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White Eskimo

Knud Rasmussen's Fearless Journey into the Heart of the Arctic




IN THE WINTER of 1921, Knud Rasmussen invited about one hundred of Copenhagen's eminent citizens-politicians, artists, journalists and business leaders-to join him at the city's prestigious Palace Hotel for a special dinner. It was an honor to receive a personal invitation from Rasmussen, a national hero known for his Arctic expeditions and his books about the lives, myths and legends of the Inuit people. His guests arrived in formal attire for the event, and the entertaining speeches, good conversation and fi ne food made for a superbly successful evening. Once the meal was finished, Rasmussen stood up and clinked his glass for attention.

"Now I hope that everyone is well fed, that everyone is happy, and that everyone feels good!" he declared. "Since you've all eaten and drunk well, would you all be able to swear to just such a fact?" Once there was a general murmur of agreement, Rasmussen continued: "Well, there's only one question left . . . who will pay?" The room fell silent. After the shock had subsided, people began fumbling for their wallets, aware of the presence of the other dignitaries and concerned for their reputations. None wished to appear mean or stingy. "Now that we have wallets at the ready," Rasmussen announced, "Peter [Freuchen] and I have some plans for an expedition that we would have funded."

RASMUSSEN WAS A living legend in an era when polar exploration was the height of fashion and public interest-the era when Roald Amundsen, Ernest Shackleton, Robert Falcon Scott, Robert Peary, Richard Byrd, Vilhjalmur Stefansson and Fridtjof Nansen made headlines, and when dangerous journeys to the remote regions of the planet were part sporting event and part scientific expedition, draped in a cloak of nationalism. But, unique among these adventurers, Rasmussen was as much an explorer of people as of place. During nearly three decades of travel by dogsled throughout the polar world, he visited every Inuit tribe then known to exist. In addition to writing the books describing his own journeys, Rasmussen published dozens of anthologies of Greenlandic and Inuit songs, stories, folk tales, legends and poems-mythology and philosophy-painstakingly collected and translated into Danish and English. These were a priceless contribution to world culture that would otherwise have disappeared.

Rasmussen was enormously popular among the Greenlanders and Inuit, of course, as well as in Denmark and Europe. But he was also a celebrated public figure throughout North America. His books were best-sellers, crowds flocked to his public talks, and his opinions were sought on Arctic matters. His charismatic and forceful personality drew both people and institutions into his orbit, and he collected a diverse entourage when he traveled and appeared in public.

Although Rasmussen never completed his studies at the University of Copenhagen, where he took an interest in theater and journalism, his life's accomplishments were so outstanding that he was awarded honorary doctorates by the University of Copenhagen and the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, along with an armful of other medals, awards, honorary memberships and decorations from countries around the world, including Great Britain, France, Norway, Sweden, Italy, and the United States. The American Geographical Society granted him an honorary fellowship and awarded him its prestigious Daly Medal. The Royal Geographical Society of Great Britain awarded him its gold Founder's Medal. The Canadian government hired him as a consultant on matters relating to the Arctic and its indigenous peoples. In Greenland, he helped the local people establish their Council of Hunters to regulate animal conservation, crime and other issues.

Such was Rasmussen's international stature that his speech at the International Court of Justice in The Hague in 1932 helped secure Greenland for Denmark rather than Norway. Rasmussen enjoyed the institutional respectability that his contemporaries, such as Roald Amundsen, longed for but never achieved. He was even a pioneer in the new world of motion pictures. His first and only fi lm, The Wedding of Palo, was hailed in the New York Times upon its posthumous premiere as "a labor of love . . . like a tone poem by Sibelius or a nocturne by Grieg. There is much more than the cold, bleak desolations of the North in this film."

Yet somehow Rasmussen was also a bohemian. While honored by academia, he was simultaneously admired for his unconventional views and devil-be-damned courting of danger and adventure. He was as comfortable in bearskin pants on a featureless wind-lashed plain as he was in a formal suit and bow tie attending the opera. He loved hunting walrus but was equally enthusiastic about poetry and the theater. He was born and raised in Greenland, and his playmates as a child were the local Inuit boys. Fluent in Kalaallisut (the Greenland dialect of the Inuit language) and Danish, he was accepted among traditional hunters and shamans in the Arctic as well as among artists, scientists and politicians in Denmark. He was content to inhabit these disparate and seemingly incompatible worlds. "Nobody did really know Knud Rasmussen if they had only seen him in a civilized country," claimed the anthropologist Kaj Birket-Smith. "He ought to be seen among Eskimos."

