Monthly Archives: October 2017

Akureyri to Summit

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It’s that time of year again…I am back at Summit Station for another winter season. The past couple months have been a nice break during which I explored Southwestern Greenland (see my previous few posts) and enjoyed early fall back in Colorado. This year there are just four of us here for the winter from mid-October thru February 2018; A skeleton crew of a manager, mechanic, and two science technicians to maintain the station and support a few instruments and scientific projects.

In September the NY Air National Guard and their LC-130 ski-equipped Hercules aircraft left Greenland to return to New York. The planes require a thorough once over before heading southward to support the United States Antarctic Program based out of Christchurch, New Zealand. So deploying to Summit in October is an entirely different story. In the summer season (Apr-Aug) we travel to Schenectady, NY where we board the Hercs and fly to Kangerlussuaq, and then onward to Summit. During the rest of the year we fly to Reykjavik, Iceland then to Akureyri, Iceland. In Akureyri we spend a day or so ensuring all our cargo is in place and reviewing our plans for our arrival.

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Boarding the Twin Otter in Akureyri, Iceland

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Akureyri Church

From there we board a Norlandair Twin Otter and fly to Summit Station, stopping at Constable Point near Ittoqqortoormiit to refuel. This is a long day of flying however, and foul weather in any part of the flight path can delay or cancel the flight. This time around we were delayed 4 days in Akureyri. While this is frustrating for the outbound Summit crew it allowed us to enjoy the beautiful northern town, enjoying fresh baked goods and coffee at cafes, soaking in the hot pools, and exploring Northern Iceland.

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Historically we have chartered two flights to allow for a week or so of “turnover” – one flight from Akureyri to Summit to bring in the new crew, and another flight a few days later to bring out the old crew. This year was a little different. With experienced and returning crew members, as well as reduced budgets, we only had a single flight. Four of us flew in with our luggage, a little cargo, and a few crates of “freshies” and the four on station flew out on the same plane. Flying from sea level to 10,500ft we were highly aware of the risks associated with altitude illness and eased into our rounds and routines. Thankfully we were lucky and everything has gone fairly smoothly. We are now settling in and getting up to speed preparing for the long, cold, and dark winter ahead.

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The past two years I have been here for the autumn season, seeing the daylight hours gradually shorten and the darkness grow. This year, arriving in October, it’s almost startling to see how dark it is at night already! We still have a few hours of daylight with the sun rising at 830am and setting at 4pm, and we have seen a few auroras! Hopefully much more to come…

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High Five Turnover!

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Auroras over the Big House

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Arctic Adventures Part III

Part III: Southern Greenland

After three days and two nights aboard the ferry we arrived at Narsaq in Southern Greenland. I disembarked, waded through the throng of people gathered to meet the ferry and headed for the edge of town. It was late and getting dark already. In Greenland one may own a house, but there are no personal claims to the land itself. Some of the larger or more touristy towns such as Nuuk, Sisimiut, Illulisat, and Narsarsuaq have designated camping areas. Obviously, it’s not polite or wise to set up a tent right next to a house, but just outside of town is perfectly acceptable.

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Glaciers in the fog

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Greenlandic horse

I spent a few days in Narsaq, joining up with two Danish girls to hike up towards the glacier, but it rained all day and soon we were in the clouds. The rest of my time was spent exploring the quiet shore, admiring the wildflowers, and walking around town. August is blueberry season and there were lots of them all around. Birds chirped and seals swam in the ocean. I spent hours watching the immense icebergs that filled the bay – catching one just as a large chunk broke off under water! It splashed and bobbed to the surface, sending waves radiating around the inlet.
Once a boat came careening around a point, skipping along the water. It slowed just in time to ride it’s wake to the shore. A man jumped out followed by another, they crouched next to some rocks and started firing their rifles at the water – as far as I could tell they were trying to shoot each other’s splashes, or maybe small pieces of ice…firing as many rounds as possible in about 5min. Then they jumped back into the boat and sped back to town. Target practice? Using up old bullets? Testing hunting equipment?

 

After a few days in Narsaq I continued South to Qaqortoq. Boarding the small ferry I noticed I was the only tourists – just myself, a young very pregnant woman with her partner headed to the regional hospital to give birth, and a teenage boy.

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Qaqortoq is a much bigger town than Narsaq. There are several grocery stores, a cafe, and well defined trails around the hills. Homes and apartment buildings spread across a low area between and two hills, the sea, and back to a lake. There are few good spots to camp. Standing by the closed Tourist Information center I noticed another traveler I had met in Narsaq walking along the road towards me. He stopped to say hello and mentioned that he was doing a tour to the Hvalsey Church ruins in a few minutes. With no other plans and the information center and museums closed for Sunday I decided to tag along. Luckily there was space aboard the little boat and the captain tossed my big pack in the back. There were several Danish folks as well.170812_Greenland_214.jpg

The ruins were amazing. Most of the Norse ruins I had seen until this point were simply mounds of dirt or piles of stones. Hvalsey Church however, stands 56ft long and 26ft wide with four standing stone walls. The masonry is remarkable with open window and door frames. The church is one of the best preserved Norse ruins in Greenland and is also the site of the last written record of the Greenland Norse – a wedding in September 1408. It was built on the farm and ruins of other buildings dot the surrounding area.

