Discoveries in Greenland June 9 - 18/2017


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North America » Greenland » East Greenland
June 27th 2017
Published: July 3rd 2017
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Thinking of Greenland most people suppose there is only an ice sheet. Or melting ice at least. But Greenland is greener than that. Specially around Kangerlussuaq in West Greenland, just north of the polar circle. Linda, my son Robin and I made some beautiful hikes around this area this week.

Kangerlussuaq

Let's face it, Kangerlussuaq is ugly. No houses with Mediterranean colors embellished with pots of geraniums and hanging baskets with fuchsia's, no boutiques with the latest Gucci models, no cosy restaurants with candle light where you can eat your chateaubriands. On the contrary. The former US military basement is nothing more than a hotchpotch of iron utility buildings, containers and some wooden house blocks in bright blue and yellow. Pipes run throughout the settlement, coming from Lake Ferguson and supplying the settlement with water. Not underground, because of the permafrost. Between the house blocks there are some dirty playgrounds for the kids. Every now and then we see a lonesome tricycle or a little bike and wonder where the toddler has gone. Even the Watson river across the settlement contributes to a feeling of desolation. It's greyish, because it's full of silt, coming from the famous Russel's glacier flowing from the Greenland ice sheet, which grinds the underlying rocks to grains. Downstream not far from the harbor near the fjord the river slows down and the silt settles down and forms an alluvial plain of glacial quicksands. Though it is called the fossil plain we couldn't find any fossils.

So it's all greyish and desolate. And still it is genuine and convenient with the hardships looming up. But no sooner we walk a little out of the settlement than we are surrounded by green slopes full of flowers. And mosquitoes of course. Specially with warm weather and no wind. They come in rampaging hordes, settle down on you and consider you as a voluntary blood donor, even when you are completely covered with clothes. The only thing what helps is a mosquito net around you. Even at night in our room I see mosquitoes darting around me while there are no any. As if you come from a boat and still feel the waves of the sea. We wonder why there are so many mosquitoes, as there are hardly animals to suck their blood.

Around Kangerlussuaq

About 15 kilometer west of Kangerlussuaq sits Kellyville. Here is the Sondrestrom Upper Atmospheric Research Facility, which is doing research on the arctic ionosphere. Our taxi brings us a little bit farther to the spot where the 160 km long Arctic Circle Trail starts from Kangerlussuaq to Sisimiut at the western coast. We walk just the beginning and stop at the first of the eight huts of the trail, situated at one of the many lakes.

It's warm. I guess it's 25 0C. I never thought I would have been walking in Greenland in a T-shirt. There is a nice cool breeze. Lakes and hills remind me of Scotland. Crop outs of bare rocks break through the vegetation. Mostly gneiss, metamorphic stones and formed at the beginning of the development of the earth. About 4 billion years old cratons, the original crust of the earth and therefore the oldest rocks of the world. The lakes are full of life. We see snails and 2 cm long crustaceans. Isopods I guess. We try to catch them, but don't succeed. In the wet parts of the tundra grow Scheuchzer's cottongrass with their white plumes. Muskoxen eat them. Next to them we see sedges and bog labrador tea. The last one is used to spice wild game dishes. Linda collects some leaves for cooking at home.

Higher up we find the purple flowers of the broad loaf fireweed, the national flower of Greenland. The Inuit call it Niviarsiaq, which means little girl. They eat it as a salad with seal and walrus blubber. It's one of the few plants with an North American origin, as most plants of Greenland are connected with the European continent. It is thought that these European plants colonized Greenland after the last ice age, transported by migrating birds, specially geese from northwest Europe to Greenland. Another plant is the red tipped lousewort, a halfparasite of the broomrape family. It intrudes the roots of the host plant and picks up water and salts. Since it has green leaves it is a halfparasite and not a parasite like the broomrape. And everywhere are mats of white mountain-avens. Rocks bear bright green and deep orange lichens. Still higher are hairy louseworts and purple saxifraga's. We never expected such a wealth of flowers in Greenland. Greenland is greener than we thought.

