March 2, 1578
"What is the most important thing in life?" He reflected for a while, then smiled and said: "Seals, for without them we could not live." Seal meat and fat, raw or cooked, was the main food of most Inuit and their sled dogs. The high-calorie blubber gave strength, warmth, and endurance to the people; it heated them from within.
After two hours, I had run out of poetry and patience. After three hours, I felt stiff, cold, and exhausted. The total lack of movement, the absence of any stimuli, grated on my nerves. After six hours, I gave up. I was cold, creaky, cranky, and intensely annoyed with myself, but that was about as much as I could take. Yet the Inuit did this nearly every day for ten to fifteen hours, and sometimes they got a seal and often they did not. Their concentration was total, their patience endless, for to Inuit (and polar bears) the seal was everything. I once asked Inuterssuaq of the Polar Inuit, "What is the most important thing in life?" He reflected for a while, then smiled and said: "Seals, for without them we could not live."
George Best, captain and chronicler of Martin Frobisher's 1578 expedition to Baffin Island, said of the Inuit: "These people hunte for their dinners... even as the Beare." Inuit and polar bear do, in fact, use similar seal-hunting methods. Both wait with infinite patience at agloos, hoping for seals to surface.
In late spring and early summer, seals bask upon the ice, and Inuit and polar bears synchronize their patient stalk with the sleep- wake rhythm of the seals. Typically, a seal sleeps for a minute or so, wakes, looks carefully all around to make certain no enemy is near, and then, satisfied that all is safe, falls asleep for another minute or two. The moment the seal slumps in sleep, the bear advances. The instant the seal looks up, the bear freezes into immobility, camouflaged by its yellowish-white fur. At 20 yards (18 m) the bear pounces, a deadly blur across the ice, and grabs and kills the seal.
In the eastern Arctic, Inuit stalk a seal on the ice hidden behind a portable hunting screen, now of white cloth, formerly of bleached seal or caribou skin. In the central Arctic, Inuit do not use the screen. Instead they employ a method known to Inuit from Siberia to Greenland: they approach the seal by pretending to be a seal. They slither across the snow while the seal sleeps. When it wakes, the hunter stops and makes seal-like movements. To successfully impersonate a seal, a hunter told me, "you have to think like a seal." It is a hunt that requires great skill and endurance. They hunted seals at their agloos, they stalked them with screens on the ice. They waited for them at the floe edge and they harpooned them from kayaks.
They hunted seals in fall on ice so thin it bent beneath the hunter's weight. They hunted them in the bluish darkness of the winter night, and they invented and perfected an entire arsenal of ingenious weapons and devices to hunt the seal. For, to Inuit, the seal was life, and their greatest goddess was Sedna, mother of seals and whales.
A few inland groups lived nearly exclusively on caribou. The Mackenzie Delta Inuit are beluga hunters. Many Inuit of the Bering Sea and Bering Strait region live primarily on walrus. In Greenland and Labrador, Inuit hunted harp seals and hooded seals (the Polar Inuit drum Masautsiaq made for me as a farewell present is covered with the throat membrane of a hooded seal). But, for most Inuit, two seal species were of truly vital importance: the large bearded seal that weighs up to 600 pounds (270 kg), and the smaller - up to 180 pounds (81 kg) - but numerous ringed seal. These two seals were the basis of human life in the Arctic.
I spent the spring of 1975 with the walrus hunters of Little Diomede Island in Bering Strait, between Alaska and Siberia. Among our crew was Tom, Jr., or Junior as everyone called him, the eleven-year-old son of Tom Menadelook, captain of the large walrus-skin-covered umiak, the traditional hunting boat of the Diomeders. On one of our trips into the pack ice, Junior shot his first seal. His father was typically gruff and curt, but we could see that he was pleased and proud. The crew made much of the boy and he glowed in their praise. That night, his mother, Mary Menadelook, cut the seal into many pieces, and following ancient custom, the boy took meat to all the households in the village, including to my shack, thus symbolically feeding us all. He was a man now, a provider, who shared in traditional Inuit fashion.
