Posts Tagged With: Bent Jensen

Chapter Three: Ikerasak Village and Uummannaq Town

 

KAYAK HUNTING IN ILLORSUIT

GREENLAND

1959

CHAPTER THREE  

Ikerasak village and Uummannaq town

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

February 17, 2014, revised June 24, 2018

A first week at Ikerasak village

In Chapter One I’ve already told how, thanks to Frøken Larsen’s having very kindly sent him a radiogram, Bent Jensen the Danish anthropology student doing research in Ikerasak village came to Uummannaq to meet us arriving on the m.s. Juto.

 

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

courtesy: Vernon Doucette

You can see where Ikerasak is on this chart: in the southeast corner of the Bay, some 28 miles from Uummannaq, and at the far end of Ikerasak Island.

For me, of course, meeting Bent Jensen was the main event of that day. But it was also important for me to meet and “check in” with Herr Nystrøm the “Colony Manager” and head of the Royal Greenland Trading Department (Den Kongelige Grønlandske Handel or KGH) for the Uummannaq Bay district.

Bent and I accepted the offer of a room to share in Palase Rasmussen and his wife’s house. Herr Rasmussen was the Lutheran priest in Uummannaq. Everyone always referred to him as palase the Greenlandic word for priest. Soon there were several of the local Danes at the Rasmussen’s and someone went to find some seal meat for me to try. I liked it alright and in due course came to really enjoy seal meat. Staying at the Rasmussen’s turned out to be a very comfortable arrangement for Bent and me and I remember that we stayed up ’til 3:00 in the morning talking about life in Ikerasak and in Illorsuit.

Bent needed to return to his village for another week or ten days to finish up his work and invited me to go with him. He had already spent more than a year living in Ikerasak and was on a return visit to continue his research when we met. Well, I didn’t need much persuading, as he was offering to introduce me to life among the Inuit, help me learn a few words of the language, and let me see him at work among the villagers. What an amazing opportunity! So, of course, I made ready to go with him as soon as he could arrange a ride for us on one or other of the official (police, doctor, trade dept., etc.) Danish boats.

Luck was on our side so that the very next day, after farewelling the travel companions heading farther north on the m.s. Juto (one young couple were going all the way up to Thule), we had exactly one hour to get ready for a ride to Ikerasak on the small KGH boat “Pinasse.” It was just enough time to do some unpacking and have my Scottish kayak ready to take with us! One young village girl (now fully recovered) was returning to Ikerasak with us after eleven months at a tuberculosis sanitarium down south.

It was about a four and a half hour trip but finally we got there and as we came in to the harbor over to our left there was a group of 10 or so kayaks up on their racks, all painted white and all with hunting gear in place. Bent mentioned that some of the men were away at a salmon fishing camp and others were on the nearby Nuussuaq Peninsula hunting reindeer.

Some 110 people lived in Ikerasak at that time, in 19 households. The houses were quite spread out because of the rocky terrain, so this view of the center of the village shows only 7 or 8 of the houses. Immediately in the background: a typical old-style house. The thick walls built of stone and turf with a flat roof. Those are the two white uprights of a sled safely stored out of the way for the summer on top of the house. And that’s the usual shark meat hanging on the rack to the right.

Bent and boy on mntn Ikerasak 1_29_ice

Bent and one of the youngsters when we climbed some distance up the mountain a few days later. I wanted to include this photo here as it gives some idea of the profusion of icebergs and brash ice near Ikerasak. Only a few miles further to the southeast is the “Store” glacier, at that time the second most productive on the entire west coast of Greenland.

This is the glacier that the group of scientists who travelled to Greenland with Peary in 1896 came to study. And that was the trip that led to the “Goodnow” kayak ending up in Sudbury, Massachussets (see Chapter Five “Variations in Kayak Design,” and Chapter Seven “The Hunting Equipment”). At the beginning of the new film “Chasing Ice” the first huge calving of what they call a “peninsula” of ice was filmed at “Store” glacier.

Another look at Bent’s own house which he had bought more than a year before. The photo of the center of the village is just to the right of what you see here. That’s Bent, of course, and Kattanguaq one of the villagers. The mountain in the background is the Uummannatsiaq (or “small heart-shaped mountain”) which, in those days, gave its name to the island (and the smaller village at the other end of the island).

