South Pole, North Country

January 1, 2010

How it became perfectly natural for so many to work in Antarctica and live in northern New Hampshire

The first sightings come in mid- to late-March. Familiar faces show up in local coffee shops, weekly pizza nights, and at kids’ birthday parties. They crash on our couches, sleep in our spare rooms, and show up on our porches while out for a walk. Sometimes we catch them in time and manage to make plans, and sometimes they pass through for a few days and we miss them. But if we miss them, it’s not a big deal. We’ll see them sooner or later.

They are the current generation of adventurous employees hailing from northern New Hampshire who leave every fall to work for the service contractors of the National Science Foundation’s U.S. Antarctic Program. They are carpenters, heavy equipment operators, meteorologists, dishwashers, waste management specialists and snow shovelers. In the austral summer of 2008–2009, there were dozens of them who could claim a connection of some kind to northern New Hampshire in general, and to the Appalachian Mountain Club in particular.

It is a community of professional workers who have fallen into the seasonal rhythm of cobbling together year-round work, and they cobble it between the South Pole at the bottom of the world, and the North Country that is the small towns in northern New Hampshire. Some started in the North Country, at the AMC or the Mount Washington Observatory, and others started with the USAP and ended up in the North Country. Some go for a season, some for two, and some for years.

What makes this community and this relationship unique is not necessarily only the nature of the work or the exoticism of working in the icy desert of Antarctica, but the depth of the network, the strength of the ties. These ties link employers with employees, workers with work. These ties also are strong between those who go and those who stay behind. We receive postcards, emails and packages. We watch their dogs, water their plants and store their bicycles. We all own USAP sweatshirts. We barely blink an eye when another one of our friends signs up in early summer to work on the Ice (as they call the land below the Antarctic Circle); we know, with the inevitability that our snow will give way to rain, that they will come back.

What follows below is a profile of how a community can exist when, for six months out of the year, a significant number of its members live and work thousands of miles away. It is a story of a seasonal community, similar to other pockets of seasonal exchange across the country. A big part of the development of this particular community is found in the stories of its members, and how the stories fit with each other.

Sally Manikian has logged eight years of seasonal employment, and is currently amid her ninth. Her rhythm balances working as a roving caretaker in the Mahoosuc Range, teaching as an adjunct professor at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, NH, and guiding dogsled tours. She also manages seasonal employees as the RMC’s camps chair. She lives in Randolph, NH. The full text of this story may be found in the Winter/Spring 2010 issue of Appalachia.

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Sally Manikian

Sally Manikian of Shelburne, New Hampshire, has published many essays about standing with one foot in the wilds and one foot in civilization. She is the Vermont and New Hampshire representative for The Conservation Fund and the News and Notes editor of this journal.