Illo 1959

Chapter Two: Subsistence activities

KAYAK HUNTING IN ILLORSUIT

GREENLAND

1959

CHAPTER TWO

Subsistence activities

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

Ken Taylor / Cameron

cameron@twinoaks.org

June 6, 2015, revised June 23, 2018

 

Seal hunting at the village

I could see that there were kayaks, kept on their “out of dog reach” racks, outside almost all of the houses. BUT, by this time I’d been told that there were very few seal to be found that summer. That was a bit of a shock. Based on his own experience of past years, Drever had told me that I could expect to be offered seal meat (to buy or as a gift) almost every day! And it meant that there was much less kayaking going on than I had hoped to see.

In those days seal hunting was still the primary occupation of all the able-bodied men. Seal were hunted during the winter by harpoon and rifle at the breathing holes, by netting, and in the spring by shooting the “sleeping seals” lying out on the ice. All travel on the sea ice was by dog sled, with teams of six to eight dogs harnessed in “fan-trace” arrangement. Uummannaq Bay was famous for the “glass ice” that formed at the beginning of the winter, smooth ice with no snow cover. That allowed the hunters to move about on the ice without the seal hearing that they were there. In 1958, the year before I was there, they had 60 days (all of January and February) of this “glass ice.”

A photo I found on the internet of Illorsuit in May of 2003. The sea is frozen solid, everything is covered with snow with some recent sled tracks visible.

The kayak hunting was done in the summer season, of 5 to 6 months open water. Five species of seal were found in the seas around Illorsuit. These were the Ringed Seal (Pusa hispida), the Harbor Seal (Phoca vitulina), the Harp Seal (Pagophilus groenlandicus), the Bearded Seal (Erignathus barbatus), and the Hooded Seal (Cystophora cristata). Of these the Ringed Seal was very much the most common. The main item of the villagers’ diet was still seal meat. Half-cured skins the hunters could sell to the village KGH store, or keep for their own use in making clothing and equipment.

The traditional seal skin boots were still worn by most people most of the time. These kamit have an inner boot of skin with the hair left on the inside, pointing from top to bottom and an outer boot of depilated skin. You put a wad of dead grass between the inner and outer boot under your foot and also some inside the inner layer. These parts of the boot were of Ringed Seal skin. The soles of the outer boot were of the far tougher Harp Seal skin. I soon arranged with Anna Zeeb for her to make me a pair. And they were the most comfortable things I’ve ever worn. With the hair of the inner boot pointing downwards they were easier to put on than any other boots or shoes I’ve ever had.

Most of the men, especially when kayaking, still wore the traditional seal skin trousers. The short trousers (more like mini-skirts) and thigh length boots of the girls’, women’s, and widows’ “Sunday best” were also made of seal skin. The girls and unmarried woman wore white boots; married women wore red; and widows wore black.  With those shorts and boots, plus a colorful shirt and cummerbund and  —  the special feature of it all  —  a cape of colored seed beads, a girl or woman was in her “Sunday best.” This was the closest to their traditional clothing that some girls and women ever wore in those days. Only a very few, usually older, women would wear the boots every day.

Enoch Nielsen, his wife Regina and their two children. Regina’s fully attired in what I’ve just described as the girls’ and unmarried women’s clothing. It seems she hasn’t been a married woman long enough to get around to making, or having made for her, a pair of red colored boots. The little girl is also wearing her white boots, etc., but no beaded cape. Also, it looks like Enoch is wearing a brand new pair of sealskin trousers.

Louisa Zeeb with her grandson. She’s not wearing her beaded cape, but does have on her married woman’s red boots.

Many, though not all, of the kayaks were skin-covered, and much of the hunting gear for kayak and dog sled was made of seal skin. Ringed Seal or Harbor Seal skin was used for trousers, boot uppers and certain of the kayak and sled accessories. Harp Seal skin was used for boot soles and for skinning the kayaks. When the time came, unfortunately, it took weeks for me to accumulate the four Harp Seal skins needed to skin my kayak. Bearded Seal skin was used for thonging, e.g. dog whips, dog traces, harpoon lines, and kayak deck thongs.

