Monthly Archives: May 2013

Chapter Six: Skinning the Kayaks

 

KAYAK HUNTING IN ILLORSUIT

GREENLAND

1959

CHAPTER SIX

Skinning the Kayaks

Chapter One Life in Illorsuit; Chapter Two Subsistence activities; Chapter Three Ikerasak Village and Uummannaq Town; Chapter Four Building the Kayaks; Chapter Five Variations in Kayak Design; Chapter Six: Skinning the Kayaks; Chapter Seven The Hunting Equipment; Chapter Eight The Hunting Trip to Umiamako; Chapter Nine The Kayak Race in the Village Bay; Chapter Ten The Rolling Competition; Chapter Eleven Re-encounters with the Kayak

Ken Taylor / Cameron

cameron@twinoaks.org

May 4, 2013; revised June 9, 2018

Skinning Drever’s kayak in 1938

This is a photo by Harald I. Drever of the kayak made for him in 1938 being skinned.  Here, with the four skins already held in place on the kayak frame by a 10 or 11 inch “pocket” sewn at each end to fit over the bow and stern, they’re at the next step of cross (or zigzag) lacing the skin to pull it tight across the hull of the kayak.

The woman standing on the left is Karen.  In 1959 she was one of six women who sewed the skins onto my kayak.

Skinning my kayak

Work on my kayak got started was in early September. To skin it we would need four Harp Seal skins and there were only two available in the village. That species of seal is more plentiful in the spring and fall, on their migrations to and from their breeding grounds. And 1959, as I was told as soon as I arrived at Illorsuit, was turning out to be a year of very few seal. If anything, you could say that I was lucky to get my hands on as many as four! 

While Emanuele was working on the frame, one day Enoch saw a Harp Seal somewhere near the village but wasn’t able to catch it. While we were at Umiamako one of the Nuugaatsiaq hunters caught one and agreed to sell me the skin. On the way back from Umiamako I was able to buy a different skin at the Nuugaatsiaq village store. Finally, on October 9th on my way back to Illorsuit from Uummannaq, the boat had to call in first at Nuugaatsiaq and  I was able to buy the skin of the seal caught at Umiamako. So I only just managed to accumulate the four needed, only days before it was time to leave. But the four skins were quickly prepared by Tobias’ wife Emilia, with help from Anna and Louisa and on October 12th the six women got them sewn onto the kayak frame.

This scarcity of Harp Seal skins meant, unfortunately, that there were none we could have used to skin Heath’s kayak with.  So Heath ended up with just the wooden framework of the kayak built for him by Emanuele.  That and the harpoon with throwing stick and paddle made for him by Johan Zeeb.

tylr_gl59_6_21       

Here are the six women who did the work of sewing the skin covering onto my kayak.  “Old Karen” is second from the right.  The others are (from the left): Else Ottosen; Sarah Zeeb; Anna Zeeb; Regina Nielsen; [Karen]; and Emilia Nielsen.

The skinning of my kayak that day also began with fitting the “pockets” onto bow and stern and then cross lacing the skin to pull it tight across the hull.  Knud, again “in charge,” Emanuele of course and also Johan and Tobias helping.  And you wouldn’t believe how hard they pulled on that cord.  To say the least, they got the skin stretched as tight as a drum across the kayak’s hull.  It looked to me like the cord they were using would surely pull free of the skin (it was threaded only half way through the thickness of the skin). 

But all went well (of course) and with that done we were ready for the six women to sew the skins together across the decks.  As part of doing that they inserted the several “patches” needed to fill the gaps left by the uneven shape of the four skins.  Sure enough each deck needed one large and one very small patch of spare skin, as well as triangular inserts in front of and behind the cockpit.

Before beginning to fit the four skins to the kayak frame they had been soaked in salt water for two days and then sewn together, end to end, with flat seams.  With that done the “pockets” were then sewn to fit over bow and stern.  All this was done by Emilia, Anna, and Louisa.  The initial lacing over the hull of the skins and the sewing of all the seams, both flat and raised, is done without ever penetrating all the way through the thickness of the skin.  In this way, there are no holes for the water to leak through and the entire covering of the kayak is completely water tight.

Sewing the four skins end to end was done with flat seams to have a minimum of wear and tear and water resistance.  But on the decks, the women used raised seams.  These were considered the most watertight but had the disadvantage of it’s being more difficult to scrape the decks free of ice at the end of the season (see KoG, pages 73-4).  As in the one made for me, the Illorsuit kayaks all had raised deck seams.

