Greenland 2013: A Land of Contrasts
Greenland is the world’s largest island and mostly covered in ice. From New York we needed 5 flights and a helicopter to get us to the hunting village of Uummannaq. The iceberg that sank the Titanic came from just S of here. The Norseman Eric The Red sailed here and even though it was covered in ice he called it Greenland to entice others to this land.
Greenland has one kind of hunter. Those who hunt so they and their people can survive. They are the real deal.
Tuck, my son and I traveled to the northern W. coast of Greenland in April 2013. The Children’s Home and their hunters who live 350 miles north of the Arctic Circle invited us. Greenland is a land where the locals have never seen a tree. That seems strange but most of us have never seen an iceberg. This was like a step back in time to a land where there are no jails, no gates or fences around property and where you will find a locked door. Every door is open to welcome you in. There is no ownership of land. They are the most friendly and generous people I have met but obviously there are issues with alcoholism and domestic abuse as with other cultures. Communication is a problem because there are three distinctive ethnic groups, each with its own dialect and very few speak English.
It is a land with four months of darkness and summer months when the sun never sets. The dogs outnumber people by at least 4 to 1. These are Huskies. No other breed can be imported so that they can keep their dogs purebred and strong. Strong they need to be. The hunters’ lives depend on them. The dogs are fed a halibut diet every two or three days and they eat the ice they sleep on for their water needs. They have no shelter at all, sleeping curled up with their noses under their tails in minus 40 degrees. It was disturbing for us to see them chained most of the time but it is what they are used to. The Inuit’s claim they want to keep them semi-wild but we walked amongst all of them and never got bitten. They are great dogs with huge paws for traction on the snow-covered ice. Without snow on the ice, which was the case during our expedition, the dogs slip and sharp splinters cut into their feet. This is when booties are put on the dogs to help prevent injury. When out hunting and food is scarce, the dogs eat first as the hunters’ lives depend on the dogs. We had two dogs chained outside our hut that Tuck spoiled and they must have put on ten pounds each. I think they miss us.
Vegetarians won’t last long up in the hunting villages. There are no greens or fruit to be found anywhere. The locals live off seal, narwhal, musk ox, walrus, bowhead whale, bear, and fish, mainly halibut. They get their vitamins from the different parts of the animals at different times of the year. Seal can only be eaten in the winter to get vitamin C, which is also obtained from the narwhal skin, and blubber, which is mostly hunted in the summer. Most food is eaten raw out on the ice although we did have some great cooked dishes of all of the above. Meat and fish are seen drying everywhere to ensure a steady food supply throughout the year.
While eating a slab of narwhal raw, Tuck remarked that there were not many places where one could eat an endangered species legally. We were also wearing seal jackets and polar bear skin pants. That is the way it is. Of course, they don’t much like Green Peace there as they came in and made them cut back on selling seal skin.
Unfortunately, all of the world’s chemicals and pollutants are washed up to Greenland and the Inuit people have had to reduce their intake of seal liver because of this. Even the halibut is polluted and when we tried to give the dogs the fish guts at the fishing holes, we were asked not to as it was too polluted even for the dogs. Apparently, mother’s milk is five times more polluted than in the U.S. The locals and the old hunters were very accommodating in letting Tuck interview them on film about the pollution and global warming. This will be invaluable in the future.
In 1958 a B52 bomber crashed in Northern Greenland near Thule. It was carrying four thermonuclear bombs. Three broke up and leaked plutonium and the forth one is still missing. We heard that some hunters are reporting varying skin conditions, which may be related to the plutonium.
Fishing is done on long lines, up to one kilometer down and when you get a bite you walk way out onto the ice pulling in your catch and hope you don’t fall through. We were taken on a dog sled expedition to resupply the Children’s Home boot camp. When orphans first arrive they are sent out to this camp where they have to live off the land. We counted fifteen boys and girls in a very small hunting cabin all having a great time. It seems that the home focuses heavily on music to comfort these kids. Many are very talented and willing to put on a show for us at anytime.
We were given two big halibut for lunch and Tuck said how great it would be if we had soy sauce and some wassabi. Much to our surprise, they produced them for us but I had to sit on my halibut to thaw it out a bit! We took two of the counselors from Copenhagen back with us and they remarked that they had not taken off their clothes in a month. Obviously, there is not much body odor in cold weather.
