Skimming over the icy waters off the southwest coast of Greenland, I scarcely hear the whir of the twin outboard engines nor feel the wave chop as we enter the mouth of the Kobbefjord. My eyes are fixed on the distant, sheer enveloping peaks rising vertically from the sea. The summits glint in the sun one by one as we push farther into the fjord. Just 45 minutes after leaving Nuuk, I spot a cluster of silvery-grey buildings set on a rock outcrop jutting from the sea.
The pilot skillfully brings the boat’s bow gently to rest upon the rocks. After unloading our bags, Katrine, a permanent scientist at the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources, guides us along a chain of boardwalks to the station. The weathered boards of the buildings add to the feeling of remoteness creeping over me. Out of reach of cell signals or Wi-Fi, my phone and laptop become no more capable of connecting me to the outside world than the rocks beneath my feet. Contact out here relies upon the station’s short-distance radio and a satellite phone kept in the kitchen for emergencies. Before coming to Greenland, I purchased a Zoleo messenger that enables satellite texting – the only form of communication with family back home while we are here.
After settling us into our rooms and touring us around the grounds, Katrine walks back to the boat and departs for Nuuk. We don’t expect to hear from her until she brings the next round of scientists in a few days.
Avoid the cotton grass
Though the sun sets after 9:00pm in late August, tucked into the steep shadows of the fjord, the tundra outpost is cast into darkness one or two hours before sundown. With the afternoon quickly slipping away, Nicolas and I dash out the door on a winding footpath flanking a nearby stream. Hiking over the uneven ground feels jarring to my legs after 16 hours of air and sea travel.
At the head of the stream, water cascades around either side of a boulder perched atop the edge of a 10-foot waterfall like the keystone of an arch. Reaching the top, our view opens to a vast sea of rolling grass-covered hills and sapphire-blue lakes crisscrossed by streams. For a moment I am taken in by the sweeping beauty of the pristine landscape before us, but the moment is broken when I spot a prickly string of transmission towers carrying high-voltage current from a hydroelectric dam to Nuuk. The sight of the looming towers above the naked tundra, is like mental whiplash pulling me from my fanciful sense of kinship with the isolation of early Artic explorers and slamming me back into the 21stCentury reality of an Artic that has been inhabited for centuries.
After a moment admiring the vista, we collect samples along the shores of lake Badesø. Starting clockwise on the north shore, we quickly find the lichen genera Cladonia and Peltigera and the moss genus Racomitrium. After a half mile, the footpath we are following dissolves into untrampled brush as we approach a field of cotton grass. As our boots sink into a quagmire, we learn too late that cotton grass only grows in muddy soil with standing water. Nicolas makes the clever observation that these conditions also are preferred by the moss genus Sphagnum, and soon we add samples of two Sphagnum species to our collection bag.
Rounding the far side of the Badesø, the gentle, rolling hills give way to a harsh, denuded expanse of boulders that have tumbled down the steep slopes of an overshadowing mountain. Carefully, Nicolas and I plot our course through the minefield of giant boulders, stepping from rock edge to rock edge. Occasionally, a boulder lists underfoot, causing us to bound to the next rock edge before it rolls away. Halfway through the maze, I fall behind Nicolas to take a closer look at one of the granite slabs half-buried by rubble and covered by a slow-growing patchwork of lichens and drooping moss. Western Greenland has some of the oldest rocks in the world, with some metamorphic rocks nearly four billion years old. Luckily, I do not have the same concern with dallying here as I did in Svalbard. Polar bears have not been seen in the Kobbefjord for some years. However, Nicolas carries a flare gun in his pack all the same.
Completing our circuit back to the mouth of the stream, we pick up the footpath and start hiking the last quarter mile back to the station. At the base of the waterfall, we spy a school of Arctic char lazily swimming in a shallow pool.
Once back at the station, we scour the buildings for fishing gear but only find a rod and reel. Channeling one of the dozen videos I watched on wilderness survival before departing for the Arctic, Nicolas and I jerry-rig a hook from an aluminum can tab and duct tape and hurry back to the stream. Fashioning some old cold cuts, the only bait we could find, to our MacGyver-like hook, we cast our line in the water and eagerly anticipate the telltale tug of a fish bite. When no such tug comes, we convince ourselves the second cast must be the one. No, well maybe the third… fourth… tenth? After half an hour it becomes abundantly clear my survival hack was meant for bigger fish than the small, indifferent Arctic char pushing past the floating cold cut as the current grabs the hook and takes it swiftly down river. Fish bite or not, the effect is the same. Watching the last remnants of sunlight bathe the mountain peaks in rouge alpenglow with my line in the water makes me nostalgic for my childhood summer days spent fishing on sylvan lakes.
With sunlight entirely gone from the fjord, we stumble back to the station to start dinner. Opening the duffel bag with the food, we are struck with the powerful odor of basil and garlic from a broken jar of pesto that now coats everything in the bag. After enjoying a curried rice dinner, I take a short, hot shower. Savoring the warm water, I am amazed by how the simplest daily comforts take on newfound worth in the field. Perhaps it is because of the physical work required to provide such comforts: the boiler has to be stocked with oil, drinking water must be carried in small containers from the stream, and food and everything that enters the station must be ferried back out. In everyday life, simply flipping a switch or pushing a handle is sufficient to maintain these comforts. Even growing up in the forest of northern Wisconsin, tossing a few logs on the fire was for aesthetic enjoyment, not bodily necessity. But here everything requires time and effort making me acutely aware of my consumption and waste and the demands I put on the earth to sustain my life. Perhaps that is why Aldo Leopold wrote, “There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.” To Leopold, there is something holy in keeping sight of our connection to the earth.
Shortly after 11:00pm, I open the door off the kitchen to head to my room in the accommodation building. After two steps, my eyes catch the unmistakable glow in the northeast sky of Aurora borealis. What looks like faint, grey clouds condense into spectacularly vivid green, white and purple streaks of light dancing across the sky. I snap photos with my phone. Just 26 hours earlier I was on the tarmac of Raleigh-Durham International Airport. Now, after an afternoon on the tundra, a magnificent display of auroras with a brilliant Jupiter hanging low in the eastern sky unfolds overhead. Zipping up my coat, I lean against the porch railing and quietly watch dumbstruck by my luck.