KAYAK HUNTING IN ILLORSUIT
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
revised May 26, 2015, revised June 24, 2018
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.
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.
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).
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.
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
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.
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.
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