People in Washington are enjoying an extra hour of evening daylight after a long winter. But for Charles Baker, it's a treat just to see the sun go down.
Baker, a 1996 graduate of North Thurston High School, recently returned to Olympia after nearly five months stationed at McMurdo Station, a United States research facility in western Antarctica.
As a communications technician, Baker, 33, helped the U.S. Antarctic Program, a branch of the National Science Foundation, install communication repeaters on mountain tops; set up field camps with radio, phone and wireless Internet; and supported local infrastructure. He also helped those in Antarctica contact the rest of the world using phones and the social website Facebook.
The hours were long, the work demanding.
Baker worked nine-hour days six days a week, oftentimes traveling to remote camps by helicopter. Flights to work sites usually were about 45 minutes, though some deep-field sites took three hours. Although he was there during the summer months, temperatures were frigid.
The work was familiar to Baker, but the surroundings were anything but. He had to wait four months to see his first sunset, and there were no trees or vegetation. Weather conditions also slowed work.
Throughout his time in Antarctica, Baker was constantly dehydrated and suffered from cracked skin and a bloody and congested nose, all the while “freezing my ass off.” He ate frozen and canned food every day. Fresh vegetables, when available, were a commodity. While staying at more isolated camps, Baker had to melt his own drinking water.
So why did he put himself through all this?
It was a job.
Baker’s background as an electronics technician was fostered during a four-year stint in the Navy, where he was stationed in Oak Harbor with deployments to Japan.
After leaving the Navy, Baker worked several contract jobs but found himself laid off last April and looking for work.
“I couldn’t find work, and everyone was shooting me down,” he said.
That’s when he saw the Antarctica job on the Raytheon Co. website. He applied but didn’t hear anything until August.
“I was jumping up and down when they called back to offer it to me,” Baker said.
Before heading out, Baker read a few books on living in the Antarctic and said he leaned on his military training.
But after he stepped off the C-17 and stumbled to the bus greeted by blowing wind and snow Oct. 11, the preconceived notions met the reality of the situation.
“I got off the plane and it hit me . . . what have I done?” he remembers asking himself.
Despite the rude awakening, Baker said he quickly realized how beautiful the continent is. The sky seemed bluer, and though there was only ice or snow as far as the eye could see, the sight of penguins and whales provided great contrast to the icy terrain. Once, Baker said he was able to enter an observational tube to see life under the ice.
“That blew my mind,” he said.
Baker’s contract kept him in Antarctica during the summer season, but don’t let the season’s name fool you – it still was cold. Oftentimes, he’d be working in temperatures below zero. A balmy day at McMurdo was 40 degrees, he said.
Life at McMurdo, which at its peak is home to about 1,200 people, isn’t all that bad, Baker admits.
There’s running water, hot water for showers and even television. He applauds the cooks, who are forced to work magic with beef and chicken.
For Thanksgiving dinner, Baker ditched his parka and mittens for dress pants and a tie and listened to live music.
While there wasn’t much to do, the community of scientists and other workers became like family. Baker said the hard work easily could have made people tough to be around, but his co-workers always were respectful and courteous.
To pass the time, there were fun runs, chapel events and even an art show.
Baker played drums in a band named Steel Penguin, which began as a blues group but progressed into a classic rock cover band. The group performed at “Ice Stock” with more than 10 other bands.
That’s not to say it was all fun and games. Frostbite always was a big concern; one day, it came all too close.
Baker’s biggest scare happened as he worked to install a data repeater on a small rock in McMurdo Sound. Baker said he wasn’t wearing the proper gloves to handle the strong winds and biting cold and ended up being stuck on the small island for five hours without proper protection.
It took two days for his hands to return to normal, he said.
“I was worried,” Baker said.
One thing he did learn fast was to get hand warmers ready before getting off the helicopter, even if you didn’t think you’d need them.
“Those were my best friends down there,” he said.
Since “getting off the ice” in late February, Baker was quick to satisfy some of his biggest cravings: pizza, steak and McDonald’s. For some of those cravings, he didn’t have to wait to return to the U.S. He had steak and fast food during a stopover in Auckland, New Zealand.
“It’s like my taste buds have been reborn,” he said.
He also shopped at a grocery store Saturday, saying it “blew my mind” to see such an abundance of food in one place.
However, life in a place with trees and sunsets won’t be long-lived.
Baker said the contractor offered him another job for the summer season and he’ll likely be returning to Antarctica for five months in October.
For now, he’s living with his dad in Hawks Prairie and looking for work. He also will be catching up with friends, including one he made in Antarctica who lives in Bellingham.
The next time he steps off the plane in Antarctica, Baker will discover new challenges, new science and new camps that need his services.
“A lot to look forward to,” Baker said.