Thanksgiving at the South Pole

Written November 30, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving weekend, everyone! In honor of the holiday weekend, today’s post will talk about how I celebrated the holiday here at the bottom of the world.

South Pole turkey

Even the turkeys at the South Pole dress warmly.

Thanksgiving at the Pole is celebrated on Saturday, while everyone in the United States is heading off in search of Black Friday sales. (The South Pole, like McMurdo, operates on New Zealand time – so we are 18 hours ahead of Boston and 21 hours ahead of California.) The highlight of the day is a full-blown Thanksgiving dinner, complete with turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, and cranberry sauce. Everyone on station gets the day off and volunteers pitch in to help prepare food and clean up, so even the kitchen staff can get a break.

The galley, decorated for Thanksgiving.

The galley, decorated for Thanksgiving.

My Thanksgiving Saturday began late, as I took advantage of the day off to sleep in. I then joined other people from my group for a delicious Thanksgiving brunch. I’ve been very impressed with the food here so far – there are fewer options than dining in McMurdo, but the quality is at least as high. Highlights of the brunch included made-to-order fried eggs, sausage, strawberry blintzes, and chocolate-covered fresh strawberries.

After brunch, we had a group meeting. Mostly everyone discussed the progress made on BICEP3 since the last meeting and made plans for the next two weeks. A lot of cargo arrived on my flight and a lot more is scheduled to come in over the next few days, so there is a lot to do. Since Grant has been continuing to run the Keck Array in normal data-taking mode, there was little to report from our side of group operations. Now that my arrival has doubled the Keck workforce, we will have separate Keck meetings every workday. Our meetings will be at 7:30am, but since breakfast ends at 8am on normal workdays anyway this is just a second reason to get up early. With constant 24-hour sunlight, the meal schedule is as good a way as any to regulate sleeping times.

After the meeting, one of the communication satellites was up so I took advantage of the temporary Internet and phone connection to call family and hear about how they spent Thanksgiving. This is the first year I’ve celebrated Thanksgiving away from my entire family, so it was especially nice to have a chance to call them. Calling the US is surprisingly easy from the South Pole – I have my own phone here, so I can talk as long as I want (as long as the connection cooperates). The US Antarctic Program headquarters are in Denver, so I have a Denver number and can call anywhere in the United States just as I could from a phone at home. All phone calls between Denver and the USAP-operated Antarctic bases are local calls (to my amusement), so calling my family there is even easier.

After the satellite set there was still a little time before dinner started, so I got a tour of “the arches” from one of the guys who is here to work on IceCube operations. (IceCube is an experiment that looks for neutrinos passing through the polar ice and is a huge operation; their detectors cover a square kilometer of ground and it cost twice as much to build as the South Pole station. Over one hundred people came down to help build it, but now that it is fully operational only a handful of people come down every year to do repairs and upgrades.) “The arches” are a series of underground storage areas accessed by climbing down an indoor staircase at one end of the station. They aren’t heated, so the temperature hovers between -50F and -60F year-round. One arch is a natural refrigerator and stores all of our food supplies that can be frozen (which, it turns out, is almost everything). The only foods that don’t get stored here are fresh fruits and vegetables – or “freshies” – which are highly prized and only available during the summer when regular flights are possible. During the winter, the reduced station population relies entirely on this frozen food warehouse.

The food arch -- a giant underground freezer, no artificial cooling required.

The food arch — a giant underground freezer, no artificial cooling required.

Other arches store the fuel reserves that power the station and the scientific experiments here (this area is off limits to everyone except for the “fuelies” who are in charge of fuel operations) and house some of the vehicles that are operated around station (snowmobiles and heavier equipment). There is also a special cache of cold weather gear, just in case something were to happen to the station and extra cold weather gear became vital.

The exterior of one of the arches, buried in snow and ice.

An outside view of one of the arches, buried in snow and ice.

After my appetite-inducing walk through the cold, I was very ready to eat by the time we returned to the station. The dinner began with half an hour of hor-d’oeuvres, which included a tasty New Zealand cheese pastry and a shrimp cocktail. After everyone had a chance to sample everything and chat, we moved into the main dining room for dinner. Everyone pitched in to make the dining room look festive – the tables were draped with white tablecloths and lined with real candles and were pre-set with fancy plates, cloth napkins, and wine glasses for everyone. The TV monitors that usually display local station information (weather, upcoming activities, the week’s menu, etc.) were all playing a Yule log video and the windows had been blocked with pictures painted on pieces of cardboard, to hide the 24-hour sunlight and create the illusion of evening. Everyone ate as much food and wine as they could, followed by a selection of pies for dessert. There was plenty of food for everyone; in fact, there were enough leftovers for an entire second dinner.


IMG_1398 Thanksgiving dinner. Top: Appetizing shrimp, middle: the main course, bottom: one of our cooks poses with South Pole pumpkin pie (where every direction is north).

After such a feast, several of the grad students in my group and I decided to work off the calories with the best possible activity for a South Pole Thanksgiving – a quick walk out to the actual South Pole and back. We all piled into our cold weather gear and spent maybe 15 minutes outside taking pictures before heading back into the warmth.

Me at the pole, with a new friend.

Me at the pole, with a new friend.

After dinner there was a party in the station gymnasium, which lasted far into the night and featured a DJ and dancing. I poked my head in briefly, but I was too stuffed to feel like being terribly active, so I joined the BICEP3 grad students in one of the lounges and watched Stargate SG-1 instead. We are planning to make this a weekly event, so by the time I leave I will have seen a nice cross-section of episodes. Stargate is a great sci-fi show and has been on my “to watch” list for quite awhile, so I’m happy to finally have an excuse to see it and a fun group of people to watch it with. Watching science fiction in a group of scientists is always fun, because everyone always laughs when the actors start spouting techno-babble. Stargate is less guilty of this than some shows, but there were still plenty of fun moments.

And that is how I spent my first South Pole Thanksgiving! Overall, it was a very fun day. Today (Sunday) I spent another lazy day hanging around the main station – I slept in, did some shopping at the store, and caught up on my email and blog writing. Tomorrow will be my first day of real work. It has been nice to have a couple of days to settle in, but I’m looking forward to getting started.

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