Letter from Ittoqqortoormiit

The old man hobbles forward and pauses while he searches amongst the large rounded black beach stones for a solid resting point for the end of his walking stick. They’re slippery and the fresh blood and freezing arctic waters washing up over them keep them that way. Amidst all the action of the young men cutting and heaving and slicing and pulling, it is the serenity and happiness of this nonagenarian that has captured my attention. Somehow he reminds me of my own grandfather as he approached his hundredth year of circling our sun, the face of peace and tranquillity belying the wrinkling years of wisdom accumulated.

Having found steady purchase on the rocks, he slowly raises his head to gaze upon the scene before him. I can see the pride swell from within his decrepit frame. His back, though still stooped, marginally straightens and his chin rises slightly, and while one eye darts downward beneath the rim of his thick glasses to check his balance, he surveys the community cooperation all around him. And he nods that invisible nod of approval: all is good and as it should be in Ittoqqortoormiit.

I’m standing in freezing September weather on Walrus Bay watching the proceedings, which even my East Greenlandic hosts are going to celebrate. A young local woman, married to one of the hunters, has told me that these are the first whales that this small community of hunters have killed in six years. Their municipality’s annual quota is limited to just two individuals. The whole community have walked out to the secluded bay to lend a hand and watch the age-old practices of flensing and carving. Within three hours all that will remain of these two minke whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata / Tigaanguttik), six and ten metres in length respectively, will be ten equal piles of food made up of skin, blubber, ribs, fins and great hulking geometric blocks of deep red meat. And with the prized offal being somehow awarded to a chosen few, the rest is left for the arctic terns, ravens, gulls and guillemots.

The ten piles represent the ten hunters and their extended families. And despite a recent windfall of a very successful musk ox hunt (Ovibos moschatus / Umimmak) that has filled almost all the community freezers for the oncoming winter, nothing of this precious whale hunt will go to waste. Even the giant back bones, cut almost clean of their muscle and sinew, will be later dragged to the outskirts of the village, where the huskies, tied up the whole short summer, will fight each other down the tight pecking order for their share of the day’s bonanza.

As the open air butchering continues with laughing family members loading their quota of meat and blubber into giant plastic storage bags, the old man has taken a seat on one of the larger rocks at the base of the steep scree slopes that fall from under the glaciers and mountains hemming the bay. The mountains are black from the ubiquitous black arctic lichens, except where rockslides have presented new rock surfaces too fresh to yet be colonised by these hardy ‘plants’. He may be tired but his mind is still alert. He’s the elder. There are not many of his make left. Descendants from the days of the great migration of the mid-1920s, north one thousand kilometres from Ammassalik district on the Arctic Circle to the forced resettlement at Scoresbysund (as Ittoqqortoormiit was known in those Danish colonial days), he’s seen the old ways slowly erode. But some things stay the same, and he likes that.

Ittoqqortoormiit is one of the northernmost settlements on the largely depopulated east coast. It sits tucked away on the northern entrance of the world’s largest and longest fjord system, Scoresby Sound (Kangertittivaq), right near the south-east corner of the world’s largest national park. And while the witnessing of today’s event has made me feel extremely privileged, I’ve already felt this from the moment I stepped off the helicopter onto the summit-placed helipad above the village.

Ittoqqortoormiit, ‘dwellers of the big house’ as it’s known in the East Greenlandic language (Tunumiit), is home to 400 Inuit people. Ancestors of the Thule migration from arctic North America (circa 1200 AD), they are one of the last hunter societies of Greenland.

I stare, incredulous, for days out into Scoresby Sound and south across to the glacier-strewn mountains and Cape Brewster (Kangikajik) from my ever-changing vantage points on the boulder fields of Liverpool Land.

Erik, the long-standing Danish meteorologist stationed here, told me one day inside the Pilersuisoq (Greenland’s only general store/supermarket chain specialising in, you guessed it, frozen goods, hunting rifles and oh yes, the odd greenhouse-grown cucumber from Iceland), “You feel lucky, very lucky when you gaze out upon the world’s longest view, across the world’s largest fjord system, on the world’s biggest island.”

Everything is incredibly big or incredibly stunted in East Greenland. And without rising vegetation the landscape is even bigger and more confronting. As an Australian I couldn’t get much further from home – one island to another. I spend long equinox days, prolonged by the lingering twilight, head down, rock hopping long valleys of boulder fields, mapping terrain mentally, noting the myriad of lichen types and beholding the ancient arctic ‘forests’ as I tread upon their stunted ‘canopies’. I stumble amazed over the weird rock-lined polygons of frost-heaved soils, the result of the wonderfully mysterious process of cryoturbation. The arctic tundra is dotted by the late autumn reds and yellows of the dwarf willows and birches, rising in patches barely inches, if at all, above the endless rock and lichen fields. It must be a different world under snow.

My Inuit hosts have insisted I carry a rifle with me on my daily solo hikes. While the remains of the polar pack ice floes have all but gone, polar bears (Ursus maritimus / Nanuq) are still roaming these barren coastlines. Seals rest upon these floes making them the favoured hunting grounds of the polar bear. However, without the floating ice the pickings are slim. I’m acutely aware of the dangers of treading these rocky shorelines alone, having heard over the last few years of near misses and tragedies involving polar bears and tourists on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, nearly 1500 kilometres away over the Greenland Sea. So I’m not arguing with my rifle-thrusting friends.