The orphanage is run by Ann Anderson, a very strong and forceful woman who won’t take no for an answer when it comes to the welfare of her kids. I was shocked, however, to hear how the children are punished at the home. We were getting ready for our narwhal expedition when I saw Ann holding the hand of a 7 or 8-year-old boy. She said he had been sent to her for punishment. He was looking very nervous, as there were many dog whips around. I asked what she was going to do to him. She responded, “Take him shopping and get him anything he wants.” I must say I choked up. I even gave him a beaded African pendant. It seems that Ann punishes all the most disturbed and sad cases by taking them all over the world and giving them her love. The Greenland government invests heavily in her work and I think it’s worth it. I think if my kids became orphans they should book in with Ann.
We got to know Ann and all of her kids when they visited New York to promote their filmNuk and Silent Snow on global warming. We took them shooting at our club outside the City. It was a privilege for Trig French and I to entertain these future hunters who had been so abused. Ann has received many awards for the great work she and her husband Ole Yorgen have done out on the ice cap. Very little gets done without Ann’s say so. Many of the hunters work for Ann and keep the orphanage supplied with meat. Ole is also a famous hunter and explorer. He gave us a lesson on what to do if we fell through the ice. Get your heavy boots off quickly and push out backwards onto the ice. You only have two minutes. I had a knotted and noosed line handy at all times.
All the Inuit hunters are descendants from central Asia and we traveled with the best of them. Aliberti is one of the most famous and known all over Greenland. He was swept out to sea with his dogs on an ice floe that got smaller and smaller. His dogs died one by one and his clothing got soaked on the inside while his outer clothing was frozen stiff. He spent many days fighting the cold and then on Christmas Day he bumped a shore 100 miles south from where he started. I asked him if he ate his dogs to survive but he did not reply, so I left it at that. All he gave me was his infectious toothless grin. He lost his teeth after his ordeal. The radio had already read his obituary. He is now 65, a chain smoker, but strong. While in the pub with him after the three of us had been lifted off the ice, we saw that he was quite the wild man.
The Inuit’s have many different hunting methods. To hunt Ring seal hunters spot the seal’s air holes in the ice and wait silently, most times for many hours. The seals have to constantly chew on the edges of these air holes to keep them from freezing back over. When a seal is sighted it is harpooned. Another method in hunting is to spot the seals out on the ice. In this case a good shot is required to stop it dead before it gets back to its hole. Thick ice is essential for seal hunting and here lies a problem for the Inuit. Global warming has cut the ice time for hunting by one third and the seasons are getting shorter and shorter. Whoever does not believe in Global Warming should go talk to these hunters in the Artic Circle. They say spring months are colder, summer months have more rain, autumn months mores storms, and the ice is thinning all over.
The Narwhal is essential for the Inuit diet. This mythical animal with its Unicorn ivory tusk is hunted on the open water. Their tusks are a protrusion of the left incisor tooth and can grow up to nine feet in length. All male Narwhal have these tusks but only 20% of females have them. In some cases, a double tusk in found. Narwhal are hunted by shooting them in the spine near the tail with a .375 rifle to stop it from diving. It is then harpooned with huge floats attached to prevent it from sinking. In the old days, the harpoon tips were bone and flint and many were made from a meteor that crashed there. What is left of this meteor now sits in New York’s Museum of Natural History. If the flint broke and did not kill, then the hunter was in for a wild ride and many hunters perished. The skin and blubber is much needed for the Inuit diet. We were told that they had a quota of 80 narwhal for this season. As mentioned, this is an endangered species and it would be illegal for any foreigner to harm the Narwhal.
Polar bear are sought for their skin and meat and hunted from the dog sleds. Every part of the bear is used. We wore bearskin pants and felt how effective they were in keeping one warm. However, I was pleased not to witness a kill of one of these magnificent animals but again, it is part of the life of the Inuit people.
All Inuit hunting is a matter of survival and no creatures are hunted for sport only. There are no trophy hunters up there. “Nothing in Inuit life is slothful. On the other hand, nothing macho goes on either. Any such mockery of real strength would be laughed at, just as failure is laughed at.” (This Cold Heaven, Gretel Ehrlich, 322). The Inuit are not trying to prove anything; they are just trying to survive.
