last place on earth
10:40 pm early April and the sun sits well above the horizon. Teasing its inhabitants on land with the thought of night fall, midnight sun is now upon northern Greenland. No matter how many times I glance at the clock, the minutes tick steady on as sunshine continues to pour through the glass windows. Qaanaaq, also known as Thule, is a small town of 600 inhabitants at the top of the world. In Latin, Thule means ‘last place’. The Inuit prefer a more descriptive meaning, noting Thule as the ‘northern most inhabited place in the world’. Qaanaaq now holds that title. It is said that Thule has had many different destinations throughout history. The Inuit migrated to Greenland from 2500 BC to 1000 AD, and as settlements moved further north, Thule continued to follow the northern most established town. Where it currently resides is a place of beauty that consumes and silences those who take their first steps here and those who take their last. The sea is frozen a meter thick and ice sheets stretch far beyond the eyes perception. Rising up everywhere across the vast desert of frozen sea are icebergs glistening blue in the beating midnight sun. During the winter, the community gets water by slicing off pieces of nearby icebergs and melting the ice into drinking water. Realizing that the water in my glass is pure glacier ice water taken from the iceberg 15 kilometers away brings a smile that fills my whole body. In the summer, once the icebergs have moved out into the greater ocean or slowly melted away, the Inuit gather water from a running stream that flows from the glacier head.
The small community has one market with everything from food to knitting needles to couches and refrigerators. There is a meat market open during the week where you can buy freshly caught fish and meat that the local hunters recently caught. Twice a year, in June and August, a ship comes into harbor and offloads everything this remote region will have for the year to follow. When flying goods in is financially unattainable, they plan for a year at a time and build their life with what comes in on the shipment. Due to this, Qaanaaq and its two nearby settlements maintain much of the traditional hunting culture. Snowmobiles are outlawed as the community insists on using dog sleds to preserve the Inuit past way of life. Seal, narwhal, fin whale, halibut, arctic cod, and polar bear are actively hunted in order to sustain life for the inhabitants of this small community. Each district has limits in place for a maximum number of mammals that can be hunted per year. Qaanaaq has already killed five of their allotted eight polar bears. He who successfully shots the polar bear is entitled to the hide and fur.
Named ice bears in Greenland, Qaanaaq has seen ten ice bear visitors over the past two months wandering through the icebergs just outside of town. When you are in the land of the ice bear where they roam freely to fill their empty stomachs, you quickly realize that you are no longer at the top of the food chain as there is nothing to protect you from natures wild inhabitants. A Qaanaaq native and hotel owner Hans Jensen heavily instructed us to not walk the ice without a rifle, “you never know when the weather will change and if you get stuck on the ice in a storm, there are real threats to your life.” When out upon the frozen sea, you are aware that you are on a living surface. As the tide moves in and out, the icebergs rise and fall creating cracks in the frozen sea that run several meters deep. Hearing the icebergs creek and pop as you peer down imagining the sea below your feet ignites an initial feeling of fear but results in the reassurance that the 1.5 meter thick ice will not break under your toes. The simplicity of this landscape envelops the spirit and lifts you to another place. Wandering through temples made of ice, their presence and power demand everything you think you have to give.