Here are Golden’s sketches of how “flat seams” and “raised seams” are sewn (KoG, pages 72 and 73).

Flat seam stitching

 

Raised seam stitching

The six women hard at work.  They were actually doing the job indoors but brought the kayak out through a window for me to get these photos.  Here the skin is already in place with the “pockets” on bow and stern, the lacing has been done by the men, and now the women are working on the deck seams.  Emanuele is waiting for when it’ll be ready for him to attach the bow and stern deck thongs and in due course the cockpit coaming.

A closer look which lets you see where the skins meet across the after deck and shows the gaps where patches of skin will have to be added.  The skin, of course, is still wet while this is being done.  Once it dries it’ll be as tight as a drum.  You can also see the cord of the cross lacing.  That’s Enoch’s wife Regina looking up at the camera.

And here the sewing job is finished and Emanuele has attached those loops of thong, each with its two “buttons” of decorative ivory, at bow and stern.  That they are loops, and not tight across the width of the kayak, is a characteristic of Golden’s Type VI kayaks (see KoG pages 328, 329, 331, 341).  As best I remember, all the kayaks I saw in 1959 had these loops of thong.  Emanuele has now also attached the coaming to the skin.  He had prepared the coaming with a series of pegs of bone which he then hooked the skin onto, one by one.  At the back of the coaming, where your back would come in contact with it, the pegs of bone were set on the outside and the skin pulled up and over the coaming  —  as you can see in the photo (it’s the stern of the kayak that’s closer to the camera).  Golden comments that “this method of attaching the [skin] to the coaming is apparently very old  [from the 1600s and 1700s] … [but has been] ‘held-over’ in certain parts of the northwest coast  … ” (see pages 87, 327, 339). The coaming is held in place in that way, attached to the skin and not at all to the wooden frame. 

I think it’s worth mentioning that the sealskin is stretched and sewn so tightly onto the wooden frame that (when dry) it powerfully “holds the frame together” and adds considerably to the strength of the kayak!

The way they prepared the four Harp Seal skins was with the outer, black epidermis not removed.  This gives the most waterproof skin.   Also, skins of this kind for kayak covering can be most quickly prepared.  No doubt that was one reason why this kind was used as there was very little time left before I would be leaving.  Unfortunately I didn’t learn if all the kayaks are skinned in exactly this way.  Certainly, as you can see in the photos of un-painted skin covered kayaks, the black epidermis had already worn off the skins of all the kayaks I saw in use.  In the photos I show (in other chapters) of the kayak at Loch Lomond and at Hellerup harbor, the following spring, you can see that the black epidermis is still intact.  But by the time of the photographs of the kayak taken after it had been deposited with the museum in Glasgow the skin was looking like all the other kayaks in Illorsuit  —  a mottled brown color, not black.  Evidently, the black outer layer of the skin had completely worn off by that time. And this end result, of course, suggests that all the Illorsuit kayaks were skinned in the same way as mine.

The photo on page 75 of Golden’s KoG shows a kayak being skinned using seal skins with the black layer already peeling off.  And one of my photos of kayaks on racks in Uummannaq town shows a kayak with a black fourth skin (the one closest to the stern).  My guess is that skin had been added to the kayak some time after the others, probably because a repair to the wooden frame had been needed.

Another point of interest is that, during the time that I was there, I didn’t see or hear of any treating of these skins with blubber, etc. to improve their water-proof quality.                                   

But, the kayak still needs its various deck thongs with their bone or ivory fittings, and the bone “knobs” on the tips of bow and stern.  Unlike the thongs at bow and stern, the deck thongs can be put in place by reaching inside through the cockpit.  The same group of men who had done the lacing of the skins across the hull did this job.  Emanuele had prepared holes through the gunwales for these thongs to be threaded through.  But the hole the men now made in the actual skin was little more than a pin prick and, as they let me find out for myself, it took a strong, strong pull to get the length of thong to go through.  Ideally, the thongs for each deck would be the visible part of one long, continuous piece.  Even, as Golden mentions in his KoG, page 79, one single length might be used for all of the deck thongs on the fore and after decks. In fact the job was done, for the fore deck, with a thong which was not long enough and you can see the splices that were needed in various of the photos.