Part Inuit on his mother's side and with a Danish father, Rasmussen could shoot a gun and harness a team of sled dogs by the time he was eight. Tireless and patient, he would earn the trust of northerners over days, weeks and months of shared experiences-daily living, hunting, building houses, dogsledding and exploring-before slowly turning to his quest, the collection of stories, poems and religious beliefs. "No matter whether it was Greenlanders or Eskimos in Canada and Alaska, he came to them as one of themselves," wrote Birket-Smith. "They unfolded their soul to the greatness and warmth of his being, and in return he received their simple tales of life and its struggles with the mysterious powers, their wild legends and fi ne poetry, with the open and understanding mind that can only be explained in one way: in his heart they touched strings that vibrated in harmony with them." Birket-Smith also wrote that Rasmussen "knew everyone up there, and was king, friend, and comrade at once. The people loved him; one who has arrived at Thule in the company of Knud Rasmussen will never forget the jubilation and devotion that greeted him."

Shaggy-haired and handsome, with the exotic looks of his Inuit ancestry, Rasmussen was always eager for a celebration, whether to sing, dance or tell stories. His eyes were crinkled from frequent smiles and laughter. He loved music, having at one time briefly pursued a career as an opera singer. On many of his polar journeys he brought a portable phonograph strapped to his dogsled. To enliven the dark polar nights, he astonished his nomadic hosts with the strains of Mozart or such favorites as "Alexander's Ragtime Band." Rasmussen hunted with the men, flattered and danced with the women, and feasted with them all. Women both in Ultima Thule, in the farthest reaches of Arctic Greenland, and in sophisticated Denmark vied for his attention. His Danish wife was the talented pianist Dagmar Andersen, with whom he had two daughters and a son, yet he also had Inuit mistresses during the many years he spent living in the Arctic, an arrangement that caused some friction with Dagmar. His editor and co-writer, Tom Kristensen, recalled that when they worked together on the manuscript for Across Arctic America, ensconced in a remote farm in the Danish countryside, they were frequently interrupted by groupies and female fans. "I could not keep the girls away, they fell like manna in the desert of Knud's masculine charm. When I kept guard at one door, they slipped in through the other." Inuit seamstresses would compete to make him footwear as gifts, and "his manner of taking them was so gracious that the ladies were never more proud than when they saw him wearing a pair of their boots." Freuchen jokingly called Rasmussen the Elsa Maxwell of the Arctic, after the famous American hostess and gossip columnist.

Although barely five feet five inches tall, Rasmussen dominated a room with his charm and presence. His enthusiasm was infectious and his social intelligence and intuition guided him seemingly unerringly, whether in a lecture hall in Copenhagen or a snow house in the Arctic. Rasmussen had many followers but few close friends, although he was generally admired by his fellow explorers. Many of his comrades attest to his unparalleled ability to subdue others, to get them to do his bidding by bringing them into his world, making them believe that his dream was their dream. Although domineering and occasionally manipulative, he inspired loyalty. One travel companion, Therkel Mathiassen, recounted that "His energy and enthusiasm for the business at hand communicated themselves to the whole expedition, with the result that the work went on brightly and briskly, no matter how tough it was. Personal squabbles and pettishness melted away in his presence; he had an astonishing gift for knocking different kinds of people into one whole with a single purpose: the success of the expedition . . . one little word of acknowledgment from him was thanks enough for all the toil and moil." Rasmussen also routinely acknowledged the contributions of others, no matter how minor their contribution. When he completed his epic three-year, 20,000-mile dogsled expedition through the Northwest Passage, he even remarked: "I am overwhelmed by a warm feeling of gratitude to all our patient and uncomplaining dogs."

Rasmussen claimed to be happiest when enduring the hardships of polar travel, when he was "hungry and shrunk from lack of meat, [and] we espied distant settlements with the smell of unknown people." The prospect of hazardous travel and hardship was more appealing to him than enduring boredom and inactivity. He and his small team of explorers repeatedly dogsledded through boulder-strewn chasms bounded by rock cliff s, across featureless expanses of pebbly, snow-dusted plains and along rocky jagged coastlines. Plagued by ferocious storms, they traversed ice fields broken by deadly crevasses, waded freezing streams and clambered down ice walls. Only two people ever died on the trail with Rasmussen-a remarkable feat, considering that his expeditions went into unknown and uncharted terrain, that they had only a vague understanding of the dangerous geography they would be traversing, and that they lived off the land, hunting for the majority of their food. Even Roald Amundsen, renowned for his caution and survival record, lost three men during his expeditions, whereas Robert Falcon Scott and four of his men died returning from the South Pole. Rasmussen maintained a jovial demeanor in the face of starvation and suffering. "When one has decided on the hazards of a journey," he pronounced, "one must take everything that occurs like a man-that is, with a broad grin."

