Polar safari

polar_safari_mainSimon Barr heads to Greenland, the least densely populated country on earth, for a once-in-a-lifetime hunting trip with the Inuit.

PHOTOGRAPHY: TWEED MEDIA

From a young age, I have been fascinated by cultures in which traditional forms of hunting are still part of everyday life. Today, as an avid and reasonably well-travelled hunter, I have been lucky enough to hunt with people from some of these ancient cultures and observe the skills and methods they employ first-hand. Last year, I decided to fulfill an ambition to hunt with the native Inuit inside the Arctic Circle. I have long been fascinated by how they go about harvesting nature's bounty in the brutal sub-zero temperatures, and wondered if I would be able to cope with such extremes.

Since Greenland was colonised by humans some 5,000 years ago, the diet of its people has been mostly made up of animal protein. The unforgiving landscape is simply too harsh for edible plants to prosper. Today, the country has advanced somewhat. Supermarkets supplied twice a year by container ship offer frozen vegetables, cereals and bread. But the Inuit's taste for meat persists. 

Greenland is an autonomous country within the Kingdom of Denmark and is the world's biggest island, covering some 2.2 million square kilometres. Quite simply, it is a vast, bleak landscape of little more than ice, rock and snow. It is also the least densely populated country in the world and is home to just 60,000 people, with 89 per cent of the population made up of native Inuit, a people who until 50 years ago lived solely by subsistence hunting. Hunting is in their blood.

polar_safari_hutMy polar safari started in the western town of Kangerlussuaq, a settlement of 530 people – by Greenlandic standards, a large town. Situated on the outer edge of the Greenland ice cap, which covers 80 per cent of the country's territory and is the second largest body of ice in the world after Antarctica, Kangerlussuaq was an American air base founded in 1941. The base closed in 1992 when the threat of the Cold War subsided, but the surrounding area has always been home to many species of Greenland's endemic fauna.

The Inuit are highly skilled hunters. Their sustainable, no-waste culture encompasses caribou, polar bear, seal, walrus, king eider duck, ptarmigan, Arctic hare, Arctic fox and the mighty muskox. Every morsel of all harvested game is used in some way. In addition, they also hunt beluga and minke whale, as well as the tusked and peculiar looking narwhal, using a traditional method in which the beasts are hunted from small boats using harpoons attached to inflated sealskin bladders. 

My first intake of cold Greenlandic air was quite literally breathtaking. The insides of my nostrils froze and it became very apparent that my buffalo and kudu skin safari boots weren't going to withstand the -25˚C temperatures. A quick change into fleece-lined and insulated Sorels was needed.

After landing, I met my guide, Karsten Lings. Leaving the very basic airport, we drove past several charming timber houses with sealskins stretched across frames, drying in the moisture-free sub-zero breeze. Nestled on the edge of the spectacular Kangerlussuaq Fjord with far-reaching 360-degree views, our accommodation was basic but cosy – a simple cabin with a wood burner and no electricity. As my base for the next three nights, it would become a welcome respite after the physical and mental challenge of the hunting that was to come.

polar_safari_dogsMy first day's hunting started with a sunny view of the fjord and the wind-scoured mountains running alongside it, which reminded me a little of the Scottish West Coast in the depths of winter. After a breakfast of eggs and fish, I got onto the skidoo behind Jan Pedersen, one of Karsten's experienced guides. Our first expedition took us along the fjord in search of Arctic hare. Dog sleds were the most popular mode of transport until a few years ago when skidoos took over as a more effective means of getting around the barren landscape. 

Riding the skidoo over the frozen fjord was bracing! The wind-chill sapped my body temperature. The ice needs to be a minimum of 10cm thick to support the weight of our vehicle and violent storms known as piteraqs can blow off the ice cap without warning. I had to put my trust in Jan and put out of my mind the stories of people plummeting to their death through unseen fissures in the ice. But, before long, a greater concern arose as it became apparent that my high-tech man-made fibre clothing was no match for the extreme cold. A thick sealskin smock adorned with a hood trimmed by sled dog fur soon remedied the problem – proof enough that animals that evolved in this environment are better equipped to deal with the extremes than we are.

The good thing about the bitter cold is that animals tend to favour the edges of the fjord as these areas provide them with some respite from the wind. After glassing the mountainous edges, we spotted the first of our chosen quarry in a small gully, sitting in some wind-blown snow. The brilliant white of the Arctic hare is perfect camouflage against a pure white background. Stalking to within shotgun range involved traipsing carefully over the broken edges of the fjord – a delicate business. Because the ice shelf rises and lowers on each tide,  deep crevices and peaks are formed over time as the edge is crumpled upwards and then lowered again. After negotiating this obstacle course, we got into position to walk-up the hare between rock valleys and snowdrifts. When flushed, the hare bolted up the rock faces offering some spectacular sport with a shotgun and an excellent start to my trip. 

polar_safari_haireHaving taken two brace over a few hours, we secured the game to a sled which was towed behind the skidoo. Jan then suggested a few hours of traditional Inuit ice fishing with handlines and rubber lures. Cutting a deep hole into the hard-packed ice at the edge of the fjord with a sharp spear soon got the blood flowing to my extremities again! Beneath the ice, the fish were hungry – in no time at all, we had landed around 12 Arctic cod, a species which grows to 30cm and is the favourite food of narwhals and other Arctic whales. Our catch was destined for various purposes: some would be traditionally air-dried to snack on, some would be used for a fish stew and some would be left as bait for Arctic fox. 

