Review: On the Ice: An Intimate Portrait of Life at McMurdo Station, Antarctica


Minnesotans know about winter. We understand the significance of windchill factors, and “dress in layers” could be our state motto. Even if we can’t claim to like it, we _respect_ the cold.

When we approach a book like Gretchen Legler’s _On the Ice: An Intimate Portrait of Life at McMurdo Station, Antarctica_ we feel like we’ve got a leg up on readers from, say, Florida. We might even think we’ve already got the ice part nailed, but Legler’s account shows that there’s more to Antarctica than cold and ice, and gives us a view of the extraordinary reality of everyday life in this inhospitable place.

In 1997, as part of the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Artists and Writers Program, Gretchen Legler spent a life-altering six months on the continent of Antarctica, a place where, in spite of seasonal labels such as “spring” and “summer,” winter as we would call it never really ends. Part journalistic nonfiction, part nature writing, and part memoir, the essays in _On the Ice_ tell the story of the continent that is essentially the end of the earth and of the people who are drawn to be there.

There are about 4,000 people on Antarctica in the summer season, which lasts from mid-October to February. Stationed at various posts on the continent, these hearty souls are either scientists working for the NSF, or support personnel keeping the place running. The population shrinks to around 1,000 after the last planes leave in early February. What follows is roughly six months of darkness during which there is no way to get on or off the ice. Only a handful of scientists stay to continue their research, and the support staff is there largely to make sure the facilities don’t fall apart over the extreme winter season.

Antarctica’s isolation is a boon to scientific research, and Legler skillfully guides her readers on a tour of several ongoing projects—such as efforts to predict the course of climate change by studying local marine life populations, or by examining cores lifted from the ancient ice.

Unlike the science teams, many of the other people Legler meets are not on Antarctica in their normal professional roles. They are there to take a break from, or escape altogether, their regular life. For some it’s a once in a lifetime stint. Others have made the seclusion of Antarctica part of their annual routine, but they stop short of calling it home. There’s a limit to how long a person can happily survive without the benefit of greenery and temperatures above zero. (As it turns out, the NSF and its contractor, Raytheon Polar Services Corporation, say that limit is 14 months. After that you leave the ice, whether you feel the need to or not. Most people feel the need.)

A theme that winds through these essays is Legler’s struggle to reconcile her journalistic side with her artistic sensibilities. In her January reading at Minneapolis’ Amazon Bookstore, she discussed feeling torn between her responsibility to write a fact-based, detailed account of her time on the ice, and her urge to express Antarctica in poetry and color. Those seemingly divergent impulses come together most effectively in her descriptions of the place itself.

For historical background Legler, whose dissertation work was on explorers’ narratives, draws heavily on the writings and perspectives of figures such as Robert Falcon Scott and Edward Wilson, weaving in pieces of their stories and creating a well-embedded overview of the often tragic history of Antarctic exploration. After planting us firmly in place, she then paints descriptions of pearlescent clouds, or asks us to imagine placing a hand on the post that marks the bottom of the world, and walking around and around it, stepping through every time zone along the way, allowing us at once to appreciate Antarctica’s harsh reality but also its fantastic beauty.

_On the Ice_ is also a memoir piece, as Legler shares the very personal transformation she experienced in the cradle of the ice. With her open and affable style, she lets us in to experience the exhilaration of big-picture thinking combined with the frighteningly up-close, person-to-person process of falling in love.

_On the Ice_ is a keen yet accessible observation of the everyday realities of life on a continent that’s so inaccessible to most people it might as well be a different planet.
Legler’s determination to draw threads of connection between her own story and that of the continent results in some uneven transitions between essays, but her nature writing is resonant and satisfying.

_Anne Lies is a freelance writer who lives and works in Minneapolis._