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Let's Go to Greenland
Some guys plan hunting trips together, or poker nights. But, when Kurt Stuwe (pronounced “Stu-vay”), a world-renowned geologist, and Paul Claus, an equally esteemed bush pilot, became friends, they planned a 4,500 mile journey from Alaska to Northeastern Greenland by bush plane.
In 1989, Stuwe and Claus met at the base camp of Mount Everest. Stuwe is a Geology Professor at the University of Graz in Austria. Claus is a skilled bush pilot, and together with his family owns and runs Ultima Thule, a prominent adventure lodge nestled in the Wrangell Mountains.
The two were drawn to Greenland for its vast expanse of unexplored land. Claus and his Alaska-modified bush plane would be the keys to unlocking its secrets. “We wanted to be able to explore. We wanted to basically do what I do [in Alaska], which is fly around and land wherever I want,” Claus said. But, a lack of money and time put the project at a standstill. Years went by. The two kept in touch.
They continued for years to root around for a way to pull the Greenland trip off when in 2012, Stuwe had an epiphany. Stuwe realized that it was the 100th anniversary of Alfred Wegener’s theory of continental drift. The long deceased meteorologist had conducted much of his research in Greenland. Inspired, Stuwe fired off a grant proposal to the Austrian Science Foundation asking for funding to commemorate Wegener’s research in Greenland. Days later, they received a $100,000 grant to explore Greenland.
Now with some money in their pockets, Stuwe and Claus began planning for the “Alfred Wegener Expedition”. Claus decided that they would take a Cessna 180. A “180” is a four-seat, single-engine plane which cruises at about 120 mph. The true selling point of the Cessna 180, however, was its ability to burn car gas. Paul bought one originally built in 1953 specifically for the expedition, and had it painted and modified for the trip.
A good friend gave Claus a book: Frozen In Time by Mitchell Zuckoff, which recounts various military plane crashes in Greenland during World War II. For Claus, it was not exactly a page-turner, setting it down shortly after starting it. “I started reading [Frozen in Time] and it right away had too many airplane crashes in it for someone who is just about to take off for Greenland,” Claus said.
On June 25th, 2014, Stuwe and Claus set out for Greenland. A few days in, they were forced to land because of a storm, and whilst trying to find a landing spot, Claus realized that Colville Lake, the home of Bern Will Brown, was nearby. Brown was a famous bush pilot, priest and dog musher. Claus landed to the amazement of the inhabitants who enthusiastically volunteered to drive the two to Brown’s house.
The fellow adventurers talked for hours comparing their lives, loves and experiences. “He was sharp as a tack, even though he was in his mid-90s,” Claus said of Brown. Sadly, Brown died five days after meeting Stuwe and Claus.
Stuwe and Claus continued moving east toward Greenland, running the Cessna 180 on car gas when there was no aviation fuel to be found. After about a week of flying they finally reached Clyde River, the point from which they would be crossing over 350 miles of open water from Canada to Greenland. This was the main crux of their journey to Greenland, they would have nowhere to land if weather or equipment misbehaved. “There’s an old saying: ‘Flying is hours and hours of boredom, interrupted by moments of pure terror,’ this was actually hours and hours of sheer terror interrupted by moments of boredom,” Claus said of the flight. Claus credited “automatic rough” for this terror. “Automatic rough” is pilot jargon for the paranoia which accompanies open water flying. Pilots think they hear oddities in the engine noises, or smell something irregular, even when the engine is, in reality, running perfectly.
However, instead of enthralled locals, Greenland greeted them with a $1,500 fine for landing twenty minutes outside of the airport’s operation hours. Much to their shock, they also were also required to pay fees to refuel and to store their plane at the airport and were informed that while flying they would have to provide position and endurance reports via satellite phone every thirty minutes. Claus was frosted.