My second day saw us back on the ice with Arctic fox and ptarmigan in our sights. The Arctic fox, also know as the white, polar or snow fox, is native to the Arctic regions and well adapted to living in cold environments. They have thick, deep fur, a good supply of body fat and a countercurrent heat exchange system in their paws which helps them to retain core body temperature. Averaging about 85cm in length, they prey on any small animals they can find including Greenland lemmings, and will also eat carrion, berries, seaweed – and  Arctic cod. The subject of much Arctic mythology, the fox is a source of both fur and meat and over the past few hundred years has provided considerable income for local communities.

polar_safari_ice_fishingAs we came into sight of our cod bait that we had left the day before, I saw a white flash as a fox headed for the safety of land, obviously disturbed by the noise of the motor. As the skidoo slithered to a standstill, I used the seat as a rest and lined-up on my first ever Arctic fox. I took a confident shot with the 6.5x55 at over 200m, using little holdover to compensate. The fox dropped instantly. Remarkably, another, this time with a brown coat, suddenly appeared from behind some ice at the edge of the fjord. A little further than the last, I cleanly dispatched this one, too. Foxes are wily adversaries and a brace on one hunt was something of a rarity. 

Despite the inhospitable landscape, Greenland is actually home to around 235 species of bird, the majority of which are migratory. Ptarmigan are Greenland's only galliform, but can be found in a variety of terrains. They are also a popular local delicacy and make for challenging shooting, their plumage changing from a well-camouflaged brown in the summer to completely white in the winter. The rest of the day was spent scouring the landscape for these stunning birds, before walking them up with a shotgun, making for some hard but rewarding sport. By the end of the day, I was well and truly bushed and never has a fish stew felt more well deserved. 

I woke up early on the third day and was instantly filled with excitement as we would be going on a traditional Inuit hunt for muskox, a creature that looks to me like a polar buffalo. Due to overcast conditions, there was a noticeable rise in the air temperature, making the long journey across the frozen fjord significantly less painful! Muskox are big, powerful and tough animals, so I had opted for an open-sighted .416 Rigby Big Game rifle paired with Hornady DGX (Dangerous Game Expanding) 400-grain ammo.

Known in Greenlandic as ‘umimmaq', meaning ‘the long-bearded one', the muskox is a tundra dweller more closely related to goat and sheep than true cattle. In 1958, 27 muskox were released nearby onto an open hunting district of some 6,600 square kilometres. Over a period of 40 years, the population is estimated to have grown to at least 7,000 head. And, with plentiful fodder available, the Kangerlussuaq muskox are 15 per cent heavier than those found elsewhere in Greenland, reaching weights of up to 400kg. Bulls are also likely to attack if they feel threatened, so must be treated with utmost respect. 

Karsten explained that the animals exist in big groups during the winter, but split up into smaller groups and individuals during the spring and as they enter the rut in August. The females live to around 25 years, while the males reach 15-18 years – both losing around 40 per cent of their body weight during the winter. Management is vital for the health of the herd and numbers today are stable thanks to hunting for their skin, incredibly well insulated fur, and meat, which is highly valued on the open market.

Little stirs in Greenland. When the skidoo finally stopped, the only sound I could hear was ice sizzling against the hot exhaust.  The vastness of the barren landscape is difficult to describe and, as I took in my surroundings, I was overwhelmed by the remoteness and stark beauty of it all. But it is a truly inhospitable environment and without the indispensable knowledge and advice of a local guide, most visitors would soon perish. As I was soon to discover, a bit of walking leads to sweating and overheating which, in turn, leads to chilling which can be seriously dangerous. Taking off a glove to adjust a camera or scope can result in aching fingers and near frostbite. Existing in such extreme cold draws hugely on the body's fuel reserves and requires careful and close attention. Hunting alongside Karsten and his team, and seeing how well adapted the Inuit are to such an extreme environment, left me with enormous respect for this ancient and fascinating people.

With the skidoo unloaded, we started our long hike into the tundra in search of these magnificent prehistoric-looking animals. Muskox are not the most challenging creatures to hunt but the conditions are brutal, making it a superb sporting challenge. There are no trees on the tundra, or indeed anywhere in Greenland, and the beasts usually have the high ground advantage, so planning a long downwind route using dead ground is the only way to outsmart them. If they see or smell you, they steadily walk off, taking you further from the relative safety of your skidoo. 

polar_safari_1After a dedicated upward climb and a final crawl, I came up on my animal that was stood feeding in a group of three around 100m away. This was as far as I was willing to shoot with express sights. I rose up and took the first shot freehand without the animals realising I was there. As there was no apparent reaction from the animal, I immediately took a second shot. The mature bull ran a matter of metres and toppled. The satisfaction was immense. By luck, we managed to get the skidoo fairly close to the animal so that we could haul it out and skin and butcher it closer to the safety of camp.

With the muskox skinned and efficiently butchered, it was nearly dark as I walked towards my cabin, the scent of hot food signalling the end of my final day in the Arctic. But I had one last task to perform before heading back to the UK. 

Under the light of a head torch, I set about skinning both Arctic foxes whilst reliving the unforgettable events of the past three days. It had been an incredible trip. But it wasn't over. As I peered up at what had been a dark and featureless sky only moments before, I was suddenly treated to a sight as spectacular as a Namibian sunset. Swirling across the vast northern sky, the vivid green hues of the Aurora Borealis of Northern Lights suddenly lifted like morning mist as I lost a sense of time. It was a moment I will certainly never forget. Hunting in Greenland in such unrelenting conditions is a unique and unforgettable adventure and one I would highly recommend. 

For more information on hunting in Greenland: www.jagd-groenland.de

 

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