Arctic Hunters: Life in Savissivik, Greenland's Remote Inuit Community

By Alexander, Bryan | The World and I, January 1999 | Go to article overview

Arctic Hunters: Life in Savissivik, Greenland's Remote Inuit Community


Alexander, Bryan, The World and I


Qaerngak stooped motionless on the ice beside a seal's breathing hole, as his ancestors have for thousands of years. I waited by the sled two hundred yards away, where his team of huskies gazed intently at their master. Ten minutes passed. Then suddenly, a rifle shot rang out. In a second the dogs were on their feet, running flat out toward their master, who was standing beside the now blood-tinged breathing hole with a broad smile of satisfaction. For Qaerngak, a hunter from the small Inuit community of Savissivik in northwest Greenland, the day had started well. We had left the hunters' hut at nearby Cape York only half an hour earlier, and already he had shot a seal.

Life of the Inuit hunter

Qaerngak hauled the dead ringed seal from the hole and began skinning it with a large knife. His bare hands seemed not to feel the intense cold, even though it was February and minus 34* C. Afterward, he dipped the skin several times into the seawater at the breathing hole to wash off the blood, folded it neatly, and put it and the seal carcass on the sled. With everything securely lashed down, we again headed west, across the sea ice from Cape York. A short while later, Qaerngak pointed to a fine mist on the horizon. It was "frost smoke," and during the arctic winter, it indicates open water.

Twenty minutes later, Qaerngak brought his dog team to a halt beside an expanse of open water separating two large sheets of sea ice. The frost smoke rising off the water's surface was turned golden by the morning sun. As Qaerngak scanned the water for seals through his binoculars, I could see another dogsled approaching in the distance. We were joined shortly afterward by his 21-year-old son, Ole.

As father and son waited by the floe edge, a seal's head broke the calm of the water's surface. Qaerngak grabbed his rifle, aimed carefully, and fired, killing the seal instantly. Its body floated on the surface of the water, buoyed up by a thick layer of blubber. Almost immediately, another seal surfaced, and Qaerngak fired again, killing it too. A short while later, Ole shot a seal as well.

With three dead seals in the water, Qaerngak unlashed his kayak from his sled and carried it to the floe's edge. He climbed in and, with a gentle push from Ole, slid into the water. Qaerngak paddled out through the thick curtain of frost smoke to retrieve the seals. Ten minutes later he returned, paddling hard as he towed his heavy load behind him through the water. Ole grabbed the front of the kayak and, with his father still inside, pulled it up onto the ice. One by one they dragged the seals up, too. While Ole began the job of skinning them, Qaerngak continued to watch for seals and brewed tea on a Primus stove. Later, he put on a pan of seal meat to cook. Eating this fatty but tasty dark meat is a very effective way of keeping warm in such severe cold.

As I sat on the sled cradling a mug of hot tea in my hands, I was impressed by the sheer beauty of the region. The frozen sea around us was studded with icebergs of all shapes and sizes. Behind us, the imposing cliffs of Cape York rose out of the ice. At the top stood a nineteen-meter-high monument to American explorer Robert Peary, who spent much time in the area preparing for his expeditions to the North Pole.

For centuries, local Inuit have come to Cape York to hunt. Numerous remains of Inuit sod houses and graves can be seen. Surrounding the cape is a polynya, an area of open water in the ice. Even in winter, when temperatures can drop to 40 below, the water remains unfrozen. Year round, it attracts sea mammals such as seals, walrus, polar bears, and narwhals, animals the Inuit have long depended on for food and clothing.

We saw no more seals that day, and at sunset we packed up the sleds and returned to the shelter of the hunters' hut at Cape York. From there I could see two other dogsleds approaching. Soon, we were joined by two men who had been hunting nearby. …

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