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Victoria conservator preserves exploration history in Antarctica
Some researchers sense the hundred year old ghosts in Robert Falcon Scott’s hut in Antarctica. For Victoria’s Jana Stefan, the building is living museum, a place of comfort in one of the most unforgiving environments in the world.
Stefan, an exhibit arts technician with the Royal B.C. Museum, returned from Antarctica at the end of February, completing her second six-month stint as part of a team working to preserve Scott’s base at Cape Evans on Ross Island.
Stepping into Scott’s hut was a dream come true for the 34-year-old conservator who grew up hearing the stories of turn-of-the-century explorers like Ernest Shackelton and Roald Amundsen.
“I loved being in the hut. A lot of people talk about ghosts, but I never got the heebie-jeebies, but I do feel a presence,” Stefan says. “It’s a powerful space. There’s a lot of personal things, socks, sweaters with name tags. It’s cozy, personalized.
“The first time I went into the hut ... I got it to myself for 15 minutes. I wasn’t even though the door and I was bawling. The energy is so thick in the room. I know the story is a tragedy, but nine-tenths of the time it was a fabulous boys’ adventure.
“Seeing they way it was set up, I’m familiar with the stories but being really in the space it’s overwhelming,”
Stefan lead a small team of conservators from October to February in the ongoing effort to catalogue, photograph and preserve the thousands of items left behind at Scott’s base for his ill-fated Terra Nova Expedition. Starving and freezing, Scott and four other men died on their return trek from the South Pole in March 1912.
The preservation project, run by the New Zealand-based Antarctic Heritage Trust, is attempting to preserve four bases from the early British expeditions. Buildings created by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, who led the first team to the South Pole in December 1911, fell from an ice shelf into the ocean long ago.
Scott’s hut at 10 meters wide by 25 metres long housed about 25 men. With military formality, it originally had two sections, for officers and enlisted men.
Stefan’s day to day tasks involved returning artifacts treated and preserved at New Zealand’s permanent Scott Base, and repairing items like remnant food boxes sitting outside for the past 100 years. The goal is to preserve the site as-is, while giving the buildings and artifacts the ability to withstand the harsh perpetual winter.
“There are big food caches behind the hut, 120 boxes full of food. After 100 years they start to fall apart,” Stefan says. “And you have aggressive, awful birds eating 100 year old lentils.
“To conserve the frozen boxes, you have to dig them out, categorize them, load them on a sledge and haul them to the lab where they’re photoed and recorded, and then sledged back. And then put back exactly where we found it.”
That is the typical cycle for the 10,000 individual artifacts in and around the building (the site also has two latrines and an magnetic observation building lined with asbestos).
Stefan says preserving a site about preserving an important era of history and the rare chance to save the first structures created on the continent. Although isolated, she says about 2,000 people per year now visit the Cape Evans site, including tourists from cruise ships.
“This is the only surviving example of the first building built by man on a continent,” Stefan says. “This was in the dying days of the age of exploration in one of the last places on earth to be conquered, and we have the physical record of doing that.”
Like her first six-month trip in 2008, Stefan worked and lived with fellow conservators in two shipping containers, converted to a lab and living quarters.
Living conditions are “primitive” at best, she says, and most of the food in Antarctica tends to be long expired by the time it’s cracked open.
“Everything you eat is probably three or four years old. It’s all expired. But we take turns cooking,” she says. “You still sleep on the ground in a sleeping bag. It’s four and a half months of no showers, no laundry, no email and no phone.
“Working in Antarctica is compared to working in space. Its one of the few places where your survival depends on the people around you all day and every day.”
Stefan and her crew tended to work long hours in the near 24-hour daylight, but occasionally were able to hike and explore.
“It’s spectacular. There’s the Trans-Antarctic Mountains and big glaciers and an active volcano. If the ice breaks up penguins cruise by, there’s orcas and all kinds of seals. I love it. I like to work in remote places.”
Stefan’s experience at Scott’s hut allowed her to consult with the American Museum of Natural History to a create scale recreation of the building, which will be part of the RBCM’s “Race to the End of the Earth” exhibition opening May 17.
The show is bringing in original artifacts and photographs from Amundsen’s and Scott’s respective expeditions, and includes a pennant owned by Cecil Mears, the dog handler for Scott’s team and who survived and went on to live in Victoria.
The RBCM exhibition will give insights to both men’s preparations and motivations, – and explore the controversial notion the expeditions were “racing.” Amundsen cut a larger than life figure of an explorer and meticulous planner, where Scott was more focused on the science and nature of Antarctica. Stefan noted that Scott's men didn't abandon fossils they'd collected even on their doomed trek back to Cape Evans from the South Pole.
“Amundsen was a skiing champion who dashed for the South Pole. Scott brought a professional photographer and that body of work survives. Amundsen might have 30 images. Scott had hundreds," Stefan says.
“(Amundsen) wasn’t racing others down there, but in his diary though he thought Scott would get there, although certain (Scott) wouldn’t get there first.”
Stefan suspects she won’t be returning to Antarctica anytime soon, and her one regret was not sleeping in Scott’s hut, although nobody does.
“I’m going to ask the museum if I can spend a night in the fake hut.”
Check out explore.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca for more on the RBCM’s Race to the End of the Earth.
Jana Stefan inside one of the historic huts currently being conserved, Ross Island, Antarctica.