HYANNIS — The leaves are turning and the scrub pines are just beginning to shed their brown needles on the Cape, which means it’s time for Dr. Kelly Swanson to seek the sunnier climes of the South.
So see you later, sea gulls. Hello, penguins.
Swanson, a staff physician at Cape Cod Hospital since 2005, departs soon to resume her work at McMurdo Station, America’s bustling science and research center in Antarctica. Under the aegis of the US Antarctic Program and the National Science Foundation, Swanson will set her doctor’s kit aside and take up what she terms her “split life,” her annual five-month-long tour as McMurdo’s recreation supervisor.
“I haven’t had a winter in years,” a smiling Swanson said prior to packing her bags for her trek to the edge of the South Pole. “Hey, 24 hours of daylight beats 4 o’clock [New England] sunsets. I’ll have four months of straight sunlight while I’m down there.”
She also will have sports, sports, and more sports, all to serve the bustling community of some 900 US personnel, including scores of scientists and military members, who seek to fill those long, sun-filled days with something other than their often-intense work in the field and lab.
The standard workweek at McMurdo stretches across six days and 60 hours for some 150 days, rendering sports tools of survival as much as they are games and diversions.
“There’s a lot of people down there who are stuck inside a lot,” said Swanson, known as “Rec Kelly” when she’s on the job far south of the border. “One of the things that is important, obviously, is wellness and trying to keep people occupied.”
The Swanson sports and recreation menu for the USAP includes such ordinary pursuits as hiking, long-distance running, biking, volleyball, billiards, yoga, weight training, Ping-Pong, and soccer, the latter played both indoors and outdoors.
For the record, no matter the venue, the soccer ball is always white, which adds an extra degree of difficulty when playing the beautiful game on icy volcanic terrain that is blanketed in snow.
Antarctic softball also can present its unique challenges, when, say, knocking one out of the park and into the surrounding ocean.
“If the ball goes on sea ice, we have to call environmental,” Swanson said. “They have to get it before it pollutes the environment. And that requires filing a report on Monday morning, ‘Hey, we’ve got two balls, and here’s where they are located.’ Then they’ll get them for us.”
There is no golf on Antarctica, though disc golf (think Frisbee and targets) is an avid pursuit among McMurdo personnel in some years. To Swanson’s chagrin, there also is no skating or hockey. So much ice . . . and not a Zamboni to be found.
There is also no indoor swimming pool at McMurdo Station.
“Not that we haven’t asked,” said Rec Kelly, who grew up in Newport, R.I., and taught sailing in the ’80s during her days at St. George’s School.
Among the unconventional pursuits, there is the grueling sport of manhauling. If the term conjurs up the image of hoisting a man over your shoulders, and making tracks across the snow for a finish line, then you would be wrong. In fact, way wrong.
Manhauling is a variation of sled dog racing, only with homo sapiens, be they men or women, filling the role of canines. This is the sport where man truly is dog’s best friend and body double.
“We only do it once a year,” said Swanson. “I think that’s because everyone needs a year to forget how hard it is.”
The manhauling race is part of the Governor General’s Cup, which pits McMurdo’s US personnel against teams from New Zealand’s neighboring Scott Base research center. The Kiwis, in Swanson’s opinion, generally are in better physical condition and, by nature, more competitive than Yanks. They also think softball is ridiculous, regardless of the hemisphere where it’s played.
The first event of the Governor General’s Cup is a US-New Zealand tug of war contest, usually held in early November.
A couple of weeks later, it’s time for manhauling. Teams of four (all men or all women) secure harnesses to their upper bodies and attach themselves to a wooden Nansen sled with a coxswain on board. The race is a straight-line dash of some 3 miles, from McMurdo to Scott . . . and don’t spare the humans!
“It’s probably about a 200-pound haul,” said Swanson, estimating the race takes some 45 minutes, more if wind and snow have a say. “The thing about Antarctica that’s funny is, every time you think you’ve come up with something [novel] yourself, you realize they did it in the ’80s.”
Would that be the 1980s or the 1880s? “Probably both,” she said.
Swanson made her first trip to Antarctica in 2009 as a tourist with Quark Expeditions, never intending, or even thinking, she would become America’s Recreation Chef de Mission at the South Pole. While on that vacation, which included splashing around on a kayak and checking out penguins, she mailed a postcard back to her home on the Cape.
“Wish you were here,” she wrote.
It took six months for the postcard to make it to her home. By then, she was back being Dr. Swanson, taking care of patients, and in the deep throes of AWS — Antarctic Withdrawal Syndrome. The postcard made it clear: She had to return. The place had found residence in her soul, which is what happens to kids who read “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” until the pages spill from the binding.
October is upon us. Dr. Kelly Swanson again is about to trade her “real life” on the Cape for her “ice life” in Antartica, ever thankful that Cape Cod Healthcare welcomes her back to the staff every year.
Until March, Rec Kelly’s got a ton of yoga classes, a couple of marathons, manhauling, and whatever else captures McMurdo imagination to occupy her time. In that vital speck that is the US base, hers is a wide, wide world of sports.
“And it all sort of happened to me by accident,” said Dr. Rec Kelly. “I guess as most good things do.”
More photos provided by Dr. Swanson: