Commonwealth Stream

Upstream end of the Commonwealth Canyon.  C1 Gauge is immediately behind the camera.  Commonwealth Glacier in the background.

Upstream end of the Commonwealth Canyon. C1 Gauge is immediately behind the camera. Commonwealth Glacier in the background.

Antarctica happens.  Sometimes things don’t go the way you’ve planned.  The Antarctica factor can be weather, it can be mechanical problems, and sometimes it’s DVs.  DVs are “distinguished visitors.”  In our case, a congressional delegation, a “CODEL.”

We spent last weekend at Lake Hoare and returned to F6 on Monday.   We had a plan for the week:  we’d work on our nine gauges around Lake Fryxell on Monday and Tuesday, and learn the flow measurement device we would be using, the FlowTracker.  On Wednesday we would fly to the three gauges where we still had to re-do our leveling: Onyx River at Lake Vanda, Onyx River at Lower Wright Valley, and Commonwealth Stream at C1.  On Friday we would return to Bonney Lake and do flow measurements and water samples on four streams and service two gauges.

The Onyx River is in the Wright Valley, while the Commonwealth Stream drains from the east flank of the Commonwealth Glacier and flows directly into Explorers Cove in New Harbor, on the Ross Sea.  It’s an efficient use of helo hours to service the Wright Valley and Commonwealth Stream gauges on the same day.  We had to visit these gauges to re-do the leveling, but we knew there had been flow at C1 and telemetry was giving some indication that there might be flow at least at the Lower Wright Gauge, so we were hoping to get some water samples and do some flow measurements.

Monday we were flown from Lake Hoare to F6 in the morning.  While we were away, Aiken Creek, McKnight Creek and Huey Creek all started flowing, so we mounted up our trusty ATV and started moving from F6 counterclockwise around Lake Fryxell.  Our first stop was Aiken Creek, where we did a flow measurement and took water samples.  McKnight Creek is a very broad and shallow stream, so we couldn’t measure the flow, but we did sample there.  Lost Seal, which had been flowing at something like 30 l/s (about one cubic foot per second) was now just a trickle, probably a few milliliters per second, so we only sampled there.   Huey Creek had flow, which surprised me, so we sampled there and took a Baski measurement.  We did the same at Canada Stream.  Our last stop was to take samples at the stream hard up against the east flank of the Canada Glacier (the analog to Mariah creek, on the opposite shore of Lake Fryxell).

Tuesday was a real blizzard. We went up to F9 on Green Creek with the intention to do a flow measurement with the FlowTracker, but the cold weather had shut down the flows, so all we could do is play around with the instrument in order to get some comfort with its operation.   After a couple of hours in the cold, we returned to F6 to do paperwork for the rest of the afternoon, while it snowed and blew outside.

Wednesday brought nice weather.  We were picked up at F6 at about 9 a.m in 31 Lima, a Eurocopter A-350, Astar, and flown to Lake Vanda.  Our route to the Wright Valley took us right by what is known informally as Gargoyle Ridge, a collection of exceptional ventifacts.  Photography can’t do justice to this feature–the shapes are so strange and beautiful.  I was riding shotgun in the AStar on this trip and didn’t have a photo window, so all the shots below are through plexiglass.

At the Lake Vanda Gauge we ran levels and I completed our first streamflow measurement using the FlowTracker (more to come on this).  Then we flew to the Lower Wright Valley Gauge (on the Upper Onyx River).  We ran levels there, and I was half way through the flow measurement (which takes about 45 minutes) when 31 Lima returned, an hour early.   Weather was closing in on McMurdo, so even though it was severe clear in the Wright Valley we were taken back to F6.  The weather at F6 was wonderful, so Mikey hiked to Lake Hoare to pick up some samples and I hiked over to Aiken Creek and did a flow measurement with the Baski (I was hoping to get a high-flow measurement with the FlowTracker, and carried it over there, but flows were still low due to the cold weather.)   On the way back from Aiken Creek, all the time standing in cold water caught up with me, and I bonked.  When I got to F6 I ate almost all of a jar of salsa and half a bag of chips.

A Baski set up at Aiken Creek at very low flow.

A Baski set up at Aiken Creek at very low flow.

Helo Ops re-scheduled us to return on Thursday to Lower Wright to finish our work there, and to C1 to run levels and get a flow measurement.  We were all dressed and ready to go when we got a call from Kate at Helo Ops–the CODEL was not going to the Pole today, but instead was going to tour the Dry Valleys.  So…our helo schedule  had to be adjusted.  Piggybacking on some of the CODEL transport overhead could get us to Lake Hoare, so we went there to do some sampling.  We did intersect the CODEL for a bit, and had a chance to sit in on some of their discussions.


When we returned to F6 that afternoon I went back to Green Creek and did another flow measurement.  Then I went up to the face of the Canada Glacier and collected some glacier berries (pieces of ice that have calved off the glacier) for our water supply.  That evening we went over to Lost Seal Creek in hopes of getting a high-flow measurement, but all we could collect was another low-flow measurement using the Baski.

They say that the third time’s the charm, and Friday we had flawless weather and succeeded in getting to both the Lower Wright Gauge and the Gauge at C1 on the Commonwealth Stream.  We had a hard time getting back, though.

Our visit to Lower Wright was perfection.  We got our flow measurement done, in pretty good style, and had time to visit the Kiwi hut.  These photos are a composite from both of the trips to the Wright Valley.

When we were done at Lower Wright, Mike picked us up in 31 Lima and flew us over Lake Brownworth, the source of the Onyx River, over the edge of the Wilson Piedmont Glacier and down the Commonwealth to the Commonwealth Stream.

Our work at C1 went very smoothly.  By about 2:30, we were rushing a bit to get our work done at C1 before 31 Lima was due to return to pick us up. We took turns running up to a nearby hill to get a view of the Ross Sea and Erebus.

Originally, we had been scheduled at C1 until 4:15, but now it looked like we would get picked up an hour early.  We finished in time, made a mad dash to a view point, and piled our stuff at the landing zone, just in time to hear some chatter that indicated a problem.  31 Lima had broken down in the Pierce Valley.  Breakdowns really mess things up, because one helicopter is out of service, but also because one other helicopter must now be dedicated to getting a mechanic and parts from McMurdo to the broken machine.  We watched as 36 Hotel flew over us on its way to MCM to pick up the mechanic.

But, this was not without its benefit.  It was a beautiful afternoon.  We’d completed our work, and there was stunning scenery nearby.  We eventually made it back to F6 around 6:00 p.m.  Here is some of what I looked at in the interim.


4 thoughts on “Commonwealth Stream

  1. Ben, sorry I have not been replying. These are so much fun to read..and particularly surrel with you with you there and us now in nicaragua….for two weeks. My question..I am unclear as to how this job came to be. Who are you working for? Are you being paid to do this, etc. would love the back story…



  2. Anne, thanks for the comments. I may write about the back story. For now, I’m an employee of the University of Colorado Institute for Arctic and Alpine Research. I’m paid enough to support a serious latte habit, but I get something like $100,000 worth of helicopter flights.


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