Life in Antarctica

By Dick Mason, The Observer January 20, 2012 08:41 pm

Don Hagey of Cove speaks about the 13 months he spent in Antarctica during a presentation at a meeting of the Cove History Committee Sunday. DICK MASON / The Observer
Don Hagey of Cove speaks about the 13 months he spent in Antarctica during a presentation at a meeting of the Cove History Committee Sunday. DICK MASON / The Observer

Cove man shares his memories of ‘windiest, driest, coldest place on earth’

COVE — Don Hagey is not a member of the Antarctica 300 Club.

The Cove resident, however, does belong to a more meaningful Antarctic circle. He is among those for whom a geographic feature has been named on the continent.

A ridge in Antarctica was named for the U.S. Navy veteran in 1969 by the Advisory Committee on Antarctic Names.

Hagey received this honor after serving as the “officer in charge’’ at Byrd Station in Antarctica for 13 months in the late 1960s. Byrd Station was run by the U.S. Navy. Everyone who served as an “officer in charge’’ could have a geographical feature in Antarctica named after them.

Hagey spoke humbly of this honor during a public talk Sunday at a meeting of the Cove History Committee. He also talked humorously and  with insight about life in Antarctica.

Hagey described Antarctica as nothing but 7 million cubic miles of ice situated 10,000 feet above land.

“It is a beautiful spot as long as you like white,’’ he said. “There is absolutely no life on inland Antarctica.’’

And for good reason.

“It is the windiest, driest  and coldest place on earth,’’ Hagey said.

Byrd Station is a research site for civilians. The Navy was in charge of taking care of the basic needs of civilian researchers, including housing, food and heat when Hagey was stationed there.

Sending a radio message at Byrd Station are members of the U.S. Navy.
Sending a radio message at Byrd Station are members of the U.S. Navy.

Temperatures at Byrd Station ranged from 78 degrees below zero to 26 degrees above zero when Hagey was there in 1968 and 1969. This was toasty compared to the actual South Pole, 700 miles from Byrd Station. There temperatures sometimes fell to 100 to 125 below zero.

At the South Pole, some people stationed there would sit in a 200-degree sauna several minutes and then run outdoors, thereby becoming members of the 300 Club. Hagey never had a chance to become a 300 Club member but would have considered trying if he had been at the South Pole.

Regardless of where one is in Antarctica, fire is a constant worry because there is almost  no humidity and little water.

“Fire is always a threat. It is drier than the Sahara Desert (in Antarctica),’’ Hagey said.

The absence of water not only creates a hazard but also make it harder to stay clean. Hagey said shower time is limited because of the lack of water.  

At Bryd Station, for example, individuals could take a brief shower once a week. They could take a longer one if they wanted to do the work needed to get more water for their shower. This involved shoveling snow into a conveyor, which then transported and dropped it into a warming tank.

“You always had water, but you had to work for it,’’ Hagey said.

Antarctica is a essentially a huge block of frozen water, yet collecting ice there is an arduous task. One can dig two inches deep with a shovel but then a chainsaw is needed to cut the ice, Hagey said.

Byrd Station was heated with fuel brought in at least once a year by ship.

Life at Byrd Station was hard. Still, the Navy personnel and civilians found ways to entertain themselves. Once they staged a football game, a  true “ice bowl’’ between military personnel and civilians.

People at Byrd Station also played radio chess, sometimes taking on men stationed at Vastow Station on the South Pole, which was run by the old Soviet Union. Hagey said the Soviets usually won the matches easily, reflecting the enormous popularity of the game in their country.

Hagey arrived at Byrd Station in the second half of 1968, but he almost did not get there alive. The plane he was flying in from McMurdo Station in New Zealand almost crashed while its pilot was trying to land. Fortunately nobody was injured in what was  a rough landing following a 2,000-mile flight.

“It was hours of boredom followed by moments of sheer terror,’’ Hagey said.

Hagey’s plane may have come close to crashing because the instruments of aircraft sometimes do not work well in Antarctica’s rough conditions.

Byrd Station is named after American explorer Richard Byrd (1888-1957), who made five expeditions to Antarctica from 1928 to 1956.

In Antarctica, Hagey helped researchers take core samples of ice that was more than 10,000 years old.

Upon returning from Antarctica, Hagey later worked at Eastern Oregon University where he was director of the  Elderhostel Program.