Published: January 2006
Last Days of the Ice Hunter
As Arctic Greenland warms up, its inhabitants—both human and animal—confront a precarious future.
By Gretel Ehrlich

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.

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.

"Aurrit—walrus!" Jens sings out. "There will be many out there," Mamarut says, meaning a few miles out at the ice edge. The hunters prepare for an all-night hunt, changing out of fox-fur anoraks into ones made of lined canvas with polar bear fur at the wrists. Jens sharpens his knives as Gedion coils green harpoon lines. "We're going to the ice edge, the place where winter becomes spring," Jens says.

About midnight the fading sun is a red orb hanging at the horizon. As darkness bleeds into it, the temperature plummets to minus 40°F. Night will be brief—in a few hours the sun will swing east again.

Harpoons in hand, the men line up single file and begin walking. Mamarut leads, Jens and the others follow, careful to place their feet into Mamarut's track. "The walruses can hear us moving over the ice, so we must make it sound like we are just one hunter," Jens whispers.

We walk for an hour in our silent Ice Age procession. These men are among the last hundred or so Greenland hunters who have chosen to keep their ancient traditions alive—traveling by dogsled, wearing skins, hunting with spears and harpoons, while taking what they want from the modern world, such as rifles. Their ancestors came to Greenland about 800 years ago, the most recent wave of peoples who migrated from Siberia beginning some 5,000 years ago.

"We hunt with harpoons, but we also use cell phones and watch TV," says Jens, who has testified before Greenland's Parliament to keep snowmobiles out of the far north. New ice—ice that has just refrozen—undulates like rubber beneath our feet. A slender channel of water appears, its crenellations catching and dropping the last of the sunlight. "The ice edge," Jens whispers. He points: "Miteq!" Two eider ducks fly out of a maze of sparkle.

Mamarut motions for us to stop. We hear gulping and sloshing: Walruses coming. They bob up and down, their ivory tusks gnawing frigid water. Mamarut breaks out of the procession, crouches, and runs ahead to the edge of the lead. We wait motionless. There's the whir of a harpoon, then a gunshot. The walrus is dead.

Harpoon lines are tied to long iron poles. A modern block and tackle is attached and the four men line up, hauling the young 800-pound male onto the ice hand over hand. Knives are resharpened. Penis and flippers are cut off. Heart and liver are laid on a tarp along with the other meat—food for both humans and dogs.

Jens walks back to camp and returns with a sled, his rolling side-to-side gait like that of a polar bear. He cuts a tangle of guts into long lengths and feeds the hungry dogs. The rest of the walrus is dismantled and stacked on the sled. Later he leans over a bloody mass on the snow—the stomach slit open—fishes around in the brown liquid with his knife, then stabs. A scallop! "Umm," he says, smiling, offering it to me. I shake my head. He pops the scallop in his mouth, chews, and swallows.

Before leaving, Mamarut lays two ribs and a pile of steaming intestines on the ice. "For nanoq," he says, the polar bear. "He is teaching us all the time. He can move on water or ice equally and hunt anything. He is worth our admiration. Without knowing the polar bear's ways, I would have died out here many times."

As the last of the meat is stacked, steaming, Jens hooks his dogs to the sled, and Mamarut stops to look skyward. "Sometimes we're lucky, and other times things go against us, and we don't get anything to eat," he says. "Our lives are based on how nature gives us animals."

March 21, the vernal equinox and our fourth day on the sea ice, a front moves in, and the temperature drops again from minus 35°F to minus 40°F. "Weneed to go quickly before the storm hits," Jens warns. Rushing to load the sleds, the men kneel on flapping reindeer skins, pulling the lash ropes tight. The dogs are wild-eyed. The moment they feel the lines hitched to the sled, they take off. With flying leaps, the hunters barely make it aboard.

Out on the frozen sea the ice is smoother between wind-driven snowdrifts. We follow the mountainous coastline south toward the village of Moriusaq and the place the hunters call Walrus El Dorado near Appat Island, where last year they killed 13 walruses in just a few days. Ocean currents have squeezed and shattered plates of ice, and our sled comes to a halt. Stopped by the laby-rinth, the dogs moan and cry. Which way do we go? Jens looks and shrugs, smiling. Then, using his enormous strength, lifts the front of the sled—freighted down by 800 pounds of meat and gear—until it points the other way. The dogs lurch forward, and Jens hops on as we bump through a narrow passage.

