Since early 2015, I’ve been traveling to communities all over the Arctic with photographer Eric Guth. Our mission is to learn about the north from the people who live here. Across Iceland, Greenland, Nunavut, and Alaska, we ask the people we meet for recommendations about whom to meet next. Our job is to listen and to follow their lead, relying on chance encounters to guide our path.
Karl-Ole Kristensen, pictured above, grew up with towers of ice floating past his living room window in Ilulissat, Greenland. “Everything has changed in the last 30 years,” he says. Those changes differ from place to place, but they affect northerners everywhere.
Eight nations circle the Arctic Ocean, infusing it with stories and expertise. A bond with the land is a theme of Arctic life, though Iceland—a verdant dot in the middle of the Gulf Stream—is a far cry from Nunavut, Canada, where sea ice is the main highway for many people.
The human journey plays out one person at at time. By following recommendations, wherever they lead, our path takes us into the unexpected, where ideas about ice, wilderness, and polar bears are challenged by stories of creativity, industry, and individuality.
The main street of Nome, Alaska, is dead quiet until a siren sounds, calling us out to the road. Two emcees wearing heavy parkas begin to hype the crowd near the final bend of the Iditarod’s 1000-mile trail. Mushers will appear any minute now—fresh off the sea ice, exhausted.
This famous dog race is legendary in Alaska, but there are other, lesser-known stories of passion and commitment all across the region. Herders, whalers, hockey players, and even ninjas live here in the north.
This island nation of 350,000 people welcomed more than 1.5 million tourists in 2016. Glaciers, volcanoes, and thermal pools top the list of attractions, but life in the countryside is a whole different story.
We visit Minni-Mástunga—Finnbogi Jóhannsson’s farm—to learn about the annual sheep round-up and to spend the day with his family as they drive their sheep home from the highlands. We ride horses across the field and hear the clopping of their hooves, the sheep bleating, and a drizzle that mutes everything else.
Finnbogi’s youngest son, Jon, keeps the farm going, but he needs a second job as a fisherman to support himself. Still, he says, “Farming is the most nourishing thing I’ve ever done. It’s about working really hard and seeing how everything blossoms from that.”
For Olga Andreasen, Finnbogi’s wife, the sheep round-up is like Iceland’s second Christmas. Each of her six children are home today, and so are her grandkids. It’s lamb for dinner, along with homegrown potatoes, stewed cabbage, and the creamiest gravy. Even before dinner, she serves three homemade desserts, cheese, butter, and hot cocoa.
Olga grew up playing among lava stones and bringing waffles to the hidden people that many Icelanders believe live here. This land is home, but after raising children, co-managing the farm, and making over 300 quilts in her spare time, it’s still full of mystery to her.
This family drives their sheep the traditional way using Icelandic horses, which are hard to tell apart when more than 200 are parked in a field. Gummi, the farmer’s son, needs his dad’s help to find the right animals.
Sheep round-ups, called rettirs, happen across Iceland in September, but this site is the oldest in the country. Locals come on horseback to sort their own sheep from the 3,000 that are driven back from the summer grazing areas. That number used to be over 10,000, but despite the decline, it’s still a festive day that starts with hard work and ends with the warmth of food and family.
How will Iceland’s tourism boom in recent years affect traditions like the rettir? Will culture be as valued as waterfalls and volcanoes?
Icelanders have been telling their stories for centuries, since the days of Iceland’s colonization. The earliest written fragments date from the 12th century. These early stories, called the sagas, are still read today, but only time will tell which of today’s characters will be known by future generations.
Olga isn’t too worried. “It’s a hard land,” she says, “Everything is so strong.”
People have always lived along the coast here, where a green fringe separates the inland ice cap from the frigid sea, but living from the land looks different than it used to.
Students at the School of National Clothing Education in Sisimiut get sealskins from local hunters and prepare them by hand. The women sit in a circle to strip a skin of its fur, laughing together as they work inward. They are reviving the art of Greenlandic national dress, which requires a complex combination of techniques such as crochet, embroidery, beadwork, sealskin tanning, and dyeing. One complete outfit for both a man and a woman takes each student a year and a half to make.
“Not many guys are interested in this much work,” student Vera Larsen tells me, “We had one, but he didn’t make it.”
“People forgot about the culture of the dogs,” says Sorine Petersen. She agrees that sea ice loss is one reason for this, but there are others. By law, dogs must be chained outside of town, and some hunters don’t have the resources to look after them. Hauling seal meat to 20 dogs stationed a mile away is hard work, especially if you don’t drive or have money for a taxi.
