Summer of 2002, Trip II
Bill Burnham— 18 July 2002 — in Arctic Program - Greenland Share
When I first introduced this rather intense annual planning process many years ago, my co-workers seemed to dread it, but now have grown to understand the need for the meetings and some even seem to look forward to them. Each meeting begins with a review of the project or program goal followed by a report of what was achieved this year as the lead-in to a discussion of the plans for the next year and the following four years.
Monday we spent all day on our efforts in the Neotropics. Tuesday we went through projects in Africa and Asia. Wednesday morning the focus was Aplomado Falcons and in the afternoon the California Condor effort. These two projects we have had meetings on twice before already this year so the number of items to resolve were shorter than it would have been otherwise. Thursday was an all-staff (those working in Boise and who have come for the meetings) meeting where we covered everything from projects and programs to our web site, computer and vehicle needs, office, library, maintenance, financials, etc. Each day lunch is provided to participants so no one needs to leave and we can continue working straight through. In the evenings there are frequently social events for people who only see each other at these meetings to go out together. Thursday evening Lloyd and Julie Kiff invited everyone, including spouses and children, to their home for dinner. Friday is also filled with discussions to resolve the many issues and questions that have arisen during the week and still remain unanswered. The first of the people now depart for home with the remainder leaving over the weekend. I leave on Sunday, today, for New York and then on to Greenland.
On the airplanes I begin reading and editing the written results and plans I have already received from the meetings. By the time I return all the budget information will have been prepared for analysis and combined onto a large spread sheet. In a group, Pat, Jeff, and I will go over each budget in detail, then consider all combined related to our best guess on income for FY03. Many staff members will be called upon to justify their proposed expenses. Most likely, we will end up needing to make some hard financial and program choices as to where to make cuts before the proposed budget is presented to the Board of Directors for their approval and adoption. Whatever is approved, the directions will remain not to spend more than budgeted or more than is raised. It is very difficult to manage expense while not knowing the likely ultimate income and still achieve maximum results. We never know for sure how much money we are going to have until 30 September, the last day of our fiscal year.
15 July -The flight to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, takes the usual approximately six hours. Nothing unusual. Our friends meet the airplane and offer whatever assistance we need. Bianca Perren and I are both on Ilulissat in a few hours where Kurt Burnham and Regan Haswell should be waiting, having flown there earlier in the day. We must overnight at Ilulissat, then in the morning go on to Upernavik. Then using the same aircraft we go to Qaanaaq and change to a helicopter and on to Thule. Thule is not an easy place to reach anymore! In past years Greenland Air had a direct flight from Kangerlussuaq to Thule, but after building many landing strips/airports in all fairly large communities, travel to some places has become more complicated.
We did not arrive at Ilulissat until late, about 2230, so our visit was very short with no sight-seeing other than while landing and from our hotel windows. Even so the ice is spectacular.
After dumping our bags in hotel rooms, over Greenlandic coffee Kurt and Regan tell us about their accomplishment in the Kangerlussuaq area during our absence. They were able to catch several falcons and attach a PTT and collect other information. They were busy, making good use of their time.
Bianca, although not a bird person per se, is a trained scientist with years of experience in the Canadian Arctic and operating boats. This is her second trip to Greenland.
16 July -We are up at 0500 so we can get to the airport by 0700 with all our gear in preparation for our 0900 flight. It was a short night and is going to be another long day. Interesting that even after all the years I have worked in the north I still can be excited enough to have trouble sleeping.
The flight from Ilulissat to Upernavik takes about an hour and a quarter. The Upernavik airport sits atop a rugged hill above the town. To make a flat spot they literally cut away the top of the mountain and used the rock to fill in the low spots. The airport terminal is very modern with a large x-ray machine to examine baggage and they use metal detectors to check passengers before boarding (probably because of some Danish or European regulation), but at the same time the toilets have buckets in them which are periodically dumped into a truck and hauled just beyond the Upernavik museum and put in a dump at the edge of sea. Raw sewage is dumped into the ocean throughout Greenland and has never created a problem I am aware of, particularly because of the small population. A recent change, however, in some towns is the use of yellow plastic liners/bags in the buckets. The bags are not biodegradable and are dumped directly into the ocean.
