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
Ikerasak village and Uummannaq town
Ken Taylor / Cameron
February 17, 2014, re-titled June 6, 2015
A first week at Ikerasak village
In Chapter One I’ve already told how, thanks to Frøken Larsen’s having very kindly sent him a radiogram, Bent Jensen the Danish anthropology student doing research in Ikerasak village came to Uummannaq to meet us arriving on the m.s. Juto.
chart: Grønlands vestkysten Hare Ø-Prøven scale 1: 400,000: courtesy Vernon Doucette
You can see where Ikerasak is on this chart: in the southeast corner of the Bay, some 28 miles from Uummannaq, and at the far end of Uummannatsiaq Island [which now has the name Ikerasak Island, as on this chart].
For me, of course, meeting Bent Jensen was the main event of that day. But it was also important for me to meet and “check in” with Herr Nystrøm the “Colony Manager” and head of the Royal Greenland Trading Department (Den Kongelige Grønlandske Handel or KGH) for the Uummannaq Bay district. His wife and family had been passengers on the trip from Copenhagen and she very kindly offered me a room in the upstairs of one of the KGH buildings. Jørgen and Merete, a young couple I had been fellow passengers with on both the Umanak and the Juto had also offered to put me up but in the end Bent and I accepted the offer of a room to share in Palase Rasmussen and his wife’s house. Jørgen was arriving as the new dentist in Uummannaq and he’s the dentist who came to Illorsuit that I mention in Chapter One. Herr Rasmussen was the Lutheran priest in Uummannaq. Everyone always referred to him as “palase” the Greenlandic word for priest. Ole, of the Juto, gave me some more of the famous shrimp that I passed to Fru Rasmussen.
Soon there were several of the local Danes at the Rasmussens’ and someone went to find some seal meat for me to try. I liked it alright but, at least that time, it did seem a bit tough. Staying at the Rasmussens’ turned out to be a very comfortable arrangement for Bent and me and I remember that we stayed up ’til 3:00 in the morning talking about life in Ikerasak and in Illorsuit.
Bent needed to return to his village for another week or ten days to finish up his work and invited me to go with him. He had already spent more than a year living in Ikerasak and was on a return visit to continue his research when we met. Well, I didn’t need much persuading, as he was offering to introduce me to life among the Inuit, help me learn a few words of the language, and let me see him at work among the villagers. What an amazing opportunity! So, of course, I made ready to go with him as soon as he could arrange a ride for us on one or other of the official (police, doctor, trade dept., etc.) Danish boats.
Luck was on our side so that the very next day, after farewelling the travel companions heading farther north on the m.s. Juto (one young couple were going all the way up to Thule), we had exactly one hour to get ready for a ride to Ikerasak on the small KGH boat Pinasse. It was just enough time to do some unpacking and have my Scottish kayak ready to take with us! One young village girl (now fully recovered) was returning to Ikerasak with us on the same boat after eleven months at a tuberculosis sanitarium down south. It was about a four and a half hour trip but finally we got there and as we came in to the harbor over to our left there was a group of 10 or so kayaks up on their racks, all painted white and all with hunting gear in place. Bent mentioned that some of the men were away at a salmon fishing camp and others were on the nearby Nuussuaq peninsula hunting reindeer!
Some 110 people lived in Ikerasak at that time, in 19 households. The houses were quite spread out because of the rocky terrain, so this view of the center of the village, shows only 7 or 8 of the houses. Immediately in the background: a typical old-style house. The thick walls built of stone and turf and with a flat roof. Those are the two white uprights of a sled safely stored out of the way for the summer on top of the house. And that’s the usual shark meat hanging on the rack to the right.
Bent and one of the youngsters when we climbed some distance up the mountain a few days later. I wanted to include this photo here as it gives some idea of the profusion of icebergs and brash ice near Ikerasak. Only a few miles further to the southeast is the “Store” glacier, at that time the second most productive on the entire west coast of Greenland. This is the glacier that the group of scientists who travelled to Greenland with Peary in 1896 came to study. And that was the trip that led to the “Goodnow” kayak ending up in Sudbury, Massachussets (see Chapter Six “Variations in Kayak Design,” and Chapter Eight “The Hunting Equipment”). At the beginning of the new film “Chasing Ice” the first huge calving of what they call a “peninsula” of ice was filmed at “Store” glacier.
A second look at Bent ‘s own house which he had bought more than a year before. The photo of the center of the village is just to the right of what you see here. That’s Bent, of course, and Kattanguaq one of the villagers. The mountain in the background is the Uummannatsiaq (or “small heart-shaped mountain”) which, in those days, gave its name to the island (and the smaller village at the other end of the island).