After exploring Hvalsey Church we stopped at a Danish experimental farm along the Eastern shore of the fjord. Vegetables grew in rows outside with greenhouses sheltering tomato plants and other less hardy species. Beyond the vegetables evergreen tress grew in clumps fenced off from the sheep that wandered the hills.

Back in Qaqortoq I hiked around the surrounding hills. In town I visited the Great Greenland Fur House which prepares seal skin products, as well as caribou skin, arctic fox, arctic hare, and the odd Polar Bear skin. Interesting.

At last it was time to continue on to my final stop: Narsarsuaq. The main hub in Southern Greenland, with an international airport offering flights to Iceland and Denmark. Narsarsuaq is also served by Disko Line ferries who run several trips each day between Narsarsuaq and Qaqortoq via small boat and helicopter. Obviously I chose the helicopter option ☺
When I arrived at the Qaqortoq heliport early on the morning of my flight it was cold and damp with thick fog reducing visibility to nearly zero. Our 7am flight was cancelled. The woman working at the desk informed the handful of passengers booked for the morning helo that we would be moved to a boat leaving in about an hour. I waited until the rest of the passengers had left before asked if there was any room on the noon helicopter. She assured me that the boat was very fast and safe and seemed confused when I said I really just wanted to fly on a helicopter…it’s a very common way of transportation in Southern Greenland. She smiled though and made a few calls, securing a seat on the next flight!

A few hours later I returned to the heliport and this time the helicopter arrived, refueled, and we were led out to board. No ID checks, no safety briefings, no security, just pick a seat. Moments later we were airborne! The other 5 passengers were Greenlanders or Danes heading back to catch their flights home. It was routine, a commute for them. I had two side-facing seats to myself and spent the 25min flight snapping photographs out the window, admiring the views of mountains, icebergs, and crystal clear waters. It was awesome. After landing in Narsarsuaq however, I discovered that my backpack had been forgotten at the heliport in Qaqortoq and was never put on the helo. This seemed to be a somewhat common occurrence and the Disko Line representative made some calls and arranged for a bunk for me at the hostel as my pack held my tent, sleeping bag, food, etc. The next chance to get my pack would be the following day when a small boat was scheduled to make a run from Qaqortoq to Narsarsuaq. With nothing else to do, I hiked up to the glacier near Narsarsuaq. It was a beautiful walk, not terribly difficult except for a long scramble up a sheer rock wall – there were ropes installed in places. The glacier was huge and beautiful and wildflowers bloomed along the valleys leading to it.

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Narsarsuaq Glacier

I was originally planning on just one day in Narsarsuaq, but the next day our Air Greenland flight to Nuuk was delayed 11 hours due to weather in Nuuk. So I bought a ticket across the channel to visit the ruins of Bratthild and the statue of Leif Erikson. It was a lovely day and I hiked around a bit then settled along the shore of the fjord to eat lunch before boarding the boat back to Narsarsuaq.

At long last the Air Greenland Dash 8 arrived at the terminal and we boarded the plane. Taking off out of Narsarsuaq we headed Northwest towards Nuuk flying over some of the most phenomenal terrain; Monstrous glaciers flowed from the icecap pulling medial moraines towards the fjords. Jagged ridges of rock stood above the ice casting long shadows. Even the Greenlanders and Danes leaned towards the windows remarking on the beauty and taking photographs.

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Air Greenland Dash 8

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Glaciers of Southern Greenland

Soon clouds closed over the land below. As we descended into Nuuk the small plane was buffeted by heavy gusts and rain skidded across the tarmac. Pulling hoods tight against the wind we raced from the plane to the terminal. Inside we discovered our flight to Kangerlussuaq had been delayed due to the weather until the following day. Air Greenland had booked us at the Seaman’s Home and instructed me to share a taxi with a young Greenlandic woman. At the hotel we discovered they were overbooked and so the young Greenlandic woman and I were put in the same room as well. After nearly a month camping and staying in cheap hostels the hot shower, soft bed, and breakfast buffet were welcome!

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Nuuk, capital of Greenland!

The next day we waited at the airport as flights were again delayed one after the other. Finally we were a go and we pushed against the rain and wind as we walked from the terminal. Aboard the small plane the stewardess smiled as the plane shifted and rocked abruptly with the forceful wind. Thankfully the air calmed as soon as we were off deck and above the clouds. And I was on my way back to Kangerlussuaq.

