Looking back on Greenland
We were enjoying our dinner on board the Aurora when the sound of three gunshots broke the silence of the otherwise calm evening. We rushed up to the deck and found three small motorboats with jubilant men stirring up the mirror-calm water around us. The motorboats had three ropes tied to a dead killer whale and they were bringing it home. The hunter was Kunuk, a young native who had shot his first whale – a rite of passage for a small hunting community.
Whale and seal hunting in Greenland is steeped with history and tradition, it’s a part of their cultural identity. Greenlanders have hunted for their survival for thousands of years, using very similar methods throughout their history. They still go out on small boats, two and two together. It is not an industry; it’s a small-scale hunting that is important both for their culture and their survival. It’s sustainable and natural. It’s the hunter and the animal.
I came aboard the 60ft Aurora in Kulusuk, a small town on the east coast, where I met my father, Siggi, and my grandfather, Jon, who had already been in Greenland for a few weeks. We spent some days in Kulusuk and Tasiilaq before the rest of the gang showed up. The plan was to spend most of our time in empty fjords exploring mountains, glaciers and icebergs, but I figured that a trip to Greenland isn’t complete if one doesn’t get to know, if not just a bit, the people that live and thrive in this landscape.
I met Kunuk’s father earlier in the day of the gunshots and helped him to carry some big chunks of whale meat. Considering the amount of dogs they have, it’s very understandable that they need a lot of meat. These dogs are pure working animals, hungry and brave.
How to prepare a polar bear
Arqaluk is a friend of the skipper. An experienced hunter who knows the whole area like the back of his hand, he provided us with valuable tips and recommendations about suitable anchoring spots and routes. He and his family came to our boat for dinner one evening and he told us stories of his hunting trips. Once per year he goes with his buddies on a two-week trip where they camp and harpoon narwhals from kayaks. He has also hunted a polar bear, and he told me his secret recipe for cooking polar bear meat, which, according to him, is the world’s best meat. He told me the trick is lots of curry and fresh pineapple.
Greenlanders are friendly. By friendly I don’t mean the overly-friendly-jumping-at-the-foreigner kind of friendly, but simply and genuinely friendly. They are reserved and a bit pessimistic, as they should be.
Kulusuk and Tasiilaq were more lively than any other Icelandic towns same size. Expensive satellite Internet connection and the fact that there are only a handful of cars in each town are the most obvious explanation for the liveliness. People walk between places, greet and chat by the ad-posts and then continue. Streets are full of people. Young people hang outside in the evenings, playing football and talking. American hip-hop seems to be popular and teenagers use their iPhones to blast music on every street corner.
After a few days of relaxing and exploring Kulusuk and Tasiilaq the rest of the group flew in. Besides the three of us, the group consisted of Li, from Finland, Paz and Alon from Israel, and the Icelanders, Andri the filmmaker, Smári the fisherman and Örvar the overall entertainer.
We sailed off after brief introduction and safety talk in Kulusuk. Ahead of us were 8 days of exploration in the Ammassalik area, a 232,100 km² region, more than double the size of my home country, but with a population of only 3,031 (in 2005). The days were full of amazing views of high mountains, glaciers, huge icebergs everywhere, seals and whales. We anchored in fjords and bays where we were all alone, places with names such as Sivinganeq, Ikasaulaq and Akiliaitseq. We walked to the top of mountains, paddled on kayaks, picked mussels, fished for trout, and some swam in the sea. In the evenings we drank wine, ate good food that usually was fresh from the local waters, played cards and told stories. One evening we even had a full moon beach party.
We stopped at a few other small settlements along the way. Tiniteqilaaq (pop. 134) greeted us with a game of ping-pong and friendly locals who didn’t mind playing with the guests. In Tiniteqilaaq, hunting, fishing and tourism are the main sources of income for the people. Seals are hunted throughout the year together with a few polar bears and narwhals.
Thousands of icebergs calve from Greenland’s enormous ice sheet every year and into the huge Sermilik fjord. Cruising over Sermilik, where Tiniteqilaaq is, was one of the highlights of the trip. Zigzagging between the seemingly endless amounts of icebergs that fill the fjord took a while. Except for us there was only the startlingly still water and the mirror it created, doubling the size of world.
No place in the world has more glaciers than Greenland. From the huge Greenland ice cap there are hundreds, or even thousands, of little glaciers that are squeezed down to the sea. As captain Siggi said once, “You come into a fjord and say ‘Wow, this is amazing!’, and then you go to the next fjord and it’s exactly the same story, they are endless”.
The whole trip was characterized by ice, ice, and more ice. Here Aurora is checking out the massive ice wall at Karale glacier. Me, Örvar and Andri took the rubber boat for a spin to get some photographs.
Kayaks were originally developed by the Inuit to be used to hunt in the coastal waters of the arctic. It’s easy to understand why the kayaks were developed in these waters, almost every single day the water was almost completely flat, the ideal conditions for paddling. No trip to Greenland is complete without some days out paddling and therefore Aurora carries enough kayaks for everyone onboard. We did several paddling trips into the fjords and explored places where Aurora, our mother ship, could not reach.
After Aurora had been in Greenland for over a month, and our group for more than two weeks, we hailed our sails and departed before the angry autumn storms would arrive. Our group of adventurers watched the Greenland coast sink into the ocean, while cruising between the massive icebergs under the aurora borealis.
48 hours after we left the Greenland coast, we sailed into our home harbor in Isafjordur, Iceland. It’s amazing to think about how close this fairytale land is to my own home.
More photos: flickr.com/haukurr
Aurora Arktika: www.aurora-arktika.com