With Bent voicing typical Greenlandic apologies for its inadequacies, we were soon comfortably sitting down in his house, which Kattanguaq had cleaned while he was away, eating an omelete while Bent was writing Hr. Nystrøm in Uummannaq to arrange for his return trip to Copenhagen on the Juto as it headed south … when, huge excitement, the reindeer hunters had been seen and they had two reindeer! Everyone rushed down to the harbor to meet their rowboat. These were the first reindeer at Ikerasak for 10 years!
That’s the rowboat they used on the left. The man turning to look behind him is the trade post manager Johannes, a Dane. The taller man with the white cap on is also a Dane, Hr. Nielsen, formerly the trade post manager, who when he retired decided to stay on in Ikerasak with his Inuit wife.
Turned out that the reindeer hunt had been old Jacob’s idea for years. He was a retired 60 year-old hunter and with two friends in their 50s had been gone for eight days hoping to show that they “weren’t finished yet.” The other two men had actually shot the reindeer and then they had all gutted and butchered them and bundled the pieces in the skins and hiked for three days and three nights to get the meat back to the village before it began to spoil. I realize they don’t sound to be all that “old” but in a way they were. The Danish Administration had made hunting by kayak illegal for any man more than 50 years of age. In that sense all three were “retired.”
By 1959 there were still a few reindeer to be found, but very few. I don’t remember how many they had seen but they successfully hunted two. For the 12 month period including the time of my visit, as well as these two reindeer, only eight others were caught in the Uummannaq Bay district and all of these at Niaqornat, one of the two villages on the Nuussuaq peninsula itself (Bogen om Grønland 1962, pages 287-363 ).
One of the hunters’ wives carrying one of the bundles of meat to their house.
Two young men carrying a second bundle. That’s Bent with the camera, of course. He later published an article in which he refers to this event with a photo of old Jacob’s wife stamping for joy as she performed a traditional dance of celebration.
After the excitement had died down we were invited to Hr. Nielsen’s house for an excellent fish dinner. He was 72 years old and his wife Dorsay had been his “kifaq” (or housekeeper) for 50 years before they finally married. They had a fine house, Danish style, on the very fringe of the village looking out over a small lake. Dorsay spoke hardly any Danish and he had learned even less of her language though he’d lived there most of his life. He came out originally as a coal miner before eventually becoming trade post manager at Ikerasak. In spite of their language difficulties they seemed to get along just fine, teasing each other all through dinner.
Next we went to one of the other two hunter’s houses to buy some reindeer meat. It was a small, low earth house with a large sleeping bench where the old man was sitting in state with one of the rolled up pelts behind him. His wife was in the process of cutting up their share of the meat (with an “ulo” the incredibly sharp “woman’s” knife). We were offered the tongue and some steak and some ribs. A boy was sent off to weigh it and he brought it to us at Bent’s house. But it amounted to 8 kilos and was really too much for us to eat, and more than we could afford. So we canceled the ribs but bought the rest. We also got some of the fat which we used by putting small chunks of it in our coffee — this was considered quite a delicacy.
By now Bent had told me that he’d introduced me as his cousin and asked the people to treat me just as they did him. And it did seem that that made a difference as there was no sign of the “initial shyness” phenomenon he told me about and that I later experienced during my first week or so in Illorsuit.
We tried to sleep for a while but visitors kept showing up and then an elderly woman who had arranged to come sing for Bent’s recorder. And soon after that we were off to an “imiamik” (home brewed beer party) which was great fun. The owner’s quite drunk 24 year old son was especially friendly, delighted that he and I were exactly the same age. Next we went to Jacob’s son Johannes’ house where we found old Jacob and Bent gave him a picture of a reindeer that he’d brought especially for him from Copenhagen.
That evening there was a dance, we drank coffee in two or three other houses, for dinner we had reindeer steak, delicious — it was a big day!
And then the next day we had a wonderful lunch of more reindeer, stewed, at the trade post manager’s house, and I met his Inuit wife London and their two beautiful children.
Here they are, the little girl in her “Sunday best.”
My “first seal”! At least the first hunted seal that I saw. This is Kattanguaq’s older brother with the seal and some birds he had just hunted by kayak.
