Illo 1959

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.

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Chapter Three Daily Life in the Village — Social Life




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



Ken Taylor / Cameron                                                                                                                                

May 17, 2015

Endless Hospitality

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.

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

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.  

Greenland 1959: Illorsuit, view icebergs.

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.

7 16 Ill. four geols at tent

So here are Johan and Algot outside my tent preparing for the “expedition.”

Greenland 1959: Illorsuit, geological trip.

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.

7 19 Ill. Geols teabreak two

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.

Greenland 1959: Ikerasak, two motor boats in harbor

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.

Greenland 1959: Qaersut, kids at...

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.

Bertelsen two

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.

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Chapter One: Reaching Illorsuit






Table of Contents

Chapter One Reaching Illorsuit;  Chapter Two Daily Life in the Village  —  Subsistence and such;  Chapter Three Daily Life in the Village  —  Social Life;  Chapter Four Ikerasak Village and Uummannaq Town;  Chapter Five Building the Kayaks;  Chapter Six Variations in Kayak Design;  Chapter Seven: Skinning the Kayaks;  Chapter Eight The Hunting Equipment;  Chapter Nine The Hunting Trip to Umiamako;  Chapter Ten The Kayak Race in the Village Bay;  Chapter Eleven The Rolling Competition;  Chapter Twelve Re-encounters with the Kayak;  Some Final Thoughts

Ken Taylor / Cameron

revised May 26, 2015 and January 10, 2016



        I once spent a summer in the village of Illorsuit in the Uummannaq district of northwest Greenland.  It was the most wonderful experience of my life.

        For several years leading up to that time, my old friend Campbell Semple and I had kayaked the west coast of Scotland from the Firth of Clyde up to and around Cape Wrath.  The day before we went around the Cape we met Dr Harald I. Drever, a geologist from St. Andrews University. He had been to northwest Greenland four times and was a great admirer of the kayaking skills of the villagers of Illorsuit.


          In this 2011 satellite image of Greenland Illorsuit, on an island in the huge Uummannaq Bay, is approximately half way up the west coast.

Illorsuit maps 1941 one

       This is a 1941 map of the northern half of Uummannaq Bay.  Illorsuit (spelled Igdlorssuit on the map) is the village on the northeast side of the large pear-shaped island called Ubekendt Ejland.

         That winter Drever wrote to invite me to spend the summer of 1959 in Illorsuit, on my own.  The Stromness Fund which he and his brother had created in memory of their father, Prof. Sir James Drever, would provide the funds for my trip.  I am deeply grateful to the Fund for this generosity.

     I always call it a summer but in fact my time in Greenland was from mid-August to late October. Being well north of the Arctic Circle, the area had a short but warm summer with the midnight sun visible from early May to the beginning of August.  So I missed the midnight sun but when I first arrived it was still full daylight 24 hours a day.

     In 1959, some 110 people lived in Illorsuit (lat.71’ 14” N., long. 53’ 30” W.) which was one of seven “outposts” and two “dwelling places” spread out on mainland and island sites in the huge Ummannaq Bay. The “county” town of Ummannaq itself is on an island in the southeast of the Bay and at the time had 747 people living there, most of them Inuit, several of them Danes. The total population of the District was 1865.  The outpost Illorsuit had its own church, school and store, with a catechist-cum-school teacher and an outpost manager, both of them Inuit (or “Greenlanders” as they were usually called), from other districts on the west coast.

        Drever’s plan was for me to learn all I could about the kayaks and kayak hunting of the Illorsuit people with the hope (so he told me later) that my doing so would increase the prestige of kayak hunting in that area.  He was rightly concerned about this as farther south on the west coast the Danish administration was encouraging the people to give up seal hunting and to fish for cod and shrimp.  In fact, quite unknown to Drever, to me, and perhaps to anyone, the ancient tradition of seal hunting by kayak was about to come to an end.  By 1966, when Drever went back to Illorsuit on yet another geological field trip, things were already transitioning from the “traditional” seal hunting by kayak to the “motorised” seal hunting reported on by Chris Hare (see more on Hare’s observations in Chapter Eight, The Hunting Equipment).  


