Arctic Dreams [22]

By Shiela Newman

When Max returned from his trip in the high Arctic, crossing between Ellesmere Island in Northern Canada to Northern Greenland by dogsled with Eskimos in March 1992, he talked with excitement about the magic of the ‘frozen North’. That trip had taken 3 weeks, over glaciers and frozen sea ice in temperatures reaching 40 degrees below Celcius. We decided that both of us should go in the Summer, and what better way to do it than by kayak, together with the people who had invented the kayak. The same tour group from Canada, Eco Summer were organising their second kayaking trip in Inglefield Fjord in August 1994, to coincide with the few brief weeks of summer. It would start and finish in Qaanaaq, Greenland, the most Northerly ‘town’ in the World, half way between the Arctic circle and the North Pole.

We met up with the group of 8 others in Edmonton, and flew together via Yellow Knife, Cambridge Bay, Resolute Bay, and lastly by Twin Otter to Qaanaaq, arriving at 2 a.m. in brilliant sunlight.

Greenland is a Danish colony. In spite of so called “home rule”, the Danes act as “benevolent dictators”. Most Eskimos in Greenland and elsewhere are supported by Government. The Thule Eskimos with whom we travelled number about 700 and live in the more Northerly settlements – mostly in Qaanaaq (pop. 500), Siropoluk (pop 80) and a few smaller settlements. Unlike most other Eskimos, they have retained their traditional skills in hunting, fishing, building kayaks and dogsleds – surviving the Arctic winter.

We stayed in the only hotel, a small centrally heated building run by one of the local Eskimos, for the first night. We were wakened by the howling of dogs. There are about 12,000 dogs in Qaanaaq, tied up for the summer outside their masters’ homes, waiting to be worked in the winter months.

Next morning, we piled into 2 small run-abouts with all our gear, and were taken by their Eskimo owners up the fjiord to our first camping spot, past magnificent cliffs of ochre-coloured sandstone. We put our 5 boats together and set up camp. We used 2 person German Kleppers. The boats were sluggish in the water but had adequate storage capacity. We considered that they were inferior to the Australian made Amphibian 11. The trip again demonstrated the need for a rigid shell collapsible kayak in which the elements fit into each other. We wore multi-layered clothing, thermal underwear, then pile shirts and trousers, pile jackets, woollen beanies and a one-piece padded floater suit. On our feet were two pairs of socks and gumboots. They were essential for launching the boats in icy water. It took some time to develop techniques for getting us and our gear in and out of the cockpit. The whole group would launch each fully laden boat one after the other, doing a kind of Chinese shuffle down the beach using slings.

The landscape looked extremely barren from the water, but closer exploration of the tundra amazed us with the variety of plant life, it was beautiful and full of colour. There were yellow poppies, blue saxifrage, vetches and chickweed, brilliant purple fire weed and a large number of lichens amongst the grasses and mosses. Our first campsite, called Quinissut, was an old established Eskimo camp, with the remains of ‘houses’ – rough stone circles each with a tunnel entrance. The Eskimos would erect covers over the structures with whalebone arches and skins, or tents. Close by was the Hubbard glacier, which we walked to and climbed onto the next day at the end of a wonderful hike up the hills behind the campsite. At the edge of the glacier, where it met the water, the ice cliffs were the size of a 4 or 5 storey building. We were overwhelmed by the magnificence of the scenery.

After a good night’s sleep – again in broad daylight – we packed the boats, and set off. Paddling amongst ice floes and past ice bergs was an unforgettable experience, one we would repeat over the next 10 days on the water. Each berg was sculptured in a different shape, we could see the turquoise blue of the part under the water, and above the white crystals sparkled in the sunshine against the deep blue of the water. It was as calm as a millpond, reflections were everywhere we looked, mirroring the land and seascapes. Silently we glided, listening to the constant drip of water off the icebergs and hearing the occasional crashes as parts fell off with huge splashes and rippples or when a berg toppled over. Curious birds circled us, fulmars (a kind of albatross), kittywakes, guillemots and the occasional eider.

Our two Eskimo companions followed in their boat with an outboard motor, on which they carried their kayak. Each hunter makes his own kayak, a slender light craft of wood and canvas to fit his own weight and size. On each is carried his harpoon and a bladder made of a whole seal skin attached to the point of the harpoon by rope so that they can locate the narwhal when they have harpooned it. Occasionally one of the Eskimos, Jens, would get into his kayak and paddle not far from us. His wooden paddles were so thin they made no sound in the water, no drips at all – a necessity when hunting narwhals which have very acute hearing. These Eskimos prefer to be called Inuit which means ‘people’ or ‘human beings’, and they speak Inuktitut. They wore kamiks, boots made of skin.

