The Discovery of Stray Dog West, one of the World’s Most Northern Points of Land, North Greenland, 2007
After the Warming Island expedition in 2006, Dennis Schmitt led another expedition in 2007. The objective was to discover a new northernmost point of land. This time, there were six of us. From Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen, we waited for a Twin Otter to fly us to Station Nord, Greenland. From there we flew to Cape James Hill, just near the northernmost coast in the world, Cape Morris Jesup. Then we set out on foot, crossed the tundra, donned our crampons and waders and ventured out on the sea ice to find Stray Dog West.
The story below is excerpted from my 2007 Explorers Club report. (See 2007 Euro-American North Greenland Expedition on the Internet.)
July 6, 2007
Longyearbyen Airport Campground, Spitsbergen, Denmark
When I woke, I went to do push-ups. A tern came from nowhere and started to attack me. I ducked and warded her off, avoiding physical contact. After my push-ups, I went to my tent and got my camera. I returned to the spot where the tern had been. I saw her come from the grass some distance away. My camera was already set at 1/2000th of a second. As she dove, I snapped photos.
July 7, 2007
Station Nord, Greenland 81° 36.11’ north latitude
Station Nord 2:28am… I slept part way on the ride to Station Nord. When I woke, I saw the world melting. It was startling and it was depressing, but it was also fantastic. It seemed like all the fairy tales in the world galvanized into one, and that suddenly I was living in a momentous era.
Sunday July 8, 2007
Base Camp, Bliss Bugt Landing site, Greenland
We landed on the outwash plain at approximately 83 degrees 35 minutes north latitude on a rough but flat patch of ground. We all piled out of the plane. The door closed. The Twin Otter flew away. We busied ourselves setting up tents.
At about 5pm, John (H. Richardson, Esquire Magazine) and I went for a walk. Originally, we’d planned on going for a short walk, but it ended up being much longer. We plied up the slope and got to a point where we could look out. Like most upward slopes, when it appeared we’d reach a high point, we discovered that it kept going up. After taking photographs of the geography, including a valley in the distance running between the mountain facing us and the one to its right, we moved on. On our return, Kaffeklubben was again in sight. I photographed the camp and the sea ice. It was surreal. The sea ice, extending into the distance behind the camp, looked like a wall of stratified ice. I was amazed. It turns out this effect is from the myriad melt pools of aqua blue water pocketing the sea ice.
There were absolutely no trees. Not one. Not even bushes. The tallest plant was only an inch or so high, or in the case of flowers, maybe several. I descended, stopping to take photographs of the camp with small figures of people in it. When we finally got back to camp, it was about 10pm. We’d been gone over five hours! It seemed like half that time. I made a meal and retired for the night.
Monday July 9, 2007
Camp 2, River Outwash Plain, North Coast, Greenland
In the morning, our party split into two. Dennis, Bob, Holly and Steve went off first and John and I followed. John and I spotted a Rock Ptarmigan.
We came to another snow gully. As I reached the other end, my legs sank to just below my knees in icy slush. I was not wearing waders. I continued on, reaching the other side in a few steps. I looked back. John was behind me. Rather than get caught in the slush, he went to the left. I moved on about a hundred meters or so, then sat down. I waited ten minutes, wondering where John was. The sun was out now and again, and sometimes it hid behind the clouds. There was no place to seek protection from the wind. John came up. He’d fallen in up to the top of his legs! It sounded uncomfortable. He’d been stuck there alone in the slush. We moved on.
I told John that if we didn’t find the others by the time we reached that far snowfield, we could always choose to camp for the night. We had everything we needed. We crossed a barren slope. I stopped and looked out. Kaffeklubben Island, the official northernmost point of land in the world, appeared in the distance as a hill, about one kilometer off the north coast of Greenland. Then I noticed, though barely visible, what appeared to be human figures in the direction of Kaffeklubben. Sure enough, it was the others!
