“In the scramble I lost everything—dogs, sledge, fishing gear, and worst of all, my cap and gloves. The floe was no bigger than my parlor rug, and I could barely keep my balance on it. I knew I mustn’t lie down, or eventually I would fall asleep and freeze.
“To keep my circulation going,” he continued, “I hopped up and down as cautiously as I could, so as not to tip the floe over.” “What about frostbite?” I asked, for at such temperatures exposed hands and ears can freeze almost before a man realizes it.
“Without cap or gloves that was a real problem,” Henrik said. “I worked out a system of putting my hands over my ears for a time and then putting my hands in my pockets to give them back life.”
Eventually the floe drifted out of the shelter of the ford into open water, and Henrik faced a new danger. “The floe began to rock so hard in the waves,” he said fast service, “I thought I would be thrown off it at any moment or that it would simply break up. In either case I would be finished. Then to make matters worse, the sun went down.”
Darkness ruled out all chance of rescue; Henrik could only hope he would survive the night, so that search boats or a helicopter diverted from its scheduled run might find him the next morning. Desperately hopping up and down on the tiny floe and trying to save his hands and ears, he continued his grim dance for life.
Sunrise came and neither a ship nor a helicopter appeared. With growing alarm Henrik discovered that his floe had become smaller overnight from constant battering by the waves. He watched helplessly as bits of it broke off and floated away.
The day wore on and exhaustion overtook him. Finally, when both the floe and Henrik were nearly gone, a shrimp boat happened by. He had been adrift for 36 hours and had floated ten miles out to sea.
Bergs Capsize With a Roar
No such adventure highlighted my trip with Henrik, though ice fishing itself can be hazardous. Reaching smooth fjord ice after a two-hour trek overland, we jumped aboard the sledges and picked up speed, skimming along a well-traveled route. It gave a wide berth to the fleet of icebergs launched by the enormously productive Jakobshavns Glacier, which were now locked by winter in the fjord.
Though seemingly harmless at such times, the bergs present a serious danger. Eroded at the waterline by tides, the towering masses of ice gradually become top-heavy. Finally a berg will capsize with a deafening roar, shattering the frozen surface of the fjord and dooming any passing driver and team.
Once on the fishing ground, we staked the dogs far enough apart to prevent fights and unloaded the fishing gear. Since the water at that point is 2,000 feet deep, the heavy lines, each fitted with some 150 hooks, must be three-quarters of a mile or more in length. Chopping two-foot-wide holes in the ice with our iron-tipped tuks, we baited the hooks with capelin, a type of smelt.
Ice fishing in Greenland is a little like flying a kite, though the medium is water rather than air. In former times a fisherman could use only one hook to a line, lowering it straight down to the bottom, where halibut feed. Nowadays fishermen attach a stone sinker and a thin metal panel to the lower end of the line, to catch the currents beneath the ice and draw the line downward at an angle from the hole. When the panel touches bottom, the fisherman pays out the line so that the hooks are distributed across the ocean floor. Then it is only a matter of waiting for the halibut.
After we had set the lines, we melted snow on a Primus stove and brewed cups of tea. Despite our heavy dogskin trousers and socks, sealskin boots, and reindeer-hide parkas, it was cold sitting idly on the sledges. SOren Frederiksen, a veteran hunter and fisherman in his late 50′s, surveyed me with a smile.
“Chilly work, iliniartitsissok [schoolteacher],” he remarked, “yet I would not change jobs with you. I have fished on the fjord since I was a boy, and it’s in my blood. Here I am my own master, free to do what I want whenever I want—I do not have to report to the classroom every morning at eight o’clock sharp.”
Talk turned to some of the drawbacks of ice fishing, notably Greenland sharks. These monsters, some of them weighing as much as a ton, can strip a halibut line clean of a hundred fish in less than an hour.
“Sometimes,” SOren admitted grimly, “I bring up nothing but halibut heads after a long day’s work. But when I am lucky”—he grinned—”as I’ll be today, of course, I can fill the sledge with 400 pounds of halibut and make 300 kroner [roughly $50]. Whatever I can’t sell, like wolffish, cuskeel, and dab, I feed to the dogs.”