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Life During Pandemic Lockdown vs. Antarctic Winter

woman in coat near machinery
Photographer: Stephen Allinger

Today, we have a very special guest post from Rebecca Burtney. From the top of the world to the bottom and lots of places in between, she loves being a nomad. Rebecca works as a weather observer in Antarctica, where she gets paid to stare at the clouds! How cool is that?! When she’s not working, she might be catching baby crocodiles in the Panama Canal (don’t worry, she puts them back!), cycling the Pacific Coast Highway, eating her body weight in roadside blackberries, or house-sitting in Mexico so she can pretend to be a dog owner.

Am I just isolating during a pandemic? Or am I back to living in Antarctica during the winter?

In March, when many parts of the world were issuing stay-at-home directives, I caught myself asking this very question!

All told, I spent over eight months in 24-hour darkness working as a weather observer at the end of the earth.

So why does it feel like I am back in Antarctica now?

Because staying at home to save the world during COVID-19 has a lot of similarities with living in Antarctica during the winter. How so?

stars at night
Photographer: Stephen Allinger

1. I stay in the same set of buildings.

As a vagabond for hire, home is normally wherever I have my backpack. Right now, that’s at home with my parents.

If I need a change in scenery, I go to the garage or hike out to the shed!

McMurdo Station, spread out over 100+ buildings, has a few more options. I mostly chose to live in what is known as the “Golden Triangle,” the nickname for the compact route between Building 155 (i.e., where the food is), the weather office where I worked, and my dorm. If I wanted to really get out, I could go over the hill to Scott Base (New Zealand’s station).

2. Ration, ration, and ration some more!

With just one ship offload a year for the bulk of the station’s necessities, you better hope you’ve ordered enough food and supplies!

The station regularly ran short on food, like butter and white flour. I only ever heard rumors of ice cream or real milk (better make friends with a Kiwi for those!). In the dark season, we were lucky to even have edible food, never mind a spinach leaf.

But at least we haven’t run out of toilet paper (yet!).

plane and tractor at night
Photographer: Stephen Allinger

3. Amazon deliveries are super delayed.

Yes, Amazon delivers to Antarctica!

The trick is to order it before you go; you might see it before your contract is over.

backpackers looking at sunrise on mountain
Photographer: Stephen Allinger

4. I see the same set of people. Every day. Again. And again. For eternity.

McMurdo’s winter population averages 150 people. They hosted what was possibly the largest St Patrick’s Day party in the world this year.

Even with that many people, tensions do arise.

There will be that one person who insists on doing his best Ned Flanders “Hidey ho, neighbourino” impression when you are eight hours into your 12-hour “night’”shift. Thankfully, I have yet to take the claw end of a hammer to their head.

woman in front of stars at night
Photographer: Stephen Allinger

5. Social distancing is easy because most hiking trails are closed.

The Ross Island Trail System has a network of hiking trails from McMurdo Station. Most are closed until the sun comes back in the summer.

So long as the weather is “Condition 3,” a catch-all term for any weather that isn’t strictly terrible, a few routes remain open in the dark season. It’s still cold and dark — but as long as you can find another brave soul to go with you, you can go for a hike!

Social distancing made easy!

top of mountain looking down at city lights
Photographer: Stephen Allinger

6. (At least) there’s Wi-Fi!

It may be dial-up levels of speedy, but McMurdo Station these days does have Wi-Fi. You aren’t going to be able to stream Tiger King or do charades on Zoom with friends, but they will at least know you’re alive.

There is no live television, so #nospoilers, please!

sky at sunrise or sunet
Photographer: Stephen Allinger

7. It’s time to hibernate.

Think of all the things you would do if you had no other obligations but to stay in one spot? You would finally get a chance to practice that instrument, write that novel, learn a new language, or read all those books you’ve been meaning to.

Yeah, that still isn’t happening! It doesn’t matter if it’s the dark season or a pandemic.

8. I only see a doctor if my life depends on it.

The station is peppered with cheery signs of penguins reminding you to wash your hands in order to prevent “the crud.” This is the name for that persistent cold-flu combo that never ends and ravages our isolated, depressed immune systems.

McMurdo Station does have a doctor, and you go through an intensive medical screening before deploying. There are a handful of flights during the winter. Otherwise it’s going to be quite costly and not at all quick to get you off the continent.

So unless you’re dying….get on with it and stay put! Also…. WASH YOUR HANDS!

woman in winter coat against sunset
Photographer: Stephen Allinger

9. I cover my face when I go outside.

Below –40° (that goes for Centigrade or Fahrenheit, folks…it’s that cold), the hairs in your nostrils freeze up and your cheeks sting. Until they don’t, which is worse. It’s unbearable within minutes, or within seconds if the wind picks up.

So in order to keep safe, I cover my face when I go out. At least I already know how to rock pandemic fashion!

10. I spend my time making silly videos and photoshoots.

Antarctica hosts its own continent-wide 48-hour film festival that is shared and screened across the different stations.

During my “dark season” in 2017, the Australians at Casey Station took the top prize. Can you spot the five random things each station had to include in order to qualify? Backstreet Boy fans, eat your heart out! Casey’s Back:

Or we re-create old Antarctic explorer photographs with very low-budget production values!

man looking at penguins in snow

woman doing a photoshoot in black and white
Photographer: Stephen Allinger

The one way living in Antarctica during the dark season is NOT like isolating during COVID-19?

At least the sun comes out!

starry night skies
Photographer: Stephen Allinger

Rebecca Burtney is an online health coach who supports people with predictably unpredictable lives (like travelers) using bite-sized habits to enact big-time changes in their health and fitness. She splits her time between her “day job” as a weather observer in Antarctica and whatever adventures arise in her off time. Whether it’s cycling the Pacific Coast Highway or walking people’s dogs as a house-sitter in Mexico, she is a vagabond for hire (food does the trick too!). You can find her at Get Fit By Fork or check out her Instagram and Facebook.

Additionally, Stephen Allinger is an avid photographer and mechanic at the bottom of the world. Connect with him on Facebook

Note: We love featuring our travel-loving members, if you’d like to write a guest post for this blog, send us an email at info @ thenomadicnetwork . com with the subject line “TNN Blog Guest Post.”

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