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Leaving Antarctica

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by MARK ST.J. COUHIG
Sequim Gazette

After six summers spent in Antarctica, Jennifer Jabs has hung up her apron.

 

Jabs not only had a fun if exhausting time on the job, she also leapt her way up the ranks. Jabs started out in 1999 as a plain ole kitchen worker — among the lowest-paid at McMurdo Station, she says. But she ended up on top.

 

Three years ago the Sequim resident became the culinary manager of the entire American mission in Antarctica, with a staff of 100 providing the food services to the approximately 1,600 American researchers and support staffers who each summer settle themselves across the continent. That included buying the food, providing for its transport, hiring and firing personnel and “washing dishes.”

 

Serving the personnel at the three main camps and a number of remote facilities was difficult, she said.

But Jabs remains upbeat: “Personally and professionally it was a great opportunity,” she said. “I had a $5 million budget and logistically a real challenge.”

To say the least.

 

For example, the weather: When Jabs arrived at McMurdo Base each year in August — spring in Antarctica — the daily temperatures averaged around minus 40 degrees to minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit, with about two hours of sunshine. By January, the height of summer, the sun was up 24 hours a day, with the temperature rising to a balmy 30 degrees or so. Unfortunately, the constant wind makes it feel much colder. Nevertheless, “a lot of people work outside,” she said.

 

Once a year a shipload of goods from California arrives at McMurdo, where the population swells to approximately 1,110 in summer. Those provisions, which are supplemented by weekly deliveries of fresh fruit and vegetables flown in on cargo planes, are further distributed to the smaller bases, including the South Pole station, where approximately 250 researchers and support staff spend each summer.

 

But tiny and far-away Palmer base, home to about 45 each summer, is even today only serviced via ships leaving from the southern tip of South America — an awful passage, Jabs said.

Not so glamorous

And then there was the work: Everyone in the kitchen was expected to perform 10-hour shifts six days a week. For many who arrived seeking an exotic adventure, that was a surprise — even though they had been warned previously.

 

Jabs said when she first applied for an entry-level kitchen job in 1998 a thousand people applied for 100 jobs.

 

Some are disappointed. They are drawn in by the allure of working in Antarctica and “seeing penguins,” she said. “They want the adventure but then are stuck inside washing dishes. Probably no windows in your dorm room,” she said.

 

The pay is OK, but more importantly there are virtually no opportunities to spend it, with room, board, transportation and even the cold weather clothing provided by the U.S. Antarctic Program or one of its subcontractors.

 

Jabs said the only opportunities to spend money were in the bar or purchasing souvenirs.

 

Jabs described the base at McMurdo as looking like a “mining camp — very ugly.” Life there, she said, was very much like life on a university campus, with dorms, gyms and other facilities, but with a population with an average age of about 35.

 

Jabs said there were opportunities to have fun. “We’d go hiking every day,” she said, but safety rules required the hikers to follow flagged routes and carry radios.

 

Nevertheless, it was very satisfying for Jabs. “It was beautiful all the time. I never knew there were that many shades of white.” Just on the horizon beyond McMurdo there is a snow-capped mountain range and Mount Erebus, an active volcano. “It’s all very picturesque and it changes every day,” she said.

 

Jabs had the thrill of spotting a few Emperor penguins during her summers there and the smaller breeds even more often.

 

Because of her job, Jabs also had the opportunity to fly around the continent and to see further and deeper into the wild than many, including trips to the South Pole itself.

 

It was a thrill to be there, she said, but not a scenic wonder. “It is dry, flat and white. That’s it,” she said.

But in addition there is a peppermint swirl stick with a gleaming chrome ball marking THE spot. “People like to kiss it,” she said, “and get their lips stuck.”


Taking a break

Jabs is the granddaughter of Sequim’s Margaret Roggow, who on Jan. 17 turned 100, and the daughter of Valerie and Terry Grier.

 

She’s taking off a year to play, she said, before finding another job. She plans to enjoy some “domestic travel” this year, including some long-anticipated backpacking trips into the wild.

 

If her work choices remain the same, she’ll then take on a job that allows her to continue her lifelong adventure,

 

Since earning her Ph.D. in nutrition at Cornell University, Jabs has almost exclusively worked as a contractor, leaving plenty of time for traveling. And if the job pays her to travel, so much the better.

 

Thus Antarctica, where she accepted and held her first and only full-time job. “I do jobs that will take me where I want to go — and they were going to pay me,” she said.

 


Reach Mark Couhig at mcouhig@sequimgazette.com.

 

 

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