With Bent voicing typical Greenlandic apologies for its inadequacies, we were soon comfortably sitting down in his house, which Kattanguaq had cleaned while he was away, eating an omelete while Bent was writing Hr. Nystrøm in Uummannaq to arrange for his return trip to Copenhagen on the Juto as it headed south … when, huge excitement, the reindeer hunters had been seen and they had two reindeer! Everyone rushed down to the harbor to meet their rowboat. These were the first reindeer at Ikerasak for 10 years!

That’s the rowboat they used on the left. The man turning to look behind him is the trade post manager Johannes, a Dane. The taller man with the white cap is also a Dane, Hr. Nielsen, formerly the trade post manager, who when he retired decided to stay on in Ikerasak with his Inuit wife, Dorsay.

Turned out that the reindeer hunt had been Jacob’s idea for years. He was a “retired” 60 year-old hunter and with two friends in their fifties had  been gone for eight days hoping to show that they “weren’t finished yet.” The other two men had actually shot the reindeer and then they had all gutted and butchered them and bundled the pieces in the skins and hiked for three days and three nights to get the meat back to the village before it began to spoil. I realize that they don’t sound to be all that “old” but in a way they were. As I mentioned in Chapter One, the Danish Administration had made hunting by kayak illegal for any man more than 50 years of age.       

By 1959 there were still a few reindeer to be found, but very few. I don’t remember how many they had seen but they successfully hunted the two. For the 12 month period including the time of my visit, as well as those two reindeer, only eight others were caught in the Uummannaq Bay district and all of these at Niaqornat, one of the two villages on the Nuussuaq peninsula itself (Bogen om Grønland 1962, pages 287-363).

 

One of the hunter’s wives carrying one of the bundles of meat to their house.

Two young men carrying a second bundle. That’s Bent with the camera, of course. He later published an article in which he refers to this day with a photo of Jacob’s wife stamping for joy as she performed a traditional dance of celebration.

After the excitement had died down we were invited to Hr. Nielsen and Dorsay’s for an excellent fish dinner. He was 72 years old and she had been his kifaq (or housekeeper) for 50 years before they finally married. They had a fine house, Danish style, on the very fringe of the village looking out over a small lake. Dorsay spoke hardly any Danish and he had learned even less of her language though he’d lived there most of his life. He came out originally as a coal miner before eventually becoming trade post manager at Ikerasak. In spite of their language  difficulties they seemed to get along just fine, teasing each other all through dinner.    

Next we went to one of the other two hunter’s house to buy some reindeer meat. It was a small, low earth house with a large sleeping bench where the old man was sitting in state with one of the rolled up pelts behind him. His wife was in the process of cutting up their share of the meat (with an ulo the incredibly sharp, crescent-shaped “woman’s knife”). We were offered the tongue and some steak and some ribs. A boy was sent off to weigh it and he brought it to us at Bent’s house. But it amounted to 8 kilos and was really too much for us to eat, and more than we could afford. So we canceled the ribs but bought the rest. We also got some of the fat which we used by putting small chunks of it in our coffee  —  this was considered quite a delicacy. 

By now Bent had told me that he’d introduced me as his cousin and asked the people to treat me just as they did him. 

We tried to sleep for a while but visitors kept showing up and then an elderly woman who had arranged to come sing for Bent to record. And soon after that we were off to an imiamik (home brewed beer party) which was great fun. The owner’s quite drunk 24 year old son was especially friendly, delighted that he and I were exactly the same age. Next we went to Jacob’s son Johannes’ house where we found Jacob and Bent gave him a picture of a reindeer that he’d brought especially for him from Copenhagen.

That evening there was a dance, we drank coffee in two or three other houses, for dinner we had reindeer steak, delicious  — it was a big day!

And then the next day we had a wonderful lunch of more reindeer, stewed, at Johannes’ house, and I met his Inuit wife London and their two children.

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Here they are, the little girl in her “Sunday best” (and, behind them, that’s Jacob in my Scottish kayak).     

My “first seal!” At least the first hunted seal that I saw. This is Kattanguaq’s older brother with the seal and some birds he had just hunted by kayak.

