Friday, January 11, 2013

Thule Greenland

My Year On Top Of The World

During my 20 year U.S. Military Career, I traveled all over the world.  My family and I had seven different assignments in the United States and living overseas, it was a great adventure.  From a running standpoint, the military offered me a opportunity to run in some outstanding and scenic locations, 15 different states, and overseas locations like Cyprus, Crete, Iraq, Sicily, the United Kingdom, and Qatar.  But none of these locations was on "Top Of The World" like Thule Air Base, Greenland.

I arrived at Thule, Aug 2000, 20 pounds overweight and barley able to run 2 miles...I left Thule 371 days later in, at that time, the best shape of my life, 20 pounds lighter and ready to run a marathon.  But it is the memories of that one year remote tour that are the real treasure of the Thule Experience.

My military career has taken me many places but none so remote as Thule. The word remote in the military community means serving a tour without your family. But a tour at Thule is truly a remote tour. Thule, Air Base is located 900 miles above the Arctic Circle and 900 miles south of the North Pole along Greenland's western coast. The word remote fits it to a T, because other then the base there isn't nothing around the surrounding country side.  A small village called Qaanaaq lies approx. 100 miles north although there's, "no way to get any where from here" as the old saying goes.  Unless you own a dog sled or helicopter. To the south nothing for 100s of miles. I enjoyed my time at Thule which is hard for me to say, cause I missed my family so much, but even with this hardship I was able to see some sites that many can only read about.

(My running routes are outlined with red and blue lines on this map, 
the red line was my longest run on Thule (19.5 miles))

This is an overhead shot of Thule in the summer. You can see in the foreground the ice cap which covers the entire top of the world, and do not let the green foul you, it's only green for a little while. One thing you should notice on this picture is the three glaciers that come together in the Fjord (Bay). I was told this is the only place in the world that 3 glaciers come together in one spot, a wonderful site. In the right corner of the [picture is Thule's runway with the base being just to the left. Approx 130 U.S. Air Force personnel serve at Thule and have since 1951.

Why Thule? Ballistic Missile Early Warning...that's why. The initial airfield and base, code name "Blue Jay”, was built by the US Government in 1951 in 104 days under total secrecy. The base was to provide a refueling point for long range bombers. But since the early 1970's the main mission has been to support early warning for Ballistic Missile attacks on the U.S.   This mission, the USAF and Thule still provide to this day.

This picture best displays how our early warning shield protects the United States from missile attacks. Thule (site 1) along with a site in Alaska and another in the United Kingdom provide advance missile warning.

This is a photo of me at the BMEWS site (May 2001) located 12.5 miles further north of Thule main base on a rise of about 1500 feet. Guess who ran all the way up to BMEWS and back (well almost I bonked at 19.5 miles). What other reasons is the U.S. Military at Thule? Thule hosts a number of research projects from global warming to the study of birds of prey not to mention it is the northern most staging port for the re-supply of two weather stations even further north, Station NORD (Danish) and Boxtop (Canadian). How did they get that ship anchor all the way up to the BMEWS site?  I have no idea?

Many people have asked me if I saw any Polar bears while at Thule and I can say yes.  I ran across this friendly family of bears near base one day. They were really nice and loved to play, but that one little bear was always licking his lips? I kind of felt like he was up to something, maybe it was just me?

Another wonderful shot of one of the three glaciers. This photo does not do justice, truly a site you have to see for yourself.

During one Thule Trippin (site seeing) adventure I was lucky enough to witness icebergs break off of one of the glaciers and fall into the bay. This massive hunk of ice must have been thousands of years old. This photo was taken up at the BMEWS site in May you'll notice the bay is still frozen. The bay opened up around late June or early July. Once the bay opens up the icebergs are free to drift into the ocean waters and points unknown.

During a Sept 2000 outing myself and a few of my dorm mates went to explore Thule's well know ice cave settled along the edge of the ice cap. This was a wonderful site, witness to thousands of years of ice build up. A small steam ran through the ice cave, much like the Grand Canyon, craving out this wonderful spectacle of nature. Just like the growth rings on a tree the walls of the cave were lined with age layers, made of frozen soil, ice and stone from years gone by. I kept thinking that if these walls could take what a story they might tell.

After living on Top Of the World for a few months the reality of where you are starts to sink in. I can best describe it as living on the moon, sure your still part of the world but so far north cut off from the daily conveniences. A tour at Thule Air Base is the remote of remotes. And to think I had to suffer through this tour with the speed of instant e-mail home, Internet news at my finger tips, liberal moral telephone calls weekly re-supply via airlift out of the states and mid-tour leave to get reacquainted with the family. Wow I had it rough, NOT. When this base first opened up were no phone calls home, calls home were via short wave radio, no e-mail, a yearly re-supply via the seaport and NO mid tour leave. Those dudes had it tuff. I'm grateful I had my tour when I did.

This shot looks directly into the ice cave and clearly shows the ice rings, periods of time trapped forever in the ice. The cave was approx 30 yds wide by 150 yds long. Walking through the cave you got the spooky feeling that if it fell in on you, you were dead, but hey it’s been there for thousands of years.

What else do you do in the high arctic for fun?  Why not swim in the bay when the water is 28 degrees?  Thule's annual Polar Bear Swim, and guess who had be in on it?  That's me on the left.

Thule Air base, Greenland on map. How far north is Thule? Most people just don't get when I try and tell them how remote Thule is. This map best shows just how far north we were. "Top of the World' baby.

One of Thule's natural phenomenon is the halo effect around the sun caused by frozen particles in the atmosphere. Thule is to far North for the Northern Lights but this is a pretty cool second. This photo has Dundas Mt in the background, a favorite get away spot. On nice days many of us would climb to the top taking in some wonderful views of the bay, glacier, icebergs and the base. I made it to the top 3 times once in just over 14 minutes the record being 6 min 36 seconds.

Another wonderful photo of Thule Air Base with Saunders Island in the foreground .

What did I do that I enjoyed the most at Thule? Sounds crazy but I enjoyed throwing rocks at Icebergs. One nice weeks I would hike out to this point near Dundas Mt. and throw rocks at icebergs as they sailed by. How much fun could that be? Well if you hit the iceberg just right, knocking off a big enough piece of ice, it would upset the balance causing the whole iceberg to roll over in the bay. If you were really lucky the iceberg might split in two and cause a big splash. That was the reward, plus what else was I going to do.

Did I get to run much at Thule, yes over 1200 miles, 90% of which was run indoors and on the base treadmills.  When I did get to run was always an adventure.  More on that in my next post on LIVING ON TOP OF THE WORLD!

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