How Greenland’s Only Woman Explorer Boated 4,000Km. With Her Young Son.

Arctic
Pia Larsen. Photo: galyamorrell.com

By Galya Morrell

A nurse, a single Inuit mother, and a polar explorer, she redefined the meaning of exploration.

A single Inuit mother, Pia Larsen, a nurse in Nuuk, is Greenland’s lone contemporary female polar explorer. In a small open boat, equipped with a Yamaha 100hp outboard engine, she traveled 4,000km, through storms and drifting ice, from Nuuk to Siorapaluk, the world’s northernmost Inuit village, and back, with her young son onboard. On many other boating trips, when her son and daughter were very young, she covered distances almost as long, with both of them.

Had Pia lived in New York City, she would be hosting lectures, designing exploration clothing, perhaps nibbling on fried tarantula appetizers at Explorers Club dinners, and giving away painted-edge business cards with the title “Polar Explorer” on them.

But Pia is a Greenlander and does not own a business card. Nor does she have corporate sponsorship. She pays for her expeditions out of her own pocket by working long shifts at the psychiatric ward in the Nuuk hospital, a place that can be as brutal as the Arctic sea.

She goes about her life quietly, without fanfare, in the laconic Inuit hunter’s style, with a minimum of comfort and gadgets.

Today, when world maps are fully drawn, explorers of all races and walks of life face a difficult prospect: What is left for them?

But for Pia, the instinct to explore and the whole idea of exploration have a different meaning.

Why did she do it?

What made her go alone with young children into an unforgiving sea? “It was in my soul,” she says first. Pia is a very spiritual person, like most Greenlanders who still customarily talk to the wind and to the ravens before making a decision.

She adds that she also went north for two practical reasons: to carry on the spirit of her ancestors and to help her children get away from consumer civilization and experience a healthier, more natural life. Yes, even in Nuuk, Greenland, so far away from the metropolises of the south, that is an issue.

Greenland has long been a country of exploration, yet Pia’s ancestors were its first explorers. They ventured all the way from my native Siberia across what is now Alaska and Canada to Greenland’s Far North. In those days, exploration was not just for men. Inuit migrants traveled with their families. Women carried the young children in their hoods, and together, they all walked across treacherous drifting ice during the polar night in search of their promised land –- Greenland.

They were helped by shamans who knew how to fly under and above sea ice, who could see things hidden behind the horizon and could lead the people to their destination.

Pia travels the same way, relying mainly on herself, trying to understand the ways of her ancestors who could forecast the weather far in advance and navigate without maps or compass. From the beginning, she had her young kids by her side. They spent nights in the boat at sea or on the beach in a tent, unless they were lucky enough to be invited to sleep in a village. They caught their own food by hunting and fishing and often munched on more serious stuff like walrus or polar bear when locals called them for a treat.

Aputsiaq and Heidi on an early trip. Photo: Pia Larsen

Their travel season is short: from mid-July to the end of August, because sea ice comes early in Avanersuaq, as locals call Northwest Greenland, and because violent storms are common everywhere by September.

Pia’s launched her many trips from Nuuk, Greenland’s capital, a town of some 17,000. She started with smaller runs along the West coast. Then she headed south, on longer and longer excursions, rounding the southern tip of Greenland, sailing through Prince Christiansund around Cape Farewell to the East and touching all the settlements in southern Greenland — Aappilattoq, Narsarmiit, and Nanortalik, “the place of polar bears”.

Finally, in 2008, she felt comfortable enough to turn the nose of her boat north, toward treacherous Melville Bay, called Qimusseriarsuaq (the Great Dogsledding Place) in Kalaallisut, the West Greenlandic language. She longed to visit the Inughuit communities of Thule, home of the northernmost settlements in the world, whose whole population today numbers just 800 people. This uttermost land has been a magnet for her because her roots are there.

Pia’s grandmother Amaliannguaq was from Upernavik. When she was a young girl, Amaliannguaq met the great Danish-Greenlandic explorer Knud Rasmussen, along with Rasmussen’s friend and fellow explorer, Peter Freuchen. Amaliannguaq was the same age as Peter Freuchen’s daughter Pipaluk, and they were friends. And here comes a tragic family story.

