With Anna away I've been staying busy with field work in Kobbefjord, but I did manage a day hike to the top of Sermitsiaq yesterday. Sermitsiaq is the iconic peak (also its own island) near Nuuk with a craggy 1200 meter summit visible from most places in town. It's also the name of the local newspaper, and many other community themed events. We had superb weather, especially considering Nuuk was shrouded in fog most of the day. Here are some photos from the hike:
This past weekend Ken and I took a trip to beautiful Qoornoq (pronounced "core-knock", roughly), a settlement in the Nuuk fjord system. We went with some members of the local climbing club, technically calling it a bouldering trip, although it was as much to boulder as it was to hang out, camp, and enjoy the balmy (sunny and 55° F/13° C!) weather. In addition to whales, icebergs, and 5000 ft (~1500 m) peaks, the weekend was full of excitement, a bit of danger, and a lot of great condiments. I'll be writing about it in three separate posts: "The Open Boat", "The Open Wound", and "The Open Faced Sandwich."
Part 1: The Open Boat
Qoornoq is an abandoned fishing village about an hour and half's boat ride from Nuuk. It sits on a tiny island adjacent to a much larger island in the Nuuk fjord system (you can walk between the two islands, but only at low tide.) Qoornoq was a thriving fishing village back in the 1960s and 1970s, but the fishery has since dried up and now there are only a handful of well-maintained summer homes there, as well as an old fish-drying factory and a beautifully restored church. Every summer there is also a "mayoral election", obviously a bit of joke given the lack of permanent residents, but a great excuse for a beach party/barbecue. We were lucky enough to be in Qoornoq for this event as well.
You can zoom around the above map to get an idea of where Qoornoq is, but for better context, I suggest you download the Google Earth tour I made (below). If you don't know how to use Google Earth, you should. You can download it for free here.
Room for 5 more? Sure, we have extra space because there's no life jackets!
We had a bit of trouble finding a boat to take us out to Qoornoq, but at the last minute the trip organizer found a friend who agreed to take us. We received an email-- "I've secured a boat--it's an open boat, so dress warm!". I thought this meant to wear an extra sweater; luckily, I found out that it meant to wear snow bibs, a couple of coats, hat, gloves, and a waterproof shell.
So, around 9 pm on a gloomy Friday evening, a man named "Jon" showed up in a small skiff to pick us up and take us on the hour and a half trip into the fjord. Jon didn't say much, and the whole affair seemed a bit mysterious, but he got serious for about 30 seconds before we boarded the boat. After the first few words out of his mouth, he had my rapt attention:
"There are no life preservers on this boat. If we hit a whale, or something like that, and tip over, STAY WITH THE BOAT. It has a double hull, so it can't sink. Climb on top of it. DON'T LEAVE THE BOAT. Press this red button" (pointing to the S.O.S. button on his Spot rescue device) "and an SMS should go to my friend that we're in trouble. And then he'll come for us. I hope. DON'T LEAVE THE BOAT."
Got it. Don't leave the boat when we tip over. We were a total of 7 passengers with camping gear, food, and beer; the boat had an 800 kg (~1700 lb) weight limit. You do the math. With choppy seas and ominous skies, I had an uneasy feeling about the whole thing, but everyone else seemed in high spirits. Huh. I got on board and thought about my mother for a minute.
Interestingly, I've never had anyone tell me where the life jackets are on any of the boats I've been on since coming to Nuuk. I'm not sure if this is due to a certain nonchalance that develops in a seafaring culture, or if it's just because the water is so cold here that a life jacket won't do much good if the boat goes down. We've heard people say, "If you're not out of the water in two minutes, you're dead". Noted.
Love the captain's expression-- what is he thinking about??
Anyway, my pulse quieted as I realized this was not such a Big Deal. The boat handled well even if it was a bit cold and bumpy (Ken and I had unwisely agreed to sit in the front-- little did I know this would feel like sitting in the back seat of a school bus and going over a speed bump every 2-3 seconds.)
Within 20 minutes of leaving Nuuk we had seen a humpback whale surface a few times-- my first whale sighting in Nuuk-- and the excitement over this further assuaged my general angst about the trip. I did, however, spend the next hour clinging tightly to a rope in the front of the boat, because I was still scared on a more localized level that each passing wave (and its subsequent bump) would fling me into the sea.
Requisite iceberg photo. Not exactly the venue for glamor shots.
