Summer of 2002, Trip IV
Bill Burnham— 18 September 2002 — in Arctic Program - Greenland Share22 - 23 September 2002
My fourth trip to Greenland this field season is unplanned. Kurt is short handed and much remains to be done, so I agreed to go and so did Cal. Cal Sandfort and I are both headed today for McGuire Air Force Base, New Jersey. Cal and Bill Heinrich, who went to Greenland last week, are long-time employees of The Peregrine Fund. Cal raised more than 2,000 Peregrine Falcons for release to the wild and with the completion of the Peregrine restoration effort assumed responsibility for the propagation of the Aplomado Falcon and the Harpy Eagle. Bill Heinrich directed the Peregrine releases throughout most of the western United States (less California and Nevada) and now coordinates our efforts with the California Condor and oversees the releases of Aplomado Falcons. We could have had no better biologists agree to help with the work in Greenland.
Arriving at the Boise, Idaho airport just after 6:30 am, I am reminded by my tiredness that it was a short night and very busy time since I arrived home from the last trip. During the couple of weeks I have been in Boise we completed construction of the new Gerald D. and Kathryn S. Herrick Collections Building, had a Board of Directors meeting, and much more. The Board meetings ended only last night. The meetings were three days with the first two of those a review of our programs and projects by the Board Program Committee that is chaired by renowned British scientist Ian Newton. Staff were there from around the world to make presentations. It was a very worthwhile review and benefitted staff and Board and enhanced the efficiency and effectiveness of the organization.
Cal and I arrive at McGuire Air Force Base near dark, after an hour-long cab ride from the Philadelphia airport. The cab driver delivers us at the air terminal and we discover we cannot check in our bags before the 1:15 am "show time" for the flight. Also, we cannot wait in the terminal because it closes at midnight and will not reopen until show time. The cab driver patiently waits while we figure out what to do, then he helps reload the bags and takes us to the base NCO Club. Among other things, the Club has a bar which serves food and stays open until after midnight. Good deal. Stacking our bags near the entrance, Cal and I spend four hours eating, drinking, and waiting. The bar begins to get busy and noisy about 9:00 pm and then airmen and women drift away in happy groups as the hour gets late. Sunday night football is on most of the dozen or so televisions. At midnight we call another cab, which must come from off base, to transport us back to the closed air terminal. We stack our bags by its front doors and nap on the wooden benches, worrying we may sleep past the "show time."
We do wake and check in. Three of us catch a ride on the KC-10 (civilian airlines call them a DC-10) to Thule Air Base ("Force" is dropped from the name of international bases). About 4:00 am a bus takes us to the aircraft. Most, if not all, of the KC-10s parked about have refueling booms on the back of the aircraft and are used as air-to-air refueling tankers as well as for transporting freight. This flight is for freight. The aircraft has a dozen or so seats behind the cockpit for crew and any passengers. There is a double aircraft crew as the plane will fly back today. There is only one empty seat. The remainder of the plane is crammed with pallets. We are wheels-up about 5:00 am.
About half an hour out from Thule the loadmaster says the weather is bad there and the pilot is not sure we can land but will give it a try. Wind gusts there are near 90 miles an hour and the direction is not directly down the runway; a partial crosswind. Could be exciting! At least it is light outside and not presently snowing.
The aircraft has very few windows, none of which we can see out of, but there is no doubt when we are a few thousand feet above ground. The big plane bounces and is shoved around by the wind. Another tug on the seatbelt! White knuckle time for the pilots (and passengers). We are coming in "hot" with jets roaring as pilots and plane battle the elements. The pilots will fly this one all the way onto the ground, not just let it glide from the sky the last dozens of feet as the plane nears stall speed.
Touch down! No problem. Another roar from the jets as the thrust is reversed to allow us to stop. Although I cannot see out, I know the Air Force blue Ford truck with its large "Follow Me" sign just pulled in front of the plane. A few more minutes to taxi to the terminal/base operations building. Stepping out it is cold and windy, but not that bad. The storm obviously took a break and gave us a chance to land. Inside, no Kurt or others to meet us? Must have thought the flight had been diverted. Nothing is far at Thule and Kurt arrives moments after I call. Feels good. A little like coming home.