     The photos I show here were all originally color slides.  And for many, many years the most I could ever do to “tell the world” about Illorsuit kayak hunting in 1959 was to give a slide show.  Of course I did just that, at every opportunity, in Denmark, in Scotland, in the US.  By the time I had the good fortune to learn of QajaqUSA and to meet many of its members, in 2003 and 2004, the available technology meant that my slide show could now be shown on the internet!  Fantastic!  Something I never even dreamt of when I was taking the photos and learning all I could about kayaking in Illorsuit all those many years ago.

      I still would never have done this, however, without the enthusiastic encouragement of members of QajaqUSA.  In particular I want to thank Vernon Doucette and Richard Nonas for so kindly doing everything they could to keep me “on task.”  Vernon, in fact, took on the enormous job of cleaning the central Virginian mold from almost all of the slides and converting them to high-definition digital images.  I don’t know how to thank you enough, Vernon.

         So far so good but by that time I was an old dog trying to learn the new tricks of the many computer skills I would need in order to get this done.  Over the last few years many members of Twin Oaks Community where I’ve lived since 1988 have helped me learn some at least of the mysteries of using computers.  I especially thank Dream, Arizona, Tim, Alex, Sunshine, Adder and Paxus for so patiently showing me what I needed to know.

Some background   

   In the early 1930s, the American artist Rockwell Kent lived for more than a year in the village. He illustrated his book “Salamina” with many distinctive drawings of the villagers and their lifestyle.

     Kent’s image of a kayak hunter wearing the full jacket, the “tuilik, no longer used for hunting when I was there.

     A rather more romantic image by Kent which actually shows the kayaker’s two thumbed mittens better than the other.  And, yes, the harpoon “should” be pointing backwards and, yes, you “shouldn’t”  carry your kayak on its harpoon side!

      Anna Zeeb who was still living in Illorsuit in 1959

     In the late 1930s, Dr. Drever began a series of expeditions based in Illorsuit.  In 1958 he wrote a charming essay “The Kayakers of Igdlorssuit,” first published in the St. Andrews University Alumnus Chronicle, where he says:

     “The Greenland kayak, although very maneuverable and efficient, is at the same time so absurdly small and frail that to chase a seal in it seems almost an impertinence.” 

     Nevertheless, he had a local style kayak built for him and learned to manage it and eventually to roll with it.  And he made good use of it in surveying the forbidding coastal cliffs of the island.

     As a result of his work on Ubekendt Island and in the west of Scotland, Drever was one of a handful of geologists chosen to carry out the first analyses of the moon rocks brought back by the Apollo astronauts.

     Dr Harald I. Drever on the occasion of a 1971 exhibit by St Andrews University  about the moon rocks and the first geological studies made  of them.

The village in 1959

     And then, in 1959 and thanks to Drever, I had my opportunity to stay in Illorsuit for a while — to meet its people, to observe and to some extent participate in their way of life, and to enjoy the bounty and the beauties of their environment and its scenery.  Drever had most recently been there in 1957 and so was able to give me photos showing virtually every one of the people I was to meet.  For reasons of his own, he never did tell me about Kent’s time in Illorsuit so I didn’t get to read “Salamina” until later. Some people, including Anna and Johan Zeeb, that Kent had written so much about were still there, still living in Illorsuit.  Over the years, Johan had also worked with Drever on various geological surveys, both on Ubekendt Island and further afield.

     So here they are.  Johan and Anna Zeeb, their crippled daughter Anna Marie and her little son Bintsi.  You can see a few of their dogs but not much winter dog meat.  In fact, what they have drying on the rack looks more like fish than shark meat.  There’s also an upside down sled hanging from the rack.

      And Bintsi in his decorative “kamit (sealskin boots) with a plastic boat which was probably a gift from me …

and the real boat, a small dory, that Johan was building for him.