Seal meat and fat, raw or cooked, was the main food of most Inuit and their sled dogs. The high-calorie blubber gave strength, warmth, and endurance to the people; it heated them from within. Rendered into seal oil, it burned in their semicircular soapstone lamps, cooked their meals, heated their homes, and, most importantly, melted fresh-water ice or snow into drinking water. Lack of blubber meant hunger, icy, dark homes, and excruciating thirst. Although Inuit were hardy and inured to cold, and dressed in superb fur clothing, their high-calorie, high-protein meat-fat diet also helped them to withstand the rigors of winter, for it raised their basal metabolic rate by 20 to 40 percent. Fortunately for the Inuit, blubber is a beneficial fat. Scientists were fascinated that Inuit who, a recent study says, "traditionally obtained about 40 percent of their calories from fat," had, in the past, no heart disease because their diet "although high in fat, is low in saturated fat.. and that presumably explains their freedom from disease."
Seal oil, in the past, was stored in sealskin pokes and kept in stone caches, safe from arctic foxes, for spring and summer use. At Bathurst Inlet, Ekalun once showed me a great, solitary stone pillar, too sheer and high for bears or foxes to climb, upon which, in the past, Inuit had stored pokes of oil (they used a sled as a ladder to climb to the top). Even now, after decades of disuse, the distinctive, cloying smell of ancient seal oil clung to the pillar.
The Inuit of Little Diomede eat seal oil with nearly all their meals. When they have to go to hospital in Nome or Anchorage, they take a bottle of seal oil along, because without it, they say, "food just doesn't taste right." Seal oil is their main preservative: they store in it the thousands of murre eggs they collect in summer, and bags of greens - and both keep reasonably fresh for about a year. They even had a type of chewing gum made of solidified seal oil and willow catkins, and a mixture of whipped blubber and cloudberries is known in Alaska as "Eskimo ice cream."
January 1, 1732
Lachesis Lapponica - A Tour in Lapland
Legendary scientist Carl Linnaeus (von Linne) spent 6 months living with the northern Laplanders in Sweden and witnessed their exclusive meat and dairy diet and happy and healthy demeanor.
I never met with any people who lead such easy happy lives as the Laplanders. In summer they make two meals of milk in the course of the day, and when they have gone through their allotted task of milking their reindeer, or making cheese, they resign themselves to indolent tranquillity, not knowing what to do next. In winter their food is cheese, taken once or twice a day, but in the evening they eat meat. A single reindeer supplies four persons with food for a week.
Such of the male reindeer as are destined to serve for a stock of provision, are killed before the rutting-time, and their carcases hung up to be exposed to the air and frost before flaying. The flesh is smoked and a little salted, and then laid upon sledges to dry in the sun, that it may keep through the winter till spring. About the feast of St. Matthias (Feb. 24.) the reindeer begin to be so incommoded with the gad-fly, that they are not in a fit condition to be slain for eating. From that period therefore, till the milking season, the Laplanders are obliged to live on this stock of preserved meat. At other times of the year the females are killed for immediate use, according as they are wanted. The blood is kept fresh in kegs, or other vessels, and serves for food in the spring, being added to the _välling_, with a small proportion of milk and water. The blood of these animals is thick in consistence, like that of a hog. The Laplanders carry a portion of it along with them from place to place, in bladders or some kind of vessels. A stock of this and all other necessaries is collected as late as possible, before the melting of the snow, while there still remains a track for the sledges.
A kind of blood pudding or sausage is made, in general without flour, and with a large proportion of fat. This the Laplanders call _marfi_.
The liver of the reindeer, which is of a considerable bulk, is boiled and eaten fresh. The lungs, being salted and moderately dried, are eaten occasionally, or else given to the dogs. The intestines, which abound with fat, are cut open, washed, and boiled fresh; nor are they unpalatable. The brain and testicles are never eaten.
