KAYAK HUNTING 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
June 6, 2015, revised June 23, 2018
Seal hunting at the village
I could see that there were kayaks, kept on their “out of dog reach” racks, outside almost all of the houses. BUT, by this time I’d been told that there were very few seal to be found that summer. That was a bit of a shock. Based on his own experience of past years, Drever had told me that I could expect to be offered seal meat (to buy or as a gift) almost every day! And it meant that there was much less kayaking going on than I had hoped to see.
In those days seal hunting was still the primary occupation of all the able-bodied men. Seal were hunted during the winter by harpoon and rifle at the breathing holes, by netting, and in the spring by shooting the sleeping seals lying out on the ice. All travel on the sea ice was by dog sled, with teams of six to eight dogs harnessed in “fan-trace” arrangement. Uummannaq Bay was famous for the “glass ice” that formed at the beginning of the winter, smooth ice with no snow cover. That allowed the hunters to move about on the ice without the seal hearing that they were there. In 1958, the year before I was there, they had 60 days (all of January and February) of this “glass ice.”
A photo I found on the internet of Illorsuit in May of 2003. The sea is frozen solid, everything is covered with snow with some recent sled tracks visible.
The kayak hunting was done in the summer season, of 5 to 6 months open water. Five species of seal were found in the seas around Illorsuit. These were the Ringed Seal (Pusa hispida), the Harbor Seal (Phoca vitulina), the Harp Seal (Pagophilus groenlandicus), the Bearded Seal (Erignathus barbatus), and the Hooded Seal (Cystophora cristata). Of these the Ringed Seal was very much the most common. The main item of the villagers’ diet was still seal meat. Half-cured skins the hunters could sell to the village KGH store, or keep for their own use in making clothing and equipment.
The traditional seal skin boots were still worn by most people most if the time. These kamit have an inner boot of skin with the hair left on the inside, pointing from top to bottom and an outer boot of depilated skin. You put a wad of dead grass between the inner and outer boot under your foot and also some inside the inner layer. These parts of the boot were of Ringed Seal skin. The soles of the outer boot were of the far tougher Harp Seal skin. I soon arranged with Anna Zeeb for her to make me a pair. And they were the most comfortable things I’ve ever worn. With the hair of the inner boot pointing downwards they were easier to put on than any other boots or shoes I’ve ever had.
Most of the men, especially when kayaking, still wore the traditional seal skin trousers. The short trousers (more like mini-skirts) and thigh length boots of the girls’, women’s, and widows’ “Sunday best” were also made of seal skin. The girls and unmarried woman wore white boots; married women wore red; and widows wore black. With those shorts and boots, plus a colorful shirt and cummerbund and — the special feature of it all — a cape of colored seed beads, a girl or woman was in her “Sunday best.” This was the closest to their traditional clothing that some girls and women ever wore in those days. Only a very few, usually older, women would wear the boots every day.
Enoch Nielsen, his wife Regina and their two children. Regina’s fully attired in what I’ve just described as the girls’ and unmarried women’s clothing. It seems she hasn’t been a married woman long enough to get around to making, or having made for her, a pair of red colored boots. The little girl is also wearing her white boots, etc., but no beaded cape. Also, it looks like Enoch is wearing a brand new pair of sealskin trousers.
Louisa Zeeb with her grandson. She’s not wearing her beaded cape, but does have on her married woman’s red boots.
Many, though not all, of the kayaks were skin-covered, and much of the hunting gear for kayak and dog sled was made of seal skin. Ringed Seal or Harbor Seal skin was used for trousers, boot uppers and certain of the kayak and sled accessories. Harp Seal skin was used for boot soles and for skinning the kayaks. When the time came, unfortunately, it took weeks for me to accumulate the four Harp Seal skins needed to skin my kayak. Bearded Seal skin was used for thonging, e.g. dog whips, dog traces, harpoon lines, and kayak deck thongs.
During the time I was there only one Bearded Seal (enormous) was caught and that by a young man out checking his shark lines by row boat. Very carefully advised and instructed by two of the older men, Aaron immediately began skinning it into cylinders. That, of course, was quite different from the way all other seal are skinned with a cut down the center of their belly (see photo in Chapter Eight: The Hunting Trip to Umiamako). The first cylinder of skin was five or six inches wide and when cut in a continuous spiral it will have given a good length of thong, perhaps enough for a harpoon line, certainly more than enough for a dog whip.
According to the data in an invaluable book “Bogen om Grønland” published by the Politikens Forlag, that was the only Bearded Seal caught at Illorsuit during the 12 months of 1959-1960. In fact, in the whole of Uummannaq Bay there were only eight Bearded Seal caught during that year.
