Polar Podcasts

30: Bjørn Thomassen: Chasing gold in wild weather, North-West Greenland

January 19, 2021 Julie Hollis Season 1 Episode 30
Polar Podcasts
30: Bjørn Thomassen: Chasing gold in wild weather, North-West Greenland
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, we hear more from Bjørn Thomassen, emeritus senior scientist at the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, about facing severe storms while following up on gold anomalies on Kiatak – Northumberland Island – in northwest Greenland.


30: Bjørn Thomassen: Chasing gold in wild weather, North-West Greenland

Based on interviews held on September 30 – October 2, 2019 in Copenhagen, Denmark

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


Bjørn 0:01

Kiatak – it means steep – one kilometer high mountains out to the coast. So there must be some local effect of the storm when they hit those rocks. We had three tents. During half an hour they were gone, flattened. So we were standing there in our raincoats and, what now?

Julie 0:17

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 more from Bjørn Thomassen, emeritus senior scientist at the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, about facing severe storms while following up on gold anomalies on Kiatak – Northumberland Island – in North-West Greenland.

Bjørn 1:01

I can tell you the story about Northumberland Island. I started to investigate the Thule Basin er, up at Qaanaaq in 2001, and I was asked to do it by, by the Greenland Administration. 

Anyway, they wanted er, GEUS to, to do some reconnaissance up there and I was er, in charge of that. So I said, the Thule Basin, it’s, it’s quite large, so we needed two seasons. So I got money for the first season and er, we did a beautiful work, I think, with, with a ship and part time helicopter and covered the, you know in Thule there are two, two big fjords really, the fjord system. So we covered the, the northern er, fjord system around Qaanaaq-Inglefield Bredning. And then the next year I planned with the same staff, good staff, local er Danish-speaking er, young Greenlanders to run the rubber dinghies and, and experienced geologist’s, three of us, two, three, four of us, to do the geology.

But then there was no money for projects next year. And the year after I applied for GEUS’ own money and I got a quarter of a million crowns. I had created a project called er, Gold in Thule. I thought the director would like that because the director had said we have a small amount of money and it should go to something with gold or diamond in Greenland. And I said, “Yes, gold in Thule.” And the reason why I could make such a project er, propose a project was that the year 2001 we had made a systematic cover of the area with stream sediment samples. And er, some of those samples came back with elevated er, gold concentrations, what we call gold anomalies. That’s, that’s the purpose of taking er, stream sediment samples, you want to find anomalies. And that was described in Agnete Steenfelt’s report.

So I said well we have some gold anomalies er, I want to send two persons to check up on the anomalies. That’s, that’s what you do with anomalies, you try to find the mineral you are looking for in outcrop. And then sample that and describe the outcrop to see if it’s worthwhile to continue investigations. So that’s called follow up work. So we got the money, a quarter million Danish crowns, which is not much.

So we went up, two persons, and I had hired, I’d been there in Qaanaaq before and there’s a very helpful person called Hans Jensen, the hotel owner in, in Qaanaaq. So he helped me with practicalities and we had a base with him. And also I knew the local, er geophysics, there is a geophysical station up in Qaanaaq. And er, I asked whether he would be out connection with radio. So he promised to, to call us eight o’clock every evening so we could, for safety reasons and also to arrange shifts.

And then I’d hired a local boat, a small fisher boat, I mean, 4 metre long. And with a skipper, which turned out to be the mayor of Qaanaaq. He’s really fun. He had in his office in Qaanaaq, he had a jacket hanging there, he took out, took on. He said, “Now I’m mayor.” I have my jacket on. But normally he was a fisherman.