Soon we began encountering more and more icebergs; Qoornoq is relatively close to a massive glacier pouring off of the ice cap. No one seemed excited about the 'bergs except me, and I demanded Ken take some photos of me. Icebergs really are beautiful things... most of them, anyway. Some are actually quite dirty and look like hunks of snow in a Chicago parking lot. These ones never seem to be photographed.
Just before reaching Qoornoq proper, Jon dropped us off near our campsite (on the main island about 2-3 km from the actual Qoornoq mini-island) with a promise to return for us on Sunday. "Really? That's it?" I wondered. But I suppose one doesn't just forget these sorts of things.
Bedtime in our miniature tent on the tundra.
On shore, we made camp, collected driftwood, and enjoyed a fire and some stream-chilled beers under the lingering arctic sunset.
Before we knew it, it was morning. Here, sunset bleeds into the sunrise, with colors that stretch across the sky for hours with no real night in between. It's surreal to realize that sunrise has circled back on the sunset without you even noticing. And although most claim to love it, it makes me feel a little cheated. Where did my night time go? When am I supposed to sleep? In this situation I feel a small small sense of betrayal; others, mania.
Regardless, when the birds start chirping, you know it's time to go to bed--at which point it's also a good idea to blindfold yourself with something so you can get some sleep.
Up next: Injury in the wilds of Greenland in Qoornoq Part 2: The Open Wound.
June 1 real-time temps. Commas are actually decimals. 32.8 degrees in Nuuk.
Anna isn’t happy with her blogging stats, so she asked me to intervene with a guest post about my work to stimulate the viewers. I’m working at Asiaq which is housed under the Department of Infrastructure and Environment in the Greenland government. It’s kind of like a mini-version of the USGS, but Asiaq also does some private consulting related to hydropower projects in Greenland. I also recently learned that their current weather page is the second most popular site in Greenland! You will notice that daily highs here continue to hover just above freezing. Perfect weather.
There is a lot of science happening in the arctic for a lot of reasons. Sea ice extent and thickness is diminishing, which is a big change for a society which depends on the ice to travel, hunt, and fish. The melting of the Greenland ice cap is one of the largest contributors to global sea level rise. These freshwater inputs affect marine ecosystems and the fishing industry. Permafrost is warming up which has implications for infrastructure and natural resource development. All of these processes intertwined in Greenland’s political environment (potential bid for independence from Denmark) make it an interesting problem in a modern, developing country.
The commute to work--boat + skis.
Thus far, “work” has involved a lot of skiing, which is always a good thing. A few times each week from May-October I travel 20 minutes by boat through Kobbefjord. Part of the program includes an eddy covariance system to monitor carbon dioxide exchange. Basically, air is pumped through tubing to an analyzer which determines the concentration of CO2. Another sensor calculates the wind speed/direction 20 times each second. The values are stored and processed on the computer, and with some math magic you can determine if humans are causing global warming. Or something like that.
About to ski back to the boat.
It’s a nice place to work, especially during good weather. Each day I’ve attempted to finish my field work in time to ski a legitimate run before the boat comes to pick me up... this can make for a long night at the office, but it's well worth it. I've only been successful twice, once with enough time to skin up about 800 meters (2500 feet) of perfect corn snow. For the ski back down to the ocean the entire valley and fjord were empty, except for my boat driver coming in to pick me up and some whales spouting in the distance. Not bad for a work day, especially in June. Of course, for each one of these days there will be ten days of driving, freezing rain. Field work in Greenland is not always glamorous.
Ken has been gone the last three days in the field, and his two supervisors (both women) were kind enough to invite me on a skiing trip Sunday to neighboring Kobbefjord. So, Sunday morning I headed out with four Danes who live in Nuuk and an American scientist who is currently visiting ASIAQ. It was a nice group-- interesting academic types with great explanations of the landscape and natural processes we were hiking through, as well as a former school teacher who is now working for the Greenland schools administration, and also a fellow who works for the Greenland tourism agency. I looked forward to chatting with all of these people but unfortunately spent most of the day lagging at the end of the group, sweating, getting an incredible sunburn through the thick cloud cover (despite my SPF 30), and generally cursing the fact that Ken was not around to carry the things in my pack. (Our usual M.O. while touring--we like to load him down like a pack mule to even the playing field a bit.) Regardless, I wouldn't have missed this day for the world and it's the first time since moving here that I thought with conviction, "THIS is why we moved here."
