Arctic 2015: Where the world is melting

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Tobias Ignatiusen is one of the last hunters in the village of Tasiilaq on the east coast of Greenland. It is quite an experience to hunt with him and obtain insight into the hunter community, the prospects of those little villages, recent changes in the sea ice and the ever changing face of the Arctic.

Text and photos: Ragnar Axelsson rax@mbl.is

“We have to turn around,“ says Tobias as he looks towards the mountains where the wind rages around the distant peaks. Periodically the mountains vanish behind the whirling snow. Tobias slows the boat down, looks around in the fjord and takes measure of the situation. “The boat is to small for what is ahead,“ he continues. Giant ice floes float by right next to us, as if they are making an express trip across the fjord. The big floes have been moving around on a daily basis, guided by the direction the wind blows. Every day a new landscape appears. The cold bites hard and the chill quickly sets in as we sail, as we are sitting almost motionless in the open boat. The temperature is 12 °C below zero (10.4 °F), yet it is the humidity from the ocean that chills to the marrow of our bones even though we bundled into clothes. 

With sharp and alert eyes, Tobias follows the storm in the mountains and the ice floes, which are like ships seeking shelter. We are in the same situation they are, looking for a safe passage to a sanctuary, surrounded by ice floes. The ice floes floating on the fjord come in all sizes, the wind moves them around, opening paths and closing them.

Tobias stops the boat and raises his hands with his palms open towards the wind. He does not utter a word, yet it is as if he is talking to the 8weather. Tobias lingers for a short while, until familiar landmarks are visible on the shore, and determines our location in the fjord. He memorises the position of the ice floes and where the thinner sheets of ice might obstruct our path. A fierce storm is brewing, and the wind is starting to rise where the sea is more open and the floes are more dispersed. Even though the ice floes calm the seas, it is as if they are emitting smoke when they absorb the might of the waves. The snow twirling in the wind limits visibility. The ice is consolidating in the direction we are sailing.

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Like a bathtub

The small, open aluminium boat is like a bathtub, seating only four people. It is our haven on the sea. It is a daunting prospect to sail in a small dinghy into the ice cover looming ahead in the darkness. The route through mountain passes on land is impassable because of snow. Blizzards in the past few days keep the route closed. The only way back from the village is partly by sea. Further out in the fjord we keep our sleds; we have to reach them.

In the distance, in the direction we are headed, dark and ominous clouds are gathering. A hailstorm awaits us. We are trying to get back to Tasiilaq from the little village Tiniteqilaaq where we stayed a few days. It is clear to us that the sleigh ride ahead will not be easy, through a mountain pass filled with snow and other barriers. We know we will have to use our shovels to dig through the obstacles in a race with time before the weather hits with full force.

We have accompanied the Greenlandic hunter Tobias Ignatiusen on the hunt. Through him we have learned about the condition of the hunter community, gleaned the future of these little villages, how the behaviour of the sea ice has changed in recent years, observed the ever changing world of the North.

It takes only a little more than two hours to fly to Greenland from Iceland. The airport in Kulusuk is a sort of hub for all flights to and from the villages on the east coast, apart from Scoresby Sound, which is quite further north. Ammassalik is the biggest village and could be called the heart of the area, the smaller villages being within a radius of around 100 kilometers.

It takes about 15 minutes to fly from the airport in Kulusuk to Ammassalik in a helicopter. From there, one can travel in a boat or on dog sleds to all the other villages. The air is filled with hail, but the view is passable as we fly to the village. The pilot is used to all conditions in the area, he knows the mountains well even though they sometimes disappear in the snowfall. We fly in and out of hail, intermittently glimpsing the mountains, sometimes catching sight of the ocean with floating ice floes barraged by waves and cliffs on the shore covered with ice.