During lunch Bent had raised the idea of our paying a quick visit to the small Uummannatsiaq village (officially a “dwelling place,” Ikerasak and Illorsuit were “outposts”) at the other end of the island. And that very afternoon a large motor boat was heard approaching the village. It turned out to be the “Peter Egede” — the Fishery Inspector’s boat and he agreed to take us to Uummannatsiaq.
So here’s the scene behind Bent’s house of Johannes, old Jacob’s son, and some of the children assembling Bent’s Klepper folboat that we were going to take with us to Uummannatsiaq so we could return to Ikerasak “under our own steam.” The handsome buildings in the background, by the way — none of them are Inuit, they are all Royal Trade Department. We finally got away at 9:30 pm (it was still full daylight 24 hours a day) for the 1 3/4 hour trip down the north side of the island, taking a large piece of reindeer meat with us as a gift.
And here is Uummannatsiaq and some of its 53 people. A very small village, of a few old style stone and turf houses but there were not so many people around as they were all drunk from celebrating the 50th birthday of the daughter of Karen who at 72 was the oldest person in village. It was Karen that Bent wanted to see in connection with his research but she was just back from Uummannaq so everyone in that family was sleeping! Instead we went to Knud Nathanielsen’s house. Bent gave them the gift of reindeer meat which was very well received, and so were we! We also took presents over to the birthday girl but she was still asleep. We were given the large sleeping bench to ourselves to sleep on tho’ later on Knud in fact joined us on it. And we spent a pleasant night. This was the arrangement in all the houses I ever visited — one large wooden sleeping bench shared by everyone who happened to be there on any given night. One senior woman of the house made quite a speech of her appreciation of having a Britisher in her house since Britain had so helped Denmark during the war! That was a totally unexpected pleasure. So I thanked and thanked her (through Bent’s interpreting, of course) and told her that I would pass on what she had said to everyone back home.
From Uummannatsiaq the view was to the south to the nearby Nuussuaq peninsula, another opportunity to admire the sight of several glaciers pushing their ice down from between the mountains all the way to sea level.
One of the men in the photo above had “kayak angst,” and so could no longer kayak. He was one of two men I met afflicted in this way the other, who I’ve already mentioned, was Karl Ottosen of Illorsuit. The kayaks here were the first I’d had a chance to examine in detail. They were typical Uummannaq Bay kayaks, just like the ones I would soon find in Illorsuit (and everywhere else).
We got up late the next morning at 10:30 or so and first checked on the Klepper which was fine. One man was painting the hull of his kayak white and two other men were puttering around with theirs. We had a meagre breakfast at Knud’s of a little reindeer meat — most of what we’d given them had gone to Knud’s father as a matter of seniority. Then for coffee to the smallest and oldest earth house where Knud’s father and brothers lived with the owner, an unrelated old woman. A charming little house very cozy inside, we were given wild blueberries with the coffee as a special treat and later they gave us the rest of the berries to eat on our way home. Next up to the house on the hill for more coffee where Johannes and brother and sister-in-law and nephew and their old mother all lived. Bent had often stayed with them. The mother still wore the traditional sealskin pants every day. Bent had tape recordings to make and I went off to measure kayaks.
Bent had told them that I wanted to try out a kayak so Knud carried his down to the landing for me. Young Jacob (still too young to have one of his own) was already out in the bay in someone else’s kayak, apparently waiting to escort me. I’d had a good look at the cross-sectional shape of the kayaks so I wasn’t too nervous though it was certainly the narrowest most tippy-looking kayak I’d ever tried. Our Scottish sea kayaks of those days were a lot more beamy. Knud had it ready for me to enter from the “near” side with his paddle across the fore deck and him standing on it to steady the kayak for me. But nothing doing, even with me being only 5′ 8″ tall the kayak was too small (or, rather, I was too big) and I simply couldn’t get into it. Johannes suggested that I try his which was maybe a touch bigger. At first it seemed just as bad but then Johannes indicated the fore deck thongs for me to pull on and I managed to squeeze myself in. To my delight it was stable enough to sit in without any help from the paddle. Jacob and I then went twice around the bay and then around the corner and out of sight of the village to where there was a great view of icebergs and the Uummannaq mountain. We made it back safely to the landing and that was my first trip in a genuine Inuit kayak!
I then measured four of the kayaks — Johannes’ (actually his brother’s) and Knud’s and Karl Nielsen’s, an older fellow with one of best looking kayaks in the village, also Oscar’s. Johannes helped a lot, demonstrating the use of towing straps, floats etc. Then Johannes’ nephew came down to call us for food: tea and black bread and fat and cookies. It was a small lunch but Bent explained that the hunters would generally go out in their kayaks with empty bellies and (hopefully) eat big meals at night as a result of their hunting. I measured two more kayaks and then there was talk of some kayak rolling. The one full jacket (“tuilik“) in the village had been repaired (there’d been a hole in the hood) and Johannes was getting ready to roll Tomas’ kayak. First I quickly measured the last kayak, still drying, the one that had been painted that morning.
