Monday, June 1, 2015

A Son's Letters Home From Antarctica

First, context: my brother was lucky/smart enough to do, as part of his graduate studies, research on birds in Antarctica. Normally not terribly communicative, he did manage to write two letters back to our parents - that's two over 7 years. At least these two were ones Mom kept: I can't vouch for more. In going over papers kept by my mother to see what is still important and what is recyclable 8 years after her death, I ran across these tucked away and nicely preserved. Each is written in tiny script on both sides of a single small, thin sheet of paper, very slightly yellowed. For clarity, I am inserting paragraph breaks for reading ease where space needs didn't allow. Otherwise all is exactly as he wrote them. The Dr. Parmalee mentioned is his faculty instructor with the U of M in charge of the trips.

The first comes with colorful Argentinian stamps, air mail, at a cost of $1.20. Return address is Steve's name, c/o R/V Hero, Ushuaia, Argentina, S.A. Our parents at the time were living in Roseville, MN. The letter is dated 9 Nov. 73.

"Dear Folks,

I am now in Ushuaia, Argentina which is located on the southern tip of the continent on the Island of Tierra Del Fuego. We've been here three days now and may be here a few more because the ship has been slightly delayed again and is still on the way from Buenos Aires. Actually, that is not so bad. This is a terrific place. Birds are everywhere and I've seen 30 new species so far.

There are snow-covered mountains here as spectacular as those between Banff and Jasper. Yesterday we took a taxi about 20 miles up in the mountains and walked about halfway back. Today everybody has sore feet.

The day before we went to a National Park about 15 miles from here. Dr. Parmalee had run into an old friend of his down here from San Diego so he was with us and gave us a guided tour of the park. We were mainly looking for Andean Condors there, but we saw just about everything but those. Oh well, we may see one of them yet.

It is early spring down here which is a little hard getting used to. The leaves are just coming out on the trees, flowers are blooming and birds are nesting. There are several species of geese here which are very common. There are so many of them  that a bounty is paid on them because they supposedly compete with the cattle and sheep for grass. These geese are much more colorful than the N. American geese so I've been taking lots of pictures of them as well of all the other birds.

Another interesting bird is the Magellanic woodpecker. It is similar to the pileated woodpecker but the entire head is bright red. It is apparently somewhat rare. While in the park we saw a pair of them and took several pictures.

Today we talked with a Mr. Goodall who owns a 50,000 acre ranch about 40 miles down the coast from here. From what he said there apparently is an article in the Jan., 1971, Nat. Geographic about the area which you might want to look at.

In general, the people here have been very friendly and helpful although language has been somewhat of a problem. One of our group speaks a little Spanish so we were able to get by so far.

I guess that's about it for now. The return address on the envelope should (theoretically at least) get a letter down here to the port & it would be delivered to me when the ship returns from Antarctica.


The second envelope has only one stamp on it, but bears a variety of postmarks. The postage is a USA stamp for 15 cents showing USA Olympics and part of a rowing team  in the water. The official postmark, made on both sides, says Miami, 7 Feb, 1980. One inked stamping across the front postmark says PALMER STATION, ANTARCTICA, 64 (degrees circle symbol which I can't duplicate) 46' LAT.  64 (degrees) 05' W. LONG. An oval inked stamp on the front also says NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION, R/V HERO  PALMER STATION, U S A R P, GENERAL OCEANOGRAPHIC, INC, HOLMES & NARVER, INC. Inside this oval is a line drawing of a small ship and rocks in the water, a spit of land with a fence along the shore, recessed buildings in the background in front of a mountain range.

Mom also noted on the front that it was received 2/11/80. It was addressed to them at that time in St. Paul. Steve's return address in tiny printing is simply his name, Palmer Station, Antarctica.

The back of the envelope again has the circular Miami postmark accompanied by a rectangle announcing SAVE YOUR VISION WEEK. Two large circles are inked on the back, the first bearing a solid black map of Antarctica with white lettering USARP with longitude and latitude lines filling the rest of the inside of the circle. The outside ring says UNITED STATES ANTARCTIC RESEARCH PROGRAM around the top and NATIONAL SCIENCE PROGRAM across the bottom, a single star on each side dividing the two. The second circle shows not-so-solidly inked patterns of mountains, a glacier vertical wall, and a gull landing in the ocean in front. The ring around this has UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA across the top and ORNITHOLOGICAL ANTARCTIC RESEARCH across the bottom, this time with only empty space dividing the two.

The letter is dated 29 Jan 80. Again, is is in tiny script on both sides of a small, thin sheet of paper, only slightly yellowed.  The "George" referred to is wife, George Ann, also working on her advanced degree.

"Dear Folks,

I'm having one of the fellows carry this back to the ship again so this should arrive in a reasonable length of time. It's getting to be that time of the season when people are starting to go home. The Hero arrived last night for the first time since it brought us down here (it was in dry dock in Argentina) and brought in some more scientists who were supposed to have been here in mid-December. Also last night Polar Sea (a Coast Guard Icebreaker) arrived & will be taking our cargo to be returned to the states.

As of this moment (subject to change) we're scheduled to depart Palmer on 13 March. We plan to do a little travelling in S. America on the way back so probably won't arrive home until at least the last week in March. Will contact you again when dates are more firm. We got 2 letters from you (5 & 25 Dec.) and several from George's folks when The Hero arrived - nice to have some news from home - sounds like you are having a very mild winter. Glad to hear the fish are growing.

We are having a mild summer with early snow melt & now all the pack ice is gone so we can boat out to the islands any time. Had lots of pack ice earlier & it prevented us being together on Christmas as I was stuck on the shag Island for 11 days and couldn't return to the station. Shags, gulls and penguins are nearing the fledging stage while skuas and giant petrels still have fairly small chicks.

I've been taking lots of slides again & should have good shots of many things I wasn't able to get before. Yesterday I got close-up pictures of a skua eating a penguin chick. I've also taken 24 rolls of movies and should have some interesting footage if it turns out.

Both of our studies have been going about as well as can be expected given unpredictable weather & pack ice conditions. We should have lots of good data by the time we're done (we have lots already). The gull work will be finished within a couple weeks but shags will keep us busy through Feb. Dr. Parmalee is due to arrive about mid-Feb. & will probably spend most of his time banding skua and giant petrel chicks.

We've just gone through a 10 day stretch of beautiful sunny weather which is very unusual down here. Last year the longest stretch was 5 days. Hope it keeps up but it's not likely.

Saw a leopard seal eating a penguin near the shag island one day and took some movies but it was a little far away to show up well. Also see whales from time to time. George & I have both seen killer whales poking their heads out of the water near ice flows looking for seals. Have seen several of the smaller baleen whales (20 - 30 ft) in the area as well.

All for now - must get back to work. Hope all goes well on the home front.


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