As mentioned, communication was a problem and it was quite the guessing game to work out what the hunters were planning or thinking. The most used word up there is IMAQA “maybe.” We could never get a straight answer from any of them. We expected to go after narwhal as soon as we arrived and every day it was the same. Maybe. Nothing happens before noon and delays were due to the dog sled races, Friday night parties, and so on. The Friday party gets going at 1 a.m. with everyone flooding into the one pub to dance. The local tap beer is 8.6% alcohol and costs $12.00 a glass. I do not know where they get the money to drink as they do. Tuck followed the crowd and I hear he was a hit with the locals. At 4 a.m. everyone leaves and heads for a second location with fights breaking out all over. Of course, they are all friends later. Tuck stayed well out of it but said there was blood everywhere! There is one cop in two and no lock up. The population of Uummannaq is 1,200. Murderers and serious criminals are sent to Copenhagen. The local punishment, which to them is more severe than being locked up, is to be ignored by friends.
They hate to be alone. When in hospital, the Inuit hate private rooms and want the door open. This is the same case with the Bushmen in Africa.
After a week it looked as if our hunters were getting motivated. We spent a day of activity loading fuel, food, sleeping bags, guns and ammo. Gun maintenance is not a priority, although it should be. Tuck had to use all his might to open the breach on the .375. All the guns were badly rusted with stocks bound with all sorts of tape. We let the hunters take the first shot with the .375 just in case. Any of you out there with extra cleaning kits to donate? We will get them to the Inuit hunters. Tuck and I spent time at their hunting school. There, they learn everything from boat engines, survival out on the ice, and boat building but it seems no gun maintenance or safety was taught. Closed breach guns were being pointed and waved all over the place.
The food the hunters packed all seemed to be junk food, so we presumed we would live off what we shot. Tuck and I packed enough food and water for four days just in case. Needless to say, they spotted our fresh water and finished it the first day out. Fresh water had to be hacked off the icebergs and melted. We had a small primus stove to do this.
We were set to depart the next day at 9 a.m. We left at 5 p.m. It was very exciting to finally be heading out into the wild with our new hunter friends. Two hunting boats were in tow, mounted on tubing, three dog sleds, and two skimobiles. It seems the skimobiles were introduced at about the same time as coca cola. The older hunters protested the introduction of them. They don’t read much and it is said that is why they have a photographic memory and can draw a detailed map of any of the coastlines. Their brains are not clogged with the written word.
After about three hours at full speed we came to a sudden stop. We could not see why until we all dismounted. The ice was breaking up! How they saw the weak spot, I will never know. At a meter away, I could not see it until Semi, one of the hunters, stuck his ice pole through it. All the hunters carry a seven-foot ice pick with which they tap the ice and drag behind the sled. They work on echo sounding of the ice. Maybe.
We all backed up and hit the thin ice gap at full speed, hoping to jump it. We made it with my heart in my mouth. Again, later, we had to use the ice poles as a bridge to get over more cracks. The wind was increasing and the temperature was dropping which we thought was good to firm up the ice. We spotted some seal out on the ice, so Tuck with his camera, and Nuka, another hunter, took off after them. Nuka got into his white camouflage suit with his gun rest mounted on a small sled with a white sheet screen through which the gun muzzle is poked. Laying flat on his stomach, he pushed this contraption forward to get as close as possible. This is a tough going if the ice is rough. They disappeared into the distance and we waited. I was scanning for them with my binoculars and at last saw two dots and to my horror noticed how the ice was heaving up and down between us. I took off on foot after them, scooting along in my oversized ice boots. It is very difficult to judge distance across the ice. Things are much further away than they seem. At last I got to them and pointed out the moving ice. When we got back, the team had set up camp. Bed sheet tents were fastened to the sleds and a windbreak set up at the back of the boats. Out came the dry fish and Bow Head whale jerky for dinner.
In the distance we now saw waves breaking over the ice sheet. Because of this, we could not get any closer to the open water. Waves are bad because they break up the ice. We were set for the night on the ice until the ice started heaving even more. Seasick on the ice, I commented to Tuck, would be weird. Now we had to get off the ice and fast.
