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December 11, 1911

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The introduction of the fox trapping economy to the Eskimo brought the wanton destruction of food animals with too many guns, and the Eskimo became dependent upon the food they could purchase from the trading posts.





My Life with the Eskimo - Chapter 23

Vilhjalmur Stefansson


Important Text:

The chief interest in life among the civilized Eskimo in winter is trapping fur. This was an interest of ours also, because we were anxious to secure wolf, wolverine, and fox skins for museum specimens. It had accordingly been our arrangement on hiring our Eskimo that we pay them not only $200 a year in money or its equivalent (for the North Alaskans well understood the use of money) , but we had also agreed with them that whenever we had nothing else for them to do they were to be free to trap, and half of what they got should belong to them. Trapping around Coal Creek had been poor and only something like thirty skins altogether had been secured of foxes (white, red, and cross), wolves, and wolverines. There was a firm belief in our party that foxes were abundant down on the seacoast, and a strong desire therefore to move to the sea for the purpose of trapping. This did not suit me at all. I much preferred living in the wooded and well- sheltered creek bottom where our house stood to trapping foxes along the barren and shelterless coast of Langton Bay, but in order to keep peace in the family I finally agreed that some of our party should go down and try the trapping. Accordingly Ilavinirk's family and myself crossed the Melvill Mountains to Langton Bay, leaving the others behind on Horton River.

The same whale carcass which had been so useful to us the year before was still lying stranded on the beach west of Langton Bay. It had been about two miles west of the harbor the year before, but the past summer the waves had moved it about a mile nearer to our storehouse. Within a day or two from getting down to the coast we caught six white foxes near this carcass, but after that no more; and there was not a track to be seen.

This failure of our trapping even in the neighborhood of a stranded whale gives us the text for discussing the peculiar habits of the Arctic fox. In summer the white fox is a land animal, but in winter ninety per cent of them probably go off on the sea ice and live parasitically, as it were, upon the fruits of the labor of the polar bear. Whenever you see the tracks of a bear in winter you are likely to see following them the tracks of anywhere from one to a dozen foxes. Here and there on the ocean seals and fish that died from natural causes are thrown up and are found by the keen scent of the foxes. Here and there also when the ice is being crushed up into pressure ridges a few fish are caught and killed by the tumbling blocks, and these the fox also tries to find . But this supply depends upon accident and is not what the fox really relies upon. His main dependence is the skill and energy of the polar bear as a seal hunter. If the bear has hard luck and kills only a seal in a great while, he may devour the whole animal, and the fox which follows behind will go hungry. But if the bear has any ordinary luck at all , he will kill off more seals than he needs and will eat only a small part of what he kills, leaving the rest. When he has dropped asleep near the remains of his feast or has gone ahead about his business, the foxes that have been dogging his footsteps come up and eat whatever is left.

The polar bear can get seals only along the edge of open water. Certain years the winds are such that in the neighborhood of Cape Parry, and elsewhere on the north coast of America, lanes of open water are only a few miles offshore. Those years there are plenty of polar bears around and consequently plenty of foxes also. The winter of 1911-1912 was exceptional apparently in ice conditions. None of our party ever went far out on the ice and I know of no one on the thousand -mile stretch between Cape Parry and Point Barrow who did, but knowing the habits of the bears and the foxes, it seems to me evident that there could have been no open water anywhere near shore, for the year was remarkable above all others to which the memory of the Eskimo in Alaska and the white traders extended , in the almost complete absence from the whole coast line from November until late March of both polar bears and foxes. At the Baillie Islands, for instance, energetic Eskimo trappers that habitually get two hundred foxes in winter had caught less than ten by the end of March. This was a universal calamity, comparable to a drought in a farming district, for the game upon which the Eskimo formerly lived has been destroyed throughout this entire district by the bringing in of firearms and the wanton destruction of food animals that followed , and the Eskimo now depend for their food and clothing in a large part upon the provisions which they can buy from the trading ships in summer in exchange for furs.

We spent between two and three weeks on the coast at the Langton Bay ship harbor without succeeding in getting any more foxes. Finally, December 11th, we started back south and December ) we arrived home.

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