Headed out

Quick post for tonight.

We got our fuel this afternoon, packed in the rest of the gear around it, and headed out for what we’ll call a trial run. A couple small problems with the loads turned us back to get things lashed down a bit differently. The evening was gorgeous and our course NW had us  going into the setting sun for a few minutes. The loads are properly stowed now, and with a storm coming tomorrow, we are going to get a few hours rest tonight here at Summit, get up early and try to push north before the storm hits.

Here and on the homefront


All packed and nowhere to go…yet.

We are ready to go, with the exception of fuel coming up from Kanger to replace the diesel-contaminated-fuel gaffe we dealt with yesterday.  The sleds have been packed and repacked, and arranged and rearranged.  And rearranged.  And repacked.  Mike has applied his special brand of organization to tidy up the load and lashings.  It is a sharp looking load.

Our traverse system and methodology stems from an illustrious lineage.  We literally and figuratively borrowed systems and equipment from Dr. Matthew Sturm, the godfather of long Arctic snowmobile traverses.  One key piece is our canopy sled, which Matthew graciously let us borrow for this traverse, and is much appreciated.  Matthew’s mentor was Dr. Carl Benson, who pioneered the route we will follow in a series of traverses in the 1950’s.

The flight planned for today didn’t come, but with any luck, tomorrow we will get the needed fuel, and be able to go on our merry way.


Mike, our designated load organizer, puts the finishing touches on our canopy sled.


Sometimes getting everything ready means working into the night.

Thanks to a big push yesterday by Chris and the guys in the shop, Don and Doug, the snowmachines are running well, and we are excited to be able to leave the fuel cache for the bigger run soon.  Life “in town” here at Summit, is pretty cushy, with good food and good friends, and the sooner we get out, the sooner we can look forward to being back.


Teague, this one’s for you. Giant tractor! (Teague loves tractors.)

While I am in Greenland, my husband Mike, who along with everyone back home deserves a nod for his supporting role, is watching our rather high energy and mischievous son, Teague.  This is my first time away from home since he was born, so it is a big step for all of us.

Of course things went wrong as soon as I was in the air heading to Greenland.  Mike took Teague to a party at a friend’s house, and Teague projectile vomited all over their kitchen.  If you are a parent, you know that this happens, and it while it is alarming, it’s usually not that big of a deal.  This is the first time that Teague has been this sick, and it lasted for a few days.  Exactly what I feared might happen- that Mike and Teague wouldn’t have a “normal,” relatively peaceful time while I was gone, but have to deal with something crazy.

Teague is doing better now, and Mike is getting some rest.  Everyone and most everything has been scrubbed clean.

We all owe a big debt of gratitude to our family and friends for supporting us while we are away—and we couldn’t do this without them.  There are farms back at home gearing up for a busy spring, land being purchased, and homefronts striving to reach normalcy.


Teague napping after a rough couple of days.

Delay of Game

So fuel is pretty important to this expedition. We need quite a lot of it – some 650 gallons of gasoline to complete our route. Enough in fact that we cannot haul it and all of our scientific equipment at once. So our plan has been to machine north 350 miles or so with a huge load of fuel to put out then returning to get our science gear. After spending the day pumping out fuel drums yesterday and getting our food and camping gear in order, we were optimistic that we’d head out this evening.

This morning, however, when we started the machines, they were running very poorly. In fact they were really not running at all. Back into the shop they went for evaluation, where we eventually noticed that a few drops of splashed fuel from them was not evaporating. Cold weather gasoline evaporates very quickly, so this is not a good sign. Closer inspection revealed the problem – the liquidy petroleum substance our machines were filled with was not gasoline but Jet-A, basically diesel fuel. Sniffing fumes, dipping fingers in gas cans, and trying to light the fuel with a sparker quickly became the activity of the morning as we tried to determine which jerry cans were good and which weren’t. The conclusion was that about 2/3 of our freshly pumped fuel supply is contaminated with Jet-A or some other heavier, oilier hydrocarbon that does not make snowmobiles happy. Further checks to figure out what happened also revealed that all of the barrels this mystery fluid came from are clearly labeled Mogas (motor gasoline) – and not Jet-A. Somewhere along the chain of custody, someone mislabeled or even mixed this stuff. Blame has not yet been assigned… but with pretty major implications for our departure and possible damage to the snowmobiles, some choice words may have accompanied this discovery.


