GROSSE POINTE PARK — It’s been almost 20 years since they wintered together at the American McMurdo Station at the South Pole in Antarctica in 2001, but the scientists and crew members from that expedition are bonded to this day.

GROSSE POINTE PARK — It’s been almost 20 years since they wintered together at the American McMurdo Station at the South Pole in Antarctica in 2001, but the scientists and crew members from that expedition are bonded to this day.

Photo by K. Michelle Moran

South Pole workers recount memories both chilling and humorous

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published August 27, 2019


GROSSE POINTE PARK — It’s been almost 20 years since they wintered together at the Omundsen Scott South Pole Station at the South Pole in Antarctica in 2001, but the scientists and crew members from that expedition are bonded to this day.

Several of the “Polies,” as they’re known, reunited Aug. 16 at the Grosse Pointe Park home of Paul Daniels, who served as the maintenance specialist that winter.

“Basically, he kept everybody alive down there,” said Kurt Sarkiaho, who worked as a carpenter at the station and now lives in Winona, Minnesota. “He made sure we didn’t freeze.”

And that’s a vital job during a time when temperatures average -80 degrees Fahrenheit, and -100 degrees Fahrenheit after sundown isn’t uncommon.

“I kind of miss the cold,” said Jerry Macala, the winter site manager, who now lives in Santa Barbara, California.

Daniels has been to 85 countries across all seven continents, been shot at by the Taliban and attacked by bandits in Mozambique, worked construction in China, taught industrial classes at a Russian factory, camped in 23 countries in Africa and hiked the Anapurna Trail in Nepal. But none of those experiences can compare to his time at the South Pole, where he would end up spending three winters. He even recorded experiences from the 2001 journey and turned them into a documentary, “Living in the Shadow of the Moon-Dog: A South Pole Diary.”

Daniels screened the film at the Ewald Branch of the Grosse Pointe Public Library in January 2012, and he said he might be doing another screening this winter.

“Of all of the things I’ve done, this was the biggest adventure,” Daniels said.

Nathan Tift, a meteorologist who lives in Minneapolis and who has been to more than 80 countries, said he can divide his life into the period before Antarctica and the period after.

The environment is grueling and the high altitude — their post was almost 2 miles above sea level, Daniels said — translates into low oxygen levels for everyone. It took a toll.

“It was (life-changing),” Daniels said. “Being at (that) altitude caused me to lose my memory for years.”

Tift started having seizures, and even now he said he’s still dealing with epilepsy.

“It affects everyone differently,” Tift said.

Macala also suffered from memory loss, a problem that continues, albeit to a lesser extent, to this day.

“You’re never quite the same when you come back,” he said.

Macala said the isolation of that experience impacted him socially. After wintering at the South Pole, he said he would stand in the corner at parties.

Despite the physical and psychological impact of this experience, the Polies said they wouldn’t change their decision to work there.

“I’ve been to the most remote construction site on earth, and I met some of the most interesting people,” said Sarkiaho, who added that this adventure sparked his interest in climate change.

Fascinating conversations with intelligent and often quirky colleagues were part of what made this so memorable.

“Sometimes, we’re talking about tightening nuts (on a building),” Tift said. “Sometimes, we’re talking about nuclear physics.”

About 840 miles from the coast, Daniels said, the only naturally occurring life where they were was two varieties of lichens.

“There’s nothing there,” Tift said. “It’s just pure ice.”

He said this is “the only internationally protected wildlife area on earth.”

Macala said they maintained “a very small greenhouse” at the base, but they didn’t have access to many creature comforts — or a grocery store, for that matter. The Polies vividly recalled running out of salt that winter because no one knew supplies were low. Salt shakers were removed from all of the dining tables to conserve it for cooking, which left at least a few crew members irate — at least until the daring emergency rescue of the station doctor led to the arrival of an outside plane, which was able to bring in a limited amount of salt to tide them over. There were other staples they missed as well.

“Fresh milk, I think a lot of people would say,” Tift said.

Macala, a legally certified beer judge, earned a special spot in the hearts of fellow crew members by brewing beer and mead at the South Pole. He also — by his own admission — “almost lost my job” after ordering 700 pounds of grain to make beer and 300 pounds of honey to create mead.

“There’s a mad scramble at the end of the summer to bring in fuel (and) supplies,” Macala said of winter preparation.

In 2001, Daniels and his colleagues at the station consisted of 15 scientists and 35 crew members. Macala said there were 40 men and 10 women — 50 total — housed in a station built for 18. It was the largest crew ever at that point.

There’s no turning back once they’ve decided to stay the winter: It’s too cold to fly planes in and out during the winter, so they have to stay put for about 8 1/2 months, from roughly mid-February until mid-October. The station is 840 miles away from the next closest human outpost, Daniels said.

While they were there, they had at least some contact with the outside world thanks to new telephone technology; Daniels said they had two iridium phones they could use to call loved ones back home, and they were able to get Internet service for about six hours per day. However, the timing of that service wasn’t necessarily convenient.

“Sometimes, it would be in the middle of the night, when you were sleeping, or in the middle of the day, when you were working,” said John Colwell, who worked as the carpenter foreman and now lives in Robbinsville, North Carolina.

It was in the early morning hours that they learned about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and other sites. This was a time before Facebook and Twitter, but the crew knew this was perhaps the most significant event in their lifetimes.

“When we were at the South Pole, the world didn’t just change for us — it changed for everyone,” Tift said.

Colwell, who was writing a column for his community newspaper while he was at the South Pole, said he was up at about 4:30 a.m. checking emails when he got the news. He said a niece’s husband worked in the World Trade Center, but thankfully, his niece said her husband was OK.

“That was what made it real for me,” Colwell said.

Tift said that after he saw the name of someone he knew from the Pentagon who had been killed, he stopped paying attention to the heartbreaking news.

All said their time at the South Pole was unforgettable for a multitude of reasons.

“I think everyone learns a lot more about a lot of different things,” said Tift, who took up swing dancing, earned his ham radio license and attended flight school while in one of the most remote locations on Earth.

“Some people met and got married,” Tift continued.

John Bird, a scientist who lives near Toronto, was also on hand Aug. 16; he co-authored the award-winning book, “One Day, One Night: Portraits of the South Pole,” with Jennifer McCallum. Daniels said this was only the second reunion they’ve been able to organize, given that the Polies live all over the world. Additional scientists and crew members were going to be joining the reunion on Aug. 17 to take in the Woodward Dream Cruise and other metro Detroit sights, Daniels said.

“When we were there, less than 1,000 (people) had wintered at the (actual) South Pole,” Colwell said. “It’s an experience of a lifetime.”