DSCF6054.TIF

both photos:  Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum

These photos from Kelvingrove show how the deck thongs with their ivory fittings were arranged.  On the fore deck, first a pair of thongs with an ivory slider at each end. These sliders can be used to tighten the thongs whenever this is needed while also keeping the thongs very slightly clear of the surface of the deck skin and much less likely to ever become frozen to the deck.  In front of those two, a single thong joined by a large slider to the nearer of the first pair.  This third thong was called the asatdlerfik (see Birket-Smith 1924, page 264).  As the name indicates, the asalloq (plural asatdlut)  or “pistol grip” rear leg of the harpoon line tray should be hooked onto this deck thong. In front of it one more thong with no sliders. An approximately 2 feet six inches long wooden spar is tucked under the second  and the fourth of these deck thongs on the far left.  It serves to keep in place the remarkably flimsy, diagonal, left hand leg of the line tray and can also be used to slide one end of the paddle under to provide a sort of outrigger for stability when the kayak is stationary. The fourth deck thong is where the back (open) end of the gun bag is attached.

While some hunters have a special skin loop sewn into the deck seam near the bow for attaching the front end of the gun bag, on a kayak like mine the bow deck thong would used.  On the after deck a pair of thongs with two ivory sliders.  These are to keep the sealing float in place.  It has two hinged together 12 inch lengths of bone which tuck under these after deck thongs.  And I’ve already mentioned the loops of thong, each with two decorative ivory buttons, one near the bow and one near the stern.  On the right hand end of the masik, the upstanding “tab” of bone or ivory held in place by its own short length of thong.  This and a hook of bone at the base of the right hand leg of the line tray are the two supports that hold the harpoon in place.  And last but not least, the protective “knobs” on the tips of both bow and stern.  All of these arrangements for the hunting gear can be seen in the several photos of Tobias preparing a seal for towing and towing it back to camp in Chapter Eight “The Hunting Trip to Umiamako.”

These photos also show very clearly the seams between the four Harp Seal skins used and the various patches between these.  In 1959 I never saw or heard of skins from other species of seal being used to cover kayaks.  It is interesting, then, that the Goodnow kayak from 1896 was covered with just one seal skin on its front and just one seal skin on its back half. These will have been from either Hooded Seal or, possibly, Bearded Seal (see Petersen 1986, page 29 where he speaks of both kinds having been used).  Given how important Bearded Seal skins were in the making of harpoon lines, sled traces, dog whips, kayak deck thongs, etc., my guess is that these will have been Hooded Seal skins.

Goodnowkayak-029

photo: Mark Starr 

While Kent’s kayak from the early 1930s was covered with four Harp Seal skins  —

 

both photos: Vernon Doucette

Drever’s kayak from 1938 was covered with what look to be two Harp Seal skins on its front half and one Hooded Seal skin on the back  —  

photo: Harald I. Drever

It seems likely that by 1959 using Hooded Seal skins for covering kayaks was a thing of the past.  In 1959-1960, compared to 1,025 Harp Seal there were only 17 Hooded Seal caught in the entire Uummannaq district (Bogen om Grønland 1962, pages 287-363).  Only one of these 17 was caught at Illorsuit. 

Skin or canvas on 1959 kayaks

 As mentioned, it was hard in those days to get enough Harp Seal skins for all the kayaks to be sealskin covered.  Some of the kayaks had to be canvas covered.  In H. C. Petersen’s “Instruction in Kayak Building” (1981) he tells how to cover a kayak with canvas and not at all of how to do so with sealskin.  He speaks of how “the seal population of Greenland began to decline at the beginning of the present [20th] century …” (page 55).

In 1959, all the eight kayaks at  Uummannatsiaq were canvas covered, and in Illorsuit one of the eighteen.  All the canvas covered kayaks I saw were painted white, for camouflage.  Six of the skin covered kayaks at Illorsuit were also painted white, and one of them sky blue.  From the Umiamako photos, you can see seven seal skin kayaks plus 5 painted white.  These white ones may have been canvas but but I think that unlikely.  Of all the Uummannaq Bay villages, it was at Nuugaatsiaq that the hunters caught most Harp Seal in 1959-1960.  Their catch for that 12 month period was 218, compared with 97 at Illorsuit (Bogen om Grønland, pages 287-363).  Most likely, all of the Nuugaatsiaq kayaks were seal skin covered. 

