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Expedition Day 27 – Surprise end to an amazing adventure

The stay in Constable Point was (thankfully) uneventful. However, our welcome was completed with a warning – “keep an eye out behind you when you are walking around. There is a female polar bear and two cubs hanging around the airport”.

She seemed more interested in the dump than us though.

The large metal boxes of rock samples had also been shipped in from Kap Stosch.

Beautiful fish specimens and something else that was very special.

More on that later…

Suffice it to say there will be beers all round in Reykjavik on the way home to celebrate!

Expedition Day 25-26 – Packing up and shipping out

Fog had settled in over the fjord but we were still bright and clear at high altitude. All the specimens were carefully packed and Grzegorz retrieved the now cured silicon mould ready for transport.

We had a great “last supper” in the sun. The snow had also melted a little so we collected the last of our tools that has been thrown around during the storm.

Also had a lemming visit us as a small dinner guest.

All we needed now was a clear sky in the morning and we would be good to go.

Sadly, the first view of our departure date was thick fog. Lasse called the pilot – “waiting on weather report from Mestervig. He will update us in one hour”.

Oh no…..

We waited nervously leaving our sleeping tents up and fully expecting to be stranded for the next few days.

Lasse called again.

He turned around with a big smile – “helicopter will be here in 20 mins”.

Cheers all round and a brief snowball fight as the tents are packed away before we heard the sound of the chopper.

The pilot was outstanding. He had been zigzagging all the way from Mestervig to try and get to us and finally made it.

The equipment was lifted out in a sling and we flew in to Mestersvig without a hitch.

Just in time too.

After we got to Constable Point the winds picked up for another overnight storm.

Thank god we made off Celsius in time!

Expedition Day 24 – One wild night

Woke up at about 0100 to shrieking wind and the tent flapping. Better check the guys. I was almost pushed over by the freezing wind when I finally got out. All the tents were still standing, but leaning over alarmingly. We had built up walls of flat stones around the tent bases as wind breaks when we set up camp, just in case of eventualities like this. I walked around and checked them, together with the tent lines before creeping back inside to bury myself in the sleeping bag. All OK so far.

0400 – woke up with the tent lying flat against my head and shoulder. Sounds like we have a howling sand storm outside. I open up the flap to find a pile of snow blown in under the edge of the tent, which has also been torn by the wind. My boots are buried too.

Lasse calls out to each of us to see if we are OK. He has braved the storm to secure the tent lines. The snow is piling against the stones and tent base to increase the size of the wind break so there is no danger of me “taking off” but the gale is getting stronger. Lasse quickly took cover in his tent again. All we can do is wait and listen out for each other.

0700 – the wind has finally dropped a bit but it is getting darker and darker inside my tent as I am slowly buried in snow. We have been doing rounds delivering food and water to each other but the storm shows little sign of stopping.

1000 – just a periodic wind and steady fall of snow now. I am wondering how I am going to dig myself out.

1300 – still snowing. All we can do is wait. Nice and warm in the sleeping bag, and I am getting through my book. Not much else to do but wait.

1800 – yes, it is still snowing. It is too dark to read so I might as well try and sleep. I have been awake since 0400. At least the wind has dropped.

0800 – silence. It is brighter but the tent is really moist from all the snow piled around it. I can hear Lasse and Henning talking. Better get out and see what has happened.

I pushed through the show drift an emerged into a new world of white. We have lost our “lounge room” tent. The aluminium tent poles snapped like twigs in the wind so it has collapsed. The snow is the only thing that stopped it from being blown away. One of our metal boxes has also been destroyed and there are tools everywhere under the snow.

We Jerry rigged the lounge tent with some spare poles and lines so that we have somewhere to eat, but otherwise we are all remarkably unscathed.

Not keen on another 36 hours under snow so we called in to the helicopter pilot on the satellite phone for an update on the weather as well as an escape plan. He cannot get us out for another day but the forecast is clear.

We would start packing everything tomorrow so that we could be ready to fly out at a moment’s notice!

Expedition Day 23 – The Celsius summit

Time is running out. We have to split our team in two so that we can achieve both of our Celsius objectives before we leave in three days. Grzegorz and Lasse have therefore gone down slope to make the silicon mould of the tetrapod track way while Ben and Henning made the ascent to the 1200 m summit of Celsius Bjerg, across the snow cap and down the other side to the black shale quarry on the snow line.

The track way slab turned out to be huge (about the size of a car) and could not be moved or cut out without damage. The only option was to take a high definition silicon mould, which could be used to reproduce positive casts in the laboratory, as well as a 3D digital rendering from a laser scan of the footprint surface.

