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'Gigantic novel' locked in ice

The Earth's southernmost continent doesn't beckon many people to come for a frigid visit, much less an extended stay. 

Medford resident Dave Baker is one of the few to hear and answer Antarctica's call, and it's brought him back to the ice-wreathed land mass three times: first as a para-rescue officer in the U.S. Navy support force for Operation DeepFreeze in the 1950s, then as a visitor with his wife and son, respectively, in 2004 and 2010.

Baker, now 82, will share some of his frosty stories from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Thursday at Howiee's, 16 N. Front St., Medford. The event is part of ScienceWorks' Tap House Talks series. It is free to attend and open to anyone of drinking age. 

"I've had these unique experiences, and so I feel a compulsion, almost an obligation, to share those experiences with other people," Baker says. "It is a special, very unique place."

A young boy's dream

Antarctica first called to Baker when he was 6 or so, growing up in Massachusetts. Its invitation came through a sermon his father preached on Robert Falcon Scott, the U.K. explorer who made an attempt to reach the South Pole in the early 1900s but came in second to Roald Amundsen of Norway. 

"That's the story that got me motivated," Baker says. "As a youngster I had this dream that someday I might get to go to Antarctica."

Baker enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1954 after graduating from college. In 1955, he received notification that volunteers were being sought for a mission to Antarctica. It was called Operation Deep Freeze, predecessor of the International Geophysical Year event in which numerous countries collaborated on a variety of earth science studies across the planet. Baker threw his hat in the ring.

"Here was a case of a young boy's dream coming true," he says.

McMurdo Station

Operation Deep Freeze took place between 1955 and 1957. During that time, the Navy assisted in the construction of several bases, the temporary homes for IGY personnel.

Baker was sent to McMurdo Station, seated on the McMurdo Sound about 2,200 miles south of New Zealand. Its initial primary function was to provide logistics support for Navy personnel constructing another base at the South Pole. Baker's primary responsibilities were communications, para-rescue and survival training for people who were heading to the South Pole.

He worked as a dogsled driver and a para-rescue officer, the latter role on standby in case of a plane crash that could not be accessed by helicopter or other specialized planes equipped with ice skids. Baker was trained to parachute into the site of a crash — dogsled team and all — and extract any survivors. He never had to heed that call, though. Probably a good thing, he says.

"It was an impractical idea," Baker says. "The first rule of mountain rescue is you should be able to go out the same way you came in."

He did use the dogs, however, accompanying them on frequent training runs across the snowy ice fields. Baker remembers a particular run in which his sled dogs started whining and acting nervously as they glanced about. A blizzard was coming.

The team stopped and spent a sleepless night in a tent while the storm roared outside. Baker worried that the violent winds would crack the field of thick sea ice underneath them and push them out to sea.

"Which would have been the end. I wouldn't be telling you this story," Baker says.

On another dogsled journey, a penguin wandered into Baker's camp. The bird marched up and down the line of sled dogs and stopped in front of Kao, the most aggressive of the bunch, as the dog lunged and snapped. Not to be outdone, the penguin lunged back. Kao leaped in surprised and fell over backwards.

The journey back

Baker continued his Navy career in a variety of spots, including Hawaii, Southern California, the Bay Area, Florida, and Norfolk, Va. He retired as a reserve naval captain in 1979 and moved to the Rogue Valley in 1989.

Fifteen years later, he returned to the sprawling continent, this time with his wife. In 2010, he made the trek with his son. He took numerous pictures and videos both times.

"It's not unusual for people who have been to Antarctica to be drawn back to it," Baker says. "It's almost like an addiction."

He's still sharing his experiences with others, lecturing at libraries, schools and scientific gatherings. But he doesn't just look back. He also looks ahead, focusing on the continent as a prime spot for scientific research and discovery in a variety of subjects, including geography, oceanography, astronomy and biology.

"Antarctica is like a gigantic storybook, a gigantic novel with many stories to be told," he says. "We're reading one chapter after another, the story that's locked in the ice.

"The story I have to tell is a personal story, but it's also a story of the men who went before, as well as the sciences taking place right now."

Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or rpfeil@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/ryanpfeil.

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The MS National Geographic Explorer approaches the Lemaire Channel during one of Dave Baker's trips to Antarctica. Photo courtesy of Dave Baker
A pressure ridge rises from the Antarctic ice. Photo courtesy of Dave Baker