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Arctic Mars crew goes for the coast

The Devon Island simulation team prepares for its “Campaign to the Coast,” but challenges abound.
/ Source: Mars Society

“But what about the Campaign to the Coast?” This question has been on everyone’s minds and lips over the last few days. Before we all arrived here on Devon Island, we had agreed that a primary mission objective would be to mount an expedition to the coast of Devon Island. This effort has been tried before in sim, but the earlier attempt was not successful, and we were determined very early on to make a go for it ourselves.

LUCKILY, WE have all-terrain vehicles. A pedestrian team on extravehicular activity could not get very far in sim. It is exhausting to wear an EVA suit for long-the sheer weight of the suit, combined with the weight of the backpacks and water packs, and the limited vision and airflow in the helmets (not to mention the condensation on the visor) can wear a person out. Even a short walk to the top of a ridge or boulder pile can leave an otherwise fit person breathless.

We would not even contemplate a push to the coast (about 12 miles one way is our guess, I think) if we had to walk there. Besides, the coast is polar bear country. A motivated polar bear can outrun an ATV unless the ATV has a good head start; a person on foot in an EVA suit is seal meat.

So the ATVs make an attempt at the coast possible. Some of the land we ride over looks like a piece of yellow cake with pecan filling swirled through it. Imagine a slice of that cake. The cake, the surface of our Mars, is dirt or small gravel; the filling is rocks that are swirled through the surface. When the cake sections are a bit soft or sticky, we can make our way to the rocky swirls and try to keep the tires on the firmer surface. We might not be going in a straight line, but we are not getting stuck.

There are other issues, too. Changing gears in EVA boots requires a knack that comes only with practice, and going over a big bump can cause the rider’s head to knock hard against the inside of the helmet. ATV riding in sim isn’t for sissies.

We can cover a lot of ground on an ATV, assuming the drivers can stand the physical and mental strain of riding in a remote area over rough terrain. There are times when we can throttle ’er up and let ’er rip, but in rougher areas we may be planning our next move across a boulder pile as carefully as a champion player plans the next move on a chessboard.

You’d be surprised at what an ATV can handle. But like certain pieces on a chess board, an ATV can’t go everywhere. Mud bogs, boulder piles, and deep puddles are places we avoid (though a four-wheeler can handle deeper water crossings than a rider might be tempted to try). We each have tested our machine’s capabilities as well as our own in preparation for the Campaign to the Coast.


Several of our earlier extravehicular activities have paved the way for the final push today. I served as guard on one such expedition, and each trip to the north has taught us more about the terrain and the capabilities of the ATVs and allowed us to map waypoints that would help us plan the most efficient (not necessarily direct) route. Taking these preview trips has increased our familiarity with the job ahead of us and with the territory that must be covered; experience suggests that the Hab-to-Coast round trip might take about 10 hours.

InsertArt(1962215)On those trips, crew members have especially enjoyed naming landmarks, and it’s clear what is important to the members of the various expeditions. Our maps now note “Clara’s Confluence” and “Clara Canyon,” after Jan Osburg’s’s 3-year-old daughter, and “Santa Claus Lake,” also for Clara, who thinks Jan is visiting the North Pole. We also have “Thrill Hill,” named after Steve McDaniel’s dog, and “Lake Blue,” in honor of his girlfriend.

Naming landmarks, as well as taking GPS coordinates, helps us to remember the beautiful spots that mark our path to the north, our final destination “FMARS Fjord.” We have dreamed of the views the Fjord will provide, plotted out the route on maps, talked through the difficulties and dangers and the strategies we should employ to keep ourselves safe en route. The route takes us across creeks, across rocky plains, through boulder piles, beside lakes, between walls of steep ravines, over hill and dale.

Our plans were in place; we were ready to go. So it has been with dismay that we have greeted two setbacks this week. Thursday was the original agreed-upon day for the first effort to reach the coast, but on Monday, Jody Tinsley came down with a sore throat, followed immediately by Ella Carlsson, Steve and yours truly. Digby Tarvin has had an ongoing cough, and several of us have felt lethargic. Only Peter Lee and Jan have escaped whatever it is that has latched onto us. By Wednesday, we were all feeling somewhat better, in spite of continued sneezing and coughing, but it was decided — sneeze! cough! — that another day’s wait would give folks a chance to recover more fully.

After a group discussion, we decided that Jan, the most experienced in navigation, would plan much of our route and be the navigator, that Steve would command the mission, and that Jody, who has a lot of outdoor experience, was to go as Ghost Rider. The next slot was harder to fill. After some discussion, the group decided that I should be the fourth. Jan, Steve and I would go in sim; for safety’s sake, Jody would be out of sim.

Then came another setback: weather. The wind is whistling against the Hab as I write this, whipping against the antennas, making us who sit inside feel cold just listening to it. All day Thursday we looked out at clouds rolling in across the crater. Gone are the balmy breezes, the T-shirts. Fog set in; Thursday we actually had rain. Suddenly, weather, not health, became the topic of conversation at the supper table. Would the little rain we got create mud where there had been none? A rider in a wet EVA suit would be miserable and could get dangerously cold in 40-degree temperatures. What would the weather do? We sneezed and blew our noses and discussed the unknown.


We couldn’t know ahead of time, so we packed up last night as if we would leave this morning — sleeping bags and tents, just in case the crew was too tired or cold or caught by bad weather to make it back, food rations, stove, first aid kit, ATV repair kit and fuel, extra equipment and clothes for everyone, in case of breakdown or injury or rain.

I went to bed last night anxious about whether my riding skills would be good enough to cope with the terrain we hadn’t seen yet, worried about the weather and whether I had forgotten anything I should have packed, excited about being chosen for this EVA team.

But as the night progressed, and my sneezing worsened, and I lay awake stuffy-headed, counting the hours till the 6 o’clock wake-up call, I realized that I myself was not going to be physically ready for this expedition. In a few days, maybe. But not today. It was with a heavy heart that I spoke with Steve this morning and asked to be excused. The EVA team needs members who are going to be assets, not liabilities, and today, with my stuffy head, I wouldn’t even be able to hear the radio communications. And a runny nose in a helmet is not a happy thing.

At breakfast, we all discussed the feasibility of waiting till tomorrow to see if I could feel better by then and make the trip as planned. But every weather report we have received from Mission Support suggests that the weather will get worse before it gets better. We decided that the away team should not wait another day. Digby stepped into my place and mounted my ATV, and wistfully I watched the team disappear over the ridge to the north.

© 2003 April Childress. Licensed by the author to