I only saw anyone leave the village by kayak to go seal hunting I think it was just twice (though I did hear of individuals doing so a few other times). I did also once come across Karl Ottosen on the slope above the village with a telescope who said he was looking for Karli Zeeb’s safe return from hunting.
photo: Harald I. Drever
A photo by Drever of a kayaker returning from hunting
Borrowing each other’s kayaks
During those days at Ikerasak, Jacob the reindeer hunter, two different boys, and the trade post manager all tried out my Scottish kayak without incident and a lot of interest.
One of the Ikerasak boys in my kayak (using my feathered Euro paddle which must’ve felt weird).
My own first opportunity to try out a local kayak came when Bent Jensen and I visited the small “dwelling place” Ummannatsiaq, at the far end of the island from Ikerasak. A few days later I was able to try one at Ikerasak itself (see Chapter Three, “Ikerasak Village and Uummannaq Town”).
Between returning from Ikerasak to Uummannaq and finally leaving for Illorsuit, I went with the Rasmussen family for an afternoon visit to the village of Qaarsut. It’s pleasantly situated on the north side of the Nuussuaq peninsula, looking north to the Uummannaq mountain. Again I asked to try one of the kayaks. Not as easy as I’d hoped as, immediately after the church service (the reason for the visit), most of the men had gone hunting. We found one after a bit and I squeezed in OK. It felt possibly a little less comfortable than the others I’d tried so far. It had all its hunting gear in place with the harpoon looking a bit precarious to me, but it seemed to be a very stable kayak. The harpoon and its throw stick were both much lighter weight than I’d expected.
Children at Qaarsut and two kayaks on their racks
In Illorsuit, as soon as I’d gotten installed in my tent the kayak borrowing began. I was delighted that people wanted to try out my kayak. Especially, of course, it was boys without yet any kayaks of their own who wanted to do this.
One of the first times was when Jonas tried mine, and I his. It was a very nice looking seal skin covered kayak, with bone and ivory trimmings, the most attractive I’d tried so far. I had the usual struggle to get in but then it felt more roomy than others, with no real hold on my thighs. It seemed a little less stable than some I’d tried. We went round the corner and started playing with the harpoon. Which again felt very light and “comfortable,” both it and the throw stick smaller than I’d ever imagined. The thongs and slides and hooks, etc., on the fore deck seemed super practical and efficient. And, after more time with it than I’d had with the kayak at Qaarsut, I ended up convinced that the harpoon on its hook and knob was really quite stable. I was struck by how “minute” the white screen at the bow seemed to be.
The next day Peter’s kid brother Johannes tried my kayak and managed it well in spite of fairly rough water. And the day after that was Peter’s turn. And soon it became a regular thing for Peter and his brothers to borrow my kayak to hunt birds and to fish. Several other villagers also gave it a try. They were always quite non-committal and no one ever criticized it for being so tubby compared to theirs.
September 7th was the big day when Ludwig had suggested lending me his kayak. With Peter in mine and Karli as “escorts,” we went some distance down the coast hoping for seal. We saw none, I turned around to admire two icebergs and – capsized. No problem, after all I’d already rolled an Inuit kayak at Ikerasak. But I was upside down in the frigid Greenland water and I completely forgot that I needed to change my grip on the paddle to do the sweep roll that I knew. So, after a few half rolls, Karli had to rescue me. I got so cold on our way back to the village I eventually couldn’t even move my arms! An awful experience (see my “Illorsuit Adventure” article in QajaqUSA’s newsletter MASIK, Spring/Summer 2009 issue).
With such a shortage of seal meat that summer, several of the villagers had taken to hunting sea birds and fishing to provide their families with something to eat. So I began doing so too. Sometimes that would be with Peter in his family’s rowboat but more often I preferred to go out in my own kayak. And sure enough, just as Drever had told me to expect, the first time I returned with some birds I had shot, people leaned out of their windows to call out piniatorssuaq! That was kinda sweet as the word means “big hunter.” These were actually quite small scale hunts, usually in the evening, not far from shore and either inside the village bay or just around the corner. I often did it without but it worked best if you had some shark liver (which floats) to throw out on the water as “ground bait.” That soon brought some birds around to check out their prospects.
Once I went hunting with Jonas, each in our own kayak, with some liver he had brought along. Several birds came around and twice he waited until he had two “birds in a row” and got them both with one shell. What’s more they were Ivory Gulls! bigger and better than most other sea birds. The little auk was a good catch, also the serfaq (Black Guillemot). But most of the time the birds that showed up were kittiwakes or fulmars, both perfectly edible but a bit boring.
Some days the fishing would be good: small to medium sized cod with the lines we all had. Several of my neighbors were fishing those days, some of the boys borrowing my kayak to do so. And a number of times I received gifts of fish, just caught or once or twice cooked already. That was Sophia’s speciality, very kind of her. Out fishing in my kayak one day: Peter was in his father Hansi’s kayak, and Ole Quist was in Malaki’s. Then Severin joined us in Johan’s kayak! It was nice to see that kayak in use. Between us all we caught a lot of fish that day.
