Monday, 26 October

Article Index

This is a story about a rugged but simple life in one of the northernmost populated areas in the world; up in the frigid Northwestern Greenland.

Polar explorerPentti Kronqvist is an Arctic explorer from Finland. He has made multiple exploration trips, starting in the 1970s, to the arctic areas, including Alaska, Northern Canada, and Greenland.

There has been a number of fascinating stories written about his adventures, mainly in Swedish and Finnish. Some of them have also been translated to English.

In the beginning of this story, Pentti and his two friends are on an expedition from the Thule base in Northern Greenland, travelling up north, across the Smith Sound, and down on the Canadian side to Grisefjord, a journey calculated to be 300-400 miles.

 But a mishap on the first leg of the journey places them in the small village of Qaanaaq for a few days. There he becomes friends with a local hunter named Ilanguaq Duneq. There are many great stories to tell about Pentti’s adventures, but this story, one of the many gems in Pentti’s collection of stories, is about Ilanguaq, a well-known hunter and artist in the region.

But this story is not just about Ilanguaq either, but it is a great insight into the everyday life in the rugged and frigid arctic communities.

This story was originally written by Pentti in Swedish, and published in the Nanoq Arctic Museums 20-year commemorative publication in 2007 (the Nanoq museum is located in Jakobstad, Finland, and was founded by Pentti).

This story has now been published in English for the first time. Enjoy!

Map of Kronqvists travel from Pituffik, Grenland, to Griefjord, Canada

The map was created by nwsisu, based on USGS public maps. Photograps are from the 2007 Nanoq Arctic Museums 20-year commemorative publication.

Link to Nanoq Artic Museum website 


Part 1/4:- The first visit in Qaanaaq in 1976

By Pentti Kronqvist, originally in Swedish.

Part of the Duneq family, 1976. Ilanquaq, Karen, and Kale

Ilanguaq Duneq - Big-Game Hunter, Artist, and Friend

I met Ilanguaq Duneq for the first time at the end of March in 1976. It was during my first visit to the northern parts of Greenland. We were a group of three men, Christer Boucht, Hans Koivusalo and me. We had planned a journey from northern Greenland to the northernmost village in the arctic Canada, the village of Grisefjord. We calculated that the journey from Greenland to Canada would be 500-600 kilometers, but the journey ended up being much longer -- about 800 kilometers, due to difficult ice conditions and open water in the Smith Sound. We were not able to cross over at the predetermined location, which we had chosen based on satellite imagery. We were forced to continue another 150 kilometers up along the coast of Greenland.

During the first stage of our journey, from Pituffik, by the Thule Air force base, to Moriusaq, and from there on to Qaanaaq, I injured the ligament in my right knee when descending a glacier. We decided to recoup in Qaanaaq for three days. The village is the largest of the six villages in the Thule district.

On the second day in the village, I decided to take a short walk in the center of the village, to see if my knee was holding up. As I was passing by a recently built house, there was a small boy, maybe five or six years old, sitting on the steps. The boy was wearing pants made of real polar bear skin. On his feet, he wore kamiks, which are boots made of seal skin. His anorak was made of dog skin and he was holding a dog whip, which is used to control sled dogs during a pull. Maybe the little boy was dreaming about becoming a great musher and hunter when he grew up.

I stopped, tried to talk to the boy, and took a few pictures. I was admiring that mettlesome boy standing on the steps when the door to the house opened, and a man stepped out. I introduced myself to him, telling him where I came from. The man told me he is the boy’s father and that his name is Ilanguaq Duneq.

I was invited into the house, and greeted the rest of the family: his wife Karen, and two older boys, Kaviaq and Putlaq, 12 and 15, and the youngest boy, Kale, the one who was standing on the steps.

I conveyed greetings from Erik Isakson, a Swede I knew, and was aware that he had lived here a whole year. The visit ended up being long, and we went through many cups of tea. When I thanked them for the chat, about ready to go back to Hanne Kemniz’ house, where I was staying, I and Ilanguaq agreed that I would come back in the afternoon of the next day.

Such was the way I met Ilanguaq Duneq for the first time, and we immediately became good friends. I had heard and read about him and knew that he was one of the best known hunters in the district. Erik Isakson had told me about him, when I was in Stockholm a few years earlier to gather information about northern Greenland and the polar Eskimos. I was so happy to get to visit him again.

The next day dawned, and we met as we had agreed. I stopped by the store at the center of the village, by the river, purchased a few packages of cigarettes, tea, coffee, and bread, and candy for the boys. I was really looking forward to the visit. This time I brought Hanne Kemniz with me as translator. She knew Danish, and thus I would be able to get more out of the discussions. Hanne was the nurse in the district.