During their stay at Illulissat, the second largest city in Greenland, Claus spotted a boat docked in the harbor with “Juneau, Alaska” painted on the side. It turned out, the owner of the boat was a fellow Alaskan adventurer. “Of course my first question to her was, ‘When you came into the harbor, did you have to pay a fine?’” Claus said. Apparently, she didn’t.
They then planned on flying north, to where they would base their explorations, but bad weather halted progress. Claus and Stuwe decided to fly thirty miles to an abandoned airport from World War II called Blue East 2. The airport was a wasteland of WWII-era military equipment, including trucks, cars, and hangars, as well as over 20,000 empty fifty-five gallon fuel drums.
After three days of waiting out the weather, they finally headed north. However, on nearing their destination, the Constable Point Airport, Claus realized that they would be landing at a time when the airport was closed. To avoid more fines, Claus decided to land on a nearby gravel bar.
When they finally did reach Constable Point, they were again barraged with fines and fees, even though they landed within the hours of operation. It quickly became evident that Constable Point was not a viable option as a base, even though all of their pre-bought fuel was there. They consulted the other pilots at the airport, who told Stuwe and Claus that they should try an abandoned mining exploration camp called China Camp. Once settled at their new base, Claus and Stuwe were free to live out their dream: to explore the east coast of Greenland.
One of their first planned stops was Zackenburg Research Station, an ecosystem monitoring center, only accessible by plane and located in the mountains of Greenland. They already had permission to land here, and the only requirement for their landing was that they call the research station a day in advance. But, upon calling, they were denied access. It was on their course anyway, so they ended up flying over Zackenburg. While doing so, Stuwe got an idea. “Why don’t we buzz them?” he told Claus. As Claus neared the research center, he heard a voice on the radio. “Red airplane, what are your intentions?” the voice said. Claus responded that he was flying by. Then the voice, a man presumably manning Zackenburg’s flight service station, told Claus that he was flying too low to the ground and ordered Claus to fly at least 300 meters AGL (above ground level). Claus and Stuwe were astounded. They had traveled all the way from Alaska, and the researchers at the center wouldn’t even invite them in for a cup of coffee.
A few days later, their next destination was Danmarkshavn, a weather monitoring station which was founded, in part, by Alfred Wegener. Their mission was to find a nearby hut that Wegener once used for research. There were only seven people living there, and it had been over a month since they had a received a visitor. As a result, Claus and Stuwe assumed that the inhabitants of Danmarkshavn would be thrilled to meet new people, much less explorers who had come from Alaska. But apparently not. After landing, just one man came out to greet them. Claus asked the man when the last private plane had landed there, and was subsequently told that it was four years ago. Oh, and that the plane had crash landed.
They also asked the man if he knew where Alfred Wegener’s hut was. “I don’t know anything about a hut,” the man responded. After a little bit of searching, Claus and Stuwe managed to find the hut, which was only a ten minute walk from the runway. The people at Danmarkshavn had never even heard of this hut, an invaluable piece of history. Where Claus and Stuwe expected to find people similar to Alfred Wegener, they instead found complacent scientific researchers, seemingly uninterested, or at least unaware, of the wilderness and rich history of Greenland.
Nonetheless, Claus and Stuwe continued to enjoy their adventure in Greenland, absorbing the history and scenery of every location they visited. “We wanted to see what Alfred Wegener saw in a way that he didn’t get to, because we were in an airplane and he was on a ship,” Paul said. During the rest of their exploration, they found another hut used by Alfred Wegener, one which Claus and Stuwe doubted had been visited since Wegener had worked there.
When their explorations came to an end, Claus and Stuwe decided to fly on commercial flights back home, storing the Cessna 180 at a hangar in Iceland.
Like any adventure, Claus and Stuwe’s trip was not perfect. Claus and Stuwe learned that maybe Greenland didn’t even grasp how wild it truly was. If nothing else, their trip’s shortcomings made them appreciate what they had. “For me the best thing about an expedition to a far off land is realizing how good I have it right here at home,” Claus said.