Label says gasoline. Oily taste with a smooth finish says diesel…

Field science is an interesting beast though. There are good days and there are bad days, but if you are a pretty stubborn and a bit handy you can often transform a bad day into a good one. Complaints are generally wasted so we hopped to on our latest snag. The rest of the day today was spent trying to confidently determine which fuel is good enough to trust taking out on our long expedition, getting the machines back in running order, and working with the logistics providers to get more fuel up here ASAP.


Working on the machines


I’m happy to report that with the crack team here spending the day in the monkey wrench pit, the machines are all back up and running. We’ve arranged for nine barrels of new gasoline to be put onto the flight scheduled to bring Nate in tomorrow. Weather forecast for tomorrow is not great for flying, but we’ll be hoping for the best. It may be about 130 am right now, but we’re feeling pretty good – we just got in from a few mile test run with a couple of the repaired machines and some of our laden sleds. We all needed some speed and the wind in our faces for a bit!  

Crispy Cold Cargo!


“Exploding” the pallet and herding the gear




Working in the long evening light

 After resting and acclimatizing in the Big House for 6 hours, we began to slowly start walking around and doing easy tasks. The first of which was helping our cook, Sarah, load the fresh food up the ladderway and into the galley. Because of the elevation, 10,530 ft, this had our hearts pounding and huffing to catch our breath! With a little more rest though, we started to feel ready to tackle our Air Force T-2 pallet. This is the van-sized pile containing the entire set of science gear, food, empty fuel cans, tools, two snow machines, and parts…. all packed tighter than a tin of sardines, and ratcheted tight with cargo nets. After that set of weather days in Kangerlussuaq, we were ready to play King of the Hill! 7 hours later we had dragged and corralled the stow into a series of piles. And by the last light of the evening we had each tied down tightly, just as the moon broke over the horizon.



Crispy clear night!



Nice to have a familiar piece of Alaska here! Arctic Ovens are made in Fairbanks


Early Thursday morning (after two strong cups of coffee) we went right back into preparations, full swing. Chris worked with Doug and Don in the S.O.B. (Science Operations Barn) tinkering around on the snow machines, adding our custom home made parts, and getting them ready to be fired up. 


Zoe loading fuel into our gas jugs


Zoe and I pumped fuel for 11 hours! The hose was like a golf club, completely rigid and unbendable in the deeply negative temperatures! We moved 14 fifty-five gallon drums into 80 jugs with hand crank pumps…. A job which took us right up to nightfall. On the left side of the photo above you can get a first look at one of our fuel sleds, lashed down and nearly ready for the journey. 


The S.O.B., Science Operations Barn, chugging along at -50 F

   The day came to a close with a steadily building wind. The three of us barely made it to our tents afer warming up in the Big House with hot cups of tea. Tomorrow the weather is set to move in, with winds building to 25 knots by afternoon… We’ll have to wear all the gear we have and dig our heels in to keep at the pace we’ve set.

Summit at Last


The happy face of a scientist going to the field – just after takeoff.

We made it! I’m super excited. Great weather all around this morning. A sunny calm, clear day all the way from Kangerlussuaq to Summit. Two planes to summit in one day means the crew here is pretty busy shlepping gear around.


Whooping and smiling after a smooth, easy landing at Summit


Mike excited to be here too.


Slow moving, heavy breathing caravan adjusts to high altitude.


A trusty steed – the LC-130 has been in service since about 1956.


Our accomodations – the arctic oven tent. In sunny weather these really live up to the name, despite temps in the mid -30’s upon our arrival, the inside of the tents were room temperature.