The people of this country boil their meat in water only, without any addition or seasoning, and drink the broth. _Jumomjölk_ kept for a whole year is delicate eating. Berries of all kinds are boiled in it. Some persons make a practice of boiling those berries by themselves, preserving them afterwards in small tubs, or other wooden vessels. They boil their fish more thoroughly than their meat, over a slow fire, drinking likewise the water in which it has been drest. The meat is never so much boiled as to separate from the bone. Fresh fish is sometimes roasted over the fire. Few people dry and salt it, though that method is sometimes practised. Meat is dried by the air, sun and smoke all together, being hung up in the chimney, or rather hole by which the smoke escapes through the roof.
The Laplanders never eat of more than one dish at a meal.
By way of dainty, the women occasionally mix the berries of the Dwarf Cornel (_Cornus suecica_) with _Kappi_ , which is made of whey boiled till it grows as thick as flummery. To this they moreover add some cream. That fruit is entirely neglected in the country of Medelpad.
In Dalecarlia the people generally keep their cattle up in the mountains, twelve or sixteen miles from their own dwellings, on account of gad-flies and other stinging insects. There they have their dairies, and make cheese. The remaining whey is boiled till two thirds are wasted, when it becomes as thick as flummery. This is sometimes eaten instead of butter, sometimes mixed with dough, or serves for food in various other manners.
The mode of their entertainment is as follows. First, if the stranger arrives before their meat is set over the fire to boil, they present him either with iced milk, or with some kind of berries mixed with milk, or perhaps with cheese, or with _kappi_. Afterwards, when the meat is sufficiently cooked, and they have taken it out of the pot, they put into the water, in which it has been boiled, slices of cheese made of reindeer milk. This is a testimony of hospitality, and that they are disposed to make their guest as welcome as they can. They next serve up some of their dry or solid preparations of milk.
The reindeer are not slaughtered in the same manner as cattle usually are either at Stockholm or in Smoland. The animal being secured with a halter, the Laplander takes his spear and sticks it into the thorax behind the shoulder, so as to pierce the heart. By this means the blood collects in the cavity of the thorax, none of it appearing externally. After the skin is flayed off, the blood is found coagulated in the thorax, from whence it is extracted, and bruised into a soft mass. With this the poorer sort of people make a kind of soup, by boiling along with it the brains of the animal, which the rich do not eat. The testicles are never eaten by any sort of people. The penis serves to make a thong to draw the sledges.
Being exceedingly tired with this walk, I was glad to repose myself here in the desert, while my Finland conductor went in search of my future guide. Nor was I without considerable fears that this man, when he had met with the Laplander, might not be able to find me again. However, about noon he returned, accompanied by a Laplander, who took charge of me, inviting me home to his hut, where he treated me with fish, and fresh water.
I was afterwards conducted from one Laplander to another, till I came to a part of the river, about twenty-five miles above Lycksele. I shall not dwell on the inconveniences I was obliged to undergo every time we had to seek for any of the Laplanders, while I was quite destitute of provisions. These poor people themselves had, at this season, nothing but fish to eat, as they had not yet begun to slaughter their reindeer, nor to go a fowling; neither had they, as yet, milked any of their reindeer.
The stone and gout are entirely unknown amongst the Laplanders.
I have not heard of a single instance of jaundice.
September 4, 1741
Arctic Passage - First Scientist of the Bering Sea
Russians aboard the St. Peter visit the Aleutian inlands and meet the native people there for the first time. A scientist named Steller records their characteristics and describes the encounter - in which brandy and tobacco were offered to the Aleuts while a piece of whale blubber was offered to the Russians.
On September 4, while the St. Peter was attempting to continue its
western course against a persistent wind, the Russians encountered their
first Americans. Two natives in kayaks paddled toward the ship, shouting
as they came. No one on board the St. Peter could understand what the
natives were saying, but the Americans gestured toward the land, pointed
to their mouths and scooped up sea water with their hands to indicate an
offering of refreshment to the Russians. The Russians tied two Chinese
tobacco pipes and some glass beads to a piece of board and launched it
toward the closest kayak. In turn, one of the Aleuts tied a dead falcon to a
stick and passed it to a Koriak aboard the St. Peter. Apparently the Aleut
wanted the Russians to place other gifts between the bird's claws and
return the falcon on the stick, but instead, the Koriak tried to pull the
Aleut closer and, in alarm, the Americans released the stick.
