Friday, June 17, 2011


Dave Chandler taking a sample near the portal.

Me trying to make a rock seem exciting to Dave Chandler and Catie Butler.

Dave Chandler and Tom Cowton in our mess tent at dinner.

My Best Wildlife Sighting
One morning at 6AM I awoke from the sounds of animals splashing through our lake. I looked out of my tent and saw a herd of musk ox walking into our camp. The herd was very close; the lead bull was less than 30 feet away. I searched my tent for a camera, and not finding it, decided to step outside to watch them. I was so close I could see that their long hair was smooth, untangled and actually looked clean. There were about thirty of them, an assortment of little light brown newborn calves, cows (the females), and one large bull. As soon as I stood up, the herd’s mood changed. They all stopped, looked at me and then turned to their lead cow who was walking on the far side of the herd. They were all noticeably nervous but there was no sign of panic and every animal including the bull waited for their leader to make a sign. After several seconds, she turned and trotted away from me and stopped on a slope about 200 feet away. All the cows and calves quickly followed her while the big bull in front sauntered closer to place himself between his herd and myself. The cows and calves ran directly into a half circle formation and turned to face me. In their half circle, the small calves squeezed between larger cows while the biggest cows stood on the ends. The big bull in front took a few steps towards me and then looked back again. Then, suddenly and in a coordinated movement, the cows sheltering the calves ran ten steps forward in a perfect line while the little calves stayed behind with the lead cow. Completing this maneuver, the lead cow began the official retreat, leading the calves away in a line away from camp and out of sight. Once the calves were safe, the line of cows paused and then ran after the calves. When the entire herd was out of view the big bull again took a few steps towards me, and then paused for a minute to watch me. Finally he turned and slowly walked after his herd, stopping several times to ensure that I wasn’t moving.
Their movements were highly organized and disciplined. Everyone from the smallest calf to the big bull knew exactly what their job was and when to do it. Considering how many times musk ox appears on menus in Greenland’s restaurants, I was impressed at how brave the herd was. The big bull in particular seemed determined to stand me down until he was absolutely sure his herd was safe and only then did he leave.
Later that same day, I went on a run to the ice sheet’s margin and while running up a large hill now covered in wildflowers, I saw a satellite musk ox bull, probably the same one I’d seen on a previous run. Again, he was massive and looked at first like a giant boulder on the hillside. When I got close, he immediately ran from me wanting nothing except to be left alone. I watched him bound over the tundra.
I think I’m realizing just how intelligent and dynamic an animal the musk ox is. It’s always this way, the more time one spends outdoors, the more one appreciates and respects the world we live in and its creatures.
I think it’s too bad that not everyone can experience wilderness like this. It’s also too bad there are so few wild places left. Today it seems like only the most inhospitable places on Earth are left untouched. Even Greenland and the north slope of Alaska are being scoured for oil and minerals.
When I was a geology undergraduate student at Boise State University, I once had to listen to a seminar given by an oil geologist. Recently retired, he came to our department to enlighten us with stories of working for the oil industry and to recruit a new generation of geologists who could find more minerals and oil for society. Seemingly uncomfortable with himself and his message, the man began his diatribe by asking if anyone had been to the north slope of Alaska. We were asked to raise our hands if we’d been there. Predictably, no one had and so he used this as justification to exploit that wilderness. If no one was going to use it or even go there, what was the use of a wild place? His reasoning was that every place should be exploited for our benefit. If humans found a place to be beautiful, we should preserve it for a park. If not, then we should see what other benefit we can gain from its existence. I would argue strongly against this logic and think there is much to be gained by leaving parts of the planet alone. I think we’d do well to act as if we don’t own the land we walk on.
Of course like a person who eats meat but doesn’t approve of hunting, even in our camp in Greenland everything we’ve brought and use came from mining. I guess like many environmentalists, it’s hard to balance a distain for the destruction of the Earth with a love of things like espresso makers. I suppose as scientists, our job is to learn about the natural world and communicate our findings to the public to let them decide.

