Published June 29, 2012
Located at the mouth of Scoresby Sund—the largest fjord system in the world—Ittoqqortoormiit is so remote that supply ships can only reach it two months of the year, in July and August, when temperatures rise to 5˚C and the eastern Greenlandic sea ice melts.
The city’s 475 inhabitants otherwise rely on Air Iceland’s small Fokker 50 planes, which fly into Constable Point once a week during winter and twice a week during the summer, for supplies. From there, Ittoqqortoormiit—“the place with the big houses”—is another 40 kilometres northwest by helicopter or snowmobile.
Wearing everything that might combat the -15C temperatures typical of April, Grapevine photographer Ryan Parteka and I journeyed to Ittoqqortoormiit to spend three days with Nonni Travel’s Árni Valur Vilhjálmsson. The easy-going Icelander in his early thirties welcomed us into his family’s home just outside of town in Kap Tobin. We would spend a fair amount of time there, drinking Slovenian coffee and staring out at the expansive frozen-over fjord with its multiple storey-tall iceberg conveniently planted just outside the house this year.
Come August, the ice will have melted enough for sailing and Árni—who goes back and forth between Akureyri— will return, but this time to spend an entire year there, taking on a larger role in the company that his mom started sixteen years ago with local Ole Brønlund, who Árni affectionately refers to as his older brother.
A BIT OF A LOVE STORY
The story of how Árni’s mom, Helena Dejak—an Icelander from Slovenia—wound up with a home and a company in remote East Greenland is an interesting one. “In a way it’s a little bit of a love story,” she begins to tell me over coffee back in Reykjavík.
“In 1990, I was flying over Greenland with my husband—who is a pilot—on our way to the national park when suddenly I saw some houses. At first I hardly dared to ask him if it could be true because it seemed so unrealistic that anybody could live so far away from civilization, but I’m a courageous woman, so I asked, ‘Siggi, is it possible that I see houses?’ And he said, ‘Yes. This is Scoresby Sund.’ I said, ‘I don’t believe it. I don’t believe that people can live so far away from civilization.’”
That moment, she said something happened: “I say it’s a love story because something happens in your body and your soul, which tells you that you just have to pursue it. I didn’t know how, I didn’t know when, but at that moment, I knew it would happen.”
When she got to the national park, she met a hunter who came to her one day with a rabbit. Though they couldn’t communicate, she happily cooked it, and continued to have him over for dinner every evening for the week that they spent at the park. When they were getting ready to leave, she told him that she would see him again.
And sure enough, four years later she had made her first visit to the houses that had once seemed so far away when she flew over in 1990, and sitting by the harbour was the hunter.
NO TO TOURISM
With experience running a travel agency in Iceland, Helena told me she wanted to share the knowhow, which she thought hunters could take advantage of during the offseason. It would, however, take her another three years to convince the town that tourism might be worth trying. The mayor wouldn’t hear it.
“I told the mayor that I had a travel agency in Iceland, that my husband had often flown over the village and that something in my heart was telling me that I had to be here, that it was not because I wanted something from them, but the mayor said, ‘if you’re talking about tourism, we don’t want it,” Helena recalled.
Finally she said she was able to convince a group of hunters that they could in fact make a business introducing their land and country to foreign people by dogsledding in the winter and kayaking and taking boat trips during the summer.
“It took a lot of persuasion, a lot of soul, crying, and smiling,” but in the end they understood me. I told them, ‘be yourself.’ I said, ‘I’m not asking you to be in polar bear trousers or a seal outfit. Just be yourself, and this is what people will come and see how can you survive here with the conditions as they are.”
Now, sixteen years later, Helena says the company is 80% owned by locals, and that it employs some twenty hunters who are able to make a living where making a living is tough.
A BREATH OF FRESH AIR
Nanu Travel remains the only tourism company in town, which has no restaurants, cafés or gift shops selling stuffed animal polar bears. This was a breath of fresh air to discover, having just arrived from downtown Reykjavík, which seems increasingly to cater to tourists with stuffed animal puffins.
