Five of us from the ship were dropped off by the old hunting station. We were eager to see a little of the countryside.
The scenery reminded Melanie of back
home, but that's only because she lives in Alaska. For me, this trip is
the farthest I've ever been north, and it brings new sights almost daily.
Line Anker Kyhn, a Master's student in biology with the National
Environmental Research Institute (Denmark) and our temporary guide, was
waiting on the shore. She told us about her work,
lemmings, polar bears, and how it was a little surprising to see a ship
in the fjord at this time of year. She was right, it was unusual.
bet there would be less sea ice than the historical average - and we'd
been right. Possibly just luck on our part, but we think more likely
another example of global warming at work.
At the river, Line turned us over to Henrik Philipsen, Logistics
Manager/Base Commander (aka Philip 'the campground manager' as he his
jokingly called), and returned to her work.
The river, fed by melting
snow and ice, was fast moving and dangerously cold. The crossing procedure
involved a tiny grey dingy, a steel cable, a blue rope, some
carabineers, a pulley, a harness and a life jacket. Fortunately, it
wasn't nearly as complicated as it looked, and we all made it to the
other side without incident.
There I met another member of the logistics team, Marc Overgaard Hansen.
Last year Marc was the station's cook. This year he is an all purpose
handyman and rescuer (if ever needed). In between seasons, Marc is a
Master's student in Physical Geography, and in his spare time here he
tries to work out a way to sample snow density over the winter.
got good data for snow coverage, and a bit on snow depth - but the
density of the stuff (which can vary with temperature, etc.) is a
missing piece of the puzzle.
After our successful river crossing, Philip gave us the grand tour.
There are six main buildings (all painted "musk ox blue"), which house
the store room, some accommodation, laboratories, showers (two),
kitchen, mess and radio room. For safety, everyone leaving the base
takes a VHF radio, and the radio sign-out sheet doubles as a log of
who's in the field. With the base antenna, and a repeater that was
placed by helicopter on a nearby mountain, the whole valley is covered.
It's like having a cell phone, except that everyone in range hears your
There are also six tents, used for storage, workspace and living
quarters (two bunks per tent). The best part of the tour was the
unscheduled appearance of an arctic fox (while we were being shown the
toilets). It was probably trying to sneak into camp to look for food,
but would have been out of luck anyway. All the food and garbage is kept
well secured. They don't want to change the diet of these opportunistic
animals, or have them grow accustomed to finding food here. The curious
foxes even nibble at pipe insulation and wiring to see if it's edible.
The only ground transportation (aside from a mountain bike) is a little
amphibious eight wheeler. It's powered by an 18hp engine, and can cross
land, snow, ice and water. Smiling, Philip told us how when the Danish
queen visited, he was her "royal chauffeur". They keep the driving to a
minimum though, and stick to the established track, because it's hard on
Fortuitously enough, our tour ended back at building one, which houses
the mess and kitchen, just in time for lunch.
Food is an important aspect of life in an isolated place
like this. The researchers sometimes work together, but spend much of
their time alone out in the field. Meals and even the clean up
afterwards are an important social event. Today, eight people - almost
everyone - joined us for lunch.
Toke Thomas HÃ¸ye, a PhD student at the University of Copenhagen, is out
counting musk ox. He won't be back until 3:00 the next morning. This is
not uncommon since the staff here often work long hours under the never
setting sun. Each one has a research program to follow, and sometimes
their own side projects on top of that.
They know what a rare
opportunity it is to be in a place like this, and take maximum advantage
of it. For entertainment there is movie night twice weekly, a volleyball
net strung between the flagpoles and a BBQ behind the mess building.
But, the general consensus is that on the rare occasion they get free
time, the preferred way of using it is to, "walk to the top of
something." Generally though, their only days off are when weather
conditions keep them from doing their work.
How to get here
Everyone has their own story about how they ended up working here, but
my favorite is Ulrik Nielsen's - he found his logistics job through the
unemployment office. Not too bad. But don't be fooled. Zackenberg
Research Station is an understandably popular place to work, with very
If you're a researcher, the biggest barrier to working here will likely
be funding. On top of transporting yourself and your gear, just staying
at the station costs 800 Danish Kronar (about $120 USD) per day due to
the remoteness of the place. Plus, you'll need to convince the Danish
Polar Center of your qualifications, and the merit of your research.
There's also heavy competition for the non-researcher jobs. This year
they had only two open positions - logistics and cook. Ulrik (an Able
Bodied sailor) and Malene (who has a Bachelor of Nutrition and Home
Economics) had to compete for these jobs with about 200 other
applicants. To get here, you need to really want to be here. So, it's no
surprise that despite the long hours, mosquitoes, shared rooms, and
isolation - nobody seems in a hurry for the summer work-season to end.