Café Radon
In John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, the end of the story comes when the characters are starving and only have a tiny amount of money. With this money, they buy only the absolute bare necessities, which includes a little coffee. They probably could’ve had a little more fried dough but it was more important to maintain some level of normalcy. In the Johnny Cash song, Folsom Prison Blues, the man stuck in prison complains about hearing a train in the distance where he imagines rich people drinking coffee and smoking cigars. The line works because everyone can sympathize.
It’s the simple little pieces of normalcy that make being in the wilderness turn from a hardship into something really fun. When I was a kid I met an arctic explorer on dog sledding trip in northern Minnesota on a Boy Scout trip. The explorer told us how his team had taken snow baths everyday while skiing across both Greenland and Antarctica in an attempt to simulate a shower. When I asked how he could possibly do this he told me, “Whenever you’re in the wilderness, you should keep doing everything you’d normally do at home. All the best explorers do this.”
Here in Greenland, I make coffee everyday for the coffee drinkers with my stovetop espresso maker and good American coffee. It’s usually when I’m running my radon detectors and so my science tent has been named Café Radon. The idea is actually my advisor’s, Matt Charette, who is likely having an espresso with our lab group at 10AM today.
Almost every culture around the world drinks a hot caffeinated beverage either for a break in the workday or as a morning ritual. One of the funniest things about hanging out with British people is seeing their tea drinking habits. We’ll be in a huge rush to go somewhere and then just as we’re ready to go they’ll say, “Quick, lets sit down for a cup of tea.” So we stop everything, put the kettle on, and spend 20 minutes ‘having a brew.’
Other news:
-This week we’ve been joined by three promising undergraduate students: Lizzy Fane, Louise Phillips and Katy Hargreaves. Louise has been busy learning about filtering and hiking on glaciers while Katy and Lizzy have been helping out and preparing for their projects.
 -The mosquitoes are out in force but due to our camp’s location on a saddle between two peaks, we get plenty of wind and have so far only had one day of heavy mosquitoes. While in town I’m instructed to pick up as much antihistamine as possible to help stop swelling from with bug bites.
-Foxy Prince has only been seen a couple times this week and hasn’t been up to his normal antics though we did watch his girlfriend (Foxy Princess) stalk a pair of huge arctic hares. I think when he gets comfortable with the new folks, he’ll come back around.
A ptarmigan in front of Leverett Glacier. I don't have any pictures of musk ox yet but this bird's song sounds like what you'd imagine a musk ox should sound like.

Catie Butler and Louise Phillips hiking accross the glacier.

Me eating a delicious musk ox burger today at the Kangerlussuaq Airport Cafe.

