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.

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