Johannes getting ready. He began by warming up with some side sculling but while he was doing that the “tuilik” came loose of the coaming and water got into the kayak. Not good! Tomas pulled out his fine dogskin kayak “seat” to hang it up to dry off and immediately took away his kayak.
Well, after that, it felt like “time for us to leave” so we quickly got loaded up into the Klepper and set off to friendly farewells.
We paddled home to Ikerasak (about 11 miles away) along the south side of the island in an iceberg choked passage between the main island and a smaller one right beside it. This is one of the impressive icebergs we paddled past.
On the way we saw a number of seabirds and managed to shoot a black guillemot and two fulmars — the first use of my shotgun. We stopped to eat some blueberries. The sound was now fairly choked with ice and it took a lot of false starts and some backtracking for us to find a way through. Later Bent said that we’d really taken way too many risks going as close as we had to some of the bigger stuff. … that it was really good to remember that they really are dangerous. And not too much farther up the sound we watched a small scale demonstration of an iceberg rolling over and throwing off chunks of ice. On the island we passed a few shelters used as “hides” for hunting and one fox trap of stone. One more dicey bit of paddling between two icebergs quite close to each other and we were almost home. We saw the little isolated house where we’d had coffee the first morning and we reached the harbor with lots of people coming down to meet us and help us up to Bent’s house.
And one of the last icebergs we passed. Kattanguaq said she thought we had drowned we were so much later than the time Bent had said we’d be home! Then when Bent asked her to tell us the Ikerasak news she said “oh no, it’s you who have been traveling, you‘re the ones with news to tell.” Later on, at midnight, as I sat outside cleaning the shotgun, I was sweating in the warmth of the full daylight.
Back at Ikerasak where my Scottish kayak got a lot of attention. Here is Jacob, the leader of the reindeer hunters, trying it out.
And one of the village boys trying it, using my obviously strange feeling “Euro” paddle.
And here, just for the fun of it, is my same kayak on the west coast of Scotland. It’s a photo I found on the internet a few years ago, and I’d no idea who took it! Just recently, however, I heard from Duncan Winning that a copy of it was among the photos Alan Byde received from Dr. Drever years ago. So Drever must have taken it when we met at Kinlochbervie in 1958!
Of course, I also wanted to try out one or more of the local kayaks and someone went to get a kayak for me to try but the owner was asleep so I tried another one but couldn’t get into it. The next day we did find one I could get into and I managed to roll it a couple of times to everyone’s delight.
Too soon it was time to leave. Here’s me with old Jacob as we all say goodbye on the jetty. My being Bent’s “cousin” must’ve worked as I was told Jacob said to me “thank you for behaving so well to us.”
My kayak being paddled out to the Pinasse by one of the village boys. Oh, that other boat is the Police boat that I was told was there to pick up dog food for Upernavik (the next district north).
The rowboat that had ferried us out to the Pinasse returns to the jetty.
Some of the men and boys had disappeared from the farewell scene at the jetty. But then we saw them on the two hills on opposite sides of the harbor ready to give us what had become the traditional farewell salute of gunfire. Someone dipped the village flag and one of the crewmen dipped the boat’s “jack flag” and to much waving we pulled out of the harbor and around the corner. Hr. Nielsen was waiting and he dipped the flag at his house and that wonderful, invaluable week at Ikerasak was over.
And a final look back at the Uummannatsiaq mountain as we approach Uummannaq.
The m.s. Tikerak in Uummannaq harbor. And there’s the so distinctive Uummannaq [“heart-shaped”] mountain. The Tikerak was more or less the same shape and size as the m.s. Juto I’d arrived on and the m.s. Hanne S that in due course I left on for Copenhagen.
Here’s a good overview of the central part of the town including the famous stone church — the only one in Greenland built of stone. Most of the houses you see here belonged to Danes though one or two of the smaller ones must have been “Danish style” Inuit houses.
A view into the harbor. The grey building on the left was one of the KGH grouping. You can see an array of barrels of fuel in the background. The two, larger black-hulled boats were the Otto Mathiesen and one of the other “official” boats. Note the two kayaks on the smaller, grey-hulled motor boat, very much as we loaded our kayaks on the Nielsen brothers’ boat for the hunting trip from Illorsuit to Umiamako (see Chapter Four).