During the time I was there only one Bearded Seal (enormous) was caught and that by a young man out checking his shark lines by row boat. Very carefully advised and instructed by two of the older men, Aaron immediately began skinning it into cylinders. That, of course, was quite different from the way all other seal are skinned with a cut down the center of their belly (see photo in Chapter Eight: The Hunting Trip to Umiamako). The first cylinder of skin was five or six inches wide and when cut in a continuous spiral it will have given a good length of thong, perhaps enough for a harpoon line, certainly more than enough for a dog whip.

According to the data in an invaluable book “Bogen om Grønland” published by the Politikens Forlag, that was the only Bearded Seal caught at Illorsuit during the 12 months of 1959-1960. In fact, in the whole of Uummannaq Bay there were only eight Bearded Seal caught during that year.

I only saw anyone leave the village by kayak to go seal hunting I think it was just twice (though I did hear of individuals doing so a few other times). I did also once come across Karl Ottosen on the slope above the village with a telescope who said he was looking for Karli Zeeb’s safe return from hunting.

Illorsuit Arali nuuna

photo: Harald I. Drever

A photo by Drever of a kayaker returning from hunting

Borrowing each other’s kayaks

During those days at Ikerasak, Jacob the reindeer hunter, two different boys, and the trade post manager all tried out my Scottish kayak without incident and a lot of interest.

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

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

Between returning from Ikerasak to Uummannaq and finally leaving for Illorsuit, I went with the Rasmussen family for an afternoon visit to the village of Qaarsut. It’s pleasantly situated on the north side of the Nuussuaq peninsula, looking north to the Uummannaq mountain. Again I asked to try one of the kayaks. Not as easy as I’d hoped as, immediately after the church service (the reason for the visit), most of the men had gone hunting. We found one after a bit and I squeezed in OK. It felt possibly a little less comfortable than the others I’d tried so far. It had all its hunting gear in place with the harpoon looking a bit precarious to me, but it seemed to be a very stable kayak. The harpoon and its throw stick were both much lighter weight than I’d expected.

Children at Qaarsut and two kayaks on their racks

In Illorsuit, as soon as I’d gotten installed in my tent the kayak borrowing began. I was delighted that people wanted to try out my kayak. Especially, of course, it was boys without yet any kayaks of their own who wanted to do this.

One of the first times was when Jonas tried mine, and I his. It was a very nice looking seal skin covered kayak, with bone and ivory trimmings, the most attractive I’d tried so far. I had the usual struggle to get in but then it felt more roomy than others, with no real hold on my thighs. It seemed a little less stable than some I’d tried. We went round the corner and started playing with the harpoon. Which again felt very light and “comfortable,” both it and the throw stick smaller than I’d ever imagined. The thongs and slides and hooks, etc., on the fore deck seemed super practical and efficient. And, after more time with it than I’d had with the kayak at Qaarsut, I ended up convinced that the harpoon on its hook and knob was really quite stable. I was struck by how “minute” the white screen at the bow seemed to be.

The next day Peter’s kid brother Johannes tried my kayak and managed it well in spite of fairly rough water. And the day after that was Peter’s turn. And soon it became a regular thing for Peter and his brothers to borrow my kayak to hunt birds and to fish. Several other villagers also gave it a try. They were always quite non-committal and no one ever criticized it for being so tubby compared to theirs.

September 7th was the big day when Ludwig had suggested lending me his kayak. With Peter in mine and Karli as “escorts,” we went some distance down the coast hoping for seal. We saw none, I turned around to admire two icebergs and – capsized. No problem, after all I’d already rolled an Inuit kayak at Ikerasak. But I was upside down in the frigid Greenland water and I completely forgot that I needed to change my grip on the paddle to do the sweep roll that I knew. So, after a few half rolls, Karli had to rescue me. I got so cold on our way back to the village I eventually couldn’t even move my arms! An awful experience (see my “Illorsuit Adventure” article in QajaqUSA’s newsletter MASIK, Spring/Summer 2009 issue).