Kurt says Bill Heinrich and Martin Gilbert are on Saunders Island trapping falcons and Jack Stephens is working in the weather station, which is at the other end of this building. Next breath Kurt proceeds into a list of things we need to get done today so we can "get back into the field." Great to be needed! In the early afternoon I hear the roar of the KC-10's jets as it hurtles down the runway escaping for home before the storm re-awakens. And awaken it does.
24 - 25 September
The storm will not give up and continues for two more days. Kurt’s "to do list" is long and includes patching the larger boat’s dingy so it will hold air (three holes), building a bow net for the falcon trapping station they built at Thule, installing additional phone and computer lines in the barracks, and much more. The second day, with the new bow net Kurt tries to catch falcons while Cal and I drive the roads looking for any falcons we might spot. No luck for any of us but Cal now has the lay of the land in and around Thule. We do see hare and fox. Tame ones.
Motoring out of the small boat harbor in the morning twilight, 6:15 am, we are headed to Saunders Island with food and water for Bill Heinrich and Martin. They check in each evening with Kurt by satellite phone and have relayed they are running short on food and could use a couple of jugs of water although they are melting ice that washes up on the beach from nearby icebergs. The pack ice melted long ago so all ice that remains is ancient glacier ice that may be thousands of years old. Kurt has loaded the supplies into two coolers and taped them shut to keep out water. We plan to "float" all into shore.
Saunders Island has been found to be a gathering spot for falcons this time of year and a great location for a trapping station. It seems the falcons (and ravens) are/were attracted to the island because of the kittiwake and fulmar colonies. After the Dovekies depart, the predators shift to catching kittiwakes and fulmars which are still present and nesting and by the thousands. Kittiwakes also are now gone from the cliffs, as are most, if not all, of the fulmars, but both are present in the area on the water. Before Cal’s and my arrival, Kurt, Martin, Jack Stephens, and Jack Cafferty caught several Gyrfalcons there and saw many others. Two of the falcons they caught we had banded as nestlings at an eyrie about 20 miles to the southeast.
About 7:00 am we arrive at the small hunters’ cabin on Saunders, now home for Bill and Martin. According to the GPS satellite fixes it is 17 miles from Thule and 2,652 miles from Boise, Idaho. The cabin is on the same part of the island where former famed Danish/Greenlandic explorer Knud Rasmussen had a cabin about one hundred years ago. The rock walls are still obvious from Rasmussen’s hut.
Just now as it becomes light enough to start trapping for falcons, Bill and Martin are still in the cabin. Kurt explains our intentions to them over the radio. He will drive the boat as near to shore as possible and I will throw a rope from the bow to them, the other end of which is tied to the coolers and water jugs. Cal will then feed out the line and drop the containers overboard as Kurt motors back, out into safer water. The sea is rough and waves are crashing ashore so we cannot land the boat and would get soaked taking the dingy through the surf onto the shore.
Even with a piece of wood 2" x 4" tied to the rope my throw is still a little short. "Getting old, Bill," Kurt chides me. Martin runs into the surf and snags it anyway. The rest of the delivery works as planned. Interesting sight, the coolers and jugs floating along in the ocean. With everything safe on the beach, over the radio Kurt kiddingly tells Bill and Martin this should hold them until the ocean freezes and they can walk back to Thule. "So long."
Reaching the Cape, we spot two Gyrfalcons in sight on the cliffs. Time to inflate the repaired dingy. I will go to shore first with the falcon trapping gear. Kurt motors close in and over the side I go with Cal stabilizing the raft. I step in and kneel. Paddling and watching the waves, I work my way closer to shore. It looks much different now that I am low on the water and close in. The beach is made up of mostly basketball-sized and smaller boulders and it is shallow for dozens of feet so the waves break well out before they reach the shore. It appears there are a series of medium-sized waves, then two or three bigger ones. Like a California surfer setting his board, I set the small raft waiting for the right moment. Number three big wave past, I paddle hard to follow its crest to shore. I cannot keep up. This time there is a number four! Nearing shore the raft and I go inverted with the fourth wave’s arrival. The water is cold!
I have changed into dry clothes and am having a hot drink. Cal is operating the boat. Turns out Kurt’s environmental suit is not so watertight after all. He also changes clothes. We always carry extra clothes, coats, boots, etc., for just such a potential. Motoring away from Cape Parry we resolve that a good landing there is one in which you do not have to hold your breath. We further resolve we will never attempt a landing there again unless the ocean is absolutely flat.