I was told that a canvas covered kayak isn’t strong enough to bounce around on the beach the way a skin covered one can.  But the main disadvantage of the canvas seems to be that it isn’t strong enough to withstand the scraping of the first thin sea ice forming at the beginning of winter.  As you can see in several of my photos, virtually all the sealskin covered kayaks had deep scrapes near the bow because of this.  These were real gouges.  You could probably have fitted a pencil into the gouges on some kayaks.  What happens is that you go out hunting on a totally calm but very cold day, with no ice on the water.  Later in the day the temperature suddenly drops a degree or two and a thin skin of ice forms on the surface of the water.  And you have to force your kayak through it.  I was told that sometimes the ice becomes too thick for you to simply force your way through.  Then you have to turn sideways, break the ice with your paddle, turn again and paddle forward a few feet.  And so on.  Obviously it’s quite a risk but one that most hunters used to take as the scrapes and gouges near the bows of their kayaks clearly show!  Kent tells of one time a villager called David only just managed to make it home through ice of that kind.  “not only had David to break his way through [the ice]; he had to propel that constantly accumulating weight of ice that formed on the kayak, and wield with iced-up mittened hands an ice-incrusted paddle” (Salamina, page 250).

–  x  –  x  –

 

 

Advertisements
Categories: Yak 1959 two | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Chapter One: Life in Illorsuit

 

KAYAK HUNTING IN ILLORSUIT

GREENLAND

1959

CHAPTER ONE

Life in Illorsuit

Chapter One Life in Illorsuit;  Chapter Two Subsistence activities;  Chapter Three Ikerasak Village and Uummannaq Town; Chapter Four Building the Kayaks;  Chapter Five Variations in Kayak Design;  Chapter Six: Skinning the Kayaks;  Chapter Seven The Hunting Equipment;  Chapter Eight The Hunting Trip to Umiamako;  Chapter Nine The Kayak Race in the Village Bay;  Chapter Ten The Rolling Competition;  Chapter Eleven Re-encounters with the Kayak

Ken Taylor / Cameron  

cameron@twinoaks.org

revised May 26, 2015, revised June 24, 2018

Introduction

I once spent a summer in the village of Illorsuit in the Uummannaq district of northwest Greenland.  It was the most wonderful experience of my life.

For several years leading up to that time, my old friend Campbell Semple and I had kayaked the west coast of Scotland from the Firth of Clyde up to and around Cape Wrath.  The day before we went around the Cape we met Dr Harald I. Drever, a geologist from St. Andrews University. He had been to northwest Greenland four times and was a great admirer of the kayaking skills of the villagers of Illorsuit.

In this 2011 satellite image of Greenland Illorsuit, on an island in the huge Uummannaq Bay, is approximately half way up the west coast.

chart: Grønlands vestkysten Hare Ø-Proven scale 1:400,000

courtesy: Vernon Doucette

A chart of Ummannaq Bay, Illorsuit is the village on the northeast side of the large pear-shaped island called Ubekendt Ejland.

That winter Drever wrote to invite me to spend the summer of 1959 in Illorsuit, on my own.  The Stromness Fund which he and his brother had created in memory of their father, Prof. Sir James Drever, would provide the funds for my trip.  I am deeply grateful to the Fund for this generosity.

My stay in the area was from mid-August to late October. Being well north of the Arctic Circle, the area had a short but warm summer with the midnight sun visible from early May to the beginning of August.  For a number of reasons I got there later than planned so I missed the midnight sun. But when I first arrived it was still full daylight 24 hours a day.

In 1959, some 110 people lived in Illorsuit (lat.71’ 14” N., long. 53’ 30” W.) which was one of seven “outposts” and two “dwelling places” spread out on mainland and island sites in the huge Ummannaq Bay. The “county” town of Ummannaq itself is on an island in the southeast of the Bay and at the time had 747 people living there, most of them Inuit, several of them Danes. The total population of the District was 1865.  The outpost Illorsuit had its own church, school and store, with a catechist-cum-school teacher and an outpost manager, both of them Inuit (or “Greenlanders” as they were usually called), from other districts on the west coast.

Drever’s plan was for me to learn all I could about the kayaks and kayak hunting of the Illorsuit people with the hope (so he told me later) that my doing so would increase the prestige of kayak hunting in that area.  He was rightly concerned about this as farther south on the west coast the Danish administration was encouraging the people to give up seal hunting and to fish for cod and shrimp.  

A shrimp boat in one of the towns we stopped at on the way north.

Acknowledgements

The photos I show here were all originally color slides.  And for many, many years the most I could ever do to “tell the world” about Illorsuit kayak hunting in 1959 was to give a slide show.  Of course I did just that, at every opportunity, in Denmark, in Scotland, in the US.  By the time I had the good fortune to learn of QajaqUSA and to meet many of its members, in 2003 and 2004, the available technology meant that my slide show could now be shown on the internet!  Fantastic!  Something I never even dreamt of when I was taking the photos and learning all I could about kayaking in Illorsuit all those many years ago.

