The polar poet

A Southwest writer travels to Antarctica – in the name of science

If all is going according to plan, Southwest worker Kathleen Heideman should have landed in Antarctica by now, and is traveling among scientific research outposts to gather material to write poetry.

Heideman’s six-week itinerary includes stopovers with researchers studying everything from the emperor penguins’ diving physiology to an ice breakup’s mechanics. Her travels should provide a look-see at the science of measuring upper atmospheric disturbances and spur conversations with those trying to preserve historic huts left by early explorers.

She said she is most excited to learn more about the Ice Cube Project, an effort to detect subatomic particles called neutrinos as they slow down passing through Earth.

“If you want to be lost in culture for a trip, go to the South Pole and see what they are studying,” Heideman said during a pretrip interview. “They are looking at the Big Bang, the traces of the cosmic background sound that went throughout the universe.”

Antarctica might seem an appropriate destination for Heideman, the distance learning developer for the Whittier-based Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD). However, this is not a job-related trek for the computer techie.

She is a published poet with a love for science.

She applied for and received a grant from the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Artists and Writers Program. The NSF grant pays food, lodging and travel for photographers, writers, painters and poets to visit the ice sheet and practice their art, an effort to increase the public’s awareness of Antarctica and U.S. research there.

For some, half the trip’s thrill might be the challenge of the elements. Not for Heideman.

“I am not like the polar explorer person,” said the poet, who is quick to laugh. “I love the experience. I am not necessarily an adventurer.”

She talked to previous participants and learned that one of the first things she would do upon arriving at McMurdo is go through Ice School, an outdoor survival course that includes an overnight in a snow hut.

To get ready, she went home last winter to her parents’ Wisconsin dairy farm, laid out a large plastic bag in the yard and slept in her sleeping bag.

“I didn’t want to be afraid of it,” she said of the cold. “I decided to sleep under the stars.”

Heideman’s mother wasn’t too happy about the trip – “Her quote was: ‘No. No. No. No. No. It’s a death trap,’” Heideman recalled – but she has come to accept it, said the daughter.

Heideman is taking an unpaid leave from MCAD, and will get no compensation outside of trip expenses, she said. (NSF was unable to estimate the average daily cost to support a person on Antarctica. A spokesperson said there were too many variables.)

Heideman would stay longer if they let her. She originally asked for a four-month Antarctic stay.

“I want to hop, skip and jump everywhere, and see everything and talk to everyone,” she said. “My problem is that I am interested in everything.”

When the folks at NSF said she could stay for one month, she tried negotiating, with limited success. “They don’t negotiate very well at all,” she said, laughing.

She will spend a month and a half on Antarctica and a month and a half in Christ’s Church, New Zealand, absorbing the history of one of the key disembarkation points for early Antarctic explorers.

From here to there

Heideman got a bachelor of fine arts from MCAD and a master’s degree in English from Northern Michigan University. She has worked for MCAD for more than a decade. As distance learning coordinator, she helps with Internet-based teaching, making it possible for teachers and students to interact from remote locations.

More literary by training, Heideman credits reading Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything” for piquing her interest in science. That’s when she realized there were lots of things she hadn’t studied.

Her current writing project is “The Caving Grounds,” a book-length poem about Negaunee, a small town in Northern Michigan that was collapsing due to iron ore mining.

She has been an artist-in-residence at several national parks, including Devil’s Tower and Voyageurs. She first learned about the Antarctic Artists and Writer’s Program opportunity in a writing journal, and it seemed like a natural extension of what she had done in the parks.

Within a short time, two people independently encouraged her to apply. “When two different people tell you: ‘I can picture you at the other end of the planet,’ you are not really sure if you should take that as a compliment,” she quipped.

She credits reading Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s “The Worst Journey in the World,” with getting her over her reservations about applying.

Garrard was one of the few survivors of Robert F. Scott’s failed expedition to be the first one to the South Pole. Heideman recalled a side trip the group took, trying to get one or two penguin eggs to study and how difficult it was. “It seemed that tradition of inquiry … was a worthy footstep to follow,” she said.

