Douglas Fox recounts an Antarctic adventure

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Douglas Fox

In 2007, freelance science journalist Douglas Fox traveled to Antarctica with a team of glaciologists studying rivers and lakes buried under thousands of feet of ice. He and the researchers spent four weeks tent-camping on the ice. They spent up to 10 hours a day on snowmobiles, installing monitoring equipment at key sites on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, always mindful of the bottomless, hidden crevasses that could claim their lives. Fox describes the trip as the most grueling and most satisfying experience of his career. [Icemen Cometh: The Ground Zero of Climate Change appeared in Discover in September 2008. Fox’s other stories about the expedition are available here.

Here, Fox tells TON co-editor Siri Carpenter the story behind the stories:

How did this Antarctica project come about?

In 2004, someone from the U.S. Icebreaker program who had seen a story I had written for Conservation in Practice, not related to polar science at all, contacted me and asked if I wanted to look into polar science. I went out to dinner with him, never thinking a little person like me could do a story about this. I don’t know why — it’s not like I hadn’t already traveled, for writing projects, to Australia, Mauritius, Papua New Guinea…but somehow I equated going to Antarctica as being way, way more expensive, akin to persuading NASA to let me go into space in the shuttle.

Far from home: shortly after being dropped off at the WAIS field site. Credit: Douglas Fox

But I started looking into it anyway. I did massive searches of papers, looking at abstracts to find the few studies that would be interesting — most of the papers were asking really micro questions, but I was looking for big, compelling questions. I found Slawek Tulaczyk, at UC-Santa Cruz, whose group was watching as the ice rose and fell on the ice sheet. I loved this idea that there are lakes filling up under the ice, there are rivers running under the ice, mountains under the ice. That was the thing that hooked me. I imagined this story that would begin:  “There is a place where rivers run uphill. Everywhere else on earth, water obeys gravity, but here, water bows and bends to the demands ofthe river responds to a different god, and that god is pressure…”

I called Tulaczyk to talk about his research, and he said, “Want to go?” And I said “Sure!” They were already going, and he wrote me into his grant. Then the grant got turned down once or twice. At that point, I had probably spent 50 or 60 hours on this whole thing, and I remember saying, “Well, that was a waste of time.” Then in 2007, I got an email from him saying, “We’re going.”

What did you do to prepare?

In March of 2007, eight months ahead of time, I spent a day weighing batteries on kitchen scales because I had to tell Tulaczyk everything I would be bringing, because transport is really limited. I had a whole spreadsheet on this — I literally figured out how many hours a day I would be using my computer so he would be able to figure out how much propane to use. I found out I would have to store any electronics in big Ziplock bags with tons of desiccants, so I planned out how much desiccant I would need. I also tested everything in the freezer. I bought $5,000 worth of camera equipment and put it in the freezer to test it — that made me nervous. I knew that pens weren’t going to be useful, so I loaded up on pencils, especially colored pencils.

Inside the cooking/electronics tent. Credit: Douglas Fox

Why colored pencils?

Because I wouldn’t be caught dead without It helps me take notes, be organized, draw stuff if necessary, et cetera. It’s an idiosyncrasy of mine, and this was just an extension of that.

How many magazine assignments did you have before you went?

I had a letter of interest from Discover dating back to 2005. When the grant came through and I finally, naively, sent a formal pitch in June or July of 2007, a conflict had come up with another assignment, and I found out in mid-July that Discover couldn’t take it. My editor was really apologetic. I pitched it to Wired, Smithsonian, National Geographic, National Geographic Adventure, Men’s Journal…but it was one disappointment after another.  Men’s Journal had said “maybe,” but by September 20, the editor was no longer responding to my emails.

What was it about the story that made it so hard to sell?

One thing was that this was essentially Antarctica and ice. With climate change, people are kind of tired of that. But there were different reasons. At Wired, they kept asking, “Are they doing something that hasn’t been done before? Is this the newest, first time ever of something?” With Smithsonian, the feeling I got was that they get so many Antarctica pitches from the media fellows, and it’s hard to tell the difference. Men’s Journal asked, “Well, what does the scientist look like?” They care about the character, and they’re going for a particular kind of audience, and therefore a particular kind of protagonist. National Geographic said, “Whoa, you gotta give us more lead time.” National Geographic Adventure said, “Ice, depressing; melting ice, depressing.” Someone else — I won’t say who — said, “Well, if you’re the only one that survives, it’ll be a great story.”

In retrospect, as soon as I knew that I was going I should have contacted Discover and taken care of getting a contract. Maybe I would have gotten a yes, and if not, I would have had more notice. As it was, I was still trying to place the assignment as of about two and a half weeks before leaving. Pitching this story probably consumed about 120 hours of my time — it cost me thousands of dollars in lost productivity.

The uncertainty must have been demoralizing.

