Friday, March 30, 2012

Wednesday was the day that we had to set out for Qetortoq which is a small fishing village inside the fjord next to the Tracy Glacier. We set out with all our gear packed on four sleds with four hunters and their dog teams. On starting out we broke up into two groups. Stefan, Peter and I went with two of the hunters while the others formed a separate group. We planned to race ahead to the halfway point and spend a few hours doing a CTD cast while the others took a more circuitous route. The other sleds were out to get ground truth data to validate an NASA airplane borne sensor overflight, but they would catch up with us as we did our station on the ice. 

Doing a 800m CTD cast from a hole in the ice
Our two hunters, Avigaq and Rasmus, are among the mellowest people I have met. Rasmus' sled which held the heavy CTD gear is far larger than the others and uses 16 dogs. Setting out on the sleds at 10ish in the morning we quickly left the town as we headed east into the fjord. The frozen fjord is like a vast level plain covered with a inch or so of snow and surrounded by sheer cliffs on either side. The sense one got was we were pulled along on the dog sleds was similar to sailing. The pace was not overly fast (depending on the ice the dogs can go 20km/hr but they were much slower going 7-8 km/hr on our trip) and the surroundings were beautiful. 

Three hours after starting out we stopped to do our CTD cast. Having done a number of CTDs on oceanographic expeditions it was interesting to see the setup here. FIrst we drilled a hole in the ice and setup the winch next to it. The CTD itself was kept in a special box with a generator on the side supplying power for a hair dryer to keep the CTD cell from freezing. The data from the CTD casts has been interesting on this expedition. 

We could document the warm Atlantic waters creeping all the way upto the glaciers on the far side of the fjord again although the nature of the interactions this year versus last are far different.  
Last year the temperature at this time of the year was much warmer compared to this year and the difference in the CTD casts seems to represent two completely different regimes in the sea-ice glacier interactions.  

As we were doing the CTD cast the mist rolled in and it got noticeably cooler. You might think a couple of degrees does not matter when you are at -25C but the change in comfort level is not linear. 

We pressed on after doing the CTD but were a little puzzled that the other two sleds had not caught up with us as yet. It was about this time that I started really feeling the cold. Hunched up on the back of the sled I went from stopping to care about taking any more pictures, to going over in my head whether the symptoms of intense cold in my hands and feet matched up with what I knew about hypothermia (they didn't but it was hard to think clearly at that point). 

The Cold Ride to Qetortoq
The saving grace really was our hunters. Avigaq who noticed all of us hunched up asked me how I was doing and when I told him I was feeling cold he ordered me to start walking and to run along the sled to keep my circulation going. While running, all bundled and while wearing big boots was hard, walking every hour while the dogs rested made a huge difference to how warm I felt. My feet unfroze. While I was still cold, it was just a mind numbing cold. And to make matters worse the snow was unexpectedly thick further up the fjord which made for far slower sledding and a trip that should have taken eight to ten hours stretched out into twelve. 

It was a relief to get into the small hamlet of Qetortoq and to walk into a very well heated church/school where we were supposed to spend the night.  I have come to the conclusion that the smaller a place, the more open and welcoming are the people. And nowhere was this more in evidence than in qetortoq. The church was quickly opened to us, a generator was fired up so that we could have electricity, and graciously they shared their water as opposed to us having to melt ice for ourselves. 

Peter relaxes on a polar bear skin in the community church cum school
where we spent the night
We still had no contact with the other two sleds despite our repeated efforts to contact them over the satellite phone and we were getting a little worried but laid out our sleeping bags on skins that the hunters shared with us and went to bed. At 2 o'clock in the morning the others walked in, really cold and tired. They had been behind us all the time dealing with the thicker snow and their trip wound up taking 15 hours in total. But we were all happy to be together again and freeze dried chicken curry in hot water never tasted so good. 

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