A boat was lowered from the St. Peter for a shore party. Steller,
Waxell, the Koriak interpreter, and several seamen rowed to the beach. A
landing on the rocky shore was impossible; so three of the boat party
undressed and waded ashore to be greeted by friendly Aleuts-
natives of the Aleutian Islands- who presented a piece of whale blubber.
One Aleut was bold enough to paddle out to the St. Peter and was given a cup of brandy. which he downed, then hurriedly spat out. Brandy not being well received, the Russians offered their second most prized delicacy, a lighted pipe. This, too, was rejected.
On the beach the Aleuts were quite taken with the Koriak
interpreter, presumably boccause his features resembled their own. As the
Russians prepared to return to the St. Peter some of the Americans held on
to the Koriak, and others tried to haul the boat ashore. This
confrontation between Americans and Russians was a classic case of
mutual distrust and misunderstanding and was resolved by the classic
method a show of superior force. Three of the boat crew fired their
muskets over the heads of the Aleuts, who swiftly released Koriak and
boat and threw themselves on the ground. The Russians dashed to the
water. The first test of strength was concluded. All the elements of the
future subjection of the Americans by their eastern neighbors had passed
in review. Tobacco and liquor had made their initial appearance. The first
echoes of the firearms soon to enslave a free people resounded from the
hills. Both peoples were disappointed and frustrated by the events: the
Russians because "we had not been able to observe what we had intended
but on the other hand had met what we had not expected"; the Aleuts
because, apparently, their intentions had been misunderstood. 25 The
Russians laughed at the Aleuts' consternation as they picked themselves
up "and waved their hands to us to be off quickly as they did not want us
any longer." 26 These laughs of derision and the futile waving of the
Aleuts were significant characterizations of the respective assertions of
the two peoples. History was to demonstrate that the Aleuts were no
match for the aggressive Russians. Yet waving the Russians away would
not banish them. This first contact was a prelude and a brief but
prophetic introduction to the subsequent bloody incidents that were to
occur in the conquest of the Bering Sea.
Steller, accustomed to moralizing on his own endeavors and those of
his companions, did not indulge in any reflections on the future of the
Aleuts, though he made a close observation of their physical appearance,
"They are of medium stature, strong and stocky, yet fairly well
proportioned, and with very fleshy arms and legs. The hair of the head is
glossy black and hangs straight down all around the head. The face is
brownish, a litle flat and concave. The nose is also flattened, though not
particularly broad or large. The eyes are as black as coals, the lips
prominent and turned up. In addition they have short necks, broad
shoulders, and their body is plump though not big-bellied." 27
The Aleuts wore what Steller guessed to be "whale-gut shirts with
sleeves, very neatly sewed together, which reach to the calf of the leg.
Some had skin boots and trousers and carried iron knives. Steller
speculated on the probability that the Americans knew the craft of
metalworking. He also described the Aleut kayak, noting its resemblance
to those of Greenland Eskimos.