This ended up being the most satisfying time I’ve had in my career. But when I was getting so many “no” responses in a row…that time was pure hell. I had invested thousands of dollars and I knew there were going to be great stories, but I just couldn’t convince anyone of that; and I couldn’t bring myself to back out of the trip. It was just toxic frustration. But it was also a real exercise in being able to see stories through the lens of how editors see them. I look back on it now and I think a lot of those pitches maybe weren’t as good as they could have been.

Finally, about two weeks before I left, the Christian Science Monitor said yes, they wanted two or three stories. We worked out about half a dozen ideas that seemed reasonable. Then about three hours later, I got an email from Men’s Journal saying, “Good news, we’re going to commission you.” They accepted that I had made other plans with the Monitor, but the Men’s Journal story was going to be the big story about the expedition.

What happened when you got to Antarctica?

I was in McMurdo Station for seven days, then we were stranded by weather at Siple Dome for nine days, and then we were at the field site for about four weeks. In McMurdo Station, I was hardly sleeping; I was so busy doing things to get ready — collecting food and tents and things. I also did snow-survival training — Happy Camper School, where we got taken out onto the ice and shown how to dig snow shelters and stay overnight in them.

And then I was looking for stories. I had three or four months sunk into this, and I realized ahead of time that the only way to make this trip survivable financially was to get as many stories as possible. The thing about McMurdo Station was that it’s always daylight — there’s always something happening. There was one day when I was working with Slawek and our team to get our equipment ready, and then I went to dinner, and then I went and spent some time with the Andrill [Antarctic Geological Drilling project] people, then I went and had a second lunch at midnight, and then I went out for beer with a guy whose job is dynamiting crevasses, and then around three in the morning I walked out of the bar—into bright daylight—and went to talk to the Andrill people again because it was a different crew of people. You could be awake and working 24 hours if you wanted to. I used as much of it as I could.

Once you got to the field site, how did you report the story under such extreme conditions?

Snowmobiles were roped together and carried ice-penetrating radar to detect crevasses. Credit: Douglas Fox

I was soaking up everything I could during the days, scribbling down dialogue as it happens. This was the most intense and unrelenting onsite reporting I’d ever done. The wind was always blowing, so you had to be right on top of people with your recorder. You’re writing with a pencil, which isn’t as fast, and colored pencils are worse. You have to take your gloves off, and then your hands are really, really cold. It’s a lot of crap to handle. And some of it’s happening while you’re on a snowmobile — sometimes you think you’ve got something on your recorder and then you listen to it later and all you’ve got is whistling wind.

At night, I would go back to my tent to scribble ideas for a couple of hours. I found that really valuable time because at night, there’s some sort of deeper, larger reflection that happens, and everything that happens during the day fits into a larger context and you start to understand what’s going to be important for your story.

Reflecting in my tent at night while everyone else was asleep, I was also thinking about what did and didn’t work. This trip was a better chance than I’d ever had before to learn how to report on site. I had opportunities to make mistakes, and opportunities to learn from them and get it right the next time. I learned when to just let people talk, and be on the fly on the wall, and when it worked better to dive in and poke the animal with a stick to get it to talk.

You were also doing photography.

Yeah, I probably spent about 60 percent of my effort on photographing, and I learned a lot. I started out being really polite with the camera, and the shots were like crappy vacation shots. It was only when I learned to be merciless with the camera, and really get in peoples’ faces, that I started to get better shots. But it was really hard to be both the reporter and the photographer because you have to be in different places for the two things.

How did you juggle that?

I decided that I would devote blocks of time to being either a writer or a photographer — a couple of hours, or a whole day. That was the right decision, but it was hard because you’d miss stuff.

You write about a horrifying moment when you actually stepped into a crevasse without realizing it was there.

 

Yeah, that … that was very scary. It was matter-of-fact and utterly calm and emotionless at the moment it happened. But for weeks (and to a lesser degree months) after that I would suddenly jolt awake with these images of the event having turned out differently, of me being wedged deep inside the crevasse and beyond help.

Even before that happened, though, I could feel this tension about the crevasses. One thing that struck me when we were there was how much of our lives was about crevasses and not being on top of one. I was just getting every little bit of that down in my notes because I just felt this tension build up over the weeks. I did use some of that in stories — but I used about one quarter of what I had.

Did you spend much time actually writing while you were in Antarctica?

When I was in McMurdo, I was just soaking in stuff — I wasn’t writing at all. I would burn my recordings to CD every night, and back up everything like crazy. I had three hard drives. At night, I would scribble thoughts and things in my notebooks, things I wanted to try out the next day, questions I wanted to ask. It was only when we got to the field camp that I actually started doing any real writing, because it was only then that I had a couple of 1,200-word assignments solidified with the Monitor. For the big story for Men’s Journal, I just did a lot of outlining, constantly changing it, scribbling vignettes.

