Journey to the Ice Age

By Gil Dewart
Ruobei Tang Publishing Company 2003

In 1957 an opportunity arose for Gil Dewart to work as a civilian at a Navy base in Antarctica setting up and operating a seismic station. The base wasn't constructed yet, and the exact location wasn't even known. Not everyone would look at this as an opportunity, especially someone recently out of the US Army. But Dewart did, and he took it.

The base was part of the massive international cooperation known as the International Geophysical Year - IGY. It was named Wilkes for the American explorer who first navigated the part of the coast on which it was built. After a drawn out sea voyage, via the hub of Antarctic activities at the time in the Ross Sea region, the first wintering team arrived at the Windmill Islands. A suitable site on the coast was located, and with the help of the accompanying Seabees, Wilkes base was erected in an amazing 14 days! The location in an at-the-time snow free slight depression was to be the downfall of Wilkes. After 10 years of being almost constantly buried in snow Wilkes was finally abandoned. However at the time the location gave easy access for this first winter crew to the high plateau behind the station, and further along the coast.

Dewart's account of the first winter at Wilkes in "Journey to the Ice Age" starts with his initially hearing about the opportunity to go on the expedition, the trip down, follows through the year at Wilkes, and finally gives a detailed account of a round about journey home to the US, via significant travels in Australia and Africa. In this sense "Journey to the Ice Age" is an extended travelogue with the theme of the Ice Age binding it together. However for me it is the description of living at Wilkes in the grips of the receding last Ice Age which is the jewel of the book. Interleaved with detailed descriptions of the science being undertaken during the IGY is one of the best accounts of a modern winter in Antarctica I have ready. The descriptions of the operations, the science, and isolated community living are woven together in a way that gives the book a rhythm not unlike a year in Antarctica.

Many people gloss over the more difficult to describe aspects of winter crew life. The 57 Wilkes crew were confronted early on with a community challenge of how to deal with the living spaces of the scientists and navy crew, culminating in a stand off over separate latrines. Dewart goes into sufficient detail about the trials and hardships to give anyone a good understanding of the difficulties encountered, while not dwelling on the few times of a "few inter-personal conflicts, some discouraging words and couple of punches traded". By any standards the 57 Wilkes winter crew were solid, with good leadership, accomplishing results which the entire crew could be proud.

Having spent a year across the bay from Wilkes, at Casey station, I know that the most amazing thing about the Windmill Islands is the fantastic environment and the diversity of summer wildlife. Dewart describes the wildlife in the area and the interactions with their new neighbors at Wilkes. Being right on the edge of the ice plateau, and near the massive Vanderford glacier, the weather is dominated by katabitc winds enhanced by the weather systems circling Antarctica. The katabatic winds at Wilkes can be some of the strongest in the world, even by Antarctic standards. Dewart's description of the first blizzard experienced at Wilkes captures the experience perfectly. "The blizzard hit the base like a bomb blast. The buildings shuddered and strained against their tie-down cables. Everything that had been left lying around loose on the ground was hurtled off into the bay."

Dewart gives a comprehensive descriptions of the many fields of science studied during the IGY. He has an obvious thorough knowledge of a wide range of sciences, which he presently in terms a non-scientist can easily understand and find interesting. However it is the field in which he worked, seismology, that he gives the most detailed account, including of experiments he undertook, and measurements made, that led to a greater understanding of the Antarctic continental plate and the depth of the plateau ice sheet near Wilkes.

While it is 50 years since the first winter at Wilkes, the description of Antarctic winter life is still fresh and continues to capture the feeling of isolation and the complex group dynamics. Things have changed, most notably improved communications, communities becoming co-ed, and civilian controlled. However the fundamental issues of isolated community living remain and this book would make excellent reading for anyone contemplating a winter in Antarctica. The descriptions of the science are up to date with current understandings, and in general precise and very interesting. Anyone with an interest in Antarctica will find this book a fascinating read, and I highly recommend it.

"Journey to the Ice Age" can be obtained from the publisher
Ruobei Tang Publishing Company

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