Polar Podcasts

03: Kent Brooks: The kindling of a 50-year career studying East Greenland

August 04, 2020 Julie Hollis Season 1 Episode 3
Polar Podcasts
03: Kent Brooks: The kindling of a 50-year career studying East Greenland
Polar Podcasts
03: Kent Brooks: The kindling of a 50-year career studying East Greenland
Aug 04, 2020 Season 1 Episode 3
Julie Hollis

In this episode we hear from Kent Brooks, Emeritus Professor from the Geological Museum in Copenhagen, about how his fifty year career studying the geology of Greenland, was kindled. And about his first – very memorable – field season in east Greenland in 1965.

Show Notes Transcript

In this episode we hear from Kent Brooks, Emeritus Professor from the Geological Museum in Copenhagen, about how his fifty year career studying the geology of Greenland, was kindled. And about his first – very memorable – field season in east Greenland in 1965.


03: Kent Brooks: The kindling of a 50-year career studying east Greenland

Based on interviews held on January 9–10, 2020 in Kendal, England

Note: Polar Podcasts are designed to be heard. If you are able, please listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not evident in the transcript.


Kent 0:01

And we got back to the huts there and everything was ok, except for the fact that we didn’t have much food.

Julie 0:11

Welcome to Polar Podcasts, where you’ll hear stories from geologists who’ve spent their careers, their lives, exploring and studying the remarkable and remote geology of Greenland. Why did they become fascinated with Greenland? What were the problems and the discoveries that drove them? And what was it like working in these remote places, where few people venture, even now? I’m Julie Hollis.

In this episode we hear from Kent Brooks, Emeritus Professor from the Geological Museum in Copenhagen, about how his fifty year career studying the geology of Greenland, was kindled. And about his first – very memorable – field season in east Greenland in 1965.

Kent 0:57

Yeah, my name is Kent Brooks. I was born in Kendal in the north of England in what was at that time the county of Westmoreland. And it’s on the edge of the Lake District National Park and the Yorkshire Dales National Park. So I spent a lot of time er, out of doors as a youngster. My interest in geology probably stems from the fact that my great grandfather came from Ireland to work in the copper mines at Conniston. And his brother also came from Ireland to the lead mines in Swaledale. And when I was a little boy my er grandmother large, a large specimen of fluorite on the windowsill with cubes of purple fluorite about one centimeter on edge. And I was fascinated by these shiny crystals.  And er, while I er, don’t know what influence it had on me I, I remember it very clearly and it probably had some sort of influence. Also, we er used to spent a lot of time as youngsters exploring the old slate mines at the head of Kentmere and er, there’s also some, some copper mines there which we er, looked at.

Well I went to a local grammar school and then, then to Manchester University and there my interest in Greenland was first kindled because my professor was Professor W.A. Deer, who at that time was a household name among geologists because of his work on the Skærgaard Intrusion in east Greenland.

Julie 02:34

The Skærgaard Intrusion – discovered by Bill Wager in 1931 – is a remarkably pristine layered magma chamber that was fundamental in key developments of understanding of how magmas behave and crystallise in the Earth.

Kent 02:49

Er, the famous memoir Wager and Deer. And er, we were always told a lot about his exploits in Greenland and also the fact that he er, he’d done, done other things too and he’s explored in Ellesmere Land for example, er coincidentally. Anyhow, we’d learned about Greenland from him. He was always telling us about his exploits in Greenland and the northern, the Arctic. And it rather fascinated me.

When I graduated, I was thinking of going to do geophysics at Imperial College. But er, Professor Deer knobbled me and said er, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” And by that time they’d given me some textbooks I was supposed to read over the course of the summer. And er, these textbooks were with such things that said, began by saying, consider the Schrodinger equation and then there were pages and pages of algebra. And I thought really, when Deer suggested it was not for me, I readily agreed with him. And he said er, “I’ll talk with my pal Wager in Oxford and get you, he’s starting a new geochemistry course and you can, you can go and do that.”

 And those were the days, you advanced by somebody you knew who knew somebody else and they recommended you. There were no, no interviews and form filling and all that sort of thing and qualifications. It didn’t matter what qualifications you had, if your sponsor thought you were ok then he would send, they would, they would take you on.

Well anyhow, I moved to Oxford and did the geochemistry course, which was quite exciting. And er, but that means I got an interest in geochemistry.

I worked at Harwell in the atomic energy place there and when I’d finished my PhD – well it’s called the D. Phil at Oxford – when I’d finished my D. Phil I got a job running the radiochemistry lab in the Department in Oxford. And at that time, we were obsessed with looking at the geochemistry of obscure elements. And we er, used neutron activation analysis to er determine very, very low levels of elements, rare elements. And er, we um, applied this to the rocks of the Skærgaard Intrusion of course, among other things. Well, so my first publication was in, in radiochemistry. And er, I was rather fascinated by the possibility of using, using radioactive elements in the earth sciences.