Alternatives

With such a shortage of seal meat that summer, several of the villagers had taken to hunting sea birds and fishing to provide their families with something to eat. So I began doing so too. Sometimes that would be with Peter in his family’s rowboat but more often I preferred to go out in my own kayak. And sure enough, just as Drever had told me to expect, the first time I returned with some birds I had shot, people leaned out of their windows to call out piniatorssuaq!  That was kinda sweet as the word means “big hunter.” These were actually quite small scale hunts, usually in the evening, not far from shore and either inside the village bay or just around the corner. I often did it without but it worked best if you had some shark liver (which floats) to throw out on the water as “ground bait.” That soon brought some birds around to check out their prospects.

Once I went hunting with Jonas, each in our own kayak, with some liver he had brought along. Several birds came around and twice he waited until he had two “birds in a row” and got them both with one shell. What’s more they were Ivory Gulls! bigger and better than most other sea birds. The little auk was a good catch, also the serfaq (Black Guillemot). But most of the time the birds that showed up were kittiwakes or fulmars, both perfectly edible but a bit boring.

Some days the fishing would be good: small to medium sized cod with the lines we all had. Several of my neighbors were fishing those days, some of the boys borrowing my kayak to do so.  And a number of times I received gifts of fish, just caught or once or twice cooked already. That was Sophia’s speciality, very kind of her. Out fishing in my kayak one day: Peter was in his father Hansi’s kayak, and Ole Quist was in Malaki’s. Then Severin joined us in Johan’s kayak! It was nice to see that kayak in use. Between us all we caught a lot of fish that day.

One day a group of young people and I were preparing to go inland in search of ptarmigan. Hansi, who was himself going out in his kayak after sea birds, suggested that we do so too as he reckoned there’d be no ptarmigan that day. But we were intent on the ptarmigan idea and the four of us set off. Sakeus’ son Nicolet, Edvard Quist, Kattanguaq and I. By that time (it was September 28th) everything was snow covered and the ptarmigan were fully in their winter plumage, every single feather a vivid white, with only their tiny black beaks at all visible. Quite a change from the only half “winterized” ones Tobias and I had seen on Karrats Island just eleven days earlier. I clearly remember the almost eerie effect of looking down into a small dip in the terrain, hearing the low pitched chirping of the birds, and not being able to see a single one of them. Then as we got closer, suddenly a whole flock of 30 or 40 birds would take flight, whirring off as one unit. That was such an impressive sight. Even with careful shooting we ended up with only six between us all. Altogether we must have seen 150 to 200 birds. 

Several Day Hunting Trips

The highlight of the summer, however, was my going with the three Nielsen brothers on a several day seal hunting trip travelling, with our kayaks on board, by inboard motor boat to the traditional hunting camp at Umiamako. See the whole story in Chapter Eight “The Hunting Trip to Umiamako.” 

The three brothers (and two of our kayaks) on the way to Umiamako

Both Johan and Karli told me about similar several day hunting trips. Johan did not have an inboard motor boat but he did have a powerful outboard motor. He insisted it worked just as well for him (and was just as fast) as the two or three inboards other villagers had. He used it regularly and had recently got back from a six day trip on which they caught two seal. Anna, Kalasi and Sara had gone with him. They used a tent and all had gone well.

By September 22nd, Karli Zeeb had invited me to go on another several day trip. We would use his inboard motor boat. I was keen to do so as there was at least a chance that we would catch another Harp Seal and I still needed a fourth skin for skinning my Greenland kayak.  Unfortunately, I made the foolish decision of going to Uummannaq in hopes of repairing the movie camera, and his trip was over by the time I got back.  

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 to be used as dog food in the winter.

Hansi Møller in his rowboat with the five shark his son Peter had just caught.

This (October 11th) was a huge day for Peter. That was the most shark I ever saw anyone catch at one time. They used long lines (1/2 kilometer long they reckoned in one case) each with a number of large hooks baited with seal blubber. Usually by rowboat, they would go one or two miles down the coast of the island and sink the lines to the sea bottom using a fairly heavy weight and a “glider.”