Further, a mutual friend introduced her to Stuart Klipper, a Southwest resident and renowned photographer who has traveled four times to Antarctica on the same NSF program, according to the program’s Web site.

Klipper has been “a major mentor” and helped her understand what to expect, Heideman said.

She sees her polar poet’s role as explaining the importance of setting aside special places and protecting them. That case is easily made for national parks such as Devil’s Tower, a geological oddity, or other places with historical significance.

Heideman said people don’t think about Antarctica as much, and the place is harder to explain. A global treaty is in place to head off land and resource grabs and the wars that go with them.

“It is a place where a great deal of scientific research can take place in a pure environment,” she said. “My thought would be that it is important to have people understand where their tax dollars are going.”

Rhymes with ice?

It’s now summer in Antarctica.

Even though Heideman arrives nearly two months before the equinox, the sun will never set while she is there. “It just rolls around in the sky,” she said.

Still.

In Minneapolis, the average November temperature is 33 degrees, right around freezing, according to myforecast.com. The average November temperature at McMurdo Sound, the research base, is not as different as you may think – 15 above, according to Antarcticaconnection.com. (At the South Pole the average November temperature is minus-35, or 68 degrees colder than Minneapolis.

Heideman was scheduled to take a 20-hour flight to New Zealand in late October, where she and others would pick up their cold-weather gear, from parkas to pee bottles.

“Antarctica is treated as a pristine wilderness. There is a ‘leave no trace’ policy,” Heideman said. “Everything is carted out.”

They get to take 50 pounds max, not counting what they wear on the cargo plane, she said. The flight to Antarctica takes nine hours; the weather is unpredictable and the pilot has to decide half-way there whether or not to keep going or turn around and go back home.

“We could get boomeranged back. There is no other airport they could send you to.”

She was to land at McMurdo on Halloween, a day before her 37th birthday.

Said Heideman, “McMurdo has been described by Stuart [Klipper] and others as a very ugly mining camp. It is muddy and gray and huddled together at the base of Mt. Erebus. The buildings are sort of industrial-military camp looking, lots of square, squat buildings. It is not beautiful. The landscape around it is.”

Her accommodations would be similar to a cinder block freshman dorm room, with a shared hallway bathroom. “If you are gone for more than two weeks, someone will be in your bed. It is tight,” Heideman said.

Among the various scientific mysteries she will ponder, one of the more mundane concerns Antarctica’s cash machine.

When someone told her McMurdo had an ATM, she was dumbfounded, she said.

“I see the little truck go to the place on Lake Street and put more money in; how do they refill it?” she asked of the polar money dispenser. “They have a magic cash machine on Antarctica.”

It turns out it’s a Wells Fargo machine, she explained. Heideman went to her personal banker and asked if she needed a special PIN number for Antarctica. The personal banker was dumbfounded. “There is no cash machine on Antarctica,” the banker said, only to learn there was.

So what can you buy in Antarctica?

“Liquor,” Heideman said.

That, and there is a little store that has camera batteries or personal hygiene items on a hit-or-miss basis.

Among her government-issued equipment is an emergency tent for when she travels away from McMurdo to various research sites.

“Some of the camps you go out to, they have a little hut that people stay in,” she said. “If you are staying overnight, there may not be space for me at the hut.”

Because of the high volume of scientific data streaming out of Antarctica and the narrow bandwidth available, she does not have practical access to e-mail. She has created a blog, though, which you can view at www.orebody.com/ice.

OK! Now you’re excited! You’ve got your toothbrush, your wooly underwear and laptop, and you want to apply to go to Antarctica. For more information on National Science Foundation’s Office of Polar Programs – Antarctic Artists and Writer’s Program, see: www.nsf.gov/od/opp/antarct/treaty/opp05001/artist_write.jsp

All right – so you’re out of long underwear and would just as soon look at some photos and read about ongoing research. Go to the U.S. Antarctic Program site: www.usap.gov

To follow Kathleen Heideman’s trip, she has a blog at www.orebody.com/ice