Chapter Two: Daily Life in the Village — Subsistence and such




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


DAILY LIFE IN THE VILLAGE  —  Subsistence and Such

Ken Taylor / Cameron

June 6, 2015

Settling in

For various reasons 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 through the village 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 

By coincidence the coal boat “Nordlyset” arrived that very same day with the year’s supply of coal.  By derrick and “grab” the coal was unloaded into rowboats sculled out to the movable “jetty.”  As the (quite small) tides came in and went out the jetty had to be moved up and down the beach.  The coal was then shoveled into sacks and carried to the store house (mainly by the woman).  There it was weighed and stacked.  While the Nordlyset was there I was visited by Knud of the boat’s crew and two Inuit passengers for coffee and cigarettes.  The conversation was fun as between us we had some Danish, some “kalallissut” (Greenlandic), and even a few words of English.  The coal unloading (given some interruptions due to the weather) was still going on on Wednesday the 9th when the villagers worked at it ’til 10:00 pm.

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, more and more as the “shyness” wore off, and my tent soon became the unofficial “youth club” of Illorsuit, but for children, youths, adults, everyone.  We drank a lot of coffee in that tent! and a lot of Scottish beer!  We played musical instruments, and sang songs, and told stories, and they tried to teach me Greenlandic, and we laughed and laughed.  And I learned for myself how very, very cheerful and friendly the Inuit can be.

6-25-ill-else-girl-tent NO BORD

This is Otto’s wife Else (also known as Salamina) and their litle girl Elene outside my tent.  Elene is dressed in her “Sunday best” with white boots and a colorful beaded cape.  You can see some of the Trade Department’s (KGH’s) buildings in the background.  Without exception these were always larger than any of the villager’s houses.

House types

The most traditional (or old-fashioned) types of houses that I saw had walls of stone and turf and were flat roofed.  As it happened there were no longer any like these in Illorsuit itself. 

nug-old-style-houses NO BORD

Nuugaatsiaq examples

Greenland 1959: Ummannaq, John Heath's kayak frame.

Uummannaq examples.  And, yes, that’s John Heath’s kayak.

6 27 Ill. Emm John Q

And here is a back view of Emanuele’s house in Illorsuit.  The pitched roof very likely added to the stone and turf walls of an older structure.

6 19 Ill. skin my Q begin

A more modern style of house, again in Illorsuit.  Pitched roof and wood clad walls, Tobias and Emilia Nielsen’s house.  Old Karen (that’s her in the middle wearing a dark blue dress) helping skin my kayak in 1959, just as she had Drever’s in 1938.

6 14 Ill. shark dogs waiting qainivit phd

A close up of some of the hungry dogs waiting impatiently for the shark butchering to be finished (see again below).  This to let you notice Sakeus’, the catechist/school teacher’s, house way up the hill in the background.  Quite a fine one for his nuclear family.

5 26 Ill. Up Is four houses

And, last but not least, the four single-pitch roofed houses newly built by Danish carpenters that very summer of 1959.  Enoch and family were to move into one of them and the newly weds Aaron and Anthonette into another.  Hansi and Anni Møller and family were to get the third, and I never did hear who the fourth one was for.

By the way, the prominent peak on Upernavik Island clearly visible in this (and several other) photos 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 University came to Illorsuit, climbed the peak and re-named it “Aaraliup qaqa” (Harald’s Peak) in memory of Drever (see Philip Gribbon in American Alpine Journal 1978; Climbs and Expeditions; volume 21; issue 2; page 554).


Learning Greenlandic

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 kindly showed me over the church and the school.  He could understand my minimal Danish and that was a great help from time to time.  He had lived for some years in the adjacent Upernavik District, to the north, and told me of but never demonstrated one or two of the kayak rolls they did up there.  He was a very helpful person but kept to himself most of the 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.  They didn’t seem to be really learning it all that much, but it did mean 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.  And, as the days went by, I gradually became one of the talkers and storytellers of the gatherings in my tent.  Of course I (and I hope they too) got a lot of satisfaction and pleasure from that.