The hunting grounds near Kangerlussuaq

In general you are not supposed to have a rifle when you enter a guesthouse in Europe. But here it is quite common. The only thing you have to do is unbolt your rifle, as our guesthouse Vandrehjem warns in a little leaflet at the door. The guesthouse organizes trophy hunts on muskox and reindeer for tourists.
Though it's not our ambition to kill animals just for fun, we do understand that Greenlanders hunt. "The Inuit culture is the most pure hunting culture in existence. Having adapted to the extreme living conditions in the High Arctic of the North American continent for at least four thousand years, Inuit are not even hunter-gatherers. Inuit are hunters, pure and simple", said Henri√ętte Rasmussen, former minister of education and culture of Greenland.

Jens Pavia Brandt is a hunter and has his roots in Greenland. Together with his wife Nini he owns Greenland Outdoors: http://greenlandoutdoors.com, a little company which organizes tours across nature of Greenland. With him we'll make a three days hike through the wilderness of the hunting grounds near Kangerlussuaq. His father taught him how to hunt and how to skin the animals. 'I was nine years old when my father took me with him', tells Jens-Pavia. 'After one day walking in rubber boots I had blisters already. My father told me better to feel the hardships when I was nine. Then I wouldn't have problems anymore when I was fourteen.' His whole face begins to laugh. It looks like he is completely in balance with nature. During winter he is completely alone in the fields, hunting on muskox and reindeer. He sleeps in a tent. 'Sometimes it's -35 0 C. Then only my nose is poking out of my sleeping bag. And of course my nose freezes.'

With our mosquito nets on we walk along the Tasersuatsiaq lake. The Americans call it Lake Ferguson and used it for waterskiing. Today it is almost fully covered with ice. 'The ice broke up last week', tells Jens-Pavia. The rustling tingling of thousands of ice pieces sound like the cheers of crystal glasses at a great banquet. The lake sits in between two mountain ranges. They are orientated east-west like most of the mountain ranges here. We walk at the northern side of the lake. 'This is the dry part', says Jens-Pavia. 'The other side is wet and there is more vegetation. Walking there is less easy.'
Now we see snow higher up in the foothills of the other side, which is lacking at our side. Our side is facing the sun, which means that the winter snow disappears quickly. At the other side the snow is melting slowly which produces a continuously dripping of water along the slopes year around. And that explains the difference of vegetation between the northern and southern slopes. It's more or less comparable with the dunes in Holland.

While walking on the elastic permafrost bottom we pass some typical tundra plants: Lapland rosebay, Labrador tea, dwarf willow, dwarf birch, crowberry and juniper. It's good food for muskox and reindeer. There are hardly lichens. We wonder why. On the lake is a couple of great northern divers and red-breasted mergansers. Along the borders of the lake some Lapland longspurs begin to sing, sitting upon a big boulder as soon as we pass. Between some grass polls is a nest of Canadian geese. They are exotes from Canada. 'In general we don't have so many animals coming from Canada', says Jens-Pavia. 'The icecap serves as a biological filter.' Suddenly we bump into the brownish poo of a rock ptarmigan. 'It has been here in winter, hiding in the snow', says Jens-Pavia. With its snowshoelike feathers at the toes, it can easily walk over the snow.

While we are going uphill, leaving the lake behind us, we see two ravens feeding their young in their nest at a high cliff. Sometimes we cross little streams of crystal clear water. On our knees we drink it right away. We stop for a while for a lunch. Nini, the wife of Jens-Pavia, has made paté of muskox liver. It's delicious.
More and more rocks appear as we are mounting the slopes. We are entering the hunting grounds. Every now and then we bump into the fur and carcasses of reindeer and muskox. 'This is from a male muskox', tells Jens-Pavia, pointing at a spine. 'Look at the high protrusions of the vertebrae. Here, just behind the skull the vertebrae are very massive. It's to moderate the blows when the males bump their heads against each other.'