Everyone in the family was home. Tea was served, and we all enjoyed the visit. Ilanguaq told about life in the village, about hunting, about the different seasons, about the long, cold polar night when almost all hunting is down. He talked about the bright springtime when all the hunters head out toward the Smith Sound, on their dogsleds, to hunt walruses, narwhals, and a few polar bears. He also told about the short but intense polar summer when hunting excursions are done by boats and kayaks, and about how whole families live in tents out in summer camps.

I also inquired about the conditions along our planned route to Canada. Ilanguaq was the man to know that. He said he has travelled the areas countless times while hunting. He knew that the ice conditions change greatly from year to year and the weather changes on a daily basis. Strong winds, called “pideraker” in Greenlandic, can suddenly build up locally. But storms with winds up to 30-50 meters per second, that can last several days, are also common. Those winds sweep down from the North Pole along the west coast of Greenland. One is then better off finding a sheltered spot for the tent, and stay in the tent.

Some years, the strait between North Greenland and Canada is frozen. Other years it’s open, due to strong currents, and new ice is formed, which is too weak to travel on. Ilanguaq also warned about polar bears, because there is a large population of them on the Canadian side.

It was interesting to listen to Ilanguaq’s stories, and it became late in the evening. We thanked him for letting us come over. But before we departed, Ilanguaq showed us his carved amulets, made of teeth from walruses and narwhals. He made small polar bear heads, narwhals and seals. He was known all over Greenland as a skilled hunter, but also as an artist.

According to an old legend from Eskimo mythology, a polar bear head taut around the neck gives the bearer power and strength. I received a head as a gift, and immediately placed it around my neck. I still have the polar bear amulet in good keeping after all these years. I was now much more knowledgeable, and thankful for all the information I received from the wise and experienced Ilanguaq. It was a visit I will never forget. We also decided that if I visit northern Greenland, and Qaanaaq again, I will stay at their place.

We left the village the following day, to continue our journey to the northernmost village in the world, Siorapaluk. The village is located 70 kilometers north, and has a population of about 70.


Part 2/4:- Return visit to Qaanaaq in 1978

By Pentti Kronqvist, originally in Swedish.

I visited Thule and the Qaanaaq village again two years later, in 1978. I had remembered Ilanguaqs invitation and contacted him in advance. When the helicopter I was traveling in from the Thule base landed, the whole Duneq family showed up to meet me.

They had arranged a small room for me to stay in. The welcome was as friendly and heartfelt as the previous time. The boys in the family had grown. Ilanguaq was in a great mood. The late winter hunting trips had been successful. He had become known in the village as the great Ilanguaq, which in Greenlandic is Ilanguarrhuaq. In a great hunting season, he could catch about 50 seals, 20 walruses and two or three polar bears. Polar bear hunting has been prohibited in the whole polar region since 1973. But in Greenland the hunters are allowed to kill 100 to 150 Polar bears each year, since it is a part of their livelihood.

Ilanguaq decided to visit his old home village Qekertaq. It is located 50 kilometers away in the inner parts of the Inglefield fjord. His boat was a small cutter made of wood. It was a solid boat, about 25 feet long. The engine was a Norwegian Sab diesel with a traveling speed of 5-6 knots.

His youngest son Kale came along. The weather was sunny and beautiful with calm winds. We really enjoyed the trip.

After a four-hour travel, we arrived at the village and continued by foot to Ilanguaqs childhood home. Ilanguaqs father had lived in the house until his death. He was buried in the village cemetery on a small hill outside the village. The house has been abandoned for many years since the death of Ilanguaqs father. It was showing signs of decay.

The small 4-5 family village was quiet in the late evening. Some of the villagers did come out to hear the latest news from Qaanaaq.

On Sunday after the tea breakfast Ilanguaq suggested that we visit the small chapel for a 10:00am worship service. We all made it there in time to listen to the word of God. There were a few people seated in the chapel, amongst them a young woman breastfeeding her baby. The village catechist, an assistant preacher, read a part from a prayer book. The atmosphere was solemn. Lastly a hymn was sung without an instrument. The service ended with a simple ring from the church bell, just as it rang an hour earlier when calling to worship service.

It was a quiet sunny morning and the water in the fiord was calm and flat as a mirror. After leaving the chapel we followed Ilanguaq to his father’s grave site. There on the hill was a small weathered gray wooden cross with no name on it. Ilanguaq sat down on a flat stone in front of the grave, folded his hands and began praying. He spoke quietly to his father, maybe telling him about his family. Or maybe he was telling about the late winter hunting trips. In the old eskimo mythology they believe that the dead are able to hear.