Toting a 10 foot long by 4" x 4" pole, nets, blind, etc., to erect a trapping station, we walk toward Cape Parry. Cal carries the heavy pole over his shoulder. Less than a mile from the boat we locate a hill which overlooks a very large area. In the distance are the cliffs of the Cape. After set-up, I take the first turn trapping while Kurt and Cal begin to walk to Cape Parry. Within minutes a swish of air and an immature male Peregrine appears and is caught moments later. A quick radio call and the guys return to band the Peregrine while I continue trapping.
There have been four National Science Foundation-funded botanists staying in our building with us for the past week who depart early this morning. We are pleased to help them but it is nice to have the place back to ourselves.
The ocean remains rough. We do not go out in the boat and Cal operates the trapping station at Thule throughout the day but sees nothing. Kurt and I work on "projects."
We’re out of the harbor early with big plans for the day. It is now "light" 12 hours out of 24. When it can be seen, the sun is only a few degrees above the horizon. It constantly seems like late afternoon or early evening, and even in the morning I find myself checking my watch to insure we will not soon lose daylight. The sky is overcast today. Wind is from the icecap and probably at about 20 mph. It feels like winter has arrived. As we motor northwest the waves grow in size and batter the boat. About 15 miles out the first big one sends 50 gallons of water over the windshield. Kurt and I are standing immediately behind the windshield and mostly protected from water. The rest of the icy water crashes down on Cal who is sitting on the rear seat, but fortunately with his back to the bow and hood turned-up on his windbreaker. Awash in water, he sucked air, probably wondering what happens next. With more and possibly worse to come, we turn tail and head for home. Enough fun and adventure on the ocean for one morning. We operate the trapping station and work on projects for the remainder of the day.
One way or the other we will retrieve Bill and Martin today from Saunders Island. Tomorrow, Bill and Cal will return there while Martin catches a flight south to the United States. Arriving at the snow-covered island, we find the waves and surf are too big to take the boat to shore. Dingy time. After inflating the dingy, I get the boat anchor out of the bow anchor locker and lower it and the chain, then feed out the rope as Kurt backs the boat toward shore. As close as possible, but with a safety margin should the anchor slip, I tie off the line. Next, tying a rope to both ends of the dingy I paddle toward shore while Kurt feeds out the rope, stopping and holding me just before the point where the waves break. Second throw (I do need more practice) the rope coil reaches Martin with him again wading into the surf. Kurt pulls me back as the rope coiled in the dingy feeds out toward shore. Back aboard, Martin pulls the dingy to shore and he and Bill twice fill it with their gear which we pull back. The third trip Martin arrives damp but happy. Bill comes last, bringing with him several inches of surf in the dingy. Hard to know how much is in the clothes he wears. The trip to Thule is less than an hour so neither man will be wet and cold for long. Hot showers await.
Tonight we take part in a surprise 60th birthday party for Jack Stephens. His friends at Thule planned it so we could hopefully be there. Half of his life Jack has lived in Thule and he is one of the most fit men you could find there at 20 or 30, let alone years older. Jack is very important to our work in Greenland. Fun party but we excuse ourselves early as tomorrow will be a challenging day.
The rocks on shore that seawater reach have a quarter-inch coating of ice. That will probably not change, nor will temperatures rise above freezing again until spring. We load the boat from above, off the pier instead of walking onto the bow across the icy rocks. Another gray day but the waves are small and the passage to the trapping site on Saunders is quick. No need to use the dingy; we are able to put Bill, Cal, and their food and gear off the bow. "Good bye and good luck!" Kurt and I motor around the island to the northwest. We head directly toward the trapping site we set up days earlier near Cape Parry. It is cold but otherwise the weather is good for this time of year.
Nearing the bay we encounter large flocks of kittiwakes, probably numbering two to three thousand birds. There may also be 1,000 Glaucous Gulls and are several flocks of a few hundred eider ducks. Two smaller flocks of Oldsquaw fly by as we enter the mouth, and on the inside a bearded seal and a Red-throated Loon make an appearance. We are surprised by the number of birds remaining in the area. It is no wonder there are still falcons here.
