Exploring Zackenberg

by Guest Blogger

July 18, 2005

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.

We had

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.

River crossing

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.

They’ve

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.

Base tour

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

conversation.

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

the vegetation.

Fortuitously enough, our tour ended back at building one, which houses

the mess and kitchen, just in time for lunch.

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 Hye, 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

few vacancies.

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.

– Andrew

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