We travel for hours against a hard wind. It's too cold to stop and let the dogs rest, and the storm is coming in fast. Ice fog has lowered itself to the ground. We're headed for one of the wooden huts the hunters have built on the coastline for shelter during storms. A single pointed mountain protrudes through the fog. "Iviangeq!" Jens yells to Mamarut, whose sled comes alongside ours. He laughs and makes a cupping gesture to indicate a woman's breast. Ahead the roof of a tiny hut pokes from a snowdrift. The sled shudders as the dogs careen toward it onto land.

The traditional low entryway is dug out; shuttered windows are opened. Laughing, Gedion kicks the wall with his feet because there is no feeling in them. My hands are numb from the wrist forward. Two Primus stoves are lit, and Jens holds my fingers over the tiny flame.

In the old days there were no huts, no Primus stoves, and dogsleds were made from whale bones and reindeer antlers with frozen char rolled up as runners. The only heat and light was made from rendered whale and seal blubber.

Being out of food meant you were not only hungry but also cold.

We all cram into the 14-by-16-foot hut. Sleeping platforms line the walls. The floor is blood-encrusted from years of walrus and seal hunts. The men tend to the dogs before their own needs. The animals, tied one by one with long chains, howl with delight when they see the buckets of meat.

"Our dogs are like us, they love to eat. They're like running stomachs," Mamarut chimes in, throwing frozen chunks of walrus right into their mouths. Jens holds his big belly in his hands, grinning. He describes his 280-pound bulk as his "Eskimo bank account."

As the storm envelops us, the temperature slides to minus 60°F, but inside the hut, sitting leg to leg, we're snug. Snow covers the sleds; the dogs sleep outside with their noses under their tails. Using a thick steel needle and a thimble made of bearded sealskin, Mamarut repairs his sealskin boots with narwhal sinew thread. Jens plucks the hairs from his face with tweezers. "The hairs sticking out make your face freeze faster," he explains. He fixes a broken harpoon shaft. Our dinner is walrus heart soup, followed by slices of walrus fat to keep us warm. The windows rattle, and the blizzard comes on strong.

The next morning, the hut is quiet except for the hissing sound of the Primus and the howl of the wind. "It's important to be modest in front of the weather," Jens says, rubbing his cold-reddened cheeks. "If we go out in this, frostbite comes quickly, and you don't know it. This cold is like a bad dream, a ghost putting its hands on you."

On days like these, shamans gathered villagers around and conducted séances, rectifying the wrongs that had been committed and combing the long hair of the goddess Sassuma Arnaa to pacify her so she'd let the animals come to the hunters who needed food and skins. Now, that same kind of quiet intimacy fills our room. Some moments the men are playful—like small boys. Other times they tell hunting stories; not to boast, they say, but to learn from each other's mistakes.

The covenant between human and animals in the wild is always in mind. They hunt and are hunted. They listen and are heard. "Bears, walruses, whales, and seals are always listening to us, and we listen to them. They can understand what we are saying, and we go inside them each time we wear their skins," Jens explains.

Gedion recalls how a bearded seal almost dragged Jens through the ice. "The line cut down into his hand to the bone, and I sewed it up."

An elder took to walking between villages by going over the ice cap instead of along the shore. When he fell into a crevasse, the dogs found him; they had smelled him from miles away and led the villagers to him, saving the man's life. Searing cold, months of darkness, scarcity and the risk of starvation are the flints on which their imaginations have been fired, triggering the intuition and intelligence—almost a second sight—still in evidence today. While the outward customs of ceremonial life have vanished, the inward ones remain.

There are long silences. We listen for bears. Tobias, who trained to be an engineer in Denmark then returned to his village to be a hunter again, recalls that this was the hut where he shot his first polar bear. "I did not know if I had killed it, and I stayed inside here all alone all night waiting for the bear to attack me. When nothing happened by morning, I knew he was dead."

Shutters bang in the wind. Everyone laughs. But when Jens begins talking, there is a reverent silence.

In an earlier era, before the Greenlanders' ceremonial life was discouraged by Scandinavian missionaries at the beginning of the 20th century, Jens might have been an angakkoq, a shaman.

His voice is low and gravelly: "When I was a boy, my father went out from the village and saw the track of a polar bear. He followed it and finally got very close. His chance to shoot came, but just then the bear turned and looked at him. It had a human face and was smiling at my father and saying, 'Take me. I'm yours!' My father just stood there. He couldn't shoot. He let the bear go. If a person has special talents, animals will come and ask to be your helper. You are only asked once by a polar bear, but my father denied it, and it ran away. He had his chance to get the powers. After that, I was afraid of having to meet that kind of polar bear.

