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Bainbridge Island author recalls Antarctic expedition

Colin Bull at home on Bainbridge with his latest book. - Brad Camp/Staff Photo
Colin Bull at home on Bainbridge with his latest book.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

Colin Bull reads from “Innocents in the Dry Valleys” at 3 p.m. Sunday in Eagle Harbor Book Co.

In December 1958, a U.S. Navy helicopter deposited a young professor named Colin Bull and three comrades into the broad, wind-raked Wright Valley of Antarctica.

In those relatively early days of Antarctic exploration, Wright Valley was a literal blank spot on the map. Bull and his colleagues became the first to ever clamber through the valley’s ragged terrain.

“It really was a thrill,” Bull said, “realizing that you were the first person ever to trip over that blasted rock.”

The four-member Victoria University of Wellington Antarctic Expedition – the first university-sponsored party to travel to the continent – would spend two months unlocking the secrets of Wright Valley.

Bull, now a Bainbridge resident, has recounted the expedition in his book “Innocents in the Dry Valleys” and will be on hand at Eagle Harbor Book Co. Sunday to share his story. While he would go on to become a foremost glacial scientist and organize many more polar endeavors, Bull’s fondness for that early expedition resonates in a book brimming with humor.

Even the Wright Valley was not Bull’s first foray into a polar region.

As a boy in England, he set his sights on becoming an explorer after reading, oddly enough, an account of Robert Scott’s disastrous South Pole expedition.

While completing a doctorate in physics at the University of Birmingham in England, Bull joined an expedition to Spitsbergen, an Arctic island north of Norway. That adventure became the basis for another of Bull’s books, “Innocents in the Arctic,” published in 2005.

The Spitsbergen study landed Bull a spot on the British North Greenland Expedition of 1952-1954. The bulk of his time was spent slogging through a 25-month transverse of Greenland, which Bull contends set a record for the slowest in history. Bull and two companions spent the winter of 1953-1954 huddled in a hut 300 miles from the nearest humans, while temperatures outside dipped to negative 85 degrees Fahrenheit.

The Greenland expedition was, as Bull puts it, “a great time... in retrospect.”

Shortly after marrying wife Gillian in 1956, Bull took a position as a physics lecturer at the University of Wellington in New Zealand. The newlyweds pulled up roots and moved halfway around the world to a location with rich scenery but scarce resources for scientific endeavors.

“(New Zealand) was the finest place in the world to live,” Bull said. “Unfortunately it was a terrible place to work.”

Ever restless, Bull soon turned his attention to organizing an expedition to Antarctica, which lay enticingly close to his new home. He found like-minded adventurers in a young zoology professor, Richard Barwick, and geology students Barrie McKelvey and Peter Webb. All three were fresh from stints in Antarctica.

Together they formulated a plan to explore an uncharted region of glacier-free “dry” valleys near the Ross Ice Shelf. It took some swift maneuvering for the team to gain support from the university brass and the Ross Dependency Research Committee, which oversaw New Zealand’s involvement in Antarctica. But by the fall of 1958, the expedition had won over both bodies.

Armed with about $1,000 from a few grants, the expedition began assembling supply lists and writing myriad companies asking for contributions. Soon they were flooded with goods ranging from chocolate bars to wool socks, compliments of some two dozen sponsors.

Finally, on Nov. 24, 1958, the expedition set sail south. It would spend another agonizing two weeks at the Scott Base in Antarctica before a U.S. Navy transport to its base camp in Wright Valley could be arranged. But the wait gave them time to salvage more gear from the discard piles of other expeditions.

Wright Valley is one of a network of dry valleys, ringed by sheer, snow-crowned ridges and punctuated by shallow lakes.

The intent of the expedition was to collect biological and geological samples, while taking the necessary surveying measurements to fill in the blanks on the map. The party divided into pairs; Bull and Barwick would share a tent for 51 nights.

A fold-out map in the back of “Innocents” marks the hundreds of miles the four trekked through the valleys, slogging to survey points or lugging home loads of rock samples. None were trained explorers, and the research was physically taxing. But more than anything, it was a seemingly perpetual, sand-laden wind that wore away at the nerves of the expedition members.

“Our meals, the wonderful vistas and the knowledge that we were the first people here were the main reliably positive things in our lives,” Bull wrote.

Among the expedition’s stranger finds were the bodies of 98 crabeater seals in various stages of mummification.

As the first explorers in Wright Valley, the Wellington expedition had the privilege of naming landmarks in the area. A broad cut connecting Wright Valley to the nearby tangle of dry valleys still bears the name Bull Pass.

Helicopters finally returned in late January 1959 to whisk the explorers back to Scott Base. By mid-February the four were back in New Zealand.

For a small, hastily planned expedition, it had been a productive one.

The members wrote nearly 20 published papers based on various aspects of their Wright Valley studies, including titles such as: “The Paleomagnetism of some Hypabyssal Intrusive rocks...” (the work of Bull), or Barwick’s “Seal Carcasses in a Deglaciated Region...” The first expedition would also spark decades of research in the dry valleys by the University of Wellington.

It had also been a grand adventure for four “innocents,” men who would go on to ascend the ranks of academia.

“Whether or not there could ever have been another equally unprepared and equally successful venture is a matter for speculation,” Bull wrote, “but I imagine not.”

As for Bull, a connection he made at Scott Base led to a career at Ohio State University, where he helped build up the Institute of Polar Studies and eventually became dean of the College of Mathematical and Physical Sciences.

Bull would return to Antarctica dozens of times, both in expeditions and, much later, as a guide aboard cruise ships.

When Bull left OSU more than 20 years ago, he and Gillian began looking for a new place to settle. A scientist, even in retirement, Bull factored in a complex set of criteria to narrow down his international search for a new home.

It was Bainbridge Island that scored highest, with a lively arts scene (Gillian is an accomplished painter) a low pollen count, and perhaps most important for a restless explorer: a view of the sea.

Antarctic tales

Colin Bull reads from “Innocents in the Dry Valleys” at 3 p.m. Sunday in Eagle Harbor Book Co.

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