Finally we see three green tents on top of a rock near a waterfall. It's a perfect spot, overseeing the whole Tasersuatsiaq lake. Jens-Pavia brought the tents here one week earlier with a sledge, when the lake was still frozen. He makes a fire of dry wood to cook the reindeer meat for dinner. In the evening there is a nice breeze from the east, coming from the ice sheet. We sit around the fire, telling big stories. In the far end the high giggling of a arctic fox echoes between the mountains. Down a muskox is grazing. The sun doesn't go down tonight.

Next morning I wash myself in the little brook near our tent. It feels like nature envelops me. After breakfast we hike farther up the mountains. An arctic hare is hopping between the rocks. It is nibbling of white mountain-avens. When we come closer we disturb an arctic fox. Did we save the life of the hare? Probably not, says Jens-Pavia. The hares are too big for the foxes. When we find a fox which didn't survive winter, we see how beautifully it is adapted to the arctic climat. The white thick fur, the short legs, even inside the paws there seems to be a countercurrent bloodstream, which keeps the core temperature of the body high. 'Not all of them change colors from brown to white', says Jens-Pavia. 'Some stay brown all year around.'

More plants we see: arctic bell-heather, horsetail, dandelion and between the rocks even a fern: an oblong woodsia. Then suddenly a reindeer appears. It is curious and comes very close. I listen if I can hear the clicking sound of the tendons in the knees. The harder the clicking, the more dominant it is. But my ears are not good enough. In North America reindeer are called caribou, but it is the same species. In 1952 some reindeer from Lapland were introduced, another subspecies. They mixed genetically with the reindeer of Greenland. With them came a parasite, which killed a lot of Greenlandic reindeer. Maybe the number of reindeer around Kangerlussuaq (about 100.000) explains the explosion of mosquitoes here. An adult reindeer looses about one liter blood each week by biting insects.

And suddenly he is there. On top of an rock he is looking down at us. One white leg to the front. The Lion King of the tundra. A muskox. Better to keep some hundreds meter distance, because they can charge. However with all our close encounters with these hairy icons of the arctic world, they were on the run, not us. Normally muskusox make a circle or a half circle as a defense against enemies. Here they don't do that anymore. They even don't live in herds. 'It's because they don't have enemies', says Jens-Pavia. 'There are no wolves or bears here.' Polar bears live only in the North of Greenland. Since 1950 only three times a polar bear has been seen around Kangerlussuaq. They came walking over the Ice Sheet, their stomach completely empty.

Muskox looks like a bovine, but is more related to sheep and goat. Between 200,000 and 90,000 years ago they crossed the Bering Land Bridge from Siberia to North America. In Eurasia they became extinct. Muskox is together with the bison and pronghorn one of the few species of the Pleistocene megafauna - to which also the mammoth belongs- which survives till today. When the Laurentide Ice Sheet disappeared they moved to the north of North America and colonized via Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago finally also the northern fringes of Greenland.

The muskusox we see here are introduced from North Greenland. Likewise the muskox in Siberia, on the Island Wrangle and everywhere else in the world are introduced. I heard they are even introduced in Groningen (a province in the Netherlands). Poor animals. Must be hot in their warm fur. According to Jens-Pavia the population around Kangerlussuaq is going down. It's because of bad hunting methods. Female muskox are most hunted, because they lack the musk flavor of the male animals. He himself only hunts foremost male muskox.

After three hours walking we arrive high up on the rocks. Down is a valley with big lakes. In the far end is the Ice Sheet at a twenty kilometer distance. The weather has changed. Grey clouds hang over the valley and it is cold. It's the end of the world. As if we are watching Mordor of the Lord of the Rings. We walk back to our base camp via the mountains. When we arrive we see that the ice on Lake Ferguson has almost disappeared. That evening we eat arctic hare.