So, yes, they were amazingly welcoming.  True, there were a number of things in my favor, all of them having to do with Drever’s planning and his good advice.  I was connected in some way to Drever who they had the greatest respect and affection for, I was seriously crazy about kayaks and a sea kayaker myself, I was doing my best to learn their language, I was generous with my coffee and my beer (etc.), and I soon started going out in my kayak to shoot sea birds or to fish for food.  Altogether, more or less as Drever had intended, I was in good shape to be welcomed into their village life.  In these ways, also, I was quite different from most of the Danes in Greenland.  Those who spent any length of time in Greenland, in those days, typically showed no interest at all in kayaking.  Perhaps because so many of them were simply too tall to be able to get into a local kayak!  What they really enjoyed (and became very good at) was the winter dog sledding.  Plus, it made sense for them to show no encouragement of the kayak hunting since official policy was to convert the Inuit to fishermen of cod and shrimp.  And, of course, the Danes wanted the Inuit to learn to speak Danish.


A shrimp boat in one of the southern towns we passed through.  That pink stuff in the boxes is the shrimp.

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! Even more important to me was 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.”

Illorsuit May 2003 photo

A photo I found on the net 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 (Erignatus 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 (“kamit“) were still worn by everyone.  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.

sealskin pants Enoch new cropped and zoomed photo 26 on non vd d disc

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 outfit.  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.

Only once did I see Kalasi’s elderly, widowed mother in her black colored boots.  It was dusk already so too dark for photographs.  She was trudging home with an enormous load of wild blueberries and dry grass for someone’s “kamit.”  They said she’d been out since ten o’clock that morning.

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 Nine: The Umiamako Hunting Trip).  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.

Years ago I had a copy of an invaluable book “Bogen om Grønland” published by the Politikens Forlag.  But it was long gone!  Quite recently, thanks to the wonders of the internet I was able to get hold of another copy.  And, according to it, 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 a man on the slope above the village with a telescope who said he was looking for Karli Zeeb’s safe return from hunting.

Illorsuit Arali nuuna

photo: Harald I. Drever

A photo by Drever of a kayaker returning from hunting

I was told that on September 14th Johan had seen a seal and Enoch two (one a Harp Seal) but they didn’t catch either.  Nevertheless, we did occasionally have seal meat in the village.  A few seal were caught by men who’d gone down the coast shark fishing.  I’ve mentioned the Bearded Seal that Aaron caught that way.

During the first period of time I was in the village  —  August 22nd to September 15th  —  I was able to buy some seal meat from Enoch on August 31st; Karli came with a gift of seal meat on September 5th.

My second period of time in the village was from September 23rd to the 28th.  For the first of those days we were still eating meat from the Umiamako hunting trip.  Then on the 28th dinner at Otto and Else’s was a fine meal of seal cuts, enormous slabs of meat tho’ from the smallest kind of seal, I was told.

My third and final stay was from October 9th to October 18th.  On the 9th we had a gift of seal from Enoch; and also some seal liver (which he knew I especially liked); then on the 10th we ate seal meat at Otto’s; on the 11th I bought 3 kilos from Tobias to send to Herr Gotfrisen in Uummannaq as a thank you gift.  On the 12th I was able to buy meat from Enoch for the dinner I gave to celebrate the completed skinning of my kayak; and on the 15th we had (my) last dinner of seal meat at Tobias and Emilia’s.

With such a shortage of seal meat that summer, I soon noticed that 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 in Peter’s family 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.”  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 them 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 large 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.  We ranged from just short of the valley where we went for the picnic the day before, to level with the Zeeb’s houses which meant we had to double back a mile or more to find a way down to the level of the village.

On Karrats Island, it was when Tobias and I climbed the hill to look for any areas of calm water suitable for seal hunting that we came across a few ptarmigan.  We were climbing up through a small and very pretty little valley, nicely sheltered from the wind, when Tobias spotted three.  They were very noticeable in their transitional summer/winter plumage, well ahead of others I’d seen at Ikerasak.  We stalked up ’til a bit closer and lay down to shoot with our .22s.  I got one and the others flew off to the right, high up on a rocky ridge.  We followed them and, before I was ready, Tobias got in a shot but missed and they flew clear across the valley and over the opposite ridge.  We went on to the top of the coll and saw a patch of calm water farther up Karrats Fjord where we later went looking for seal.  Then back down the valley looking for the ptarmigan.  Sure enough Tobias spotted them and we got another two.  We went on down, it was very warm in the bright sun, and we rested by a lochan in very beautiful surroundings  —  looking out to the sea quite filled with icebergs.