Take a Right after the Plane Crash
            “After you land in Kangerlussuaq, go to the information desk and ask for a four wheel drive taxi...  Yeah, that’s right... Tell them you want to go to Russell Glacier… After driving a long time, you’ll see a plane crash… What?... Yes, a plane crash… Look you’re going to be just fine now get on your plane and come out here! Anyways, just after the plane crash, it should be obvious, take a right down the next four-wheel drive trail and have them drop you at the river’s edge. We’ll meet you there.” Catie’s instructions to Alex on the satellite phone were said with a pleasant British accent as if she were inviting someone over for tea.
            This was Alex’s first view of the team. He stood with his taxi driver on one side of the river while Catie, Stuart and myself put on baggy green chest waders on the other. Catie and Stuart were ready before me and walked downriver to the place we normally cross. Feeling a little lazy and eager to show off how clever I was, I started walking out into the river from where I was, which was a little narrower and required less walking.
            The river was still half frozen and its opaque silt laden water was just barely moving. It was still impossible to tell how deep the river was or how much ice was on it, or indeed if the sand banks in the middle were on ice or if they were part of the riverbed. The day before Stuart had crossed barefoot without incident.
            Taking small little careful steps, I started walking out into the water. The water was immediately up to my knees. I took a few more steps. Then I started sliding, waving my arms wildly as I went. Suddenly the ground gave way under me and I was swimming in water over my head, my chest waders and backpack completely filling with water. My first thought was, “wow, this is really embarrassing,” then, “oh no, I don’t have a change of clothes,” and finally, “umm… I hope I don’t drown” I started doing the breaststroke back to the edge of the drop off and found that the ground I’d been standing on was actually an ice ledge over deep water. So I kicked and paddled my way back to shore, stood up and looked around. Alex and the taxi driver were looking at me in shock while Catie and Stuart were working their way across a short way downriver. I yelled to them and said that I’d just fallen in. They looked over, saw me standing there soaking wet and began laughing hysterically. Like it was the funniest thing they’d ever seen.
            As I was emptying the freezing water from my waders and getting ready to try crossing again, I heard Catie burst out laughing again. Stuart had fallen through a hole in the ice and had gone completely underwater, pack, chest waders and all. The water was so deep his feet didn’t even touch the bottom. He reached up and grabbed the edge of the ice and, adrenaline pumping, hauled himself out in an instant only to find Catie in tears from laughing so hard. Still laughing, she took a step back, slid into a hole and went up to her waist. Seeing Catie fall in, Stuart broke out laughing too. The horror stricken taxi driver threw them a long pole that they successfully used to tap their way across the remaining section of river. As it turns out, the opaque water we were wading through was covering a patchwork of ice that was apparently over really deep water.
            Then it was my turn to cross. Following their footsteps, I made it halfway before I decided that I needed some directions and so I asked Catie to come over and tell me where to go. Midway through giving directions, she stepped into a hole. Her fall happened in slow motion because she kept trying to save herself from going under. One leg through, then the other and finally up to her shoulders going under just enough to completely fill her chest waders, which of course Stuart and I found hilarious.
            Now, all three of us were completely soaked with freezing water on a cold windy day. We went up the riverbank to meet Alex. “Welcome to Greenland!” We all shook hands. Alex was handed a pair of wet waders.
Sam Doyle and Tom Cowton on a glacier traverse.

Tom Cowton's hero shot.

Enjoying science with a cigar.

Slinging Helicopters
“The hammer tapping worked!”
Our pilot had just finished banging on his helicopter with a wrench and was now speaking to a half-asleep mechanic in Norway where it was 2AM. After landing in camp and turning off the engine, the helicopter wouldn’t start, making a sort of popping noise every time the ignition was tried. Our pilot took his headset off, stepped out, and began taking off various panels and digging around. He asked to borrow some tools and spent about an hour messing around while Stuart, Catie and I stood back in mild disbelief.
Once banging on the helicopter with a wrench did the trick, the plan was to take off, hover five feet off the ground and wait for Catie to attach a sling to the helicopter’s belly (she had called dibs on this job). Stuart and I were supposed to make sure the sling wrapped around the gear correctly as it was picked up. In the sling was around 500 pounds of gear that the pilot was taking to Dave Chandler and Dave Ashmore on the Greenland Ice Sheet where they were setting up their ice camp.
After what seemed like awfully brief instructions, our pilot started the engine. As the blades started moving faster Stuart crouched down like someone in an action film. This looked like what you’re supposed to do when a helicopter is taking off 15 feet away and so Catie and I ducked down too. As the rotors picked up, sand started blasting us and soon there was no way to see anything.
I took a moment to look between my fingers covering my eyes, and saw that the helicopter had taken off and was swaying back and forth a few feet in front of us. Catie sprang forward, ran under the giant machine and tried to attach the sling to the underside. Not having any luck, she motioned me to come help and I ran forward too. It was like working under a floating truck in a hurricane but after half a minute we managed to attach the sling. Then we sprinted out from under the helicopter, our hands over our faces, and stumbled our way to safety. With a thumbs-up, the pilot lifted the sling while Stuart stood underneath making sure the sling picked up correctly. It did and the helicopter flew out over our little lake drunkenly swaying as the sling swung from side to side. A few seconds later, the helicopter steadied, and flew off to ice camp.
Catie Butler with the river we've turned pink after a dye trace experiment.

The helicopter before it was fixed with some "hammer tapping."