      Johan posing in front of his still fully operational kayak.  He kept it that way even though he was well over fifty, the age at which the Danish administration had made it illegal for the men to continue seal hunting by kayak.  His was one of only two kayaks I saw painted sky blue, rather than white, as camouflage.

     During one of my visits to St. Andrews while Drever and I were preparing for my trip he showed me some photos of especially beautiful scenery. “What a beautiful place it is,” I said.  Standing up and looking me in the eye he said, “but Kenneth, I thought I had told you: you are going to the most beautiful place in the world.”  When I got there and saw it for myself, I could only agree.

      Upernavik Island, eight miles across the sound from Illorsuit

     And Rockwell Kent’s painting of almost the identical view  —  as of 1933.

Getting there

      Nowadays you can fly to Greenland but back in 1959 the way to get there was by steamer from Copenhagen.  I did so on a fairly large boat, the m.s. Umanak, with many passengers.  The Umanak and all other ships sailing to and from Greenland had their hulls painted a bright orange color.  This was a new safety measure adopted after the loss with all hands, that January, of the brand new m.s. Hans Hedtoft on its leaving Greenland for return to Copenhagen at the end of its maiden voyage.

     We left Copenhagen on July 25th with many family and friends of the passengers there to say goodbye.  It was my first ever experience  of the moving ritual of the paper streamers from boat to shore until they break as the boat pulls away.  Most of the passengers were Danes and Greenlanders and for 10 days I was regaled with stories about life up there.

     We passed the Skagen (the northernmost tip of Denmark) at night and then went by the Orkney Islands (Drever was an Orcadian) at breakfast time with most of us feeling a bit seasick.  But that same day we were singing Greenlander songs at the piano and Vagn, a young Dane who was going to Qutdlissat on Disko island for two years work as a teacher, was already giving me Danish lessons.  We were entertained with Lutheran hymns and songs all in the distinctive Greenland Inuit seven part arrangements.  Beautiful!  Some of the songs were composed by a Greenlander who was there with his family. 

     The boat called in first at Nuuk (then called Godthaab) and after a day there some of us were transferred to the much smaller m.s. Juto for the rest of the journey north.  Next we stopped at Aasiaat (then Egedesminde) where we again had a day ashore.  Next was a very quick stop at Qutdlissat (later spelled Qullissat, the town was abandoned in 1972) to let off Vagn, Aase and Edel and allow Jens and Birthe, both Inuit, to see Jens’ father after three years  —  for half an hour!  And then, at last we headed for  Uummannaq (spelled Umanak in those days).

     For me it was wonderful to have those ten days to let my head catch up with the fact that I was really and truly going to, hearing about, seeing for myself, and finally arriving at Greenland.  For years Campbell and I had read everything we could get our hands on about the “Eskimos” of Greenland, and now I was actually there.

     Our slow progress up the coast had been marked by changes in the scenery, especially a slow increase, mile by mile, in the number and diversity (and beauty) of the icebergs.   As I noted in my journal, once we had passed the end of Nuussuaq (then Nugssuaq) peninsula and turned into the Uummannaq Bay itself, “It is like a new country after the parts of Greenland we have seen to the south. So very much more exciting — more icebergs, more glaciers, higher land, more colorful and varied rocks and, somehow, a more expansive effect from the enclosure of the huge Bay combined with the great distances all around.”  We could see the distinctive Uummannaq (heart-shaped) mountain, clearly visible behind a bank of fog.  I was shown which was Ubekendt Island, where Illorsuit is, and I admired the scene of numerous glaciers relentlessly pushing their ice down to the sea. So this was it! and it was wonderful!

     Rockwell Kent’s distinctive take on the local scenery!  I found this painting on Sarah Lowe’s online blog.

      Frøken Larsen was returning to Uummannaq to take up her duties as head of the children’s hospital.  Without telling me so she had very kindly sent a cable to Bent Jensen a Danish anthropology student working in the village of Ikerasak to let him know that I would be arriving.  Thinking that I was a geology student of Drever’s he went out of his way to come to Uummannaq to meet me.  You can imagine how pleased we both were when we met and discovered that we had such similar interests in the Inuit life of the area.  Bent and I were invited to stay with the Lutheran priest “Palase” Rasmussen and his family.  Like most of the Danes in Uummannaq they knew Drever of course.  Frøken Larsen had us all to her so comfortable house for the evening where I got to meet many of the Danish people who lived in town.  That was a delightful evening and my first experience of the marvellous Danish hospitality.

