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Recent History

August 1, 1911

Vilhjalmur Stefansson

My Life with the Eskimo - Chapter 22


The summer of 1911 is recorded by Stefansson. He talks of hunting fat caribou for their fat and skins. He also discusses why Eskimo like flour and sugar despite not considering it as necessary food.

On the way south we happened to pick up a polar bear that was wandering about on shore. A day or two before that Palaiyak and Mangilanna had secured a young grizzly bear, and a day or two after Palaiyak got another one in the Melvill Mountains south of Langton Bay. In general, however, at this time we lived on the meat of the bearded seal, which the boys Palaiyak and Mangilanna secured by paddling out to sea in their kayaks and shooting the seals as they slept on floating cakes of ice. 

July 27th Ilavinirk, Natkusiak, and Mangilanna with our umiak started west to the Baillie Islands, while I remained behind doing archæological work around Langton Bay with the intermittent assistance of Palaiyak, Mamayauk, and Nogasak. In general, as I have had many occasions to point out, Nogasak was a very lazy and useless sort of person; but scratching around in the ground with the prospect of finding spear points or knives was something that appealed to her, and she really was my most valuable assistant throughout the entire summer in the work of excavating. I am inclined to think the main reason may have been that I discouraged her from the first, for fear that she might damage through carelessness some important find that she made. She was therefore very careful, and whenever she found a sign of anything she would come to me and tell me about it before she finally dug it up. It would no doubt have been more desirable had I had the means of employing expert diggers who would have done everything according to the book, but as it was it seemed to be much more useful that Nogasak should find things in the wrong way than that they should remain buried and probably unfound forever. 

The time had now come when the caribou might be expected to have a little fat on their backs and the skins were becoming suitable for clothing. Altogether, myself and various members of our party had killed only half a dozen or so caribou since we came back to Langton Bay, and the skins of all of them had been of little use, for they were full of large holes made by the escaping grubs of the bot-fly which had been growing under the hides of the poor animals' backs all winter and which had now just come out of their warm quarters and taken wing. The hair also is rather too short until towards the end of July, but from that time until the 20th of September it is in excellent condition for clothing, after which it becomes too long. 

It is not only the length of hair which is right in the month of August, but also the thickness of the hide itself. From Christmas time until May the skin is as thin as parchment and there is very little strength to it. In June it begins to thicken, but is as yet full of bot-fly holes. Towards the end of July these holes heal up and the skin becomes of the right thickness, while by October it has become too thick and unpliable for use as clothing. For that reason we use the hides of ordinary animals taken in September and October for clothing only in emergencies, and otherwise utilize them for bedding only, except the skins of the old bull caribou, which have often the thickness of sole leather and which we accordingly use for boot soles for our winter footwear. 

It was because we knew the caribou were getting into condition and because we had to “ take thought for the morrow ” in the matter of clothing for winter that we set out on July 30th southward to look for caribou. 

The Endicott Mountains look like mountains true enough as seen from the sea, but when in the three-mile walk inland you have climbed up two thousand feet or so you find yourself on a fairly level table- land, although within three miles from the sea the streams begin to flow inland towards Horton River, which lies about fifteen miles away, parallel to the coast. 

Soon after I reached the top of this plateau and about five miles from camp I came upon a grizzly bear accompanied by two small cubs. I did not realize how small the cubs were at first and shot the old animal and one of the cubs. On closer approach I saw that the living animal was but the size of a wolverine and showed no fear or concern of me whatever. It occurred to me then that it would be a very interesting thing to take the thing alive; but unfortunately I did not have any string with me or other means of taking the cub along to the coast. I therefore returned home and immediately hitched our dogs to a sled, with which and an empty box we started to fetch the bear. It was a matter of eight or ten hours until we got to where I had left the cub behind; but although he had not been afraid of me then, the poor fellow had by now evidently realized the death of his two relatives, and we were at least half a mile away when he saw us and took to his heels. I followed him a considerable distance while the others skinned the two dead bears, but I never got anywhere near him. 