During lunch Bent had raised the idea of our paying a quick visit to the small Uummannatsiaq village (officially a “dwelling place” — Ikerasak and Illorsuit were “outposts”) at the other end of the island. And that very afternoon a large motor boat was heard approaching the village. It turned out to be the “Peter Egede”  —  the Fishery Inspector’s boat and he agreed to take us to Uummannatsiaq,

So here’s the scene behind Bent’s house of Johannes, Jacob’s son, and some of the children assembling Bent’s Klepper folboat that we wanted to take with us to Uummannatsiaq so we could return to Ikerasak “under our own steam.” The handsome buildings in the background, by the way, none of them are Inuit, they are all Royal Trade Department. We finally got away at 9:30 pm (it was still full daylight 24 hours a day) for the 1 3/4 hour trip down the north side of the island, taking a large piece of reindeer meat with us as a gift.

And here is Uummannatsiaq and some of its 53 people. A very small village, of a few old style stone and turf houses but there were not so many people around as they were all drunk from celebrating the 50th birthday of the daughter of Karen who at 72 was the oldest person in the village. It was Karen that Bent wanted to see in connection with his research but she was just back from Uummannaq so everyone in that family was sleeping! Instead we went to Knud Nathanielsen’s house. Bent gave them the gift of reindeer meat which was very well received, and so were we. We took presents over to the birthday girl but she was still asleep.

We were given the large sleeping bench to ourselves to sleep on tho’ later on Knud in fact joined us on it. And we spent a pleasant night. This was the arrangement in all the houses I ever visited  —  one large wooden sleeping bench shared by everyone who happened to be there on any given night.

One senior woman of the house made quite a speech of her appreciation of having a Britisher in her house since Britain had so helped Denmark during the war! That was a totally unexpected pleasure. So I thanked and thanked her (through Bent’s interpreting, of course) and told her that I would pass on what she had said to everyone back home.

From Uummannatsiaq the view was to the south to the nearby Nuussuaq peninsula, another opportunity to admire the sight of several glaciers pushing their ice down from between the mountains all the way to sea level.  

One of the men in the photo above had “kayak angst,” and so could no longer kayak. He was one of three men I met afflicted in this way. One of the others, who I’ve already mentioned, was Karl Ottosen of Illorsuit.

The kayaks here were the first I’d had a chance to examine in detail. They were typical Uummannaq Bay kayaks, just like the ones I would soon find in Illorsuit (and everywhere else).

We got up late the next morning at 10:30 or so and first checked on the Klepper which was fine. One man was painting the hull of his kayak white and two other men were puttering around with theirs. We had breakfast at Knud’s of a little reindeer meat  —   most of what we’d given them had gone to Knud’s father as a matter of seniority. Then for coffee to the smallest and oldest earth house where Knud’s father and brothers lived with the owner, an unrelated old woman. A charming little house very cozy inside, we were given wild blueberries with the coffee as a special treat and later they gave us the rest of the berries to eat on our way home. Next up to the house on the hill for more coffee where Johannes and brother and sister-in-law and nephew and their old mother all lived.  Bent had often stayed with them. The mother still wore the traditional sealskin pants every day. Bent had tape recordings to make and I went off to measure kayaks.

Bent had told them that I wanted to try out a kayak so Knud carried his down to the landing for me. Young Jacob (still too young to have one of his own) was already out in the bay in someone else’s kayak, apparently waiting to escort me. I’d had a good look at the cross-sectional shape of the kayaks so I wasn’t too nervous though it was certainly the narrowest most tippy-looking kayak I’d ever tried. Our Scottish sea kayaks of those days were a lot more beamy. Knud had it ready for me to enter from the “near” side with his paddle across the fore deck and him standing on it to steady the kayak for me. But nothing doing, even with me being only 5′ 8″ tall the kayak was too small (or, rather, I was too big) and I simply couldn’t get into it. Johannes suggested that I try his which was maybe a touch bigger. At first it seemed just as bad but then Johannes indicated the fore deck thongs for me to pull on and I managed to squeeze  myself in. To my delight I found it stable enough to sit in without any help from the paddle. Jacob and I then went twice around the bay and then around the corner and out of sight of the village to where there was a great view of icebergs and the Uummannaq mountain. We made it back safely to the landing and that was my first trip in a genuine Inuit kayak!