And so we rented. Naimangitsoq Petersen, yeah, a cheerful man. Great fun. So he sailed us out to localities and with our gear. I had, I had one fun story. We regard er, that area we regard as polar bear country and the rule is, for safety, in polar bear country you must bring arms as er, protection against, self protection. So, but there are very strict rules about arms to ship, to ship arms. The survey has er, a depot of arms and it’s all according to the law also with safety precautions. But then to ship those arms, it’s also, it’s quite. You just don’t send them with air freight to Greenland. You have to meet in, in the cellar below the airport in Kastrup and go through all sorts of security and they have to inspect them. You must have permits from the Danish police and the Greenlandic police and a special arrangement with the airline. So eventually we got our box up to er, to Qaanaaq with er, a rifle and two pistols, that’s normally what I use. A pistol for, for each geologist and a rifle for the tents, standing in the kitchen tent. And (er, but there was a very, very secure) the weapons, ammunition was in this metal box and er, with, with a lock, and er, as often happens, I hadn’t got the, the keys to the box. And I’ve experienced that many times. And it’s the fault either of the that department of GEUS who looks after equipment or it’s my fault. Probably my fault as being expedition leader. Anyway, I didn’t have the, the key and I remember, we have to call the police in, in Qaanaaq and ask him to open the box and so I have a picture of the uniformed policeman standing with his bolt cutter, cutting up the lock on that box.

Bjørn 6:36

Anyway, so we had several field camps, the two of us, Ditlev and I. And the first one, Naimangitsoq, the mayor, he sailed us out, put us out with our gear, we put out our tent and did our field work investigations. And then a day before it had planned, he suddenly appeared with his small boat and said, “Oh, we must hurry. I have a storm in my back.” So a storm was coming up. So we had to pack down everything very fast and then we were in the middle of the storm. And his ship was not in the best condition, I’ll tell you. Er, my friend was er, my companion who is very good with engines, he had one look down in the engine and said, “Oh my God.”

And so he couldn’t sail in. He was anchored a hundred metres out from the coast and the waves, they started to move high and he had a small er dinghy, outboard motor didn’t work for some reason. So the two of them, they were rowing back and forth with our equipment. And I remember I saw our equipment heap in the middle of that boat and the waves and was going up and then somehow he couldn’t row against the waves so he had to start five hundred metres away from his ship and then more or less parallel to the coast, and get closer and closer to his boat.

So that was the first load we got on board. And we were standing there without our tent or sleeping bags or anything. And waiting for the next tour. Then we saw him er, draw up the anchor and disappear around the point. And the storm was going on there with rain, you know going into snow. And we were not happy. And my, my friend, (he is) Ditlev Krebs, a very skilled er, young geologist, but he’s got a temper. And I remember he was screaming and shouting, “He’s disappearing with our, our equipment.” But the thing was, afterward they came down, we were laying at the coast and there was a moraine, you know a, a wall of, of big rounded rocks. They were coming down, the two Greenlanders, down from er, from the east, down to us and said, “Oh, there was too much wind, we had to come in the lee of that er point there. So now we must carry the rest of the equipment over that moraine of rolling boulders and down to the ship there.” And we did that and it was, yeah, awful weather.

Eventually we had started to sail. We managed. And we started to sail back to Qaanaaq and we had the wind and the storm and the waves and everything in the nose. And at sometimes, midway, three o’clock in the morning, he deviated (and appears to), I can’t remember whether it was because the motor broke down or probably too bad weather. He couldn’t, he simply had not power enough. And so er, he took lee there. Because there was an abandoned er, abandoned village. But in the weekend er, the Qaanaaq people, in the weekend they travelled out to the abandoned villages and, and do er hunting, especially narwhal hunting. So there was one house in good shape and two or three families sleeping there.

And I remember coming in. And when they do their narwhal hunting apparently they always have one person looking out for narwhals, twenty four hours regardless of weather. And I remember coming in to the shore and that fellow was standing there and you couldn’t see ten metres away. And absolutely soaking raining in buckets. And he pointed up to that house. So we went up there. Naimangitsoq and his companions, the two Greenlanders, stayed on board the boat of course, went to anchor somewhere. So Ditlev and I with our sleeping bags, we went up to that and the house was absolutely full of, I said, three families, sleeping bags all over they were sleeping in. We were offered a foam mattress and er, went to sleep there. I remember at some time we were, when you share a foam mattress you have, in your sleeping bag, you have your head in each end. You have your comrades feet at your head. At one time, because there was snoring in the night and Ditlev, he’s, he’s very well brought up young man. He thought it was me snoring he could hear and it was so embarrassing we were guests there and we would disturb everyone. And so he woke me up there four o’clock in the morning or whatever and I got upset. And he said, “Shh, you’re snoring.” But still the snoring was going on without me. There were three of the other fellows.