I still would never have done this, however, without the enthusiastic encouragement of members of QajaqUSA.  In particular I want to thank Vernon Doucette and Richard Nonas for so kindly doing everything they could to keep me “on task.”  Vernon, in fact, took on the enormous job of cleaning the central Virginian mold from almost all of the slides and converting them to high-definition digital images.  I don’t know how to thank you enough, Vernon.

So far so good but by that time I was an old dog trying to learn the new tricks of the basic computer skills I would need in order to get this done.  Over the last few years I have been extremely grateful to the several members of Twin Oaks Community who have helped me learn some at least of these computer skills.

Some background   

In the early 1930s, the American artist Rockwell Kent lived for well over a year in the village. He illustrated his book “Salamina” with many distinctive drawings of the villagers and their lifestyle.

Kent’s image of a kayak hunter wearing the full jacket, the tuilik, no longer used for hunting when I was there.

A rather more romantic image by Kent which actually shows the kayaker’s two thumbed mittens better than the other.  And, yes, the harpoon would be pointing backwards and, yes, you wouldn’t carry your kayak on its harpoon side!

Anna Zeeb who was still living in Illorsuit in 1959

In the late 1930s, Dr. Drever began a series of expeditions based in Illorsuit.  In 1958 he wrote a charming essay “The Kayakers of Igdlorssuit,” first published in the St. Andrews University Alumnus Chronicle, where he says:

     “The Greenland kayak, although very maneuverable and efficient,

is at the same time so absurdly small and frail

that to chase a seal in it seems almost an impertinence.” 

Nevertheless, he had a local style kayak built for him and learned to manage it and eventually to roll with it.  And he made good use of it in surveying the forbidding coastal cliffs of some parts of the island.

As a result of his work on Ubekendt Island and in the west of Scotland, Drever was one of a small group of geologists chosen to carry out the first analyses of the moon rocks brought back by the Apollo astronauts.

Dr Harald I. Drever on the occasion of a 1971 exhibit by St Andrews University  about the moon rocks and the first geological studies made  of them.

The village in 1959

 And then, in 1959 and thanks to Drever, I had my opportunity to stay in Illorsuit for a while — to meet its people, to observe and to some extent participate in their way of life, and to enjoy the bounty and the beauties of their environment and its scenery.  Drever had most recently been there in 1957 and so was able to give me photos showing virtually every one of the people I was to meet.  For reasons of his own, he never did tell me about Kent’s time in Illorsuit so I didn’t get to read “Salamina” until later. Some people, including Anna and Johan Zeeb, that Kent had written so much about were still there, still living in Illorsuit.  Over the years, Johan had also worked with Drever on various geological surveys, both on Ubekendt Island and farther afield.

During one of my visits to St. Andrews while Drever and I were preparing for my trip he showed me some photos of especially beautiful scenery. “What a beautiful place it is,” I said.  Standing up and looking me in the eye he said, “but Kenneth, I thought I had told you: you are going to the most beautiful place in the world.”  When I got there and saw it for myself, I could only agree.

Upernavik Island, eight miles across the sound from Illorsuit

And Rockwell Kent’s painting of almost the identical view  —  as of 1933.

The prominent peak on Upernavik Island clearly visible in both photo and painting had for some years been known as “Paulus Peak” in memory of Johan Zeeb’s younger brother, who had drowned in his kayak while out seal hunting. Three years after Drever’s death in 1975, a group of mountain climbers from St. Andrews came to Illorsuit, climbed the peak and re-named it Aaraliup qaqa (Harald’s Peak) (see Philip Gribbon in American Alpine Journal 1978: Climbs and Expeditions: volume 21; issue 2; page 554).

Getting there

Nowadays you can fly to Greenland but back in 1959 the way to get there was by steamer from Copenhagen.  I did so on a fairly large boat, the m.s. Umanak, with many passengers.  The Umanak and all other ships sailing to and from Greenland had their hulls painted a bright orange color.  This was a new safety measure adopted after the loss with all hands, that January, of the brand new m.s. Hans Hedtoft on its leaving Greenland for return to Copenhagen at the end of its maiden voyage.

Frøken Larsen was returning to Uummannaq to take up her duties as head of the children’s hospital. Without telling me so she had very kindly sent a cable to Bent Jensen a Danish anthropology student working in the village of Ikerasak to let him know that I would be arriving. Thinking that I was a geology student of Drever’s he nevertheless went out of his way to come to Uummannaq to meet me. Bent and I were invited to stay with the Lutheran priest “Palase” (the Greenlandic word for priest) Rasmussen and his family. You can imagine how pleased we both were when we met and discovered that we had such similar interests in the Inuit life of the area.

