Bogs and boulders. If it’s not one thing, it’s another.

We’ve had an action packed few days up here in Zackenberg. After a weekend of great weather, the clouds closed in and we experienced a few days of very cold temperatures, high winds, and prolonged rainfall. All research at the base came to a bit of a standstill – the ornithologists could not go out and search for birds’ nests, measuring the river levels became difficult, and we were unable to walk into the mountains due to poor visibility. Amidst all of this, on Monday a plane of VIP guests arrived at the station. They were professors from biological and geoscience faculties across Europe (with representatives from Norway, the UK, Denmark and Germany). They visited Zackenberg as part of a Greenland-wide tour to evaluate the research stations here. One of the locations on the list was Arctic Station – our home last summer! Due to the high winds the twin-otter, which brought the VIPs, had to make a special landing by flying into the wind and using the short landing strip which is less than 100 m long. An impressive sight to see!

Kathryn checking the tent is working and didn't have any holes in!
Kathryn checking the tent is working and didn’t have any holes in!

The following day, Tuesday, was ‘plane day’ – a plane arrives at Zackenberg every Tuesday afternoon, ferrying staff and researchers to and from the camp. We bid farewell to some of our fellow researchers Toby, Nils, Michelle, and Mikhail, and the chef Dina, and greeted a new group of researchers and PhD students from Denmark, as well as the next chef, Helle. As the weather started to improve, we began to prepare for our camping trip where we would do the bulk of our mapping. After the rain had largely stopped, we had to wait 24 hours or so for the water levels in the streams to drop so that they were low enough for us to cross. Fortunately, Laura, one of the field technicians here at Zackenberg, monitors the stream levels every day, and she was able to tell us when the water levels were falling back to their normal or ‘baseline’ conditions so that we could decide when was safe to begin our long walk to the ice caps. In the meantime, we had a good look around the garage and with the help of Kenny, the logistician, assembled our equipment: tent, sleeping bags, ground mats, stove, polar bear trip wires, radios, emergency beacon, and flare. It was going to be a long walk with all of that gear!!

 

Our bags for the trip, packed and ready to go!
Our bags for the trip, packed and ready to go!

On Thursday we set off for a four to five day trip (depending on how the work went!) to the western end of Store Sødal, a large valley which joins the Zackenberg valley which the station is in.  Alongside all our equipment we were also carrying enough food for several days of long walks and days of fieldwork!  The aim of the first day was to walk through the Store Sødal valley and find a suitable place to camp for several days.  Though we could have moved our tent every night to keep closer to the field sites, taking down the tent and polar bear trip wires is quite a time-consuming procedure, so it was easier to stay in one place!  The weather was perfect for a long walk on the way out, a slight wind and some clouds in the air kept the temperature cool and the mosquitos away.  Due to the heavy bags and the tough, variable terrain, the 25 km walk took about 12 hours to complete!  Firstly we walked along the road which leads out of the station and, due to the late arrival of the summer, is almost knee deep in water for much of the way.  After this we had to head through several kilometres of bog, cross a river, climb over some hummocky moraine just to reach the Store Sødal valley!  Within the valley we followed the northern edge of a large lake, hoping over endless scree slopes and debris fans covered in boulders, and jumping from one grassy tussock to another trying to dodge waterlogged areas.  We arrived in the area we wanted to camp in at 10pm, and found a finding a suitable place to camp remarkably quickly – close to two running streams.

We set up our tent and encircled it with the polar bear trip wire – connected to a series of warning flares.  If a curious polar bear (or musk ox) decided to come and have a look at our tent during the night they would trip this, waking us up so we could take action!  We quickly warmed up some freeze-dried beef curry and got to sleep to rest our legs ready for the next day’s fieldwork.

 

A beautiful view from our tent, with polar bear trip wire set up, overlooking the Store Sordal lake
A beautiful view from our tent, with polar bear trip wire set up, overlooking the Store Sordal lake

Unfortunately the weather had different ideas for us, as rain and low-cloud set in all night and the next morning.  As we didn’t have anywhere to dry our clothes if they got wet, and because we wouldn’t be able to see far enough to map the features we wanted to, we remained in our tent hoping it would pass.  By lunchtime it had, and fuelled with rye bread and salami we set out into the Slettedalen valley.  After crossing the river we headed up the hillside to investigate a series of features we’d observed from lower in the valley.  Once we arrived at them we mapped how big they were (using a GPS), took notes on their appearance, and sampled the material they were made of.  We carried on from feature to feature up the valley, recording anything interesting we came across.  Piecing this all together will eventually tell us how these features formed, about the history of the valley, and if it was glaciated.

Enjoying dinner in the evening sun
Enjoying dinner in the evening sun

Once back at the tent we had our tea of rehydrated expedition meals (very tasty – Kathryn had beef hotpot, Tim had chilli con carne), dried fruit, and a make-shift mocha.  The next morning we woke up to wonderful sunshine and blue skies!  Undeterred by the swarms of mosquitos we headed out for another day of mapping.  We found some moraine deposits on the valley sides, indicating that ice had been there in the past.  Below this, close to the present valley floor we found some sandier deposits – representing the sediments deposited by the river which drained the glacier which occupied the valley.  After we had finished Kathryn emitted a squeal which could only mean one thing – she’d seen a beautiful pro-glacial alluvial fan!

The small isolated valley glacier, with an alluvial fan we sampled
The small isolated valley glacier, with an alluvial fan we sampled

After a quick route plan we headed around a lake to go to the fan, where Kathryn took a series of sediments along its length.  After finding a route back to the tent from the fan we had some food and got a good night’s sleep for the next day’s walk back to base.  The walk back was fairly uneventful, though monotonous and long, retracing our steps over bogs, boulders, and moraines – arriving in good time for the evening’s spaghetti bolognaise.

Overall it was a tiring but productive trip, and we made the most of a few days of very good weather, topping up the fieldwork tan in periods when it was sunny, but windy enough to keep the mosquitos away!

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