Draw of ‘the Ice’: How two former South Hadley residents crossed paths at the bottom of the world

  • Tara Keith and Douglas Rhoades, who both grew up in South Hadley and crossed paths working in Antarctica, pose in front of the McMurdo Station sign. DOUGLAS RHOADES

  • Douglas Rhoades (right) helps to flag ice roads, which involves drilling holes in the ice and inserting bamboo poles with flags on the end. ALASDAIR TURNER

  • Douglas Rhoades stands in front of a glacier during a trip to the McMurdo Dry Valleys. —DOUGLAS RHOADES

  • Douglas Rhoades poses with two seals, which he said are a common sight in Antarctica. DOUGLAS RHOADES

  • Tara Keith stands at the top of Observation Hill with a view of McMurdo Station behind her. TARA KEITH

  • Tara Keith stands on sea ice in front of Black Island and White Island. —TARA KEITH

  • The southern lights over the Antarctic landscape. —DOUGLAS RHOADES

Staff Writer
Published: 11/14/2018 11:11:41 PM

SOUTH HADLEY — When Douglas Rhoades and Tara Keith made their respective trips to Antarctica, the last thing they expected was to meet another person who grew up in South Hadley.

But while working at McMurdo Station research center, Antarctica’s largest community, the two were met with the unexpected realization that there was more than one former South Hadley resident at the bottom of the world.

The odds are unlikely: McMurdo can host 235 to around 1,000 people, depending on the season, according to the National Science Foundation (NSF). South Hadley, meanwhile, had an estimated population of 17,791 according to a 2017 U.S. Census Bureau report. 

Although Rhoades and Keith grew up in the same town, and eventually landed in the same offbeat destination, the path from South Hadley to Antarctica was significantly different for the two former residents of the Pioneer Valley.

Rhoades first came to Antarctica — or “the Ice,” as it’s called at McMurdo Station — in Nov. 2013, staying until mid-February. Since then, Rhoades has been on several return trips, usually for a few months at a time. On his most recent stay, Rhoades spent over a year on the continent. 

But Rhoades didn’t always feel “the draw of the Ice” — prior to applying for a job at McMurdo, he had never left the United States. He had a friend who had worked in Antarctica for years, but didn’t understand why anyone would want to go there. 

That changed in 2009, when Rhoades shattered two vertebrae, broke both of his feet and also suffered head and chest injuries in an accident — he fell from a building’s third story. Initially, his doctor didn’t know if he would ever walk again. 

But as he recovered, the accident that almost killed him became a catalyst for a new beginning, he explained on a recent afternoon at Parthenon Restaurant in South Hadley. 

“They gave me a second chance at life,” Rhoades said of the medical team that cared for him after the accident. “They really did. And I wanted to make sure I didn’t throw it away.”

“I wanted to challenge myself in a new way,” Rhoades added. “I wanted to do something very, very different, and I figured going to the bottom of the world in the most remote place might be it ... I was in a place where I was turning my life around, and I wanted to really challenge it and step it up. And yeah, Antarctica was it.”

01075 represents

Whereas Rhoades initially kept to the United States, Keith describes herself as an avid traveler who’s had a longstanding goal of visiting all seven continents. 

“I knew I wanted to come while I was still in college but could never seem to justify the price of a cruise to Antarctica,” Keith, who is currently at McMurdo, wrote via email. “It became one of those, ‘I’ll go later’ things.”

But while living in Australia in 2015, Keith noticed advertisements for the Australian Antarctic program, which gave her the idea to apply to the United States Antarctic Program upon returning home in 2017. Keith was first accepted for an alternate position, then given a spot in the program for 2018.

Keith arrived in Antarctica on Aug. 25, and she will leave in February.

Rhoades and Keith met in the McMurdo kitchen, where Rhoades works as a cook and Keith is a steward. When Rhoades first mentioned he was from South Hadley, he said that Keith was in disbelief.

“She was like, ‘No, you’re messing with me,’ ” Rhoades said. “She really thought I was joking around with her, and then I spouted out the zip code, 01075.”

Keith recalled the moment as “surreal.”

“It is one of those moments where you realize that no matter how big the world is, it is still pretty small,” she said. “It was also really nice to reminisce about the town and talk about all the places we missed there.”

Keith described living in Antarctica as making “the dream come true” and highlighted the natural phenomena of the landscape and skies — the southern lights and nacreous clouds, colorful, iridescent clouds that only form in frigid temperatures — as standout aspects of her time on the continent so far.

“The night I saw (the southern lights) was one of the strongest recorded storms in quite a few years,” Keith said. “They were absolutely breathtaking and completely worth the wait for.” 

Rhoades appreciated his experience in Antarctica and “being able to go places and do things that people only dream about.”

But living on the continent also comes with its challenges, from relying on periodic, bulk shipments for most supplies to staying safe in what can quickly become a deadly environment. 

The average annual temperature at McMurdo is zero degrees, according to the NSF; the temperature can drop as low as -58 degrees in the winter or rise to 46 degrees during the summer months. “There is no such thing as a typical day here,” Keith said. “Every day brings you something new.”

It’s not for everyone, Rhoades said. But he plans to keep going back for as long as he can pass the program’s physical qualification tests, and he is already contracted, as a cook for the station, to return in February. 

“People spend their entire life saving up for a chance to do something that I get to go and do and get paid for,” Rhoades said, “and being part of the program and what I’m doing is for a lot bigger purpose than just me.”

He continued, “There are so many things that go on down there — all of the science and the research — and there’s new discoveries all the time… I get to help support all those people. I get to do all these great incredible things.”

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.

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