Meet Ivan the Terra Bus. Equipped with six, 5' 6" tires, weighing in at 67,000 pounds, topping speeds close to 25 mph, the Terra Bus is capable of crushing volcanic rock, slushing through roads made of compacted snow, and gliding on ice that is as smooth as glass. It is quite possibly the most photographed bus in the world. People stop, wave, and smile when Ivan rolls through McMurdo Station, Antarctica.
Operated by the shuttles department, the terra bus assists in transporting passengers to and from two of the most isolated airfields in the world.
Jennifer Scotia, Supervisor of Vehicle Operations at McMurdo Station, Antarctica feels the shuttles department “is the welcoming committee to the continent.”
14 miles off the shores of Ross Island, on the Ross Ice Shelf, is the Pegasus Airfield. The United States Air force flies the C-17 aircraft, carrying passengers and cargo, on and off the Continent.
Aircrafts with wheels land at Pegasus Airfield, aircrafts with skis land at Williams Airfield. Five miles from town, on the Ross ice shelf, the mighty LC-130 Hercules aircraft (referred to as "Willy" by the locals), operated by the 109th and 139th New York Air National Guard, flies daily missions around the continent to support science.
“When you fly in, its not just hop in a taxi or hop in a van,” says Shelley Cicola, shuttles day lead.
“Shuttles takes care of moving people all over the station and to the airfields. It's managing lots of vehicles and lots of people and keeping the station happy with good conversation and good customer service. We get everyone where they need to be.” Says Jen.
According to Jen, her number one attribute is “being a goofball,” and her favorite part of shuttles are the 18 shuttlers in her department who “become an occasionally dysfunctional family who love and support each other and are so glad to see each other in the morning and hear each others stories. I love that!”
Like the austral summer sun, the Shuttles Department is up around the clock supporting the movement of flight crews, passengers, personnel, and various science groups.
One of these such science groups that the Shuttles Department supports is NASA’s Long Duration Balloon site where scientists are launching payloads suspended by giant balloons into the atmosphere. The Department of Energy has a team in town who set up weather stations around the world, monitoring clouds, winds, and pollutants in the atmosphere. A science group working at Arrival Heights, an area accessed only via special permit, are basically shooting lasers at invisible space clouds. Seal Team Six is studying the Weddell Seal population, curious what these unique mammals can teach us. Jen is thrilled when she gets a chance to get out of the office, make a shuttle run, and listen to what the scientists are up to. “I remember one time a LDB scientist told me they were basically trying to figure out what happened the split second after the Big Bang. Incredible.”
Almost as mysterious as the Big Bang theory is the acronym-riddled speech used by folks on the ice. With a Masters in linguistics, this is something Jen is fond of. It can take people a month to learn the ice language she says, grinning as she gives an example: “Go pick up SOPP at 165, stop at JSOC for 2 more NASA pax, then take them to the VXE6.” A common response is, “Copy, that.”
“There is no not showing up! Creativity and logistical know how is huge,” says Jen.
The Shuttles Department oversees and operates a fleet of 20 passenger vans, the Deltas, one Kress, and the ever-loved, Ivan the terra bus.
Passenger vans are the main people-mover at the science outpost. Traveling over various terrain to the tops of pot-hole ridden, muddy streets made of volcanic rock, or charging though melt pools on the sea ice.
Three specialty Navy Deltas are in the fleet. Delta Tina Marie, Delta Dawn, and Delta Gale, built in the 80’s, with 6-foot balloon tires, capable of plowing through icy water while carrying 24 passengers to the airfields and science camps.
The Kress, a one of-a-kind, 65 passenger transportation beast, looks like a monster caterpillar creeping along the ice shelf.
...and Ivan the terra bus, basically the mascot of McMurdo:
Shelley, a former school bus driver, says she “feels like a badass when driving Ivan or the Kress, I never wanted to feel badass before, but I do.”
Jen says she “feels confident. It's not just a man’s arena. In fact, I think women often make better operators.” Shelley adds with a chuckle, “I think we're intimidated by size; where men -- that’s all they concentrate on.”