We left two hunters, Semi and Karl, with the boats and the rest of us headed for land, which was about 20 kilometers away. More open cracks were now appearing and every time we crossed them by jumping at full speed. The ice was really heaving by now. Not good. I had put my boy in harm’s way. When we at last hit the beach we both kissed it. Now we had to push the sleds all the way up the coast to a small village and open water, all the time wondering how we were going to rescue our other two hunters and get the boats to open water. Thinking back it would have been safer for Tuck to remain with the boats. We could have easily crashed through the thinning ice.
It was good I was in fair shape as Tuck and I were determined to keep up with the hunters maneuvering the sleds over rough ground. We had a filmmaker who had tagged along with us. He was 55 and a smoker and was left far behind with the hunters not concerned at all about him and they would not wait for him. I learned later that they would only help in life or death situations. So we left him to make his way alone. All he had to do was follow the coast. We had to push our way about 12 kilometers but we were in our heavy polar bear pants and seal skin jackets. I think I lost about 10 pounds.
We reached the hunters’ village of Qaarsut. Population 50. After two hours our filmmaker came into camp upset we had left him. I gave him a shot of Jameson and some food. He had not packed any at all. He offered to buy me a bottle of whiskey. I mentioned to him that any liter of liquor cost $100. He left the expedition the next day!
So now we had to get our men who were still on the ice. We loaded into a Qaarsut boat that had a 350 Yamaha outboard and sped along the edge of the ice sheet until we estimated where our men would be. We could not make contact with them by cell phone or radio to we fired the rifles and hoped they would hear us. We glassed and spotted them in our binoculars about 2 kilometers into the ice. No problem for Nuka. He jumped out of our boat onto the treacherous ice floes with his ice pole leaping from floe to floe till we could no longer see him. The arrival of a second boat with a sled and dogs all crammed in was well timed. These were to help pull the others to open water where we were. Still no communication and it was all a guessing game what they were doing especially when our captain said we were heading out for narwhal.
We took off at full speed through good open water leaving the hunters behind to their own devices, which was confusing to Tuck and me. Three hours later at the base of some huge cliffs we pulled in at a small hunter’s cabin where we offloaded everything. Nine of us were to sleep here on one 8×8 foot bunk smeared with fish oil. Great.
Tuck and I started to clean things up a bit. Then, without any word, our captain took his gun and headed up the mountain. We had the food and the boat so, at first, we did not worry and thought he had gone hunting. After a few hours I decided to take off after him as our hunters had not come in and the day was short. I found him and it seems he was looking for narwhal and our hunters. Maybe.
I made it clear that we should go back and look for them but he was not interested. So Tuck and I took over and loaded all the gear back into the boat. He got the message and we headed back. Much ice had now broken off the main ice sheet and blocked our way so we headed towards Qaarsut again. The village was now also blocked with ice floes. The option was to try and break through or head back three hours to the cabin. We were so close. Wow the boat took a hammering; gunning it up onto floe after floe and hoping it broke under us. Capsizing was a real danger but at last we got through.
We had to get more help but now we were losing the light and at 10p.m. the locals decided to try locating our hunters still on the ice. In the dark, on thin ice? I told them we were happy to wait for them in Qaarsut. Tuck and I knew they would need a hot meal if they came in. So we got one ready for them. They all fell back through the door at 4a.m., all safe with all three boats now tied up at the landing. Now they had to resupply from the village and start out after the narwhal again, which could be a week, or mores hunt. Tuck and I had to get to our scheduled flight home the next day. Tuck had been given off by his college professor to photograph the Inuit hunters and we had to get back on time. Aliberti said he would try to take us back to Uummannaq with the snowmobile and sled, the way we came. We were not looking forward to the long haul back up the coast looking for good ice to cross on. We discovered that now the ice was far too thin to hold us. Our only option was to call for help. Aliberti managed to get a message through to Ann who pulled many strings to locate an Air Greenland helicopter pilot to come get us off the thin ice. It was the chopper pilot’s day off and somehow Ann got him to come get us. In fact when the chopper came and lifted us off, the ice was paper-thin. The chopper took Aliberti and us back to Uummannaq. Greenland Air at no charge!
We never got to see the mythical ivory horned narwhal. Sadly, we only saw one dead one but many ivory unicorn tusks, which Tuck photographed out on the ice. We did make some real friends and I have never seen Tuck so sad waving goodbye to our hunter friends who headed out of the inlet after the narwhal. If only we had more time. They got one the next day.
We will go back.