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November 8, 1910

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A blizzard springs up while Stefansson is traveling with an Indian and an Eskimo, and he decides to build a tent in a safe place according to his experience. "We ate frozen raw caribou meat and drank cold water" since fire could only be had with heavy wood brought on sleds.

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My Life with the Eskimo - Chapter 14

Vilhjalmur Stefansson

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Pre-civilization races
Eskimo
Carnivore Diet

Important Text:

Now that we were on Bear Lake, I thought that by taking a course northwest true from the northeast corner of the lake for Langton Bay I should not only reach Langton Bay, but, incidentally, should probably find and be able to chart the upper reaches of Horton River. On this journey Natkusiak would of course go with me, while Tannaumirk and Pannigabluk remained behind on Dease River at our winter camp; but it seemed advisable to get also a Slavey Indian companion, for the Slaveys claim to know the country far to the north of Bear Lake, and one man in particular, known as Johnny Sanderson, said he knew all about it for a distance of several days' travel. Besides, we had no toboggans of our own, and our runner-sled was unsuitable on the tundra, so I hired Johnny with two toboggans and one dog-team.


On November 8, 1910, we started from the mouth of Dease River on our journey toward Franklin Bay; for two or three days before that we had been engaged in putting the finishing touches on our equipment, which meant making dog-harness and packing up dry caribou meat. Both at this time and on the two or three other occasions when we had come to Dease River Mr. Hodgson entertained us hospitably and helped us in every way. For the first forty miles after leaving his house we followed the shore of Bear Lake north westward, and then struck inland, traveling west by compass, which here means northwest true. We had only about six days' provisions with us, for among other things Johnny had told us that there would be plenty of caribou as soon as we got away from the fringe of woods about Bear Lake. I have often started upon a longer trip than the three weeks we anticipated for this one, with less than six days' provisions, but in this case we could easily have taken more, for Mr. Hodgson generously offered to supply us with as much as we wanted to haul. Johnny regarded himself, apparently, as quite infallible, and succeeded in impressing me with the probability that he was nearly so; but few men I have dealt with have panned out so poorly as Johnny Sanderson. 


Going in a northwesterly direction, it takes about forty miles of traveling to reach the edge of the Barren Ground, and for all this distance we saw plenty of caribou tracks, but Johnny told us it would not be worthwhile following them and delaying our journey by a hunt in the woods, because, he said, "the Indians call the treeless country the Caribou Ground, and that is because it is always covered with caribou.” A few miles after we had left the trees behind us and entered upon what we called the Barren Ground (but what Johnny called the Caribou Ground) we crossed the tracks of half a dozen or so animals, and after that for two hundred miles we never saw another track. 


Johnny was proud of his varied experiences as a traveler, and told how this and that great man of the Hudson's Bay Company had employed him as head guide, and how they always placed implicit reliance in him. He said there were few places he did not know, and that even where he was a stranger his judgment was so good that he was seldom at fault. 


This confidence in himself had been so often justified in the past that the fact of its being seldom justified on the present trip evidently seemed to him an exception scarcely worthy of note. We struck the Barren Ground on the morning of our fourth day, and toward evening we had a blizzard. When it came time to camp, we searched for a small lake, because the ice at this season was not much more than a foot thick and fuel was scarce, so we wanted to get water for cooking. When we got to the shore of a small pond, I stopped the sled. The selection did not suit Johnny, however; he said that no one who knew anything about traveling would ever pick such a place for a camp. Half a mile back, he said, he had seen a cut-bank under the shelter of which we could have pitched our tent, and even now he could see, only a little way ahead of us, a round hill with a steep slope to leeward that would be a fine place under which to camp, for the hill would break the wind. 


Now my idea and Natkusiak's did not coincide with Johnny's, because to us it was clear that if we camped in the lee of an obstruction the drifting snow would in the night cover up our tent and place us in danger of being smothered even were the tent not to cave in with the weight of the snow. No man of any winter experience in the open will pitch his tent in a shelter where there is the possibility of a blizzard. Johnny's ideas were all gained in the forested country, where it is wise, of course, to choose the most sheltered spots, and it seemed to him that we were little better than insane. He announced, therefore, that he would take the matter into his own hands and pitch the camp in the shelter of the hill, and he told me incidentally that I was the first white man he had ever seen who did not know enough to understand that an Indian knows more than a white man about how to make camp. Of course, the obvious answer was that now that he had the opportunity he had better watch carefully people who had different ideas from his and see what the result would be. 


Natkusiak and I had to take Johnny's own sled away from him by a show of force, and had the pleasure of listening to his comments while we, without any help from him, put up the tent. During that time, and at various other times thereafter, Johnny told us much of a party of the Geological Survey of Canada which had been commanded by a white man who was my superior in every way, and who, while he was inexperienced, had the good sense to defer to Johnny in everything. Among other things Johnny had said that we would all probably freeze to death during the night, but we banked up the tent so well, Eskimo fashion, that we had not been inside of it more than an hour or so before Johnny began to complain that it was too warm, and that he was getting wet, through the snow in his clothes melting and soaking in. He had been so sure that the tent was going to be so cold — nothing could melt in it — that he had not thought it worthwhile to brush the snow off his fur coat. 


We made no fire, for Natkusiak and I agreed that digging heather for fuel from underneath the snow was not worth the bother; we ate frozen raw caribou meat and drank cold water, at all of which Johnny complained bitterly. We could, he pointed out, have used the ordinary forethought of sane men; we could have hauled a load of dry spruce wood from the Bear Lake woods and could have made ourselves comfortable with a fire and a warm meal. To this we answered that our dogs agreed with us in considering the sleds heavy enough without piling a cord of wood on top of them, and that there was no need for special effort toward making us comfortable, for we were comfortable already.

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