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Changing villages

 About 3,000 people live in the area around Ammassalik. 2,000 thereof live in Ammassalik, or Tasiilaq as it is called in Greenlandic. The other 1,000 inhabitants live in five villages in the area. They are different in size, but all are small. The people in these small villages have all made a living hunting, but these hunters have become fewer in numbers in recent years. The times they are a-changing. People are moving to the bigger towns from the villages. Yet, some want to stay in the village of their birth, where life is the way they want to live it. But what future do these villages have when there are fewer hunters? The children go to school in Ammassalik when they turn 11, and some never return. The number of sleigh dogs has gone down by two thirds in a decade. Is tourism what the future holds in store, replacing the lifestyle of the hunters? 

Many had hoped that change would be more rapid, affording the people more opportunities. The ice used to be solid in the wintertime, but is no more. In some places, which were ice-bound a few years ago, there are now open seas with ice floes floating about, their movements dictated by the wind.

The idea was to visit a small village, around 40 km away from Tasiilaq, with Tobias, who has been a hunter all his life. Tiniteqilaaq, or Tinit as it is often called, is a small, beautiful village. Around 120 people live there. I look forward to seeing it again, as I have not been there for 20 years. Has anything changed in two decades or is everything as it used to be? 

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One of the last hunters

Tobias Ignatiusen is one of the few who still live in the area, and make their living only by hunting. Young boys are not likely to dream of the life of a hunter. Tobias wants to live with nature and enjoy what it has to offer. He was brought up hunting with his family on a small, remote island with two houses built from rocks. The houses were only a few square meters in size, ideally located for the hunt. The currents broke the sheet of ice around the island, making it possible to manouver kayaks and hunt seal and other animals. It was not far to go from the small houses to the hunting grounds.

Now the houses have crumbled and one can only see remnants of the home of his youth. Tobias moved away from there to Tiniteqilaaq when he was a teenager. He has had dogs ever since he was a little boy. The dogs were his friends, and still are. He takes good care of his dogs, feeds them well, and they are strong and beautiful. When Tobias was younger his dogs all had names, but now he does not name them; they are more like beasts of burden. Tobias is a little somber because a few of his dogs broke free of their chains and quarreled with a young dog he cherished greatly, which was stable and dependable, being groomed to be the leader of the pack.

But this is life in the Arctic. They dogs fight to become leaders of the pack, just like wolves, which comes as no surprise because the Greenland dogs are related to them. The dogs have to be on a leash in the villages because they can be dangerous and have different characteristics. Some are gentle and can be petted, while others are fierce and prone to attack people. Recently, dogs in a small village on the east coast attacked a five year old boy who died from his wounds.

The weather looks bad for travel, the it will be difficult to travel 8through snow after the storms of the past few days. The wind chill factor is enormous, with the gusty winds amplifying the frost. Silba, Tobias’ wife, prepares the dogs for the sleigh and gazes at the mountains where the storm ravages through the passes. It will become stronger still in the coming days. We are going on a short ride on the dogsleigh. It is clear that it would take too long to go to Tiniteqilaaq on the dogsleigh; the mountain passes are hard to traverse. It would take many days to fight the weather.

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A night in a mountain hut

Tobias says it is impossible to sail through the ice from Tasiilaq over to Sermiliq Fjord, and makes a quick decision to use a motorised sledge and then sail the Sermiliq Fjord on a smaller boat from the coast. We get on the sledges, ride to the mountains and settle in a mountain hut before darkness falls. There is excitement in the air the following morning. We want to get going so that we can set sail and head for the village. We climb a steep mountain pass, and in two hours we have arrived on the coast where the boat lies upside down in the snow.

The fjord is not the same as it was twenty years ago, when it was covered with solid ice that could be traversed on dogsleighs. Now the sea is open with ice floes floating around. The boat does not inspire confidence, as it is not much bigger than a bathtub. One must be intrepid; showing fear is not an option. On the contrary, one must get on board and start the journey to the village. It 8takes around two hours to get there, with a lot of drift ice creating obstacles. We sail past big ice floes and sometimes we simply go straight through. The boat inches its way like an ice breaker through the thin sheet. Suddenly the houses become visible through the light snowfall, and boat glides upon an ice ridge at the end of the village. The entrance to the harbour is full of ice and it is impossible to sail all the way to the village. We drag our gear along the only street in the village, but we must go through heavy snow, at times reaching our thighs, to reach Tobias’ little, yellow house. This is where he stays when he is not in the house with Silba in Tasiilaq, depending on where he is hunting. It takes about ten minutes to take in the whole village – it is small, but beautiful.