Next day we walk back via the southern side of Lake Tasersuatsiaq. Indeed the bottom is softer and wetter here. Every now and then water comes down in little streams from the slopes. Vegetation is higher. There are all kind of grasses and now and then yellow Lapland buttercups. The weather is great and there are not so many mosquitoes. We try to find some meat eating plants near the shore of the lake, but cannot find them. At the end of the afternoon we are back in Kangerlussuaq. That evening we eat muskox in a Thai-Italian(!) restaurant.

The Ice Shield

A bumpy dirt road leads from Kangerlussuaq to the Ice Sheet. It's 35 kilometers long. In the past Volkswagen used it to test their cars. Now we travel on this road with a bus of Arctic Circle/World of Greenland, together with other tourists who will stay on the Ice Shield for half an hour. Our plan is to overnight on the Ice Shield. Apart from Linda, Robin and me two guys from Austria take part in this little expedition: Helga and Richard. Our guide is called Stefan. He is from Denmark.

The Arctic Circle bus goes uphill. In the far end we see the Russel glacier. At the Reindeer glacier we stop for a while to take pictures. Big boulders are everywhere. Massive moraines border the ice. After two hours we are at the Ice Sheet. In sledges we transport our luggage. We have to pass enormous moraines before we arrive at the edge of the Ice Shield. Here begins a surface of 1,710,000 square kilometers of Ice, 2 up to 3 kilometers thick. We do our crampons on. Then we walk in half an hour to our base camp. An orange igloo like tent stands somewhere in the middle of nowhere between some ice hills. It's on top of a round plateau, about one meter high. I ask how this is possible. It's because the ice melted in one week around the tent, but not under the tent, tells Stefan, our guide. Water streams are gushing downhill. We put our tents up. Afterwards we put up the field toilet in a tent. Stefan turns out to be like a lieutenant in the army. We get strict orders what to do and what not. Apparently it is necessary, because the area is full of hidden dangers. Before we go on a walk we get instructions how to use our crampons. On a steep ice hill we practice stepping downwards, upwards, sidewards and even backwards. I get cramp in my calves and almost loose balance. Finally everyone passes the exam. And then we go for a walk of one hour and a half stepping in each others footsteps.

The landscape is amazing. Every now and then we see parabola snow dunes, apparently formed by the wind like sand dunes in the Netherlands. There is no life. Still we find a feather of a raven and the poo of a ptarmigan. No sounds, only our footsteps and water that streams with an echo downwards in big holes, the so called moulins. Some are hundred meters deep. A blue sky and ice and snow in all kinds of white up to grey and blue, sometimes frozen water crystallized in an endless variation of forms. The ice is white, because of the air bubbles inside. In deeper layers the pressure is high, the bubbles are gone and the ice has become transparent. It's called black ice. When we come back we gather in the igloo tent, drink coffee and have dinner made from dry food. Of course it is cold, but at night we sleep very well in our sleeping bags.

Next morning I was myself and brush my teeth in a stream of ice cold water. After breakfast we make another trip over the Ice Sheet. The scenery is even more jaw dropping than the day before. Blue crystal clear lakes contrast with the white of the ice hills. Now and then a waterfall, a river which looks like a slide in a swimming pool, an ice bridge over the river, even tunnels. Everywhere are holes in the snow. Some have a diameter of a one centimeter, others are as big as 10 centimeter. Some are three centimeter deep, others as deep as 30 centimeter or more. It's because wind blown dust covered the snow at this spots, tells Stefan. Because the dust has a dark color, it absorbs the solar radiation and that's why the ice melts. They are called cryoconite holes. Some are covered with a thin layer of ice. When I prick with my stick through the ice, I see that the hole is full of water. Micro-organisms live in this water, like wheel animals (rotifera) and water bears (tardigrades).

After three hours walking we come back at our camp, have lunch, clean up, pack our luggage and walk back with our sledges to the road. While waiting on the bus Linda collects some stones of the moraine. One of them has red crystals of garnet, a gemstone. Then the bus brings us down to Kangerlussuaq. To celebrate our last day in Greenland we go to the excellent restaurant of the airport to have dinner. And a beer or two.


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