An Interview with Jacques, a Canadian Joiner
Jacques Touchette is a Canadian from Québec. He is 58 years young and has years of experience in several trades, including as a joiner and working on the construction and renovation of wooden-frame structures.
How did you hear about the project?
I met Alain in Québec several decades ago. At the time, he was visiting my workshop because he had heard of a computer programme I had designed for industrial companies. Some 30 years later, I heard about the Belgian project to build a new station in Antarctica. I tried to apply to go and work there, but the team was already complete. After some time had passed I was contacted at the very last moment and told a place had opened up. So I seized the opportunity and the process to go work over there began.
What exactly did you do in Antarctica?
Everything, apart from baking bread! That's exactly why I loved it so much: the job was multidisciplinary. I did a bit of everything except for the electrical work and plumbing. I did anything that has to do with construction: the big stuff, more detailed work, joinery, finishing walls and ceilings. I also did work outdoors like shoveling the snow, household chores such as doing the dishes, repairing coffee machines with Bernard, cleaning the toilets... pretty much everything.
They said you did a lot - too much even, and that they had to stop you.
To me, household chores are a part of everyday life. I'm used to doing them because I'm alone with my children during the week.
What was the main difference between your work in Canada and your work at the station?
There wasn't much of a difference, really. In Canada, we also build outside during the winter, under similar conditions. The difference was the way we worked: how we went about doing the construction and using the Metric System. The tools are roughly the same and there was no big difference since I'm used to these kinds of projects; they're not difficult. The main difference was using the Metric System. In Canada, we work with the English system, although I've had used the metric system a few times in my workshop. In construction, everything is measured in inches and feet, except for architectural plans. The Metric System had made its way to the very back of my mind.
Those who had been there the previous year, of course, had already gained a certain expertise in building on the ice; but to me, there is no difference. In Québec, we also build houses when temperatures are around -20 or -25°C, or when there is a snow storm. We also have to clear the snow until the roof has been put up.
Did you work in teams?
I really appreciated working in teams. All the people I met there were highly-skilled and I found them to be all very open, whether they were talking about technical details or any other subject. Things functioned smoothly in a comfortable symbiosis. The team work went well. Of course there were a broad range of trades represented, but everyone got on well with each other regardless. We had an excellent time.
Last year, I'd done all the furniture for the inside of the station with a couple of people. This past year, there was a lot more individual work to be done: the final touches, detail work, etc. At times like those, you need to work alone since there's no need to have several people working on such things.
What was your biggest challenge in Antarctica?
Everyday life wasn't a challenge, as I've often lived in community-type situation surrounded by a lot of people, so this was normal to me. In fact, I told Gigi and Alain that I could've easily stayed for two or three more months. I think the challenge for me was to be far away from my family, to sleep in my tent instead of inside the station, and of course to beat Kristof (Soete) at foosball.
As for the construction, this is why I wanted to go back, to be a part of this project. For me, it's a challenge to follow up on things and finish them from A to Z - or at least finish my job so that I can leave with a sense of accomplishment.
So you don't believe you've met your objectives yet?
This year I met a wonderful objective: I finished the job I was asked to do. However, I'd be a little disappointed if they told me I couldn't go back next year. The issue would be there's really nothing left to do.
What is your best memory?
My friends! My best memory is when I arrived, when Bernard put me at ease. My biggest fear was that I wouldn't be accepted by the group given that I'm not Belgian. But in Antarctica, I met some courteous people, and 99% of the time I really enjoyed working with them. Of course, getting along with everyone isn't always easy, but I think everyone has a positive side. I've made many good friends with whom I'll stay in touch.
What impressed you the most?
The landscape and my first whiteout! I laid in the snow for some 15 minutes while snow piled up on top of me. Benoît Tyberghein actually thought somebody was lying there unconscious, or had been frozen there the previous year. Then they found out that it was me. As soon as a storm began, I'd go outside.
Did your body have any problems adapting?
No I generally sleep well. From the second I close my eyes, I fall asleep. There is a difference, however, when you wake up at night and there's no way you can tell what time it is. I had to buy a watch in Cape Town; I'm glad people had warned me. I hadn't owned a watch for 12 years, and now for the last two years I've owned a cheap one. Apart from that, I was in a familiar environment: cold with lots of snow.
Did you take part in the traverses to and from the coast?
No. The first year I was there I made the choice not to because of all the work I had to do. I told Alain and Gigi that this was not a necessity for me. I'll see about next year, because this year there still was a fair amount of work to be done. If I go back next year, I think I'll try doing a traverse.
If you could describe the "Antarctic Experience" in a few words, what would they be?
"Fantastic". It was a unique opportunity for me to work in such conditions. It was great and I'll remember it for the rest of my life. When Alain first called me to ask whether I was willing to go, I hesitated a little. But then I thought I might regret it if I didn't go. Moreover, this experience helped me to experience new things in new locations. You have to understand that this is different for a guy going on his 60s than for a guy in his 30s. When you're young, you still think you have your whole life before you for new experiences, but as you get older, you understand that "heaps of experiences" only means "a couple of experiences". This narrows down with time, and it is normal, but this is it: it is printed in my brains, carved in it.
Picture: jacques_touchette_2_or - © International Polar Foundation/ René Robert