David Atkinson meets the Inuit communities of little-visited East Greenland
Frederik was laughing at my pronunciation. “Siku,” he said. “That means ice in Greenlandic. Then there’s Sirmirsuaq. And sikursuit. They mean ice too.”
Sikurlaaq. Sikuaq. Siirsinniq. They’re all tongue-twisting variations on the same theme. In fact, more than a dozen Greenlandic words for ice exist – most of them comprising such odd juxtapositions of consonants and vowels that, should they ever make a Greenlandic version of Countdown, there’ll be some serious overtime in Dictionary Corner.
After 24 mind-bending hours of perpetual daylight and unpronounceable place names, my encounter with the scholarly and wordplay-loving Frederik Wille blew in like a cobweb-clearing Arctic breeze. I found him in the local school library, devouring coffee and a well-thumbed copy of the classic Greenlandic tome, Frederik Nielsen’s Tlissi Tassa Nunassarsi (This Is My Land), the rallying call for the nationalist movement.
Frederik Wille was born in the 1970s in West Greenland, then moved east in 1994 and married a local girl. Now he shapes young minds at the village school, championing the cause of education in the native East Greenlandic language and trying to make sense of the pace of change around him.
“I think the change here is one of the fastest in world history. Maybe too fast,” noted Frederik, thoughtfully. “In less than 100 years we have gone from the Stone Age to the modern age. People have definitely struggled with that.”
Teaching 70 pupils aged five to 15 in both East and West Greenlandic dialects – as well as Danish and English – is a far cry from the dark days of the 60s, when the indigenous tongue was almost dead and the Inuit culture vanishing like a melting iceberg.
Today, with home rule restored in 1979 and East Greenlandic not just spoken but also recorded in writing, the language and culture are enjoying a renaissance.
“The culture of East Greenland has always reflected nature: the elements, animals, weather,” said Frederik. “Life is hard here, but we have learned to live with nature. We’re proud to express our culture in our own language once more.”
Lying mostly within the Arctic Circle and two hours by plane from Iceland, Greenland is cut off from the rest of the world for eight months of the year when the fjords freeze over with thick pack-ice. Denmark subsidises its erstwhile colony to the tune of 3 billion Danish kroner (£274 million) annually, and the Danish press rejoice in headline-grabbing stories that highlight Greenland’s array of social problems: rampant unemployment, alcohol abuse and poverty.
Inuit communities in East Greenland date back to the tenth century; Danish colonisation began in earnest in the 18th century, bringing Christianity and European values to the west coast. The Danish marine officer Gustav Holm first set foot on the eastern shore in 1884, landing close to present-day Tasiilaq. Yet even today the east remains culturally and linguistically distinct from the west, with just two main towns along a 2,600km coastline and a population of 3,000 – a fraction of the country’s 57,000-strong total.
Kulusuk, a 300-person hunting settlement of brightly coloured houses strung out along a dirt track with pure-breed Greenland huskies chained at their doors, was my introduction to East Greenland.
First impressions? I had come to the end of the earth. Kulusuk may be the second most visited area of Greenland (after Disko Bay in the west), but I was still one of just 6,000 travellers to experience it each year.
Of the 6,000, few stick around long enough to get a real sense of the place. The majority are day-trippers on flights from Iceland, stomping along the airport road to a soundtrack of drip-drip-dripping ice sheets once the melt comes in mid-May. To these whirlwind visitors, the indigenous culture – a souped-up, fast-tracked clash of ancient beliefs and contemporary social ills – seems utterly impenetrable.
As it did to me, at first. After watching a local woman perform a traditional Inuit drum dance while the other villagers – dressed in Linkin Park T-shirts and gabbling on mobile phones – went about their business, the complexity of the situation was driven home to me. Understanding life on the world’s largest island, lost in the middle of the North Atlantic and 85% covered in ice, would be no mean feat.
Earlier that day I’d taken a spin in the Ammassalik Fjord with a local hunter-turned-boatman to get some orientation and a sense of the sheer enormity of the landscape. Eli, a man of few words and even fewer teeth, was clearly at home in the pristine wilderness. With the afternoon sun high in the sky, we left Kulusuk’s makeshift harbour and chugged out gently among the icebergs.
The melt was in full effect and the lapping of the ripples from the boat was sometimes enough to tip one of the smaller icebergs onto its side, a chunk of frozen ice breaking free and drifting off towards the horizon with a gentle ‘plop’.
Just as I was enjoying the ride, Eli killed the engine with a splutter and sniffed the air, suddenly animated. “Seal,” he said, nodding towards a rifle wrapped in a green canvas cloth by his side.
I froze, neck craning, but the seal was already gone, and he swiftly returned to his reverie, eyes fixed stoically on the frozen horizon. Only on the way back to Kulusuk, bobbing and weaving like a prize-fighter as he played iceberg dodgems, did I catch the faintest hint of a wry smile dancing across his wind-chapped lips.
Tasiilaq, a 20-minute transfer by helicopter from Kulusuk, struck me immediately as a more prosperous place. I walked around the paved streets of the centre, home to some 1,800 people, to find new houses being built by the harbour, children playing on swings in front gardens and the ubiquitous Pilersuisoq chain supermarket well stocked with everything from hunting rifles to baby food.
I called in at the well-groomed local church, where seal-skin altar stools and stopped off at a busy market on a town square, where people were chewing their hotdogs while a synth-pop band set up their equipment and the singer’s haunting vocals filled the afternoon air.
