Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Jan 16-17: Ushuaia, the End of the World in Argentina (by Carolyn)

Jan 16
We woke to a brilliantly sunny sky and stiff cold breeze...a good day for car birding. We car bird not because we are lazy, but because when the wind is blowing that hard, you can't hold the binocs still enough to see anything. Today the plan is to drive south toward the tip toes of the Andes mountains and the town of Ushuaia.


The grasslands around Rio Grande were thin and dry, but as we rolled along they became ever richer and more glorious - imagine a sea of waving seed heads in pink or gold, magenta and even black. We climbed steadily through the forest (all one deciduous beech species), with many dead snags draped with lichens that blow horizontal in the breeze. Ghost trees. This place would make a cool movie location, I thought.


Sure enough, it was used in a movie! When Leonardo DiCaprio needed some additional snowy landscape footage for Revenant, it was summer in the Rockies mountains. So, they loaded up crew and cameras and pine trees, flew here, planted the pines (temporarily) and shot the scene.


Down, down, down, into the town of Ushuaia in time for lunch and a drizzly rain.






Our plan for the afternoon is a pelagic tour - that's when you take a boat ride into the ocean to look for birds. Birds to the right of the boat are Chilean, and birds on the left are Argentinian, two countries with some healthy competition. This little slip of water is also where the Pacific and Atlantic oceans come together. And, today, that seemed to be very competitive, too. Our ride out to the penguin colony was a brisk, but we had a strong tail wind.


We passed roosting colonies of imperial cormorants that reeked of dead fish, before making it to the penguin colony. There were ten thousand Magellanic penguins which somehow manage to climb up a 150 foot steep hillside to make their burrows for nesting. There were 70 or so gentoo penguins, and two (lost) king penguins. The sun was out, the water was calm, the breeze was frigid, but it was pretty awesome.



Now for the ride back! What started as a fun little tour, with lots of oohs and ahaha and a few giggles with the big swells, soon became a nightmare for those of us prone to motion sickness. Thirty knot headwinds + fourteen foot waves = a long way home. You knew something was up when the crew began moving all breakable concession items into a secure cabinet. Soon enough, they were escorting green-faced patrons from the front of the bounding catamaran to the back. The crew handled everything masterfully (this is not their first rodeo!) but the little white barf bags they passed out were completely unworthy of the task, so soon black trash bags were in play. Kleenex and paper towels were distributed by kind strangers and air fresher somehow kept pace. Children were shrieking, grandmothers were moaning, and the ride lasted FOREVER. I think I'm still moving...

Becky and I are not sure if it was worth seeing two LIFE BIRDS. Ask us tomorrow.

Our Hotel Tolkeyen is a welcome respite. It feels and looks like Jenny Lake Lodge in Grand Teton National Park, complete with three snow covered peaks and lupines out front.




Jan 17
More birding, this time heading south into the Tierra Del Fuego National Park. It was great to be (mostly) out of the wind and walking. The ground is spongy and thick with moss, tiny ferns, grass, wildflowers, and forbs all competing to grow and bloom and bear fruit and set seeds in the cold, brief summer. Long days help. There are three kinds of somewhat related beech trees here, each one occupying a narrow niche based on soil moisture. There are tall deciduous Lenga, short deciduous Lenga (which is still plenty tall) and a few evergreen Lenga in the lower elevations. There are no conifers. Draped within the deciduous trees are bright yellow mistletoe and grey-green lichens.


Southern beech or Lenga                            Dog orchid                                               tall daisy

 The understory has various thorny shrubs including barberry and heath, both covered with berries that support people and wildlife. Beneath the shrubs we saw orchids and daisies.

Birding was fun as we wandered in and out of small clearings which were left decades ago by prisoners who cut down trees for their firewood. The climate is so cold, stumps can remain solid as rock for 100 years. One clearing gave us great views of the Magellanic Woodpecker.

