We spent 2 nights at our next campspot, mainly because we were enveloped in thick, very cold fog. But, even so, we did explore our surroundings, and washed in the freezing stream in water straight off the icecap. Our clothes were donned again with great haste, but we felt tremendous. Our guides provided us with filling and magnificent meals cooked on 2 small burners. The air was wonderful, we had never been in such an unpolluted atmosphere, any activity was sheer delight and we were filled with energy.

The next day we were up early and paddled across the fjord taking about 4 hours to do so in water as calm as glass, and brilliant sunshine. It was exhiliarating. Mountains covered with ice surrounded us in the distance as we paddled past ice bergs looking like huge dollops of meringue. Each kayak was reflected against the scenery which made the taking of photogaphs imperative – we couldn’t stop ! Each one of us seemed to be paddling in a magical dream world. Sounds of our companions exclaiming in wonder carried across the water, and everywhere the birds continued to swoop over us and fly just above the surface of the water. Seals would pop their heads out of the water and gaze at us before going under again. We stopped for lunch at Qeqertak, a small settlement of a few families on a group of islands, for lunch, and popped into the local store. The store was a tiny building where we saw our first narwhal tusk. It was about 2 meters long with its spiral fluted pattern, a beautiful thing like a unicorn’s horn. In fact we learned that this was the origin of the mythical unicorn.

The opportunity to see how the Inuit live, and to meet with them was certainly one of the highlights of this trip. They are a remarkable people, living very much as they have done for centuries. It was very humbling for us as quallunaats (white people) to learn that they have a self-imposed rule that narwhals cannot be hunted from motorized boats, or with guns, but must be hunted in the traditional way with kayak and harpoons. How different from the massacre of whales in the Southern oceans. The polar Inuits will only hunt to provide themselves and their dogs with sufficient food, and no more. A by-product is the ivory narwahl tusk, which they carve into the most exquisite art products and pendants.

The day finished for us, with another hour’s paddling to our campsite on another small island within the group. This time we paddled through broken pack ice, the sea had not completely unfrozen. We were in bed by midnight and by this time were used to the continuous daylight. We went to sleep when we were tired ! Even in our sleeping bags we removed few layers of clothing, it was just too cold.

After breakfast the next day, we took a 5 hour hike to the other side of the island where we were met with more spectacular views of almost continuous bergs and ice coming off the Tracy and Heilprin glaciers, both enormous stretching several miles across. Back at the camp, the Inuit had killed a ring seal, which they proceded to cut up in about 5 minutes, saving the skin for boots. Striking camp we were back in the kayaks and off for another couple of hours paddling. The Inuit had reached the next island ahead of us, and were sitting on top of a hill looking out through binoculars. They had spotted the narwhals on the other side of the fjord. Suddenly Jens was off in his kayak again, a small human being in that enormous seascape, paddling quietly. But the narwhals were elusive, and after a couple of hours he returned. We paddled on to our next campsite for the night. By midnight we were off to take more photographs. The best light we found to be between 12 midnight and 1 a.m.

We continue to marvel at the extent of life here, plants, birds and sea life. Pussy willows here are hundreds of years old, but spread out about 8 inches off the ground. Walking on these gardens seemed sacriligious, they have taken so long to establish themselves in the few brief weeks of sunshine and warmth, but it is like walking on cushions underfoot. The rocks are salmon pink and black with lichen.

Paddling to our next campsite the following day we passed hundreds of arctic terns, diving for fish and getting ready for their migration to the Antarctic, a distance of about 12,000 miles. How can they do it, such tiny birds, to find their way and make that journey each year, the longest migration anywhere. We also passed a rookery of gulls, ivory gulls and kittywakes. We landed at Qioqit, where a group of 6 Inuit were camping and looking out for narwhals. On the rocks were 3 Inuit kayaks. The ice floes and bergs had thinned out, and this is the kind of water preferred by the narwhal, we were told. They come up the fjord in summer to hunt the arctic cod, part of the food chain in this area.