We could see they were setting up a tent. I saw Bob coming towards us. He came walking up to me. “Our camp is down there! You have to hurry! I lost Steve’s tent body. They need another tent.”
Tuesday July 10, 2007
Camp 2, River Outwash Plain, North Coast, Greenland
I woke at about 10pm, hungry. I set about making a meal. I had an idea to go back to Base Camp. The others were not going to leave until morning, but I was fully rested and full of energy. I told Dennis about my plan. He seemed receptive to it. Later, he returned to talk to me. He seemed to have changed his mind. If I recall, some comment was made about keeping everyone together.
I mentioned to him that I had left my fuel pump in the bottle I’d left at Base Camp. I said that they break once in a while and that it would be good to get it. He said, “They break all the time.” Later, I went over to talk to Dennis and Holly. After talking it out, it seemed like a good idea for me to go. For one thing, I wanted to get my bigger tent, just in case there was bad weather. I also wanted to get my 500 mm lens. Another thing was that Steve had not brought his waders. I think this is what convinced Dennis. Without waders, Steve could not travel on the sea ice. That and the fuel pump. Also, I could bring back excess gear to Base Camp and retrieve wanted goods.
Wednesday July 11, 2007
Camp 3, opposite Kaffeklubben Island, North Greenland via Base Camp
Today was one of the grandest days I have ever had. I left fully rested. Dennis had informed me that, before I returned, they planned to move the camp to the opposite side of the next big river meeting the coast, right along the coast. It seemed simple enough.
I considered there were four major steps to today. One to get to Base Camp, two to make the switch of gear, three to make it back to Camp 2 and four, to find Camp 3. What was critical was to be there tomorrow morning, so that I would not hold up the group’s plan to search on the sea ice for Western Island, Dennis’ original name for Stray Dog West.
I set off full of vim, vigor and excitement. I set my sights on the snow-ravined mountain in the distance, the one that sat above the landing strip and our Base Camp. I made a beeline for a point just west of it, not wanting to overshoot it. I crossed the bogs of the plain, and then marched up the slope.
I did not attempt to retrace my steps of yesterday. I thought there was a better route. I came to the edge of a wide expansive plateau. On the plateau, I met varying terrain, sometimes tundra, sometimes bog, sometimes crossing a river, sometimes on solid ground. I would look back occasionally to try to get a sighting of my path and what it might look like on the way back later in the day.
I finally came to a great ice field. I dropped my pack and I tried to radio to Holly. Nothing. Just then, I looked up and noticed something a few hundred meters away. I realized it was a muskox!
I got my camera and tripod out and I walked slowly in the direction of the muskox. I saw a large rock as a possible place to photograph from, as it was high enough for safety. But it was risky to get to it. Before I reached the rock, the muskox seemed to have noticed me. I got up on the rock. From there, the muskox was in a position where Kaffeklubben was behind it.
I saw about five muskoxen in all, including two calves. Wanting to get closer, I got off the rock and walked in their direction. Reaching solid ground, I lay down and photographed them. I moved meters closer to a small pool of water, then slowly retreated to my pack.
It was time to get on to Base Camp. I followed the edge of the ice field, moving imperceptibly towards the sea ice. I descended slightly towards solid ground. I looked out. In the distance off to the right, I could see tents. As they were barely visible with my naked eye, I got out my telephoto lens to confirm that it was indeed the Base Camp. I arrived a half hour later. It was 12:15pm.
On the way into camp, I’d tried to call again. I heard a crackle on the walkie-talkie once, but other than that, there was no sign of communication.
Once at camp, I set about making some coffee and sorting out gear. In order to take my tent with me, I had to transfer everything in it over to Bob’s tent.
By the time I left, it was after 4:00pm. It took me just over an hour to get to the rock where I’d photographed the muskoxen. They were no longer there. I dropped my pack. I went off to the right and down now towards the northeast. It was not long before I saw the muskoxen again.
