When you are camping by Centrum Sø Lake on the northeast tip of Greenland with over 7 billion people far to the south of you, “remote” is hardly a just descriptor. So on a hike back to their lakeside basecamp, the last thing National Geographic grantee and cave scientist Gina Moseley and her team expected to find was a pile of unopened cans in the middle of the arctic desert.
The team had been camping for three weeks and was just coming back from collecting cave samples to add to paleoclimate records–records that study how the climate has changed throughout the history of Earth.
“It’s a nice thing in Greenland … there’s no rubbish because, of course, there’s nobody there,” says expedition member Chris Blakeley. “So to see a couple of rusty tins was a bit of a surprise.”
Blakeley counted 14 tins in all, still nestled in the original paper wrapping labeled “Combat Ration Individual” in bold, black lettering, mummified by Greenland’s dry, icy climate.
“They weren’t just thrown-away tins. They were stashed by another team at another time,” Blakely recalls. With three cans in hand, he headed back to basecamp.
For most people, seeing the “09-55” and “09-60” date stamps would be enough to stave off any culinary curiosity. However, the combination of dehydrated meals, a dwindling food supply due to some unplanned weather delays, and the team’s spirit of inquiry was enough to warrant at least a peak inside.
Each can came with a small detachable key adhered to the bottom and on top, a printed menu of the contents within. Can one: meatballs and beans. Can two: crackers, candy jam and cocoa. Can three: vanilla cream biscuits and jam.
Says Mosely: “We opened up the crackers and jam. To our surprise, there were exactly five intact crackers (one each). A small tin of grape jam, and–stuffed in the bottom but perfectly sealed–a block of cocoa powder for hot chocolate. Almost too perfect to be real!”
The team had to try them. “[The] biscuits were a little bit dry,” says Blakely, “but we didn’t have any meat or beans with us on the trip, so after three weeks without it, that was brilliant.”
As “brilliant” as the six-decade-old meat may have been, it was the jam that caught Moseley’s fancy.
“It was funny actually,” she says. “We had kilograms of porridge back at basecamp, so we were eating a lot of it—just dried milk powder and porridge. It was nice, but we were thinking ‘some jam would be really nice right now.’ And then Chris walks into the tent and he’s got some jam.”
But who left the Army rations there, and why?
It just might have been the 1960 expedition of William E. Davies of the Military Geology Branch and Daniel B. Krinsley of the U.S. Geological Survey. The paper they wrote (see page 17 of the Bulletin of the National Speleological Society, July 1960) was the first mention of the Centrum Sø caves, and inspired Moseley’s expedition this summer.
“I suspect the people that were eating these tins and left these tins might have been the people who discovered the caves,” she says. “And they were the reason we were there in the first place.”
Moseley’s hunch may be correct. After Davies died in 1990, Krinsley wrote a tribute to him in the Geological Society of America journal. He mentioned a basecamp they spent time at together on the northern shore of Centrum Sø Lake from June 14 to July 1 in 1960—confirming they were there one month and 55 years before Moseley’s team arrived near the same spot.
While a lot has changed in 55 years, the need to carry and make food in the backcountry remains a necessity. A meal is warmth. A meal means rest. A meal is comfort and familiarity after hours navigating an unknown environment.
“At any point in the day, when you tired or cold or you’re working quite hard, you say to each other, ‘I wonder what I’m going to eat tonight?’ And it was a big choice in the day,” says Blakely.
“I could imagine an American guy in harsh conditions saying ‘Have I got those biscuits with jam tonight? Oh, I have!’ And that would be the highlight of his day.”
And while the team can only imagine what it was like to be on that first expedition, at least they got a taste.
Caroline Santinelli is the video editor and cataloger for Science, Exploration and Experiences at National Geographic, where she helps National Geographic grantees share their research through visual storytelling. You can follow her on Instagram @carosantinelli and Twitter @santinellic.