“You see,” explains Pia, “Peter’s wife Navarana died in Upernavik, but since she had not been christened, my great-grandfather — who was Greenland’s first priest — refused to give her a church funeral. Peter was angry at my great-grandfather. I first heard this story as a child. So during my expedition, I picked flowers from Navarana’s grave and laid them in the sea at Thule, not far from Peter’s old house. And I said: ‘Love is great, but forgiveness is a victory.’”

Heading north to Thule

The ice cliffs of treacherous Melville Bay stretch unbroken for almost 300km from Kullorsuaq to Savissivik. Photo: World Atlas

Boating north was much harder, wilder, and more treacherous than elsewhere in Greenland. Her son Aputsiaq (the name means Snowflake) was only eight during Pia’s first expedition up north. He continued to join his mother when the trips became longer and harder, while Heidi, who was older, sometimes had to take a summer job in Nuuk.

At first, Pia went just to Kullorsuaq, the southern gateway to Melville Bay. “People there took our arrival quite solemnly,” she said. “They made a speech and gave us a polar bear skull, which was a big honor. Aputsiaq received a Greenlandic pendant.

Aputsiaq and Pia. Photo: Pia Larsen

“That same day, Aput [the short form of his name] and I went up a small mountain to look north. After seeing Qimusseriarsuaq for the first time in his life, my son took my hand and pointed to the horizon: ‘Thule is right over there!’ he said. Here, a dream awoke in him: to be baptized in Siorapaluk.

“Nature does not show any consideration just because you are a woman. On high seas, you have to concentrate completely and be one with the boat. And often you can’t predict the weather yourself, you need to talk to the locals, to the elders, who always have the right forecast.”

Savissivik marks the beginning of Avanersuaq, or Northwest Greenland, formerly known as Thule.

Pia grandest trip took place in the summer of 2014: from Nuuk north to Siorapaluk and back, 4,000km in all. As usual, Aputsiaq joined her. Although the distance from Nuuk to Siorapaluk is only 1,640km as the crow flies, everyone knows that it’s actually much farther, because you always have to zigzag around the icebergs and sea ice. You also have to detour frequently to visit your relatives in towns along the way. You may never have met them before, but tradition demands that you pay your respects.

The Devil’s Thumb, near Kullorsuaq, southern gateway to Melville Bay. Photo Galya Morrell

They reached Melville Bay in early August 2014. This was the fearful crux. Along that 273km stretch of ice cliffs between Kullorsuaq and Savissivik, there is no contact with the outside world and nowhere to land. One has to be lucky to make it through. Many whaling ships and many Greenland-born explorers in their much frailer craft foundered in those treacherous waters.

Icebergs in Melville Bay. Photo: Galya Morrell

“We entered Qimusseriarsuaq, Melville Bay, on August 3, 2014,” said Pia. “The weather was gray and foggy, and it was blowing a bit. Everything seemed big around us. The icebergs were huge, and I felt small and lonely among them. But the meeting with almighty Qimusseriarsuaq was overwhelming. I greeted him as you greet a person.

“Aput and I were quiet and did not say much. We knew that only the lucky ones can make it through, and till the end, you never know if you will be lucky.”

At first, her plan was to head for a small island to the west, where she could land. But Pia quickly saw that her little five-metre boat was too small for the conditions that far offshore. So she decided to continue sailing north as close to the ice cliffs as possible.

“Ice was everywhere,” she said. “We had never seen such big icebergs. We were quiet and tense. There was more ice there than we could ever have imagined.”

Thirteen hours outside Kullorsuaq, they found refuge amid humongous icebergs.

“There, it was completely quiet,” Pia said. “In this great silence, we could only hear icebergs talk and squeak. We ate walrus meat which friends in Kullorsuaq gave us and had some tea.”

As they were eating, they heard a roar on the other side of the iceberg. At first, they thought it might be a polar bear, but it was just a walrus.

After resting in their iceberg haven, they continued north. The wind dropped, the ice cleared, and suddenly they could see the inland ice –- the Greenland ice sheet — right in front of their eyes.

“We turned west, and the town of Savissivik was ahead of us. Suddenly, we found ourselves in a cloud of a thousand tiny dovekies, we call them appaliarsuit, and my son shot a few for the dinner. As we neared Savissivik, more and more dovekies appeared and we were excited to finally see Avanersuarmiut — the people of North Greenland.