Our cargo made it too! Note our sled in the background.

Though I’m pretty excited to get started organizing our sleds and gear, the delay while gear is moved about is probably a good thing. Summit is at a bit over 10,000 feet altitude, and actually has air pressure even lower than that – so adjusting from sea level can actually take some time. It drives me crazy to work slowly when we’ve just had a few weather days but LOTS of people get altitude sickness here – and I know I’ll have a headache soon. A quick walk across the room that leaves you breathing heavily reminds you how much less air there is. If we don’t start moving too fast right away, we can save ourselves a lot of discomfort.


Headed over to the “big house.” The stations kitchen and dining area.


Bye Bye LC-130


A clearer view of the big house


Inside the big house, cookies and water were waiting for us to get hydrated and encouraged to take it easy for awhile – lest we get bad altitude sickness.

We’re the first ones in for the season – and the people who wintered over are actually surprisingly well adjusted! Not even a wild look in their eyes, and who can complain about fresh baked bread and cookies. Thanks Summit crew!


Moving bags summit style.

The rest of the evening will include us getting more adjusted and starting to get our gear pallet broken out as well as trying to adjust our plans for our few days of delay. The big question will be whether to wait up for our last compatriot, Nate – who is scheduled to arrive on the 27th, or head out with the three of us to make our fuel cache as planned.

Odd Machinery, Dogs, and Fossils

What do these three things have in common? Well they are all part of my childhood dreams, and none of them are at Summit, Greenland. More weather delays today as the winds at Summit picked up again to be (just barely) above the threshold for landing. More tantalizing still, a perfectly good 12 hr weather window offered by mother nature passed last night outside the window of the Air National Guard’s flying schedule. With Mike’s background as a ship captain and Zoe and my research work typically requiring us to work any hours we get from nature, we’re used to a bit different rhythm than that of a peacetime military bureaucracy. Needless to say our zen about airplanes is becoming a bit strained and we’re ready to get out on our own.

To maintain calm we decided to try reverse psychology – assuming that making very concrete and important plans for the next day right where we are that require the airplane not fly will make it decide to go. No luck. After getting up early and hanging around all morning doing some computer work and hoping for a drop in the winds, it appeared we were going to have to make good on our ‘very important’ plans to go fossil hunting, see the dog kennel, and check out the cold war era machinery parked about the airstrip end of town. Starting to sound a bit like a vacation, but rest assured I put my hours in at the computer today too!

Mike and I have both spent a lot of time around end-of-the road places in the North country. A common theme across them all is that large, interesting pieces of equipment are brought into these places for reasons like fishing, mining, or military efforts, but are seldom removed. The leavings, often still in use long after the original owner departs, are always interesting and usually parked right along the street ready for the inquisitive mind to ponder and poke at. Kangerlussuaq’s collection did not disappoint.

Tracked vehicles everywhere

A combination of my two favorite words – skiing and bulldozer. This thing must be fun!


Twin turbo 600 kw cummins diesel generator. Tim from “Home Improvement” would be proud if we installed this in our sled.

The dog kennel outside town, where all the sled dogs are kept, was our next stop, following up on Mike’s visit in better light to get much-requested pictures and tussle with the cute fellows. The Greenland dogs – selected by Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amudsen for their expeditions across Greenland and to the south pole, respectively, are both beautiful and amazing. Here they are still in full winter coats. We were greeted by the pack leaders from each respective team, which don’t seem to get tied up. Each was friendly and playful. A big fellow lept right into Mike’s arms, another bowed playfully to Zoe, and a third wrested with me, licked hands and rolled over for belly rubs. At least in the moment we all wished we could trade in our smelly, oily snow machines for a pack of these beauties. If they weren’t cute enough already, peering around a corner in the kennel led us to a small out-of-the-way hose where a mother was nursing a young litter.


Mike’s new buddy.




The size of these dogs is amazing. Big paws, big heads, and 3 inch thick coats.





