Journal of a Seaplane Cruise Around The World
A Stop for the Night in an Eskimo Village
Some 20 miles west of Julianehaab a fog layer was encountered which extended as far to the east and south as one could see. We flew to the estimated position of the town but no openings appeared, and with some regret (those dinner invitations!) we were compelled to turn back. Once outside the fog belt, search was started for Eskimo settlements and after 20 minutes a small village came in view, half hidden against a rocky hillside. It consisted of only 3 or 4 houses, and faced a tiny harbor from which a narrow channel blocked with icebergs, led to the main fjord. Here at least was shelter, and perhaps food, so we accepted the haven and came down on the open fjord in a space where there was no danger from floating ice.
The pontoons were still splashing a wake when kayaks appeared around the island which separated us from the village. There were six of them in a race for the plane, and their approach was so rapid that I cut off the ignition switches and drifted, for fear that they might run afoul of the propellor. It was a needless precaution, for the Eskimos pulled up skillfully about 15 feet off, their kayaks pointed in a neat row toward the plane. We held up the chart and called off names of settlements and islands in this region, and the natives responded by pointing in the direction of the spot named. They were so certain in their indications that it was possible to use their bearings as a rough system of triangulation, which proved the location to lie just 25 miles west of Julianehaab. For their part the natives had only one question; the leader came close and asked, pointing to us, "Lindbergh?" We shook our heads, and he backed off in disappointment.
When the motor was started, the best sprinter of the group pushed his kayak up to a position just ahead of the floats, to lead us in through the tortuous channel between rocks and icebergs. The rest followed alongside. Their motion in handling the double-ended paddle was entirely effortless, and the boat and its motive force seemed to move as one being. The leader was continually baiting me to a race, but even with the motor running at 800 he pulled away easily. Part way in we were met by a group of Eskimo women in a wide row boat with high sides. It was a clumsy craft, with half a dozen oars sticking out the sides, but it was handled with more skill than one would expect.
The odd procession ended in front of the village, and we moored the plane by an anchor at the stern, and two bow lines which the Eskimos carried ashore and tied to rocks. I went ashore alone because Wilson wanted to look over the radio transmitter. A condenser had burned out while he was in the middle of a message (the hourly position report) a hundred miles offshore, and since then he had not been able to put out signals. The operators at the Julianehaab station (OXF) immediately made up a tape for their automatic transmitter to give us directional bearings, and were running it through the machine over and over again. Occasionally too they broadcast in another frequency: "all ships: American seaplane KHMZA enroute Julianehaab from Cartwright last 1715 position 59-45N 49-24W not reported since." It was distressing to listen to their Signals because, although we were safely landed, they had no way of knowing that the plane had not gone down at sea. Wilson, who has a thorough understanding of radio circuits, soon located a damaged condenser which he pulled out. It was then possible to operate the transmitter somewhat ineffectively on several frequencies, and he made contact with a ship at sea (the famous Hans Efede) which in turn instructed OXF to look for KHMZA on 600 and 38 meters. Communication was resumed just three hours after it had been broken off.
The entire village of perhaps 50 people was on the rock which served as a pier. Both men and women were dressed in breeches and boots made of sealskin, and their blouses were of cotton. They had straight black hair, rather bright cheeks, and a broad face which is said to be due to centuries of chewing tough seal meat (their masseter muscles are tremendously thickened, and I was told that the origin of the temporal muscles extends to the midline of the skull). They were all smiles and eager to help, and I was soon taken into a tiny one-room house and seated opposite to its owner, a short squat Greenlander who seemed to be the school teacher.
Neither of us knew the other's language, but he drew out a blackboard and some chalk and in easy script began the introduction. First, we were in Kerertarsuarak, and he was Isak Abelsen. The three children who became unexpectedly visible in the corner were Hans, Johanne and Atille, and they acknowledged the introductions with bright smiles. The mother, short and hardly distinguishable from the oldest daughter, was Seier. Another woman, perhaps Isak's sister, was known as Marie. I realized with a jolt that all six were living together in this small room, which measured at most 12 x 14 feet, and that with Wilson and myself there would be eight! I wondered how they would manage.