Down at the water’s edge, meanwhile, fishermen and hunters were unloading their catch – a reminder that, while the fledgling tourism industry is the latest hope for East Greenland, Tasiilaq retains its traditional subsistence lifestyle based around hunting whale, seal and polar bear.
Tasiilaq is also the heart of Greenland’s trekking country, with a slew of trails suitable for a range of experience, from novice to expert, fanning out from the fringes of the town.
On the first day I set out on the most popular route, the easy Valley of the Flowers hike. A 2.5km yomp across gently undulating terrain, the trailhead lies next to the town’s flower-strewn graveyard, where stark crosses stand out against a backdrop of deep-blue sky and white-peppered fjords.
In mid-summer the trail lives up to its name with an array of Arctic flora, including indigenous lousewort, wild blueberries and dense willow scrub, carpeting the terrain and delineating the path. At other times, with the snow still thick on the ground, the route is less obvious – beware thin ice and the dreaded delayed drop, whereby you suddenly find yourself knee deep in icy-cold water with a good 30 minutes between you and a pair of dry socks.
After an hour without passing another soul, I reached the end of the trail, marked by a small waterfall with views across to Mount Qaqqartivagajik. Sitting on a rock, the water gurgling around me the only sound, I felt like the last man on the planet.
The next day I set out early to hike a section of the more taxing Five Lake Circle. Most of the treks are self-guided, as mountain guides are not readily available in these parts; no problem – the going was good. Again, I was the only human on the trail but, this time, the local fauna – including snow bunting, glaucous gull and lesser black-backed gull – kept me company.
This 20km trail, only some of it on marked paths, crosses streams and takes in higher-altitude mountain trails. It feels ambitious for a less-experienced hiker, especially with no guide.
Following the path high above the fjord went smoothly and the valley leading into high mountain country was well marked but, when it came to skirting the north side of a turquoise lake and wading through a stream, I decided to head back and accept a coffee invitation from the owner of the town’s bookshop to find out more about life in Tasiilaq.
Gerda Vilholm arrived from Denmark more than 40 years ago to manage the local weather station and today runs Neriusaaq (Rainbow) Books, a homely bookshop-cum-internet-café off Tasiilaq’s main square. As we settled down at a picnic table in the shop, I shared with her my impressions of East Greenland.
While the trekking is superb and the landscape beyond spectacular, opportunities to interact with the local people and learn about Inuit culture had been… limited.
To be fair, the Danish-run tourist office in Tasiilaq is sensitive to this and the manager is working on a responsible tourism project to place tourists in Inuit family homestays, but my attempts to chat with local people had so far been met with awkward silence. The only people actually interacting with visitors, it seemed to me, were either Danish or locals cleaning floors in the town’s major hotel.
“I do feel part of the community, but I’ve lived in Tasiilaq since 1984 and speak fluent East Greenlandic,” said Gerda, who drives around town Easy Rider-style on an old Chinese motorbike painted with the Stars and Stripes. “Local people welcome tourism but they prefer to keep their private lives private. Hence, they keep their distance.”
East Greenland was shaped by a combination of hard living, isolation and its symbiotic relationship with the natural environment. The original Inuit hunters lived in simple shacks, patrolled the fjords for food and lived by a strict unwritten code of conduct, sharing the spoils around the community and worshipping the mountain gods from remote stone circles. Somewhere, amid the so-called march of progress since the Danes first arrived in the late 19th century, this lifestyle has gone awry, leaving a void in its wake.
On my last day, Gerda introduced me to her neighbour, Karl Pivat, a 73-year-old former mariner and hunter. Karl’s house was typical of a traditional hunter’s home, with a small but cosy living room, a smouldering pipe by the hearth and an ever-percolating coffee pot on the tiny stove.
“Life as a hunter is getting harder as the changing climate means that warm currents are now coming into the fjord,” explained Karl as we perched on low fabric stools. “I first went hunting, aged eight, with my father. We took guns and a harpoon, and travelled across the ice by dogsled. But now the seals and polar bear stay further away – there’s less fjord ice in the region.” As he spoke I noticed his face had been etched by a lifetime of sea salt, Arctic winds and long winters.
“When I see young people hanging around and doing nothing it makes me sad,” added Karl, sucking on his pipe. “That’s why I decided not to teach my son to be a hunter but wanted him to get an education. “Today,” he sighed, “he’s in Denmark, working with computers.”
Back at the school library in Kulusuk, Frederik was finishing his coffee and putting the well-thumbed copy of Nielsen back on the shelf. Greenland may be struggling to retain its traditional culture in the face of climate change and the unassailable march of modernity; traditional hunting techniques may be lost as teenagers move away to forge new lives; ancient superstitions about ghosts and talismans may founder amid a deluge of technology; and husky dogsleds may be increasingly used for tourist excursions as the ice melt ensures that boats are now the primary means of transport – even in winter.
But Frederik is thinking of the future, not the past.
“My hope for Greenland is to see more tourism and more opportunity for education,” he said. “We’ve been treated like second-class citizens for too long. Maybe we were too few in number to make a war, but now we are rising up for independence and to be responsible for our own land.
“I feel positive to live in Greenland,” he added. “It’s our time.”
David Atkinson travelled with Discover the World (01737 218800, www.discover-the-world.co.uk)