One day a group of young people and I were preparing to go inland in search of ptarmigan. Hansi, who was himself going out in his kayak after sea birds, suggested that we do so too as he reckoned there’d be no ptarmigan that day. But we were intent on the ptarmigan idea and the four of us set off. Sakeus’ son Nicolet, Edvard Quist, Kattanguaq and I. By that time (it was September 28th) everything was snow covered and the ptarmigan were fully in their winter plumage, every single feather a vivid white, with only their tiny black beaks at all visible. Quite a change from the only half “winterized” ones Tobias and I had seen on Karrats Island just eleven days earlier. I clearly remember the almost eerie effect of looking down into a small dip in the terrain, hearing the low pitched chirping of the birds, and not being able to see a single one of them. Then as we got closer, suddenly a whole flock of 30 or 40 birds would take flight, whirring off as one unit. That was such an impressive sight. Even with careful shooting we ended up with only six between us all. Altogether we must have seen 150 to 200 birds.
Several Day Hunting Trips
The highlight of the summer, however, was my going with the three Nielsen brothers on a several day seal hunting trip travelling, with our kayaks on board, by inboard motor boat to the traditional hunting camp at Umiamako. See the whole story in Chapter Eight “The Hunting Trip to Umiamako.”
The three brothers (and two of our kayaks) on the way to Umiamako
Both Johan and Karli told me about similar several day hunting trips. Johan did not have an inboard motor boat but he did have a powerful outboard motor. He insisted it worked just as well for him (and was just as fast) as the two or three inboards other villagers had. He used it regularly and had recently got back from a six day trip on which they caught two seal. Anna, Kalasi and Sara had gone with him. They used a tent and all had gone well.
By September 22nd, Karli Zeeb had invited me to go on another several day trip. We would use his inboard motor boat. I was keen to do so as there was at least a chance that we would catch another Harp Seal and I still needed a fourth skin for skinning my Greenland kayak. Unfortunately, I made the foolish decision of going to Uummannaq in hopes of repairing the movie camera, and his trip was over by the time I got back.
The shark fishing I’ve just mentioned was a constant and very important feature of village life. The liver and skin of these shark could be sold for a good price to the KGH store in the village. The white meat was cut into rectangular blocks, split down the middle, and hung up (on high racks out of the reach of the dogs) to sun dry and become the bulk of the dog food needed in the winter.
Hansi Møller in his rowboat with the five shark his son Peter had just caught.
This (October 11th) was a huge day for Peter. That was the most shark I ever saw anyone catch at one time. They used long lines (1/2 kilometer long they reckoned in one case) each with a number of large hooks baited with seal blubber. Usually by rowboat, they would go one or two miles down the coast of the island and sink the lines to the sea bottom using a fairly heavy weight and a “glider.”
Though not a total count, I also noted that on September 3rd Hansi had come home with three shark. On the 6th, Jonas with his father and wife came back with two. That same day, Hansi and Peter had caught three. September 6th, Karli returned in his inboard motor boat with two and earlier in the day I’d seen him helping other people landing one or more. On the 11th someone else had one or more shark. September 13th Peter had another three. And on October 11th, the day of Peter’s five shark, Ole and Algot caught another three.
Peter skinning the first of his shark
These Greenland Shark, or Sleeper Shark (Somniosus microcephalus) are bottom feeders during the summer months, when the waters are warmer [!] than they prefer. Although they can grow as big as 21 feet, 8 to 14 feet is the more likely size for the many adults that were caught annually off the coast of West Greenland. They will approach the surface of the water in winter, often coming right up to the ice edge. But most of them withdraw in summer to 100 fathoms or deeper. It is one of the most sluggish shark species, offering no resistance whatsoever when hooked and, although they are known to eat seal, large fish, and even in one case an entire reindeer, they do not normally attack or harm humans in any way — at least not in the summer.
Here’s Peter removing the liver from one of the shark. As you can see, it’s enormous almost filling the inside of the shark. Later in Europe, among other things, it’ll be used to make cod liver oil!
His father Hansi helping butcher one of them.
The Sled Dogs
Unlike in other parts of the Arctic, in 1959 Greenland the sled dogs ran loose in the towns and villages. Each family’s team functioned as it’s own small “pack” and they coexisted with very little squabbling between them, unless there was some food to fight over. Because during the summer, the “off season” for sled pulling dogs, they were given almost no food at all. They were expected to fend for themselves by catching small fish on the shore line and eating the guts and offal of the seal, fish, birds, the people caught, and any other scraps that might show up from time to time. Also, horrible thought, by eating human excrement. But there was one other important source of summertime food for the dogs: the carcasses of the shark.
