Hunters of the Northern Ice

There is no better measure of genius than surviving in the Arctic with technology carved from ivory and bone


Photograph by Wade Davis
The moon rises over the western shore of Ellesmere Island, Vesle Fjord and Eureka Sound, 80 degrees north latitude.

When the Inuit first encountered Europeans, they believed their wooden ships with billowing sails were gods. The British believed the Inuit were savages. Both were wrong. The British failed to understand that there was no better measure of genius than the ability to survive in the Arctic environment with a technology that was limited to what you could carve from ivory and bone, antler and animal skins, soapstone, slate, and small bits of wood that drifted to shore as flotsam. The Inuit did not fear the cold; they took advantage of it. The runners of sleds were originally made from fish—three Arctic char laid in a row, wrapped in caribou hide and frozen. A knife could be made from human excrement. A moist skin left overnight became a shovel by dawn.

The Inuit are a people of the ice. As hunters they depend on it for their survival even as it inspires the essence of their character and culture. The writer Gretel Ehrlich, who lived eight years among the Polar Eskimo in Greenland, suggests that it is the nature of ice, the way it moves, recedes, dissolves, and reforms with the seasons, that gives such flexibility to the Inuit heart and spirit. “They have no illusions of permanence,” she explains. “There is no time for regret. Despair is a sin against the imagination. Their grocery store is out there on the land and this creates an emotional life that’s so much bigger than that of those who live in cities. They deal with death every day. To live they must kill the things they most love. Blood on ice is not a sign of death but an affirmation of life. Eating meat becomes a sacramental experience.”

Photograph by Wade Davis
Ipeelie Koonoo scans the sea for narwhal and belugas at Cape Crawford, Baffin Island. Every June, in one of nature’s most epic animal migrations, seventeen million marine mammals return to the Arctic. Admiralty Inlet, which clefts the northern shore of Baffin Island, remains icebound and the Inuit hunters travel along the floe edge, where the ice meets the sea, and listen as the breath of whales mingles with the wind.
Photograph by Wade Davis
A polar bear hunts on the sea ice six miles off the eastern shore of Baffin Island. In winter darkness the Inuit follow leads in the new ice to find the breathing holes of ringed seals. The slightest shift in weight will betray their presence so they squat in perfect stillness, all the while knowing full well that as they hunt they are being hunted. Polar bear tracks run away from every breathing hole. If a seal does not appear the hunter may roll over, mimicking a seal to try to attract a bear so that predator may become prey.
Photograph by Wade Davis
Just south of the town of Illulisat, Greenland, the Jakobshavn glacier reaches the head of a fjord that runs twenty-five miles to Disko Bay. The most productive glacier in the northern hemisphere, it moves as much as 120 feet a day, releasing into the sea 20 billion tonnes of ice every year. Eventually these icebergs reach the open ocean and the sea lanes of the northern Atlantic. Ice from the Jakobshavn was almost certainly responsible for the sinking of the Titanic.
Photograph by Wade Davis
A hunter from Qaanaaq in northwest Greenland uses a harpoon to chip a shallow tunnel in the sea ice in order to tether his sled dogs. In the Canadian Arctic machines displaced dogs as long ago as 1962 when the snowmobile was introduced. But the people of Qaanaaq recognized that the use of dogs and the transmission of the necessary knowledge about their use between generations was the fulcrum of their culture. They chose instead to ban snowmobiles, save for dire emergencies. Dogs bring security to the night, loosen the shackles of the cash economy, and make limitless the length of any journey, even as they hone the skills of hunters who must provide a constant supply of meat.
Photograph by Wade Davis
These young children represent the hopes and dreams of all Inuit men and women. They were born after the creation of Nunavut, a new territory the size of Western Europe under the administrative control of thirty thousand Inuit. The people have endured so much—epidemic disease, the humiliation and violence of the residential schools, the culture of poverty inherent in the welfare system and drug and alcohol exposure, leading to suicide rates six times that of southern Canada. Now, on the very eve of their emergence as a culture reborn politically, socially, and psychologically, they find themselves confronted by a force beyond their control. The ice is melting, and with it quite possibly a way of life.
Photograph by Wade Davis
An Inuk hunter from Igloolik camps a hundred miles out on the sea ice on a day that would see temperatures fall to minus 65 degrees Celsius. On the horizon, islands, ice and sky meld one into the other and the black sea is a distant mirage. But the Inuit seldom lose their way. In driving snowstorms they watch for patterns in the ice, small ridges of hard snow that are formed by the prevailing winds and reveal where they are. They study a map of the land reflected on the underside of low clouds. This hunter was out all night. He returned in the morning trailing the carcass of a polar bear on his sled.

Excerpted from Wade Davis: Photographs by Wade Davis © 2016. Published by Douglas & McIntyre. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

Wade Davis is an explorer-in-residence at the National Geography Society and the author of numerous books including Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest and The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World.

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