Summer of 2002, Trip III
Bill Burnham— 18 August 2002 — in Arctic Program - Greenland Share14 - 15 August 2002 - This time I fly to Thule Air Base, Greenland, thanks to the United States Air Force. Check-in time for the six hour flight to Greenland is midnight and I arrive at Baltimore International Airport a couple of hours before. Just after the restaurants close, so there is no chance for dinner. The good news is the flight is on time. The old DC 8 is operational (based on past experience this is not always the case). We are to clear security at 1:00 am, then are to depart about 2:00. However, they kindly wait for a delayed flight from Dallas-Fort Worth airport containing three passengers for Greenland. One of those is Christopher Cokinos who is coming up to visit the sites where Robert Peary removed the meteorites from Greenland. We will be surveying for falcons in the same area and he will ride along in our boat. We depart BWI about 2:30 am.
Thule time is an hour later than the U.S. East Coast but one hour earlier than the rest of Greenland for reasons I do not know. Touchdown comes about 10:00 am and Chris and I are greeted by the whole gang. They are in high spirits having spent the last consecutive 16 days traveling along the coast of Greenland in the boat surveying for and banding falcons. It seems all the bad weather and luck ended with my last departure from Thule. They have made up for lost time. Over lunch at the dining hall I get a quick rundown on some of their achievements. The discussion continues once we are back at the barracks. Much good news!
After hearing more of the details and dumping my things in my room, it is back to dealing with some of The Peregrine Fund matters left unsolved on my departure. I end the workday in North Greenland on a conference call to the U.S. Not that many years ago it would have been unthought of, if not impossible, to schedule a conference call and deal with matters other than for which I came to Greenland. I am not sure this is better. Having written that, however, it would be very difficult for me to travel to Greenland three times in a summer if I could not deal with the organization’s business. (During the next two weeks I am gone I will end up having handled over 250 e-mail messages and two dozen phone calls unrelated to the work in Greenland.)
17 August - We get an early start as there is much to do and a long way to go. Changes since I last passed this way. The patches of green along the shore or on the hills are now red or brown. The limited vegetation is in its autumn colors. Traveling south we pass the first Dovekie colony–no birds! In my absence their young have fledged and adults and young have moved out to sea. Few Dovekies are present, even in the water. Without the advantage provided by remaining in flocks, the remaining Dovekies are obvious targets for their primary predator, the Glaucous Gull. Kurt sees a gull catch a Dovekie out of the air in its beak after a falcon-like stoop. Beyond the absence of Dovekies at their breeding sites and autumn colors, other signs also indicate the end of summer is approaching. Traveling, we cut through sheets of ice freezing where fresh water enters the sea. Also, where icebergs are dense and because of the fresh water melting from them, ice pans are forming and beginning to freeze together. Clear signs of what lays ahead in the days and weeks to come.
Soon after leaving Thule the seas begin turning against us. Waves increase in size and the wind picks up. Not bad enough to cause us to turn around, but certainly no fun. The boat is built to handle rough water, which is great, but I just wish we needed that capacity less often.
Having traveled about 50 miles, the boat’s steering is becoming increasingly stiff. We discover there is an oil leak on the steering cylinder on the motors. Considering the remoteness of the area for which we are heading it is unwise to continue without fixing the problem and we turn back for Thule to make repairs. The weather is deteriorating.
18 August - Up early to go but winds off Base are above 50 knots and 20 to 30 on Base. Nothing like the storm we experienced earlier in the season, but also not one to venture out into. Before bedtime the winds are backing and we are again set to depart tomorrow.
Suffering further challenges we travel along the York Peninsula, finally nearing its cape (Cape York) upon which sits the Peary monument. The monument, a tall monolith with a large "P" near its top, is high above the water on a 1,400 foot mountain. Famed North Pole explorer Robert Peary has left his mark and we have traveled through and camped in many of the same locations in North Greenland as he, just a century later.
The Savissivik area is spectacularly rugged. Miles and miles of glacier drop directly into the sea and most of the ice-free land which exists is bare rock or glacieral rubble. Crossing the fjord we begin again our search for falcons. From one of the first cliffs checked an adult male Gyrfalcon flies. He was probably using it for a hunting perch and does not stick around. A pair of Peregrines are in attendance at another cliff and do not leave. Continuing the investigation ashore, we see that the Peregrines do not seem to be breeding but we will return tomorrow to determine this for certain.
