Thursday, March 10, 2011

Day 23 - glorious ghost town

I couldn't find a suitable spot to camp on my paddle from Ikorfat. Steep-sided seagull hang-outs and all too narrow beaches, though pretty, offered no peace or protection from icebergs or protective birds. I paddled on.

As I approached Qaarsut I began to appreciate just how much a small airport like Qaarsut spreads. Suddenly I was in a large area where jet-fuel was stored in tanks, tractors and graders sat waiting for the first snows of winter and the detritus of a working environment spread lazily about the shore. I was not overly impressed, but neither was I put off by the "mess". Airports are a lifeline in Greenland. The mess was no more or less than one might expect, the difference here was the beauty surrounding it. The whole coastline from Niaqornat down had been full of surprises and natural wonders.

Qaarsut surprised me too. I had only been here once before, arriving in the winter dark on a fishing cutter to be bundled into the back of a goods van for the short journey up to the airport. Qaarsut was new for me then and just as new as I paddled into the bay sometime after midnight.

There was more activity in the very early hours of the morning than during the day when I returned to Qaarsut from my campsite. The midges had driven me inside as soon as I had pitched my tent and sorted the kayak. I was reminded of wet Scottish fells and ravenous bastards - they're "all teeth". This was the worst I had experienced since Scotland. Oh, how I longed for mosquitoes!

Despite the lack of people on the sandy streets, Qaarsut seems to be a hive of industry with plenty of fish, whale, shark and seal drying on small and larger racks built on and around each hunter's gear. The norm seems to be a shed built out of available wood and enlarged or refitted to suit each hunter's needs. The huge drying rack in the picture above, just above the settlement, does not look like it has been used recently, perhaps revealing a decline in the amount being caught or the number of hunters and fishermen working out of the village.

Walking into "town" one is struck by the openness, there is a lot of space between the houses. In Uummannaq, houses are built where possible and the space in-between houses is often occupied by dogs or rocks. Qaarsut had a lot more space and the odd dust-ball floating between the houses or over the top of old foundations gave it a ghost-town like feeling. The lack of people, save the old man sitting on a bench by the wash house, only reinforced the image.

I did find people in the shop as I stocked up on assorted "crap" to eat on the pier where I had landed that night one dark December. The shop was well-stocked compared to what I have sometimes experienced in Uummannaq.

I wandered for a bit, a lonely tourist out of place in a pseudo-western Arctic settlement. All I needed was some spaghetti western music and everything would have clicked into place.

The shoreline was by far the most interesting area with all manner of gear and "stuff" lying about, often where the owner left it to be used again when needed. The most noticeable thing for me in these "industrial" areas is the harmony between boats and sledges. They just fit together, they belong. With sledge dogs often chained in and around the gear, dogs, boats and sledges merge into a blended picture of raw usefulness. There is often nothing particularly pretty about these things: the dogs are war-torn, the boats rusting and the sledges peeling under the 24-hour sun. But all are ready to be used, and if not, fixed from cannibalised outboard motors, bits of wood and twine and even recycled - the dogs might even end up as liners for mukluks and the trim on seal-skin gloves. While modernity is outstripping the traditional Inuit way of life you can still experience it and be happily overwhelmed by the sights, sounds and smells of Arctic stuff. It is all authentic, even the plastic bailers made out of drinks containers.

The pups run free here just like everywhere else in the Uummannaq district, when they are not sheltering from the sun that is.

I am pretty sure that the meat below is shark meat but I have honestly no idea and there was no one to ask. Greenland sharks are becoming increasingly attractive for the hunters and fishermen. I think there might even have been, or is still, a pilot programme researching the viability of shark fishing in Niaqornat. The sharks are an irritation for fishermen, eating the fish from their long-lines. The shark meat itself can be eaten by dogs and is therefore a good source of cheap food, if not dried though it makes them loopy for a while, literally drunk on meat.

As in all the other villages the local water stations are easily recognised, painted blue. It was the yellow sledges that caught my attention here though.

I didn't see one kayak on the water during my journey, but I saw many on racks. I know that the qajaq is used for sport, primarily competitions in West Greenland, but it is not used for hunting any more. (Now living in Qaanaaq, I can appreciate that the qajaq is an important tool used still for hunting whales. This is evident by how many are lashed to small boats and laden with interesting equipment.) They are beautiful to behold and the lines are so sleek compared to my fat, modern imitation. My "fat" boat lets me explore further afield though and I have yet to meet any Greenlanders who enjoy kayak camping. I did however meet one professional Greenlandic kayak guide from Aasiaat a few summers ago - so "hi" to Adam!

I forgot to mention that kayaks are still a part of the hunter's gear and some can be seen parked between the sledges, boats and dogs on the shoreline. The modern age has just superseded their use in traditional hunting, at least here anyway.

With thoughts of building my own qajaq swimming in my mind, I wandered back to camp with my final destination in the background.

On the beach, happily devoid of bugs, I carved another heart in the sand, a ritual I made whenever the sand and surroundings allowed, just to keep me focused on getting home in one piece. It had worked so far.

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