The church in Uummannaq, the only stone church in Greenland.  The “heart-shaped” mountain behind.

Bent very kindly invited me to go with him to Ikerasak where he was to continue his research for another week or ten days.  I describe that amazing visit in Chapter Three.  Right now I want to get us to Illorsuit!

But first a look at Bent and a local young woman Kattanguaq in front of his house in Ikerasak.  The mountain is called the Uummannatsiaq meaning “the little heart-shaped mountain.”

In due course, Bent and I returned to Uummannaq. Kattanguaq came too as she was planning on travelling south to Qullissat on Disko Island. She was told there would be a long wait before she could make that trip, so we agreed that she would come to work with me in Illorsuit, being paid for this while she waited for her trip to Qullissat. 

I want to acknowledge what a great contribution Kattanguaq made to how well things went for me and my work in the village.  At least as much as anyone else she could understand what I was trying to do (and Bent must have told her some about this)  —  and translate my attempts to say what that was into Greenlandic.  Not to mention that she was a friendly, outgoing person who already knew a few of the Illorsuit people and quickly became friends with pretty much everyone.  

A few months ago a very happy thing  —  she and her husband contacted me by email from Southwest Greenland where they now live.

First Impressions of Illorsuit

Another two or three days went by in Uummannaq, then we got a ride on one of the larger Danish boats, the “Otto Mathiesen,” to  —  the place itself.  I was tired, it was drizzling, and, as I noted in my journal, Illorsuit looked “pretty dismal.” The houses strung out along the narrow strip of land of a shallow bay, very much overshadowed by high, steep, rocky hillsides that were almost cliffs.

A later view of the south end of Illorsuit on a sunny day!

It was only later that I came to realize that it’s the view from Illorsuit that’s so special.  I hope my photographs do it justice.  Across the sound, the mountains and glaciers of Upernavik Island.  And the icebergs!  Two of the four major glaciers on the west coast of Greenland emptied into the waters of Uummannaq Bay.  One of them, the Rinks glacier, is just 57 miles northeast of Illorsuit.  So the view looking out from the village is really amazing: an endless parade of spectacular and constantly changing icebergs being slowly moved southward by the underwater currents, melting, breaking up, rolling over to show their sculpted undersides. 

But that first day, I wasn’t impressed.  It turned out that I was coming down with the ‘flu. Gunnar, the trade post manager, was very welcoming and kindly offered me a room in his two-storey house, where I could stay until I was better and could get my tent up and organized. I ended up spending a week as a guest/invalid in his house. 

The weather improved, I got better, it was time to get my tent set up. It was difficult to find a dry, level place but eventually, with all kinds of help from many people, it was up and usable. The sun shone and I began to appreciate the beautiful scenery of the view from the village.

Settling in

As I’ve mentioned I got there quite late in the summer. Only two weeks after I arrived in the village, on the 4th of September, the small creek running close to where I’d pitched my tent froze up. From then on fresh water would have to come from whatever brash ice and small icebergs came aground in the village bay. And from soon after that the village and surrounding places were covered in snow. So the weather was getting cold. But Ludwig Quist, the village “headman” soon lent me two reindeer skins to add to my bedding and with those I stayed warm even on the coldest nights.

Otto Ottosen’s son sitting on some frozen fresh water

Hospitality

During the time we were in the village, Kattanguaq and I were invited over for a meal or for coffee or to drink home brewed beer, virtually every day. On some days we’d be invited more than once, to two, to three, once even to four people’s houses. It was a lot of hospitality. And it was all kinds of fun. And I was constantly being told “you must come visit in my house more often.” Of course, this was something the villagers did among themselves. Usually when I went to someone’s house there were already other people there. I remember the people as being remarkably generous, with their time, their friendship, their gifts and their hospitality.

My tent was a Stormhaven, a kind of “wall tent.” It was well big enough to stand up in, with plenty of room to sleep, to cook, and to party. And that we did! In the evenings there would almost invariably be some people in my tent, drinking coffee, drinking beer, playing music, singing songs, trying to teach me Greenlandic, teaching each other card games, and generally fooling around. And this would happen even after some other evening event such as a dinner out or a village dance. In my journal, I can find only three evenings (during the final getting-packed-to-leave days) when we were not having fun in my tent.

