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Bottom of the world: Brainerd man recounts life in Antarctic outposts

Josh Knopic gave an extended presentation on his time in Antarctica during a meeting Wednesday, Sept. 26, of the Audubon Society at the Northland Arboretum.

BAXTER—With frigid temperatures, glare ice and towering snow drifts only a couple calendar flips away, perhaps it's appropriate to ponder the frozen tundras of Antarctica.

Then again, it gets lower than 100 degrees below zero (without wind chill factored in) around the South Pole, so may it's also a chance for central Minnesotans to count their blessings, even if winter can still be a nasty old beast up here.

Take Josh Knopik then—a Brainerd resident who took a continental leap and worked as a preventative maintenance mechanic in Antarctica for two six-month stints between August and March in 2006 and 2007. Knopic gave an extended presentation on his time in Antarctica during a meeting Wednesday, Sept. 26, of the Audubon Society at the Northland Arboretum.

Knopik told the Dispatch it was an opportunity that came to him through a recruiter who stopped in Brainerd—though, he noted, there were also external factors in play as well. At the time, when there were two wars raging in the Middle East and a booming economy, many contractors who might have headed to the deep, deep sub-Arctic south were stationed abroad in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.

That opened up slots for Knopik and his father at the time—"A worker shortage," he said—although that doesn't mean it wasn't competitive. Knopic said he was one of about 12 accepted applicants out of a field of about 400.

With his ticket punched, so to speak, the opportunity felt right because of Knopik's long-standing interest in the environment and how it functions.

"I have a natural interest in the environment as a whole and hunting, fishing and camping—outdoor adventures," Knopik said after the presentation was over. "The Antarctic keeps popping up in all of those disciplines and it's usually an exception."

Knopik headed down, educated at Bemidji State University as an undergrad in environmental sciences and then receiving a master's at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, worked in what he termed as the equivalent to a lubrication technician around here.

That's hardly small fry work, though. Knopik said he'd often function as a johnny-on-the-spot mechanic wherever he was needed—whether that was tinkering with a snowmobile or digging into the belly of a house-sized skid loader buried in a mountain of packed snow, which dates back to the 1950s.

His life revolved around his work, he said, much like an overtaxed college student who spends his life in packed, dorm-style quarters, working nine-hour shifts for six days a week, and mingling with experts and students of all creeds, backgrounds and nationalities.

It's a unique, insular community—a population numbering little more than 10,000 for the continent during its peak times during the summer months, plunging below 5,000 during the depths of a hellishly cold winter, Knopik said.

But, predominantly—along with the natural wonders and fascinating, cutting-edge experiments he participated in—it was the community that shined the brightest among his memories in that dark, virtually uninhabited corner of the globe. Knopik said he spent most of his time at McMurdo Station on the coast, though he spent some weeks on the South Pole.

"What I found most satisfying working down there was the people, Knopik said. "It's a unique culture because the people interested in that kind of deployment, away for months on end—typically, they have a unique personality, typically has an interest in travel."

At the same time, while his compatriots made the trips a joy, the international bureaucracy—Antarctica is a treaty-bound neutral zone—were petty and often stifling, Knopik said. The oodles of red tape were enough to be the number one reason why people left, he said.

"Most Antarcticans are friendly—the people who work there—it's the bureaucracy that's not. The bureaucracy is a frustration for all," said Knopik, who noted that disturbing wildlife or giving meals to explorers who weren't formally authorized were two examples of offenses that could get someone booted off the continent on the next flight.

Still, when it's all said and done, it was a transformational experience, Knopik told the Audubon Society attendees—and, once one's tour is done, he said, there's also a choice to use that visa to hop onto New Zealand, Australia or beyond.

Frigid fun facts

• McMurdo Station, a coastal base where Knopik spent most of his time, was a relatively balmy 40 degrees below zero most of the time. That's still too cold for virtually any form of bacteria or life forms for decomposition. Scott's Hut, a rickety wooden hut near the base, remains virtually untouched since its foundation during an expedition in 1902.

• Don't feel guilty about putting that second helping of half n' half into your coffee. Weddell Seal milk is 60 percent fat—the fattiest milk among mammals—whereas human breast milk is only 4 percent, for comparison.

• Adelie Penguins are like 5-year-old kids who are curious and unafraid of humans, Knopik said, which makes it extraordinarily hard to refrain from petting them and getting booted off the continent for disturbing the wild life.

• Wanna ice fish? You can, but it takes a 4-foot ice auger to drill through the ice and the fish rarely come by larger than a foot and they're icy, bony things, Knopik said.

• The South Pole Station has a unique heating system, warming up pockets of ice and then using the liquid water for drinking, cleaning and showering, etc. Knopik said workers there are restricted to two showers per week, with only a two-minute limit per shower, though as a mechanic he was treated to three per week.

• By the way, if anyone ever gets the chance to visit the South Pole, they can join the "300 Club." How? Hop into a sauna and crank it up to 200 degrees, then sprint out the door—often with little more than your boots on—and run around the South Pole when it's lower than 100 degrees below zero. This trek, which takes about 45 seconds to a minute, sees the human body traverse a temperature variance of 300 degrees.

• Pay is low—Knopik only made about $700 per week, despite the workload, expertise and conditions—but room and board is covered and, most importantly, two words: subsidized beer. There's also two bars at McMurdo Station, if anyone's wondering.