The hot chocolate goes down well right now. The weather’s turning cooler, and I just returned from my first extravehicular activity on an all-terrain vehicle, our longest foray yet into the wilds of Devon Island. We left the Hab and headed out down to the Lowell Canal, a route I’ve taken daily with Digby Tarvin to fetch the water, but this time, we crossed the stream and climbed the steep hill on the other side. Soon we were beyond sight of the Hab and entering northern territory none of us had seen before.
Commander Steve McDaniel led the EVA team of Jan Osburg, Peter Lee and me — though I am out of sim still, and therefore am not technically part of the crew. If alluded to, I am Ghost Rider, a presence to be felt, perhaps, but not seen — the guard, the videographer and photographer. I am there to watch for polar bears foremost, and as I can, to document waypoints by filming a panorama as the site is noted on the GPS units, film the crew and scenery as there is opportunity, and make still photographs when I can.
Today’s mission was primarily for reconnaissance. Our original goal was to reach Lakeview, a prominent overlook above several small lakes. After studying the maps and aerial photographs last night, Steve decided that we should allow ourselves three hours to reach the spot. We did not know what the terrain would be like, but we were prepared for mud and rocky slopes to slow us down. As it turned out, the going was better than we expected, and we were soon at our goal. With almost two hours to spare and a quick conference with Jody Tinsley back at the Hab, we decided to press on.
We negotiated all sorts of obstacles as we went. I’d sort of forgotten what riding an ATV was like. The only time I’ve ever been on one was last March, at the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah (the sister to the Flashline Hab). The Utah/Mars desert is very dry and clayey, and the roads for the most part are well-used. There, the terrain was either passable or not. But here at Devon Island, there are no well-used roads. There are hardly roads at all. The best one, which Jan dubbed “the Autobahn,” runs to and from the science stations and the Lowell Canal. Once past the Autobahn, things get dicey at times; sometimes there’s a track to follow — sometimes we have to blaze our own trail.
Mud, which I mentioned earlier, is notoriously bad in spots. I have not met up with it personally — yet — but Jan had a brief encounter with it on an EVA a couple of days ago. The worst mud is called “quickmud,” and it is said to be really hard to escape without a great deal of trouble. We looked for it everywhere we went, but it was not in our path — today.
No — we forded creeks, rode up fairly steep slopes and bounced over large rocks. We learned that we could make better progress the closer to streams we stayed. Throughout our route, the larger rocks were high on slopes, so for the most part, the lower on slopes we were, the more manageable the rocks were, and the more distance we could make. We made a real push to get as far as we did, and Steve was very pleased.
By the time we turned around, we were within a mile of Boulder Ridge, a landmark about three and a half miles from here as the crow flies. Considering the terrain, we did well in the time we had. We made a variety of stops to take GPS readings and let Peter take some samples for the microbiology research we’re doing.
The other folks were in their EVA suits, of course; I was in jeans, various layers of polypropylene and a jacket. This ensemble enabled me to hop off my ATV quickly at our stops, scan the landscape for bears, set up whatever camera was appropriate, and pack up and hop back on as the team roared away. I always had the feeling I was rushing to catch up with them, though as Ghost Rider, I was supposed to stay about 100 feet behind the last crew member. But the packing up took valuable minutes, and sometimes I fell far behind. Catching up was an exercise in bronco riding.
I’ve been teasing Digby on our water runs about riding bucking broncos, and in a way that’s what crossing rocks on an ATV feels like. These are not boulders — we don’t try to drive over those. But these aren’t the type of rocks you skim across a lake. These are the types of rocks you clear out of pastures and build walls with, or tie onto things you want to sink in a body of water, or lift (if you can) to show how strong you are. They aren’t like the rocks we have back home in South Carolina. They are grayish brown and full of fossils. We would love to stop and study them up close, but on the ATV we crawl and bounce over them. They are obstacles, not geological treasures, when we are under way.
And under way, we are bronc riding. Our steeds toss us side to side, up — we hope not off. In my life, I’ve ridden horseback a lot, but I rode horses, not broncos, and all my years of riding Tennessee Walking Horses did not prepare me for the uncomfortable gait of my ATV, Old No. 2. No running walk here! Old No. 2 pitched me frontward and backwards, and right and left — he mule-headedly stopped halfway up a couple of hills, and sometimes he didn’t want to stop when I suggested stopping would be a good idea. Unlike Princess, the horse of my girlhood, Old No. 2 didn’t mind crossing water; in fact he zipped right through it and sprayed me all over, to boot. Sometimes he jerked the handlebar right out of my hand; at other times, he went like a champ.
All day, though, I felt like a real Ghost Rider on my steed. I wore a radio headset most of the day so that I could hear my companions discussing routes and plans, but I didn’t communicate with them at all, nor they with me. I could tell, however, that they kept track of my whereabouts, wanting their ghost close enough for safety’s sake, but not too close to interrupt sim. I haunted them discreetly and held Old No. 2 back behind them even when he wanted to run.
Although every mission will have a Ghost Rider, and Ghost Riding is an important role, it is a lonely role — to be there, yet not be there — to see everything but not be a part of the action-to ride with others, but to ride alone.
© 2003 April Childress. Licensed by the author to MSNBC.com.