Else (Salamina) Ottosen and her daughter Elene outside my tent.

Learning Greenlandic

A school teacher named Vagn had managed to teach me a smattering of Danish on the boat trip from Copenhagen but the only people in the village who spoke Danish were the teacher/catechist Sakeus Bertelsen and Gunnar the trade post manager, both from southwest Greenland. Sakeus was good at understanding my minimal Danish and that was a great help from time to time.

Otherwise, the villagers and I were going to have to communicate in Greenlandic. In the months before I left for Greenland an old friend from high school, Scott Baxter, happened to have time on his hands and offered to go through the Schultz-Lorentzen Greenlandic to English dictionary looking for the words on a short list that I’d come up with. [Thank you again, Scott, that was an enormous help.] During the week in Ikerasak Bent Jensen also helped when he had time, so that when I arrived in Illorsuit I already had a small vocabulary to build on. What then helped a great deal was that the children were being taught Danish in school which meant their having some idea of the grammar of European languages. Greenlandic (kalallissut) is a polysynthetic language in which long “words” (really the equivalent of our sentences in English) are formed by stringing together roots and affixes. So its grammar is totally different from what we have in English or any of the West European languages. Needless to say it is very, very difficult to learn. So it wasn’t really that I ever learned correct Greenlandic but that the school kids, some especially, got to be really good at translating my “kitchen Greenlandic” (as the Danes liked to call that sort of thing) into real kalallissut. And everyone eagerly taught me all that I could manage to learn. Towards the end of my stay, it was beginning to feel like (always with the help of one of the youngsters) I was able to say much of what I needed to about everyday things. 

Some social events

More or less every week there were village dances held in the village hall – a gift to the village from Rockwell Kent (with the amazing story of how he finally managed to get it built in his book “Salamina”). The young men would rapid-fire stamp dance, showing off but also announcing the dance to everyone. The music was provided by someone, usually Gunnar, playing a piano accordion. He was good and the best dances were when he played.

One special event, the day after I arrived, was a Sunday afternoon “kaffemik” in the village hall, put on by the Blaa Kors, an organization that existed to discourage people from drinking anything alcoholic. And that was serious business, of course, as kayaking is dangerous enough without anyone doing it while drunk or even hung over. Everyone in the village showed up, in relays, to enjoy the coffee and treats. Salamina Ottosen seemed to be in charge. There was a hymn sung and a talk given by it was either Sakeus or Enoch.

Another special occasion was Aaron and Anthonette’s wedding. The evening before Palase Rasmussen, a deacon called Anders, and Sakeus all arrived on the “Poul Egede” from Uummannaq. In the morning I had Palase and Anders in for coffee before they had to rush off to the church. I went to the wedding too, of course. The hymns were familiar to me from my Presbyterian upbringing, though sung (so I had been told ) in seven-part harmony, with distinctive variations of recitative and rising half notes. A Greenlandic style that I recognized from the boat trip up from Copenhagen. Deacon Anders led the service with Sakeus at the organ and giving the opening and closing remarks. Palase Rasmussen, to my surprise, was as much a spectator as was I. Quite soon after the service the “Poul Egede” left, to a salute of firing guns from Sakeus’ and Aaron’s houses.

The formalities were over, it was time to party. First there was a kaffemik at Aaron’s father Christian Nielsen’s house. Then it was along to Anthonette’s father Karl Ottosen’s for a very enjoyable imiamik (of home brewed beer), when old Olabi (who Kent had written about) entertained us all, and completely surprised me, by singing “It’s a long way to Tipperary.”

And one Sunday, a group of us went for a picnic! We went in Ole’s motor boat, some seven or eight of us, heading southwards down the coast.

 

A photo of the sound between Ubekendt and Upernavik Islands, opposite where we went for the picnic.

We got to the chosen site, a wide valley with a river on the right as seen from the sea. Karli immediately disappeared up the hill to look for ptarmigan, and Algot went out again in the boat to fish – and caught a large cod. The rest of us had coffee and rock cakes, provided by the ever-generous Sophia, squatting here and there on the snow, sitting on our anoraks, etc. Karli got back, but hadn’t seen any ptarmigan so we all had more coffee, some target practice, some more snowballing.

We left for home about 5:45 pm, in quite heavy seas that had the boat bucking around, but taking them very well. I tried to cook the cod on a primus but the boat’s movement was too much. We sang songs and made jokes all the way home, yelling with delight at every extra big wave. The sky in the direction of Uummannaq was gold and green, very beautiful, with the icebergs in the subdued light more colorful than usual.