The shuttles office is a spinning wheel of logistics. Shelley, an expert dispatcher, and Jen, master logistics coordinator, keep the wheel in motion. Last week, 18 drivers working around the clock completed over 750 runs, transporting over 3,200 flight crews, flight passengers, scientists, and support staff where they needed to be.
There are not that many moms in Antarctica, the Shuttles Department is lucky enough to have two of them. Jen, in her eighth season on the ice, feels that “Moms in leadership, for good or for bad, always have advice, and like to be supportive in a warm environment” Shelley, enjoying her fifth season in McMurdo. To the Moms and Trucks, Antarctica is a family affair.
Jen’s husband is the field camp manager at LDB, and Shelley’s husband is part of the Traverse team, traveling to the South Pole via tractor, to deliver fuel in support of science. The Moms and Trucks have delighted in the unique experience of having a child work at McMurdo Station. Shelley’s son John worked with the cargo team and Jen’s daughter Elizabeth, met her husband in Antarctica. Laughing, she says “and we nicely nag a little bit.”
Having family in Antarctica is about as common as wearing rolling skates to work everyday. When Shelley enjoyed a meal with her son and husband, or Jen savored a meal with her daughter and husband, folks seem to gravitate towards them, wanting to share in the feeling of family. The moms know that this life they are living makes their children proud of them. Shelley, an antique treasure hunter, says “to us life in Antarctica has become routine, but to others we know, it is epic.” Jen always wanted to live an unconventional life. Shelley wanted to live a conventional life until she realized she didn’t have to.
When you live 10,000 miles from home for ½ the year, it's nice to bring a little piece of home with you. Jen keeps a George Foreman grill here so she can start her mornings with peanut butter toast. Shelley feels liberated this year that she left her make-up mirror at home and has not worn a drop of make-up all season. She does, however, have her favorite slippers which makes it feel like home.
It's not just trinkets from home that make Ice people feel at home; it’s the ice community, and the appreciation of life off the ice that develops. Jen, passionate about cooking and gardening at home explains that “The simplicity of hard work every day for a finite period in a closed environment is strangely liberating and elevates my enjoyment of being home each year. Plus, being a part of the Ice community gives one a true sense of belonging all year around -- it’s like having an extended family of 1,000.”
Living at the bottom of the Earth comes with many challenges; “it’s a harsh continent” as the saying goes. But the harshest continent on Earth comes with many rewards. Shelley says smiling, the other day, she went into the air traffic control tower to watch the plane land, “you just don’t get to that at home.”
“Or Mt. Erebus this morning just spewing all kinds of gases and smoke. To live at the base of a volcano -- that just blows my mind.”
Jen imitates the unworldly sounds that seals make, and talks about walking to hut point and listening to the seals, feeling the sharpness and clarity in the air, and the expansiveness elevated by the far off landscapes of the Royal Society mountain range.
Giggling, she talks about how she loves that an Adeile penguin can just come running up with much excitement and curiosity, seeming as if its saying “hi, hi, hi!”
“I don’t think that could happen in any other place that a penguin is so excited to see a human being. If that can happen anywhere else, I don’t know it.”
Jen feels that it adds to her experience to know that we have lived the suburban life and now we are living the adventure life, and that’s a special privilege.
“Because I only post photos of the fun things since we work so hard, some people back home think that I’m at an adult summer camp, and that all we do is dress up, eat good food, and run outside and go hiking. They don’t believe that we actually do work.”
It’s the lifestyle and the people, that inspire most to live life on ice. “You have so much free time compared to any other job, you work your tail off and become completely absorbed, time goes by so quickly. But then, you are off in an alternate universe that has its own joys and pace that is your own. Being here elevates so many areas of our lives at home - good food, animals, time with our loved ones, every area is so much more prized… There are times you really realize you are in Ant-frickin-arctica and want to pinch yourself for having the best job in the world. Antarctica is a very special place and one that should be preserved.” Says Jen Scotia, the loving mother of two adult children, 18 shuttlers, and grandmother of one.
“I want people to know that there aren’t polar bears down here!” says Shelley Cicola, the mom of 2 grown kids, and 18 shuttlers.