With me the matter of big game hunting is another case of " swords sticking to hands that seek the plow.” I am afraid I am not a true sportsman. It is impossible for me to get enjoyment out of the killing of animals (and as for that, if I did I should get a job in the Chicago stockyards rather than follow poor frightened wild things around with a rifle). It is mere nonsense to talk of wild animals (in the case of those on the continent of North America at least) having a chance for their lives against the hunter. They all give us as wide a berth as they can; their only desire and hope of safety is in hiding or in flight. None of them, so far as my experience goes, will fight unless wounded or cornered, or in the defence of their helpless young. No matter how well they are provided by nature with claws and teeth and stout muscles, they have no more chance against a man with a modern rifle than a fly has against a sledge hammer. 

Unfortunately the Barren Ground grizzly is a priceless thing scientifically. There are practically none of them in museums and one of our avowed objects in coming North was to get some. I never allowed any to pass, therefore, and I shot altogether thirteen, but somehow the killing of these poor animals affected me more than that of any others. They are provided by nature with a fighting equip ment second to no animal on the continent, and yet they try their best to live peacefully and inoffensively. They feed on roots almost entirely, and whenever they discover the sign of a human being, whether they see or smell his footprints, or see him or get his wind, they immediately use every means in their power to get out of the way. But they are dull of sight and not very quick of hearing and when the hunter once sees them there is no escape. 

August 8th Palaiyak hunted to the south also and shot three deer about five miles away from camp. We were about to set out to fetch the meat of them when a sail appeared to the north which our glasses told us was Captain Bernard's Teddy Bear. It was reasonable enough she should arrive just then, although we had not expected her for a week or so yet. 

The Teddy Bear dropped anchor in the harbor late in the afternoon of August 9th, bringing Dr. Anderson, Tannaumirk, and Pannigabluk, all safe. Spring had been very early in Coronation Gulf, and they really could have come out sooner than they did. Cruising up along the southwest coast of Victoria Island they had found our beacon on Bell Island and had thereby, as we intended, been saved from the trip to Banks Island to look for us. 

I was very confident that we would be able in the neighborhood of Langton Bay to kill caribou and grizzly bears enough for our food the coming winter, but our Eskimo knew very well that their country men at the Baillie Islands, less than a hundred miles to the westward, would have plenty of flour, tea, and things of that sort, and we felt they would not be content with us unless they had it also. Captain Bernard had a considerable stock of these things and kindly furnished us with a supply. Dr. Anderson and I are not particular about such luxuries as flour and sugar, but our Eskimo had no scientific interests to keep them in the country, and, like servants everywhere, wanted as high wages and as good food as possible. So of course we had to supply them with what we could get in the way of imported food. 

It is not really so much that these Eskimo regard baking powder bread as such excellent food, but it is rather that they know it is expensive and they are human enough to want to have their neighbors know that they can afford to have this and that to eat even if it does cost money, differing not so much from the rest of humanity in that matter. They judge things chiefly by price, and desire them in proportion to their current market value. 

Dr. Anderson was anxious to communicate with the whaling ships if possible for the purpose of sending out mail and for other reasons,, and so he continued west with the Teddy Bear toward the Baillie Islands with the intention of returning thence with Ilavinirk and Nat kusiak in our umiak, while Tannaumirk and Pannigabluk came ashore and joined us. As the caribou season was now at its best we stayed around Langton Bay only a few hours after the Teddy Bear left and then started inland in the search for game. 

As we have pointed out elsewhere, the caribou hunt is not merely to secure meat. A supply of dried venison to tide you over the sunless days helps you to face the season with confidence, but the main consideration is to secure skins for clothing against the winter. Our method of hunting is in general that we travel from one high hill to another high hill, pause on each hilltop and with our field glasses and telescopes carefully examine every inch of visible ground in the hope of seeing caribou. 

On these summer hunts the dogs are equipped with pack saddles, consisting essentially of two big pouches that nearly reach to the ground on either side of the animal when the pack is in place. These pack saddles are loaded with the heaviest and least bulky things we have to carry. A fifty-pound dog will carry a forty-pound pack or even a heavier one, and he will carry it all day, although his walking gait is rather slow, perhaps not much over two miles an hour. The people of the party will carry on their backs the bulky things, such as the bedding, tents, and cooking utensils. A man does not carry more than thirty or forty pounds, although under special conditions he may carry as much as a hundred and fifty or even two hundred. 

