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Camping for Cash

Live and Work in Antarctica

By David Devere

Ice time determines where you sleep: the more time on ice the nicer your room. If you are new, bring some flip-flops; the shower is down the hall. But first you have to get to Antarctica. There are three main routes: pay through the nose as a cruise ship tourist, use your credentials as a scientist to get a grant, or apply for a job with the United States Antarctic Program.

The U.S. maintains three year-round bases and two ice-breaking research vessels in Antarctica: McMurdo Station, 2,400 miles south of New Zealand, Amundsen-Scott Base, at the geographic South Pole, and Palmer Station, 700 miles south of Chile. Each station was run by the U.S. Navy, until the mid ’80s, when the National Science Foundation took over financial direction. The operation has been in the hands of civilian contractors ever since.

People ask, “What do you do there?” Most of the people on the continent during the short summers and the majority during the winter are not scientists but support personnel. We drive trucks, cook, wash floors, fuel ships, order supplies, fly helicopters, fix radios, keep the boilers running, unplug toilets, and build field camps. The skills most needed are practical: mopping floors may not be glamorous, but you’re a janitor in Antarctica.

One of the best first-time jobs is being a GA or general assistant. Every department hires GAs, and the job often leads to better-paying contracts the following year and gives you valuable skills. A GA one year may return as an equipment operator, cook, or welder the next.

Some people I’ve talked to say wistfully, “I wish I had done something like that when I was younger.” I’ve worked with a 67-year-old retired master welder from Michigan’s upper peninsula fulfilling a life-long dream; and with a middle-aged couple working in the construction supply warehouse. They are retired from a hardware business in California and working their way around the globe. Others include tradespeople and adventurers from 20 years of age to almost 70. The program needs people who have a taste for travel and life experience, regardless of their age.

The Benefits

The greatest benefits of working in Antarctica are often hidden: having free room and board and nowhere to spend a paycheck, traversing penguin colonies, seeing whales from a zodiac, enduring the darkness of winter, watching glaciers calve from your bedroom window, waking up to see that overnight icebergs the size of city blocks have invaded the harbor, or hunkering down and riding out a hurricane-force blizzard.

As one carpenter at Palmer said during Glacier Search and Rescue training, “This is camping for cash.”

You get to eat, work, and live with skilled craftspeople, who often teach classes in carpentry or mechanics. Scientists give lectures about their projects and invite anyone interested to join in the research. You can learn how to traverse a glacier or build a snow shelter. Either through training or necessity, work in Antarctica compels the employee to turn challenges into opportunities.

Sign a contract for six months or a year, pass the physical and psychological exams, prove you don’t have sprouting wisdom teeth, and pack your bags with personal essentials, and your adventure begins. The summer season lasts from October to February in McMurdo and South Pole stations. Travel to McMurdo is by military transport planes operated by the New York Air National Guard flying from Christchurch, New Zealand. Travel to Palmer Station via an icebreaker. The trip from Punta Arenas, Chile takes four days if the weather in the Drake Passage (the roughest seas in the world) is calm and the ship encounters limited pack ice.

Many workers use the value of their savings to finance a relaxing vacation. After all, you now have money in your pocket as you bask in the summer sunshine of New Zealand or Chile.

For further information visit The United Stated Antarctic Program.

DAVID DEVERE writes from Duluth, MN. He spent 29 months in Antarctica.

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