Jun 072015
 

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Today is the birthday (1879) of Knud Johan Victor Rasmussen, a Danish polar explorer and anthropologist. He was the first European to cross the Northwest Passage via dog sled. He remains well known in Greenland, Denmark and among Canadian Inuit.

Rasussen was born in Ilulissat in Greenland, the son of a Danish missionary, Christian Rasmussen, and an Inuit- Danish mother, Lovise Rasmussen (née Fleischer). Rasmussen spent his early years in Greenland among the Kalaallit (Inuit) where he learned from an early age to speak the language (Kalaallisut), hunt, drive dog sleds and live in harsh Arctic conditions. “My playmates were native Greenlanders; from the earliest boyhood I played and worked with the hunters, so even the hardships of the most strenuous sledge-trips became pleasant routine for me.” He was later educated in Lynge in North Zealand. Between 1898 and 1900 he pursued an unsuccessful career as an actor and opera singer.

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He went on his first expedition in 1902–1904, known as The Danish Literary Expedition, with Jørgen Brønlund, Harald Moltke and Ludvig Mylius-Erichsen, to examine Inuit culture. After returning home he went on a lecture circuit and wrote The People of the Polar North (1908), a combination travel journal and scholarly account of Inuit folklore. In 1908, he married Dagmar Andersen.

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In 1910, Rasmussen and friend Peter Freuchen established the Thule Trading Station at Cape York (Uummannaq) in Greenland, as a trading base. The name Thule was chosen because that was the name ancient Greeks gave to the most northerly place in the world (supposedly north of Britain). Thule Trading Station became the home base for a series of seven expeditions, known as the Thule Expeditions, between 1912 and 1933.

The First Thule Expedition (1912, Rasmussen and Freuchen) aimed to test Robert Peary’s claim that a channel divided Peary Land from Greenland. They proved this was not the case in a remarkable 1,000-km journey across the inland ice that almost killed them. Clements Markham, president of the Royal Geographic Society, called the journey the “finest ever performed by dogs.” Freuchen wrote personal accounts of this journey (and others) in Vagrant Viking (1953) and I Sailed with Rasmussen (1958).

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The Second Thule Expedition (1916–1918) was larger with a team of seven men, which set out to map a little-known area of Greenland’s north coast. This journey was documented in Rasmussen’s account Greenland by the Polar Sea. The trip was beset with two fatalities, the only in Rasmussen’s career, namely Thorild Wulff and Hendrik Olsen. The Third Thule Expedition (1919) was depot-laying for Roald Amundsen’s polar expedition. The Fourth Thule Expedition (1919–1920) was in east Greenland where Rasmussen spent several months collecting ethnographic data near Angmagssalik.

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Rasmussen’s greatest achievement was the massive Fifth Thule Expedition (1921–1924) which was designed to “attack the great primary problem of the origin of the Eskimo race.” A ten volume account, The Fifth Thule Expedition 1921-1924 (1946), of ethnographic, archaeological and biological data that was collected is still of immense value to anthropologists. The team of seven first went to eastern Arctic Canada where they began collecting specimens, taking interviews and excavations. Rasmussen left the team and traveled for 16 months with two Inuit hunters by dog sled across North America to Nome, Alaska. He tried to continue to Russia but his visa was refused. He was the first European to cross the Northwest Passage via dog sled. His journey is recounted in Across Arctic America (1927), considered today a classic of polar expedition literature. This trip has also been called the “Great Sled Journey” and was dramatized in the Canadian film The Journals of Knud Rasmussen (2006).

For the next seven years Rasmussen traveled between Greenland and Denmark giving lectures and writing. In 1931, he went on the Sixth Thule Expedition, designed to consolidate Denmark’s claim on a portion of eastern Greenland that was contested by Norway.

The Seventh Thule Expedition (1933) was meant to continue the work of the sixth, but Rasmussen contracted pneumonia after an episode of food poisoning attributed to eating kiviaq, dying a few weeks later in Copenhagen at the age of 54.

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For me kiviaq sits in a class of polar/Scandinavian fermented marine animals I always feel I want less of. Kiviaq is a traditional wintertime Inuit food from Greenland that is made of auks preserved in the hollowed-out body of a seal. Around 500 auks are put into the seal skin intact, including beaks, feet and feathers, before as much air as possible is removed from the seal skin, which is then sewn up and sealed with grease, with a large rock placed on top to keep the air content low. Over the course of seven months, the birds ferment, and are then eaten during the Greenlandic winter, particularly on birthdays and weddings.

In August 2013 several people died in Siorapaluk from eating kiviaq that was made from eider (sea duck) rather than auk, which do not ferment as well (who knew?) and gave those that ate it botulism.

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Generally speaking I would not try this at home unless (a) you have 500 auks to hand, (b) a freshly killed seal, (c) miles of tundra, (d) lots of experience, and (e) a strong stomach. I’ve not had kiviaq, but have had more than enough fermented things to know that if I ever get offered it I should have an iron clad excuse to hand as to why I cannot accept. I suppose I sound like my Chinese friends who are revolted by cheese in general (“rotten milk”) and blue cheese in particular. Chacun à son goût, degustibus, etc etc.

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