"The American boats are about two
fathoms long, two feet high, and two feet wide on the deck, pointed
towards the nose but truncate and smooth in the rear." 29 The boats had a
frame construction covered with skins and a manhole which could be
made watertight. To this circular hole was attached a strip of material
which could be "tightened or loosened like a purse. When the American
has sat down in his boat and stretched his legs under the deck, he draws
this hem together around his body and fastens it with a bowknot in order
to prevent any water from getting in." 30
Steller did not believe that the Aleuts made their homes on the
islands. He had not yet observed any of their dwellings and assumed that
they only visited the wind-swept islands on hunting forays from the
mainland. He also speculated on the origins of the Americans, noting
their physical similarities to Siberian peoples, which suggested an Asiatic
July 5, 1742
"The sea cow's meat tasted like the finest beef, and its fat was equally succulent. Until harried out of existence, the beast was to provide the most favored sustenance of the Bering Sea fur traders. The largest sea cows were 35 feet long and 20 feet in girth, The sea cow which Steller dissected weighed 8,000 pounds"
DEATH AND LIFE ON BERING ISLAND The expedition members who had strength enough set about providing some shelter against the wind and snow flurries that swept the beach. Winter was fast approaching, and there was an immediate need to improvise some protection for Bering and the other seriouslv ill men who were carried ashore. The men instinctively constructed shelters which resembled the Aleut dwellings traditionally built in the same latitudes- pits hollowed out of the sand, roofed with canvas sails and other material from the St. Peter. Succor did not come soon enough for some of the seamen. Several expired soon after they were conveyed ashore- the death toll was mounting. Blue foxes, at first observed joyfully by the mariners as a potential food supply, soon proved to be a great nuisance. The animals, unawed by the presence of men, darted about the camp, thick as flies, stealing any tood left unguarded and terrorizing men too weak to drive them off. In one day, Steller and Plenisner killed sixty of the audacious beasts, felling some with axes and stabbing others with knives, using their carcasses as a temporary shelter wall. Each day the slaughter continued, until heaps of carcasses were strewn about the camp site, and still the foxes came, blind to their destruction in their mad quest for food. The bodies of the dead seamen were horribly mutilated before the surviving seamen could summon up enough energy to bury them in the sand. Even then, the The sows foxes desecrated the shallow graves, digging the bodies from the carth and farrying away bloody limbs. Foxes also marauded the rowinkat and stores which the Russians were gradually bringing ashore from the St. Peter. They scattered the provisions, carried off clothing, tools, and anything else that was not secured. Steller recalled the greed of the Russians for the furs of Kamchatka foxes during the preparated of the voyage and wondered whether they were being chastised for it by the Scourge of the Bering Island animals. Half crazed by the persistentche she thieving beasts, the Russians tortured and maimed as many rokee of They killed, gouging out eyes, slicing off ears and tails, half skinning some and half roasting others in their camp fires. Neither torture nor wholesale hutchering helped. The foxes infested the camp in increasing numbers and with unchecked audacity.
On November 14, a week after the initial landing, Steller and other hunters clubbed to death four sea otters; the first ones killed on Bering island. From their Kamchatka experiences the Russians were familiar with the sea otter and knew the value of its pelt in the Chinese trade. But the precious skins meant nothing to them now; they stewed up the best parts of the otter flesh to make a dish more palatable than that from the despised foxes and left the pelts to be devoured by the camp robbers. In the wake of the Bering expedition, better-fed Russians were to visit Bering Island and the Aleutians for the primary purpose of hunting sea otters. The discovery of the sea otters in November 1741 initiated the conquest of the Bering Sea, the exploitation of its resources and people. For the succeeding century, the quest of the sea otter was to underlie every event that took place. On December 8, Commander Bering's long suffering came to an end. For days he had lain half buried in the sand that had drifted into his wretched hut, protesting any efforts to clear it away. "The deeper in the ground I lie," he told Waxell, "the warmer I am; the part of my body that lies above ground suffers from the cold." 1 Bering's body was dug from the sand, tied to a plank, and thrust down into the ground, after which the burial service was read over his remains. Throughout December other deaths followed that of Berings; a total of thirty men expired in November and December. "Our plight was so wretched," wrote Waxell, "that the dead had to lie for a considerable time among the living, for there was none able to drag the corpses away; nor were those who still lived capable of moving away from the dead."