Moving along quickly before some of those puppies ended up in our back packs, we headed out to the fossil grounds. I haven’t been able to get the story about who first discovered them, but the bluffs along the edge of the fjord contain a good smathering of fossil fish and shells. The bluffs were actually formed as sediment deposited in the bottom of the fjord over the past few thousand years. As the glaciers have retreated since the last ice age, un-weighting the earth’s surface, the land here in Greenland is actually rebounding. As the land rebounds, successive river deltas have been lifted up out of the sea for us to explore.


An ancient river delta raised out of the sea as the land rebounds from the weight of the last ice age’s glaciers.

The fossils, which are only a few thousand years old, are actually found in the loose silt and clay deposits, within small “cementations”. The presence of decaying organic matter in the form of a clam or fish induces the deposition of calcium carbonate which binds the sediment into a small rock-like formation around the fossil. These cementations are eroding out of the delta material here and there, providing us the opportunity carefully split them open to see what may be preserved within. The results? Amazing! We found a few almost perfectly preserved fish skeletons, with the original cartilage tissue not entirely mineralized yet.


A fine fish fossil photo! (If I do say so myself)

Consolation Prizes


So sometimes I don’t get what I want. I wanted to go to Summit Station today and begin loading sleds for the traverse. Unfortunately a lot of moving parts needed to come into alignment for that to happen and they never quite did. You see, we needed to have good weather here in Kangerlussuaq, up at Summit, and at a third ‘diversion’ airport within flying distance (either Raven or Thule) in order to be cleared to fly . We also needed a working plane. Mechanical delays in the morning lead on to weather problems in all of the diversion airports, which eventually canceled the flight for the day. 

Since all our gear, except a small daypack apiece, got packed up this morning and loaded onto the plane, we really couldn’t even work on the remaining preparations for the traverse. Suddenly being free after weeks of non-stop preparations was a bit eerie. It took a few minutes of thinking before I remembered what I like to do when I’m not working – go exploring. My consolation prize, therefore, was getting to go for a wonderful evening hike.

This wouldn’t be the first time a good consolation prize came our way. We had originally been scheduled to do our science traveling with the fuel resupply traverse from Thule air force base in northwestern Greenland to Summit. Only Chris was to go. Budget cuts and uncertainty around the sequester forced that resupply to be canceled for the year. We got a call from our program manager at NSF that started out sounding like our science trip was in the dustbin along with it. The possible alternative was for us to go out using snowmobiles from Summit station and camping – a logistically less expensive option. Downsides included cold fingers and toes and the need to lighten our payload. Upsides included freedom to travel at our own pace and deviate from the route when needed as well as the ability (and need for safety) to bring two other people to the field. Needless to say we didn’t hesitate to accept the more adventurous alternative.

My evening walk turned up muskoxen, reindeer, a fox, some beautiful scenery, and a few really neat snow and ice formations created by super dry winds sublimating the ice surface on lakes over the course of the winter. Being that we’re headed onto an ice sheet more or less devoid of wildlife, it was sure nice to get some time in among the critters today.


Bull reindeer feed on the tundra – notice the new antlers pushing out in velvet.


This, I suppose, is about what New England looked like 13,000 years ago.


Sun lights up the willows


Mist over Kangerlussuaq


Zoe and Mike enjoy the new found free time


Muskox ribcage left over from hunting season on the tundra


Mike demonstrates the strength that clinched his hiring onto the expedition


There’s something magical about muskoxen. I have to pinch myself to remember that I’m not in the stone age when watching these creatures. These guys and I sized eachother up for about an hour – after they noticed me the second I peered my nose over a ridge on them.


Since I think muskoxen are neat enough to take a hundred pictures of while frosting a fingertip – perhaps you’ll be willing to check out two photos.


When you have the camera sometimes the only way to get yourself in the pictures is an arms length self portrait


Catabatic winds dropping off the ice sheet are super dry and cause a lot of sublimation in the area – resulting in neat formations on the lake ice



Zoe’s toddler is infatuated with trucks these days – this ones to you little man! (I want one too!