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Following the Ice: Camp Life—Not For the Faint of Heart

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Cat Lee (lower right) sampling the river at high discharge.

Cat Lee (lower right) sampling the river at high discharge.

The river coming out from beneath “our” glacier is running somewhere around 800 cubic meters per second, over twice what anyone’s measured in previous seasons. During the entire 2011 melt season, our glacier’s catchment area lost about 1 cubic mile of ice. Looking at our meltwater discharge measurements and doing some simple calculus, we’re guessing the glacier’s catchment area is now losing 1 cubic mile of ice every three weeks. Consider that this is just one glacier of hundreds spilling off the Greenland Ice Sheet and that where we are in west Greenland, only moderate net ice loss was expected. In southern Greenland, ice loss will be much greater.

Our river crossing and escape route is still doable, though the river we cross (not the one we measure) has grown appreciably and occasionally it is choked with small icebergs. Glacial rivers are unpredictable as a rule but we are cautiously optimistic that we won’t become stranded like last year. Unlike our river crossing, the main bridge in town 15 miles downriver from us has been wiped out. That river has three large glaciers feeding it and ours is one of them.

Gimme shelter

Andrew and I were already cold and wet when we started to hike. We tied the boat at the river crossing high above the water and, with fully loaded packs, we began slogging over the sand dunes in the driving rain. The wind was howling and cold. I overheat easily so I took my raincoat off and hiked in a t-shirt; the wind froze my arms but sweat was running down my face. I worried about my computer and spare clothes in my bag. It was late and the low clouds and pouring rain made the land grey and dark.

On and on we plodded, heads down into the wind and rain, slogging over sand dunes and boulder fields. Normally I always keep an eye out for wildlife but on this night, I just stared at Andrew’s boots as he walked in front of me.

He turned to me: “Miserable eh?”

“Yup, pretty miserable.”

After what seemed like hours, we finally reached the top of the last hill and our camp was spread out before us. We were home. Tents were bending in the wind and several tarps covering gear flapped violently in the driving rain. It was well past midnight and the others in camp were dry and warm, trying to sleep despite the gusts of wind bending their walls. Andrew and I quickly pinned down some unruly tarps and then heaved our bags into the mess tent and got inside.

Suddenly out of the rain and wind, we breathed an immense sigh of relief. It was hard to imagine a more comfortable or luxurious place to be. Dripping wet, I circled through the tent to the stove, lit a match and put a pot of water on to boil. I pulled out a dry set of clothes, changed and then collapsed onto one of our sticky, duct-tape-covered, broken chairs. We spent the next hour drinking mug after mug of hot tea and devouring a pack of cookies while we slowly warmed up. I thought of how friends and family back home might not ever get a chance to really understand how cozy a tent can be in bad weather. There is really nothing like it. Being so close to the bad weather makes being dry and warm feel better than anything.

In the morning, after another sleepless windy night, we found the roof of the mess tent had been torn in half. Fortunately the rain had stopped sometime in the night and not much inside got wet. As I walked towards the most recent camp disaster, I wondered if we had enough duct tape left to fix the massive tear. I was tired and didn’t want to deal with this, but the clouds were looking questionable. Just then, Andrew popped out of the tent dragging an extra roof. It’s so important to plan on things breaking.

Welcome to camp

“At the end of the nineteenth century, cowboys were seen as no better than tramps, wild fellows who put up with dreadful food and the worst possible accommodations.”

-From David McCullough’s biography of Theodore Roosevelt, Mornings on Horseback

Looking around at my dirt-caked companions eagerly tucking into their bowls of expired canned hot dogs and what was left of our rice rations, I noticed an odd smell.

“Did one of you guys take a shower?”

“Oh yeah, I just had a wash!”

We bathe so infrequently that smelling soap is like wearing an overpowering perfume. Fortunately it’s usually the only time we can smell each other.

The Greenland Ice Sheet near camp.

The Greenland Ice Sheet near camp.

Whether or not to take a bucket shower is often a major conversation during dinner. Will mosquitoes cover me head-to-toe the second I disrobe? Is it too cold and windy? How bad do I smell really? Is it just my feet? Would you guys mind if just my feet took a shower?