I then measured four of the kayaks — Johannes’ (actually his brother’s) and Knud’s and Karl Nielsen’s, an older fellow with one of best looking kayaks in the village, also Oscar’s. Johannes helped a lot, demonstrating the use of towing straps, floats etc. Then Johannes’ nephew came down to call us for food: tea and black bread and fat and cookies. It was a small lunch but Bent explained that the hunters would generally go out in their kayaks with empty bellies and (hopefully) eat big meals at night as a result of their hunting. I measured two more kayaks and then there was talk of some kayak rolling. The one full jacket (tuilik) in the village had been repaired (there’d been a hole in the hood) and Johannes was getting ready to roll Tomas’ kayak. First I quickly measured the last kayak, still drying, the one that had been painted that morning.

tylr_gl59_1_31(ice)

Johannes getting ready. He began by warming up with some side sculling but while he was doing that the tuilik came loose of the coaming and water got into the kayak. Not good! Tomas pulled out his fine dog skin kayak “seat” to hang it up to dry off and immediately took away his kayak.

Well, after that, it felt like “time for us to leave” so we quickly got loaded up into the Klepper and set off to friendly farewells.

tylr_gl59_1_31(ice)

We paddled home to Ikerasak (about 11 miles away) along the south side of the island in an iceberg choked passage between the main island and a smaller one right beside it. This is one of the impressive icebergs we paddled past.

On the way we saw a number of seabirds and managed to shoot a black guillemot and two fulmars  —  the first use of my shotgun. The sound was now fairly choked with ice and it took a lot of false starts and some backtracking for us to find a way through. Later Bent said that we’d really taken way too many risks going as close as we had to some of the bigger stuff.  … that it was really good to remember that they really are dangerous. And not too much farther up the sound we watched a small scale demonstration of an iceberg rolling over and throwing off chunks of ice. On the island we passed a few shelters used as “hides” for hunting and one fox trap of stone. One more dicey bit of paddling between two icebergs quite close to each other and we were almost home. We saw the little isolated house where we’d had coffee the first morning and we reached the harbor with lots of people coming down to meet us and help us up to Bent’s house.

tylr_gl59_1_33(ice)

And one of the last icebergs we passed. 

Kattanguaq said she thought we had drowned we were so much later than the time Bent had said we’d be home! Then when Bent asked her to tell us the Ikerasak news she said “oh no, it’s you who have been traveling, you‘re the ones with news to tell.”

Later on, at midnight, as I sat outside cleaning the shotgun, I was sweating in the warmth of the full daylight.

Back at Ikerasak where my kayak got a lot of attention. Here is Jacob, the leader of the reindeer hunters, trying it out (with an improvised paddle).

Cam W Scotland 1955 1958 KT WC c58photo: Harald I. Drever      

And here, just for the fun of it, is my same kayak on the west coast of Scotland. It’s a photo I found on the internet a few years ago, and I’d no idea who took it!  Just recently, however, I heard from Duncan Winning that a copy of it was among the photos Alan Byde received from Dr. Drever years ago. So Drever must have taken it when we met at Kinlochbervie in 1958!   

Of course, I also wanted to try out one or more of the Ikerasak kayaks and someone went to get a kayak for me to try but the owner was asleep so I tried another one but couldn’t get into it. The next day we did find one I could get into and I managed to roll it a couple of times to everyone’s delight.

Ik Me and Jacob 2 20

Too soon it was time to leave. Here’s me with Jacob as we all say goodbye on the jetty. My being Bent’s “cousin” must’ve worked as I was told Jacob said to me “thank you for behaving so well to us.”

Greenland 1959: Ikerasak, two motor boats in harbor

My kayak being paddled out to the “Pinasse” by one of the village boys. The other is the Police boat.

Some of the men and boys had disappeared from the farewell scene at the jetty. But then we saw them on the two hills on opposite sides of the harbor ready to give us what had become the traditional farewell salute of gunfire. Someone dipped the village flag and one of the crewmen dipped the boat’s “jack flag” and to much waving we pulled out of the harbor and around the corner. Hr. Nielsen was waiting and he dipped the flag at his house and Bent’s continuing research visit was over and, for me, so was a wonderful, invaluable week at Ikerasak.

And a final look back at the Uummannatsiaq mountain as we approach Uummannaq.

Uummannaq Town

tylr_gl59_6_3

The m.s. Tikerak in Uummannaq harbor. And, of course, the so distinctive Uummannaq [“heart-shaped”] mountain.  The Tikerak was more or less the same size as the m.s. Juto I’d arrived on and the m.s. Hanne S that in due course I left on for Copenhagen.