Just then, another muskox that I’d not noticed moved up the slope a few meters, grazing, coming into view. He was only about 90 meters away. He looked up at me, staring.
I took the revolver out of my jacket and loaded it with bullets. I put the revolver back in my pocket in a place I could get to it. The muskoxen, though, moved on further east. I followed them slowly. They seemed aware of my presence and seemed to move away accordingly. At one point, there was an ice gully between us. I felt safer. I think they did too.
Eventually, they moved off and down and away towards the sea ice. I walked back and donned my pack again. Now, I continued retracing my steps of earlier today. Finally, I spied the site of Camp 2. There was no one there when I arrived, as everyone had already left for Camp 3. By this time, I guess it was about 10pm. (It was easy to lose perception of time, since at this latitude, there is twenty-four hour daylight in July.)
By now I was tired. I’d been up for about 24 hours. I would have preferred to sleep, but I’d only completed three-quarters of my day’s tasks. I set about cooking a meal. I repacked my bag, trying to take all I could take with me. But ultimately, I could not bring it all. I left some articles behind. It was about midnight when I departed again to try to find Camp 3…
I had to stop frequently now. My pack weighed about 90 pounds. (I had retrieved my f4 500 mm lens from base camp.) I walked up the river a short way and then crossed it. I headed roughly due west across the river, past snow, and up to dry ground. Rolling terrain fell to the sea. Kaffeklubben was not distant, visible just off the coast.
I began a routine of stopping, resting my elbows on my thighs for five seconds and then continuing. It was late, I was tired, and I wondered how long this would take. I crossed the first rise in the terrain. I looked to the sea ice. It was a pleasant surprise. I could see the camp near the sea ice. When I got there, everyone was asleep.
“I just want you to know I am back,” I said from outside his tent.
“OK. Get some sleep.”
“What time are we waking up?” I asked.
Holly interjected, “4am?”
I went to my tent, exhausted. But I felt dirty, so I grabbed my liquid soap, took my shoes off, and walked barefoot on the snow to the river. I submerged my whole body in the icy water and soaped myself down. Then I went back to my tent, shivering, and retired for the night.
Thursday July 12, 2007
Camp 3 opposite Kaffeklubben Island, North Greenland via Stray Dog West Island
… I had feared that we would wake at 4am. Perhaps with my need to rest in mind, Dennis didn’t call me from outside my tent until about 6am. “Jeff, get your things together. I have some hot water that you can use.” I opened the door to my tent. He had a little miner’s pan with water that looked less than hot. I said, “That’s OK, Dennis, I will need more hot water than that. How long do we have to get ready?”
“About fifteen or twenty minutes,” he replied.
We didn’t actually leave till about 8am. We went off together to “Western Island” (later dubbed “Stray Dog West” by Holly Wenger). Dennis had all but eliminated “Orange Island” (apparently ferric oxide) from the list of candidates for the world’s ‘newest northernmost point of land.’ Western Island, it seemed, was the most likely. It was there that we set our sights for today. Dennis led. The group broke up naturally into different subgroups.
I don’t know how long we walked along the beach. In some sense, it seemed as short as 45 minutes, but it certainly did not seem like more than 2 hours. Dennis stopped. He assessed our position and went to the shore to see the sea ice conditions at this place. He told us we would go from this point. We put on our crampons.
The sea ice was spectacularly beautiful. The melt pools were a dazzling aqua blue. They were all shapes, surrounded by mostly pure white snow and ice. We tried to avoid going into the deep pools. We preferred to walk around them on the ice and snow. But when they were shallow, we just walked straight across the pools, as we were wearing waders. Waders are waterproofs that fit inside the boots. So, although the boots got wet, our feet and legs remained perfectly dry.
We got to an area with large melt pools. I attempted to go around to the right and Dennis went left. I ended up about 120 meters ahead. I stopped and dropped my pack.
