Nunatsiaq News
TAISSUMANI: Around the Arctic January 25, 2013 - 2:13 pm

Taissumani, Jan. 25

A Helicopter Rescue into Canadian Territory


Ulrik Lennert was a dear friend of mine. A Greenlander who rose to a position of power in the administration that was then known as the Royal Greenland Trade Department, Ulrik was also a historian and a writer, a collector of traditional Greenlandic art, and a family man.

I knew him in Qaanaaq in the 1970s, when the position that he had, called Handelchef in Danish, literally ran the show. He was in charge of the administration, the store, the post office and the police. And he took each role seriously. Above all he demonstrated common sense.

In the spring of 1977, a group of hunters from Qaanaaq and its neighbouring camps had crossed to Canada to hunt polar bear. The Ellesmere Island coast was their traditional bear-hunting ground, since long before far-off white men drew their lines on maps and determined that the Greenlandic Inuit shouldn’t go there any more. And so the Canadian authorities took a dim view of their incursions. 

The people of Grise Fiord didn’t care. They didn’t use the Ellesmere coast. It was far too difficult to traverse the deep snow of Makinson Inlet in the spring time.

Bear hunting was easier for them if they headed south across Jones Sound to Devon Island, or northwest to the Bjorne Peninsula. As long as the bears that the Greenlanders were taking did not affect the Grise Fiord quota, there would be no problem.

Occasionally the hunters would travel right down the Ellesmere coast and visit Grise Fiord itself. These were visits that the people in the tiny isolated community welcomed.

That particular spring, a number of hunters, led by the fearless Peter Peary, ran into trouble on the Canadian side. They became trapped in pressure ice in the vicinity of Pim Island. Ice conditions worsened and the Inuit could neither advance nor retreat. In those days hunters didn’t carry radios to call for help when they encountered difficulty. They waited it out, and sometimes didn’t survive.

By chance, a Canadian Twin Otter flew over the area. The pilot was alone, beginning the return leg to Resolute on a charter that had taken him somewhere farther up the coast. He spotted the desperate hunters, circled, and sought out a landing spot.

It doesn’t take much space for an empty Twin Otter on skis to put down, and he was able to land quite close to the hunters. He listened as they described their plight.

No, they didn’t want to be air-lifted out, for that would mean abandoning their dogs and equipment and the results of the hunt. They simply asked that the pilot advise the authorities in Greenland that they were alive, but stuck. Their concern was for their dogs, which needed food.

The natural thing for the pilot to do when he reached his base at Resolute would have been to inform the RCMP, and have them deal with the matter through official channels. That would probably have meant a police charter, the confiscation of polar bear skins, and a stern warning that the Greenlanders were not welcome to hunt on the Canadian coast.

But the pilot, too, was a man of common sense. He didn’t call the RCMP. Instead, he called the Danish Liaison Officer at Thule Air Base, and related the story to him. That man called my friend, Ulrik Lennert, in Qaanaaq.

Very soon thereafter a Greenlandair helicopter was despatched from the base to Qaanaaq. When it left Qaanaaq, it carried a large sling underneath, loaded with dog food as well as rations and fuel for the hunters.

Without advising Canadian authorities, the helicopter flew into Canadian territory and landed. The hunters were grateful for the fuel and supplies. This would allow them some time to work their way through the difficult ice conditions without abandoning any of their precious dogs.

Then, on instructions from Ulrik Lennert, the helicopter pilot asked them to load all their bear skins into the net. He would take them back to Qaanaaq, and entrust them to Ulrik. If the Canadian police should happen upon the Inuit before they were free from the ice, there would be no skins to confiscate.

If the chopper had gone mechanical in Canadian territory, there would have been a lot of explaining to do. But this unofficial and undocumented rescue mission into Canadian territory went off without a hitch.

The hunters eventually returned safely and claimed their bear-skins. The annual spring hunt had taken a little longer than usual, but it had been a success.

Taissumani recounts a specific event of historic interest. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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