“As we landed, we thanked Melville Bay for taking care of us and embracing us as his own. We sang and laughed in many different dialects, watching the sun. Fifteen hours of boating in dangerous ice and wind were behind us, but we still had a long way to Siorapaluk, the northernmost settlement of the world, where my son was to be baptized in the world’s northernmost church.”

Pia’s application for permission to refuel at Thule Air Base had been denied. [The U.S. Cold War relic is notoriously reluctant to accept visitors.] It meant that she had to have enough fuel to go from Savissivik all the way up to Qaanaaq. It’s only about 230 km, but the farther north you go, the more ice and the more detours.

On to Siorapaluk

That’s why Pia and Aputsiaq spent most of their time in Savissivik shuttling an extra 300 litres of fuel from the shore to their boat. But they had time for dinner with the legendary Qaarngaaq Nielsen, the great polar bear hunter and wise man of Avanersuaq.

The legendary hunter Qaarngaag Nielsen, second from left, and family. Photo: Galya Morrell

After days at sea, sitting at a table felt like an unattainable luxury. Qaarngaaq looked into Pia’s eyes and asked, “Woman, do you know where in the world you are?” She knew what he meant. And of course, she knew only a fraction of what Qaarngaaq knew about the dangerous waters of Thule.

Pia and Aputsiaq climbed the nearest mountain to see how much ice was there toward Innaanganeq (Cape York). They were enchanted with what they saw: icebergs as tall as skyscrapers and endless plates of ice toward the very horizon. Millions of dovekies were rushing in the sky above their heads. Before going back down, Aputsiaq built a little inukshuk as his ancestors had for millennia.

Pia and her son could hardly sleep that night and left early for Cape York, 38km from Savissivik. Cape York is a special place. From bedtime songs, kids in Greenland know that cannibals live here.

“I wished we could stop and reflect, but I was busy maneuvering the boat, concentrating on ice and waves. I was trying not to show my fear to my son.”

Past Cape York, ice conditions eased and Pia turned east, toward Uummanaq Mountain, the sacred place for ancient Inuit and the site of their forced relocation in 1953 when Thule Air Base was built.

And then, all of a sudden, they heard a call over the VHF radio: “Ajaaraq Ajaaraq Thule Air Base calling Ajaaraq.” Ajaraaq was Pia’s call sign. It was an old friend of theirs on the base who was watching them and calling to make sure they were all right.

As they approached the recently abandoned settlement of Moriusaq for a short rest, an iluliamineq, or small piece of iceberg, hit their engine and damaged it. Now they could only proceed very slowly. But they were lucky and reached Qaanaaq under the midnight sun.

There they were greeted by many people, including the descendants of explorers Robert Peary and Mathew Henson. Mamarut Henson, the great-great-grandson of Henson, offered to repair their engine but they managed to find a replacement in town from a young handsome man with piercing blue eyes. It was Aleqatsiaq Peary, the great-great-grandson of Robert Peary. Such is the living history of exploration in that part of Greenland.

The next day, happy and excited, with a new engine, they left for Siorapaluk, just 70km away. As they approached the shore, they could see people on the beach waving flags. Women were crying. They were touched by Aputsiaq’s love for their land, which he called “almighty”.

“They were strangers to us,” says Pia, “but they called us “a family”. Now, Aputsiaq’s baptism was close at hand.

In the morning they went up to the church, proudly wearing the national costumes given to them by their new family. They were sitting all together when the biggest dream of Aputsiaq’s childhood was finally fulfilled. On August 3, 2014, he was baptized as Aputsiaq Angitaaluk Hans Kristian Larsen.

Becoming an explorer

“Many women ask me: How do you become an explorer?” says Pia. “Most women think they can’t. There is no money and there is no time. I remember how it was for me. I lost my job, and then my house, my kids cried all the time and could not sleep at night.

“We lived in a tough neighborhood, in a women’s house, a lot of alcoholism, a lot of abuse. I felt very confused and helpless. I was thinking: They will never see my Greenland, they will never learn about their ancestors and they will always feel like victims, helpless victims of a moment in history. I kept telling them: ‘Mommy will finish her education and will buy a new home.’ I was repeating this like a mantra.

