Elizabeth Watson '89

Elizabeth Watson '89 finds the essence of life in Antarctica

At the end of a clear, still, beautiful day, as the sun sinks below the horizon over the Arctic Ocean, the light comes up through the sea and the sunlight turns a bright lime green--just for one heart-stopping instant. "I felt like I was seeing something special and private and mine," says Elizabeth "Beth" Watson '89, relating the experience. On the trip home, in the twilight, the glacier behind the Palmer Station was bright pink, the clouds golden and blue and red.

It is the incredible loveliness of the landscape, coupled with meeting the challenges for survival, that have kept Watson returning to this remote region of the world, most recently for the winter season that began in February 2000.

Watson is in Antarctica under the auspices of the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP), which is funded and managed by the National Science Foundation. USAP engages a contractor to hire and manage all the support staff required to keep the stations running for the science teams. Watson works for Raytheon Polar Service, which hires everyone from science technicians to cooks to janitors.

There are three U.S. stations. McMurdo Station is the largest, housing about twelve hundred people during the summer months, September to February, and approximately two hundred during the winter months, February to September. South Pole Station, also known as the Amundsen/Scott South Pole Station, hosts about two hundred people in summer (a shorter season running from November to February) and only forty during the winter. Palmer Station, Watson's current posting, can house just forty-two people in summer and twenty in winter.

A drama major at Kenyon, Watson joined Comedy Sports in her home town of Denver, Colorado, after a year at the University of Arizona in a master's program. "I performed with them for six years," she says, "appearing in over eight hundred shows. It was a wonderful time in my life, but eventually, it reached its natural end."

A year went by, with Watson occupied by a variety of ordinary jobs. She began corresponding with a friend of her sister, Ellen Watson '85, who was stationed on an Australian base in Antarctica. When she mentioned this to a Denver friend, she learned that the company that employed the support staff for the U.S. bases was headquartered in nearby Englewood.

Watson was hired as an air services representative, and, in 1997, she was deployed to McMurdo Station for the four-month summer season. "McMurdo is the main hub for the New Zealand side of Antarctica," she explains. "More than two thousand people are moved through there to the U.S. stations and field camps alone. They also provide a runway for crews from Italy, New Zealand, and Russia.

Returning to Denver headquarters for the northern summer months, Watson soon located a job with the company that would take her to the South Pole station for a year, October 1998 to November 1999. Assigned as a work-order planner and scheduler, she performed those duties for all maintenance work for the station, which is currently undergoing a complete rebuilding. The South Pole station is at the geographic south pole, where six months of sunlight is followed by six months of total darkness.

After a four-month vacation back in the States, Watson returned to Antarctica, this time to Palmer Station. Palmer is much warmer than the other two stations, and, being on an island, it is accessible only by boat. Following this assignment, she will return to Denver for three weeks and then be posted to South Pole Station to manage the construction project during all of the summer months (late October to February); she will spend the balance of the year (March through September) in Denver.

"The life skills I learned in the theater and studying people have been very helpful to me in this environment," says Watson. "It's difficult to come together with a group of strangers, get locked down with them, so to speak, for months at a time, and try to manage. It has been a tremendous challenge to figure out how to sit still in my own brain." McMurdo is the only station with a constant satellite connection, telephones, and television. At the two smaller stations, staff members are forced to amuse themselves by reading, walking, watching videos, writing, or just thinking. "In many ways, it's a lot like Kenyon," Watson reflects. "We all live, eat, work, and play together in a small community."

With life reduced to the bare essentials, Watson has grown to have different priorities and expectations than most of us immersed in modern culture. She spends a great deal of time thinking about how her words and actions affect those around her. "Living this close with so few people, you have the opportunity to watch how people interact, and you are forced to look at how you interact with people," she says. From a person who used to believe that "someone else could handle it" she has emerged as a person on whom others can rely.

"Being without all the distractions of civilization has made me realize that life can be very sweet without them," she says. "You can get down to the meat of living, the real things that are important."

And just what is the meat of living? "I reflect a lot on nature," says Watson. "I can watch the clouds move; I can watch the glacier calve off a piece of itself; I can watch the snow blow sideways in swirls. And it is uninterrupted. It isn't a hassle to drive through. It is what belongs here; I take the time to watch it and listen to it and really feel how big the world is, how the earth could care less if I was on it. And that, somehow, makes me feel more sane. The world is big and mighty and powerful. My little problems are of no concern to it."


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