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After Work: Above The Arctic Circle

…It was in the grocery store that I saw a picture perfect moment: an Inuit girl dressed in pink parka, pink pants and wearing pink sneakers. She was taking dainty little bites of a chocolate covered ice cream bar –the kind I grew up calling “Eskimo Pie.”

I could have whipped out my camera but it would have been intrusive to interrupt her pure enjoyment….

Dona Gibbs brings a colourful account of life in the frozen North.

To read two preceding accounts of Dona’s voyage into Arctic waters please click on After Work in the menu on this page.

Howls and yelps could be heard even at our distant anchorage. Ittoqqortoormit village, the largest settlement on Scoresby Sound, Greenland, is home to 500 people and the source of this boisterous far north greeting – 600 sled dogs.

We had sailed in on the Professor Molchanov, a 1982 Russian research vessel retrofitted for adventure vacationers.

This is a modern day settlement, a colony of native people who were moved into this remote area in the mid-1920s by a paternalistic Danish government who “knows what’s good for its citizens” and for itself. As any colonizing power understands, nothing holds claim to the land like people living on it.

We arrived during the height of musk ox hunting season and all hunters were away tracking their quarry. The kayaks and larger boats called umiaks have given way to high-speed powerboats. Rifles with telescopic sights have replaced harpoons and lances. All terrain vehicles and trucks seemed to be the main vehicular summer mode of transportation around the village.

The villagers have painted their houses in bright blue, mustard yellow, vivid green and barn red, a cheerful brave sight against the summertime grays and reds of the treeless hills.

A post office and bank share the same building. A Lutheran church’s steeple is a harbor landmark. Children wave hello from a school high up on the ridge. Their school year begins on August 1.

There are dogs and dogs and dogs. Many are chained on either side of a rivulet of water, a seasonal runoff from ice above the village. A seal carcass lies half eaten in the stream.

These are working dogs. They have the whole summer off but they are an irritable lot. Sledges are still used as winter transport although the Danish government has provided Skidoos as well. The sleds are stored on a platform near the town center. They are as modern as dog-powered sleds can get with Teflon runners and lightweight metal frames. Dogs can pull a thousand-pound load. That’s a lot of seal and musk oxen.

Several of the houses have drying racks and you can see a musk ox hide here and there, curing in the summer sun. Ittoqqotoormit, by the way, is called the Arctic Riviera because its climate is somewhat better than other god-forsaken, remote areas of Greenland. Everything is relative.

Villagers shop at a surprisingly well-stocked grocery store. As you would guess, canned and boxed goods far outnumber the fresh items offered. Two heads of cabbage dotted with rot and a couple of string bags of onions made up the produce section Sugary cereals, candy and snack food dominate an aisle. It’s a place where you can buy a cinnamon bun, a new rifle and frosted pink nail polish – all in one quick trip. By the way, although groceries are expensive, I am told they are the same price as in Copenhagen. The government subsidizes the groceries as well as almost everything else here.

It was in the grocery store that I saw a picture perfect moment: an Inuit girl dressed in pink parka, pink pants and wearing pink sneakers. She was taking dainty little bites of a chocolate covered ice cream bar –the kind I grew up calling “Eskimo Pie.”

I could have whipped out my camera but it would have been intrusive to interrupt her pure enjoyment.

In the small museum you can get a glimpse of what life was like for the Inuits who were moved here from other Greenland settlements. Old sealskin boots make up the bulk of one exhibit. A couple of dish towels, a set of mismatched chipped plates and a rusty iron stove, almost child-size give a snapshot of domestic life. The most fascinating items are the photographs. One showed a beaming bride in a beautiful sweater wearing high fur boots standing beside a shy looking bridegroom.

A woman was photographing the photograph.

“That is my mother and father in 1960,” she turned to me. “There is she, nineteen years old, he is twenty-six. He’s dead now. He died when I was four,” she frowned.

It’s a harsh life up here.

On the way in, the expedition leader had received a phone call from the young Danish woman who headed the local tourist office.

Three dogs, presumed to be strays had been shot. We were not to pet any dog. That went double for sled dogs that can turn surly and jealous in a teeth-snapping, dog second.

And we were given grimmer news. A man out on his boat had radioed for help. His boat was later found overturned. He left behind a nine-year-old daughter.

One less citizen, hunter and -- most importantly -- father for Ittoqqotoomit here high above the Arctic Circle.

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