We had several more stops with short walks to either a lagoon or a creek bed, each one more scenic than the last. Rain would spit from time to time, but we always made it back to the car before getting too cold. One afternoon location even provided a good view of four Andean condors soaring above the snow-dusted mountains that would appear and disappear under clouds.


There is a reason that national parks are national parks. This area was stunning, with rocky creeks or foaming waterfalls...trails and boardwalks, quiet and beauty around every bend in the packed-dirt road. We saw some campers and hikers, and looming over everything, the massive Andes Mountains.





One or two finals stops; first, the city dump. Yes, every birder will tell you there is something easy to see there (as well as at waste water treatment plants). We got the white-breasted caracara, (as well as dozens of chimango and southern crested caracaras), along with about 500 kelp gulls. The sanitation workers would cover trash almost immediately to keep the ubiquitous plastic bags from blowing in the never-ending wind. Esteban said that Argentina has recently banned the bags!

Last, an airport! Not the commercial airport built in 1997, but the old airport now used for small planes and the flying club. It has a near constant cross wind and the Andes directly across the bay, the so the new airport was aligned to be parallel to the mountains and prevailing winds. We got a blackish oyster catcher and saw a model of a bi-wing Heinkel HD 24 flown by Gunter Pluschow, the first aviator to explore and film Tierra Del Fuego and Patagonia. Sadly, this model was missing its top two wings and even more sad, the pilot died in a plane crash in Argentina in 1931.



After dinner at our hotel, Becky and I were thrilled to get Jack's message that they are safely back on the ground in Marsh in St. George Island in Antarctica after crossing the 75 parallel! Yay!

Antarctica Flight - Chapter 2 (by Jack)

January 17, 2017 (continued)

[This is a continuation of the story of our flight to and over Antarctica on January 17, 2017. Chapter 1 can be found here. Also, note that this "chapter" is loaded with an absurd number of photos and thus will take a long time to load unless you have a fast internet connection.  I got carried away identifying the geographical names of many of the features we saw.]

After reaching our long awaited goal of 75S, we decided we had enough fuel to go a little farther south (but not much) and make a make some turns to enjoy the stark landscape and take some photos.

The main features in this area is the Merrick Mountains, Grossman Nunataks, Behrendt Mountains, and Sky-Hi Nunataks.

Behrendt Mountains (I think)....


Mount Wassliewski....


Video in the turn at 75S heading back north...

https://youtu.be/vxECM_FuUQg


It is impossible for me to describe how "otherworldly" this landscape looked in real time. The photos are, of course, flat and do not convey the sense we all had of being over a place that was totally different than anything we had seen or experienced before. Absolutely no evidence of human activity, or even life, as far as the eye could see. Even though we intentionally flew directly over human occupied bases, they were so small in comparison to the landscape, we could not see them from six miles in altitude.

If Mars were white tinged instead of red, I think it would look very similar to this area.

Once established on our northwest heading back to Marash via the BAS bases of Fossil Bluff and Rothera, we reestablished our radio conversation with the BAS Dash 7 crew that had just departed from Sky Blu.  They were flying 9,000 feet below us (the Dash 7 is only lightly pressurized), but we could "see" them on our traffic advisory system.  Pretty strange to be in such a remote place and see the transponder being interrogated and traffic displayed on our screen. We tried to see them visually (they said the top of their wing was painted black for that purpose), but never saw them.

While they were lower, their speed was about 20 knots faster than our very slow long range cruise power speed (about 210 KTAS). They slowed down to try to get a picture of us if we were producing contrails, but we evidently were not producing any so they could not see us from almost two miles below. We had a nice conversation with them for more than an hour as we headed across Ellsworth Land toward the King George VI Ice Shelf, the next prominent landmark. The skies continued to be mostly crystal clear and provided a spectacular view.

The landscape between 75S and King George VI Ice Shelf was mainly flat with a few isolated nunataks, but still beautiful in a special way...