When we were traveling up the coast by boat in 2000 we stopped overnight at Upernivak and were shown the airport which was then under construction. Traveling with us today is the manager of the Qaanaaq airport, which is even newer. She was in Thule, previously managing Air Greenland flights into Thule.
The flight on to Qaanaaq takes about one and one-half hours more. We fly north across Melville Bay. Amazingly, the bay is ice free. This is very early for there to be no pack ice in the bay, especially considering some years the ice never leaves at all. The Qaanaaq airport is built outside of town a mile or so and on a flat area by the sea. The strip is gravel. After they off-load the plane we must wait for its reloading and take-off before we climb aboard the helicopter that will take us to Thule. The pilot has flown smaller helicopters in Kangerlussuaq doing falcon surveys. The helicopter is totally packed with our bags and other cargo except for the two back side seats, one each side. There is just room for two people in each location if they sit shoulder to shoulder. We dawn our ear protectors as the 212 lifts off and flies the 30 minutes south to Thule. Jack Stephens is waiting when we land, as is the Danish Liaison Officer (DLO). The DLO is a Danish naval officer and is the Danish military= s representative at the U.S. air base. He has been at Thule for some time and is always very helpful to us and is an important friend.
17 and 18 July - The days are filled with getting everything ready for the field and we are pleased to have a visit by the new Base Commander. Each year the 100+ U.S. Air Force military personnel change as Thule Air Base is a one-year assignment. The remainder of the people at Thule are civilian contractors, mostly Greenlanders, Danes, and U.S. citizens. The Base Commander (a colonel) changes every summer and it is important to us for them to know and understand why we are on the base and what we do. We have a long-standing and very positive relationship with the Air Force. Their providing us with this unique opportunity in such a remote location is very much appreciated. Working in the High Arctic of North Greenland would be much more difficult and expensive without their presence and critical support.
19 July - Our first day trip. We are off to visit the nearby islands to look for falcons and generally get a feel for the status of the seabirds and waterfowl. Saunders Island is the first we visit. We begin checking cliffs for falcons and other birds along an area of the island where few seabirds (only Black Guillemot) breed. Although we see no falcons, we do count/estimate the number of other birds (guillemots and gulls) we discover and take a GPS location. Finally, we arrive at the densely packed colonies of Thick-billed Murres, Black-legged Kittiwakes, and Northern Fulmars. Although some of the murre and kittiwake nests are near the water, most are high up on the sheer cliffs that surround most of the island. Having tens of thousands of birds above you on cliff faces is an amazing sight and one of which I never tire. Patrolling the nesting colonies are Glaucous Gulls, always on the lookout for unguarded young they can snatch and swallow whole or carry back to their own young to feed.
At Dalrymple Rock there are again large numbers of hen eider ducks on the water, but no young. This location is also used extensively by eiders for nesting, but part of the ducks are probably also from the nearby smaller island we were at. We estimate a couple of thousand ducks. Snow Geese also breed here and we have been counting their numbers for some years. We only see one pair with four goslings. There are usually more. Next we check the Atlantic Puffin colony. There are 17 birds standing on the rocks and others flying about or on the water. Things seem normal with this colony. There are also two Razorbills, which is normal. We have never seen more than three or four Razorbills.
21 July - We get an early start. The chow hall begins serving at 0500. Kurt, Regan, and I head up to the Gyrfalcon eyrie while Bianca operates the boat as there is no location to anchor or tie it. Jack was let off further along the coast and is photographing. It is great to have an exceptional photographer as part of the team.