We stayed several days in the village spending the days hunting. This very location and the waters around the Qekertak island are the best for catching narwhals in August when there is no ice cover. Only a few icebergs are seen drifting toward the Arctic Ocean.

Every day we met other hunters from the district who also had great success in their hunts. During these days Ilanguaq shot many seals and a couple narwhals. A narwhal weighs around 2000 kilograms. The whales are brought ashore at high tide, when the water recedes at ebb tide the whales are cut up. Most of the meat is then buried under rocks on the shore, preventing foxes, dogs and polar bears from reaching the meat. The meat is stored there until it is retrieved with dogsleds over the long winter. The permafrost is 500 meters here and never thaws. We brought some of the seal meat home for food for the family and for the sled dogs.

Karen and the middle son Putlaq met us on our return. We worked together bringing the meat on shore. We cut up and hung the seals on a meat rack. The pelts were placed on drying racks. Lastly, the chained-up dogs were fed.

The following day I travelled north to Siorapaluk with another hunter whose name was Avataq. We were going to stay there for a week. We stayed with the old hunter and councilor (bygderåd) Inurtesuaq and his wife Naduk. I received a friendly welcome. I knew them from before when I stayed with them in 1976 on our way to Canada. The pair were in their seventies. Inurtesuaq was known for being a musher (dog sled driver) on Rasmussen’s expeditions in Northern Greenland in the 30’s. For that he had received the title of councilor by the queen of Denmark.

The week went by fast and it was time to return with Avataq to Qaanaaq. The weather had worsened, with strong winds and fog. Avataq decided to travel closer to the shore where the sea was calmer. We made it safely back to Qaanaaq. Now I had two days left of my visit in the village. I spent those days photographing and saying farewell to my friends. Lastly I said goodbye to the Duneq family and promised, as always, to come back.

Part 3/4:- Return visit to Qaanaaq in 1984

By Pentti Kronqvist, originally in Swedish.

In August 1984, we were a group of four people who planned a visit to Northern Greenland, to the Qaanaaq village. Participants were the old professor Wladimir Goichman, Jan-Anders Söderholm from the Finnish Television, Lennart Johansson and myself.

It was arranged beforehand that we all would stay at Ilanguaqs place. We received the same friendly welcome I had received at previous visits. They had readied a small room for us on the second floor. We carried up our gear and rolled out the sleeping bags on the floor.

I briefed Ilanguaq about our plans. The top priority was to follow along on hunting trips for a few days to film for the Finnish Television. But we were also going to create footage for a documentary about professor Goichman, then the oldest living arctic explorer in the world.

Ilanguaq told us now that he had fallen ill with cancer. One of his lungs had been removed at the central hospital in Copenhagen. I noticed that he was breathing heavily, and he was not the Great Ilanguaq anymore. He mostly sat home, whittling amulets that he sold. His oldest son was now a deputy police officer, the middle son worked in the warehouse at the store and Kale, the youngest son still went to school.

Our group went to visit old friends and familiarized us with the village, and we got started with the filming work. Everything went as we had planned. Goichman greatly enjoyed his time.  He painted sketches of the landscape, which he thought was powerful. As an artist, he admired the light and its variations from moment to moment. Here the sun shines for four months without setting.

We decided to go to a small village named Qekertat, and mentioned it to Ilanguaq. He told us he can bring us there if the weather is good. He still had his cutter. There we followed along with narwhal hunters, filming their hunts. Ilanguaq also caught a narwhal. The other hunters then helped him out cutting up the narwhal.

Our next visit was to Siorapaluk, the northernmost of the villages in the area. The other three members in the group had not been there yet. We all stayed at Inurtesuaqs house. He himself with his wife Naduq were visiting Kaanaaq. I had run into him there and had told him that we were going to visit his village. Inurtesuaq had then offered us to stay at his house.

We stayed a few days in the village. One afternoon Lennart went for a hike up to the edge of the mountain to take on the view of the village, do some photographing and to take a closer look at the continental ice sheet, which covers 85% of Greenland.

Lennart returned in the evening, carrying a large arctic hare, proudly telling us about him shooting it. He told us that he had seen a rifle placed against a rock on the mountain slope. He had grabbed the rifle, thinking he might run into a hare. Also if he would see a polar bear wandering around, he might need something to defend himself with. He had walked for a while when he saw a hare, and shot it and then run up to the wounded hare. To finish off the hare, he hit it with the rifle stock so hard the that the stock broke. But the hare did die.