On an island near Aasiaat, Sorine has permission to let her dogs run free. She hopes tourists will want to see them, which can raise money for the dogs, their owners, and their care.
In 2016, Greenland ran its first Adventure Guides course specifically for locals. Aside from biology, geology, and camping skills, the program focuses on the cultural landscape and how Inuit use nature. “When you come here, you see Danish and foreign guides,” their instructor tells me, “Greenlanders can give a more authentic and unique experience. They can tell you what their family would do in a certain situation, plus they are so much fun to be around.” There are new ways to turn life on the land into a living.
Canada’s largest territory covers about 750 thousand square miles, but is home to only 36,000 people. At the northern tip of Baffin Island, at 72 degrees north, ice is a way of life for most of the year.
April is a great month to get out on the ice—the days get longer and the weather warms to -4 degrees Fahrenheit.
The iceberg in front of Pond Inlet, an Inuit community of some 1,600 people, is a favorite place to gather ice for iceberg water, which makes the best tea. A few stabs of a pocket knife and the ice explodes into crystal shards, perfect to take home. The water is so prized that when people have to leave the community—sometimes for medical reasons—family members will them send pieces of ice packed in little coolers.
This is still a hunting community, but it’s also a hockey town. People play at the indoor arena or on the street. It’s 10 p.m. and boys are playing hard. Their feet scuff the road as they call out their shots—it’s a soundscape almost universal across Canada.
Pond Inlet’s local hockey team must travel at least 24 hours by snowmobile to find an opponent. They pack sleds full of skates, jerseys, and sticks along with tents, rifles, ammunition, and extra gas. They can’t schedule an exact game time because they can’t know how long the journey will take.
The sled dogs call to each other and their breaths rise against the sun. A few families keep dogs here, but most families use snowmobiles to get around. On Easter weekend, only two teams compete in a dog sled race. Half a dozen of us cheer them on from the start line, but it’s not a good spectator sport. They are lost between the ridges of sea ice within minutes and they don’t come back for several hours.
The Arctic reminds me that culture is both fluid and personal. It’s not a matter of debating tradition versus modernity, but rather respecting people’s choices about their lives.
Andrew Arreak conducts his research out on the sea ice. We stop for a smoke and a snack, and he checks the equipment on his wooden qamutik which carries remote sensing gear to measure sea ice thickness. Andrew’s expertise makes this science possible and locally relevant, and researchers like him are creating more projects that matter to locals. “I will be here all year round,” he says, “Instead of a researcher coming up for a couple of months and flying back home.”
Often people talk about “living in two worlds,” trying to balance traditional and modern lifestyles. Nurturing both can be difficult, but the combination is powerful.
Separated from the rest of the country, this place is like a nation unto itself. America’s Arctic has its own culture, and Alaskans are as diverse as the landscape they live in.
The jungle gym is made of driftwood from the beach and discards from the dump. This is Nick Hanson’s turf, the Eskimo Ninja from Unalakleet, Alaska—population, 700.
Nick launches himself all over this course. He’s the only Alaskan native athlete on American Ninja Warrior, a popular obstacle course racing show.
When he competes, Nick feels right at home under the Las Vegas bright lights. “This is a lot like the culture I am used to,” he says, referring to his Inupiaq heritage. “Guiding each other, making each other stronger, getting our personal bests—it’s the exact same vibe.”
There are a few names that will endure forever in Iditarod lore, including Herbert Nayokpuk, called the Shishmaref Cannonball. Elizabeth had been Herbert’s wife and is a dog lover herself. The house is festooned with memorabilia: trophies, medals, his goggles, photos with famous Americans he met. The man ran the Iditarod 11 times, always breaking trail for the other teams. There even is a Herbert Nayokpuk Award now. To win it, you have to act like Herbert, Elizabeth says, “Treat people nice and look after your dogs.”
From athletes to elders to fishermen, the Arctic is culturally diverse, and everyone has a story.
“I believe that every adult has the responsibility to feed, clothe, and house themselves. That’s their own job,” says Phil Pryzmont. He’s a Highliner, which means he catches a lot of fish. He can also build or fix anything, including the traps needed to catch king crab under the ice. “You want to make them as cheap as you can, because you know you’re gonna lose them.” The ice will claim them eventually. This is the only under ice commercial crab fishery in the world, and locals like Phil use simple tools to catch their prize.
This article was first published on National Geographic in December 2017.