One of my adventure gurus is the understated and accomplished Lena Nikolaeva, possibly Russia’s foremost female Antarctic expeditioner.
When I met her in St. Petersburg I was wowed. Forty-something, daring, brilliant, fun, Lena was an invaluable teammate on our polar expedition–the woman who helped make the ecological project we were about to embark on happen. Lena’s translations of my short requests to her boss were long, and she winked at me before “we” closed the deal.
We were collaborating on a cleanup project at a Russian scientific station, Bellingshausen, on a small island on the Antarctic peninsula. I was going as director of a small nonprofit The Volunteer International Work Projects (VIEW) Foundation, and Lena as Liaison Officer of the Russian Antarctic Expedition that coordinates scientific activities at Bellingshausen. Our project was called The Joint Russian-Canadian Ecological Project.
That autumn day 20 years ago, Lena showed me a photo on the wall of the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute office. It was of a tractor-trailer that had pulled her team across the ice to one of Russia’s stations, Vostok, a most remote place. It’s the famous locale for the coldest temperature on earth (-128ºF). In that tractor, her team had been headed to research a special place: where the glaciology, geology, paleontology and more tell us about our climate past and future.
I remember thinking, Lena’s hardcore but humble. I was daunted but excited. I basked in her polar enthusiasm and experience.
I learned from Lena that a little fear is good but so too is doing something you have a good feeling about.
A year earlier, Lena had assisted a Norwegian ski and mountaineering expedition at Wohtat Massive and Dronning Maud Land. She also participated in portion of a four-year clean up of Russia’s Novolazarevskaya station, so she knew how to be patient and methodical–it took time to clean only a microscopic sliver of the continent.
I was about to take a group to Antarctica for a civilian cleanup project. There were so many unknowns: an unknown location, an unknown group of people. In fact, we didn’t even have any volunteers or staff for the project yet. Lena said, “Don’t worry, there will be lots to clean up.”
What was known was this: a few people from a few nations were unified in the idea that it was worthwhile to keep Antarctica pristine. Fifty-four volunteers signed up to spend their vacation picking up trash. We were doing it in the spirit of the Antarctic Treaty that devoted the continent to peace and science in 1959–a landmark agreement between adversaries during the Cold War, credited to the immense international research projects that took place in Antarctica during the International Geophysical Year (1957-1958). All countries with scientific bases and tourist operations were expected to adhere to strict environmental practices defined in the Treaty’s Madrid Protocol of 1991.
Lena wasn’t the only female inspiration on the Bellingshausen journey. The wonderful Wendy Trusler, a cook and visual artist who’d cooked in tree-planting camps in the Canadian bush, also joined us. She became the expedition egg in the cake; Lena was the flour and sugar. We three were the start team to set up the camp for the first volunteer groups. Wendy and Lena stayed the season.
When we arrived at Bellingshausen, the base commander said, “You’re the first women to stay here in 26 years.” We had to marvel at that, but it all worked out fine. The ice ceiling had already been broken:
In 1956 Maria Klenova was the first Russian woman to work in the Antarctic, a marine biologist who helped map the first Soviet Antarctic Atlas.
Jackie Ronne lived in Antarctic in 1947, the first American woman to work in the Antarctic.
After that, and some initial resistance to women in the Antarctic (by military men), in 1969 the U.S. National Science Foundation funded an all-female research team in Antarctica’s dry valleys.
Today women represent 1/3 or more of scientists and support staff in Antarctic, making significant contributions.
The first mixed male and female team at the German station were permitted in 1995-1996, that same year we lived at the (previously) all male Russian base.
On groups had an equal split of men and women collecting garbage during three months. We also had the rare opportunity to experience daily life on an island with Russian Chilean, Uruguayan, Chinese and other research bases. Through we were not to interrupt the science we did get a sense of its flow–the daily meteorological balloon launches, the biologist outings to study seal migration patterns, the international relations of borrowing a tractor.
Wendy fed the volunteers enormously well and magically from her tiny kitchen. That austral season she collected recipes while the volunteers collected trash.
I loved that Lena gave Wendy her cabbage pie recipe, which appears in our cultural history book about that cleanup project, The Antarctic Book of Cooking and Cleaning.
Lena gave insight into how the Russians were experiencing our presence and tips on how we could make it better for them or the volunteers. She worked hard day and night and helped with logistics planning and diplomatic outings.
Lena was professional, friendly, respected, graceful, directed, admired by all.
She told us obscure and tender things about gender relations in close quarters–for instance, that she had to stop giving haircuts because her all-male colleagues were getting too aroused. She said it in a matter of fact way: how to manage life in a very cold fish bowl, with dignity and her dry humour; she knew how. Lena taught Wendy and me the tradition of sitting on a bed before you depart a place. You meditate for a moment on where you are. I didn’t want to ever leave.
Sergey the base commander did tell us that now the guys were changing their shirts all the time, it was a regular fashion show. He did also say he appreciated that the men were taking care of themselves, and that they enjoyed being with and at times taking care of us. It was mutual. Wendy shared her incredible food generously and I think people were generally kind to one another.
We’ve kept in touch.
In 2003, Lena wrote that she participated in something amazing that occurs only every 18 years, 11 and 1/3 days:
“I was at Novolazarevskaya station, at Novo runway, which is on the glacier 10 km from the station. I worked with the NHK [Japanese TV] team on the total solar eclipse project. We stayed in the tents with others mostly of national expeditions waiting for the feeder flights to their stations in Dronning Maud Land: Finns, Swedes, Norwegians, Germans, Japanese, South Africans.
The aim was the filming of the eclipse and the live transmission of it to Japan. The weather was very rough, with winds up to 30-35 meters per sec. Some days we were completely bound to our tents.
The eclipse day, 23 November, was a nice surprise–absolutely lovely windless day. We could watch the eclipse from our tent camp and to film it from the hill, the air and other points. The live transmission was very successful and my team was very happy and so was I.”
A fantastic thing about Antarctic was working together with diverse people: you have to collaborate to survive and you learn so much about yourself and each other. Antarctica may be the land of incredible earth studies but it’s also a mirror in which to look at ourselves.
The Antarctic protection idea is in the collective consciousness, the continent was the pied piper who called to us. Lena helped by piping the project’s potential from English to Russian and singing it in her own beautiful way.
Why did we go to clean? There’s no planet B. The Antarctic Peninsula and some surrounding ocean areas have warmed faster than anywhere else in the Southern Hemisphere. The rapid climate changes across the Antarctic Peninsula are altering ocean and terrestrial ecosystems. The Arctic is melting faster than predicted.
My house is a total mess but on the macro level I want to help make our earth as tidy and peaceful and I know many others do too.
Now I’m the age Lena was when I met her. I hope I’m an ounce as adventurous, hopeful and active as she. Recently, she wrote to me:
“I also often recall you and Bellingshausen and our ecological project and all dear to heart things that happened. I believe the project was among the first of this kind and this was the most important value because it helped to draw attention to Antarctic environment protection. Also it was very much in the spirit of Antarctic Treaty provisions when people of different countries and of social status worked together following the dictates of their hearts.”
The next solar eclipse–the geocentric conjunction of the moon and the sun–will continue over Antarctica on December 4, 2021. I hope I’m there. Lena will be in spirit.
Carol Devine is a humanitarian, researcher and writer doing global and earth health work. She co-wrote the book on which the expedition is based, The Antarctic Book of Cooking and Cleaning, published by HarperDesign. Following her work in Antarctica Carol joined Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders in Rwanda. She recently participated in Clean Svalbard, Norway, an earth stewardship initiative on the Arctic end of the globe.