Setting Up Camp

PLL team members unload supplies and scientific instruments from motorized Mariner One (the red boat) and its motorless companion, Bath Toy. Credit: Henry Bortman

Two days after we arrived at Laguna Negra, we were still lugging in equipment. At first, we carried it down the trail from the parking lot to our camp on our backs or in our hands. But there was so much equipment, some of it quite heavy, that it soon became clear we wouldn’t be able to carry everything that way.

The solution: mules. And a pair of ferryboats. Mules did much of the heavy lifting. For two days they hauled large, heavy bins and boxes, making several trips a day.

But even the mules couldn’t carry everything. Some items were too bulky, or too fragile to withstand the rough treatment mule transport would have subjected them to. So they were ported by truck to Launch Point, several hundred yards down the shore of the lake from our campsite. From there they were ferried in small inflatable motorboats to the Landing, closer to camp. (Actually, only one boat had a motor; it towed the other boat behind it, flotilla-style.)

Oliver, one of the arrieros (Chilean cowboys) who helped PLL resolve its transportation problem, leads a mule laden with equipment into PLL Base Camp. Credit: Henry Bortman

The boats’ intended purpose was to enable scientists to access distant parts of the lakeshore and to deploy scientific instruments in the water. But before research could begin, the scientific equipment had to make its way to camp, so before graduating to the status of research vessels, were first pressed into service as “water mules.”

In all, more than one and a half tons of equipment and supplies were brought to the encampment, and for two days the place had the feverish feel of a construction site.

The work included the construction and equipping of four 20-foot-diameter domes covered with white plastic sheeting. The Comedor is our dining hall and meeting room. (Before this dome was built everyone squeezed in the kitchen to eat.) The Bio Dome is a biology field lab, where despite the relentlessly blowing dust, sophisticated sample-preparation procedures requiring near-clean-room conditions are carried out. The XQM Studio is the staging area for an international video crew covering the Planetary Lake Lander project. And finally, the Robo Dome, where the geeks hang out, is the communications and data-processing hub for the group and the operational center for the project’s robot. (More on the robot in later posts.)

At sunset, the normally gray Meson Alto, the mountain that dominates the view to the east of Laguna Negra, glows with color. Credit: Henry Bortman

Then there was the electrical and communications infrastructure. Nearly one hundred yards of orange heavy-duty electrical cable had to be wired and strung to bring power from a pair of generators to the four domes and the kitchen. And satellite phones and Internet and Wi-Fi hubs had to be installed and tested, to enable the remote camp to share data internally and communicate with the outside world.

The rumored bathroom and solar shower were still nowhere to be seen, but PLL Base Camp finally had progressed to the point to where science – the reason we came here – could begin.

Quote of the day: “But now they’ll know who did it.”

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