After I’d been at Oxford for a little while um, we decided, a group of us decided we’d like, like to go and see Greenland because we’d been in contact with Professors Deer and Wager. They’d raised our interest. And so we er, put together under the auspices of the Oxford University exploration club er, an expedition to Greenland. This was 1965. I think there were six of us. The leader of it was a chap called John Rutledge who was a professor at the University of Toronto for many years, mineralogy professor at the University of Toronto. And another member of the expedition was a chap called Simon Winchester, who subsequently became a very famous author, as a journalist and author. He’s written many books on a wide range of subjects.

Anyhow we put together this expedition, the Oxford expedition club. And decided in consultation with Wager, the thing to do was to go and look at the basalts south of Scoresbysund, which at that time were very poorly known, in fact they were completely unknown, I would say. And er, it wasn’t at all easy to get to this place in those days. In fact, it isn’t all that easy to get there nowadays. But er, we er, stored, we got together all these stores in the basement in Oxford and er, we were packing, packing so-called sledging boxes where we had rations in, in er, in cardboard boxes that would last for I think er, five man days or something like that, or maybe seven man days. And we then put all this stuff on shelves in the rock store. And then, we bought them from wholesalers. And then we put them in the, divided them into the boxes. And Wager came down to see what we were doing. And we had all this stuff, we had jars of marmalade and we had er, fancy biscuits and we had er, and we had breakfast cereal. And we had special margarine. And Wager said, “Good Lord, what’s all this,” he said, “In my day we only had pemmican and porridge on expeditions!”

Anyhow, we um stumbled upon the problem, and we had to make application to the Greenland Ministry for permission for this expedition. And we made this application in January. And then about fourteen days before we were due to leave we got a sudden, a sudden reply from the Greenland Ministry saying that the expedition couldn’t take place because the Greenland Survey were planning to do something similar and we would overlap with them. So we thought, we can’t, we can’t possibly cancel the whole lot now. We’d already sent all the equipment off by sea to Copenhagen. And er, we decided something had to be done. So Simon and I went off to Copenhagen and er, enlisted the help of the British Ambassador. I don’t recall what his name was, extremely aristocratic character who, as we were talking to him in the Embassy, he er smoked cigarettes constantly. And when the, when the ash got to a certain length, a flunky came up with an ashtray and held it underneath his cigarette for him.

Anyhow, we er, he decided that this was quite unacceptable because it turns out that er, that the agreement, the agreement with Denmark was that er Greenland would be open to British citizens. While it was going to be closed, in those days it was a closed, closed colony or a closed area, but it was open, open to er certain nations including Britain. They couldn’t, they couldn’t forbid us going was basically what it was. And the Ambassador saw this as a, as a feather in his cap where he could er, could er make himself heard. So we turned up at the Museum there, where in those days GGU had the top floor of the Museum. And the Director, Ellitsgaard-Rasmussen had his room at the top of the stairs with, with a big marble plate outside taken from Maamoriliik.

Julie 09:15

Maamoriliik is an old marble quarry in west Greenland that was mined in the 1930s, near a lead-zinc deposit that was later mined during the second world war and later, and discussed by Emeritus senior scientist Bjørn Thomassen in a later episode.

Kent 09:31

Er, and later on, many years later, I came to occupy the same room as an emeritus that er, Elitsgaard received us and the British Ambassador. And er, the British Ambassador laid down in no uncertain terms that Elitsgaard was not in a position to forbid us going. And so we got, we got in that way.

Anyhow, we er, looking back on it, I’m really er, surprised that we didn’t have some sort of serious, serious accident on this trip. Because we were real greenhorns and we er, we went off wandering up these glaciers. Just amazing that no one fell down a crevasse and got lost. And er, well we really didn’t know what we were doing. We were dumped, dumped, dumped by a boat from Scoresbysund, now Ittoqqortoormiit, er on the south side of the, of the fjord. And er, the agreement was we’d be picked, er I think we had a, we did have a radio. They’d pick us up later on. But we were left, left to our own devices. We walked across a while load of mountains and then up glaciers dragging a, dragging a sledge after us. And er drilled, drilled numerous basalt flows for er, oriented paleomagnetic samples. And er collected profiles up nunataks. And er, then, when we were more or less finished the weather set in. And I’ll always remember this because we were at the foot of, I think it, I think it’s called Torvgletscher. Anyhow, it’s the first major glacier on the Blosseville coast, going south from Scoresbysund. And we were in a camp there and er, I always remember because it was Friday the 13th, the 13th of August. And er, it, it, the weather closed in, we had rain, rain, rain cats and dogs and everything we had got wet and it was miserable. And so we decided we better make a retreat to the hut at Kap Brewster, which was like a day’s, a day’s march away. So we er, made a cache of a lot of the stuff and put the rest of it on our backs and started off across the mountains to Kap Brewster. And I say a day’s march away. And as we got, we got higher and the time wore on, the er, rain turned to, turned to snow and er, it was in effect a blizzard. We had no idea where we were going. It was a complete whiteout. And er, we could easily of got into trouble there. In fact, we overnighted in a cave that we cut out of a snow drift.

