Getting to Antarctica seems a long journey, no matter where one is coming from, and it is always worth the effort! After taxis, planes, buses, boats, and days and days of travel, the world of machinery and technology begins to feel like a distant past, and we arrived at Port Lockroy to pack gear for our trip to Wordie House. Relatively speaking, the trip is short and easy nowadays with the comforts and speed of ships like the Sea Spirit who kindly delivered us to Port Lockroy after an exciting stop at blustery Cape Horn, a mild cruise across the Drake, and a visit to Charcoix's first Antarctic wintering site. As we travelled and passed place names, cairns, and pondered early experiences of those who charted this region, we are moved by their bravery and tenacity. Delightfully, Jonathan Shackleton and Falcon Scott were aboard to add historical information and perspectives. We enjoyed their company, support for Antarctic Heritage, and light banter between famous names. Personally, I cannot say which is better: Mt Scott or Mt Shackleton, both beautifully viewed from the southern end of the Lemaire Channel. One can only marvel at how far technology has come and how much more we know about Antarctica since their relatives were here.
During our short stay at Port Lockroy, we were delighted to see some new first day cover stamps inclusive of pictures from past dwellers of the base such as Peter Gale, 1957 FID, excellent photographer and kind story-teller; and and Ylva Grams, a recent UKAHT talent. After gathering supplies, we boarded the Hanse Explorer for a quick trip to Wordie House in the Argentine Islands. Passing through the Lemaire Channel and southward, we sighted numerous Crab Eater seals and Humpback whales. We also saw many Antarctic turns, Skuas, Wilson's petrels, Giant petrels, some Minke whales, one Leopard seal, one Wedell seal, colonies of gentoos and adelies, and even a moulting juvenile Emperor penguin. The trip was made all the sweeter with the good company of Forrest Mars and friends who augmented his generosity to the AHT with yummy bags of M&M's and Dove chocolate bites.
At Wordie House, we sorted gear and took inventory of the supplies that the Sea Explorer crew and Vernadsky team moved to Winter Island for us. The hut looked clean and tidy, but the need for some work was apparent, thus we started right away. Of course, we were happily interrupted by our first visitors, the Ukrainians from next door!
For nearly the past two decades, a trip to Wordie House for most visitors has also included a stop at the friendly Ukrainian Station, approximately 500 metres away, across Stella Creek, on Galindez Island. We were cordially invited over to celebrate the 18th anniversary of the handover of the British Faraday Base to the Ukrainian's Vernadsky. Being shown the warm corridors, offices, and living spaces of the science base is a special treat, and even residents of Faraday Station would be delighted to see all their old winterover portraits on the walls, memorabilia throughout, vinyl record collections intact, base reports, BAS traditions (GASH, Saturday-night dinners, Sunday Cook's day off, etc.) and the well known Faraday Bar where locals still enjoy darts, dominoes, pool, and good spirits of all sorts and fame has been earned with cruise ships and yacht visitors as 'the best bar in Antarctica.'
It is easy to see why John Rymill leader of the British Graham Land Expedition (BGLE) chose the Argentine Islands as a winterage in 1935 when exploring the peninsula – thought an archipelago until his party's work proved otherwise. The sailing yachts that come here still tuck into Penola Bay, a safe and sheltered anchorage amongst the islands, with fresh water sources, access to some elevation, and beautiful scenery all around. Each time we have climbed the small ice shelf west of the Wordie House, we've seen the spray of humpback whales out amongst the vista of icebergs in Wilhelm Channel and Penola Strait.
According to the Ukrainians, this past winter was the first in 14 years that ice fully extended from the Argentine Islands to the Peninsula. While they did not cross the distance, this would have been a welcome scene in the days of dog sledging. Brian Gilbert, Argentine Islands Geophysicist in 68-69, told us of poor and varied ice condition during his winters, and an experience with a leopard seal that was all too close! We were so happy to hear his stories before coming south this season.
The Argentine Islands are well known for their fine weather. Pictures exist of the FIDS enjoying afternoon tea on the Wordie House roof. Early in our stay, the well known sunshine made our tasking easier. Rymill and the BGLE crew must have experienced some of the same when, 79 years ago, he established the very first shore-based winter-over hut in this area and commenced research and survey expeditions.
Quite remarkably, Rymill's hut disappeared in 1946 and Wordie House is the second establishment on this site. Imagine Frank Elliot's surprise when walking from the MV Trespassy across the frozen approach to Winter Island in early January of 1947 to find, ''the hut had completely gone.'' It wasn't until February and March of that year that significant pieces of the old BGLE hut appeared on neighbouring Skua Island when snow began to ablate. Elliot states, ''Port Lockroy had experienced a tidal wave in August of 1946 and this probably accounted for the disappearance of the BGLE hut.'' Fortunately, FID ingenuity and hard word resulted in the present hut being built, albeit sometimes from materials as desperate as packing crates. Along with timber and building materials enough to get started in late January of 1947, was a visit from James Wordie, chief scientist on Shackleton's Endurance expedition and member of the Polar Advisory Committee with BGLE Ornithologist BB Roberts and Neil Mackintosh, Director of the Discovery Investigation.
The main hut built was a sturdy 18' x 18' living, bunk, kitchen room which housed 4-6 men over the coming years, with remodels and additions added as time, materials, and necessity allowed. A linkway between the generator shed and main hut must have been a welcome relief to those who previously shovelled snow from the drifted area. Also added and still in place is a toilet (Elsan bucket) room, dark room, and corridor with attached Met and Survey Offices. An additional office area, greenhouse, Nissen Hut, Balloon Hut, and other structures no longer exist (one report even mentioned a chicken coop).
Roof repairs were undertaken in 2009, and subsequent conservation visits in 2010 and 2011 addressed some needs, but age, increased visitor traffic, and leaky windows have contributed greatly to the deterioration of the main room's floor. There were also curious breaks just where someone might have jumped from the top bunks! During our stay, we removed the existing floor with its linoleum, two layers of criss-crossed floor boards sandwiching a felt vapour barrier, and rotten supports, then relayed the structure in a similar format with treated lumber before replacing the pre-existing linoleum. Windows were reputtied and sealed where needed, and the whole building exterior was given a new coat of bitumen. The Met Room ceiling had also received water damage, thus the sisselcraft and wood ceiling was carefully removed, repaired, and the wall/soffit penetration sealed. Ship visitors were often surprised to find us 'camping' here while doing work without the luxury of the old coal stoves that would have made the hut quite cosy.
During our last week-and- a-half, grey skies moved in with cold winds from the south and snow storms from the north, but between flurries, we painted windows and barges their original bright white and completed other small tasks. Generally, when work finished each night, we'd open tins of food for a hot meal and hastily jump into our warm sleeping bags. Unlike the early days of this hut when tinned meals were often augmented with penguin and seal meat, as presented in the great cookbook ''Fit for a FID,'' we were happy with gifts of fresh bread from Vernadsky and Sailing Yacht Icebird and lovely desserts from MV Ushuaia. Occasional evenings at the Ukrainian base and a couple meals aboard yachts were also welcome treats.
We're now packing our tools and belongings to await passage north to Port Lockroy on Antarctic XXI vessel Ocean Nova. Our short stint here has given us a great glimpse of this wonderful base in the Argentine Islands, and we are ever thankful to those who made our trip to, from, and here wholly possible and enjoyable. We hope to be fortunate enough to make the long journey here again sometime as there are a few broken panes of glass to be fixed and these old huts always like a new coat of bitumen!
Conservation Team, Michael D. Powell and Liesl Schernthanner