The silicon is a viscous liquid that has to be painted on. It is also cold today meaning that it will take time to cure. Multiple layers needed to be applied, and each must to be brushed on to spread it evenly and remove air bubbles. It will be a long and laborious job but the results will be worth it.

As it turns out that hanging around killing time while waiting for the silicon was useful. Grzegorz and Lasse found some scales and bone of the huge sarcopterygian predator Holoptychius on the slope, as well as an isolated tetrapod jaw – perhaps Ichthyostega itself! This will need preparation back in Uppsala but part of the tooth row was already visible.

Henning and Ben set out early to climb the mountain. The cold had frozen Lasse’s tracks overnight so they could follow his trail up to the summit.

What a view! The surface of Sofia Sund, which snakes between Ymer and Geographical Society islands, was like a sheet of glass. It reflected both the clouds and the mountains but was speckled here and there by floating ice.

The sky also looked a bit ominous – grey clouds coming in from the north and east. This made for great photographic lighting though.

After crunching and sliding down the snowy slope on the far side of the summit Henning and Ben made it to the quarry in a little over an hour.

The plan was to work until the light fails or the cold gets too extreme.

The entire exposed black shale block was mined out and processed over the course of about 6 hours. We got more Cuneognathus, but most important of all was the strike of a chisel to split two saucer-sized sheets of rock that revealed an almost complete acanthodian. This is the first time such a well preserved specimen of this early cartilaginous fish has been found in the Obrutschew Bjerg Formation, and it represents a species new to science!

Henning excitedly danced around for a while with his prize before tenderly packing it for the trip home.

By now Ben and Henning were getting really cold. The wind had also picking up so they decided to call it a day.

The dark clouds had gone but the grey sky looked a bit like there was a chance of snow. Nothing changed on the way back but they had no idea of what was in store…

Expedition Day 22 – First glimpses of early tetrapod ecology

Spent the morning identifying and cataloguing our finds, which all had to be packed in our metal containers for transport back to Sweden. We have an unprecedented amount of new and very complete Cunegonathus material. There is also a bonanza of coprolites ranging from the small spiral droppings of chondrichthyans to possible digestive residues from sarcopterygians or lobe-finned fishes.

Lasse took a walk up to the summit of Celsius Bjerg to see if he could locate a safer (and much shorter) route to our quarry.

He came back an hour or so later saying that it could be done. This will save us a huge amount of time and reduce the risk of injury either from rocks or unstable snow.

The photos of the tracks Grzegorz has found also look promising. He will return with Lasse tomorrow to make a silicon mould.

If correct these would be the first evidence we have for the actual ecology of our first Greenland “fish out of water”. All of the bony fossils have otherwise represented the remains of bodies washed downriver. The footprints are therefore vital because they are traces of “living” animals and give direct indication of where they must have lived. The question is was this in the fast-flowing rivers, the overbank flooded forests that were now preserved as impressions in the sandstone, or some other unknown environment upriver?

Another puzzle is how exactly did they move? Skeletons will give some indication but only the tracks can provide definitive proof.

We will see when the mould arrives.

Expedition Day 21 – The black lake

We had our first look at the rocks yesterday after dinner. We climbed up from our camp at 820 m to the snow line on Celsius Bjerg and fanned out: Grzegorz concentrating on the sandstone blocks to look for footprints; Henning and Ben for outcrops of black shale that mark the Obrutschew Bjerg Formation. This is one of the main rock units we are interested in and represents a deep lake that was not only populated by early bony fishes, but also spans the geological boundary between the Devonian and Carboniferous periods 358 million years ago. This timeframe is important for the extinction of archaic bony fishes known as placoderms and the first major radiations of early bony fish (actinopterygians) and shark (chondrichthyans) ancestors.

The shale itself splits easily into wafer thin dinner plate sized sheets. We used chisels for this – the plan being to work through enough shale to amass a collection of complete fish fossils and other identifiable bones.

After our first taste of the rocks we headed back to camp for dinner.

Met up with Grzegorz who had found some tracks of giant millipedes, as well as some other curious traces that might be tetrapod footprints. We collected the block for later analysis back in Uppsala.

The next morning was a hard three-hour trek downslope, across the steep concave face of the mountain, and back up the parallel ridge. We had also climbed over an uneven slope strewn with massive sandstone boulders.

We had taken this long way round because a vast sheet of ice and snow covered part of the mountain face. Lasse had checked this the evening before and thought that it was too dangerous to cross in case of avalanche.

One the trek we found a few bones of the “last” placoderm, Groenlandaspis. This weird box-like fish would have lived on the bottom of rivers 358 million years ago. After death the plate-like bones of its skull and forelimb came apart and were washed downstream to preserve as fossils.