I filmed the others. They’d stopped on a small ice mound. I was looking at some ice features protruding from the level horizon. That was where they had been headed. When they started again, Dennis went off to the left. I followed from where I was, meeting up with them.
Dennis and the others indicated that the “island” was close. John opined that, as a point of honor, Dennis should place the first step on the island. We moved together. I asked how far it was. “It’s right there.” I looked ahead. There was a flat gravel feature on the ice. There was a long melt pool, like a moat, separating us from the gravel island.
We moved close. Dennis advocated for us all to step on the island at the same time. The rest of us urged him, as our leader, to take the first step. I took a photograph of him striding onto this feature, undoubtedly the first human to have ever done so. We followed.
After photographing and studying the small island, my five companions headed back. I stayed there for awhile. When I got to the coast, I started up the stove. Some had soup.
They said it was 8pm and that we had been traveling for 12 hours. This surprised me. It seemed we’d been traveling for just 4 or 5 hours! They wanted to start back, but I was very sleepy and wanted to hang out. They left me with a rifle in case I ran into polar bears or muskoxen. Then they headed east down the beach till they disappeared from view.
I curled up in my 8000-meter parka, with only my thermal bottoms and medium weight fleece pants on, and I fell off to sleep.
I do not know what time I woke up. Perhaps I’d slept about two hours. When I woke, I felt a bit chilled. There had been a slight Arctic breeze licking my body while I dozed. There I was, all alone on Cape James Hill. I had slept without a sleeping bag on one of the northernmost beaches in the world. I was in complete isolation. I looked around.
Dennis said he’d seen only one polar bear in this region in ten years, but the sense that something was watching came over me. There was nothing in sight. I put some water on the stove. I walked around in circles and back and forth in a sort of quasi-hypothermic state, drained of energy. I made some coffee. I didn’t really feel like walking, but I set out down the beach to the east to find Camp 3.
After an hour or an hour and a half, I saw a low ridge ahead. I convinced myself that when I reached it, I would be able to see the camp just beyond. It seemed to take a long time to reach it, and even when I got close, there were dips, little ravines and river washes to cross, making it more time-consuming. When I reached the ridge, I could see fairly far, but the camp was not in sight at all. I must be on the right course, I thought. I was feeling tired, very tired. In the preceding 48 hours, I’d had only 6 hours sleep.
Earlier, I had seen the footsteps of the others in a flat ravine at a stream crossing. But after that, I saw no more. I went on. As I approached the next little ridge, I convinced myself again that I would find the camp just on its other side. But again, I was disappointed. Still, no more signs of footprints.
I looked ahead. Was it possible that I’d just walked right by the camp? It occurred to me that If I had somehow missed it, I could walk on forever eastwards without finding it.
I came across pieces of a broken bobsled. I had not noticed this when we traveled along the coast in the morning. Not only that, but the terrain did not seem to indicate I would find that broad draining basin where our camp was any time soon. Funny, the Greenland that normally seemed so pleasant to me now seemed foreboding. At least I had my stove and fuel with me!
Up till now, the landscape was not as open as I’d remembered it. Finally, as I moved further east, vistas of distant places opened up. I rounded a small rise and came to some boggy ground near the coast. I looked. There were the tents! Relief!
Monday July 16, 2007
From the North Greenland Coast to Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen, Norway
We woke and got ready. The Twin Otter arrived at about 11am. We put our bags next to it while the pilot and co-pilot primped the runway. We took off at about 11:30am. We flew over Kaffeklubben and then to the site of the island Dennis had explored in 1996. We went over the site of Orange Island, but there was nothing there. Then we went over the place Dennis and others had visited in 2003, a place that was more northerly than Stray Dog West. Dennis later reported to me that its cap was covered in ice. Then we went over Stray Dog West. When the co-pilot opened the cockpit window to film, I asked if I could put my camera out. Then I hooked my foot around one of the supports to the seats, leaned forward, and I took photographs (without glass in the way) of Stray Dog West.