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May 15, 1969

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We lacked fat. The spring caribou were thin after their long migration and our main food, mipku, dried caribou meat, was leathery and lean. We ate pounds of it each day, yet were forever hungry. Living on an exclusive protein, fatless diet took its toll. We tired easily, and after a month developed the first signs of protein poisoning: diarrhea and swollen feet. As soon as we could supplement our lean-meat diet with fat fish, we felt fine again.





Arctic Memories

Fred Bruemmer


Important Text:

In May, the weather turned mild and muggy. Agloo hunting was finished. Our thoughts turned southward, to the land. It, now, must give us food. The caribou must come, on their annual migration from the taiga, the northern forest belt, over the vastness of the Barren Ground tundra, to the Arctic Sea. 

Each day Ekalun and his sons climbed the mountain behind our camp to scan the land and sea patiently with their telescopes. And each day they came down from the mountain and shrugged. «Tuktu nauk. (No caribou.)" Our stores of seal meat and blubber dwindled rapidly. The children fished for tomcod at fissures in the ice. 

Rosie went inland, with a big bag of traps, to the sandy ridges where perky ground squirrels were emerging from their long winter's sleep to bask in the spring sun. She walked fast, her small, work-worn body bent forward, set a series of traps and rushed off to the next siksik (squirrel) colony, while I trotted behind through the mushy spring snow, out of breath and oozing sweat. At night, the squirrels boiled in a big pot, pink little paws poking pathetically out of the bubbling broth. They tasted like chicken. Squirrels and the little fish the children brought home were now our main food. 

Ekalun's automatic Swiss watch had stopped. "Here, Kabloo, you fix it," he said. I recoiled at the idea, and Ekalun laughed derisively. "I thought white men were supposed to be so clever," he gibed and began to take it apart. The tools he lacked he made, a few out of Rosie's darning needles. He remembered the days when the only tools his people had were of stone, bone, horn, and native copper. He had shown me how to make a stone adze, and it was similar to the ones I had seen in Paris's Musée de l'Homme made by Magdalenian hunters 20,000 years ago. Now he nonchalantly took the watch apart. Before evening he had assembled the watch again and it worked. 

Our camp was nearly out of food; one cannot live long on lean spring squirrels and small fish. The families dispersed, traveling far inland to intercept the vanguard of migrating caribou. The talk in camp was of tuktu - caribou - always tuktu, the quail and manna of the Barrens. 

Ekalun remained. He was carving a chess set: the board superbly inlaid with polished stones of many colors; the rooks were igloos, the knights polar bears, the bishops dogs, the pawns a little army of obese owls. King and queen were Inuit in full fur regalia. "My wife and I," he said, and smiled. The carved stone king did, in fact, look like Ekalun. It would take weeks to finish the set. And food? "The caribou will come," he said confidently. 

I left with George Hakungak; his beautiful wife, Jessie; their two small children; and John Akana, George's bachelor brother. The dogs pulled eagerly, although they had fallen upon hard times. We only had a bit of blubber along, and old caribou skins for roughage. 

We snaked our way up the great Hood River valley. After winter's long dormancy, the tundra throbbed with resurrection, with renewal, with life. Elegant horned larks spiraled toward the sky until they were but specks in the blue, then drifted gently downward on set wings, filling the air with their jubilant, lilting song. Ptarmigan flew up, their plumage piebald like the land, part wintry white, part summer's brown. From its nest of sticks and dry grasses on a ledge above the ice-bound river, a rough-legged hawk rose to circle high above us with wild and urgent cries. The day was warm and brilliant, the dogs ran fast, the long sled slid silently through the wet snow. We joked and laughed. It was wonderful to be alive. 

That night the storm struck. Wind-driven snow wreathed the mountains like smoke. It shrieked around our small traveling tent and whistled cerily in the taut guy ropes. Jessie washed diapers. John carved. George played with the baby. While the storm raged, life went on quietly and harmoniously within the walls of our little tent. 

