By Jungle Svonni. Photo by Dylan Shaw..
When I was 11 years old my dream since many years came true. I got to go to Greenland! Including the northernmost village in the world! Something that I had been praying for for years. My mother suddenly got a job offer on Greenland, so we went to live there for 6 months.
First 3 months in Nuuk, the capital, on the southwest coast. Then 3 months in Qaanaaq, the very north. The top of the world.
Anywhere you are on Greenland it’s beautiful. Just in slightly different ways. There are no roads or cars outside the biggest settlements and they are not connected with each other by roads. The landmass not covered by glacier is about the same size as Norway. But there is less than 60 thousand people living there, so it’s a lot of nature. Fjords and mountains, but no trees. Well, I heard a rumor about a few small birch trees in the bottom of a fjord close to the southern tip of Greenland. But we never saw them although we went hiking in there in the south once.
But I experienced my first hurricane there. It came very sudden, at 4 a clock in the morning. The tent was pushed flat on top of us like a blanket by the wind. It was late in the summer and below the arctic circle, so it was still dark when we had to pack in a rush before all our stuff blow away. And then hike trough the wind that I thought was going to lift us from the ground and send us flying into a mountain side or out into the sea.
But we made it. Sometimes by crawling and holding on to the ground.
The southwest was beautiful, with the best fishing I experienced in my life, so far. And it was easy to understand why the first foreign colonizers (the vikings) called it Greenland. All the lakes and rivers where green or turquoise glacier water. And the smaller icebergs where also green or turquoise. The big ones where white.
But I think there is most to tell about the time in the far north. The county of Qaanaaq consisted of 800 people, divided on 5 small villages and one bigger, Qaanaaq itself. The whole area is isolated from the rest of Greenland, by the Melvill bay. A stretch of about 700 km where the inland ice reaches all the way to the sea. So that cuts the Qaanaaq area off from the rest of Greenland.
The language is also quite different. There they are more connected to the Inuits in Canada, since up there it’s only 20 km between Ellesmere Island (Canada) and Greenland at the most narrow stretch.
The society in Qaanaaq was very segregated. At least in that time. In Qaanaaq itself lived about 500 people. About 30 of them white, mostly danish. The rest Inuits. The white people had electricity and running water. The Inuits not. And they did not mingle much.
Well there where exceptions to this, but not many.
Upon our arrival with helicopter we were met by Kasaluk, a young Inuit woman, working as an interpreter between danish and Inuit. Later the character Smilla in the book, and later Hollywood movie: Smilla’s feel for snow was based on her. But none of us knew anything about that, in that time. What was relevant was that she saw something about me. That I too was indigenous and belonged with the Inuits more than with the white kids.
Those was two very separate worlds. She told the Inuits not to be fooled by my light skin color, because I wasn’t Danish but belonged to another arctic tribe.
So I ended up being part of their indigenous society. Where for example the time had no meaning. So far up north there is no difference between day and night. Sometimes we where jumping between the roofs of the houses until 5 in the morning. That was one of the favorite games up there, when we were not helping the parents with hunting or dog related work. The Inuits up there in the far north are known to be among the most happy and friendly people in the world.
A few years later when I still spoke fluent danish (I only learned about 30 words in Inuit) and was visiting Denmark, people were looking very strangely at me when I spoke. And after some time they exclaimed: You speak danish like an Inuit! How is it possible?
Kasaluk played a very important part in opening the door to the Inuit society. So I am forever grateful to her. And her father that adopted me as his grandson. I don’t remember his real name. Just that I called him Ada. Witch means Grandfather in the local Inuit language. He taught me to drive dogsleds and took me out hunting and fishing. We always traveled by dogsled since the sea was covered by ice all the time I was there. The sea was only open 6-8 weeks a year.
To travel by dogsled in July under the midnight sun and crossing cracks in the melting sea ice was somewhat of an experience. The cracks where often over a meter wide, so the dogs 8-20 of them that where all pulling side by side in long individual pulling lines, in the shape of a «sun fan» speeded up just before the crack. Then stopped for a second or two, to let the sled catch up a bit, so that they got some slack on their pulling lines. Then they jumped. And continued running on the other side. The wider the cracks, the more dogs who didn’t make it over and had to be pulled up by the other dogs behind the sled when it had crossed. Once when we where coming ashore to a small village it was a stretch of maybe a hundred meters where the sea ice was broken up into large pieces so everything was moving under us.
The dogs there are a protected specie. One of the most important laws on Greenland is that no dogs can be brought into Greenland, north of the arctic circle. It’s to protect the Greenlandic dogs from being mixed with huskies. Huskies are faster for competitions and easier to handle. But they don’t have the stamina of the local Greenlandic dogs, that the people there are 100% dependent on. They are fed like wolves – a couple of kilos of raw meat 2-4 times a week. A dog that is fed everyday pulls poorly if one day there is no food. And that happens in the arctic, for both dogs and humans. And anyway they have a slow digestive system, just like wolves. They are not meant to eat every day. When on rare occasions arctic wolves pass through the area they like to get some of the female dogs pregnant from the wolves. To strengthen the breed.
The school I only had to attend when there wasn’t anything important to do.
And the food was great! 100% animalic and most of it raw. Not so much fish because of the ice. But the seals many times come up on top of the ice and the «small» whales they get by harpooning them by hand from a kayak in the summer lasts a long time. Then there are walrus, reindeer, muskox, polar hare, polar bear, ptarmigan. And different kind of seabirds and eggs in the summer.
Most important where the seals and whales. Not only because they where most plentiful but also because they where their only source of vitamin C. Raw whale skin and raw seal eyes is packed with vitamin C. If you cook it, you lose the vitamins and you will get scurvy. And if I can choose, between an orange or a raw seal eye there is no doubt – I’ll go for the raw seal eye any day.
Polar bear was one of the few things that was always cooked, because it can have trichinoses (a dangerous parasite also found in pigs). The skins from the polar bears where used for pants. Something very essential up there. Without polar bears there wouldn’t be possible for humans to live there either.
Maybe the people up there could survive without the reindeer and muskox. But not without the seals, whales and polar bear.
Their most famous delicacy was Giviaq. You skin a seal through the mouth, so that you don’t make any holes in the skin. You leave the skin raw, without scraping away the fat. Then you take over a thousand auks (auks are a sea bird the size of a magpie, that colonize the mountains during the short summer. They come in great numbers, millions of them and they are caught by a net on a long stick). You stuff the seal skin with the auks, until it looks like a live seal. Then you cover the “seal” with rocks, since you can’t dig in the permafrost. Leave it over the summer, or until the next year.
The birds are put in the skin with intestines and feathers. When you open the skin, the birds have a very strong and peculiar smell. They are technically not rotten. But fermented. Those who know both says it’s similar to Gorgonzola cheese. I really liked it back then. But I don’t know if I would today. That was many years ago now…
Greenland is a great place that will always have a special place in my heart.
I met a Danish writer who lived many years on Greenland, Jørn Riel. Like me he had fallen in love with this land/island. Many years later he moved to a Polynesian island in the south pacific. I saw an interview with him on television from there. He was asked if it wasn’t a big change moving from the arctic Greenland to the tropical Polynesia? He just laughed and answered: Not at all! I just moved from one paradise island to another. The people here have the same friendly and joyful manners.
What a wise man!
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