Again I was able to check out the several kayaks up on their racks (these photos were taken on a later visit to town). There were quite a number of them, though not all of them skinned and ready for use. The Danes spoke of Inuit who had jobs of one kind or another in Uummannaq but who kept and occasionally used their kayaks as: “Sunday hunters.”
From this angle you can see various of the KGH structures in the background. Huge piles of barrels of fuel, storage houses — the one on the right with its walls apparently built Inuit-style of stone and turf, and with a flat roof!
Three more of the Uummannaq kayaks, with a corner of the cemetery visible in the background.
I told in Chapter One of how Palase Rasamussen invited me to go with his family on an afternoon visit to Qaarsut village. As we were about to leave I noted in my journal: “the sealskin kayak got ready and paddled of,” presumably one of the Sunday hunters though that’s all I noted and I now have no memory of it. When we returned to Uummannaq I delivered some ptarmigan [how the Danes loved their ptarmigan] to Frøken Larsen and to Merete the dentist’s wife — gifts from Herr Poulson of Qaarsut.
The next day the m.s. Juto returned from the north now of its way south and on to Copenhagen. For some reason it just anchored outside the harbor so a bunch of us took Bent and his luggage, with a load of mail for him to take to Copenhagen, out to it in a small boat. It was good to see some “old friends” on board, including an elderly American man very pleased with the ivory walrus tusks he’d bought in Thule. Palase Rasmussen was like a happy child trying on his long awaited pair of Thule-style polar bear skin trousers!
On Saturday August 22nd I met quickly with Martin Zeeb of Illorsuit and then Kattanguaq and I got everything [Drever had arranged all kinds of provisions for me] packed onto the Otto Mathiesen for the trip to Illorsuit. Palase Rasmussen and Herr Nystrøm were there to see us off and also a boy called Hansi who was from Ikerasak. One of the young villagers Hendrik Quist was on the boat but he was very reserved. We were given some seal meat by the crew and we also had sandwiches from Fru Rasmussen. I remember it as a long, slow trip in dull weather the only highlight being when three of the crew and I were taking potshots at seal with .22 rifles. Eventually we actually shot one and gaffed it aboard.
And so — Illorsuit, looking “pretty dismal” as I tell in Chapter One.
From September 29th to October 8th I was back in Uummannaq again for what I had hoped would be just two or three days. This was about the defective movie camera I’ve mentioned a few times and the totally vain hope that with the help of electrical engineer Herr Gotfrisen it might be possible to fix it. We thought we had but as it turned out it was still faulty and everything I ever shot with the wretched thing was totally out of focus and of no use at all. I must have thought it would be easier than it was to arrange a ride back to Illorsuit but there wasn’t going to be a boat until October the 8th so I lost a whole ten days on that trip. Of course, it did give me lots of time to socialize with Frøken Larsen, Jorgen and Merete, and the dentist’s assistant a young woman called Aase, all of whom I knew from the boat trip. Again the Rasmussens had me stay with them which was very pleasant, I saw a lot of Herr Gotfrisen, of course, and met a number of other people. I’ve already mentioned the pleasures of Danish hospitality and I can add here that the Danes kept very comfortable, cozy homes and it was really fun and I really enjoyed being their guest.
Another look at the m.s. Tikerak in Uummannaq harbor. This shows how the harbor is well sheltered by a small but very nearby island.
One of the Uummannaq “Sunday hunters” entering his canvas covered and not fully equipped kayak. It seemed he was going out to fish, not hunt. Bundled up on the foredeck, under the harpoon line tray, he had what looks like a fishing net. He did have a gun in his gun bag but no harpoon or harpoon line. And yet he did have his shooting screen with him. In my experience: very unorthodox. Something I never saw at Illorsuit. As you can see in the next photo, he did have a hunting float (“avataq“) with him but that seemed to be for him to hold it between the side of his kayak and the rock he was taking off from kind of like a fender which made sense as his kayak was covered with canvas — much less strong than seal skin.
And he takes off, that island (and a large iceberg) again very present.
Looking to the southwest from the hill above Uummannaq out to the open sea (the Davis Strait) beyond the end of the Nuussuaq peninsula. And, yes, those are all icebergs you can see on the horizon.
The view to the northwest. That’s most of Ubekendt Island with Illorsuit just off the picture to the right.
From above Uummannaq, another look back at the Uummannatsiaq mountain.