? For days a dead man shared the hut in which Waxell and Khitrovlay: Whil the only able-bodied men left took time from hunting and other larks to undertake burial. Weak as he was, Waxell offered some direction. Neither then nor later, when he had recovered his health, did he attempt to drive the men. That was not an acceptable way of exerting one's power and authority. ' "Severity would have been quite pointless. Discussions on courses of action were participated in by all; the distinction between officers and seamen was erased by the circumstances waxell was cheered when the sick seamen felt well enough to sit up for card games; their play helped them pass the time and overcome the melancholy that was as deadly as scurvy. All did not share his lenient view. There were, though, certain members of our company who criticized my attitude on this point and told me to my face that I was nor discharging my duties in accordance with the regulations." + These illiberal complaints did not originate with severe, regulation-minded Russian officers, but with the expedition's most notable civilian, Georg Steller. "The sickness," wrote Steller, "had scarcely subsided, when a new and worse epidemic appeared, I mean the wretched gambling with cards." In lurid terms he described the men's obsession with gambling, their constant conversation over gains and losses, a general debauchery that resulted in theft, hatred, quarrels, strife, and the wasteful killing of sea otters for their pelts. On this last result, Steller did have a point, if it was true that otters became scarce because their furs were used as gaming stakes. Yet it does seem that the naturalist overstated his case--whether out of concern for a dwindling food supply, his abhorrence of a mindless animal slaughter, or because of a revulsion at a recreation with which he had no sympathy. While lacking the sunny bliss of the palm-studded islands of the South Pacific Ocean, Bering Island was not an entirely unfortunate place to wash up upon. Though unpromising in its rock-girded appearance, the island was not by any means infertile and desolate. Sea and land birds nested there in prodigious numbers. Foxes abounded all over the island, and its shores were the refuge of teeming herds of seals, sea lions, sed cows, and sea otters. With the Pribilof Islands of St. Paul and St. George far to the east on the Bering Sea, the Commander Islands constituted the world's major breeding rookeries of the fur seal. Hunters had no difficulty finding plump ptarmigans, foxes, seals, and sea otters, and Steller busied himself gathering antiscorbutic herbs. By this time Lieutenant Waxell, one of the iron men of the expedition, Was ultering from scurvy and was nursed by seller. Steller was one of a handful of men who remained in good health, a blessing for the less fortunate. He had strength enough to turn his energies to the care of the sick, forgetting, for a time at least, the actual and imagined insults suffered on the voyage. For the first time, the young naturalist's word had weight; no one interfered with his supervision of the scurvy victims. For once Seller would have the leisure to make a close investigation of a newly discovered land, and the island seemed to offer more natural curiosities than had been noted on the two previous landings of the vovage.
While on Bering Island, Steller did his most important work- dissecting and describing the sea cow- -a scientific task which would assure his fame for all time. Seller also devoted much attention to the bird life of Bering Island, much of which was familiar. One bird, however, followed the sea cow's road to extinction and was long known only through Steller's description. This was a large cormorant, unable to fly, hence a prime target for food hunters. This bird, which weighed 12 to 14 pounds, was seen by only one naturalist, Steller, and disappeared about 1850. Other birds he was the first to discover were Steller's Jay, Steller's Eider, the rare Steller's Eagle, and Steller's White Raven. Steller's botanical work was of equal distinction to his observations of marine life, birds, and land animals. He classified scores of unknown plants for the first time.