Rasmussen was a superb writer, chronicling his adventures and the people he met with lyrical aplomb. His stories don't convey the reality of a dirty, tiring and frustrating slog-as surely much of the time on the trail must have been-but instead conjure a dreamlike bubble in which daily life mimics a tale from ancient mythology. It was "a beautiful and exciting time," he wrote of the departure on one of his expeditions, "with races from morning till night. One sledge after another shoots across the ice like a swift bird flying out into the darkness . . . and ahead beckon the skull capped peaks and slit glacier tongues." Another time, he marveled at the strangeness of eating canned pineapple in the Arctic: "Here on the skull of the world, we eat a tin of Mauna Loa pineapple, the only one we possess, tinned at Hawaii . . . And as we see before us the dark-eyed, garlanded girls who picked the fruits, it is as if we cut through all horizons and conquer the world . . . So we cook musk ox meat from Nares Land, drink coffee from Java, after the tea from the Congo, and smoke tobacco from Brazil!" On the return journey from one of his forays over the massive Greenland Ice Cap, Rasmussen urged his starving team on with descriptions of food read aloud at night from a housekeeping magazine he had brought along for that specific purpose.

While they huddled in their huts, gnawing on bands of tough walrus hide that had once been their sled runners, sipping weak tea and trying to ignore their empty stomachs, Rasmussen would proclaim to his companions, "Scrambled eggs and bacon! That's what we're dining on tonight." Peter Freuchen, his fellow explorer on many expeditions, returned with, "Right you are! With pancakes!" Rarely did he lose his sense of humor. We "try to stimulate each other by poking fun at the miserable appearance many of us present," Rasmussen wrote. "There is nothing for it but sucking nourishment from one's humour during these days." An endearing humanity prevented Rasmussen from becoming overly heroic and mythologized. He brought scissors to trim his hair even on the longest polar expeditions and washed his face every day with freezing water, even at great discomfort. Although he mostly avoided smoking in Denmark, on expeditions he was, according to Freuchen, "tremendously addicted." He was always losing his pipe and running short of tobacco, which would make him grumpy and irritable. "Every time we would leave our home I would ask, 'Have you got enough tobacco along?' and he always answered that he did, and he always would run out." Freuchen learned to bring along extra tobacco and to keep it hidden for a couple of evenings of "complaining and grumbling" before producing it to "great joy."

On one journey, Rasmussen developed sciatica in his left leg. The usually tireless leader, capable of herculean feats of endurance, could no longer walk. Reduced to lying on a dogsled, he suffered excruciating pain as the sledge thumped over the ice-hummocked terrain, so he chomped on a dirty piece of seal hide to stop himself from crying out. When the sledge rolled over one particularly uneven patch of snow, he slipped off to the ground and nearly fainted. Eyes closed and face white with pain, he muttered, "This is unpleasant." He soon recovered, however, and bounded alongside the sled dogs with his usual energy.

On another occasion reported by Freuchen, Rasmussen was out in his kayak hunting walrus, one of his favorite pastimes. He thrust his harpoon into the body of one rising beast, but as it dove, the tether became entangled around his arm and dragged him from his kayak into the frigid water. His companions, stunned and helpless, scanned the water's surface until Rasmussen burst up a distance away gasping for breath before being pulled beneath the surface again. When he finally emerged spluttering from the water, he claimed that he had merely hung onto the flotation bladder to tire the desperate animal and that he was in no danger.

Freuchen said, "You'd better go home for a change of clothes."

Rasmussen eyed him. "Don't you see this is our chance for a big killing?"

A little later Freuchen asked his wet and rapidly freezing friend if he didn't want his clothes wrung out.

"Why?" Knud asked.

"Because you're wet as hell!" Freuchen replied.

"By God. I forgot that!" Rasmussen said.

Peter Freuchen wrote in a biography of his friend: "The life of one's youth is rich, and it provides experiences and impressions; and in my youth I lived in the same house as Knud Rasmussen, I went on sled journeys with him, and I sat next to him in kayaks. Together we fought ice and current . . . For many years I travelled around in these regions with [him] and I knew him as did no one else. Nothing draws men closer than to hunger together, to see death in each other's eyes. Lying together in snow huts during snowstorms of many days' duration, waiting for better weather, and seeking to drown out hunger by each telling the other everything he knows-then you pour out your life, and old memories emerge in your mind."

As close to Knud Rasmussen as anyone could ever be, Freuchen may have understood what drove his friend, the childhood dream that made Rasmussen risk danger, ice and death. "Even before I knew what travelling meant," Rasmussen wrote, "I determined that one day I would go and find these people, whom my fancy pictured different from all others. I must go and see 'the New People' as the old story-teller called them."