Arriving, we are able to again off-load the boat directly onto shore. We will be spending the night. Kurt anchors the boat and paddles in while I set up the tent and camp. There is wind but not hard. The temperature is probably in the teens with a chill factor around zero. With a few hundred pounds of rock anchoring the tent and other potential wind-affected gear just incase the wind increases, we move out. Kurt will trap while I walk to Cape Parry.
Where a week ago there were flowing streams and open water ponds and lakes, today just ice and snow exist. A winter landscape for sure. I keep expecting to see a polar bear but do not.
Arriving at Cape Parry, I may be damp from perspiration but fortunately not seawater. A Gyrfalcon still sits on the cliff and five minutes later he is in my hands. It is the young male and the adults are perched high above watching the goings-on. He has a solar-powered PTT which Kurt wants to change to a battery-powered unit. Hooding the jerkin, I again slip on my backpack and begin the return walk. About an hour later, after reaching Kurt by radio, he tells me my male’s sister has been around him most of the day. He agrees to meet me part way as after changing the PTT, I intend to carry the young male back a few miles toward the eyrie before releasing him.
Kurt reaches camp before me. He has the satellite phone out as Bill and Cal will be checking-in any minute. I slip both coats back on but before I can sit down and reach for the cup of cocoa he is preparing, he hands me the phone and chases off into the dim light after a barely visible Gyrfalcon headed for some unknown location to spend the night. Phone rings. Bill says all is well and they have caught and put PTTs on both a Peregrine and Gyrfalcon today. I hang up, then call the Boise office should there be issues, but before I finish talking Kurt calls over the radio to come quick and help look for the falcon. I locate Kurt but not the Gyrfalcon and we return to camp in the dark. The wind off the water is icy cold. Time to put on long underwear!
For supper, cocoa and spaghetti with big chunks of sausage warms the belly and hits the spot, but not as much as the sleeping bag is going to. Doing the dishes can wait until morning. We head for the tent which is located a hundred yards away from the food out of respect for bears. After the tent door is zipped shut, the wind stops and the temperature feels almost balmy although it is probably in the single digits or below zero Fahrenheit. Listening to the waves battling the shore we find sleep comes quickly.
Boy it is hard to get up. Light out but there is no sun to warm the tent. After considerable discussion with ourselves and chiding each other, we drag our bodies out of the warm bags and join the new day. What adventures await?
Kurt outdoes himself with breakfast. Pancakes with peanut butter, syrup, and two eggs. He put the syrup in the boiling water pot (after the ice melts) to get it to flow. The eggs were also frozen solid and take a while to thaw, then to cook. This much food should get us through the day and home.
I am off again to Cape Parry. Kurt will again operate the trapping station. My feet have a couple of blisters from yesterday’s rocks, ice, and hard uneven ground. I pull the boot laces tighter. The pack I carried was a poor one with no waist strap and with nearly 50 pounds of trapping gear it did not help my feet or back. Swapping packs with Kurt makes carrying the weight easier.
One and a half hours later I am here again at Cape Parry. Offshore as I walk there are three boats with Greenlanders who must be after the walrus I heard last night. Both immature falcons and the two adults are waiting. Today I hope to catch an adult but my every attempt is foiled by the young birds. Being alone limits my options. As I sit behind a rock considering my problem, suddenly a Snowy Owl appears. They do not normally occur in this part of Greenland as there are no small mammals, their normal prey. Falcons hate owls and both adult Gyrfalcons immediately attack. Screaming defensively, first one then the next strafe the owl, sending it head over tail feathers, bouncing it across the ground with snow flying. I am only 30 feet away. The young Gyrfalcons joins the fracas and the female boldly lands feet from the owl and runs over with the apparent intent to bind and possibly eat it. A foot from the owl, we both see it appears almost twice her size and she thinks better of it. I am relieved—stale mate—so I move and the owl quickly turns and flies low over the frozen rocky ground away from the falcons. Both adults are immediately after it again and drive it over a hill with repeated stoops and screams until the owl finally hides in a cluster of boulders, then slips away when the adults return to the cliffs.
