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Friday, 9 November, 2001, 18:41 GMT
The West's most isolated community
Five hundred people live in Ittoqqortoormiit (picture courtesy Ittoqqortoormiit Tourist Information website)
By David Lomax in east Greenland

The sky between Iceland and Greenland is sometimes so blue it almost hurts, and you can see the bleak mountains along the distant coast at a range of 100 miles.

When you get nearer, you understand why this wilderness is so isolated.

People live by cutting each other's hair

Jens Bernlow, harbourmaster
There are vast heaving fields of pack ice, grinding together in the swells and sounding like traffic on a distant motorway.

Gigantic icebergs in an infinite number of blues and greens would crush a boat if you got caught amongst them in a wind.

For most of the year this band of pack ice is impenetrable, sometimes 60 miles across, but each summer it retreats and in some years, for a few weeks, almost disappears.

That's what seems to have happened in 1822 when a whaling captain from Whitby in Yorkshire, William Scoresby, took his three ships between the floes when it was calm, and discovered the biggest fjord system in the world, 200 miles long.

He named it Scoresbysund after his father, and its desolate headlands after various Scottish theologians and academics.

He found no inhabitants, only the remains of a prehistoric Inuit settlement.

No connections

We anchored at the mouth of the fjord off Ittoqqortoormiit, the only proper settlement for hundreds of miles and - like everywhere in Greenland - with no road connections to anywhere else.

Ittoqqortoormiit lies at the foot of a rocky lunar landscape. Its Greenlandic name means "a place where there are many houses". Five hundred people live in brightly coloured prefabricated boxes.

They were brought here by a supply ship from Denmark which calls, ice permitting, once a year with everything the population needs.

The only other link is an occasional expensive helicopter connection to Constablepynt, an airstrip abandoned by an American oil company and to which there are odd flights of tourist trekkers from Iceland.

Keeping in touch

We landed by dinghy and went to see the harbour master, Jens Bernlow, a jovial Dane whose office overlooks the distant mountains and glaciers.

These days ancient hunting skills don't seem to have much of a place among mobile phones, imported beer, satellite dishes and Manchester United T- shirts

This is where he receives e-mails and faxes via the satellite dish at the top of the hill, and keeps in touch with the capital Nuuk - on the other side of the ice cap and in a time zone which is three hours different.

Outside his office window locals were scurrying about on the one dirt road on cross-country mini tractors with trailers full of supplies and cans of beer from the only shop.

Most of the teenagers seemed to have mobile phones.

There is a warehouse where musk ox, polar bear, walrus and seal skins are treated, but as Jens admitted, there's not much trade or tourism.

"People live by cutting each other's hair," as he put it.

Outside many houses are teams of huskies chained up and looking miserable.

They are fed once a week with lumps of seal meat and it doesn't take much to set them howling under the midnight sun.

On Sunday morning they all sang together when the church bell rang.

Inuit descendants

The settlement in Scoresbysund is perhaps the most isolated community in the western hemisphere. It only exists by historical accident.

Nuuk, capital of Greenland
Nuuk, the capital, is on the other side of the ice cap
In 1925, the Danish Government colonised the place with a boat load of 70 Inuit.

They were brought from Ammassalik, 400 miles further south, to pre-empt a Norwegian claim to this territory based on the increasing numbers of Norwegian seal hunters who'd been over wintering.

The claim was finally settled in favour of Denmark and the present inhabitants are the descendants of the Inuit hunters who were first brought here. They still hunt.

In the summer when there's open water in the fjords, the men disappear in power boats with rifles and track musk ox.

These are like arctic bison and seem to survive on a diet of moss and stunted grass.

The hunters also target seal, polar bear and walrus but no longer with traditional kayaks. Only a few seem to have retained the old skills.

Vital link

These days Ittoqqortoormiit relies almost entirely on Danish aid and on a handful of Danish officials with generous allowances.

There are Danes supervising the power station and the engineering workshop.

They are here, they told us, for a mixture of motives - money, adventure, novelty and some for idealism

There is a Danish doctor and nurse running a small hospital. There are young Danish teachers seconded to the local school.

They're here, they told us, for a mixture of motives - money, adventure, novelty and some for idealism.

They talk of what can be done to limit the effects of alcoholism and the problems of weapons and weekend violence.

They told us about the way the locals on the east coast speak a different language from those on the west coast, and of how few are able to travel abroad.

If any of the younger ones do get a scholarship to Copenhagen, that is where they stay.

I asked one of the Danes whether he thought Greenland would ever be fully independent. "Its not necessary," he said, "we are part of each other."

There are stirrings among Greenlanders on the west coast who would like to be less under Copenhagen's influence.

But these don't seem to have reached the east coast where the link with Denmark seems to be all that is keeping Ittoqqortoormiit alive, and where these days ancient hunting skills don't seem to have much of a place among mobile phones, imported beer, satellite dishes and Manchester United T-shirts.

See also:

11 May 01 | Europe
Seals 'saved by warmer weather'
21 Jul 00 | Sci/Tech
Greenland's coastal ice thins fast
15 Jul 00 | Europe
Greenland marks Viking voyage
22 Oct 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Greenland
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