Return to Greenland | #4

October 29, 2014

Return to Greenland | #4

After a turbulent boat ride on the foggy Arctic Ocean, the cottages of Tiniteqilaaq and a burning landfill site finally materialise before us. I don’t even have enough time to bring our luggage into the small hut – the children are already dashing about, yelling the names of their friends from last winter.

When they stand in front of each other a moment later, it’s difficult to say who looks more baffled. Then they embrace one another. What a joyous moment! It feels as if we only left Tinit a few weeks ago. Everything is as we left it – just without the snow. And when that melts, another side of Tiniteqilaaq is unfortunately revealed, which we can hardly avoid. Wherever we go, the ground beneath our feet crunches with shards of glass, cola cans, plastic bags, crisp packets – anything that’s no longer needed piles up in front of the houses as if there were no tomorrow.

Impossible to look away

This darker side of East Greenland becomes really clear to us when we see the state of the sledge dogs. Whilst they were at least on duty on our last winter trip, many of them are now vegetating in a pathetic way. As winter livestock, they’re simply no use to the hunters in the summer. The sledge dogs and their owners are also increasingly feeling the effects of climate change. Our friend Rasmus tells us that just ten years ago, he could go hunting on the ice with the dogs for five months. Now, it’s only three months, if he’s lucky. Then there are nine months where the hunters can’t provide their dogs with enough fresh meat. Paired with the existing social problems, this leads to the images which we’ve been confronted with, not only in Tiniteqilaaq, but also in the whole of East Greenland: many of the dogs don’t survive until the next winter. They die of thirst and starve tied up in their chains. Luckily, there are people like Marion Löcker from the Robin Hood Animal Welfare Society who tries to solve these problems with respect for the Inuit culture and their living conditions, whilst also helping young unemployed Greenlanders to get involved.

The language of the ice

Our cottage is right next to the fjord. From their mattresses, the children look out of the window and play “count the icebergs” until they fall asleep. Only the ear-splitting background noise which accompanies the calving of the glacier in the fjord keeps waking us up during the first night. It sounds as if a munitions dump is exploding on the edge of the ice sheet. Each day we are awestruck to see how icebergs implode and capsize, creating a wave which hunters in their boats and kayaks must shelter from. If you want to survive here, you have to understand the language of the ice – this is as true today as it was before the age of motorboats and mobile phones.


Paula, Mio, Hannah and Frieda are still petrified of the polar bears. We also don’t have any weapons on us, as Jens and Rasmus have taken them to the ice sheet. We therefore set up our day camp at the edge of the settlement, where small icebergs collect at low tide. Mio spends hours carving icebergs with stones and fishing. He has got it into his head that he will serve us a fish supper. And as a matter of fact, there’s suddenly a tug on the fishing line: “Mum, I’ve got a bite!” Mio reels the line in and a small fish, which looks rather like a dragon, is hanging from the hook. We know this kind of fish from ice fishing in the winter – the Greenlanders call them soup fish, as they add a flavour to the soup but there’s not much meat on these tiddlers. We free the fish from the fishing hook and he thanks me by nipping me hard on the finger. “We could have taken the soup dragon back to Germany with us”, suggests Mio, as it darts away.

Where whales and seals wish each other "goodnight"

We visit our favourite spot every day. We look at the ice sheet on the other side of the fjord from the sun-warmed rocks. Rafts of seals pop up in front of us and watch us curiously. Paula ventures onto the outer rocks to get as close to them as possible. And suddenly a huge, black mountain rises from the water: a humpback whale! Close enough to touch! He swims leisurely around in front of us, dives up and down and spurts plumes of water and spray into the air right in front of us. Completely undeterred by our presence, he splashes about between the icebergs, disappears for a while and then bobs up again in front of us. It’s clear to all five of us what a unique moment we have just witnessed. Frieda sums it up in her own words: “When Jens finds out, he’ll cry because he wasn’t here!”

J. & J. Steingässer

J. & J. Steingässer

“It doesn’t matter how, we just want to be in the great outdoors, experience adventure and meet people.”

Jens (photographer/journalist) and Jana (ethnologist/writer of children’s books) are passionate about hiking and canoeing. They travel the world with their four children, showing them what nature has to offer and the effects of climate change.

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