The field camp, I have to say, wasn’t a good place to write. We each had a very small tent like you would take backpacking. In the main tent, where all the electronics were, you couldn’t really get work done when there were three other people in there — you couldn’t think straight. And then when they left for the day, you just got so cold. I would intersperse writing with running out and doing a whole bunch of digging or something, because exercise was the only thing that would warm you up.

How is it that your big story ended up being for Discover instead of Men’s Journal?

When I got back, Men’s Journal wanted to see the photos first, while I was still working on the manuscript. That was telling, that it was the images that were going to make the story work for them. The story ended up getting killed by the photographs. One huge lesson was that if at all possible, you should bring a photographer. If I’d brought a photographer, I probably wouldn’t have had the story killed, and I would have been able to spend all my time being a reporter. I might have gotten a lot more dialogue if I hadn’t been fiddling with a camera all the time. Another lesson was that the photos that I took were hugely important for the story, even if they weren’t publishable — they were great note-taking.

After Men’s Journal killed the story, I started shopping it around again, without success. I didn’t know what I was going to do; I was struggling once again. At one point I was finishing up another story with my editor at Discover, and she said, “How did that Antarctica trip go?” and I explained it to her, and she said I should send her a pitch. I sent her a new proposal — way better than anything I had written before I had gone, because I had the good material. She showed them the proposal, and they said yes.

Another thing that I would have done if I could have is that I would have gotten more high-quality multimedia out of it. Even if you don’t sell it, you can put the video on YouTube and link to the story, to drive more people to read the story.

Will you go back to Antarctica?

I thought that trip was going to be a once-in-a-lifetime thing. But it turns out that I’ve ended up going three years in a row — once more by plane and once by ship. On those trips a photographer was assigned to the story, so we went as a team on my second and third trips to Antarctica, in 2008-09 and 2009-10.

Having tackled one project like this has led to other things that I didn’t expect. More than ever before, I came out of this with what feels like a ready-made beat. You’re talking to somebody who never took a single earth sciences class in his life. Not even in high school — I skipped that one. But I discovered that I really like earth sciences. I put so much effort into this trip, not only the science but the lore and the history of Antarctic exploration, and I came out of it feeling more in touch with an area than I ever have before. For a career, I think it’s a positive thing to develop a beat — you can make deeper observations and ask better questions.

A glimpse behind the scenes:

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4 Responses to “Douglas Fox recounts an Antarctic adventure”

  1. Yeah, Doug’s perseverance is inspiring. I can also relate to the feeling of having camera in one hand and notebook in the other and agonizing over which one to use. Next time I’ll follow his example and choose ahead of time.

    Brendan already knows this, but I’ve gone on reporting trips before getting a commission. Sometimes I’ve sold them afterward and sometimes not. I think you can see in Doug’s final, successful, proposal letter that he conveys a much more concrete sense of the science results and life on the ice than in his pre-trip letters.

    I’d be interested in seeing how having gone once informed his proposals for subsequent Antarctica trips and also how he made those next proposals different enough to justify the new trips.

    • Douglas Fox says:

      Hi Lucas,
      Your question about pitching subsequent Antarctica trips is an interesting one. So far I haven’t run into it, since my two subsequent trips there were for a project that I was brought onto by the client, and so there was no need to pitch.

      But of course this will come up again sooner or later. And as I pre-pitch smaller trips right now, I am re-thinking how I do it… along the lines of what I said in my reply to Brendan, below.
      -Doug

  2. Kudos to Doug for persevering for — yikes — 3 years to get his lovely story into print. Sadly, such delays are not unusual in the feature business. One piece falls into a place, and another falls apart. One of the biggest challenges for a freelancer is figuring out how to sell a story without fully reporting it. I’m curious if Doug has gotten better at that process since Antarctica, or if anyone else can share their strategies?

    • Douglas Fox says:

      Hi Brendan,
      I’d say that since then I haven’t had a lot of opportunities to find out whether I’ve gotten any better at pre-pitching big stories based on big trips. There just haven’t been any others since then that rise to this magnitude—not yet. I can say, though, that my approach has changed. The next time I am pitching something large ahead of a trip I’ll put much more effort into unearthing every interesting aspect that I can ahead of time, including personal visits with the main characters (one magazine asked me what the scientist “looks like”), reviewing photos of any past similar work, photos / satellite / google earth images of the relevant remote locations, and so on. I think that researchers vastly underestimate that amount of input that goes into properly pitching a story like this—which means that we have to push and nudge all the harder to get what we need.

      And on the smaller, mid-sized field trips that I’m looking at covering, I’m also being much more selective these days, and I’m keeping a more open mind about bailing out early-on–that is, bailing out early in the pitching process (before the trip) if I’m getting rejections and it’s starting to not feel quite right. It’s wonderful to fall in love with a potential project—and some projects deserve follow-through even if it’s hard to sell to editors, I think those are ones that can become career-changers—but I also think one has to be careful about what one bets one’s bank account on!…

      These aren’t answers, but they’re the trajectory of my thinking so far…
      -Doug

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