Several Day Hunting Trips

The highlight of the summer, however, was my going with three of the village hunters on a several day seal hunting trip, by kayak, to the traditional hunting camp at Umiamako.  See the whole story in Chapter Nine “The Hunting Trip to Umiamako,” posted separately.

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, so his trip was over by the time I got back.  But, by great good luck, I had been able to buy a fourth skin at Nuugaatsiaq on the way back from Uummannaq.

Borrowing each other’s kayaks

My first opportunity to try out a local kayak came when Bent Jensen and I visited the small “dwelling place” Ummanaatsiaq, at the far end of the island from Ikerasak.  A few days later I was able to try one at Ikerasak itself (see Chapter Four, “Ikerasak Village and Uummannaq Town”).

And 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.  

Greenland 1959: Ikerasak

One of the Ikerasak boys in my kayak (using my feathered Euro paddle which must’ve felt weird).

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 was 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, bit it seemed to be a very stable kayak.  The harpoon and its throw stick were both much lighter weight than I’d expected and the spectators had fun watching me try the harpoon.  The moment I got back with it the owner put it up on its rack  —  too high for the dogs to reach.

Greenland 1959: Qaersut, kids with kayak pn frame behind

Children at Qaarsut and kayaks on their “out of dog reach” 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 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.

The same afternoon that Johannes tried my kayak Karl Ottosen persuaded me to try his.  He was one of two men I met who had “kayak angst” (the other was at Uummannatsiaq).  Since that meant he’d had to give up kayaking, Karl was very keen to sell me his kayak.  It was way too tight a squeeze for me, tho’ I did manage to get in.  So I was able to refuse his offer.  After all, what I really wanted was to have one built for me.

While the Nordlyset was still at the village, Otto Murch (passenger), Knud (crew), and Karli Zeeb all tried out my kayak.  It got pretty wet from the breakers on the beach.  Karli, however, was very fastidious and careful about it, an obviously skilled and experienced kayaker.

September 7th was the big day when Ludwig had suggested lending me his kayak.  With Peter in mine and Karli as “escort,” 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).

On September 10th when the “Poul Egede” arrived bringing the priest Rasmussen and the dean, Anders, for Aaron and Anthonette’s wedding the next day.  Enoch, and Paulus in Karli’s and Johannes in mine, paddled out to “kayak welcome” them.  That was a fine sight in the old days as many archival photos show.  It was now getting quite dark but nevertheless Ludwig tried out my kayak and I Karli’s which seemed small to get into and not too comfortable (for me) but a pretty stable kayak.  This must’ve been the time that Ludwig paddled my kayak so powerfully that its bow rose up out of the water at an angle like I’d never seen before.

Shark Fishing

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.

6 06 Ill. shark fa arrive with

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.”

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.

Greenland 1959: Illorsuit, Peder Moller skinning a shark.

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.

6 08 Ill. shark laughing

 A very happy Peter with his brother Johannes.

Greenland 1959: Illorsuit, Peder Moller skinning a shark.

 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!

6 10 Ill. shark skinning fa watching

The first liver out on the beach


His father Hansi helping butcher one of them.  That’s Johan and Anna’s daughter  Anne Marie in the red coat with her little son Bintsi.  The other woman is Else Ottosen.  The old man behind her is Jensi.

Here’s an interesting interlude to the shark butchering.  Ludwig has spotted a “serfaq” (Black Guillemot) out on the water, probably attracted by the shark liver.  With a stick to steady his rifle he’s hoping to get a shot at it.  I don’t remember if he got it or not.  


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.

6 14 Ill. shark dogs waiting super-zoomed to show chinedness of two kayaks

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.