We woke up to sunshine our first morning, but immediately upon stepping outside the -15˚C air bit at my fingers through my two layers of gloves. Ryan and I walked down a path evidently carved out by heavy snowmobile tracks and I popped into Nanu Travel to borrow a big red snowsuit, which proved invaluable the rest of the trip.
An ex-hunter called Scoresby picked us up on a snowmobile and took us down to the fjord edge where Åge Uugi Pike was roping up dogs for our first taste of dogsledding. After he lined up the dogs, we climbed on the sled and the dogs took off—much like horses, taking care of their business on the run. While difficult to talk with the wind in our faces, our driver Åge turned around and told me proudly that he had won the town dogsledding competition the day before.
LOOKING FOR POLAR BEARS
We were on our way to Kap Tobin on a mission to see a polar bear. We had heard that this would be our best chance to see one. Scientists had just left their outpost there where they had been taking samples from the hunted polar bears to measure toxin levels. As the world’s trash gravitates to the poles, seals and polar bears, which are both part of the Greenlandic diet, have shown increased levels of toxins.
Åge tied up the dogs, put his gun over his shoulder, and we walked to a lookout over the ice edge, scanning in the distance, hoping to spot the majestic creature. There were three polar bears left of the East Greenland’s annual quota of 35 and two had been spotted wandering not far off from Kap Tobin a day earlier. But we didn’t see anything.
We walked back to the dogs where we ran into Ejner Hammeken, known as Abaaba. We asked him if he had hunted any polar bears, and he traced the number 109 in the snow, and then added 1981, which we took to be the year he killed his first bear. We later found out that he is one of the best hunters in town.
By the time we got going again the cold had found its way through my fur lined boots and wool socks. It was a forty-minute ride back to town, where we met Árni, who then took us straight back to Kap Tobin via snowmobile this time, and twice as fast.
IN KAP TOBIN
Árni’s home is cosy and the fjord-front view is unreal. We went out onto his porch into the brisk air, and enjoyed a couple of shots of whisky and Opal—Icelandic black liquorice vodka—that we had unknowingly smuggled into the country. As of January of this year, it is illegal to bring strong spirits into the country—a government effort to curb drinking and the corollary abuse, murder and suicide rampant in Greenlandic society.
After enjoying a nice meal, Árni took us up to America Mountain, where an old American radio tower once stood, but now lays knocked over. Then he showed us a hot spring—which was far too hot for bathing—but could potentially be developed.
We spent the rest of the evening sitting around a fire, chatting about realities of life in this town, drinking tea and eating cake until the sun had gone down. “You really have to plan in advance. If people want a sofa set, they have to plan it a year in advance, and to make sure it gets on the ship or they won’t get it, and that goes for everything,” Árni told us. “They always run out of something, like mayo or canned tomatoes or ketchup.”
We woke up the following morning after having slept a good ten hours. We were in Ittoqqortoormiit, but there was no stress to go anywhere or to do anything. We didn’t have a checklist of attractions to see. We were just there, and part of the beauty of being there was being able to slow down.
Árni doesn’t have internet, and he powers the house with a generator that he affectionately calls Genny. He doesn’t have a shower and the toilets are essentially glorified bags that you sit on—aptly named “bag toilets,” which need to be taken out, much like you take out the trash.
Taking out the trash in Greenland means dumping it in designated piles, which I would later catch a glimpse of, noting the suspicious looking black bags (“bag toilets”) that had been picked up from the pile and scattered about by the wind. I was surprised to learn that the trash has been piling up for 87 years, not once being removed.
“Before ships started bringing in plastic wrapped food, cans and bottles, the Inuit used nearly everything, and what they didn’t use would be picked up by birds and ravens,” Helena would later tell me. “Today, cans and bottles, this stuff doesn’t disappear, so can you imagine?”
