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Contortions, communities and climate

Nick Clark's journey in Greenland brings him to rural villages where you hunt, you eat, you keep warm, and you live.
Last modified: 14 Aug 2012 20:29
Strips of meat hung from wooden frames are drying in the sun [Nick Clark]

This blog is Nick Clark's second dispatch from his journey with a World Wildlife Fund expedition exploring some of the last regions of near-constant sea ice.

Quarters on board the Arctic Tern are tight. Bunk access requires yogic contortions nearly beyond this lanky landlubber who can barely touch his toes. And once prised in, it takes a few comedic cracks of the head before the realisation dawns you can’t actually get up vertically.

You learn the horizontal slide is the way out, trying hard not to step on the head of your sleeping cameraman.

But it’s a small price to pay on a voyage where the crew’s great, the food’s excellent and the seascape spectacular.

We passed great cliffs of ice, bergs that had broken away from the glacier faces with their azure blues shimmering underwater. Every now and then you could hear an explosive crack echoing in the distance, as another thundering tower of ice collapsed into the sea.

We’ve joined a World Wildlife Fund expedition to the heart of the Arctic, to where the summer sea ice is projected to last the longest. The Arctic Tern, a 50-foot steel-hulled expedition yacht, is our home for 10 days as we push up the northwest coast of Greenland.

Our skipper, Grant Redvers, is well-versed in the dangers of sailing in stormy, iceberg-strewn waters.

"Ninety per cent of the iceberg is underwater, and they can suddenly topple over," he says. "You don’t sail too close."

He’d also spent a year and a half voluntarily stranded on a ship in the pack ice for the sake of science. He wrote the book, as they say.

Isolated communities

Life in the small communities of the far north is uncompromising. You hunt, you eat, you keep warm, you live. For thousands of years, the Inuit have been as much a part of the Arctic and its cycles as the polar bears, walruses and narwhal that kept them alive.

Even now, deep in the Arctic Circle, this is still the way for a few isolated settlements. We were to see it up close.

The plan is to probe the extremities of the retreating sea ice before crossing Baffin Bay to Canada’s high north.

"This is one of the least-studied areas of the world," said Clive Tesar, leader of WWF’s Last Ice Area project. "As climate change eats away at the ice, it eats away at the homes of life that surrounds the ice. Where we’re going is where we believe the last remnants of the sea ice will be after 2050. And were trying to plan for that time and that area."

We anchored off the tiny island of Qeqertat, around 1,400km from the North Pole. It’s spectacularly located on the edge of Greenland’s ice sheet. From our anchorage we could see glaciers sweeping down into the sea like snowed-up freeways.

As we looked out from the boat we saw a dozen ramshackle wooden homes in varying shades of rust, blues and yellows. Strips of meat hung from wooden frames, drying in the sun. On the beach, a hunting party had just returned in their motor launches and were passing around small squares of thick Narwhal skin, a delicacy called muttak.

Atop an outcrop of rock, two men with telescopes were scanning the iceberg-strewn waters, looking for narwhal. The sled dogs were sitting out the summer in the grass, waiting for the cold and for the sleds to start running again.

Disconnect

It seems hard to reconcile the climate change juggernaut - with its politics, conferences, arguments and debates - with this powerful, simple scene. A tiny community deep inside the Arctic Circle, doing what it has done for thousands of years. Meanwhile, people who’ve never even been here argue about and judge their future.

"It’s heartening to see traditional communities still hunting in the way they always have done in this area," Tesar said. "There’s the visceral connection to their surroundings. And there’s a need for the international community to engage in the right way without demanding indigenous people act in a certain way."

It’s become evident on our trip that there’s a great deal of resentment at the European Union banning the trade in seal skins, apparently in a bid to protect the animal, and at efforts to clamp down on whale hunting.

From what I can see, these communities can only exist on what they hunt. Qaanaq, for example, is impossible to reach for nine months of the year. They can get no outside supplies. Even fresh water comes in the shape of an iceberg dragged on to the beach.

Meanwhile, the boat supplies keep us going. As well as filming, cameraman Maurice Roper and I are "actively engaged" crew members on the boat. That is to say, we’re on the food rota. When presented with a bag of never-before-encountered musk ox mince, there’s only one thing for it – shepherd’s pie! Good old sailors stodge with a difference. Excellent!

Next up – what to do with the caribou chops.