The local Danes have begun to visit the valley where we had the base camp years ago and have named it A Green Valley.@ That is our next stop. It is located further along the York Peninsula beyond the Gyrfalcon eyrie. Some weekends, Air Greenland even flies loads of people from Thule for short visits to the valley. There is a great deal of grass (and thus its name) resulting from the hundreds of thousands of Dovekies that nest along the valley= s slopes. This is the area where the herds of muskox also live. The reason for our visit is to follow-up on a report by a hiker that he had seen two falcons about one and one-half miles inland. After walking about five miles and seeing nothing, we return to the boat which we left tied across the mouth of the small harbor where the stream meets the sea. Time to return to Thule.
22 July - Another day of inclement weather—wind, then fog. We fuel the boat and prepare to leave for a week-long trip to the north. Before bedtime everything is packed and ready to be taken to the boat first thing tomorrow.
23 July - Bianca Perren - Hello everyone. I am back after an aborted five-day trip north to Olrik Fjord and the Qaanaaq region. After a 5 am (Lord save me) breakfast and packing the boat full of camping gear, food, and personal bits, we set out yesterday into a thick, occasionally soupy fog and calm water, hopping island to island, point to point, past Drown Bay, Booth Sound, rounding Cape Parry into Hvalsund. In Hvalsund, choked with bergy bits and unfortunately not choked with whales of the narwhal variety, we stopped to check out a Gyrfalcon eyrie where three Gyrs (one adult female, and two chicks) had been caught and transmittered last year (the adult female was followed to Ellesmere and then was lost in Baffin Bay sometime in winter). Bill and Regan went to check out the eyrie while I hung back on the slatey, slick talus slope (the cliff looked a little too precipitous for my liking). The eyrie was empty save for a few relatively recent prey bits suggesting that one of the pair returned and left after a few days with no mate. From my perch below the eyrie, well above the water, I had a great view (intermittently obscured by fog) down to the calving snout of the glacier which discharged some thunderously massive bergs while I watched. Back on the water, the fog cleared a bit with an increasing wind and we made our way down Olrik Fjord. We stopped about a third of the way down Olrik Fjord at Qaqarsseaq for me to sample a lake and for the rest to check out an eyrie on the other side. Jack then checked in with the Thule weather station to discover that the low-pressure system that has been hovering for awhile was quickly mobilizing our way and that winds in Thule were already 40 knots (one knot equals 1.15 miles per hour). So, leaving the diatoms to their lake and the Gyrs to their eyrie, we battened down the hatches and prepared ourselves for a wet and cold ride home. And what a wild ride it was—and incredibly beautiful-B smooth white lobes of ice dipping down from the plateaus, nosing fresh moraines into the fjord, elsewhere sheer cliffs of gneiss, and once we rounded Cape Parry, smooth broad green and brown plains sloping into the sea. Cape Parry was wild with wind and waves—the fetch along Smith Sound is substantial—and we were airborne, flying along the wave tops, buried in the troughs and everything in-between. The wild water seemed to fit well with the rugged and impenetrable coastline and serves as a not so subtle reminder (as if we needed one) that here the weather and ocean rule and going out on the water is serious business. Lucky for us, we are well equipped with just about the best boat and drivers and weather prediction.
So, warm in my survival suit, I held on and enjoyed the ride back to Thule. All told we covered 244 miles (with the tank still reading full...) and got home around 9 pm. Safe and warm and left to write long, long e-mails to family and friends and look out the window at the thickening cloud.
So there we go..
Now time for you guys to write...
[This is a message Bianca sent to her family and agreed to otherwise share. Bianca is working on her Ph.D. in paleolimnology at the University of Toronto in Canada. Her research is on recent climate change in West Greenland. She is volunteering for The Peregrine Fund this summer while collecting diatoms from lakes in North Greenland. Her M.Sc. research was accomplished on Ellesmere Island reconstructing changes in lake ice cover over the last 2,550 years.]