And er, next morning it was still visibility was next to nothing. But we succeeded in getting down. And by that time we’d got to the position where we er, going along in ones and twos. It was like every man for himself. And we got to the, got back to the huts there and er, well everything was ok except for the fact that we didn’t have much food. And er, it turned out we were stuck there for a long time because the er, the ice, the pack ice had come into Scoresbysund and they couldn’t come with the boat to pick us up. And so er, I think we were there for about three weeks, just hanging around. And trying to subsist on what we had like er, we had an abundance of Weetabix I remember but not much else.

Anyhow, eventually we um, were picked up by this, this little boat, Entalik, a fiskekutter

Julie 12:57

A fishing boat

Kent 12:59

from Scoresbysund. But we couldn’t get, we couldn’t get out, we could only get out by walking across the ice and he came to us as, as the light was going. And we um, walked across the ice several miles I guess across the ice out to where they had the boat. And it was all very, very dramatic, with er, flaming, flaming sunset and the ice, the ice, the ice flows were packed tightly together. And between then there was new ice. And er, the Greenlanders who were with us they er, they went across these, this, this new ice without any trouble. But we were quite a bit heavier than they were and we were also carrying, carrying heavy packs on our backs. And very often we broke, broke through the new ice and went down to the water, which wasn’t very pleasant.

And then we got on to the, on to the, on to the boat. We um, couldn’t get back to Scoresbysund because the ice had blocked us off so we spent time sailing into the fjord. And we spent several days sailing in the inner regions of Scoresbysund. And by this time we’d all run out of food. There was no food at all on the boat. The only thing we was some er, some yellow label Lipton teabags, which we had in quite abundance. And so in desperation we managed, managed to get hold of the Kolonibestyrer

Julie 14:14

The colony governor

Kent 14:15

and get permission to shoot a muskox, which we, we managed to get to the coast of Jameson Land and er, went running inland after the muskox herds and shot this muskox. And er, dined on that. Well that was all very well but we’d been starving for days on end and er, we ate, we ate several pounds of meat. And er, this didn’t do us any good. And on top of that as we, now we, now we could sail along the coast. And as we were going across Herry Inlet there was a powerful wind coming down Herry Inlet and steep waves and the combination of the muskox meat and the, the sharp seas brought on the worst bout of seasicknesss I’ve ever had. Even though it’s only a short distance across that fjord I was violently ill. I was lying on the deck with waves coming over me and er, being violently sick.

Anyhow, we got to Scoresbysund ok and er, anchored up there. And we thought we’d er, live on the muskox but we weren’t allowed to do that. It was taken off us and given to the old folks’ home. So we, we were back on our own rations again.

Now er, the ship couldn’t get to Scoresbysund. It was stuck up by Danmarkshavn somewhere in heavy ice. And so they had to do without the ship that autumn. And er, that meant that we were stuck in Scoresbysund. Well, after a while, after we’d been there a couple of weeks or so, kicking our heels, not doing anything and wondering what the hell we were going to do, er they suddenly told us it was possible to get a plane in, which could take us out. And so we managed to get hold of this chap from Iceland, a chap called Páll Pallson, who came with a beachcraft, a beachcraft and landed on a strip about, I guess two, two, two hours walk out of Scoresbysund. Yeah, in a flat valley. I always remember walking, walking out there er, and er, sitting, sitting by the side of this, this natural runway. And the wind, the wind was blowing, was bitterly cold and we er, we were burning heather trying to keep warm. And we weren’t at all sure whether the plane would turn up. Anyhow, in the end we saw, it was getting rather dark by this time, we saw, we saw a light in the sky. And the plane came down, taxied, taxied along the alluvial flats there and came to a halt. And we jumped in. In fact, we could only, only half of us could go in it. So it took half of us to the strip at Mestersvig and then went back for the other half. And then he had another plane at, at, at, another plane at Mestervig would take the whole party of us to Iceland.

It was interesting. When we got to Mestervig, the first party, they er, of course they had a, they had a big meal for us. In typical hospitality of these places. I remember it was er some kind of duck. And it was delicious. But er, the cook at Mestersvig was a chap called Søren Gericke. And er, the men at Mestervig complained bitterly about him because, because they didn’t get the sort of food they wanted. They said, he gives us fancy and all they wanted was frikkadella and, “typisk Dansk mad”.

Julie 17:25

Meatballs and typical Danish food.

Kent 17:28

And it turned out later on that Søren Gericke was voted as the best cook in Denmark. He went and opened a restaurant in Gottesgåde.

Julie 17:36

A main street in central Copenhagen.

Kent 17:39

And this was the best restaurant in Copenhagen. And he’d worked, worked for the er, the Greenland televæsen

Julie 17:46

The Greenland telecommunication company.

Kent 17:48

just to get a, get experience of cooking for large numbers of people apparently.

Anyhow, that was that. We got back from, from Scoresbysund there all in one piece so to speak. And er, but we didn’t get the samples til the, til the following year when the next ship got in. So we couldn’t really work on it, which was er, a great hindrance. And by the time we got the specimens out the whole thing had rather lapsed.

Julie 18:16

I’m Julie Hollis and you’ve been listening to Polar Podcasts.

Julie 18:27

In the next episode we hear from Emeritus senior scientist and prospector Bjørn Thomassen about what drew him to Greenland and kept him coming back for 42 summers.