ~chilly~ Southern Ocean. The shock of the ice cold water hits you immediately and if you think you are trying to keep your eyes shut, think again. Most of us jump in and immediately swim toward the ladder or boat ramp for a quick escape, but Station Manager Ken, and Kris the Waste Manager, like to enjoy the brisk water and wait for everyone to finish their jump before getting out themselves.

Once we all finished our celebratory polar plunge we quickly piled into the hot tub. For some it is to get the feeling back in your toes, but for others it is for Chef Lisa’s delicious hot chocolate, for most, it’s both. The day continued with everyone giving Lisa a hand in the kitchen and setting up the dining room, with various tasks to prepare for the insane 3 course meal she had planned for the evening. The night concluded with all 20 of us around a large dining table enjoying a delicious meal (just look at the menu) and each other’s company. Many toasts were made to this season, seasons past, and to all the other stations celebrating around the Antarctic.

And here is our amazing Chef Lisa and the menu:

Now for a little bit of mid-winter Antarctic history, from Kirsten:

The picture on the left, above, was taken in 1911 at Scott’s Base, Antarctica during one of the first mid-winter celebrations here on the Antarctic continent. The picture on the right was taken Friday night, here at Palmer Station as we celebrated with a midwinter dinner, similar (in spirit, not menu choices) to the one that occurred over a century ago. The pictures resemble one another (except that there are incredible polar women in ours!) and represent good times in a harsh environment. The tradition of midwinter in Antarctica is one that I have never before experienced, but it is something that I will always cherish and will hopefully get to participate in again. Midwinter is celebrated on the winter solstice and it is something that is recognized over vast spatial and temporal scales throughout Antarctica.

Captain Robert Falcon Scott, a British explorer known for the Discovery (1901-1904) and Terra Nova (1910-1912) expeditions, spoke highly of the midwinter dinner they had at their base, which consisted of seal soup, mutton and plum pudding. A quote from Scott during the 1911 feast of midwinter,

“Dinner tonight has been observed with all the festivity customary at Xmas at home…At seven o’clock we sat down to an extravagant bill of fare as compared with our usual simple diet. Beginning on seal soup, by common consent the best decoction that our cook produces, we went on to roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, fried potatoes and Brussel sprouts…A wondrous attractive meal even in so far judged by our simple lights, but with its garnishments a positive feast…”

Later that year, on November 1, 1911, Scott and some of his men embarked on a race to the South Pole. They reached it successfully (albeit, 5 weeks after the Norwegian explorer, Roald Amundsen), but weren’t so successful on their return trip from pole. All five men perished on the journey back to Scott’s base. Although this is a tragic story, the men are thought of as heroes and are responsible for the discovery of the first Antarctic fossils (trees) to be found on the continent!

Ernest Shackleton was another explorer who is famous for his attempt of the Trans-Antarctic Expedition in 1914. In January of 1915 his ship, the Endurance, got trapped in the ice, and he and his men were forced to abandoned it and camp on the sea ice. When the sea ice retreated, they got in their lifeboats and set out north in hopes of rescue. They made it to Elephant Island: a small, uninhabited island located far beyond the reaches of shipping lanes at that time. Shackleton and a few of his men decided to venture farther, to South Georgia, in search of a rescue party. Before the boat took off towards South Georgia, the crew made a point to celebrate “the great polar festival” on the winter solstice with a breakfast of sledging ration hoosh, a thick stew of sorts.

The boat later made it to South Georgia where they came across a whaling station that aided in the rescue of the rest of his crew on Elephant Island. After almost two years on the ice, the entire crew made it back from Antarctica safely.

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