For many of us, it’s a wonderful dream: spending a summer in a quaint little off-grid cabin on a remote lake with absolutely no one else around. The view of the lake, the stars at night, and the sounds of nature feed your soul.
There’s not a neighbor within earshot or eyesight, and the cabin isn’t accessible by road. You park about a quarter mile away and walk-in on the trail. There is an atv, but it’s a bit temperamental. More often than not, you’re carrying in your supplies, drinking water, gasoline for the generator, and dog food on your back.
Oh, the dog food? Did I forget to mention the dogs? Imagine that you’re also caring for 24 sled dogs… and 7 speedy and enthusiastic sled dog puppies!
Kate Hibbs spent her summer in northern Minnesota doing just this! Kate says “I loved living up north this summer; I knew I needed this time to be in the woods. I needed to recalibrate, so living in solitude for a time was perfect for me.
Sled dogs are incredible animals, and I love mushing for so many reasons. It’s extremely active, yet peaceful and beautiful. It’s really fantastic to use this old traditional form of travel and see the pure joy, athleticism, problem solving and group dynamics of a sled dog team.”
When asked about the challenges the summer presented, you might expect to hear her talk about the physical demands of caring for so many dogs, or the inconveniences of living off grid and so remotely.
Instead, Kate mentioned only two things. “I haven’t been around to enjoy Minnesota’s boreal winters and the dog mushing that comes with it. It was pretty difficult to only care for them during the summer months when it’s too hot to take them on runs. I’d also say a big challenge was being so removed from my loved ones.”
Lately, Kate’s been spending her falls, winters and springs in Antarctica. While in Antarctica (time that she calls “on-ice”), resources are limited, so there isn’t much of an opportunity to stay in touch with friends and family back home. “It is important to be able to spend my time off-ice engaged in relationships that are important to me and engaged in my community. While tempting to seek out solitude, I’ve learned that I need to figure out a balance of self-care without using my privilege to escape too much!”
Only 27, she’s already been a “mover and a shaker” in making a difference in her communities. While in school at Ithaca College for Anthropology, she helped establish her school’s Asian American Studies Program, and was part of starting an East-Coast-wide movement for intersectional education in colleges and universities.
She and a few friends also founded the “Aurora Collective” in hope of opening the “out of doors” experience to a broader audience. Through her experience guiding youth with wilderness adventures in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters, she witnessed countless amazing transformations. “Doing hard work in wild places teaches people non-academic skills: character, growth, mindset, grit, emotional and social skills, among many others. Going on an expedition, especially as a youngster, can help a person realize that they are capable of anything. It translates to a self-awareness and confidence that helps in the pursuit of goals later in life. Historically, access to the wilderness (including the gear, transportation, etc.) is expensive and limits the type of person who can go on trips.
We started The Aurora Collective as a way to promote and sponsor people doing more extreme wilderness endeavors, believing that more representation provides more inspiration!” She cited as a case in point, Ann Bancroft: a Minnesotan explorer that was the first woman to traverse Antarctica.
We kicked it off last summer by competing in the Yukon River Quest, a 444-mile canoe race.” Their 6-person all-female voyageur team was a rarity and met a lot of skepticism. But, after 53 hours of paddling, they earned 19th place out of almost 100 teams overall. “The Aurora Collective is a work in progress, but I’m hoping that we can keep it going despite us living so spread out.”
Having learned about Antarctica from co-workers at Menogyn, a Y-Camp on the edge of the Boundary Waters, she had to see what life was like at the bottom of the planet! This fall will be Kate’s third season working there.
“There’s a saying that people go down to Antarctica the first year for adventure, the second for friends and because the money’s pretty good, and the third year because they don’t fit in anywhere else anymore!”
Living there isn’t easy. The physical environment is challenging. “It is called the harshest continent for a reason!” The station is extremely remote station with very limited internet access, so staying in touch with friends and family isn’t easy. The working hours are long and difficult, with 60 hours or more, 6 days a week, the norm. There’s very little in the way of food choices available, being dependent on seasonal food shipments. Fresh foods like vegetables and fruits are often a rarity. Even something as simple as placing an Amazon order is challenging, as it can be months before your package is delivered.
But, all that said, there are benefits to working seasonally in Antarctica also. “The lifestyle of working really hard nonstop and then having a few months to travel or pursue a new skill or field is very appealing to me. Air travel there and back is provided, normally with a stopover in New Zealand. Kate often will make the most of that stop and do some impromptu touring of New Zealand on her way back from “the ice.”
While at the station in Antarctica, there’s a strong ethos among the community to make the most out of every day.” Kate says that the station is just big enough that you can find others with shared interests, but small enough to be welcoming. “It’s like camp for adults!” with the endless live music, sports, game nights, art-making, costume parties, language classes, etc. She’s found them to be a good group of hardworking and creative people that are invested in making their time there as nourishing and stimulating as possible.
You may have seen that Antarctica recently made the news with the possibility of new life forms discovered in some of its ice caves. Kate’s been able to see some of the ice caves firsthand herself! “I got to take a trip to an ice cave my first season. It was amazing. I think the thing that jarred me the most was experiencing complete silence for the first time in months. Ordinarily, we’re surrounded by the constant buzz of generators, planes, helicopters and heavy machinery. It’s like living on a big construction site 24/7.”
Kate’s work there this upcoming season will be as the Solid Waste and Recycling Coordinator. She was a Janitorial Lead last year. Before that, her first season as a dishwasher. She laughed, saying that the Antarctic station is known for having the best educated dishwashers in the work force. People are willing to take (and are grateful for) whatever job is needed for the experience of living there.
If you’re interested in checking this opportunity out, she suggested you do some research. First, there are a couple of good documentaries about what life on a station in Antarctica is really like.
- Anthony Powell: Year on Ice
- Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown episode on Antarctica
(with Kate in a quick background shot!)
Then, if you’re still interested, contact one of the agencies that hires station support contractors. It is common to not be accepted on your first try. She suggested that if you’re serious about it and determined, keep trying. Network. Knowing others there can help. Find a way to try to get some experience in the field you’re trying to get a job in (even if just dishwashing!). Most importantly, keep applying until you succeed.
- PAE.com (for jobs like cargo, supply, shuttles, etc.)
- Ganaayoo.com (for dining attendant, cook, janitor. etc.)
- BestRecycling.com for solid and haz waste)
As for what’s next for Kate Hibbs? “Eventually, I would love to return to my work in education. But for now, it would be awesome to work my way up to running a field camp in Antarctica! I also want to get all 7 continents in my passport (I only have South America and Africa left). Beyond that? Who knows? I do feel like I’m still searching for something, but aren’t we all?”