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Wrestling with the forces of nature

There are four of us on the way to Tiniteqilaaq. Besides Tobias and me, there is Heico Forster, a journalist from Germany, and Kristján Friðriksson, a photographer who has spent much time in Greenland in the last two decades. In the past three years Kristján has been documenting the life of an old woman, Thomasine Tarqisimat, who has lived her whole life in Tiniteqilaaq, with his camera.

Heico Forster is covering the Arctic for his magazine, Free Men’s World, and wants to experince the cold and the rugged world of the hunters in Greenland on his own skin. Kristján and Tobias have been friends for over twenty years, and have often gone hunting together through the years. The two have often wrestled with Greenland’s forces of nature.

It is February, and Kristján has been living in Tobias’ house in Tiniteqilaaq since november. “Storms have put their mark on this winter almost every day,“ says Kristján as we sit in the boat’s bow on one of our hunting trips on the Sermiliq Fjord. Kristján was going to celebrate Christmas in Tasiilaq, and meet his daughter there, but was locked in by the storms. He could not make it to Tasiilaq until February. Kristján’s daughter came from Nuuk to meet her father, but was snowbound for several days. Christmas passed them completely by. They will have to make do with meeting next Christmas. Then Kristján was stuck in Tiniteqilaaq for three weeks after we left from Tinit for Iceland.

“We had “piteraq“ or a glacial storm almost every day for three weeks after you left,“ Kristján said later, “one could never see a blue sky.“ The house was without heat for two days, which meant -12°C indoors, until he managed to shovel through snow that was two metres high, fix the electricity and heat the house again. A glacial storm forms when the wind blows over the 3,000 metre high mountain range in Greenland. The cold, heavy air glides down the glacier, steadily gathering speed, until it becomes like an enormous river flowing far out to sea. At its worst it can be so powerful that it can literally blow houses to smithereens.

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In complete isolation

In such weather the village is completely isolated, and it is impossible to rescue people when something bad happens. Two years ago a two year old boy succumbed to pneumonia under circumstances similar to when we were there. It was impossible to rescue him, even though the next hospital was only 40 km away, because the helicopter could not fly and other routes were closed because of the storms from the glacier.

After a few days in the village, where daily life is in slow motion and little is happening, we prepare for hunting on the fjord. The dogs circle up in the snow and are soon covered in white. The frequent storms have made their lives easy this winter. The odd boat sails onto the fjord when the weather permits. Tobias looks for the biggest holes in the ice in Sermiliq Fjord. It is chilly in the open boat, and the wait can be long in the cold. We hunt for seal, birds and shark, without luck. A shark actually bit through the line and got away. It is time to head back from the village – sooner than planned because it looks like the weather is acting up again.

Kristján was going to sail with us over to the sledges further out in the fjord and take the boat back. But it was decided that he would stay be8hind in the village because otherwise he would hit ferocius weather on the way back. The boat is too small for the weather conditions and it would be lunacy to sail alone through the ice in the dinghy.

So the three of us sailed in the small aluminium boat through the ever-moving ice. We were halfway to our sledges on the shore when Tobias slowed down, and decided to turn around and head for Tinit again. The tide was ebbing, and we had to move quickly if we were to reach the village harbour before the ice closed it. The wind was blowing from a disadvantageous direction, pushing the ice in front of it. Tobias did not say a word, constantly looking for familiar landmarks. The harbour was full of ice, but Tobias sailed to and fro into the ice, creating a lane through, and we barely made it. The boat would hit the shoals every now and then on its way into the harbour, and we sailed onto the solid ice next to the village and tied the boat.

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Unfavourable weather

“We must go on my big boat and start right now, otherwise we will be stranded here for two or three more weeks,“ says Tobias. “The weather is not in our favour,“ he continues. “There is a real “piteraq“ coming.“

He smiles calmly, even though we must move quickly. Tobias knows what he is talking about.

He strides into the village to get the key to the bigger boat. We push it afloat and move our gear into it. I think back twenty years to when there were more people in the village, and it was much more active than now. Then everything was frozen and one could walk and go on a dog sledge on the fjord and hunt through holes in the ice. The change is radical. A solitary dog looks at us. It is as if the village is asleep, no one is about, and soon the weather will be too ferocious even for the dogs. 

Tinnit is a small village on the Sermiliq Fjord. It has been a good place for the hunters through the years. The inhabitants are proud of their little village, but its future is uncertain. There are only 120 villagers left. Some of the old hunters have moved to villages elsewhere in Greenland, where the catch is 8greater. Others have given up, even though the hunter’s instinct always remains. Life in the village goes on, though, the children play in the snow and those who are older meet at the community centre, where you can shower and do the laundry. The village’s water tank is on the other side of the only street. People bring plastic containers and fill them with fresh water from the tank. A hunter drags a seal behind him; soon dinner will be served. An elderly man shovels snow from the front door of Thomasine, the old woman living on the edge of the village.

As before, Kristján is documenting her life with his camera. It is a part of his photo reports from Greenland. He thinks it is important for the world in the future to document life in the Arctic.

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The howling grows louder

There is a lot of snow in the village and the going is heavy. The dogs bark and the howling grows louder as they throw themselves about in their chains. They are reminding us that it is time to feed them. The storm is increasing, creating a roar in the mountains. The blizzard hides the distant mountains, one can 8barely glimpse the mountain tops – then they vanish.

The route over land is imposing and hard to traverse. It would be madness to go that way today. The snow is piling up next to the houses in the village. The dogs are barely visible as they lie in the beds they have made themselves in the snow. Something is changing in the weather and the temperature of the sea in the North. Old men say there have always been fluctuations from one year to the next, but the situation now is unusual. It has never been this way before.

Kristján tells tales of Tobias and his sixth sense as we wait on the ice. “Look into his eyes when he sails,“ says Kristján, “and you will see how he is connected to nature in an extrasensory way. He is extraordinary in circumstances few men can handle.“

Kristján recounts one of their voyages on the sea. They were hit with fog so thick that they could not see the bow of the boat in the middle of a sheet of ice far from the shore. Tobias did not have a GPS device or any8thing else to help him find his way home aside from the compass which rotated wildly because of disturbances from the metals in the surrounding mountains. “I have never seen anything like it,“ Kristján continues. “Tobias just looked into the blackness, concentrating and feeling the fog with his hands. Those who were with us in the boat grew quiet, everyone was ill at ease. Tobias did not say a word as he broke through the ice using the boat like an ice breaker. The trip took three hours, instead of twenty minutes, and the fog was so thick that a few times we did not see the icebergs until they touched the boat. We never saw land, never saw the village, but suddenly we were safe and sound next to the pier in Tasiilaq.“

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Modesty and Composure

Kristján avers that no one else in the world could have done what Tobias did under those circumstances. “None of us could fathom how he knew his way home in those conditions. We never saw anything in the fog. There are more stories like this about him, and they would fill a whole book, but his modesty and composure are such that he never boasts of what he does, and generally he does not discuss it unless among friends.“

The great hunters of Greenland often have this in common. Their dominance compared with other men when push comes to shove and composure is needed under the most extreme circumstances on the ice is not always obvious to the eye. They break the ice swapping jokes which strengthens their friendship and increases trust.

Kristján tells the story when they ran into a polar bear, which are among the most intelligents animals on Earth. The polar bear pretended to be looking at something nearby, utterly calm and canny. The two of them were on the ice, Kristján was photographing the bear while Tobias waited, dead still, with his gun ready, and the boat nearby. 