The ancient lake fish were what we were really after though. Problem was that the site was covered by snow. We had to scratch around looking for blocks of shale. After locating three promising outcrops we dug out large blocks the size of dinner-plates up to car tires and moved them over to a central flat area of sandstone to start splitting. The shale was wet and each paper-thin sheet needed to dry out in the sun before we could examine it properly. A bit like drying wet sheets of paper.

The results were spectacular.

Entire layers covered in tiny scales, bones and complete fish. We collected numerous examples of Cuneognathus – our early bony fish – and some enigmatic spines belonging to an unknown acanthodian – a cartilaginous fish probably ancestral to sharks and their relatives. This is one of the key fossils we are after.

The haul was carefully wrapped in aluminum foil to stop it from flaking and packed in bubble wrap and tape. Each parcel was strapped flat against our backs in the packs and padded with spare clothes and paper.

We then started the long hike back.

We cut along the snowline but got a point where there had been a small avalanche – too risky. We had to climb down into the valley again and clamber all the way along and back up to camp.

Made it home at 20.30 too tired to eat.

Grzegorz had found some more possible footprints in the Britta Dal Formation. This is the rock unit that produced both Ichthyostega and Acanthostega – two of the most famous early tetrapods. Did we have traces of their lost wanderings 358 million years ago? We would have to assess the finds in the morning and decide exactly what had been found.

Expedition Day 20 – FINALLY on deck at Celsius Bjerg!

At last!!!! The helicopter set off from Constable Point this morning at 0900 as planned. It stopped at Mestersvig to drop off both Ben and the provisions before flying straight up to Kap Stosch to pick up the project.

The team then flew in from Kap Stosch for a quick planning meeting before heading on to Celsius Bjerg to find the best place for the camp and survey the rock exposures.

Ben stayed behind to finalize loose ends and catch the returning helicopter.

Seems like he has managed to leave the Constable Point “Hilton”. If he had stayed any longer they would have signed him up for airfield duties.

Thankfully the weather forecast is clear for at least the next few days, but rain on the weekend. We have less then one week left so we will have to split the team and work fast if we are going to achieve our last two objectives.

Expedition Day 19 – Aborted attempt #3

Took off this morning at 0900 for Mestersvig. Wind has dropped completely but we now have fog settling in. The plan was to fly low along the valleys or up along the coast, whichever allowed us a clear passage. We got about half way along Klitdal, the large valley in between Scoresby Fjord and Carlsbjerg Fjord, before hitting a wall of fog. The helicopter dropped down vertically to less than 30 m – couldn’t see a thing. A slow 180° turn showed that we were surrounded.

Doubling back the cloud lifted to about 300 m allowing us a brief view across the mountains towards Mestervig.

White cloud and fog as far as the eye can see.

Turned back for Constable Point.

Called Lasse at Kap Stosch; they have fog rolling in from the sea too.

The pilot and I trudged back to the airport from the helipad through the mud. The airport manager came in after we grabbed a coffee – “What else can you do? This is Greenland!”

He’s right. Next time we will arrange our fieldwork in the Bahamas.

Expedition Day 18 – Aborted attempt #2 / camp visitors

Another fine morning in our Arctic paradise… High winds, more rain and low clouds – we were ready to go but increasingly poor weather has kept us grounded.

Rescheduled for tomorrow morning at 0900. Weather is “supposed” to improve then.

Have coordinated everything with Lasse via satellite phone. They likewise have rain and fog at Kap Stosch. He also said that they had a couple of polar bears come through the camp last night – only 300 m away!

All OK though – the bears moved on. Seems like they were just curious.

The team is obviously very keen to get out now. Everything is ready so we just need a break in the @*!?§#% weather!

Expedition Day 17 – Aborted attempt #1

Wind at 35 knots and reasonable visibility at Constable Point this morning so we took off in the helicopter at 0900. We flew low through the valleys to avoid the worst of the wind on the mountains. Made it about halfway to Mestersvig before coming up against a wall of low cloud and fog moving in from the coast. The pilot changed course down the next westerly valley trying to find a passage, but the East wind kept pushing the fog bank towards us. After the next valley, and the next, we finally we made it as far as the mountains, but these are a no go because of the high winds.


On the way out we had been joking (nervously on my part) about the rough air turbulence. If the pilot looks panicked I will panic. In the meantime I will just have to live with the bumps.

The pilot checked his fuel – “we had better turn back” – good idea to make it home without any drama.

We were chased back by a low bank of low cloud all the way to Constable Point – had to fly zigzag (and sideways) round to the fjord before we could finally land.

A quick conference over a coffee and we have a plan. The cloud is not likely to lift today but the wind might drop. We will therefore try again in the morning. Hopefully the cloud will settle over the mountains and we can try the coast.

The camp at Kap Stosch has an ample supply of food and water so it is now just a waiting game with the weather.