Our clothes are also washed with a bucket. It takes a few hours and as we rarely have free time, so we try to spread out laundry as much as possible. Other dinner conversations have included how many days can you go between changing socks (Answer: 3-4 for most); does hanging clothes in the sun and wind without a wash make them smell better? (Answer: yes); how many mosquitoes have to die in your coffee before you are unwilling to drink it? (Answer: you probably don’t want to know).

It takes a while for people to get accustomed to living in our camp. When people first get here they’ll say, “I don’t want to drink pond bugs,” then it’s “I don’t want to drink so many pond bugs,” which is sometimes followed by, “I feel bad for all the pond bugs we drink.” Finally though, everyone comes around and it’s, “Hey check out this big crazy looking bug in my bottle!” Maybe everyone is used to being surrounded by polluted surface water and it’s hard to come to grips with the fact that we’re camping next to a pond we can just drink out of. Or maybe it’s just that most people find drinking little bugs that look astonishingly similar to the Sea Monkeys we had as kids, well, gross.

We wash dishes in a large plastic bowl. Without a rinse phase or very much water to start with, we usually just accomplish getting the food scraped off. Halfway through doing the dishes we stop using the drying towels because the dishwater reaches (to put it in chemical terms) a state of dirty equilibrium. The plates enter and exit the water equally gross and, as we want to keep the drying towels sort of clean-ish, we like to let the last plates air-dry.

Actually though, when new people show up in camp, they are sometimes surprised at how clean everyone is. Unlike the days of old, most of us do take bucket showers, we have soap, and occasionally we wash our clothes. I guess I should point out though that some people have used our camp as a chance to test whether or not human hair starts to “wash itself” without soap. Surprise! It doesn’t.

July Wind

Nature here just won’t give us a break. After the cold ended in the middle of May, we had a full day and a half of warm weather before zillions of mosquitoes woke up. Eight weeks later, the mosquitoes are starting to fade away, only to be replaced by heavy wind. To be fair, we did have one glorious, mosquito-free day that was quite idyllic. Then the next morning the wind started, and July is the month for heavy wind. High-pressure systems build on the Greenland Ice Sheet and low-pressure storms move up the coast.

This huge pressure gradient causes katabatic winds to rip off the ice sheet. Turbulent warm air melts more ice than still, warm air, so we can expect even more ice melt this month. As of today, the wind has been blowing non-stop between 30-50 mph for three days. If we weren’t living in tents surrounded by sand dunes, this would be easier. As I sit here scratching my head wondering if it’s a step up or down from the mosquitoes, I’m coming to the conclusion that there may not be enough shampoo in the whole world to rinse all the sand out of my hair.

Our friend the raven

A raven living near our camp has taken on the job of rescuing all the silverware we drop into our slops pit, a hole where we dump our dirty dishwater. Our dishwater is too full of coffee grounds and tuna can water to see through, so we regularly and accidentally drop forks, spoons, and knives into the pit. Once in the pit, the cutlery is basically lost to us, as no one wants to dig around in there. So much cutlery ends up in there that we’ve termed throwing out the slops water, “throwing the forks away.”

That was until a month ago, when our friend the raven decided to fish through the pit every day to pull out our wayward forks, knives, and spoons. We delight every time we find a spoon or fork lying next to the slops pit and excitedly put them back into circulation. The raven’s other skills include opening packages of beans and spreading them through camp, ripping through our mess tent’s mosquito netting to eat crackers, and landing on top of our sleeping tents in the middle of the night to make alarmingly loud crackling noises. There may not be a more startling way to wake from a deep sleep but we do appreciate the job he does with the forks.

The Worst and Best Day

Halfway through our field season, we were mentally and physically exhausted. The pace of fieldwork, the isolation of our camp and the drudgery of our day-to-day tasks were wearing everyone down. So when we got the opportunity to leave camp to sample from the fjord our glacial river spills into, the chance couldn’t have come any sooner. However, we had no idea that one particular trip would make for the most horrible, best, and probably the most memorable day of the season.

Ben Linhoff with the caribou leg before butchering.

Ben Linhoff with the caribou leg before butchering.

Early in the morning, Rob Raiswell, Johnny Hawkings and myself hiked out of camp, slept a night in a bed in town. The next morning, we each devoured three full plates at the airport café’s breakfast buffet. We then drove our rented truck to the harbor, met our boat captain and, in a twenty-foot outboard skiff, ran out into the fjord leaving zillions of mosquitoes in our wake.