When caribou are discovered, the women and children, if there are any in the party, stop and make camp, while the men secure the caribou, skin them, and cut them up. Usually long before the skinning is done camp has been made; and if the caribou are located so near that the women know the killing has actually taken place, they come with the dogs to help bring home the meat; or if a considerable number of caribou are killed, it may be easier than moving the meat to camp to move the camp up to the scene of the slaughter. The meat is then cut up into thin strips and spread out on the ground or on stones to dry; or if there are sticks available a frame is made over which the meat is hung up. The skins too are spread out to dry. The process of drying meat delays camp moving, so the men go out and hunt for more caribou in all directions from the camp; and if they secure any they usually bring home the meat, unless indeed they make a big killing, in which case it is easier to transport the half-dried meat and the camp gear to the deer kill than to bring home the fresh meat to camp. Then whenever the meat is dried and if no more caribou are likely to be found in that immediate vicinity, the meat is cached in the safest way possible, usually by stones being piled on top of it, and the party moves on, carrying with it the dried caribou skins, for they are too precious to leave behind to the uncertain safety of a cache. The same kind of traveling as before is resumed as soon as all the meat killable in any locality has been turned into dry meat, the party marching from hilltop to hilltop and continually looking for game, which is finally found. And then the same process repeats itself. 

On the particular hunt under discussion the caribou were not very numerous. First we went about fifteen miles south from Langton Bay to the head of a small wooded creek that runs into Horton River from the north, and here during the course of a week we killed about a dozen caribou and three grizzly bears. The Eskimo generally merely wind-dry the meat, but personally I rather prefer the Indian method of smoke-drying it, and so we built a spruce bough lodge in the Indian style and dried the meat that way. This has an additional advantage, for when you want to leave for another hunting camp you can with tolerable safety cache anything you want inside of the abandoned lodge, for the smoke smell, while it is at all fresh, will keep beasts of prey at a distance. Eventually, of course (in a fortnight or so), some wolverine will become contemptuous enough of the fire smell which it at first dreaded, and will venture into the deserted house to steal. 

We remained about a week in the camp on the wooded creek-head where we had made our first kill, and then we were forced to leave it on account of the absence of caribou in that neighborhood, and by the fact that I one day happened to kill four animals a long way to the eastward in a country where game signs were more numerous. Moving to these better pastures was a matter of nearly a day's walk, for we traveled heavy laden with the caribou fat and skins that were too precious to risk leaving behind with the meat. Traveling at this time of year is particularly pleasant, for while the days are still warm, the placid nights are cool and the power of the mosquito has been broken. There are few things in one's experience in the North that are so pleasant to remember as these autumn hunts, when the camp is pitched among a clump of spruce trees at the bottom of some ravine, and when at the end of a day's hunt you can gather around a crackling fire in the enveloping darkness, for the four-months' summer day is just over. The occasional howl of a wolf in the near shadow lends an additional romance, especially if, as not seldom happens, the wolves are so numerous and near that the dogs become frightened and gather in a close circle around the fire. Few meals can be more satisfying, either, at the end of a hard day's work, than a caribou head that has been rotated continuously before the fire until it is roasted through, even to the base of the tongue and the center of the brain. The dreams of boyhood seldom come true, but I am not sure that there is not sometimes as much romance about the reality of such evenings as there was about the dreams of Crusoe- like adventures on desert islands.

September 21, 1926

Helge Ingstad

The Land of Feast and Famine


Ingstad collects berries to make a berry jam but runs into a bear without his rifle


Directly across the lake from our cabin was "Cranberry Hill." There berries grew in red profusion, simply begging to be plucked. I lost no time in paddling across to gather a bucketful so that we might have a bit of jam to eat during the winter. One day I was walking along deep in thought, as I shoveled up handfuls of berries and threw them into the pail. Suddenly I heard a rustle back in the brush and looked up. At the same time another pair of eyes looked up. They belonged to a bear. It stood behind a rise of ground and blinked stupidly at me. It would be difficult to determine which one of us was the more amazed. We glared at each other for several moments, no doubt each thinking much the same thought: " What the devil are you doing here in my berry patch? " At length the bear turned on his heel and slowly shuffled off among the trees. From that day on, I never went berry-picking without my rifle.


Note by Travis: Berries are discussed in many Arctic texts, but it never seems to be a necessary component of the diet - for instance to ward off scurvy or other deficiency diseases. It's a local food source that's easy to collect and thus makes for a great "spice" to be added to other foods to increase their palatability.

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The Fat Switch
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