"But not long ago it happened to me. Six of us were hunting walruses nearby, and we went up onto a hill to see if we could see the ice edge. Suddenly I started to feel as if there was a polar bear nearby. We were quite far from the dogs. I could hear it breathing. There were others with me, and they heard it too. It was very close, so close we thought we wouldn't be able to get away. We ran down the hill to get our guns. I could hear steps behind me. At the bottom the dogs were out of control. I cut the lead dogs loose, and they ran up the hill where we'd been. I followed with my gun, but there were no tracks. It was the polar bear coming for me. I still feel its spirit, mostly when the weather is changing, when a new season is on the way. Don't ask me where this comes from, but it has happened for generations." "Like now?" I ask cautiously. He only smiles.

After our three days in the hut, the storm ends. Jens peers out the window at a distant city of stranded icebergs, blunt-cut by a mirage—one of the first signs of spring. The temperature jumps from minus 60°F to only minus 10°F. "It's hot," Jens complains, wiping his forehead. The ice is pink in morning light.

We pack the sleds and will make our way toward Walrus El Dorado. We're almost out of meat (a walrus goes fast with so many mouths to feed) and won't have any extra to bring back to Qaanaaq. A blustery wind comes up. "This will break the ice," Gedion says, matter-of-factly. As we make our way down the coast, then out into Baffin Bay, the ice is so broken and rotten we are forced to turn back before it breaks away. A sense of despair settles over the hunters.

"This changing weather is bad for us," Jens says, scowling. "Some people are having to go other ways to make a living." His wife, Ilaitsuk, who used to accompany him on these hunting trips, has had to take a job at a day-care center in Qaanaaq to help pay their bills, which they both hate.

The hunters get off their sleds and talk. A decision is made: We will turn north again, then travel west to Kiatak Island, where, they say, the ice is always good. But to get there has become almost impossible. The shore ice around the headlands where we traveled the previous week is impassable. We're forced to go up and over a corner of the ice sheet. The way is steep, and a deep crevasse threatens to swallow our sleds. Lobes of translucent green ice bulge through snow. At the top we take air, flying off a cornice. Down the other side we follow a dry, narrow streambed, leaning from side to side for balance and using our feet to turn the sled. Despite the ropes laid under the runners, the sleds go too fast: Dogs slalom around boulders. We reach the bottom at midnight and are forced to go up the coast on rotting ice pans. Sometime toward morning, we make camp just inside a fjord.

The hunt for walrus has turned into a hunt for ice. We make our way west over bad ice with mist falling down the mountain cliffs. Between Kiatak and neighboring Qeqertarsuaq Island, there is no ice at all, and we must travel on the remains of an ice foot—a skirt of ice attached to the shore. Where the ice foot ends abruptly, the men belay their dogs and sled off a cliff, continuing to Kiatak on ice pans so rotten they dissolve into a layer of slush beneath the dogs' feet.

During the night, Mamarut's lead dog becomes ill. "Once they are like that they never get well," Gedion observes coolly. The next morning, before hitching up, Mamarut walks back up the hill and shoots his dog. "Now there will be a fight among my other dogs to see who will be the leader," Mamarut says, already thinking ahead.

But is there a future for these subsistence hunt- ers of the far north? Everywhere in the Arctic, indigenous people are suffering. In Alaska the villages on the north coast are being inundated by the rising sea. In some Greenland villages last winter there was no sea ice at all. A few hunters in Qaanaaq and Moriusaq had to shoot some of their dogs because they had no meat for them.

Without sea ice, without sled dogs, without polar bears, marine mammals, and birds, traditional life in the Arctic could crumble quickly. "Once one piece of our life goes, it all goes," Jens says. "It is just like the ice. If it does not hold together, we cannot make any sense of our lives."

On the next to last day of our trip we emerge from our hut on the north side of Kiatak Island. Jens and Mamarut are boyishly cheerful, despite the disappointment of having no meat to bring home. They race each other up a steep snowfield. Because Kiatak lies farther west than any other land in Greenland, they're sure that, looking out over Baffin Bay toward Ellesmere Island, they'll see an ice edge sturdy enough to hold their dog-sleds. This is where the walruses will be.

What they see astonishes them: There's no ice edge, only the glitter of open water all the way to Canada. Jens blinks, looks away to one side, then back out at the sea.

"In my whole life, and that of my father and grandfather, there has never been anything like this at this time of year. Without ice, we can't live. Without ice, we're nothing at all."