In mid-February, after months of darkness, the sun returns to the Upernavik archipelago in the far north-west of Greenland. After spending the long polar night working in the archives of the Upernavik Museum, I am eager to leave the islands and experience life elsewhere in the Arctic.
In March, I will fly south into a clear spring sky. As the propeller plane descends towards Ilulissat, I see snow-capped hills and the glistening tongue of the Icefjord, a Unesco world heritage site. On my phone is the number of a friend’s cousin, a hunter who needs help building a website for his fledgling travel company. In return, it will give me a place to stay.
The taxi travels through the frozen hills to the historic center of Ilulissat, with its colorful wooden houses, and stops between the social housing blocks next to the fish factory. The concrete staircase is dotted with graffiti and plastic toys strewn across the balconies. Without checking the number, I know I have reached the correct door: a pair of antlers hang from the outer wall and underneath are a pile of bones.
The door is ajar. I can listen to TV. I gather my courage and call inside: “Hello! Aluu? “
Malik emerges from the gloom and leads me down a corridor that smells of wet skin. I’ve never seen so many photographs: faded images of confirmations and weddings are propped up on shelves, taped to the fridge. I try to reconstruct Malik’s immediate family from these portraits, but it is not necessary: soon his wife, Sarah, is coming home from her job as a hotel cleaner, and their two youngest children are coming from school. Malik’s uncle, who trained him to hunt as a child, shows up with a seal to cook for dinner.
Malik shows me my room and jokes that it is my “office in Greenland”. I would give a lot to be able to enjoy this high-altitude view over the icebergs in Disko Bay every day. But the room belongs to her teenage son, Niels, who is in Nunavut playing ice hockey at the Arctic Winter Games. The posters on the walls are not of Greenlandic athletes but of Manchester United players.
That night Malik, as the head of the family, bathes first and, as the guest of honor, they offer me water second. This frugality is natural in a region of scarce resources. I notice Sarah saves the coffee on the filter paper for the next day. She tells me that there is a word for this: kinguneqartarpoq, to make a second infusion with old coffee grounds. Malik is determined to pursue his vocation as a hunter, sustainably sourcing food from sea ice as his ancestors have for centuries, despite the difficulties that this entails. But life becomes more difficult as the nuanced knowledge of the environment instilled in him by his uncle becomes obsolete. Now the ice is too unpredictable to read and that makes it dangerous. One misstep while ice fishing can mean a fatal fall into icy water.
During a weeknight dinner, Malik casually mentions a friend who drowned a few weeks ago. Speak as if this is not unusual: it is a shocking insight into the human cost of ecological disaster. I wonder if he is indifferent to the subject, until a program about the Amazon rainforest begins to play on wide screen television. Malik gestures on the screen: “People should stop doing these things. Tree felling in Brazil. Dam construction. Flying. All. The ice melts away. Soon we won’t be able to live here anymore. “
He turns to look at me. “Promise me that you will tell everyone what is happening here.” My appetite fades. How could you explain that most people already know the consequences of their actions, but continue regardless? Malik’s serious words give me a sleepless night, as I wonder how to convey the message he has given me.
Malik’s confidence transforms me from a curious traveler to a witness. I am determined to pay for your hospitality with more than just web and HTML copy. He had lived among hunter families further north; He had taught his children in the small school on the island and had celebrated the winter festivities with a community in which I felt more and more at home. However, it was this encounter with an individual caught between two worlds, and the promise he obtained from me, that fueled my desire. spend the next decade writing about contemporary Arctic life.
The climate crisis has turned Malik into an entrepreneur. Creating a travel company is a way to regain the freedom that takes the step of traditional ways of life. On my last day, when I’m tired of my laptop screen, he proposes a dog sled ride. It’s a breathtaking race through the frozen landscape on a rickety sled, the fading / disappearing ice formations that it hopes to show tourists passing so fast that they disappear in a blur before my eyes. We return late, when the afternoon round begins: the hunters go out to feed their huskies, the blood is cleaned from the boats and the retreating glacier becomes one more iceberg towards the dark fjord.
• Fifty Words for Snow by Nancy Campbell is published by Elliott and Thompson, £ 12.99. To buy a copy online for £ 11.30, go to the guardian’s library
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism