December 15, 1926
While hungering for fatty red meat, Ingstad and his companion Dale encounter the caribou migration in their camp and begin hunting them with traps and dog sleds.
The Land of Feast and Famine
Occasionally Dale and I meet in the cabin after intervals of several weeks. Then we rest up for a day or two whilst preparing ourselves for a fresh expedition. There is always something to talk over. We are both eager to trade experiences and are forever inquiring about the lay of the land in the other's territory.
There is one matter which begins to concern us more and more: the coming of the caribou. What in the name of Heaven has become of them? Christmas is drawing near, and for a long time our diet has consisted solely of fish, a most inadequate form of nourishment on a cold winter's day. We no longer find it so easy to keep going on snowshoes, and when the thermometer drops to temperatures somewhere between 40° and 70° below zero, the cold seems sharper than it ought. Our food-supply for the dogs, too, is becoming perilously low.
Hunger for meat again afflicts us. As we sit on our upturned stumps before the stove, our conversation inevitably returns to the subject of juicy meat. Dale, who is the soberest man in the world, dwells longingly upon his memory of a certain roast of lamb he once ate. He describes it in great detail, tells me how tender and juicy it was, how much there was of it. " No, there's nothing like a good roast of lamb," he concludes. I challenge his statement by bringing up the matter of beaver, lay powerful arguments before him, and sum up with the incontrovertible statement that roast lamb is as flat to the taste as squab, compared with a nice juicy beaver.
Of late both the wolf and the fox have been increasing in number. This indicates that the caribou cannot be so very far away. Strange, then, that neither of us has seen a trace of them during our long expeditions. Each time we meet in the cabin, our first question is: " Have you seen them yet? " But the answer is ever the same. A white stillness lies over the forest, a thick blanket of snow, embroidered with the same small animal tracks. We wait and we wait. . . .
Then one day we are sitting in the cabin eating our midday meal, mechanically swallowing down our fish and staring out over Moose Lake, as it lies there in a bath of sunshine. Suddenly I start up. "Isn't there something black moving off there by the river mouth?" I make a grab for my gun and leap for the door. . . . There they are! The caribou! . . .
One by one the animals appear at the edge of the woods. With easy playful springs they proceed out onto the lake, pause for a time, gaze about them, then resume their leisurely march, the older ones walking with sedately measured strides, their necks stretched far forward as they sniff about in the snow. An endless procession of bucks, does, and fawns. Ever-increasing numbers follow, and soon they are like an army invading our quiet land.
One enormous buck is leading the herd. His head is bowed beneath his mighty crown of antlers, and the shaggy mane about his neck is as shiny and white as the snow. Calves lope everywhere, dancing about with a restless energy; occasionally a pair of young bucks pause to restrain them. Nearer and nearer they come to the cabin, resting so peacefully here in amongst the trees, a plume of frosty wood smoke curling up from our chimney into the blue sky.
No more than five or six hundred feet from the cabin the leader suddenly halts, raises his head to investigate. Instantly the whole line halts. A sea of heads, motionless, staring. We are hardly able to believe our eyes. The caribou have actually arrived! Over stretches measuring hundreds of miles the herd has wandered south from the Arctic to seek the woodlands, and here they are, strolling right past our door, just as though it were the most natural thing in the world. . . .
The forest lives and breathes with them. Everywhere there are caribou. We hear them crashing through the thickets as we drive along in our toboggans, we encounter small flocks of them asleep on the ice of each lake. The snow is carved and re-carved by a network of deep and hard-packed deer paths.
Now we have no need to complain of meat shortage. We set up two lines of spruce brush planted in the snow, about thirty feet apart, extending this lane from the other side of the lake where the caribou usually come out of the woods, all the way back to the cabin. Thus game is deflected over in our direction and, as a rule, we can kill as many as we need right in our own front yard. But after the first wave the caribou arrive in more scattered contingents, and these are more wary than the first. Therefore we adopt regular hunting methods and go after them with our dog-teams.
A band of caribou is in sight off there on a lake. I hop into my toboggan and give the dogs a word they are quick to understand. They all prick up their ears and start staring off into the distance. Then, as their eyes light upon the game, we are off. Madly we gallop ahead, the toboggan skidding and leaping, as it hisses along over the snow. I hold tight to the ropes of the cariole, throw my weight from side to side, afraid that any moment we shall capsize. Closer and closer we come to the caribou, and Sport lets out more than one gasping whine, out of sheer enthusiasm. . . . Suddenly the herd becomes aware of us. Those which before have been fast asleep on the ice are on their feet in the twinkling of an eye, and together they present a solid front against the storm of our approach. They stare, bursting with curiosity. Never in their lives have they seen anything quite so odd. But the strange phenomenon does not pause for an instant, it keeps coming straight in their direction, so perhaps they had better be thinking of their safety. A young buck begins stamping with anger, makes a tremendous perpendicular leap into the air, coming down on his hind legs first, repeats the performance — once — twice — three times in succession, then starts running off over the ice as fast as his legs will carry him. Instantly the others turn tail with a wrench of their bodies and, in a single tightly packed mass, storm off down the lake, snow flying in their wake. A sudden senseless panic has put them to flight, and there is every indication that they will keep on running until miles lie between them and our sled. Then, as is their wont, they will halt just as suddenly and will turn round to resume their staring.
The dogs are now wild with excitement and are straining themselves to the utmost. Sport, as leader, keeps his eyes fastened upon the caribou, makes after them by sight alone, paying no attention to their tracks in the snow. A pair of large bucks separate themselves from the main flock and begin trotting off by themselves in a zigzag course. Like a shot, Sport is after them. Soon we are near enough. " Whoa! " I command, and the dogs stop dead in their tracks. A shot rings out over the ice. One caribou crumples and falls.
It is not always so simple as that. There are times, especially on really cold days, when we must spend hours hunting the caribou. Sometimes it is utterly impossible to come within range of them. When one of their number lies wounded in the snow, however, the others will usually halt and stand by; thus the hunter may without difficulty shoot as many as he needs. When the snow lies deep in the woods, the caribou are reluctant to leave the ice, even when they are being hunted. A shot fired ahead of a band will, as a rule, cause them to change in their course. In a pinch, it is possible to shoot from a moving sled, provided the dogs and the game are running abreast of each other. But even then it is sheer luck if one is able to hit the mark. When a toboggan is skidding every which way, one's shot is more than likely to go off in the direction of the clouds or straight down in the midst of the dogs.
Hunting the caribou with a dog-train has no equal for sport. It thrills the heart of the hunter. Nevertheless, it is exacting in a number of particulars. One must enjoy full mastery over one's dogs and must act quickly and with precision. If one has a dependable lead-dog, half the chase is won. With a dog that feels, even for an instant, that he can have his own way, one might just as well try to hunt with a team of wild horses. And if it happens that, out on the open plains or on the ice of a large lake, a hunter steps out of his sled and fails to keep an eye on his dogs, the merest whim on their part may mean that he has seen them for the last time. Given their freedom, they will continue their blind, insane pursuit as long as they have breath in their bodies. . . .