“Suddenly the bear started sprinting and came barrelling towards us. The only option was to run. Fleeing the bear I took a few pictures over my shoulder. Tobias 8reached the boat first and I was sure he would shoot the bear, which was just about to catch me. The shot rang, and I bare8ly managed to jump into the boat and push it far enough from the edge of the ice. Tobias had fired his shot just in front of the bear’s feet so it would stop exactly the moment I needed to get on board, but then it came towards us again at full speed.“

Kristján was livid and asked Tobias what on earth he was thinking. “Why didn’t you shoot the bear, it was just about to catch me?“

Tobias calmly answered with a smile on his face: “Dear Kristján, my polar bear quota is finished, and it would have involved too much paperwork to shoot it now.“ Then he just laughed at Kristján.

Lightness and beauty

 This is the good thing about the hunters, there is always this lightness and beauty filling their lives. They do not kill animals for fun. Tobias would have shot the bear before it caught up with Kristján, but he waited until the last moments. He wanted the bear to stay alive. 

One can forget oneself telling tales of hunters and their adventures, but the howling wind and swirling snow remind us of the task at hand – getting back home before the weather turned for the worse. 

Tobias soon appeared again with the key to his boat along with a friend of his, an experienced hunter, who would bring the boat back to the village. We set forth for the second time, bidding Kristján farewell next to the edge of the ice. One feels a little more secure sailing on Tobias’ boat than the little aluminium boat. It is quite a lot bigger and heavier, and feels much sturdier in the ice. It breaks through ice the aluminium boat would never get through. Under certain circumstances the aluminium boat is better. It does not break in the ice, and if one encounters solid sheets of ice it is light enough to drag it over the ice and sail on from the other side. We cannot drag the bigger boat onto the ice, it is too heavy, so we have to break through or sail around the sheets of ice which float on the fjord and sometimes block the shortest way.

Confident sailing

Tobias sails with confidence through the ice and between the ice floes. We observed him, and it was as we expected. He looked towards the mountains, held his hands in the air, and felt the wind. It matched Kristján’s account about Tobias and his abilities in the ice.

The ice where we left our sledges is so thick that we would never have broken through it in the little boat. Also, the ice was too rugged and un8even for us to drag the boat over it. It would also have been impossible to walk on the ice, because the floes would have capsized had we set foot on them. Falling into the ocean under these circumstances is certain death; one would be crushed between ice floes in constant motion. Tobias knew what he was doing when he turned around. He anticipated the circumstances out in the fjord where we left our sledges long before we reached the shore.

We start edging into the tight drift ice. Sometimes the bow of the boat rises into the air when it hits an ice floe, pushes it aside and forces its way through the ice like an ice breaker. It is incredible to see such skill under these circumstances. One cannot but admire Tobias’ abilities.

We reach land after we have 8broken through the ice and make the sledges ready. We have to go through a mountain pass full of snow before the storm breaks. If that happens it will be impossible to manouver through the pass.

Exhaustion sets in

We have barely moved when we get stuck at the first obstacle. It takes a while to dig out of the snow, and we expect more such obstacles on the way through the pass. We become exhausted as we dig the sledges past one obstacle after the other. The going is uphill as we dig through the mountains of snow in the pass, driving the sledges through narrow tunnels in the snow. It took almost ten hours to go to Tasiilaq from Tinitequilaaq on a boat and sledges. The weather, which had been difficult the whole time, hit with full force a few hours later. Tobias had been right. Had we not set forth immediately, in spite of the bad weather, we would have been stranded in the village for two more weeks.

That night, in a warm room, one could see the weather vent its fury in the distant mountains, snow whirling off the ridges in the moonlight. The snow in the mountains is being blown towards the sea. We have experienced life in a small village, witnessed the lives of people living under circumstances where the future is uncertain – and the world is melting.

Weather

Rain showers

Today

8 °C

Rain showers

Tomorrow

5 °C

Cloudy

Wednesday

7 °C

Warning: Yellow More

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