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Arktisk Kommando

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A dramatic Kangerlussuaq Fjord

 

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Arctic Adventures Part II

Part II: Sisimiut and the Arctic Umiaq Line

The town of Sisimiut marks the western end of the Arctic Circle Trail. It’s an interesting place and the second largest in Greenland with a population of roughly 5,700. It’s a working town bustling with hunters and fishermen, young mothers pushing babies bundled up in strollers, and general workers. It is one of the only places where it gets cold enough in winter to run dog sleds, but stays warm enough to leave the harbor accessible year-round.

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Island dogs

I had a few days before the ferry arrived so I enjoyed Danish pastries from the bakery and poked around some of the trails near town. I was staying in the hostel in town which was full of hikers preparing to set out on the Arctic Circle Trail or those, like myself, who had just completed the trek from Kangerlussuaq. Most evenings were spent exchanging stories and experiences from along the trail.
One foggy morning I headed out to a little spit of land following trails over rocky outcrops and past several rough mounds of sod or piled stones. This particular site has a well protected natural harbor and has been inhabited for over 4,000 years! The Saqqaq culture is believed to be the first people to have settle in Greenland. They lived along the coast from ~2,500AD to ~800AD before disappearing. They were followed by the Dorset group which lived in the area from ~500BC-200AD. The next wave of settlers came from the Thule culture which were the ancestors of all modern Inuit. In the 1700s the Danish arrived and, monopolizing the lucrative whaling industry, colonized the island. To this day Danes make up a large portion of the population in Greenland.

While I was walking along the shore I noticed several dogs running around a tiny rocky island just offshore. After asking a woman in town I learned that dog sledders will sometimes put their dogs out on rocks to toughen them up and to give them some exercise during the summer months. Most dogs are kept on short chains during the off-season and require significant training and work to get back into sledge-pulling shape.

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Traditional whale jaw bones in the old colonial part of town

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On Monday the Umiaq Arctic Line ferry arrived. There is just one passenger ferry and it runs once a week from Qaqortoq in the far South all the way up to Ilulissat and then back the next week. On board I found my reserved bunk and went up top to watch the rest of the passengers board. It seemed that everyone had turned out to greet incoming friends and family or to bid farewell to those leaving. Greenlandic towns and settlements are so small and the land and elements so rough that no towns are connected via road – everything and everyone must travel via plane, helicopter, boat, or sled. While there was a handful of tourists most of the passengers were families traveling to other settlements or older students traveling to towns with high schools. There was a whole section on deck for baby strollers.

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And then we were off, heading Southward! It was a grey foggy morning and soon we lost sight of 170807_greenland_123.jpgland. A few hours later we turned back inland and I glanced out one of the windows to see a massive rock face emerging from its cloak of fog. Despite the chill several of us stood on the open top deck where we gaped at the massive mountains in the stunning light. Our first stop was at the settlement of Kangaamiut near the mouth of the Kangerlussuaq fjord. Clinging to a steep rock slope the houses seemed precarious at best. However, the waters here are deep and rich with sea life and humpback whales dove along-side fishing boats tending their nets as the ferry glided past. Later that evening we stopped at Maniitsoq to exchange passengers before continuing onward towards Nuuk.

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Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, is the largest city by far with a population of over 17,000 people (almost a third of Greenland’s population). The ferry was scheduled to stop here for several hours and so we were allowed the whole morning to stretch our legs and explore. I walked around visiting the National Museum with the famous Qilakitsoq mummies, noticing the beautiful street art and murals on buildings, getting some lunch at one of the several grocery stores, and finding free wifi (very rare in Greenland) at the library.

Then it was back on the boat and out to sea. It began to rain that afternoon and we quickly lost sight of land amid the fog and swells. After a few hours of this the sound of retching filled the ship – and the chairs and bunks were filled with seasick passengers. On the top deck I enjoyed the cool clean air and watched Northern Fulmars swoop behind us almost like albatross.

We stopped again at the little settlements of Qeqertarsuatsiaat and Paamiut and had a chance to walk around Arsuk. There was a tourist guide on board who lectured on the history and current issues facing Greenland. He was very knowledgeable, answering questions about in English, Danish, Greenlandic, and French. As I mentioned above, it was an interesting mix of working commuter ferry and cruise ship. Most tourists take the ferry from Illilisat to Nuuk, but there were a few of us heading all the way South. Southern Greenland is laced with a plethora of narrow ice-filled fjords, passages, inlets, and islands. As we neared Narsaq we began to see icebergs from calving glaciers farther inland. Seals splashed in the water as the vessel plowed along it’s course, smashing right through small pieces of ice and passing very close to several larger icebergs. I was enthralled by the beautify of the ice in the sea; the white of snow and ice contrasting against the deep, brilliant blue emanating from these massive pieces of frozen water. Pieces that had recently flipped over seemed to glow with a saturated blue. Seal hunters skimmed along the surface between the bergs, rifles at the ready.

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We reached the town of Narsaq just as dusk fell. In the dusk I could see a sprinkling of lights across a low area surrounded on three sides by icy sea and butted up against a looming mountain. This is where my voyage ended and I disembarked the ferry to find a place to camp for the night.

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Disembarking the ferry

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Narsaq, Greenland

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