Hunters in Greenland often leave their rifles in their hunting areas so they will be in place for them at their next hunting trip. Lennart went on to say that he pushed the pieces of the stock back in place, placed the rifle back where it had been against the rock and slowly walked back to the village.

Later in the evening we enjoyed cooked hare, inviting some of the older hunters. One of them, a neighbor, was my old acquaintance Ingapaluk, who is now retired. It began to be late in the evening, and we had a great time.

I was teasing Lennart, saying “You being a lawyer and a judge will sure be called to the court here one of these days for shooting a hare without a hunting- and weapon license. Furthermore, you have damaged a rifle, which you took without permission.”

The next day we left the village, all happy over the visit to the northernmost village in the world with permanent population. Goichman was satisfied over the many sketches he had drawn and will then complete at full scale in his studio in Turku. We were happy for the tremendous amount of film footage we had been able to get done for the Finnish Television.

We arrived in Qaanaaq late in the evening. More guests had arrived at Ilanguaqs place. There were two men from the westernmost village, Savisevik. The village is located south at Baffin Bay. Ilanguaqs father-in-law Tautjanguaq and his wife were also visiting from the Kangerslusuaq village. We all fit in the house and had a great time.  Professor Goichman treated us to a 50-year celebration, which lasted to early morning. It had been 50 years since the Taymyr expedition to Novajasemla, led by the known glaciologist Otto Smith. Goichman partook in the expedition as a crew member and medical doctor. Goichman was now 81 years old.

It was time again to say farewell. We said goodbye to our dear friends and then flew by helicopter to the Thule base, and from there flew via Copenhagen to Helsinki. We all felt happy with the trip.

Part 3/4:- Return visit to Qaanaaq in 1993

By Pentti Kronqvist, originally in Swedish.

I visited Qaanaaq again in 1993, this time with Mayvor Stagnäs, who is an editor for Jakobstads Tidning (the local newspaper). She was traveling as a reporter. A third member of the group, a researcher from the Ymer expeditions in the 50’s and 60’s in the Svalbard area, Anders Häggblom, was supposed to join us, but something came up at the last minute and he was unable to come. Anders was born and grew up in Jakobstad, but since the 50’s has been living in Stockholm.

We were going to be here for ten days, visiting all the villages in the district. I stayed at my old friend Duneqs place. Mayvor stayed at the district school superintendent Gustav Olsens place. He was the grandson of the old missionary Olsen, who arrived here in 1909  as the first missionary in the area.

Ilanguaq was now worn out by the cancer. He wasn’t going out on any demanding hunting trips. But one day he suggested that we together pay a visit to his old hometown Qekertaq. He now had a smaller boat with a 30hp outboard engine. His youngest son Kale also came along. It was a Saturday in the middle of august. Only three families still lived on the island. Ilanguaqs childhood home was still there, but had further deteriorated, as it had stayed vacant for many years.

In the village we met hunters who were hunting narwhals. We spent the evening visiting with them. We ate cooked seal meat and drank tea with biscuits.

It was Sunday morning. The church bell called to services, which we attended. Now as before, Ilanguaq visited his father’s grave. I noticed that this time he sat a longer time and fell deeper in his prayer. Maybe he was telling more in depth about leaving this life in a near future, as stricken as he was by his sickness.

It was a beautiful and calm evening when we returned home to Qaanaaq. This time we didn’t have any catch with us. The great hunter Ilanguaq was too tired and worn out after years of fighting his difficult sickness.

Time for farewell

When I five days later said goodbye for my flight home to Finland, I had tears in my eyes. Avataq wanted to give me some gifts. I was given a gun rest, kamik boots, a polar bear skull and his old polar bear pants. Maybe he thought it was the last time we were going to see each other, that this was our last farewell. Those gifts are now in a good care at the Nanoq arctic museum in Jakobstad.

Ilanguaq parted this life on the Pentecostal day 1994 at 55 years’ age. He was known all over Greenland as one of the greatest hunters. He built the most slender kayaks, his harpoons and its spears were the best of their kind. The polar bear head amulets he made were sold around the world. He took good care of his family and he was a role model for his tribe and his generation.

I remembered the amulet, made in the shape of a polar bear head, he gave me on my first visit in 1976. I have been taking good care of that amulet and maybe it will give me strength in my old days.

Ilanguaq had become one of my greatest friends and I will always remember him as the Great Ilanguarrhuaq.