As we reached the King George VI Ice Shelf the scenery became even more dramatic. The east side of the sound was mainly huge glaciers draining the mammoth snowfall from the Dyer Plateau.   The west side of the sound is Alexander Island, including the Monteverdi Peninsula.

Cruising above the King George VI Ice Shelf toward Fossil Bluff with the LeMay Range, Venus Glacier, and Uranus Glacier in view...


Satellite Snowfield on Alexander Island...


Approaching the Fossil Bluff station, the skies were absolutely clear and I wanted to try to spot the tiny station.  The Dash 7 crew had told us that the stationed was manned by two people at this time. We were still running with a comfortable fuel margin, so we did a big 360 degree turn over the general area where the station was located. Unfortunately, from our altitude, we could not see the tiny outpost, but the scenery was magnificent nonetheless.

The area of Fossil Bluff which includes the LeMay Range (named after USAF General Curtis LeMay), Planet Heights, and Uranus Glacier...




With some annotations...


Keystone Cliffs and Uranus Glacier...


By this point in the flight, I was starting to believe we had, in fact, been somehow transported to another planet.

After circling the Fossil Bluff area, we continued to cruise north toward the main BAS station of Rothera. The scenery along the way included the Douglas Range and Marguerite Bay...

Jupiter Glacier...


Jupiter Glacier from another angle...



 Grotto Glacier and Ablation Point...

A "glory" produced by our plane near Tilt Rock...


As we continue north, we start to see breaks in the ice where the King George VI Ice Shelf turns into the King George VI Sound...Rhyolite Island is near the center of the photo below and Eureka Glacier at the bottom...


Cape Jeremy...


North side of Cape Jeremy



Cruising further north toward Adelaide Island and the BAS Rothera main base, we see much more open water over Marguerite Sound...


Adelaide Island with Cape Adriasola and the Fuchs Ice Piedmont (to the left)...


BAS has a "blind" landing site on the Fuchs Ice Piedmont for use in emergencies.

It is very difficult to see from this altitude, but BAS Rothera Research Station is located near the center of this photo along the water...


With a hint...


Mount Reeves and Day Island...


Avery Plateau and Lallemand Fjord...


Hansen Island...


Liard Isalnd, Fuchs Ice Piedmont, and Cape Mascart...


Shortly after passing the north end of Adelaide Island, the undercast reappeared and we only got small glimpses of the landscape. Time to start preparing for the arrival into Marsh.

Despite flying almost seven hours, we had plenty of fuel remaining. The engine instrument systems showed 4+38 fuel endurance versus 1+48 time remaining to landing...



We were able to establish VHF communications with Marsh almost 200 NM out and the weather there was very good.  We expected a visual approach. 

Jose,our handler who had remained at Marsh, captured some good photos and videos of us approaching and landing.

Flying crosswind to enter the left downwind for runway 11 (small dot above the Marsh tower)....


Turning downwind...
 

On final..


Rolling out...


Taxing back...


Jose directing us to our parking spot...


Jose also got a video of the landing from the ground...



While Jerry got a great video of the landing from inside...

https://youtu.be/b_608SXeR4s


Once safely parked, we started the refueling operation again with Josh in charge as usual. The low in the sky sun created some nice light...







The happy flight crew after the second arrival at Marsh...


While frost did start forming on the a part of the wing again, the temperature was forecast to be well above freezing for our departure the next day, so we did not have to address it this evening.


We were prepared to spend the night at Marsh in sleeping bags and tents, but Jose had arranged accommodations for us in a bunk house used by DAP Airlines overlooking the airfield. It was a bare-bones place, but we were glad to have it.

Around 23:00 local time, the whole crew was relaxing and finishing the supply of food we had brought with us on the plane. Nothing fancy, but it got the job done.


We all claimed a bunkbed and quickly fell asleep after a long and eventful day. The next morning we would depart for the return flight to Punta Areans completing the Antarctic part of the journey.

What a day...one I will never forget.

If you read this far, thank you!