Monthly Archives: May 2013

Chapter Seven: Skinning the Kayaks





Table of Contents:

Chapter One  Reaching Illorsuit;  Chapter Two  Daily Life in the Village  —  Subsistence and such;  Chapter Three  Daily Life in the Village  —  Social Life;  Chapter Four  Ikerasak Village and Uummannaq Town;  Chapter Five  Building the Kayaks;  Chapter Six  Variations in Kayak Design;  Chapter Seven  Skinning the Kayaks;  Chapter Eight  The Hunting Equipment;  Chapter Nine  The Hunting Trip to Umiamako;  Chapter Ten  The Kayak Race in the Village Bay;  Chapter Eleven  The Rolling Competition;  Chapter Twelve  Re-encounters with the Kayak;  Some Final Thoughts

Chapter Seven

Skinning the Kayaks

Ken Taylor / Cameron

May 4, 2013; re-titled June 18, 2015

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. In September (of 1959) they were few and far between. 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 didn’t catch it. While we were at Umiamako one of the Nuugaatsiaq hunters caught one and agreed to sell me the skin. Enoch saw another but at a distance. Also on that trip I was able to buy one at the Nuugaatsiaq store. And, finally, on October 9th on my way back to the village from Uummannaq I was able to buy the fourth I needed also at Nuugaatsiaq  —  the skin of the seal caught while we were 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, of course, 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.


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, of course, 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.  Since each skin was widest in the middle and a lot smaller towards the neck and tail, 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 together 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 (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, 352).  As well as my kayak, he is referring to #61 and #67 in KoG.  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 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.

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 ivory fittings, and the ivory “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, fore and aft.  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.


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 “asaloq” (plural “asatdlut“)  or “pistol grip” rear leg of the harpoon line tray should be hooked onto this deck thong.  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 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 Nine “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 Bladder-nosed 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 Bladder-nosed Seal skins.


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).

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Chapter One: Reaching Illorsuit






Table of Contents

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

Ken Taylor / Cameron

revised May 26, 2015 and January 10, 2016



        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.


This is a 1941 map of Uummannaq Bay.  Illorsuit (spelled Igdlorssuit on the map) 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.

I always call it a summer but in fact my time in Greenland 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.  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.  In fact, quite unknown to Drever, to me, and perhaps to anyone, the ancient tradition of seal hunting by kayak was about to come to an end.  By 1966, when Drever went back to Illorsuit on yet another geological field trip, things were already transitioning from the “traditional” seal hunting by kayak to the “motorised” seal hunting reported on by Chris Hare (see more on Hare’s observations in Chapter Eight, The Hunting Equipment).  


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 many computer skills I would need in order to get this done.  Over the last few years many members of Twin Oaks Community where I’ve lived since 1988 have helped me learn some at least of the mysteries of using computers.  I especially thank Dream, Arizona, Tim, Alex, Sunshine, Adder and Paxus for so patiently showing me what I needed to know.

Some background   

In the early 1930s, the American artist Rockwell Kent lived for more than 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 “should” be pointing backwards and, yes, you “shouldn’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 the island.

As a result of his work on Ubekendt Island and in the west of Scotland, Drever was one of a handful 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 further afield.

So here they are.  Johan and Anna Zeeb, their crippled daughter Anna Marie and her little son Bintsi.  You can see a few of their dogs but not much winter dog meat.  In fact, what they have drying on the rack looks more like fish than shark meat.  There’s also an upside down sled hanging from the rack.

And Bintsi in his decorative “kamit (sealskin boots) with a plastic boat which was probably a gift from me …

and the real boat, a small dory, that Johan was building for him.

Johan posing in front of his still fully operational kayak.  He kept it that way even though he was well over fifty, the age at which the Danish administration had made it illegal for the men to continue seal hunting by kayak.  His was one of only two kayaks I saw painted sky blue, rather than white, as camouflage.

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.

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.

We left Copenhagen on July 25th with many family and friends of the passengers there to say goodbye.  It was my first ever experience  of the moving ritual of the paper streamers from boat to shore until they break as the boat pulls away.  Most of the passengers were Danes and Greenlanders and for 10 days I was regaled with stories about life up there.

