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July 15, 2003


Tom, one of the VICO heads, found us Monday night to tell us we might be sent out to Raven, a small camp established to support military training flights for pilots getting checked off to take off from and land on snow. They had talked about getting us out to survey Raven on Friday, our last day in Greenland, if we got done with our work at Summit, but the flight to Summit wouldn’t leave until the next evening and they were planning a morning flight to Raven anyway with the media folks. Sure, we said. If the weather is at all if-y, Tom said, we’ll cancel, because we don’t want to end up with a detailed map of Raven and no map at all of Summit.

The weather looked good. On Tuesday morning, Bjorn and I loaded onto the Hurc with all the media folks and their gear, which amounted to a much less crowded flight than any other Hurc flight I’d been on. Shortly after take-off, loadmaster Randy signaled us to get up and walk around and look out the windows, and we took full advantage. The flight was incredible. Flying over all those rows of low ridges I’d seen from the ground the day before, all that rock smoothed out in the direction of ancient glacier flow, lakes everywhere, and lakes and lakes and lakes. As we neared the ice edge, I noticed that some lakes were dark blue, while others were milky gray.

[Photo: Bjorn.]

Some lakes, in this glacially-sculpted landscape, had no inlet or outlet, the water filling depressions left by the scouring of glaciers. These lakes were dark blue. Other lakes were connected to the nearby glaciers, fed by streams carrying glacial meltwater down towards the sea. These lakes were milky grey with sediment brought by the meltwater.

[Photo: Bjorn.]

The ice at the edge of the ice sheet was amazing. Thinner than the ice up farther on the ice sheet, and thus influenced more by the topography of the land surface beneath it, the ice was broken, pushed, and pulled into patterns. “It looks like elephant skin,” said one photographer, Jim. The ice was cross-hatched by crevasses and decorated with pressure ridges called ogives.

[Photo: Bjorn.]

[Photo: Bjorn.]

As we moved farther up the ice sheet, the ice surface changed. The crevasses gave way to a smoother surface, which was dotted with lakes. And, again, lakes and lakes and lakes.

[Photo: Bjorn.]

And not only lakes and lakes and lakes, but lakes of possibly the bluest blue I have ever seen in nature.

[Photo: Bjorn.]

A blue to fall into, to get lost in, a blue to make your eyes go wide wide wide because it’s so blue, the bluest blue you’ve ever seen. Blue like Cool-Aid, or like blue popsicles, an unreal blue, but a watery version, one that increased in intensity as the lake depth increased. The bluest blue ever, if the lake was deep enough.

[Photo: Bjorn.]

Then, eventually, nothing but smooth, white ice.


[Wind generator at Raven. Photo: me.]

Raven consists of just a few small structures, including the weather port where the caretakers, Tracy and Amy, live, an equipment/communications shed, an outhouse, and another weather port (like a small building/big tent). The most prominent features at Raven are the runway, which is several miles long, and the Dye site, Dye 2. I’ll explain the Dye site later.

[The Hurc with the Dye site in the background. Photo: me.]

We got off the plane at Raven and immediately all started fussing with equipment. The media folks set up cameras to record the take-offs and landings the Airforce was to do, and Bjorn and I got our GPS equipment organized and ready for our survey.

[Offloading the GPS equipment… Always yellow boxes. Photo: Bjorn.]

[Disembarking. Photo: Bjorn.]

To do the site survey, Bjorn and I set up one base station, consisting of a GPS antenna on a post duct-taped to a plank of wood extending from the roof of the shed. The antenna was plugged in to a receiver inside the shed, and we left the base station to collect data in its one position for the duration of the survey. We then set up one ‘rover,’ a system which we would be carting around with us to take measurements at the various structures. All data would then be processed relative to the base station, a technique called ‘differential GPS’ which improves the solution quality of the GPS coordinates by eliminating the effect of errors common to both sites, such as atmospheric variations. If this doesn’t make sense and/or you want to know more, let me know and I’ll spend a little more time on it.

Our rover system consisted of a GPS antenna on a ‘range pole’ screwed onto a specially designed backpack, with a cable running from the antenna to a receiver inside the backpack. Another cable runs from the receiver to a survey controller, which is kept outside the backpack and is used to control the receiver. I didn’t think to take pictures of these things. Also inside the backpack is a battery to power the system. With the right equipment, the setup isn’t too heavy.