Anyway, so everything went good and we stayed there for the next day and er, eventually the storm calmed down and we came back to Qaanaaq. And then (was the next er,) the mayor’s boat was kaput, couldn’t sail any longer. So Hans, Hans Jensen, he fixed us another contact and I had to negotiate the new contract and this was a fellow called Otto. And his boat is very efficient. He was, everything worked perfectly. And Otto is a very friendly person who couldn’t speak Danish and I can’t speak Greenlandic. So we’re sitting there with Hans and the first er, Otto did was of course to double the price for the charter. And what could I do?

Bjørn 12:18

We sailed out to this island called Northumberland Island. The Greenlander calls it Kiatak. It means er, the high, it’s there, furthest away towards Canada, out in the open sea. And that has been er, reknowned for its bad weather. And Peter Dawes er, the geologist who’s mapped in the area, told me a story about his boat, fishing boat he’s chartered, being thrown up on, on the coast and some pictures of it being hit by waves.

Anyway, we went out there and went into camp and er, very interesting place geologically. We had gold anomalies. That’s er, why we came there. And in my report, I’ve er, recommended further investigations. There’s some good targets. But then came this storm and I never experienced anything like it. We were lying quite at the shore, the only flat place we could find, and in a small bay and I saw at some time the, the wind was drawing the water vertical up in the air like a hurricane thing. It’s local. As I said, Kiatak – it means steep. So we had one kilometer high mountains out to the coast. And then the valleys are filled by glaciers of course. So there must be some er, local er effect of the, the storm when they hit those rocks in that place.

And our three, we had three tents er, a kitchen tent and two sleeping tents. During half an hour they were gone – flattened. So we were standing there in our raincoats and, what now? And to our luck, and of course it was pouring down, to our luck, we had seen the day before a Greenlander hut because that place in the winter time, the people from Qaanaaq, they travel out. There’s a polynya. And in that polynya there are walruses. So they do their, their walrus hunting there in the winter time. And for that purpose they have put a, a hut there. And you know, normal wooden hut er, wired down by, by steel er, steel ropes, steel wires, to be stable with that wind. So we evacuated our things as best we could in the storm over to that hut, two kilometres away. And stayed there for six days. And that storm, I’ll tell you, and it was lucky with that hut that it was real secured with steel wires. You know, good secured because it was shaking all the time when you came out and you should, see the sea, I mean white teeth all over. Even the rocks er, stones hitting the roof, blown by the wind. That’s, that’s the worst I experienced.

And then I had to, at that time we had, 2003, we had er, satellite telephone. It was very complicated to phone because it was expensive. Anyway I, I managed to get in contact with GEUS department of equipment and said, “Well,” there was a weekly flight to Qaanaaq, a flight in 3 days, “could you manage to send up 3 tents?” And the guy, Jens Gregersen, by the way, he went out to, to do that and that was in the weekend in Copenhagen and everybody was on, on holidays of course. Er, about the first of August. But er, I’m very glad, so he did that and we managed to get that er, three new tents up in the course of those few days. Anyway, so we had the new equipment and er, brought out, and we could continue our odessey, so to speak.

We had another camp at the south side of, Otto moved us to the south side of er, Kiatak, Northumberland. And I remember the first thing, there were still high waves. The first thing we did was to scout the area, again we were camped near the shore, there was no choice, to scout the area for caves or places where we could hide when, if our tents, they went again. And we found some cave where we could have survived.

And er, and then we had out last camp again further to the east and I remember the last night my companion, friend, Ditlev Krebs, he took out a bottle of champagne, excellent French champagne. And that means he’s been carrying that thing round all the field camps and, you know, every time you go onshore you (go) have your bag and you have to carry it up over high tide and, and things like that. So that was the last night and proper champagne glasses too. And so we said “skål” there and thank you for a good field season. And then we flew back to civilization.

Julie 17:10

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

Julie 17:22

In the next and last episode of Polar Podcasts, we hear more from Professor Allen Nutman about his lifelong passion for making geological maps.