Before leaving Qaanaaq, Jens had studied an ice chart faxed from the Danish Meteorological Institute. It showed vast areas of open water all the way to Siorapaluk, the northernmost indigenous village in the world. This was bad news for the hunters, who planned to travel on the "ice highway" for as long as a week. And it was a grim sign for the ecosystem as well, since it reflected the warming trend scientists call the polar amplification effect. During the past few decades temperatures have risen in Greenland by more than 2°F—twice the global average—and the island's massive ice sheet, almost two miles deep in some places, has been melting faster than at any time during the past 50 years. As the ice and snow cover melt, the Earth absorbs more heat—and sea levels rise everywhere.
Arctic biologists say that the entire ecosystem is in collapse. Without sea ice, seals can't build ledges on which to rest, eat, and bear their pups. Walruses can't find refuge on drift ice to rest and digest their meals of clams and other shellfish. Polar bears can't catch seals if there's no ice. And hunters like Jens can't travel in search of game.
"Huughuaq, huughuaq—Get going, go faster!" Jens calls, encouraging his team. His sled is 13 feet long and 4 feet wide, pulled by 15 dogs in a fan hitch that lets them navigate the rough ice independently.
"These dogs are half wild," Jens says. "Maybe we are too. They have to be a little hungry to keep working for us, and we have to be hungry to keep going out with them."
The sled tips and tilts as the dogs scramble and bark. A fight breaks out, and Jens snaps a whip over their backs until they pick up speed. When a line in the fan hitch snags and a dog is dragged, Jens leans forward, without stopping, plucks at the tangle, and the dog's leg is released.
As we weave between stranded icebergs, Jens clamps his huge leg over mine and grabs my shoulder to keep me from falling off the sled.
After one jolting bump, he raises his eyebrows to ask if I'm all right, then laughs when I nod yes. We've traveled together many times since 1996, when he first allowed me to accompany him on spring hunts for little auks, beluga whales, ringed seals, and walruses, so there's no need for words.
By the time the light fades about 11 p.m., we head toward shore and the hunters make camp on a rocky beach. Everyone's in high spirits. Where there had been open water a week earlier, now ice has congealed. Perhaps hunting will be good after all.
Dogs are unhitched and tied to notches cut in the ice. Sleds are unloaded. Two small canvas tents are put up using harpoon shafts as tent stakes. In each tent two sleds lined with reindeer skins serve as sleeping platforms. The floors are ice. An ancient Primus stove is lit. Overhead a sealskin thong is hung with sealskin boots, arctic hare socks, and a loaf of bread to be thawed. In a battered pot teetering over the flame, a spangled piece of glacier ice becomes water.