It was night when the storm faltered. Dark clouds still scudded across the sky; the land and a nearby frozen lake lay in an ominous blue-gray El Greco light. And then the caribou came, and in their wake the wolves. 

Far out on the lake ice, dark and phantom-like, the herd stood. The men harnessed the huskies and drove fast, right into the herd, the dogs frenzied with excitement, the sled slewing wildly, the caribou scattering, stopping, galloping frantically back and forth, fear forcing them to flee, the herd instinct bunching them. George and John stopped and shot, raced on and shot again, then turned the dogs loose to pull down wounded caribou. 

We camped for days to feed the famished, emaciated dogs, to eat huge meals ourselves, our first in weeks, and then, the sled loaded high with caribou meat, we walked the 100 miles (160 km) back to camp. Thaw and rain had ravaged the snow; meltwater rushed to the rivers. The broad, tussocky meadows were bare and brown, and George and John harnessed themselves to the sled to help the panting huskies. 

Before breakup, the planes arrived. The doctor from Cambridge Bay on medical inspection found us well, but left us germs, and soon we all came down with colds. The area administrator arrived to buy the men's stock of carvings, the fur clothes the women had made for sale, and one of our caribou-skin tents for a museum in the United States. 

On the first good day, we left for Baychimo at the northeast coast of Bathurst Inlet to buy supplies at the lonely Hudson's Bay Company store. It then served the eighty-nine people of Bathurst Inlet, who lived in eleven widely scattered camps in a region as large as Belgium. 

People from other camps had preceded us, or arrived during the day. Ekalun, one of the best carvers of the area, had the most money. With a fine sense of drama, he waited until the store was crowded. Every inch the grand seigneur, he strode in and handed Jimmy Stevenson, the manager, his checks. Then he started buying, and the Queen shopping at Fortnum and Mason would not have been nearly as grand. "Twenty pounds of tobacco! Twenty pounds of tea! A new gun! A new net! A carton of cigarettes for my Kabloona" - and, aside, in a not-too-sotto voce stage whisper - "His pipe stinks!" to convulse his audience. 

From time to time, as the pile of goods on the floor rose, he'd ask: "How much?" meaning, how much money had he left? "Ah yes, thread for the wife. And needles. And a new pressure stove. Rosie trailed behind her master, meek and quiet. It was a perfect example of male dominance in Inuit society. But since I shared their tent, I happened to know that this was merely a front. For days prior to the trip, Rosie had carefully programmed Ekalun to buy precisely what she needed and wanted. 

When he was down to five dollars, he said: "That I'll take in cash! One might need it," and all laughed. That would be his initial stake for the all-night poker game. Ekalun was sleepy and sour when we returned home next day. "How did the game go?" I asked, not too tactfully. The five dollars were gone. And his lighter. And the recently repaired Swiss watch. "Ayornamat. (It can't be helped.)" He shrugged. 

We lacked fat. The spring caribou were thin after their long migration and our main food, mipku, dried caribou meat, was leathery and lean. We ate pounds of it each day, yet were forever hungry. Living on an exclusive protein, fatless diet took its toll. We tired easily, and after a month developed the first signs of protein poisoning: diarrhea and swollen feet. As soon as we could supplement our lean-meat diet with fat fish, we felt fine again. 

Camp life in summer was quiet and relaxed. Our nets gave us plenty of whitefish and the odd char. Short trips by canoe provided a few seals. In the past, the Bathurst Inlet people had hunted seals only in winter and spring; they used kayaks primarily to kill migrating caribou at river crossings. Ancient patterns persisted; summer simply was not their seal-hunting season and we lived very well on fish alone. 

We moved outdoors. The women cooked on open fires, surrounded by a mass of dwarf willow and heather, serving as both fuel and windbreak, and when the food was ready we'd all sit together, eat, chat, and swat mosquitoes. Weeks merged into months; season followed season; my other life seemed remote, unreal. Ekalun had unobtrusively but expertly remodeled me. I now conformed, and early problems and frictions did not recur. 