Through the winter the castaways subsisted on birds and various mammals, and in May the hunters brought in the first of the sea cows that fulfilled all the needs of the expedition. The first was a 4-ton monster with enough meat to feed the men for two weeks. Its rich, red flesh tasted like excellent beef, and its snow white, almond-flavored fat was "of such exceptionally good flavor and nourishment that we drank it by the cupful without experiencing the slightest nausea."& Steller's enthusiasm for the sea cow's potential was unbounded. "These animals are found at all seasons of the year everywhere around the island in the greatest numbers, So that the whole population of the eastern coast of Kamchatka would always be able to keep itself more than abundantly supplied from them With fat and meat." Truly, Steller's sea cow, as it came to be called, was a marvelous beast; yet the naturalist's prediction for its future was based in a false estimate of its numbers. It is probable that the sole grounds of the mammal were the coasts of the Commander Islands. In the spring it was decided to build a small ship from the remains of the St. Peter. Dismantling the stoutly built St. Peter occupied all of April, and on May 6, the keel of the new ship was laid. All three of the St. Peter's carpenters had died earlier. However, by good luck, one survivor of the voyage, a Siberian Cossack, had some shipbuilding experience and supervised the construction. Twenty men constituted the building party. The others were responsible for providing food for all. In July, the ship was completed, and provisions- -mostly sea cow meat and water were laid aboard. On August 10, the launching of the new St. Peer took place, and three days later the survivors were ready for the sea. Severe restrictions had to be imposed on individual baggage because of the limitation of space. Space had to be reserved for the valuable sea otter pelts which, as Waxell pointed out, were the spoils that repaid the men somewhat for their sufferings. Proceeds from the otters were divided, apparently according to rank. Steller received 80 skins of the 900 which were carried back, but he was outraged by his weight allotment of 360 pounds. He had to abandon what we recognize today as the single most precious trophy of the expedition-_the stuffed skin of a young sea cow, as well as a sea cow skeleton and specimens of the sea otter, fur seal, and sea lion. Plant seeds, a pair of the sea cow's horny palatal plates, field notes, and personal items accounted for the 360 pounds he was allowed. Waxell's weight allowance was twice that of Seller's, but others' allowances must have been much less, since the total weight allowed the forty-six men was only 3½ tons. Steller stormed and raged, but to no avail. Crowded aboard, the men took a last look at their abandoned camp. New occupiers had already taken over. "We watched the foxes on shore ransacking our dwellings with the greatest glee and activity and sharing among themselves what was left of fat and meat." 8 Their passage to Petropavlovsk, the port they had left fifteen months earlier, took just two weeks. At long last the first American expedition had ended. Steller survived the voyage but died in Siberia shortly after reaching the mainland. Considering the limited landfalls of the expedition, Seller had gathered a comprehensive picture of the natural life of the Bering Sea. And despite his own reservations regarding his work, Steller deserves his high rating among the world's pioneer scientists.
Georg Wilhelm Seller's hard-won fame rests on the accurate descriptions of the sea cow and other marine mammals which were published in his De Besis Marims. His dissection of a female sea cow in July 1742 can easily be considered one of the high points of Pacific Ocean scientific activity. This great northern manatee is known only through Steller's notes and the few skeletons collected years later. For 100 years, the sea cow has been extinct. A living specimen was last seen in 1768, a mere 27 years after its discovery by the Bering expedition. Steller observed these mammals along the entire shore of the island. where they fed on seaweed near the mouths of streams. The sea cow's appetite was huge. When not mating or caring for their young, they were continuously occupied in feeding along the sea edge, usually with half their body above the surface. June was the mating season and a strict ritual ensued. "The female flees slowly before the male with continual turns about, but the male pursues her without cessation. When, however, the female is finally weary of this mock coyness she turns on her back and the male completes the mating in the human manner." In mating, the males penetrated their mates with a six-foot-long penis of corresponding thickness. Sea cows were unafraid of people and allowed their approach without showing any sign of alarm. Prior to the landing of the Bering party, they had never known an enemy, but, unfortunately for their survival, their bulk and shore-feeding habits were to make them a helpless prey. The Russians found the flesh of seals strong and coarse and liked that of the sea otter even less, but the sea cow's meat tasted like the finest beef, and its fat was equally succulent. Until harried out of existence, the beast was to provide the most favored sustenance of the Bering Sea fur traders. The huge mammal had instincts that seemed almost human. Although unwary in its own defense, the manatee tried to protect its kind from the butchering hunters. When the Bering men harpooned a sea cow and towed it to the beach, other animals formed a circle about the victim as if to prevent its sacrifice. "Some attempted to upset the yawl; others laid themselves over the rope or tried to pull the harpoon out of [his] body, in which they succeeded several times." In astonishment, the Russians observed "that a male came two days in succession to its female Which was lying dead on the beach, as if it would inform himself about her condition. For all this sensitivity, the sea cows were otherwise obtuse. Regardless of the slaughtering that went on among the herd, they never shifted location to escape the bloody executions.