Though not a total count, I also noted that on September 3rd Hansi had come home with three shark. On the 6th, Jonas with his father and wife came back with two. That same day, Hansi and Peter had caught three. September 6th, Karli returned in his inboard motor boat with two and earlier in the day I’d seen him helping other people landing one or more. On the 11th someone else had one or more shark. September 13th Peter had another three. And on October 11th, the day of Peter’s five shark, Ole and Algot caught another three.

 

Peter skinning the first of his shark

These Greenland Shark, or Sleeper Shark (Somniosus microcephalus) are bottom feeders during the summer months, when the waters are warmer [!] than they prefer. Although they can grow as big as 21 feet, 8 to 14 feet is the more likely size for the many adults that were caught annually off the coast of West Greenland. They will approach the surface of the water in winter, often coming right up to the ice edge. But most of them withdraw in summer to 100 fathoms or deeper. It is one of the most sluggish shark species, offering no resistance whatsoever when hooked and, although they are known to eat seal, large fish, and even in one case an entire reindeer, they do not normally attack or harm humans in any way  —  at least not in the summer.

 

Here’s Peter removing the liver from one of the shark. As you can see, it’s enormous almost filling the inside of the shark. Later in Europe, among other things, it’ll be used to make cod liver oil!

 

His father Hansi helping butcher one of them. 

The Sled Dogs

Unlike in other parts of the Arctic, in 1959 Greenland the sled dogs ran loose in the towns and villages. Each family’s team functioned as it’s own small “pack” and they coexisted with very little squabbling between them, unless there was some food to fight over. Because during the summer, the “off season” for sled pulling dogs, they were given almost no food at all. They were expected to fend for themselves by catching small fish on the shore line and eating the guts and offal of the seal, fish, birds, the people caught, and any other scraps that might show up from time to time. Also, horrible thought, by eating human excrement. But there was one other important source of summertime food for the dogs: the carcasses of the shark.

This shows some of the village dogs waiting impatiently for the butchering of the shark to be completed. And well out of their reach you can see shark meat from earlier in the year turning pale brown as it dried in the sun. They’re being kept back with dog whips until at last it’s their turn. The sharks’ skeletons are of cartilage which is easily eaten by the dogs. And, of course, they will also eat the fins, the offal, etc. When the butchering is finished, everyone down at the shore line runs for dear life out of the dogs’ way as they rush down to get their share. A few minutes later there’ll be not a sign left of the shark.

These sled dogs are impressive, strong, half wild, beautiful, and scary at times. A few yards from my tent, one of the neighbor’s bitches was about to whelp in an old meat storage cellar. For a few days the lead dog of that team lay outside, on guard. That was right on the path I used to head into the village. One or two snarls from that dog and I soon found a way to detour around that little scene. I can’t find a photo with the male “on guard” but here is one from a few days later of the mother dog nursing the pups.

 

The extreme way of not feeding your dogs in summer was to maroon them somewhere far from the village.  Enoch kept his dogs at Sarqa, the southernmost tip of the island. Algot had his some distance down the coast. I saw them when he brought them back to village late in my stay and while they weren’t exactly overweight they seemed to be in good shape. Otto, and at least one other man, had theirs across the sound, on Upernavik Island.

ik-reindeer-three NO BORD

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

The only dog in my photos of Nuugaatsiaq.

So it seems that at both Ikerasak and Nuugaatsiaq the sled dogs were almost all away from the village. And, of course, those will have been (some of) the Nuugaatsiaq dogs we saw on Karrats Island as we came in to our first campsite on the Umiamako hunting trip.

Dogs of virtually all other breeds will stop attacking any dog that “submits” by lying on its back, exposing its belly to the attackers. This is not true, however, of the Greenland sled dogs. If the dog being attacked ends up on its back, on the ground, the attacking dogs will kill it. This was a terrible source of anxiety for the Danes living in a town like Uummannaq. The mothers of young children lived with the fear that one of their children would fall down and be attacked (and therefore killed) by the sled dogs. For that reason the young Danish children were never allowed outside on their own but were at all times in the care of what we would call a “nursemaid.”