It does not take long to find the depressions which once held the meteorites. The meteorites were only a few feet apart and hundreds of hammer stones are piled there around the depressions. The stones (probably iron ore) were used by the Inuit to chip off small fragments of meteor to be used for knives and projectile points. We are careful not to disturb anything. Chris has copies of old photographs taken during the removal process which help visualize and bring the site to life. The Woman weighed 3 tons tons while the Dog was smaller, so neither was an easy task to move the hundreds of yards and get onto a ship. Both these meteorites plus the larger one, the "Tent" (30 tons), are in the basement of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.
In the morning we continue the survey for falcons and collect other information. It is obvious that if we had been here earlier in the summer we would be seeing millions of Dovekies. The now abandoned nest sites are numerous and large. The Dovekies nest in boulder fields and talus slopes which are in abundance.
Savissivik is a picturesque village with a well-stocked new store complete with a small bakery for making bread. Fueling the boat is easier than we had anticipated. Although the harbor is shallow we can get our boat all the way to the small concrete pier and the fuel tanks are only a few hundred feet away. After emptying our onboard containers into the boat Kurt and Regan take the empties to be filled and carry them back. The locals give them a hand hauling the last ones. One of the best ideas Kurt ever had was buying an electric fuel pump for the boat. Rather than man handling and pouring the 17 gallon containers through a funnel in a bouncing boat we transfer the fuel efficiently by pump and hose. Works great!
With Chris’ old photographs we are able to locate the former site of the "Tent." The small crater is only a couple of hundred feet from the water and you can see the drag marks where Peary brought the meteorite down the hill prior to pushing and pulling it across a sturdy platform they built onto his ship. Fortunately for him there was a small peninsula and cliff and deep enough water for him to pull his ship up to for loading. Still, the weight of the 4.5 billion-year-old meteor, which collided with Earth 10,000 years ago, had to be a major challenge. Peary loaded the meteorite onto his ship, "Hope," on 20 August 1897. Today is 21 August. We leave Chris to take notes about the site while we continue on searching for falcons.
Nearing Cape Atholl the sea has lost some of it furry but refuses to totally give in. The fog is not reaching the surface of the water and hangs like low clouds a few dozen feet above. An eerie yellow light seems to glow from the water’s surface. I cannot help but think of the old television show The Twilight Zone and expect to see some aberration emerge from the mist. The waves further diminish and Kurt increases speed. In another few miles we see strange light and the hanging fog disappears as we race along through the pea soup fog using our GPS to help find Thule, the boat harbor, and home. Before midnight we succeed.
Martin Gilbert arrived yesterday and will stay until mid-October. Martin is a Peregrine Fund biologist who has worked for the organization in Madagascar, New Guinea, Pakistan, Panama, and now Greenland. He has both degrees in biology and veterinarian medicine from Great Britain. Martin is a Scott. When he and Regan switch from American English to their heavily accented British and vocabulary it requires real concentration by me to follow the conversation. During his time in Greenland, although he will be working days on Gyrfalcons and Peregrines, Martin’s nights and other spare time will focus on the "vulture crisis". He is co-leading our work in Pakistan and Nepal with Munir Virani to try and identify the cause of the massive vulture die-offs on the Indian Subcontinent.
With Chris off, so are we. This time we travel north to visit the Peregrine eyries. Their young should be nearing fledging age. We find the Peregrines where expected and it appears most have three or four young. With them at this age we are careful not to prematurely cause the young Peregrines to fly. Later Kurt will return to the eyries to collect prey remains.
One of the eyries is home for a female Peregrine who had carried a transmitter for a year. We attached it last season. We monitored her movements by satellite and discovered she spent her winter in Ecuador. The transmitter is not causing her any problems as is evidenced by three large young which are about ready to fly. It may be possible to also place a transmitter on one of her young after they are fully grown and before their long migration begins. We would like to know if the young travel with the adult and where they spend their winter.
No sooner do we have our equipment put away and are walking than she appears 100 ft overhead slowly flying by while looking us over. Having seen enough, she continues around the mountain and disappears. We are struck by her beauty. White underneath with dark edging to many of her white back feathers and those penetrating large black eyes. She is spectacular! Martin tells me he can now see why people become infatuated with the Gyrfalcon.
Like the birds which live here, it is time for me to go south. The young falcons better hurry and follow. Bags turned in at 6:00 am and the old DC 8 lifts off two and three-quarter hours later. The late departure is credited to the need for de-icing the airplane. Leaving is bitter sweet. It will be nice to go home but leaving Greenland is always a little sad and much work remains to be done. The last of our biologists will probably not leave Greenland until early November when the final falcons likely pass by the banding stations. The one at Thule will probably be closed in mid-October and the second, 600 miles south, a couple of weeks later. Our Arctic field season will have lasted almost six months.
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