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 and Uummannaq; 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
DAILY LIFE IN THE VILLAGE — Social Life
Ken Taylor / Cameron
May 17, 2015
During the time I was in the village, Kattanguaq and I were invited over for a meal or for coffee or to drink home brewed beer, at an “imiamik,” 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.
Here are just a few examples of what we were invited for: a meal of frittered cod, potatoes, gravy and (of course) coffee, at Anna and Johan’s; a crowded “imiamik” with gramophone music to dance to at Emilia and Tobias’; a very pleasant “kaffemik” at Regina and Enoch’s, who were living with his father Knud, when we listened to Louis Armstrong on the radio!; a wedding day with the two fathers-in-law thoroughly drunk and entertaining and old Olabi (who Rockwell Kent writes about) singing “Tipperary” over and over again; a great “imiamik” at Gunnar’s with “citron” laced with schnapps, Tuborg beer, and Helene’s latest home brewed beer — 7 days in the barrel and 14 days in bottles; enormous slabs of seal meat at Salamina and Otto’s with their two little daughters Elene and Andrea doing “party pieces” of dancing together, imitating hens, etc., etc.
Several times there were birthdays, I just mentioned the “imiamik” or home brew sessions which were when we would sing and dance and make up new words for Greenland songs — the “sonja kalipoq” song about the whaling boat coming home with a whale in tow, the “ai jai ai ai ja” song about how too much coffee might make you fat. 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.
In the evenings there would also invariably be a crowd of people in my tent, drinking coffee, beer, playing music, singing, 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. One evening I had Jørgen the dentist and his assistant Aase to my tent for dinner. The day the skin was sewn onto my kayak, I gave a special celebration dinner for the women who had done the sewing work and their husbands, plus Emanuele and his wife. And after that there was an “imiamik” at Olabi’s which ended quite late. Otherwise, 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.
Salamina (Else) Ottosen and her daughter Elene outside my tent.
Following Drever’s guidance and example, I always took small gifts with me for the host family. On birthdays, of course, I would also take a special birthday gift for whose ever day it was. Rockwell Kent, as I found out later on when I finally learned of and read his book “Salamina,” had also given small gifts in that way. He has a charming description of how quite small children, all dressed up in their Sunday best for the occasion, would be sent out to all the houses to invite people to the child’s birthday party. When Anna Zeeb had a birthday I noted “the corner of the room piled high with presents: shampoo; scrubbing brushes; soap; towels; candles — looked like everything the shop has to offer [I gave her a mirror] and a “naja” (Ivory Gull) from Aaron!” Several of the villagers also gave Kattanguaq and me gifts of various kinds — cooked fish, fresh fish, seal meat, a soapstone dish, some razor blades. Towards the end of my stay, Ole gifted me a pair of fine ivory toggled straps for my “kamit” and Johan, who had made the paddles and harpoons for John’s and my kayaks, gave me a beautifully made harpoon line tray for my kayak, as a gift. Now that I’ve checked through my journal I’m almost surprised to see how many gifts they gave us! Certainly, I remember the people of the village as being remarkably generous, with their time, their friendship, their gifts and their hospitality.
Other social events
I’ve mentioned village dances which happened more or less every week. They were 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. The men and women would be on opposite sides of the hall, going across to ask someone for a dance, woman doing so as much as the men. More informally, we would sometimes dance a bit in someone’s house usually as part of an “imiamik.”
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 by Sakeus or Enoch, I don’t remember which of them. It struck me that everyone was being very formal and shy. But my presence may have affected things as I’d arrived just the day before. That same evening there was a dance, a lot of fun, with Gunnar playing ’til 1:00 am or so.
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 (which was September 11th) 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 was told by someone) 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. Anna Zeeb had been at my tent earlier on in full “Sunday best” and a few other people were too. But I was disappointed not to see more people in their finery. I wondered if it’s being a Friday and not a Sunday had anything to do with that? Of course there were many children in the church so there was a general background of wails and chatter. Deacon Anders led the service with Sakeus at the organ and giving the opening and closing remarks. But not the final benediction which was by Anders. 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. I took Aaron a pipe and Anthonette a tartan kerchief. Kattanguaq gave them 50 .22 bullets and a packet of cigarettes. Then it was along to Anthonette’s father Karl Ottosen’s for a very enjoyable “imiamik,” that was when the two fathers-in-law were so much fun and when Olabi entertained us all (and completely surprised me) by singing “Tipperary.”
In fact, there had been another wedding while I was sick with the ‘flu. On August 27th Palase Rasmussen and the Doctor arrived. I didn’t really know why they were at the village until, the next day, the newly-weds Jonas and Amalia very sweetly came to see me at Gunnar’s, while a number of people were already there visiting me, with coffee and cake from their “wedding breakfast.”