Several times I heard it said (by other Danes) that of course the Danes did well in the winter sled driving races  — they could afford to buy the best dogs. While that must be true enough, Enoch had come in third in a major dog sled race in early 1959. The race was a three hour run from Uummannaq to Uummannatsiaq and back. A total of 84 sled teams took part.

But it wasn’t just the Danes who bought and/or sold dogs. In late September the Danish doctor came to Illorsuit and when he then left for Nuugaatsiaq he was asked to vaccinate one of Sakeus’ dogs that was going to someone there. When I returned to the village from Uummannaq in early October, along with the rest of our baggage there was a sled dog someone was sending to Algot.

The dogs also serve two other functions. Their meat can be eaten  —  by humans or by other dogs in extreme situations. And their pelts provide good quality animal skins for various purposes. When we got back to Uummannaq from Ikerasak, Frøken Larsen invited Bent and me to lunch. The special treat of the meal was to be dog meat  —  from two young puppies. I don’t remember how she prepared it but it was delicious!

When Bent and I visited Uummannatsiaq and the tuilik came loose from the coaming just as Johannes was about to demonstrate some rolling, Tomas the owner of the kayak, not at all pleased, pulled out his beautiful dogskin “seat” and hung it up to dry.

On the hunting trip to Umiamako we had a dog skin and a reindeer skin as the “groundsheet” of our tent. Tobias’ beautiful winter sleeping bag was of dog skin on the inside and seal skin on the outside. 

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

Hoping to return

As I’ve said, it was the most wonderful experience of my life. And, of course, everyone was well aware of how much I was enjoying myself. And of how much I would love to spend the winter with them too. Everyone liked that idea. “If you’ve enjoyed it here in the summer you should see it in the winter – there are no Europeans around [!], the hunting is good, it’s when we really have a good time!”

A wonderful dream! but to this day I’ve never ever been back to Illorsuit.

And then, too soon, on October 18th the “Otto Mathiesen” arrived at 6:00 am and took me and Kattanguaq to Uummannaq for the last time. What a sad, sad day!

A day or two later I left for Copenhagen as one of three passengers on the quite small m.s. “Hanne S.” All was uneventful ’til we passed Cape Farewell, the southernmost tip of Greenland, and soon entered a bank of dense fog. We slowly, slowly steamed ahead with the Captain on the bridge day and night. A very scary situation. But we got through the fog (and the icebergs) safely and in due course reached Copenhagen.

The following spring, the Hanne S. was the first boat to leave for Greenland. It got there safely, took on a load of cryolite at Ivigtut, also some passengers, and was on its way home to Copenhagen when it was caught in a severe storm and was lost with all hands.

–  x  –  x  –

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Chapter One: Life in Illorsuit

 

KAYAK HUNTING IN ILLORSUIT

GREENLAND

1959

CHAPTER ONE

Life in Illorsuit

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

Ken Taylor / Cameron  

cameron@twinoaks.org

revised May 26, 2015, revised June 24, 2018

Introduction

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.

chart: Grønlands vestkysten Hare Ø-Proven scale 1:400,000

courtesy: Vernon Doucette

A chart of Ummannaq Bay, Illorsuit 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.

My stay in the area 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.  For a number of reasons I got there later than planned 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.  

A shrimp boat in one of the towns we stopped at on the way north.

Acknowledgements

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 basic computer skills I would need in order to get this done.  Over the last few years I have been extremely grateful to the several members of Twin Oaks Community who have helped me learn some at least of these computer skills.

Some background   

In the early 1930s, the American artist Rockwell Kent lived for well over 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 would be pointing backwards and, yes, you wouldn’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 some parts of the island.

As a result of his work on Ubekendt Island and in the west of Scotland, Drever was one of a small group 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 farther afield.

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.