“In the meantime, I asked the hunters to teach my kids how to handle themselves in a boat. And they did. But soon I understood: It’s good, but not enough. It is my responsibility to show them the right way.

“I finally got the money for an apartment, but instead I bought a boat. It was the best thing I could give to my children. This is how their spiritual education began.

“I decided to raise my children the traditional Inuit way. Because all these perils –- from alcoholism to the epidemic of suicides — entered my country along with consumerism and loss of personal independence. And a new apartment was not a solution.

“I was lucky enough early in life to earn an international certificate for Navigation and Motor Operation at a maritime school in Denmark. So I bought a boat, a Bella 561, an old version, with a two-stroke engine. I started to boat every summer from Nuuk down south and east, before boating north.”

In the past three years, Pia and Aputsiaq, who is now a seaman, have been building a cabin in a fiord not far from Nuuk. There, Pia hopes to host children and adults seeking harmony in life. Since Pia works in a psychiatric ward of Nuuk hospital, she sees a lot of distress caused by climate and social change. “It’s up to us to bring meaning to others’ lives,” she says.

“I know how it can be as a single mother, hit by a financial crisis in the most expensive part of the Arctic, at the height of climate change, when our culture and language are disappearing. I knew how my kids felt when they saw the ice melting. I needed to give them hope. And now I want to give hope to the others.”

Pia’s story is an exploration of love and forgiveness. And this is how, in my mind, the whole idea of exploration can be redefined.

Pia Larsen, Aputsiaq, and Heidi today. Although Heidi couldn’t join her family on their greatest adventure, she has recently bought her own boat and started exploring like her mother. Heidi is also getting married this Sunday, April 11. Photo: Galya Morrell

AUTHOR BIO:

Visual artist Galya Morrell has lived and traveled in the Arctic for over 30 years. Under the stage name ColdArtist, Galya explores the limits of the body and the possibilities of the mind, working in a rare genre of visual synthetic performance on the drifting sea ice. Together with Greenlandic polar explorer and actor, Ole Jorgen Hammeken, Galya has founded many cultural initiatives focused on the circumpolar regions.

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MuddyBoots
MuddyBoots
2 months ago

Awesome story! Now this woman is a true explorer, brave, creative and resourceful. What an inspiration. Thank you for finding and writing this story Galya!

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Ane-Sofie Hegelund
Ane-Sofie Hegelund
2 months ago
Reply to  MuddyBoots

Very very exciting story, you have written, Gayla. What an inspiration. Pia – and you – makes other strong. Thank you ❤️

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Lenore Jones
Lenore Jones
2 months ago

Yes, I too really appreciated learning about this explorer, or family of explorers.

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coldartist
2 months ago

Thank you, Ane-Sofie! Pia has been an inspiration for all of us for years. She never gives up, carrying the spirit of her grandfathers from Upernavik ))))

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coldartist
2 months ago
Reply to  MuddyBoots

Thank you, MuddyBoots, Pia Larsen is an extraordinary woman, the story is long overdue ))

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Kathrine Rosing Larsen
Kathrine Rosing Larsen
2 months ago

Thank you for the amazing story !

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coldartist
2 months ago

More to come soon: Pia is working a new plan for a new expedition )))

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Eddy De Wilde
Eddy De Wilde
2 months ago

What a formidable woman Pia is to overcome so much hardship and still remain so selfless and concerned for others. A feel good story among all the misery we get on tv.

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coldartist
2 months ago
Reply to  Eddy De Wilde

So true, Eddy! I have known her for years, and in all these years she had never complained… despite all hardships. Instead, she was offering help to those who happened to be near her, or far…

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ELISABETH CONSTANTINE
ELISABETH CONSTANTINE
2 months ago

Wow, what an inspiration, positive and uplifting story with such a strong message of love, hope and forgiveness ….something we all need in these uncertain times.
Thanks so much for sharing it 🙏

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coldartist
2 months ago

I agree, Elisabeth! We need to see such people as Pia, who btw are usually very shy while being so brave, never talk about themselves, but rather – about the others in need. That’s her attitude. I just hope some younger kids we work with will learn from her 🙂

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Lloyd Binder
Lloyd Binder
1 month ago

This is a great story of achievement and fortitude of an Inuq and her family

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