My job was to wear the backpack and push the appropriate button when we wanted to record a survey point. The GPS receiver is on the whole time we are surveying, even when we’re just walking from point A to B, recording satellite info every 5 seconds (because we programmed it that way). When we get to the point we want to record, we push a button on the survey controller and try to hold very still and wait 15 seconds (because we programmed it that way) for the receiver to get a decent recording and store the survey point with a label (for instance, Point 5). We then note down what, for example, Point 5 corresponds to, and can then label structures when we later process the data and create the site map. Taking notes and driving the skidoo was Bjorn’s job.


Our goal was to survey not only the few structures at camp, but the outline of the ski-way (runway for planes on skis) as well. We hoped to finish early enough to both have lunch with Tracy and Amy, and tour the Dye sit which was waiting in the near and tempting distance.

[Me surveying the runway. Dye site in background. Photo: Bjorn.]

As I said, we did our surveying from a skidoo. This probably afforded the media some amusement before they had to pack back up to catch their ride home. We were given the option of waiting for the next flight—another group was scheduled to come in to train on the runway—which we readily took. We headed out to survey the ski-way as the first plane was still on the ground, but ready to take off, which meant we were right beside the runway for its big moment. We were hoping it would turn out that way. Bjorn got a great movie of take-off, but it's too big for me to post.

[Me surveying the Dye site. Photo: Bjorn.]

All went well with surveying, and we enjoyed a lovely lunch with Tracy and Amy. They have been living out there all season, just the two of them, but get visitors every once in a while—most of which are skiers on their way across Greenland. Yes, people do this for fun.

[Amy and Tracy in their polar abode. Photo: Bjorn.]

After lunch, Tracy outfitted Bjorn and I with flashlights and the three of us headed off for the Dye site.

[The Dye site. Cold War, cold setting. Photo: Bjorn.]

I had no idea what a Dye site was. As it turns out, and as many of you likely already know, the U.S. had a number of early warning sites set up during the Cold War to watch for unfriendly Soviet activity. At least four of these sites were in Greenland. Dye site 2 is in Tracy and Amy’s backyard, having been abandoned quickly sometime in the late 80’s or early 90’s.

[The base of the Dye site. Photo: Bjorn.]

The Dye site was designed to be raised hydrolically as the snow accumulation increased, explaining the open base of the building.

[Inside, the control panel has instructions for the hydrolics. Photo: Bjorn.]

Right now, the wind does a good job of keeping this base clear. Tracy figures that, once one side gets blocked by snow, the whole thing will get drifted in pretty quickly. I have a cool movie of the snow blowing through, but it's too big to post.

We cruised up a stairway outside the building and headed inside. The place, though trashed, still holds much evidence of its Cold War inhabitants. There are still drawers of this and that in the equipment room—thousands of dollars worth of cable, nuts, bolts, wires, whathaveyou—there are beds in the dorm rooms, there are files in the file cabinets. Tracy estimates that, based on the number of beds, there were about 50 or so people living in the place. There is a bar with a pool table, a map of the world with the Soviet Union, and shuffleboard. There’s a small basketball court. There is a kitchen with the frozen remains of uneaten food in bowls on the counter, probably left by skiers on expeditions across Greenland who used the Dye site for shelter. There are rooms full of control panels for power systems, for the radars, switchboards for comms. And, of course, there is the radar in the huge dome at the top.

[Gotta recreate. Photo: Bjorn.]

[Looking up in the dome. Photo: Bjorn.]

[Bjorn gets ready to step out of the dome. Photo: me.]

[Looking down. Photo: me.]

Standing on the walkway outside the dome, we got the call that the plane was on its way back for us.

[Tracy talks to Amy. Photo: Bjorn.]

[I stand around with my flashlight. Photo: Bjorn.]

We had just enough time to poke our way back through, get on our skidoo, and cruise back across the runway to wait for the plane to land.

The airforce’s usual training had been aborted in order to get us back in time for our flight to Summit, and Bjorn and I were the only passengers for the trip to Kanger. We had all the space in the world to walk around in the back, but we didn’t need it. We were rockstars. We sat up in the cockpit for most the flight, including the landing.

[Photo: me.]

[Me in the cockpit. Photo: Bjorn.]

[Glaciers. The wrinkles are called ogives. Photo: me.]

Posted by beth at July 15, 2003 11:08 AM


Good fun!!!

BTW - it's 12:02.... HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!!

( I had a drink for you as I figured you might be busy packing....)

Posted by: Steve-o at July 25, 2003 6:54 PM

Hope your flight was good. I'm so glad we got to visit. This is my correct email finally. Sorry for the confusion before. Keep writing. I enjoy hearing about your travels to places I will never get to.

Posted by: Linda Collins at July 29, 2003 9:30 AM