At first my curiosity and my questions had riled him, for in his culture questions were considered intrusive. Nor did they ask me questions, including the most obvious ones: Why had I come? What was I doing? How long would I stay? At first I assumed they simply didn't care. Later I found that they were intensely interested, but much too polite to ask. Then I talked about myself, my family, my life, and since I had broached it, they then could ask questions and asked them eagerly. 

To some questions there were no intelligible answers. Ekalun asked me once about Montreal and how many people live there and I said: "Three million." How much is three million? Ekalun wanted to know. He had never seen more than perhaps a hundred people. More than all the caribou in the world, more than all the pebbles on our beach, I said. He thought that over for a while and then he smiled one of his sardonic smiles and said: "Too many!" 

At an old campsite, I found a foot (30-cm)-long stick, the spindle of a fire drill. I showed it to Ekalun. He told me what it was, I pretended ignorance and, rather than waste time explaining, Ekalun made a simple version of the fire drill and showed me how it worked. This put him into a reminiscent mood; he told of travels long ago to a remote valley to pick up "fire stones," the iron pyrite that, struck together, produced sparks that caught on lightly oiled willow catkin fluff or arctic cotton tinder and were blown into a flame. It took about five minutes to produce fire by friction with a fire drill, Ekalun said, and only moments with the "fire stones. From then on, rather than ask questions and annoy, I brought back from my long walks all artifacts I found - broken tools, worked bone, thimbles made of leather, a broken blubber pounder of musk-ox horn - and if I judged the moment and the mood propitious, I showed my finds to Rosie and Ekalun, like a child showing treasures to its parents. 

It often worked. The small bone tube, brown with age and cracked, made of the leg bone of a goose was used, long ago, to suck fresh water off spring ice. That brought back memories of a trip on spring ice nearly half a century ago, when both were starving and their few dogs were near death. Ekalun had spotted a seal far out on the flooded ice and had crawled toward it through the icy water, imitating seal movements and behavior with such perfection that the seal thought he was a seal. It took more than an hour. His body went numb with cold; he dared not throw the harpoon. He crawled right up to the seal and killed it. Rosie, then about fifteen years old and just married, rushed up with the dogs. They ate the seal and lived. 

Fall came, but no fat caribou for winter food, for clothing. We walked far inland. No caribou. We ascended the Hood River. No caribou. And suddenly Ekalun knew. The caribou, he said, are on the islands. We drove to the islands and the caribou were there. How had he known? Experience? Intuition? A good guess? I asked and got no answer. He simply knew. The men hunted. We took several boatloads of meat, fat, and skins back to camp. The rest we cached under heavy stones, to be picked up by dog team in winter. The racks at camp were full of drying meat; slabs of back fat filled the caches. The char were returning to the rivers; our nets were heavy with fish. This was the vital harvest season of fall, to gather supplies until seal hunting began again in winter.

Topics: (click image to open)

Hunting methods
Early humans developed various hunting methods and techniques over millions of years to secure food for survival. Includes persistence hunting, ambush hunting, cooperative hunting, projectile hunting, trapping, fishing, scavenging, shellfish gathering.
Rabbit Starvation
When a person eats too much protein and not enough fat, they become ravenously hungry for fat.
Man The Fat Hunter
Man is a lipivore - hunting and preferring the fattiest meats they can find. When satisifed with fat, they will want little else.
Facultative Carnivore
Facultative Carnivore describes the concept of animals that are technically omnivores but who thrive off of all meat diets. Humans may just be facultative carnivores - who need no plant products for long-term nutrition.
The Inuit lived for as long as 10,000 years in the far north of Canada, Alaska, and Greenland and likely come from Mongolian Bering-Strait travelers. They ate an all-meat diet of seal, whale, caribou, musk ox, fish, birds, and eggs. Their nutritional transition to civilized plant foods spelled their health demise.
Carnivore Diet
The carnivore diet involves eating only animal products such as meat, fish, dairy, eggs, marrow, meat broths, organs. There are little to no plants in the diet.
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