The prominent peak on Upernavik Island clearly visible in both photo and painting 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 came to Illorsuit, climbed the peak and re-named it Aaraliup qaqa (Harald’s Peak) (see Philip Gribbon in American Alpine Journal 1978: Climbs and Expeditions: volume 21; issue 2; page 554).

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.

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 nevertheless went out of his way to come to Uummannaq to meet me. Bent and I were invited to stay with the Lutheran priest “Palase” (the Greenlandic word for priest) Rasmussen and his family. 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.

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

Bent very kindly invited me to go with him to Ikerasak where he was to continue his research for another week or ten days.  I describe that amazing visit in Chapter Three.  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 and I returned to Uummannaq. Kattanguaq came too as she was planning on travelling south to Qullissat on Disko Island. She was told there would be a long wait before she could make that trip, so we agreed that she would come to work with me in Illorsuit, 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 things went for me and my work in the village.  At least as much as anyone else she could understand what I was trying to do (and Bent must have told her some about this)  —  and translate my attempts to say what that was into Greenlandic.  Not to mention that she was a friendly, 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 57 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. 

But that first day, I wasn’t impressed.  It turned out that I was coming down with the ‘flu. Gunnar, the trade post manager, was very welcoming and kindly offered me a room in his two-storey house, where I could stay until I was better and could get my tent up and organized. I ended up spending a week as a guest/invalid in his house. 

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 the village.

Settling in

As I’ve mentioned 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 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

Hospitality

During the time we were in the village, Kattanguaq and I were invited over for a meal or for coffee or to drink home brewed beer, 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. 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. I remember the people as being remarkably generous, with their time, their friendship, their gifts and their hospitality.

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! In the evenings there would almost invariably be some people in my tent, drinking coffee, drinking beer, playing music, singing songs, trying to teach me Greenlandic, 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. 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.

Else (Salamina) Ottosen and her daughter Elene outside my tent.

Learning Greenlandic

A school teacher named 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 was good at understanding my minimal Danish and that was a great help from time to 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 which meant 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. 

Some social events

More or less every week there were village dances 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.

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 given by it was either Sakeus or Enoch.

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 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 had been told ) 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. Deacon Anders led the service with Sakeus at the organ and giving the opening and closing remarks. 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. Then it was along to Anthonette’s father Karl Ottosen’s for a very enjoyable imiamik (of home brewed beer), when old Olabi (who Kent had written about) entertained us all, and completely surprised me, by singing “It’s a long way to Tipperary.”

And one Sunday, a group of us went for a picnic! We went in Ole’s motor boat, some seven or eight of us, heading southwards down the coast.

 

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. Karli got back, but hadn’t seen any ptarmigan so we all had more coffee, some target practice, some more snowballing.

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” stove  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. 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 got sleepy. What a good day that was.

Not so isolated

In some ways Illorsuit may seem like an isolated community, 55 miles 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. The day after we got there the Fishery Inspector’s boat “Poul Egede” came by and was able to give Bent and me a ride to Uummannatsiaq. The day the “Pinasse” came to take Bent, Kattanguaq and me back to Uummannaq the Police boat also arrived at Ikerasak.

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.

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 the hunting trip to 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.

Part of Nuugaatsiaq village

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.

 

Looking into Uummannaq harbor. The larger black hulled boat is the “Otto Mathiesen.” Two kayaks on the gray hulled boat, much as we did on the Umiamako trip.

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’d already been there for an afternoon with the priest’s family, the Rasmussens, so it was good to see the people again.

A few of the Qaarsut children with a part of the village behind them. On the horizon, to the left, that’s the Ummannatsiaq mountain. The photo’s from my earlier visit.

And then on to Niaqornat, also on the Nuussuaq peninsula, some miles farther west. That was my only “visit” to that village, unfortunately in the dark. It seemed an attractive place, nestled among hills and hillocks, facing north.

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  — 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, when I was able to buy the fourth seal skin needed for my kayak, we reached Illorsuit that afternoon with fairly calm seas and sunshine.

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