KAYAK HUNTING IN 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
CHAPTER ONE: REACHING ILLORSUIT
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 the northern half 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.
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.
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.