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An architect in Antarctica

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When Linda Larson was teaching a program for gifted students at Rossman Elementary School approximately 20 years ago, she made a long-lasting impression on one of her students.

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So much so, in fact, that when 1994 Detroit Lakes High School graduate James Hilden was back in town last year to visit his parents, Harry and Sue Hilden, he had to stop by her classroom at Rossman -- where she now teaches fourth grade -- to say "thanks."

That conversation led to an opportunity for the students in Larson's 2006-07 class to get a unique perspective on their study of the continent of Antarctica -- by corresponding with someone who was actually there.

Hilden, who holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in architecture from the University of Minnesota, was accepted this past year to serve as an architectural designer for the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) at McMurdo Station, Antarctica.

From August 2006 to February 2007, Hilden supervised the drafting room and supervised construction on all building projects at McMurdo, and also spent 2-3 weeks at the South Pole Station.

"I'd always wanted to go to Antarctica," he told the students in Larson's class during his Thursday visit to her classroom at Rossman.

Well, maybe not quite always, Hilden admitted later.

"When I was young, I wanted to be an astronaut," he said. As he got a little older, and realized that dream was not going to materialize, he decided "the South Pole would be the closest I could get (to visiting another world)."

During a four-year stint as a working architect in Denver, Hilden applied to join the USAP "one or two" other times -- and was turned down -- before finally being accepted last year.

It was a particularly sweet moment for Hilden, whose girlfriend, Cara Ferrier, had been accepted to the program a year earlier, as the assistant manager for field science. She supervises the USAP's field camps there.

"I went to Antarctica for love and adventure," Hilden admitted.

He wasn't disappointed. And what added a little bit more excitement to his adventures in Antarctica was the fact that he started up an e-mail correspondence with Larson's class shortly after his arrival at McMurdo.

"They would e-mail me questions (about Antarctica), and I would send back the answers," he said, adding that he also sent back photos, and occasionally a postcard.

Those photos, pictures and mementos have been adorning the walls of Larson's classroom for several months now, in what she referred to as the "James Hilden Hall of Fame."

"It's been a pleasure corresponding with you," Hilden told Larson's students on Thursday. "I hope I got all your questions answered."

Not exactly. Following a short slide presentation, Hilden fielded more than a half-hour's worth of questions from the curious fourth graders.

Those questions ranged from what the station residents did for recreation (bowling, cards and bingo, to name a few), to his favorite cartoon program ("The Simpsons").

Some of the more interesting questions involved everything from how long a person could survive outdoors in Antarctica to how strong the sun's rays were during daylight hours.

"The UV (ultraviolet) rays are very strong," Hilden told the students, noting that there is actually a hole in the ozone layer that lies directly above Antarctica. "You have to wear sunscreen (SPF 40 or better) and wraparound sunglasses."

As for how long a person could survive outdoors, he said, "you need a tent and some sort of heater" to survive for any length of time -- and because extreme cold weather burns calories at a much faster rate than normal, plenty of food is also necessary.

Hilden also said that Antarctica's extreme seasonal conditions -- 24-hour sunlight in summer, and complete darkness in winter -- can have psychological effects, so all people planning an extended stay there are given psychological tests to determine whether they can handle those unique conditions.

Even for those who pass the evaluation, the conditions can be difficult, he said.

But that hasn't deterred Hilden from deciding that he wants to go back to Antarctica next year.

"I think I'll probably go back for one more season," he said. "It's a really unique group of people (working there), and an interesting work environment. It can be a really exciting job."

He said some of his favorite memories are the "feeling of remoteness -- of realizing how far you are from anywhere, especially at the South Pole," and, of course, the people.

"The trades people are all really skilled and dedicated to this program -- they're all really great to work with," he said. "You really bond with people when you're with them in a confined space for a long period of time."

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Vicki Gerdes
Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 14 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as obituaries. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.
(218) 844-1454
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