After getting our tents up, we joined the Inuit who were constantly searching the water through their binoculars. Suddenly they jumped up with the call “Narwhal”, and Jens and his companion were into their kayaks and off. Through our binoculars, we could see their successful hunt, which had taken them about 2 hours, Meantime we could see pods of narwhals making their way through the water, blowing and puffing. The larger boat then set off, with 2 men rowing it to the 2 hunters, where they helped to bring back the narwhal they had caught. The boats came back with the flukes of the whale tied across the bow of the boat, which is a ritual observed to demonstrate the Inuit affinity with the beast they have killed, and to show respect for it. We were amazed by and full of admiration for the skill and courage of the hunters.

Dragging it up the beach, they cut a section (mukluk) from the back of the animal, giving us each a small piece to chew. It tasted like rubber ! It is high in vitamin content, and we learned that the early explorers of a century ago need not have died of scurvy, if they had only learned this fact from the Inuit. To-day was my 63rd birthday, and what a birthday, complete with ‘cake’, together with candles brought by Max from Sydney, for dinner ! Snuggling up in our tent that night, I couldn’t help thinking what a priviledge it was to be here.

Pancakes with maple syrup for breakfast. We had a fairly leisurely morning with a walk up the hills behind us, giving us yet more wonderful views. Time for another freezing wash in the stream, and then we wandered back to narwhal watching. Suddenly Jens and Nuka were off again in their kayaks, and after a few hours were back again. It was Nuka’s 37th birthday and they joined us for another birthday cake and candles. We had a fun time with them playing string games, for which they are famous, much more elaborate than cats cradle ! To-day the temperature was about 7 degrees.

At breakfast time the next morning, a pod of whales came past the little bay in front of us. We could hear them before we saw them, blowing and spouting as they came up for air. They were such a beautiful sight. Then we set off again for a long paddle to the other side of the fjord. It was a bit misty, so the scenery had changed again. On the way we stopped at another deserted Inuit camp, Nunatarssuaq, complete with stone houses, and a stone gravesite, and had our lunch. Then we paddled another three and half hours round the head of Academy fjord and along the coast line to Kangerdlugssuaq, a very small settlement where just one family has lived for several generations. On the way we paddled close to 3 pods of whales and sat quietly in the water watching them, rolling and blowing their way through the icy water. By this time we were almost blase about the seals which were constantly around us. Some groups looked as if they had just been let out of school, coming up and looking at us with their heads right out of the water.

We had another hike in the hills after breakfast the next morning and caught sight of Arctic hares with their white fur, seen on some of our previous walks. The beaches are littered with the bones of narwhals, bleached white. Back into the boats, we passed the island of Qingmiunegarfik (how does one pronounce that word ?), and on up the coast until we reached Nutat about 6 p.m. On this side of the fjiord there are sandy beaches, quite different to the craggy rocky terrain on the other side. This was our last campsite, and we all had mixed feelings. It had all gone so quickly, and we had been exposed to a completely different culture and environment, had learned so much, but the lure of hot showers and clean clothes was also there !

We packed for the last time, got the boats into the water for the last time, and picked up our paddles to go up the coast for the next few hours with the wind behind us, reaching the Hurlbut glacier around 1.30 p.m. We seemed to speed along in the wind, the first day in which the water was not like glass.

After lunch we took the boats apart, and were ready to put them in the motor boats which arrived to collect us at 4 p.m., to take us back to Qaanaaq, and to the hotel where the warmth of the central heating drove us outside again very quickly. We were not used to that kind of heat! After dinner, Kaj, a Dane who had lived there with his Inuit wife for the past 20 years or so, and is the local teacher, judge and authority on Inuit life, spent another evening with us talking about the culture and aspirations of the town. It was fascinating.

At 2p.m. the following day, we were off to the runway to await the arrival of the Twin Otter, chartered to take us back to Resolute Bay and onwards.

It seems impossible for us to be able to describe those wonderful 2 weeks to people who haven’t been there. It is a vast and magical pristine wilderness. It was a learning experience to see how the Inuit survive with such extraordinary daring and skill. Learning about their history and way of life was fascinating in itself. How do we pass on the feelings of wonder at the life which teems in that area for the brief summer, the smells and sounds, the energy in the air, the sights on land and water, the joy of paddling in those waters ? We were left wondering whether the benevolence of the Danes will finally destroy the Eskimo incentive to hunt and fish in their own way. Will this proud and unique people turn into entertainers for foreign tourists, or worse still, become dependent on welfare?

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