After a couple of weeks of regular hikes the rifle becomes more a burden than its supposed benefit. The dead weight on my shoulder and its habit of banging on rocks and jamming in crevices as I climb in this boulder-strewn landscape is starting to annoy me. One time my camera swings out in an arc as I leap across some frost heave circles and smacks LCD-screen first into the butt of my 30-08 rifle. But better a twinging neck muscle and a cracked screen on my camera than being the last supper of a threatened species.

I say last supper because unfortunately, when it comes to human/polar bear interactions it’s the bear that usually dies. So most of the time I’m torn between wanting and not wanting to see one, because if it did happen out in those lonely glacial valleys, where my all-weather gear shines like a beacon against the grey of the landscape, I’d only be attracting a hungry bear. And I sure don’t want to have the killing of one of them on my conscience. That is of course assuming that I would be capable of manipulating the rifle at the critical moment. My Inuit advisers have nonchalantly instructed that I should make myself look bigger if the bear continued to approach. Then, if the throwing of stones and the firing of the rifle into the air doesn’t thwart its advance, it’s best, I am told, to ensure that your magazine is full and that you’ve got a cartridge ready in the chamber. These last few years the annual polar bear quota for registered traditional hunters in the municipality of Ittoqqortoormiit has been set at around 30 to 35 individuals in total. And like the regulations surrounding the hunting of whales and other arctic animals, strict conditions apply pertaining to where, when and how the traditional hunt can take place, and to which gender and age group of animals the quota applies. Restrictions also extend to the fire arm type and gauge.

During the early days of my visit, while sitting on a rocky promontory eating my pack lunch out on the even remoter Cape Tobin (Uunartoq), my jacket’s hood tight around my ears, I kept doing quick ninety degree turns with my head left and right checking the terrain all around me. Such was the whistling of the wind that I felt I wouldn’t even hear the predator’s approach, and so my vigilance bordered on the twitching paranoia. The rarest of sightings, a benevolent and majestic snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus / Kiialik), radiant in its winter plumage against the still snowless rock and tundra, only serves to calm my nerves for a moment. And I dared not disrobe to savour the arctic delights of the geothermal hot spring (Uunartoq’s name sake) that I stumbled upon for fear of being ill-prepared should evasive action be required. Over the weeks I hear local reports of a lone polar bear in the neighbourhood, but we never lay our wary eyes upon each other. Not even with the eyes that have grown in the back of my head.

Tired from the morning’s hike up to one of several glacial lakes, I’m looking now at the blood of the butchered whales soaking deep into the black beach rocks and draining as a deep red plume out into the freezing waters, and I’m thinking what it must mean for a hungry polar bear. No wonder the butchering takes place several kilometres out of town. But all this blood and bone is not just attractive to birds and bears. Later, on my way back into town that evening, doubled over against the blade-like wind, I come across one of the most elusive of Greenland’s sea creatures: the Greenland shark (Somniosus microcephalus / Niialingaq). Known for opportunistically feeding on carrion, it must have surfaced from its normal deep ocean habitat following the scent trail of the slaughtered whales. In doing so it was unwittingly hooked by waiting hunters. It’s been left unceremoniously hauled up on the beach rocks while the hunters attend to far greater priorities of this bountiful day. I brush my hand across the body of this three metre long leviathan, its grey black skin like course sandpaper to the touch. I suppose that someone’s going to come back for it. As it lies it’s not edible to anyone. Its flesh contains chemicals that when digested break down to neurotoxins, producing effects of extreme drunkenness. The meat is a local delicacy though and is prepared through a process of fermentation, which inadvertently produces an indescribably putrid flavour, which I discover later is best dealt with in the company of a decidedly strong Danish (or Icelandic) snaps.

Back at the whales, as the chilling polar stream bears down on me that afternoon, I become more aware of my aching ‘rifle’ shoulder and my freezing appendages. Standing on the black beach amidst the bloody behemoths I am suddenly conscious of my gawking presence. I step back to join the local throng. A young boy sidles up to me, and thinking I’ll surely be disgusted, proffers a slice of whale skin, cut fresh with his pocketknife. Much to his astonishment I take it and taste the salty crunch of thick skin. I revere the creature from whence it came and I know its life force is well serving to these lovers of the Arctic. Later, I’ll sample my own small whale fillets and discover that when seared quickly on a hot skillet it’s reminiscent, except for the oily sheen of lipids on the palate, of the lean sharp flavour of western grey kangaroo.

As the big whale is dragged further up the glistening black rocks by the local council’s front-end loader I find a space to approach its enormous white belly and the longitudinally-fluted skin of its great sagging throat. I press my open palm firmly onto the white smooth skin as a sign of respect. Slightly warm to the touch and firm under hand I sense the huge inertia of its presence, soft and smooth, yet solid and unyielding. As I lift my hand I see a faint after-image, the blood running back into the subcutaneous depression left by the force of my palm. I will not ever forget that fleeting moment – my palm’s outlined impression radiating from a life force still evaporating. I step back as the men with knives step in and the flensing and quartering continues with fervour.

I see the old man in the back of a pickup truck now. As it heads back into town, bouncing as it goes over the big beach rocks, I detect the pride in his community on his placid face. Surrounded by family and huge plastic bags of whale meat, blubber and the odd rib bone, he remains serene, his smile like that of the Dalai Lama. The gods of East Greenland have been kind and all is as it should be in Ittoqqortoormiit. The freezers are full. The winter is coming. And perhaps, before his hundredth year around this waxing polar sun, he will bear witness again as his people rally as one – just as in all the days gone by.

NB: All traditional species and place names are provided here in the local East Greenlandic language.

[Note: Written in early 2012 based on events that took place in September 2010]

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