This shows some of the village dogs waiting impatiently for the butchering of the shark to be completed. And well out of their reach you can see shark meat from earlier in the year turning pale brown as it dried in the sun. They’re being kept back with dog whips until at last it’s their turn. The sharks’ skeletons are of cartilage which is easily eaten by the dogs. And, of course, they will also eat the fins, the offal, etc. When the butchering is finished, everyone down at the shore line runs for dear life out of the dogs’ way as they rush down to get their share. A few minutes later there’ll be not a sign left of the shark.
These sled dogs are impressive, strong, half wild, beautiful, and scary at times. A few yards from my tent, one of the neighbor’s bitches was about to whelp in an old meat storage cellar. For a few days the lead dog of that team lay outside, on guard. That was right on the path I used to head into the village. One or two snarls from that dog and I soon found a way to detour around that little scene. I can’t find a photo with the male “on guard” but here is one from a few days later of the mother dog nursing the pups.
The extreme way of not feeding your dogs in summer was to maroon them somewhere far from the village. Enoch kept his dogs at Sarqa, the southernmost tip of the island. Algot had his some distance down the coast. I saw them when he brought them back to village late in my stay and while they weren’t exactly overweight they seemed to be in good shape. Otto, and at least one other man, had theirs across the sound, on Upernavik Island.
One of only two or three photos that show any dogs at Ikerasak.
The only dog in my photos of Nuugaatsiaq.
So it seems that at both Ikerasak and Nuugaatsiaq the sled dogs were almost all away from the village. And, of course, those will have been (some of) the Nuugaatsiaq dogs we saw on Karrats Island as we came in to our first campsite on the Umiamako hunting trip.
Dogs of virtually all other breeds will stop attacking any dog that “submits” by lying on its back, exposing its belly to the attackers. This is not true, however, of the Greenland sled dogs. If the dog being attacked ends up on its back, on the ground, the attacking dogs will kill it. This was a terrible source of anxiety for the Danes living in a town like Uummannaq. The mothers of young children lived with the fear that one of their children would fall down and be attacked (and therefore killed) by the sled dogs. For that reason the young Danish children were never allowed outside on their own but were at all times in the care of what we would call a “nursemaid.”
Several times I heard it said (by other Danes) that of course the Danes did well in the winter sled driving races — they could afford to buy the best dogs. While that must be true enough, Enoch had come in third in a major dog sled race in early 1959. The race was a three hour run from Uummannaq to Uummannatsiaq and back. A total of 84 sled teams took part.
But it wasn’t just the Danes who bought and/or sold dogs. In late September the Danish doctor came to Illorsuit and when he then left for Nuugaatsiaq he was asked to vaccinate one of Sakeus’ dogs that was going to someone there. When I returned to the village from Uummannaq in early October, along with the rest of our baggage there was a sled dog someone was sending to Algot.
The dogs also serve two other functions. Their meat can be eaten — by humans or by other dogs in extreme situations. And their pelts provide good quality animal skins for various purposes. When we got back to Uummannaq from Ikerasak, Frøken Larsen invited Bent and me to lunch. The special treat of the meal was to be dog meat — from two young puppies. I don’t remember how she prepared it but it was delicious!
When Bent and I visited Uummannatsiaq and the tuilik came loose from the coaming just as Johannes was about to demonstrate some rolling, Tomas the owner of the kayak, not at all pleased, pulled out his beautiful dogskin “seat” and hung it up to dry.
On the hunting trip to Umiamako we had a dog skin and a reindeer skin as the “groundsheet” of our tent. Tobias’ beautiful winter sleeping bag was of dog skin on the inside and seal skin on the outside.
Kent’s drawing of a winter hunter: reindeer skin jacket; seal skin mittens; dog skin pants.
Hoping to return
As I’ve said, it was the most wonderful experience of my life. And, of course, everyone was well aware of how much I was enjoying myself. And of how much I would love to spend the winter with them too. Everyone liked that idea. “If you’ve enjoyed it here in the summer you should see it in the winter – there are no Europeans around [!], the hunting is good, it’s when we really have a good time!”
A wonderful dream! but to this day I’ve never ever been back to Illorsuit.
And then, too soon, on October 18th the “Otto Mathiesen” arrived at 6:00 am and took me and Kattanguaq to Uummannaq for the last time. What a sad, sad day!
A day or two later I left for Copenhagen as one of three passengers on the quite small m.s. “Hanne S.” All was uneventful ’til we passed Cape Farewell, the southernmost tip of Greenland, and soon entered a bank of dense fog. We slowly, slowly steamed ahead with the Captain on the bridge day and night. A very scary situation. But we got through the fog (and the icebergs) safely and in due course reached Copenhagen.
The following spring, the Hanne S. was the first boat to leave for Greenland. It got there safely, took on a load of cryolite at Ivigtut, also some passengers, and was on its way home to Copenhagen when it was caught in a severe storm and was lost with all hands.
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