|4.5 out of 5 stars|
Gavin Francis fulfilled a lifetime's ambition when he spent fourteen months as the basecamp doctor at Halley, a profoundly isolated British research station on the Caird Coast of Antarctica. So remote, it is said to be easier to evacuate a casualty from the International Space Station than it is to bring someone out of Halley in winter.
I have visited the southern continent twice as a tourist, nibbling around the edges. I adored my first cruise, the point of which was to cross the Antarctic Circle west of the peninsula that juts northwards towards South America. I loved the snowy landscape, the lack of people, the remoteness, and the wildlife. Plus I adored penguins. When we disembarked in Ushuaia, Argentina, I was reluctant to leave. If the tour company had said, “We have room for one female passenger, leaving this afternoon,” I would have turned around, got back on the ship, and figured out how to pay for it and how to explain it to my employer later.
That cruise in 2002 started my love affair with the black and white birds that continues to this day. Since then, I have seen 11 out of the 18-20 species of penguin (depending on who is counting) and the quest continues. The Emperor Penguin is going to be a hard one to see, so there is a third trip to the Antarctic somewhere in my future to accomplish this.
I have also always haboured a secret dream of living in Northern Canada and experiencing a winter of darkness. Being able to explore a landscape that isn’t crowded by people and seeing wildlife that most Canadians don’t get to see.
So it was fascinating to read an account of a doctor’s overwintering on a remote Antarctic station, dealing with the weather, the darkness, and the limits of an Antarctic winter. Francis seems to be an adventurous person, skiing, mountain climbing and visiting remote places before he ever got to the Antarctic, and this quality stood him in good stead. I have no skills that would ever get me to an Antarctic base as an employee, so I was quite envious.
However, as his account progressed, I came to realize that I would have great difficulty surviving the limited society of such a base over the winter and probably have extreme difficulty combining it with 24 hour darkness. I still may try Northern Canada eventually, but if I do it will be in a northern city with a variety of people to socialize with.
What I absolutely loved about this memoir was the literary knowledge of the author, the quotes from great literature and from the accounts of Arctic and Antarctic explorations from the heroic age. He balances the personal memoir, the factual information about over wintering, the accounts of the penguins, and historical and literary history with great skill. There is not too much of any one ingredient, it is just right.