As winds become manageable we check what is ours for any damage. We find the back camper shell window frame on the Ford pickup is bent and needs repaired. I take it off, remove the pop-riveted hinge, and after straightening the bent metal and re-attaching the hinge take it back to the truck. The window hinge is supposed to slide on over a ridge on the back of the camper shell but refuses to slip on. Balancing the window on my head and with one arm, I give a big yank with the other hand and arm. The window does not go but my arm does. Ouch! My right arm no longer is able to lift anything, and hardly even itself. Must have torn muscle and/or ligaments. A first. Regan and Bianca team up to finish the job. I should have asked for help in the beginning.
28 July - With a very sore and mostly useless arm, I remain behind while the others head back to Cape Atholl to try again to catch one of the adult Gyrfalcons and to check other potential falcon nest sites further south. Mid-morning Kurt calls by satellite phone. Because of large waves he could not land people on the rocks below the Gyr eyrie so he mistakenly tried the nearby beach and stuck the bow. As he motored in, an unusually large wave caught the boat and carried it further in and much faster than he anticipated or desired. The next wave washed over the back of the boat and following ones turned it broad-side. They had quickly unloaded the boat so the gear was safe, as were the people, but the boat itself was in big trouble. He needed help and as quickly as possible. The only options were if the tug boat could sail there and pull the boat back out to sea or maybe the helicopter. The latter could potentially be much faster. I called the local Greenland Air manager and the helicopter was chartered and happened to be flying in Kurt= s direction. The manager was able to reach the helicopter through the Kangerlussuaq radio and divert it to Cape Atholl. Cape Atholl is only about a 20-minute flight south of Thule. In the meantime I again spoke with Kurt. He said they had managed to work the boat around so the bow was now into the waves and the tide was rising. They were bailing the water out of the boat in the hope it could be pushed (them) or pulled (with help) back to sea.
The helicopter returned to Thule with Bianca now on board. She provided the extra details and I requested the helicopter return with a hook and sling to see if it could not pull the boat off the beach into the sea. After some discussion with the manager and pilot, and after reaching an agreement with the person having the helicopter chartered, they went back. It arrived with conditions worsening and just in time. So far there had been no damage to the boat although it and all three guys had been thoroughly soaked with sea water. Kurt and the others had extra dry clothes along for just such situations. After attaching the line, and on the third try, the boat came free and the chopper pilot carefully pulled it away from the shore and into the small bay. Kurt had the engines running within seconds. Situation stable! Bianca and the Greenland Air manager heard the good news on the radio. I had returned to the barracks in case Kurt called.
The helicopter continued on its charter to re-establish telephone communications at the small village to the south of Thule. Using the small dingy, Kurt, Regan, and Jack transported the gear back onto the boat. Once on their way home Kurt called again and gave me their estimated time of arrival. They arrived back at Thule about 1800. Bianca and I met them at the dock. We unloaded the boat and tied it in place. At the barracks all equipment exposed to salt water was washed with fresh water and dried, including clothes, climbing ropes, and most everything else that was in the boat. Another challenging day in the High Arctic. We have had too many already this season. Time for some good weather and better luck. Our very sincere thanks to all who helped us today!
29 July - Mid-morning we pull the boat for inspection and cleaning. Getting it out of the water can be more difficult than putting it in because of the sand and potential for sticking a vehicle and heavily loaded trailer. Having done this now many times, we have a system. With our old Ford two-wheel drive diesel I back the trailer into the bay. We then attach the four-wheel drive Ford truck onto the other truck with a series of chains, a tow rope, and a tow strap. The 4x4 needs to be on solid ground, not sand, for this to work. After Kurt drives the boat onto the trailer and it is secure I give Regan the high sign and we both drive forward together in the trucks with the tow line tight. On solid ground we unhook and head for the wash rack. During cleaning we find no damage to the boat. All equipment and compartments are washed with fresh water and air dried before we begin re-packing. After washing the boat, and while in the cleaning mode, we also give the barracks a once over. No problem getting to sleep tonight, but there never is up here it seems.
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