SHERIDAN — Temperatures as low as 126 degrees below zero, 60-hour work weeks and no option to leave before the six-month contract ends – who would agree to these terms of living? Lenny and Rhoda Bonneau did each time they traveled to work at a research station in Antarctica.
Lenny and Rhoda Bonneau have traveled to Antarctica 15 and 13 times each, respectively, where they worked at McMurdo research station as support crew. The Bonneaus described their experience during a presentation of the documentary “Antarctica: A Year on Ice” at the Sheridan County Fulmer Library Wednesday.
Though Lenny Bonneau said that at times it was difficult being confined to the station and knowing there was no way to make it home if homesickness set in or a family emergency occurred, he said he and his wife miss the life every day.
“It gets long. Every time you see a plane leave you wish it was yours, but you’ve still got three more months,” he said about the low times on the continent. He added, “but for the most part, it was well worth it.”
The Bonneaus started their expeditions in 1998, before aircrafts started making trips to the continent every six weeks. They went during a time when if you signed on for six months, you stayed for six months.
The Bonneaus worked with the United States Antarctic Program, and while they both started on the line as cooks, they were each recruited to other sectors. Ultimately, the couple ended up working with aircrafts; Rhoda Bonneau worked with fueling, and her husband’s job was to install aircraft with heaters and power units. They said everything in the summer is to support the scientists, who are studying, among other things, climate change and meteorites.
The Bonneaus only worked on the continent during the summer months because no aircraft flew in the winter. Though workers can choose to stay the full year, and the Bonneaus could have taken on a different job in supply, they would then be required to leave Antarctica for about five months after 12-14 months of working and subsequently lose their summer jobs.
“They know that it’s just not a healthy environment either physically or mentally to be there longer than like 14 months,” Rhoda Bonneau said, describing how communal living wears on a person. Workers that stayed for winter had to undergo a mental evaluation as well as the physical one that’s required across the board.
Lenny Bonneau said a typical day consisted of waking up before 5 a.m. and taking a shuttle to work.
“Depending on the roads — it’s snow on ice — it could take you 45 minutes to get to work,” he said. “It could take you two hours.”
He said a standard work day for him was a 12-hour shift. After, he returned for dinner, ate and headed to bed.
But he said sights like nacreous clouds, a polar stratospheric cloud that glows with iridescent color, as well as relationships made and maintained make the experience more than worth it.
“It’s just things that most people never get to see that we were very fortunate to do,” Lenny Bonneau said.
The Bonneaus said that they know of about 12 people from the Sheridan area that have made the trip to Antarctica. Rhoda Bonneau said they’ve worked with young people to mentor them on what to take and expect, preparing them for the extreme environment.
“You have to respect the environment in Antarctica,” she said. “It can kill you if you’re not smart about it.”
The couple said they think more people from the northern states are interested in going because they are more used to the cold temperatures already.
They said in the summer, when temperatures are usually in the teens and 20s but can drop to 100 degrees below zero, there’s about 1,000 people working at McMurdo station. About 300 of them are scientists, and the rest are support staff. While that number drops to about 120-200 people during the winter, the Bonneaus said people will do anything to get to this frozen continent, including taking on jobs below their education level.
“So if you’ve got a janitor or dining attendant don’t pick on them,” Lenny Bonneau said, “because they might be a lawyer; they might be a doctor.”
But the Bonneaus understand why. Lenny Bonneau said that people are pretty evenly split; half think they’re crazy for going and half wish they could go themselves.
And for the people who have even an inkling of curiosity, he has one word of advice: Go.
“Go. Even if it’s for four minutes,” he said. “It’ll transform your life.”