It was afternoon and everybody was out fishing for halibut; I walked for hours amongst the dogs and a flower called Arctic cottongrass, which explodes into balls of immaculate white fluff in such vast numbers that the rocky fields leading down to the water looked like oceans of foam. In old Innuit stories, heaven is nothing much. But the sea? Life-giver, place of dreams. Later I sat on the craggy shore with Nikolena, a young Greenlander whose family had lived in Ilulissat for many years and whose conversation was teenager meandering and intense, muddling the distant past with the present, talking about how it used to get so hot inside igloos that man, woman and child wore G-strings made from seal skin.
As the dogs began to stir and whine in evening unison, we headed away from the cacophony, passing white fish drying on racks in the gardens of painted wooden bungalows, and cafes selling whale stir-fry, their porches hung with skulls of musk ox, relatives of the dire wolf found out on the tundra that Alaskan eskimos call oomingmak – ‘the animal with skin like a beard’. ‘Siku,’ says Nikolena in her low, insistent voices indulgently repeating some of my favourite Innuit words. It means ice. And ‘Quaqag’, meaning mountainous. Sweeping the blood and blubber of a minke whale from the deck of a boat in the bay, fishermen were smoking and listening to a local radio station playing Hank Williams. ‘What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever found through a hole in the ice?’
I asked 29-year-old Fari as he threaded baby pollock onto hooks for tomorrow’s catch. I was hoping he might say a narwhal, with its spiral ivory tusk that protrudes from its upper jaw, once coveted by medieval monks as a supposed unicorn relic. For a long while he said nothing, his eyes looking away at the weather, the horizon, the saffron flutterings of sunset. On the ground by his feet, four severed seal paws. ‘A man,’ he said finally. ‘A frozen fisherman. He must have fallen from a boat. Could have been years before.’ And Fari just shrugged. To the sagacious Greenlander, that’s fair balance. You hunt; you take life; and one day you might very well give your own. Up at Eqi, it’s so close to the end of the season only a few of us are left: the Danish kids, a French couple here to hike, and a trio of Japanese naturalists.
Soon it will be impossible to negotiate the iced-over waters unless using sled and dog, as there are no roads in Greenland. As the season clearly changes -autumn here is fast, as though happening in a magical time-lapse – the surrounding mountains are flintily brutal and self-absorbed. By the stove in the community hut I watch an ingenious young chef make apple-vinegar-poached roots and a great stew of reindeer, steeling myself for the thrilling biological vulnerability I’ll feel on the way back south, just as I’d felt it on the squat boat zigging and zagging up here slowly through seas infested with icebergs The wind! I’ve only felt something even vaguely close in Moscow in the mid-1980s, scurrying across a December Red Square chilled as stone having impulsively given my coat in exchange for a Young Communist badge.
Filing past were the largest floating objects in the northern hemisphere, perfectly bizarre to look at, megalomaniacally individual, and made from an ice that can be anything from one to 250,000 years old and bright blue or variants of blue or white or diamond sheer, depending on its age and the refraction of light. Often the bergs are four times bigger underneath the water too, as though swooning into another dimension.
Some seemed ash-flecked, like fur. Some are shaped like ribs, or whole pieces of Cornwall. Coral, apple crumble Daggers and domes. Colours and colours.
Meltwater of flooding aquamarine. Ice-bridges of amethyst. A shipmate tells me he had jumped in and swum out to one in summer, dragging himself onto it, shuddering and near-unconscious – and found he was bleeding from every limb, right through his clothes. Arctic needle ice can puncture even a bear’s foot.
But I understand why he did it. These are enchanted, elf-islands made from obsidian or pearl. Whole shimmering shells of abalone. They call out for you to step onto them. ‘This really is the time to come here,’ confides the 21-year-old camp leader, Oliver, as we forage on the cliffs about the huts to supplement our dinner. Abruptly, in the water below us, we see the high spout of a humpback whale – a puff of perfect white – and moments later the glimpse of horizontal tail. The waters here are full of life, although there are relatively few species this far north. Whales struggle to negotiate the distorting clamour of even smaller boats, let alone cruise ships and industrial trawlers. Despite their reputation for tenacity, whales are immensely sensitive and can be woken by the tread of a bird’s foot on their skin.