Here’s a good overview of the central part of the town including the famous stone church. Most of the houses you see here belonged to Danes though one or two of the smaller ones must have been “Danish style” Inuit houses.

The view across the harbor to the sanatorium where, years ago, the many children with tuberculosis were cared for.

Again I was able to check out the several kayaks up on their racks (these photos were taken on a later visit to town).  There were quite a number of them, though not all of them skinned and ready for use. The Danes spoke of Inuit who had jobs of one kind or another in Uummannaq but who kept and occasionally used their kayaks as “Sunday hunters.”

From this angle you can see various of the KGH structures in the background. Huge piles of barrels of fuel, storage houses  —  the one on the right with its walls apparently built Inuit-style of stone and turf, and with a flat roof!

Seven more of the Uummannaq kayaks, with a corner of the cemetery visible in the background.

I told in Chapter Two of how Palase Rasamussen invited me to go with his family on an afternoon visit to Qaarsut village. As we were about to leave I noted in my journal: “the hunter in the sealskin kayak got ready and paddled off,” presumably one of the Sunday hunters though that’s all I noted and I now have no memory of it. When we returned to Uummannaq I delivered some ptarmigan (they are so delicious) to Frøken Larsen and to Merete the dentist’s wife  —  gifts from Herr Poulson of Qaarsut.

The next day the m.s. Juto returned from the north now of its way south and on to Copenhagen. For some reason it just anchored outside the harbor so a bunch of us took Bent and his luggage, with a load of mail for him to take to Copenhagen, out to it in a small boat. It was good to see some “old friends” on board,  including an elderly American man very pleased with the ivory walrus tusks he’d bought in Thule. Palase Rasmussen was like a happy child trying on his long awaited pair of Thule-style polar bear skin trousers!

On Saturday August 22nd I met quickly with Martin Zeeb of Illorsuit and then Kattanguaq and I got everything [Drever had arranged all kinds of provisions for me] packed onto the “Otto Mathiesen” for the trip to Illorsuit. Palase Rasmussen and Herr Nystrøm were there to see us off and also a boy called Hansi who was from Ikerasak. One of the young villagers Hendrik Quist was on the boat but he was very reserved. We were given some seal meat by the crew and we also had sandwiches from Fru Rasmussen. I remember it as a long, slow trip in dull weather the only highlight being when three of the crew and I were taking potshots at seal with .22 rifles. Eventually we actually shot one and gaffed it aboard.

And so  —  Illorsuit, looking “pretty dismal” as I tell in Chapter One.

From September 29th to October 8th I was back in Uummannaq again for what I had hoped would be just two or three days.  This was about the defective movie camera I’ve mentioned a few times and the totally vain hope that with the help of electrical engineer Herr Gotfrisen it might be possible to fix it. We thought we had but as it turned out it was still faulty and everything I ever shot with the wretched thing was totally out of focus and of no use at all. I must have thought it would be easier than it was to arrange a ride back to Illorsuit but there wasn’t going to be a boat until October the 8th so I lost a whole ten days on that trip. Of course, it did give me lots of time to socialize with Frøken Larsen, Jorgen, the dentist, and his wife Merete, and others I knew from the boat trip. Again the Rasmussens had me stay with them which was very pleasant, I saw a lot of Herr Gotfrisen, of course, and met a number of other people. I’ve already mentioned the pleasures of Danish hospitality and I can add here that the Danes kept very comfortable, cozy homes and it was fun and I really enjoyed being their guest.

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Another look at the m.s. Tikerak in Uummannaq harbor. This shows how the harbor is well sheltered by a small but very nearby island.

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One of the Uummannaq “Sunday hunters” entering his canvas covered and not fully equipped kayak.  It seemed he was going out to fish, not hunt. Bundled up on the foredeck, under the harpoon line tray, he had what looks like a fishing net. He did have a gun in his gun bag but no harpoon or harpoon line. And yet he did have his shooting screen with him. In my experience: very unorthodox. Something I never saw at Illorsuit or Umiamako. 

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And he takes off, that island (and a large iceberg) again very present.

Looking to the west from the hill above Uummannaq out to the open sea (the Davis Strait) beyond the Nuussuaq peninsula. Icebergs glinting on the horizon.

The view to the northwest. That’s most of Ubekendt Island with Illorsuit just off the picture to the right.

From above Uummannaq, another look back at the Uummannatsiaq mountain.

–  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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