We passed the Skagen (the northernmost tip of Denmark) at night and then went by the Orkney Islands (Drever was an Orcadian) at breakfast time with most of us feeling a bit seasick.  But that same day we were singing Greenlander songs at the piano and Vagn, a young Dane who was going to Qutdlissat on Disko island for two years work as a teacher, was already giving me Danish lessons.  We were entertained with Lutheran hymns and songs all in the distinctive Greenland Inuit seven part arrangements.  Beautiful!  Some of the songs were composed by a Greenlander who was there with his family. 

The boat called in first at Nuuk (then called Godthaab) and after a day there some of us were transferred to the much smaller m.s. Juto for the rest of the journey north.  Next we stopped at Aasiaat (then Egedesminde) where we again had a day ashore.  Next was a very quick stop at Qutdlissat (later spelled Qullissat, the town was abandoned in 1972) to let off Vagn, Aase and Edel and allow Jens and Birthe, both Inuit, to see Jens’ father after three years  —  for half an hour!  And then, at last we headed for  Uummannaq (spelled Umanak in those days).

For me it was wonderful to have those ten days to let my head catch up with the fact that I was really and truly going to, hearing about, seeing for myself, and finally arriving at Greenland.  For years Campbell and I had read everything we could get our hands on about the “Eskimos” of Greenland, and now I was actually there.

Our slow progress up the coast had been marked by changes in the scenery, especially a slow increase, mile by mile, in the number and diversity (and beauty) of the icebergs.   As I noted in my journal, once we had passed the end of Nuussuaq (then Nugssuaq) peninsula and turned into the Uummannaq Bay itself, “It is like a new country after the parts of Greenland we have seen to the south. So very much more exciting — more icebergs, more glaciers, higher land, more colorful and varied rocks and, somehow, a more expansive effect from the enclosure of the huge Bay combined with the great distances all around.”  We could see the distinctive Uummannaq (heart-shaped) mountain, clearly visible behind a bank of fog.  I was shown which was Ubekendt Island, where Illorsuit is, and I admired the scene of numerous glaciers relentlessly pushing their ice down to the sea. So this was it! and it was wonderful!

Rockwell Kent’s distinctive take on the local scenery!  I found this painting on Sarah Lowe’s online blog.

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 went out of his way to come to Uummannaq to meet me.  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.  Bent and I were invited to stay with the Lutheran priest “Palase” Rasmussen and his family.  Like most of the Danes in Uummannaq they knew Drever of course.  Frøken Larsen had us all to her so comfortable house for the evening where I got to meet many of the Danish people who lived in town.  That was a delightful evening and my first experience of the marvellous Danish hospitality.

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

Was it one or two nights in Uummannaq town? and then kindly invited by Bent I went with him to Ikerasak where he was to continue his research for another week or ten days.  I describe that amazing visit in Chapter Four.  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, Kattanguaq and I returned to Uummannaq where she was planning to travel on to Qullissat.  She was told there would be a long wait before she could make that trip, so we all agreed that she would come with me to stay in Illorsuit as my “kifaq.”  Meaning that she would work with/for me as a kind of collaborator  —  easing my contacts with the villagers, helping me with housework, etc., and 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 it seemed I was able to get along with the villagers.  At least as much as anyone else she could understand what I was trying to do  —  and translate my attempts to say what that was into Greenlandic.  Not to mention that she was a delightful, 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 55 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. …..




 The view looking north


The view from my tent late one afternoon.

But that first day, I wasn’t impressed.  Gunnar (sorry, Gunnar, I never did get a note of your surname), the trade post manager, was an Inuit from southwest Greenland.  He welcomed us and kindly offered me a room in his two story house, where I could stay until I got my tent up and organized.  But, as it turned out, I was coming down with the ‘flu.  So I ended up spending a week as a guest/invalid in his house. 

Bent Jensen had warned me of an inevitable week to ten days of shyness that I could expect from the villagers as they slowly got to know me.  At Ikerasak, he had told the people that I was a cousin of his and that they could treat me just as they did him.  And that worked! the Ikerasak people had been open and friendly around me from day one.  But now, in Illorsuit, I could expect the full effect of this “shyness” phenomenon.  What happened, in fact, was that with my being sick in bed and the villagers naturally wanting to at least meet me, quite a number of them came to visit while I was still at Gunnar’s.  Of course, they loved the photos Drever had given me identifying most of them  —  and immediately persuaded me to let them have the photos of themselves and their family members.

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 my tent.

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