After that. Enoch who seemed a real expert showed me how to use one of these whips.  They have two feet long wooden handles and a long, long seal skin thong with a piece of split thong attached at the end as a lash.  The basic motion seemed to be very much like how you might cast a dry fly with a fishing rod.  Later I was given a whip of my own, as part of the villagers encouraging me to return and spend the winter with them (more about that at the end of this section).  I had that whip for some years.  I well remember practicing with it one snowy (of course) winter in Wisconsin.

These sled dogs, needless to say, 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.

Greenland 1959: Illorsuit, view of tent in snow with dog.

Hansi and I were there when the pups had just been born, one as the mother tore off the membranes, etc.  Hansi said he could tell that one would be no good and sure enough only 5 of 8 survived, 4 male and one female.

Greenland 1959: Illorsuit, shark meat being hung (?).

Hansi processing what look like small halibut.  I expect these fish also went up on the rack to sun dry.  Some of his dogs are keeping a close eye on what’s happening.  You can see the nursing puppies in the background.  There’s a sled stored on the rack among the pieces of drying shark meat.

Greenland 1959: Illorsuit, Jacob and Anna's family.

Anna, her daughter and grandson, with some of their dogs (and one puppy).  They had two puppies at that time which they were bottle feeding as a supplement to their mother’s milk.

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.

ik-reindeer-three NO BORD

One of only two or three photos that show any dogs at Ikerasak.

nug-our-boat-at-pier NO BORD

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.

And, speaking of dogs, something I really didn’t want to talk about is that the Illorsuit dogs were constantly trying to get into my tent to scavenge for any food they might find.  [I was comforted, just recently, reading Ernst Sorge’s “With Plane, Boat and Camera in Greenland,” to learn that the German film crew making the movie “S.O.S. Iceberg” had exactly that same trouble when based at Illorsuit and Nuugaatsiaq in 1932.  I am much indebted to Vernon Doucette for finding and very kindly gifting me a copy of this book.]

6 24 Ill. girl and tent

Behind Elene you can see the turf “ramparts” I had to put up around the tent to try and keep the dogs out.

Obviously then these are working dogs and not at all what we would call pets.  So that day I found Karl Ottosen up on the hill looking out for Karli Zeeb’s safe return from kayak hunting, I was quite surprised when Jonas joined us escorted by what looked like his entire dog team.

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.”

And, because of all that it was illegal to have a dog in your team that had killed another dog.  If one of your dogs did so you were obliged, by law, to execute it immediately.  In fact I was shown one dog, in Illorsuit, that was a killer but he was such a fine sled dog that he had never been executed and still worked hard every winter.

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.  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, as was the chianti and the coffee with Schubert’s Trout Quintet playing in the background!  One other time I ate dog meat, at Sophia’s in Illorsuit.  But that was the tasteless meat of a three year old dog.

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.

Greenland 1959: Umanatsiaq_into kayak with tuilik

Johannes preparing to roll Tomas’ kayak, at Uummannatsiaq.

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.  I have a note of having helped Peter and Johannes skin a dog that had been killed as it was too old to be of any more use.

Kent hunter two0001 phd

Kent’s drawing of a winter hunter: reindeer skin jacket; seal skin mittens; dog skin pants.

Categories: Illo 1959 | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Chapter Two: Daily Life in the Village — Subsistence and such

  1. Pat Ó Ruadháin....

    Hi, I’ve just discovered this after listening to the seakayak podcast. I really love your descriptions of your time in Greenland. Have you w written more? Where were you in Brazil?
    Pat Ó Ruadháin, Co. Mayo, Ireland

    • Hi Pat, Thanks for your comment. On Greenland all I’ve written really are the 14 entries in my “blog.”
      That experience converted me to anthropology and I (and my ex-wife Alcida Ramos) ended up with the
      Yanomami Indians in northern Brazil. Later we both taught at the University of Brasilia. Have you seen
      how Illorsuit, Nugaatsiaq, and Niaqornat villages all had to be abandoned in June of last year after a “mini-
      tsunami” in the Uummannaq Bay? Tragic.
      Which seakayak podcast, by the way?
      Best wishes, Ken

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