And one Sunday, a group of us went for a picnic! The day had begun for me with young Peter showing up at my tent with a flask of coffee at 7:30 in the morning. He and his father Hansi were on the way to their shark lines and it was my chance to go along and see how things were done. But not a single shark that day, the baits were all untouched. There was quite a wind on the way home and it began to snow so I put up the flysheet again using stones for the guy ropes as the ground was frozen. Kattanguaq and I had lunch of a fulmar and a kittiwake that I’d shot the day before and then I slept for a bit. When I woke up I was thinking that I really should go along and measure Edvard’s kayak, but I’d been reading about Gino Watkin’s expedition to Labrador and how they all had a “day off” on Sundays. So I was just thinking what a great idea that was when Sophia came in to say the weather was good enough, after all, for us to go on the planned picnic. Wonderful! They came along in Ole’s motor boat, he, Algot and Karli. Elizabeth was being bashful about coming but Edvard ferried her out in a rowboat and we set off, southwards down the coast. Everyone was very cheerful. We came up on some birds and a couple of us I tried to get one.
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. I went down to help Ole and Algot anchor the boat, which they did with a stone anchor balanced on the bow and jerked into the water with the mooring line. Karli got back, but hadn’t seen any ptarmigan so we all had more coffee, some snowballing, the young women rolling rocks downhill, shooting at the rocks, paper bags, etc.
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. I gave the “serfaq” I’d shot to Sophia. 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 soon all got sleepy. What a good day that was.
We do some geology!
Drever had asked me to find and bring back to him in Scotland certain specific rocks that he needed more information from. It sounded like a needle in a haystack idea but in fact it worked out fine. He provided me with an aerial view of the north end of the Island marked with the locations he was interested in plus some close-ups of the rocks in question. Johan, who had worked with Drever many times reckoned he could find what was wanted.
So here are Johan and Algot outside my tent preparing for the “expedition.”
Algot, Kattanguaq, Johanna and Johan as we leave the village. By the way those houses away around the bay separate from the rest of the village — those were the Zeeb family houses. So one of them was Johan and Anna’s. And my tent was in the low lying area, this side of the visible houses, hidden from view behind Johan.
Of course we had a tea break. We must’ve hidden the bottle from the camera but the tea was well laced with Scotch. And sure enough we were able to find the rocks Drever was interested in and take the samples he wanted which I then delivered to him back in Scotland.
Not so isolated
In some ways Illorsuit may seem like an isolated community, far away 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. I forget which boat took us there on August 11th. Then the Fishery Inspector’s boat “Poul Egede” took us to Uummannatsiaq on the 12th. On August 18th the Police boat came, and also the “Pinasse” to take Bent, Kattanguaq and me to Uummannaq.
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. So I was able to send my regards to the Rasmussens.
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 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 (it was very similar to the Nielsen brother’s boat we used for the Umiamako trip). The dentist’s work was done right there on the beach with some sort of an old-fashioned drill. Amazingly, he hadn’t yet learned how the Inuit indicate “yes.” So I watched him asking one young boy “does it hurt” and the boy was raising his eyebrows like crazy. Everyone assumed the dentist knew what that meant but (poor boy) he didn’t.
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.
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’ve told how I’d already been there for an afternoon with the priest’s family, the Rasmussens, so it was good to see everybody, including Hr Poulsen the trade post manager, one more time.
A few of the Qaarsut children with a part of the village behind them. On the horizon, to the left, that’s the Uummannatsiaq mountain. The photo’s from my earlier visit. And then on to Niaqornat, also on the Nuussuaq peninsula, some miles farther west — the village where those other reindeer were hunted that year. That was my only “visit” to that village, unfortunately in the dark. It seemed an attractive place, nestled among hills and hillocks, facing north.
photo: Danish Arctic Institute
This photo, taken in 1902 by Dr. Alfred Bertelsen, shows two kayaks offshore at Niaqornat. Interesting that two kayaks of that date show the same bow and characteristic stern design as the Uummannaq Bay kayaks of 1959.
A Johannes Petersen was with us to fetch his motor boat from Niaqornat back to Uummannaq. He invited me ashore for coffee at his brother’s, a pleasant break from being on the boat. This while the unloading went on by lantern light.
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. Now that was really 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, where I was able to buy the fourth seal skin needed for my kayak, we reached Illorsuit that afternoon with fairly calm seas and sunshine. On the 11th the “Leif” was heard, soon arrived, and I was able to send some “thank you” seal meat to Herr Gotfrisen.
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!” I’ve told how I’d already been given a dog whip and been shown how to use it. Now they also showed me the remains of an old sled that could be rebuilt for me to use. And, both Tobias and Hansi said that I could stay with them! That was really generous of them and would’ve been fine but, of course, I would’ve preferred to have a house to myself. So Hansi and I even discussed the idea of my renting his (as he was moving to one of the new ones). 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.