The morning couldn’t have been more perfect. It was one of those rare moments in the field where everything was easy and life was beautiful. The fjord was glassy and calm and the sun was warm and bright. High mountains rose on either side and in the distance we could see huge glaciers covering larger mountains near the coast 100 miles away.

Our goal was to collect water samples through the chemically reactive freshwater-saltwater mixing zone in the fjord. To find this zone, we simply use an electrical conductivity meter. All water contains negatively and positively charged ions; the more things dissolved in water, the higher the electrical conductivity is. For example, seawater is very salty, contains many dissolved ions and is therefore very conductive. Glacial meltwater by contrast has almost nothing dissolved in it as the water is derived from recently melted ice and hasn’t had enough time to dissolve many ions into it.

If we want to find out how the glacial meltwater we were measuring in camp was affecting ocean water chemistry, the mixing zone is the place to sample.

Sitting in the warm sun and taking samples, I struck up a conversation with our boat captain about hunting and fishing (two of my favorite pastimes). He said the salmon were running thick in a nearby river. In 2011 I’d spent 10 days traveling through Greenland after the field season. One of the highlights of that trip was spending a day fishing with some locals in a fjord outside of Sisimiut. I’ve never experienced anything like it. We put five lures without bait on a sturdy line and weighted the end. Then, hand over hand, we lowered the line to about 100 feet. Immediately after reaching this depth, we started pulling the line up. Hooked to each lure was a cod between 20-40 inches long. We “fished” like this for about 30 minutes until the guys I was with gave up. They apologized to me and said we were just having an unlucky day. They were serious. In Greenland cod fisheries are apparently so healthy that the locals generally use cod only to feed their sled dogs. People try to find a tastier fish but sometimes it’s just too hard to keep the cod off the hook.

Based on this experience, I knew that if our boat captain said the salmon fishing was good, he meant it was unbelievable. I of course inquired about the price of a trip to that river. Everything in Greenland is extremely expensive (except for cod) and the boat ride to the salmon river would’ve cost me around $1,000.

We started talking about hunting and we mentioned that while we’d eaten lots of musk ox, we had yet to try any caribou. Hearing this he pulled out his cell phone and from the middle of the fjord called a buddy.

“My friend has some caribou meat for you guys.”

“How much?”

“For one leg, 200 Kroner (about 40 bucks).”

“A whole leg?? Seriously? OK, perfect. We’ll take it.”

Later that afternoon, our boat captain found us in town and handed us a frozen leg wrapped in a garbage bag. I paid him thanked him and then found an old bag to stuff the bloody leg into.

At the river crossing, we said goodbye to Rob Raiswell who was heading back to the U.K. (Rob if you’re reading this, we can’t thank you enough for your help!). Johnny and I struggled into our dry suits, and took turns pulling each other across the river. The crossing went fine, only small chunks of ice were bobbing through the current, and once safely on the other side we pulled the boat well out of the water. By design, dry suits don’t let any water in or out so in the hot evening sun it was like wearing a sauna.

A terrifying cloud of mosquitoes was amassing as we pulled ourselves out of our sweat-soaked dry suits. Johnny put on a mesh mosquito head net and jacket while I shouldered the two backpacks and caribou leg. It’s bad luck to speculate on how much one’s bag weighs but let’s just say that that night’s load was one of the worst I’d ever carried.

I don’t like to wear bug spray and I only wear a mesh head net if the insects are unspeakably bad and even then only when it’s not too hot out. I get bit up horribly, but I’m not allergic to insect bites, so I rarely get a reaction, except on my ankles. However, I would’ve made an exception for this night.

That night’s walk back to camp was about the worst thing I’ve ever had to endure in the outdoors. There was no wind. It was hot. My bags dug painfully into my shoulders and our normally flat trail had been washed away, so we walked on the uneven sand dunes covering the hillside above the water. After a few minutes, sunscreen mixed with sweat was running into my eyes, blinding me.

The mosquitoes were swarming in masses I never imagined could exist and I was completely exposed. I had forgotten my head net and didn’t have a mesh jacket or bug spray. I had to breath through my nose to keep from inhaling the ones swarming around my face. Hundreds went into my ears, eyes and nose. My arms were tied up in bags so I couldn’t shake them off and I was carrying too much weight to run. There were so many biting my arms it actually looked and felt like I was wearing a crawling jacket of biting insects. I thought I would go mad.