Seier went into the vestibule to a tiny iron stove and made coffee for two, over which Isak gave me a lesson in Greenlandish geography. Behind his chair hung a bookshelf, neatly crowded with volumes printed in Danish. From among these he took down an atlas and opened it to a map showing this sector of the coast. The detail was much better than on any of our Mercator charts, and with his stubby finger he traced the proper route to Julianehaab: across the wide fjord where we had landed, through a narrow twisting channel to another open area, and so on. But of course he was giving the kayak route, and not the path that we would fly. Dr. Alexander Forbes had once told me that he had taken an Eskimo of northern Labrador to fly over some unknown mountains in order to learn their local names, and that the native had recognized landmarks without hesitation. I wondered now if Isak could translate his intimate knowledge of this maze of islands and peninsulas into the mental map that guides the flier, and I would have arranged to take him along next day had I not been uneasy about governmental regulations.
The lesson came to an end when my host discovered a cut in the side of his finger, suffered probably while mooring the ship. He examined it carefully but before I could offer assistance, produced a bottle of iodine from the shelf and gave the injury a thorough antiseptic bath.
We could not have fallen into better hands. Outside, the people were waiting patiently on the rocks, their boat in readiness to bring the duffel ashore; when we handed it to them piece by piece, it disappeared promptly in the crowd, to reappear in a neat pile in our lodging. We did not bother to lock the airplane cabin; the Greenlanders exhibited only a friendly curiosity and were neither impolite nor intrusive. Their assistance was always applied quietly and intelligently. Once a small 'berg, weighing perhaps 10 tons, drifted threateningly toward the plane, and two men put out in the boat to lasso it with a cod line and tow it away to a safe distance. In the night the tide fell more than we had anticipated, but the natives realized our mistake and we noticed next morning that their handmade cotton lines had been added to our manila ropes, and the anchor line shortened, so as to draw the ship out into deeper water.
Bob and I had breakfasted in Labrador at five that morning, and were now hungry as wolves. The Greenlanders had evidently taken their principal meal at noon and were making no supper preparations, and as evening wore on it appeared that we should have to raid the ship's larder. It was not a bad prospect, for besides the tinned goods, crackers, etc., we had a supply of butter and trout, kept for refrigeration in the pontoons. Just as we were preparing to go down however there was a knock at the door and a neighbour entered - I think it was Sebulonson, the kayak champion. With much sign language he invited us to come to his house and dine, so we followed hungrily across a rocky path to another dwelling. His clan was larger, and the house had an extra room. The cooking must have been done entirely for us, for no one else joined in, although they sat by inquisitively while we ate. The principal dish was a large slice of boiled salmon, and was served with a cup of native brew, weakly fermented. A second course followed, consisting of tea, bread and butter, and a savory of liver paste. Food was never more welcome, and if flavor was lacking in the dish, it was more than supplied by the hospitality.
Back at Isak's house everyone was in bed except the chief. It was not evident at first how they had arranged to hide themselves away so completely. In daylight I had seen two low benches, each about 4 feet square, in the corners of the room. These were now covered with sheepskins and feather mats, and as our clumsy shoes rattled against the furniture there appeared from between the layers many pairs of black Eskimo eyes. Isak threw two sheepskins on the floor for us and we soon slid into our sleeping bags for a dreamless night.
The Eskimos began to stir at five o'clock, and Isak stirred us with a soft-booted foot at six. Coffee and toasted biscuits were waiting, and our luggage was soon being carried to the plane. As we said good bye Seier stepped forward to give us each a rose from her tiny garden.
Ropes were drawn in (Eskimos standing by, to pick off the sea weed), anchor was weighed, and we taxied slowly out through the line of icebergs into open water for the take off. Once in the air I circled the village and zoomed good bye to the people who had gathered on the rock. We climbed, and flew to the edge of the ice cap, revelling in the lovely scene, and then turned toward Julianehaab.