We landed way along at Abraham’s house for some reason, Algot gave me the cod. We walked back to the tent to prepare a meal with Sophia, Ole, Algot and Karli all showing up. They stayed on as Regina and Enoch, Lea and Hendrik, Johanna, Peter and Hansi all joined us. We drank beer and tea, played cards and got sleepy. What a good day that was.

Not so isolated

In some ways Illorsuit may seem like an isolated community, 55 miles from Uummannaq, the “county seat” where all the Danes lived. But in the summertime that’s not really so. For one reason or another we were frequently visited by the relatively large boats owned and operated by the Danes.

This was also true at Ikerasak. The day after we got there the Fishery Inspector’s boat “Poul Egede” came by and was able to give Bent and me a ride to Uummannatsiaq. The day the “Pinasse” came to take Bent, Kattanguaq and me back to Uummannaq the Police boat also arrived at Ikerasak.

Here are the two boats at Ikerasak. One of the village boys has paddled my kayak out to the “Pinasse” for it to be loaded on board for the trip to Uummannaq.

On August 22nd the “Otto Mathiesen” brought me and Kattanguaq to Illorsuit. It turned out to be the boat most used as a “bus” to move people from place to place. A big event was when the “Nordlyset” arrived on September 4th with a year’s supply of coal for the village – and stayed for the six days needed (given some interruptions due to weather) to get all the coal unloaded. That same day the “Poul Egede” arrived and left immediately for Uummannaq with Sakeus on board.

On September 10th the “Poul Egede” was back bringing Palase Rasmussen and Deacon Anders, to baptise any new children and for Aaron and Anthonette’s wedding the next day. And, of course, Sakeus returned.

Next, was a boat that brought the dentist and his assistant on September 21st (while we were still not yet back from the hunting trip to Umiamako) so I don’t know which boat it was. They were Jørgen and Aase who had travelled on the same boats as I from Copenhagen to Uummannaq, so it was good to see each other again. Three days later Jørgen was taken north to Nuugaatsiaq by Karli in his motor boat while Aase preferred to not go in such a small boat.

Part of Nuugaatsiaq village

On September 25th the doctor arrived in his boat “Rudolphi” and left for Nuugaatsiaq that same day, giving Aase a ride. The “Otto Mathiesen” was also due on the 25th, bringing Hans Zeeb (Martin’s son) home to Illorsuit. It then went I don’t know where (probably Nuugaatsiaq) and on the 29th I got a ride on it to Uummannaq – in the vain hope of getting the cine camera repaired. A Herr Gotfrisen helped me with that in every possible way but, as it turned out, the camera still didn’t work! So that trip was a waste of valuable time.

 

Looking into Uummannaq harbor. The larger black hulled boat is the “Otto Mathiesen.” Two kayaks on the gray hulled boat, much as we did on the Umiamako trip.

Again on the “Otto Mathiesen” I got a ride back to Illorsuit on October 8th. First, however, we went to Qaarsut, on the north side of the Nuussuaq peninsula. I’d already been there for an afternoon with the priest’s family, the Rasmussens, so it was good to see the people again.

A few of the Qaarsut children with a part of the village behind them. On the horizon, to the left, that’s the Ummannatsiaq mountain. The photo’s from my earlier visit.

And then on to Niaqornat, also on the Nuussuaq peninsula, some miles farther west. That was my only “visit” to that village, unfortunately in the dark. It seemed an attractive place, nestled among hills and hillocks, facing north.

We then headed for Illorsuit, snacking on what we had on the way. I contributed a fine “packed lunch” that Fru Rasmussen had given me, crew member Knud had been given an already cooked little auk by a friend at Qaarsut  — delicious!

Before long we ran into very rough seas and had to by-pass Illorsuit. I noted in my journal: “dozed off a bit – awake to find boat pitching and tossing quite severely, felt sick again so back to wheelhouse to find we were heading away from Illorsuit, Edvard [skipper of the boat] having decided that Illorsuit would be hopeless for unloading … mildly thrilling voyage towards Upernavik Island boat dancing around and hard to keep one’s footing and almost dark and icebergs (big ones) only just visible. Northern Lights best yet and stars brilliant, very enjoyable. Strong phosphorescence …” We kept to the western shore of Upernavik Island and from there to Nuugaatsiaq arriving at 3:00 am. After the morning there, when I was able to buy the fourth seal skin needed for my kayak, we reached Illorsuit that afternoon with fairly calm seas and sunshine.

– X – X –

Categories: Illo 1959 | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.