The warm weather has spawned an unbelievable amount of the horrible creatures and, as a side note, I’ve been told that another consequence of global warming will be more mosquitoes everywhere. I hate mosquitoes.

Happy campers. Andrew Tedstone, Ben Linhoff, and Johnny Hawkings (left to right) after butchering the caribou leg.

Happy campers. Andrew Tedstone, Ben Linhoff, and Johnny Hawkings (left to right) after butchering the caribou leg.

As if by karmic coincidence, that night was also by far the best night in camp this season. Once we reached the sand dunes on the last bit of climb back to camp, a slight breeze picked up and the bugs began falling behind and could only bite my backside. Finally I could breath without choking. At camp, the wind was blowing in earnest. I threw my bags off and stood in the wind to cool off mentally and physically. Again, I’m not allergic to mosquitoes so other than almost going crazy, I was relatively unscathed from the experience.

Inside the mess tent we covered the big metal box that acts as our dinning table with a garbage bag and laid down the half-thawed caribou leg. We had no idea what to do. I put on some Led Zeppelin, the only music that seemed fitting for three guys cutting meat off a caribou leg.

It was a beautiful thing. After eating energy-sapping canned food for a month, seeing that leg of fresh, healthy meat on our table put us in a state of total euphoria. We got our sharpest knife and started cutting slices of meat off, and placing them into plastic bags. It took us over an hour to butcher the leg and the whole time we were laughing and joking like three kids in a fort.

When we were done cutting every last bit of meat off the leg and bagging it, Andrew and I hiked the leg bone to the fox den near our camp and dropped it outside. The next morning the leg was gone. It was a rare moment. We really felt part of our surroundings. We couldn’t have found more sustainably or locally sourced meat and giving the bone to the foxes felt like a small offering back to the ecosystem we were otherwise encroaching on. Ancestors of our foxes have been scavenging on bones left by Inuit hunters, wolves and polar bears for thousands of years.

We decided to use the ice filled river next to camp to keep the meat cool. Because someone samples the glacial river every 2-3 hours 24 hours a day, we placed in a bucket of ice water that was changed every time one of us took a river sample.

For a week, instead of eating canned meat products flown or shipped from Europe and then flown by helicopter to our camp, we ate a locally hunted animal every night for dinner. It tasted amazing and butchering it was one of the best team-building exercises I’ve ever done. The nutrition the leg provided changed the energy in camp. I woke in the mornings feeling awake and alive and, to my relief, the dizzy fainting spells I’d been experiencing subsided.

Now that the caribou leg is gone, we’re back to our normal, bland diet, but the experience inspired us to supplement dinners with wild mushrooms (all of which are edible in Greenland). Unfortunately, after several meals with delicious sautéed mushrooms it’s rained and now all the wild mushrooms are filled with… let’s just say a certain type of bug larva we won’t eat.

Previously in this series:

Following the Ice: Greenland
Following the Ice: In the Beginning
Following the Ice: Glacial Dam
Ice Day: Like a nice day, but not
Following the Ice: Is this Global Warming?
Following the Ice: Is this global warming? (continued)

Ben Linhoff About the Author: Ben Linhoff studies glaciers and chemical oceanography in the MIT/WHOI (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution) Joint Program in Oceanography where he is a second year PhD student. He writes about glaciers, the arctic, climate change, and adventures. Follow on Twitter @FollowingTheIce.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. jonniebelen 1:22 am 07/26/2012

    Great post! It’s something with survival in that kind of place. :)

    Link to this
  2. 2. Lowndes 8:17 am 07/26/2012

    Great post!! I can relate to the mosquitoes and headnets having canoed and fished in Canada.

    Has anyone calculated if there is there enough fresh water runoff to affect the Atlantic Conveyor?? If it slows appreciably, the weather in Europe will chill. Even if the lighter, cold fresh water lays on the surface in the northern latitudes, it will chill the weather over there.

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  3. 3. Chris G 1:29 pm 07/26/2012

    Floaters and sinkers are OK; I don’t care to drink swimmers. Wouldn’t it be easy enough to put a handkerchief over the mouth of the bottle while filling it? Well, I’m not there.

    Thanks for the post!

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  4. 4. asianexpedition 12:15 am 08/26/2012

    Great Article..love to read it…This kind of article really interests me a lot.. Reminded my expedition tour to Nepal. A great pace to be more popular for the adventure traveling and trekking….
    Expedition in Nepal

    Link to this

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