     The church in Uummannaq, the only stone church in Greenland.  The “heart-shaped” mountain behind.

     Was it one or two nights in Uummannaq town? and then kindly invited by Bent I went with him to Ikerasak where he was to continue his research for another week or ten days.  I describe that amazing visit in Chapter Four.  Right now I want to get us to Illorsuit!

       But first a look at Bent and a local young woman Kattanguaq in front of his house in Ikerasak.  The mountain is called the Uummannatsiaq meaning “the little heart-shaped mountain.”

       In due course, Bent, Kattanguaq and I returned to Uummannaq where she was planning to travel on to Qullissat.  She was told there would be a long wait before she could make that trip, so we all agreed that she would come with me to stay in Illorsuit as my “kifaq.”  Meaning that she would work with/for me as a kind of collaborator  —  easing my contacts with the villagers, helping me with housework, etc., and being paid for this while she waited for her trip to Qullissat.

I want to acknowledge what a great contribution Kattanguaq made to how well it seemed I was able to get along with the villagers.  At least as much as anyone else she could understand what I was trying to do  —  and translate my attempts to say what that was into Greenlandic.  Not to mention that she was a delightful, outgoing person who already knew a few of the Illorsuit people and quickly became friends with pretty much everyone.  A few months ago a very happy thing  —  she and her husband contacted me by email from Southwest Greenland where they now live.

First Impressions of Illorsuit

     Another two or three days went by in Uummannaq, then we got a ride on one of the larger Danish boats, the “Otto Mathiesen,” to  —  the place itself.  I was tired, it was drizzling, and, as I noted in my journal, Illorsuit looked “pretty dismal.”   The houses strung out along the narrow strip of land of a shallow bay, very much overshadowed by high, steep, rocky hillsides that were almost cliffs.


       A later view of the south end of Illorsuit on a sunny day!

       It was only later that I came to realize that it’s the view from Illorsuit that’s so special.  I hope my photographs do it justice.  Across the sound, the mountains and glaciers of Upernavik Island.  And the icebergs!  Two of the four major glaciers on the west coast of Greenland emptied into the waters of Uummannaq Bay.  One of them, the Rinks glacier, is just 55 miles northeast of Illorsuit.  So the view looking out from the village is really amazing: an endless parade of spectacular and constantly changing icebergs being slowly moved southward by the underwater currents, melting, breaking up, rolling over to show their sculpted undersides. …..




       The view looking north

         The view from my tent late one afternoon.

       But that first day, I wasn’t impressed.  Gunnar (sorry, Gunnar, I never did get a note of your surname), the trade post manager, was an Inuit from southwest Greenland.  He welcomed us and kindly offered me a room in his two story house, where I could stay until I got my tent up and organized.  But, as it turned out, I was coming down with the ‘flu.  So I ended up spending a week as a guest/invalid in his house. 

       Bent Jensen had warned me of an inevitable week to ten days of shyness that I could expect from the villagers as they slowly got to know me.  At Ikerasak, he had told the people that I was a cousin of his and that they could treat me just as they did him.  And that worked! the Ikerasak people had been open and friendly around me from day one.  But now, in Illorsuit, I could expect the full effect of this “shyness” phenomenon.  What happened, in fact, was that with my being sick in bed and the villagers naturally wanting to at least meet me, quite a number of them came to visit while I was still at Gunnar’s.  Of course, they loved the photos Drever had given me identifying most of them  —  and immediately persuaded me to let them have the photos of themselves and their family members.

       The weather improved, I got better, it was time to get my tent set up. It was difficult to find a dry, level place but eventually, with all kinds of help from many people, it was up and usable. The sun shone and I began to appreciate the beautiful scenery of the view from my tent.

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