True to form, it’s taking longer than expected to get where I’m going in Greenland and meet the research boat. I got as far as Ilulissat yesterday morning, then I was told I’d have to wait until early the next morning to continue to Uummannaq. But I made the most of the delay and spent much of the afternoon yesterday crawling over rocks and tundra to photograph Lapland longspurs, a common songbird in the Arctic.
I also took time to drop in at the Knud Rasmussen Museum, which is in the house where the famed explorer and ethnologist grew up in the late 19th century. I guess it’s not too much of a stretch for a bird researcher to mention Rasmussen here, since he was killed by a bird … sort of. Rasmussen, whose father was a Danish vicar and mother was an Inuit, spent most of his life living with a group of Inuits in the Thule area of northwest Greenland. Now, Inuits love to eat dovekies—small, puffin-like seabirds that live only in far northern waters. They take a fresh-killed seal, remove its body from inside its skin (basically by turning it inside out and then right side out again), which makes a nice huge bag, lined with an inch or so of blubber. Then they fill it up completely with dovekie carcasses. They catch these birds with nets on the end of long poles as the birds fly to and from their nest sites in rocky hillsides. And then they bury the stuffed seal in beach gravel … for a year or two. They’ll usually pull these things out in midwinter as a special celebration, breaking the seal open with an ax and chowing down on the well-marinated but uncooked birds. Anyway, poor Knud died of food poisoning in the early 1930s after eating some bad dovekies.
Greenland’s history is always just below the surface—literally. It’s too difficult to dig deep graves in the frozen ground, so the Inuits generally just pile rocks on top of bodies to keep them away from polar bears, sled dogs, and various other scavengers. During last year’s research trip, searching for nesting falcons north of Thule, we found many traces of Inuits—caches of walrus carcasses and eider eggs as well as piled rock graves, often with bones or bodies visible—on the islands we visited. And it’s difficult to tell whether these are five years or five hundred years old, everything is so well preserved here. A few years ago, Peregrine Fund researchers found the foundations of several early Inuit dwellings near a dovekie colony and alerted a Danish archaeologist. They turned out to be among the earliest human dwellings yet found in north Greenland.
The places where European and American explorers visited from the 18th through the 20th centuries are also, for the most part, unchanged. I remember reading Danish explorer Peter Freuchen’s account of his and Knud Rasmussen’s harrowing journey to the northernmost section of Greenland. They came upon a cairn—a pile of stones—with a note left behind by Robert Peary’s party in the 1890s, years before Peary’s final attempt to reach the North Pole. Though Freuchen was there a quarter of a century after Peary, it looked almost like Peary had been there the day before. Freuchen could still see Peary’s footprints and the matches he dropped on the ground as he paced around, smoking his pipe and trying to stay warm. Stunned, Freuchen sat there alone for more than an hour. For him, it was like revisiting the site of the first moon landing would be for us. And actually, at that time, this part of Greenland was almost as remote and inaccessible as the moon. And I’ll bet Peary’s (and Freuchen’s) footprints are still there.