Monday, April 28, 2008

Light and Darkness II

Since the Spring Equinox (one of two days during the year when day and night are of equal length everywhere on earth) was on March 20th and it is now at end of April, our days are getting ridiculously long. Sunrise is at 4:15am and sunset is at 9:50pm (and the days get longer 8 minutes every day, almost an hour a week). Since the sun does not go straight toward the horizon, it is light way before and after sunrise and sunset. I was out at the hot tub two nights ago at 1am and there was still light in the western sky from the sun and the stars were just starting to show. Needless to say the opportunities for seeing northern lights are waning fast. It is so much easier to get out of bed now (and harder to get back in) now that the days are so gloriously long. There are some people here that were going to bed at 8 or 9 pm that are out playing Frisbee at 11pm. The green is coming back to the trees with astounding speed and the weather is much warmer; spring is defiantly in full force.
"World's End" 9:50pm

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Snow Caving

The outdoor trip for this week was cross country skiing and snow caving.

We drove about an hour from the base and then turned off onto a road that was built to serve hydroelectric needs. While it is ok to drive there, the road is not maintained. There are two fairly long tunnels that we drove through and several sections that had skating quality ice inside. I was in the VW Caravel and we got stuck bigtime (front wheel dive and uphill are a bad combo on ice). Even though we had snow tires on we slid backwards and jackknifed our trailer (the trailer was the only thing that stopped us). We jumped out to assess the situation and couldn't even stand outside the van because it was so slippery. We made it a little farther by throwing dirt under the tires but eventually we had to put chains on. At the end of the road we skied about half a mile (with our backpacks, firewood, shovels...) to the site where we would build the caves. This was my first time on CC skis and they are defiantly nothing like downhill skis. I managed to make it without breaking anything or getting a shovel in my skull which was nice.

We were in teams of four to each dig a cave we could sleep in. After about 3 feet we hit a layer which seemed to be solid ice. Some of the teams hit the ice sooner and started over in a new area. We decided to just keep going. It was exhausting but we found a good system. We took turns digging at high intensity for 5-10 minutes. Sometime after 10:00 pm we finally arrived at something that was a little less than ideal but that the four of could sleep in. The next day we improved it by making the sleeping platforms bigger, adding storage shelves and a cooking area.

The next day we skied about 12 miles round trip out to a Sami Gamme. The Samis are the indigenous people of the north and the Gamme is a permanent tepee shaped house. It was fun but quite tiring.

Throughout the time at the caves, people kept working on the ever improving snow metropolis. There were stairs and paths connecting caves and levels, castle like walls for wind protection and a massive fire area with walls and stadium seating. It was a sight to behold (but hard to photograph because everything is white).

In the end we had a great time but were ready to return to base to sleep in our own beds.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Oslo; A city rich in history, culture and hookers

For Easter break I went to Oslo. I booked a room within walking distance from the train station and spent the week seeing the sights there. There are quite a few museums and art galleries that are free and my room included breakfast, waffles in the afternoon and lots of oranges. The National Gallery has quite a few of Edvard Munch's works on display including "The Scream." They also had works by Degas, Monet, Manet, Renoir and Van Gogh. I really like impressionists I guess. I also went to see the Vigeland Sculpture Park which is very popular and really amazing. It consists of around 212 sculptures of human figures depicted in various stages of life carved from granite or cast in bronze. At the center of the park is a monolith 46 feet high comprising 121 human figures. It was carved from a single piece of granite weighing 220 tons and took three craftsmen 14 years to complete. The park is really beautiful and I would like to see it in the summer when the fountains are flowing and all is green. On my first night there I walked over to one of the main shopping streets in search of dinner. I ended up at a Mac Donald's where I paid $16 for a combo meal (Oslo is not cheap). I was really surprised how many of the golden arches there were in the city; I feel kind of bad that my country was responsible for unleashing such an unnecessary plague upon the world. After finishing my uber-processed meal I walked down the street toward the Royal Palace. Most of the shops were closed but window shopping is fun and the architecture is amazing (plus I didn't really have anything better to do). On my way back I was stopped by a woman who, in my naivety, I thought wanted directions. It quickly became clear that she knew exactly where she wanted to go. I told her I wasn't interested and walked away shaking my head in disbelief and mumbling to myself. By the time the fifth one approached me I was really annoyed. I firmly explained that she was the fifth one to corner me in the span of one block and that I didn't want any. She instantly got uppity and said she didn't speak English anyway. I wanted to point out that she was speaking English but I wanted to get out of there more. It turns out that what they do is not against the law. There has been talk of making a law but the Scandinavian people are very much about taking care of others and they might not be cared for as far as health care and other benefits. To that end they are talking of making it illegal to buy but not sell. With that said I never felt like I was in danger walking around the city (even at night) and this is a nice place that I would want to visit again.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Mush or ... something...

