Antarctic Solstice

Originally published in the Telegraph Herald, Dubuque, Iowa. June 25, 1998.

Summer solstice, June 21st has come to mean a lot of things to me over the years. As a young boy in Northeast Iowa it was the long semi-lazy hot days of summer spent in my fathers melon patch pulling weeds and mowing grass in the orchard. The endless days of long daylight that found me on my bike riding country roads to see what was beyond the next hill. In those days, it was my curiosity that kept me exploring the rolling hills of my youth.

After a normal transition to High School, College, a real job, and real life, solstice came to mean less and less. These were days of long study sessions and even longer work days with no notice to those long days of summer. These were misspent days, caught up in what most people call real life. Days spent being too busy to really notice and enjoy the small incremental changes of sun and seasons. One always knows what season it is, but the subtle changes often slip by those bogged down by the responsibilities and time constraints of a life in society as we have come to know it.

Two years at a professional job found me looking beyond the next hill of my life, and unbeknownst to me, looking for some meaning in solstice again. I quit, I moved, I left that life and made a new one. One that I could be happy with. A life full of rolling hills that yearned for explorations and adventures. I went north to Alaska.

On the northern horizon I found a new meaning in summer solstice. In Alaska, people savor that day in June and celebrate it, for it is the longest day of the year, and thus, that of the most hours of light. In my youth, in Iowa, that meant 14 hours of daylight. In interior Alaska that means 22 hours of daylight. I spent my days and light filled nights exploring every hill and mountain I could. I recall long 14 hour hikes across mountain ridges watching the sun work across the northern sky just dipping below the horizon before rising again. Through rain, snow, and sun I hiked on, mystified by the small changes around me. Another solstice I found myself looking further North. I pointed my car that way and drove. Like days of my youth, I needed to see what was beyond that next hill. I drove until I could drive no more, Deadhorse and the Arctic Ocean. Through a thick fog, drizzle, and the mighty Brooks Range, it never got dark. Truly an endless summer solstice day.

Other Alaskan solstices found me deep in the Alaska range navigating tundra, streams, bears, glaciers, and other dangers in efforts to climb high peaks. The extended days were welcome, and allowed night climbing while snow and ice were cooler and less apt to avalanche or collapse into a waiting crevasse. More than one solstice was spent on mountain peaks watching the sun circle the sky in endless light as it decorated the snow, ice, rock, and clouds a myriad of colors. One such solstice, just a few years ago was spent on a mountain waiting the perfect conditions to fly. Around midnight I launched my paraglider in a smooth southerly breeze and savored the sky and the sun as I drifted to the valley floor, far below. This, the first perspective I've had from the air of a solstice, was certainly a great way to take it in.

As a result of these days spent up north, summer solstice has come to hold special meaning to me and is treated much like a holiday. I always try to do something that will make that day memorable. Little did I know, in the summer days of my youth and the summer nights in Alaska, that the solstice of 1998 would be different. Never did I dream or imagine that I would spend a solstice in the dark. Never did I even think of this or care to find a reason why one would choose such a fate. But, I did.

This solstice found me deep in the midst of an Antarctic winter. 24 hour darkness with no sign of sun to be found. Twelve months ago when I signed up to work a year at a US Antarctic Research Station, I never considered summer solstice, or midwinter day as it is called here. There were other things occupying the time. Logistics and planning for a year away were enough to distill all thoughts of what a year on the ice would hold. Even the first 6 months on the ice found me basking in 24 hour daylight of an Antarctic summer. Days were spent with my duties as a Communications Technician and all the activities that go along with life in the deep freeze.

Never did I suspect what this solstice would hold. A variety of things, surprising things, even to me now as I write this. The winter solstice finds me playing in a rock band at McMurdo Station. Purely for fun and the entertainment of the 166 winter over staff. Even in my misspent days of High School bands did I imagine such a destiny. Long days of darkness find me out on the Ross Ice Shelf with fellow members of the Search and Rescue team practicing for possible emergency scenarios. Climbing ice, jumping from crevasses, and rescue pulley systems all take on new meaning in the dark and cold of yet another solstice. Probably most notably this year is the annual polar plunge with our New Zealand neighbors at Scott Base. They are kind enough to chainsaw a hole in the sea ice for the pleasure of all to take a dip into the 29 degree water. As I climbed out of the water this solstice, I knew it would be one that I would never forget and could never duplicate. Such a bizarre combination, the darkness, the ice, the cold, the water, the stars, the bare skin. Afterwards a cup of warm cocoa and a long ski across the ice to nowhere. The stars, the moon, the darkness, the solitude.

The solstice of 1998 is not one that I will soon forget, as my thoughts turn to the next hill of life and I begin to wonder what next years solstice will bring. Once again in this life, summer solstice has taken on new meaning in the long, dark Antarctic winter.

Copyright 1998 Troy Henkels