Published: January 2006

Living on Thin Ice

Dog Sleds

Last Days of the Ice Hunter

As Arctic Greenland warms up, its inhabitants—both human and animal—confront a precarious future.

By Gretel Ehrlich
Photograph by David McLain

Jens Danielsen kneels on his dogsled as it bumps through the glinting ruins of a frozen sea. "Harru, harru," he calls out. "Go left, go left." "Atsuk, atsuk. Go right, go right." His voice carries a note of urgency. The 15 dogs in his team move warily, picking their way between lanes of open water and translucent sheaves of upended ice. Despite bitter cold in late March, the ice pans have shattered, making travel dangerous.

In a normal winter the ice comes to northwestern Greenland in September and stays until June. But during the past few years there have been only three or four weeks when the ice has been firm and the hunting good. "The sea ice used to be three feet thick here," Jens says. "Now it's only four inches thick."

As big as a bear, with a kind, boyish face and an elegant mind, Jens is a 45-year-old hunter from Qaanaaq, a village of about 650 people at latitude 77°N whose brightly painted houses climb a hillside overlooking a fjord. Along with his brothers-in-law, Mamarut Kristiansen, Gedion Kristiansen, and Tobias Danielsen, who each has his own dog team and sled, he's heading toward the ice edge on Smith Sound to find walruses, as hunters have done for as long as memory. With 57 dogs to feed, as well as his extended family, he'll need to kill several walruses on this trip to bring home any meat.

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