How far would you go for a good story? How about to the end of the world? From October to December last year, middle grade author G. Neri did just that, journeying to Antarctica on an Artist and Writers grant from the National Science Foundation to write a long-dreamed-about children’s book on the most extreme— and mysterious—place on earth.
I had been drawn to Antarctica ever since a college friend perished on a dive beneath the ice shelf many years ago. Searching for answers as to why people go to such extreme lengths in the name of science, I set out to find what drives people to the bottom of the world, from the heroic age of Shackleton and Scott, to today’s scientists and support personnel. What I found was a society of dreamers, outsiders and brilliant minds, from dishwashers, janitors and carpenters to divers, NASA scientists and paleobotonists—all in search of big answers to big questions, both scientific and personal. My own quest was to speak to the thousands of Title 1 kids I’d visited over the years, who often lack access to science and nature, as well as role models of color. This trip and the work-in-progress book, My Antarctica, will hopefully accomplish just that.
My journey took me to many locations, from the main science hub of McMurdo Station, to the desert of the Dry Valleys, Cape Royds’s penguin rookery, the huts of Scott and Shackleton, the Ross Ice Shelf, and New Harbor, the site of my friend’s untimely death. It was the adventure of a lifetime and the seeds for an upcoming middle grade novel about the last great frontier and what it means to go in search of your dreams—and just maybe finding them. All photos taken by me, unless otherwise credited.
My newest novel, Tru Nelle: A Christmas Tale, came out on the day I arrived in Antarctica, (HMH, Oct. 24, 2017). Here, I gave an impromptu reading on the ice. Photo: Nicholas Santos
Captain Scott’s Terra Nova Hut at Cape Evans. Lonely, desolate and incredibly beautiful.
I had many close encounters of the penguin kind on the ice. Here, a group of emperor penguins approached me and two members of a BBC film crew out by Razorback Island.
When I heard about a legendary pick axe supposedly thrust into the top of a volcanic cone by Shackleton’s team during their first ascent of the southernmost active volcano on Earth, history buff and operations supplies manager Jerod Knox and I set out on an epic journey to find it. I examined the over 100-year-old axe, which I later found out belonged to Capt. Scott’s expedition team, as Mt. Erebus plumed behind me. So remote was the location, we sometimes set foot on earth no human has ever stepped on. Photo: Jerod Knox
Weddell seals, who were giving birth to cute pups. These seals undergo a remarkable transformation—gaining 4.5 pounds a day until they reach more than 1,000 pounds—one of the most radical growth spurts of any mammal on Earth.
Bundle up! While it was summer in Antarctica, with 24 hours of daylight, temperatures could still drop to -30 degrees Fahrenheit with Condition One storm weather.
I spent considerable time tending for different dive teams, exploring under the Ross Ice Shelf. A handmade glass and metal observation tube allowed me to see the undersea world for myself. Photo: Kirsten Carlson
I found myself at the exact spot where my college friend, Mark MacMillan, died in a diving accident almost 30 years ago to the day. Here at New Harbor, evolutionary biologist-diver, Paul Cziko, prepared to dive in the same spot into the coldest sea water on the planet.
I Skyped with a number of classrooms from the ice. Here, I spoke from the penguin colony of Cape Royds to middle grade students at Bessie Rhodes School of Global Studies in Skokie, Ill. Photo: Tracy Hubbard
Remote locations are only accessible by helicopter or twin otter planes. This chopper carried me to Lake Hoare in the Dry Valleys.
I met and observed science teams from glaciologists to marine biologists to paleobotonists. Here, I spoke with astrophysicist Dr. Brian Roush (l.) about NASA’s galactic cosmic ray recorder (TIGER), which will be carried by hot-air balloon around the circumference of Antarctica. Photo: Elaine Hood
An Adélie penguin at the ice edge near Cape Royds.
Crossing the ice shelf was a mesmerizing experience in near-whiteout conditions.
Although McMurdo Station started as a male-only environment back in the day, I was surrounded by many amazing women: lead scientists, heads of departments, divers, chefs, mountaineers, and big rig drivers. But none more than the three members that made up the STEAM team of National Science Foundation artists and writers (from l.): Kirsten Carlson, Michelle Schwengel-Regala, and their fearless leader, Elaine Hood.
Even folks in Antarctica need to unwind from all their hard work. Here, runners wait for the start of the annual pre-Thanksgiving 5K Turkey Trot.
A dive team prepares for descent at Little Razorback dive hut.
Snow angel at Cape Royds. Photo: Jerod Knox
My roommate Scott Landolt on the seven-hour flight back to New Zealand, aboard the Kiwi Air Force Hercules.