The Next Day
The pilot can’t find Dave and Sam. They are somewhere on the Greenland Ice Sheet probably around 10 km from its margin. It’s about 35ºF and falling, it’s raining, the clouds are hugging the ground and its almost 9:30PM. Despite the 24 hours of light in the Arctic summer, the low clouds and rain are making it unusually dark. Their satellite phone isn’t working and they can’t make any calls. They do manage to send a short text message to base camp telling us their GPS coordinates. We get a second text telling us they are going to wait until midnight and then attempt to walk to land. The ice sheet at its margin is a maze of steep slopes and crevasses and is nearly impassable. Even if they were well fed, rested, and the weather was good, hiking to land would be very challenging if not impossible. At base camp, we begin phoning the pilot every five minutes. On the fourth try, we get through and slowly repeat Dave and Sam’s location three times to the pilot before hanging up. An hour later we call and they’re back in ice camp happily eating mash potatoes and goulash.
The pilot had dropped them off at one of their GPS stations on the ice sheet, left and then somehow forgot where he had put them. He had flown back to where they’d set up ice camp and where Dave Ashmore was waiting. The pilot was hoping someone would call him and tell him what to do.
Accidents are rarely caused by a single event, usually there are multiple things that lead up to them- a broken phone, a forgetful pilot, bad weather, no food, fatigue, all leading to a dangerous walk in an attempt to reach safety. Fortunately, we received a text message and were able to respond. Fortunately, the pilot was able to fly in the bad weather.
Tundra Running
Yesterday I went on a run up to the ice sheet’s margin. Following musk ox trails, I ran up a series of small peaks near camp while weaving my way through the hills and valleys on my way to the ice. After some miles, I reached the top of a large peak at the edge of Greenland Ice Sheet. Behind me was wilderness as far as I could see. No sign of people whatsoever only snow covered mountains, deep valleys and little ponds- nothing but the Arctic. In front of me was the Greenland Ice Sheet, a maze of deep crevasses and plains of ice stretching out into oblivion; its bleak contrast to the tundra (and me in my running shorts), made it look almost out of place. From my vantage point, I could see several massive glaciers spilling off the ice sheet and into adjacent valleys.
My run back was mostly downhill and so I was going fairly fast, hoping over permafrost hummocks, boulders and well grazed meadows. Toping a small hill, I almost ran strait into a huge musk ox. He wasn’t 20 feet from me when he jumped up apparently having just woke up from a nap. I have a bad habit of running away from wildlife when I should stand my ground and so I started running away from him. I also tend to do embarrassing things when I’m scared so I started talking to him, “Oh wow you’re a huge musk ox. Oh my gosh you’re a really really big musk ox!” I kept repeating that sort of pathetic mantra while looking over my shoulder at the big animal staring me down. Musk ox are not usually very dangerous but they will charge if they feel threatened or scared which was what I was afraid of. I stopped about 100 feet from him and looked back. As soon as I did this he started running away from me, his shaggy coat nearly dragging on the ground as he went.

Musk ox remain my favorite animal. Here are a few cool facts about them:
-They are more closely related to sheep and goats than anything else.
-They walked the arctic with wooly mammoths during the Pleistocene.
-Their wool is worth more by weight than gold.
-They form protective circles around their young whenever threatened (just like Triceratops).
-They are made into delicious burgers at the Kangerlussuaq Airport Cafe.

In other news
-Foxy Prince is trying to domesticate himself. The other day, I was sitting outside playing guitar enjoying some much needed nice weather when he stopped by. After wandering around a few feet from me he got sleepy, laid down and took a little nap while I played. Latter that day he waltzed right into our dinning tent while we were all chatting. Not expecting him, we jumped which made him jump and run out. He is pretty spry and I’ve been seeing him run around for the past six weeks so just to reassure the folks at home, I don’t think I’m making the mistake of befriending a rabid fox.
-At the moment, we’re in the middle of our first gas and dye tracer test from the ice sheet to the glacier’s portal. This means that at the moment I’m writing this, I’m hunkered down in a little tent a few feet from the river with the task of taking one sample per hour all night long (we’re a little short staffed at the moment). This is my second night in a row but don’t worry, I’ve got a French press, three huge chocolate bars and loads of ramen noodles. I got this.

Dave Ashmore (Two Hoods) enjoying a cigar (I'm a bad influence).

The Foxy Prince himself taking a nap next to me.

The winner of the caption competition! From my brother in-law Guillaume Jimenez.