Stalking polar bears, seals, and walruses along the icy edges of Greenland with Inuit hunters, writer Gretel Ehrlich experienced the brutal beauty of Arctic life. In the print edition she shares her story. Online she offers the story behind the story, as told to ADVENTURE's Katie McDowell.
"I Decided to Visit"
In 1991, on a flight to London from Wyoming, I flew over Greenland. It looked amazing. I had already spent a month in the high Arctic, in Canada, and I wanted to see more. That August, when my stay was over in London, I decided to visit. I just went by myself.
On the flight over I met Ann and Olejorgen, an Inuit couple from Greenland who spoke English. They were a bit surprised that I had been reading the expedition notes of [early 20th-century Danish explorer] Knud Rasmussen and learning about traditional life in Greenland. I ended up traveling with them for the next three weeks.
I think the Inuit were taken aback that I was an American woman traveling alone; they were very welcoming. I knew after those three weeks that I would write a book about Greenland.
On my ranch in Wyoming, I was used to the open spaces. When I went to Greenland for the first time (out of seven so far) there was a resemblance between the two landscapesthe landforms so similar: one mountains and basins of grass; the other mountains and frozen oceans.
"We Were Going to Hunt"
In 1998 I was planning to go polar bear hunting, with subsistence hunters, to Humboldt Glacier in the very northern part of Greenland. With seven dogsleds, we were going to hunt and live on the ice. But that winter most of the dogs died of distemper. We couldn't go.
Even if we were able to assemble and train another dog team in the few short weeks before leaving, we would not make it home if they died while there. Travel in Greenland can be frustrating, but never dull.
The Inuit hunt polar bears, not only for food but for skins. They make and wear bear pantsthey're the only things that will keep them warm enough during the long and frigid winter. Although it's not their main source of food, polar bear tastes very good; it has a clean taste. It's almost like you're eating vigorousness.
To the Inuit, solitude is thought to be a form of mental illness; to travel alone is very dangerous. The individual is less important than the group. Any opportunity to visit each other is welcomed. During the long, dark winter months, they once gathered for dances and seances and shamanic activities.
"They Are Never Afraid"
Despite the visits from friends, things can be dark. When I spent time in Greenland one winter, I noticed a change in my own perspective. I think the darkness pervaded my consciousness.
I felt the sky being lowered down, almost like a hood being drawn, and I started to pull inward. Darkness fired my imagination as it has fired theirs for 4,000 years. They have amazing myths and imaginations. The more austere the surroundings, the more the mind stirs. I began to find the spiritual resources in the darkness.
The Inuit peopleespecially the huntershave influenced my life, and I see that influence every day. They have the driest sense of humor, the strongest minds. It's their resilience that has helped them to survive. Because they live on this frozen mass, they have a tremendously deep understanding of the ephemeral quality of life. I've never seen fear in their eyes.
They face death as a daily element and have no illusions about how easy it is to lose it all. They also have a cheerfulness about living without guarantees. On one expedition we hit really bad ice. The next thing, the dogs had fallen through the ice and the sled was about to go.
I was on the sled and one of the hunters yelled, "Don't move!" They grabbed the dogs and lifted the sled, which must have weighed more than a thousand pounds [454 kilograms], and put it on better ice, and never said anything about it. There are so many fearful things that happen, so much uncertainty, but they are never afraid.
Photograph by Chris Anderson/Aurora