We had a really great opportunity to go dog sledding. One of the men in the church heard that we didn't get to go dog sledding while we were in Ilulissat. He says "you haven't been to Greenland unless you have been dog sledding." So he arranged for someone to take us out. The day of the trip was absolutely perfect. No wind and absolutely crisp. It is the kind of clarity the you can only find at high altitude or in an arctic environment. Every detail of the landscape is razor sharp. As we waited for our driver some of my friends engaged in extreme disking to keep warm. This involves taking a snow saucer down a hill so steep that the slope its self is not visible until you are on the edge. You defiantly don't need a saucer but they used them. They even went off a cornice with a 15 foot drop on to a slope like that.
Our diver eventually showed up (wearing polar bear pants as all respectable drivers do) with a team of 12 dogs. They came running up with slobber-sickles hanging off their jowls super excited to be pulling a sled. Going downhill I thought we were going to overtake the dogs and going uphill the driver jumped off and the dogs chugged along. If there was a dog that was slacking the driver used his long whip to give the dog a tap on the butt. Occasionally a dog would glance back as if to ask "am I doing ok?" Sliding across the snow in near silence it seemed a very practical way to go out hunting in the old days.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Trip to Ilulissat

We just got back from 10 days (11 really) at the home of the icebergs. Ilulissat is the Greenlandic name for iceberg and the town next to the most active glacier in the northern hemisphere. The icebergs are up to 50 meters high and as wide as a city block. The glacier that produces these giants is 7 km wide and advances at 40 meters per day in the summer. That turns out to be 35 cubic km each year. Because of the glacier this is a tourist town. The ice calves off into Disco Bay and floats out to the mouth of the bay where there is an underwater moraine. The very large icebergs become beached at this point as the water is only 200-300 meters deep. After a time they melt sufficiently to enter the open sea. Our first day we go on a hike to a high hill that overlooks the bay. The scenery is breathtaking. Colossal chunks of cyan colored ice gilding by at imperceptible speed.

On another day we are taken by snow scooter out to a remote cabin owned by the church we are staying at. After an hour and a half of traveling across frozen lakes, sea ice and snow we arrive at the cabin by a frozen bay. It is –12 F outside and inside the cabin. There is a kerosene fired heater that we light to start the thaw. The snow scooters leave to return tomorrow at “about the same time.” I set out with an ice-breaking pole for the nearby frozen river. I break off and bring back big chunks of ice for our water needs. The sun sets and a very bright full moon rises. One of our team has been gone for three hours so I set out with one other to find him. We find his tracks and spend the next two hours following them across the rugged moon-lit landscape. We spot his form crossing a frozen lake far below on his way back to the cabin. The night sky is incredible and as we walk back it is clear just how small we are in the wilds of Greenland. The next day the wind is strong and it is snowing. Back at the church there is a debate about weather they can make it out to the cabin. Visibility across the frozen bodies of water in such conditions is almost nil. Fortunately for us they decide to venture out to rescue us. We didn’t have enough kerosene for another day (not to mention food).

Some sort of trouble with our return flight caused us to stay another day. The airline put us up in a four star hotel that overlooks the ice fjord. It was so wonderful and surreal. I have been sharing a room since July and to have a beautiful hotel room all to myself was so strange. The food was amazing. We all reveled in the luxury of the hotel. Our hosts form church came by and had finally gotten a boat to take us out in the fjord to get up close to the icebergs. So nice. I went in the second group and it was right at sunset. So beautiful. The blue icebergs with the arctic sunset in a clear sky was so awesome. It was cold too. The small drops of sea water that splashed over the bow of the boat instantly froze on whatever they landed on. When I got back I had the best shower I have had in… a long time. Heated floor in the bathroom and shower. The shower had a huge rain making showerhead. I found that incredible too. None of the buildings in the town have pipes running to them. So a truck has to bring the water to a storage tank in each building. They must have a huge tank. We all dressed up for dinner and gazed out the windows at the last bits of sun disappearing beyond the icebergs. We enjoyed the fireplace and marveled at its existence (there are no trees here and firewood would need to be imported from a tree bearing country).

You Know it is Cold When…

The moisture in your nose freezes with each breath you take in.

The snow is so cold and dry that it scrunches when you walk on it (sounds like walking on Styrofoam).

When you walk in from outside the moisture freezes onto your glasses.

The moisture from your breath freezes on your hair, hat, scarf, hood, glasses, eyelashes (can glue your eyelashes together).

The front door has ice on the inside

The indoor side of the double pane windows have ice at the bottom.

You open the door and fog rolls in across the floor and out into the sky from the top.

You check your friends for frostbite.

The moisture in your eyes starts to freeze.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

A Day In The Life Of Aasiaat

I am walking on snow and ice covered pathways to the hardware store. Wooden walkways and stairs connect different levels. Many people are out walking. A woman carrying groceries, an old man pulling a sled with a seal on it, a mom pushing a sled with two kids bundled up in fur. Everyone is friendly and gives some form of greeting as I pass. I get a little lost and end-up on one of the side streets. I see many dogs tied down in the snow covered areas between houses. My attention is drawn to a group of dogs that are barking and whining with incessant anticipation. A man with a sled is going around to each one putting a harness on them. I watch for a few minutes fascinated by the process. Each dog can barely stand the wait, straining at its tether. A neighbor has invited our group ice fishing; it is windy on the ice today so we layer-up. We follow him to where land meets sea and he cautions us to watch our step. The ice moves slowly up and down with the tide, which makes the ice near the shore constantly break and re-freeze. Walking out on the frozen sea is a little surreal. The white expanse stretches out before me. The top of the ice is a little slushy because the salt is being forced out of the ice sheet as it freezes. After about half a mile our guide stops and draws a circle on the ice. One of my associated is handed a pole with a sharp metal end. Ten minutes later we have a one foot diameter hole in the ice. The process is repeated three more times fifty feet apart. On my turn it seems to take forever and I am defiantly not cold for the moment. The ice is about a foot thick and looking into the hole is foreboding; staring into the inky blackness below. Fairly quickly we have three very ugly fish. In the evening we have been invited to a kaffemik (our second). It is a gathering of friends and family in a host’s home. In the past, people would socialize around everyday work; seal skinning, clothes making, … Modern living has replaced those social interactions. So people have a kaffemik to socialize. Basically, the host waits on you hand and foot feeding you as much cake, candy, coffee, tea, and whale fat as you can eat.