Starting in Nuuk, we traveled by boat to neighboring Kobbefjord (about a 20 minute trip), anchored, and skinned up a nice, mellow drainage to a small peak named Aajuitsaq (855 m, ~2800 ft). About 14 km (8ish miles) round trip, give or take. Overall, it was a great trip with good skinning and a nice ski out, composed of mixed terrain that necessitated some pushing and skating, but enough pitch to get in a few turns here and there. A couple of our party were on cross country skis, I was on my old teles, and everyone else had nice mixed-condition dynafit skis, boots and bindings. If not for the extremely flat light on the ski out, I would have been in heaven-- the snow conditions were surprisingly good. Nice, dry snow. I'm not sure if this was just because we stuck to north-facing aspects on the trip out, but I was pleasantly surprised.
After a very nice itinerary from Fairbanks to Nuuk that consisted of only 3 flights and an 8 hour daytime layover in Reykjavic (we went into town for a last taste of culture and sophistication), Ken and I arrived in Nuuk Saturday evening, April 30th. Despite a lost ski bag (which we've since recovered) the travel went smoothly. We even got exit row seats for the Seattle-Reykjavic leg.
The descent into Nuuk (town not yet visible).
After a full week here, all I can say is that Nuuk leaves me a bit speechless. The flight in was starkly beautiful, but all that beauty was laced, for me at least, with an element of terror. Looking down on a (literal) sea of ice and granite with a propeller buzzing next to your ear makes one keenly aware that a quick exit from Nuuk isn’t necessarily an easy feat. The place has a sort of lunar feel to it. Nothing but rock and ice, with buildings on the landscape that look very out of place. Sensible and stylish Danish design seems to have met its match here in the way of industrial building materials. Overall, the city’s architecture has a bit of an airplane-hangar-meets-country-cottage look. From certain angles, you can create a quaint panorama—but you can’t fool yourself for too long.
To add to Nuuk's other-worldly aspect, we are currently living in a very nice high rise apartment building (11 stories). Greenland functions under a public housing system imposed decades ago by the Danes—a system which no one seems to fully understand. What we do know is this: as a two person couple, we are entitled to a three room apartment (two bedrooms, one joint kitchen/living space). However, due to the long waiting list for public housing, most people (including us) are first placed in temporary housing, which allowably provides one less room for an individual or family than the number to which they are entitled. During this time of temporary housing, apartments are rent free. (Big bonus, because when we finally move to our permanent apartment, rent will be around 1000 USD/month). However, right now we have been placed in “pre-temporary” housing , and have been told we’ll be moving to our official “temporary” housing in six weeks. But our current "pre-temporary" apartment has three rooms, the number to which we are entitled. Confused? Yeah, so are we. What matters for the time being is that we’re not paying anything, so we haven't asked many questions.
Our dining room around midnight.
But back to our current apartment. Although this is my first experience with public housing anywhere in the world, the place has vastly exceeded my expectations. Strike the mental images you’re having right now of Chicago’s Cabrini Green. Leave it to the Danes to decide that public housing should include heated bathroom floors, beautiful wood flooring, glass walled showers, in-unit washing machines, standard issue down comforters, dishwashers, and closet space beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. We’re told that our apartment is on the nice end of the public housing spectrum here, so I’m trying to keep my expectations for the future low. Still, it's an incredibly nice apartment. And when I stand at the sink doing dishes with a state of the art faucet, cleaning the counters and the brand-new glass stovetop burners with a few easy swipes of the sponge, it somehow makes Nuuk feel even more surreal and isolated. At times like this I feel like I'm on some sort of high tech spaceship, never quite able to forget the cold and empty wilderness lapping at the door.
From what we've seen so far, Greenland is incredibly beautiful, and as remote a wilderness as I think remains in the world. We've already been skiing a couple of times, gone on small hikes to the edge of town, and realized that we're going to need to buy a boat to take full advantage of what is on offer here. But apart from the natural beauty, this is a strange and curious place. Most notably, it is a place of contrasts. Nuuk is extremely urbanized, with high density housing, an impressive bus system, and even its own suburb. Yet, real, live, bone chilling wilderness is only a 20 minute walk from any part of town. And the mixture of native people and Danes--some highly educated, some poorly educated, many living together in mixed income housing--in a country that has essentially been a colony of Denmark for 200 years weaves a very fascinating story that we're only beginning to understand.