Show over, I re-pack my bag when I hear, "Bill, do you read me? Over." Kurt says he has seen nothing and I report the events here and say I am heading back and will see him in one hour and 15 minutes. An hour later, Kurt in the distance is taking down the trapping station. We leave the pole stored in the rocks for future use as it is awkward to get on and off the boat. The remainder we carry to the shore. Breaking camp takes an hour and I skate around and over the icy rocks, packing everything to a loading point while Kurt paddles out and drives the boat in for me to toss to him or set the equipment on the bow. Once back in deeper water everything is stashed and secured. The wind is picking up. The trip home is likely to be lively.
A direct line is made for Saunders Island to check on Bill and Cal. Water from the waves passing over the bow freezes instantly on the windshield. It is more than the chill factor that is low! Crossing the strait between Parry and the west side of the island, we hear a low motor oil alarm sound. We had the same problem yesterday. There must be ice in the oil filter or some other partial restriction in the oil line or injector as the engine will run, just not at the upper range of RPMs.
Waking and looking out my barrack’s window, I note the flags over headquarters are flapping but not stiff. Bill Heinrich calls from Saunders. The weather there is very bad. The worst they have seen. So bad they cannot trap falcons and are huddled in their sleeping bags in the cabin wishing they had left last night. Considering the boat motor problem, Kurt has already asked Greenland Air about the potential of their helicopter picking up Bill and Cal. Now with the high winds and big waves on the island there is no choice. To their surprise, Kurt tells Bill and Cal a helicopter will arrive about 4:00 pm so please be ready to go. Bill worries the wind may be too strong for the chopper to land and he and Cal conserve their fuel for the stove and lantern just in case. The Bell 212 is a formidable machine in the right hands, and the pilots who fly for Greenland Air in the High Arctic are very capable. This retrieval should not be a problem.
Emptying the truck at the barracks, and with Jack in his waterproof dry suit, he takes Kurt to the boat while Bill, Cal, and I get the trailer and go to Tug Boat Beach to prepare to remove the boat from the water. Tug Boat Beach is where the tug boat sits on its trailer except during the about two-month long "shipping season" at Thule. A D-8 Caterpillar dozer (and sometimes two) moves the trailered tug boat in and out of the water. Our old diesel Ford is only two-wheel drive but has the correct hitch for the boat trailer and with a little help functions as our D-8. It, with the trailer I will back into the surf. Just before the exhaust pipe begins to bubble is about the correct depth. Attached to its front frame are three long tow cables that are attached to the four-wheel drive Ford truck that waits on the hard gravel road extending from the beach. Soon Jack arrives and we can see Kurt motoring out of the harbor and coming our direction. Kurt later tells me where the boat ropes were near the water they were twice their normal diameter because of ice. With the truck hood up for safety should a cable come loose, I back the trailer and truck into water. Bill follows, backing the other truck with Cal’s hand signals to guide. Jack is in the water to hook the bow of the boat onto the trailer chain. Taking into account the wind and current, Kurt motors into the beach and onto the trailer. A final rev of the motors shoves the boat against the stop. The chain secure, Jack steps aside. Cal signals and, tow lines tight, both trucks and the trailered boat move forward. We stop to separate the trucks once on hard ground. Now to an indoor wash area to thoroughly clean the boat, trucks, and equipment, readying them for their long winter nap.
We are finished, even with packing our personal gear, before dinner time. In celebration we go to the Top of the World Club (NCO club) for dinner. They have a very nice dining room and once inside you could be anywhere in the world as there are no windows to see out or military decor.
We have our bags checked soon after 6:00 am, then head for breakfast, returning at 7:30. There are the usual group of military and non-military there to wish friends and co-workers well as they go on vacation or depart Thule forever. A military police member has finished his year-long tour of duty and is leaving so we can expect their trucks lined up outside with sirens blaring and lights flashing as he/we leave. Jack is our well-wishing friend and co-worker although others come up to Kurt whom he has gotten to know over his months at Thule. Although he will probably enjoy the peace and quiet, Jack was a little sad, I think.
Our departure marks the end of the field season at Thule but the work in Greenland is really not yet over. Regan and Erin are both still catching falcons just south of the Arctic Circle, about 800 miles from here. According to Rob Rose, The Peregrine Fund’s geographer and GIS expert who is collecting and interpreting the data from the satellites, most of the Gyrfalcons and even some Peregrines carrying our transmitters are still in Greenland. At this point, for many of us the falcons feel as if they are old friends and our hopes fly with them that they will live well and we will all be together again next season in Greenland.
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