A FROZEN WONDERLAND
After spending that early afternoon lounging about inside, the sky cleared up and we decided to go on Árni’s planned adventure for the day—exploring the surrounding areas by snowmobile.
We rode to town to meet Ole Brønlund, who would be my experienced driver for the day, racing us up and down snowy passes, crossing down into the ice-covered Lillefjord (“Little Fjord”) and climbing back up to an incredible lookout over to the ice edge. We stopped there to have a Coke and a Kit Kat, a few items that often run out at the general store before the supply ships come again.
Finally we headed back to town, with Ole stopping every now and then to plot points on his new GPS system. Ole’s wife Serena had prepared a musk oxen feast for us, which we spent hours feasting on while listening to Ole tell stories.
Although it was the town’s designated ‘Alcohol-free week’ Árni was sure the bar would be open. It was Friday after all and bar is only open on Fridays between the hours of 22:00 and 3:00. We were amongst the first to get there, but it wasn’t long before more trickled in—people of all ages, not unlike at Icelandic bars in the countryside.
On the way home I was thankful for the snowsuit, the air whipping against my face. I closed my eyes and let the sound of the motor drown out my thoughts. The reality of having to catch the helicopter a few hours later didn’t seem to matter. The flight would ultimately be canceled, however, due to weather. The morning was spent in limbo, during which time we watched ‘Idiocracy’ and I caught a much-need shower. When the flight was officially cancelled the three of us went back to Kap Tobin.
THE FUTURE OF THE CITY
If a handful of politicians from Nuuk hadn’t been in town for an annual meeting, I may have been stuck for a few more days, but the Constable Point airport opened for us on a Sunday. In the small airport waiting room I talked to Mayor Asii Chemnitz Narup and other members of the municipality about the meeting and the future of the city. I had heard rumours in town about there being discussion of closing the town down, but they denied that this was true.
They were pleased with the turnout—50 people, which seems like a lot considering the meeting was conducted in West Greenlandic, quite a bit different than the East Greenlandic spoken in town.
“Nobody feels stuck, but people feel forgotten,” the Mayor told me, pointing out that the area of this municipality is equal to the size of France and Portugal and that there are 21,000 people living there, and 16,000 of them are Nuuk, the capital city.
They discussed the future of the town and ways to boost tourism, such as moving the Constable Point airport to Ittoqqortoormiit, making it easier for people to come and go.
I couldn’t help wondering though if making it easier to get to this remote town would not also ruin much of its charm. In many ways East Greenland reminded me of Iceland’s not too distant past, before tourists began trampling the country. Are we losing what it is that makes Iceland special? Is Ittoqqortoormiit in danger of the same thing?
Ryan had stayed behind to spend a few more days in the city, and he would leave on a more grim note, witnessing the body of a 21-year-old boy being taken into the church—the third suicide in the town this year. All of them were young boys in their twenties.
“We talk about civilization, but what have we given them,” Helena said. “Maybe we took them from an igloo into a house, but they lost their soul. They don’t know where they come from; they do not know where they are going. They are confused; It’s so sad to see that. And I believe that tourism, if they build the infrastructure and move the airport, then this village could support itself, but it has to be done slowly, over the next twenty to thirty years.”
“It’s not enough to give people money. We need to teach people to be independent,” she said. “Don’t give them the fish. Teach them how to fish.”
Flights to Constable Point provided by Air Iceland. Constable Point is the nearest airport to Ittoqqortoormiit. Book flight at www.airiceland.is or call +354-5703000.
Helicopter flight provided by Air Greenland. They offer helicopter flights from Constable Point to Ittoqqortoormiit, which can be booked at www.airgreenland.com or by calling +299 34 34 34. They also fly from Keflavík to Nuuk, Greenland.
Accommodation, trips and guidance provided by Nonni Travel. More info at www.nonnitravel.is or call +354-4611841.