As a scientist, Steller's chief resources were his own intellizence and energy: While men like Johann Georg Mcclit and Louis Delisle held chorere traveled with servants, provisioned with European foods and wines, Steller traveled light eating native foods for convenience and wifetife interest. Typically, Steller tackled the problem of the dissection and description of the sea cow with dedication and energy. Handling the huge manatee was extremely difficult. In shape, the sea cow resembled a seal, though it had a large fluke like a whale. The largest sea cows were 35 feet long and 20 feet in girth, The sea cow which Steller dissected weighed 8,000 pounds. The heart alone weighed 36¼ pounds and the stomach was 6 feet long, 5 feet wide, and so stuffed with food and seaweed that four strong men using a rope could scarcely move the animal from its place and only with great effort were able to drag it out of the sea. Rain and cold impeded Steller's efforts, while Arctic foxes were tearing at the mammal's flesh and carrying off Steller's paper, books, and inkstand. This unpleasant work could not be performed without considerable manpower: Steller recruited seamen and paid them in tobacco. Fortunately Sneller was a nonsmoker. Not unexpectedly, the seamen's work did not meet Seller's standards; yet, at the time, he expressed satisfaction that they did not desert him altogether in this gigantic task. Steller complained often of a lack of assistance, but he seemed to have received a great deal of help from Plenisner, who made the six sea cow drawings that enhanced De Bests Marins, and from other members of the surgical staff, as well as the Cossack, Lepekhin.
Steller's description of the sea otters on Bering Island was the first comprehensive report on the mammals to be published. The stranded Russian mariners appreciated the value of the pelts enough to tan them carefully, but they also depended upon them for a food supply. Steller noted that the sea otter had been confused bv Russians in Kamchatka with the beaver, because its fur more closely resembled the beaver than that of the familiar, smaller, river otter. Indisputably, argued Steller, the sea otter was an American sea animal which only occasionally tound its way to the coast of Kamchatka. A full-grown prime skin is 5 feet long, and 24-30 inches wide, covered with a fine fur, the hairs of which are 3/4 inch in length. Its jet black, glossy surface revealed a silver tinge when ruffled, and the presence of scattered white hairs enhanced its beauty. Unlike other marine mammals, the sea otter does not depend upon a thick blubber layer under the skin to maintain its bodr emperature in the frigid waters of its habitat. Instead it relies upon the islation of air trapped in its hair; consequently the mammal"s constantly preening and grooming its hair. Seller was unaware of this and other findings of modern biologists that have made the uniqueness of the sea otter even more clear. Of all its singularities, none is more amazing than its use of a tool to aid feeding. As it floats on its back, the after breaks clams, crabs, and other crustaceans held in its front paws against a stone resting on its chest. Otter spend most of their existence on their backs feeding, preening, and sleeping. Females carry and suckle their offspring and copulate in this position. Despite its apparently leisurely habits the otter's appetite is ravenous. Each day it requires a quantity of crustaceans and fish equaling ¼ of its total body weight of up to 80 pounds. The Aleuts of the Aleutian Islands were skilled hunters of the sea otter long before the Russians enslaved them to that purpose. They Aleuts hunted at sea from their swift kayaks, using a spearlike weapon which was thrown from the cramped sitting position of the boatman. Hunting from such a platform was a difficult exercise even in the calmest seas. A keen eve and strong, steady throwing arm were essential to accuracy. Sea otters did not present a large target above the surface, and it required a consummate skill to strike them in the water. Once hit, the otter could offer little resistance. It could dive beneath the surface for a time, but if the spear had deeply penetrated its body, this evasion only exhausted and weakened the animal. Before long the otter had to return to the surface to breathe and die as its life's blood poured from the wound. As life ebbed away, the Aleut hunter guided his craft close and lifted his prey from the water. "The sea otter is the mildest of all marine animals. It never makes any resistance to hunters, and only saves itself by running away if it can." 12 Thus Stepan Krasheninnikov in his report on Kamchatka reported of the most important resource of the Bering Sea. Natives of Kamchatka hunted the sea otter off the island's shores by spreading nets among the kelp beds where otters fed, by harpooning the mammals at sea from their small boats, and sometimes by catching them on ice floes that grounded near the coast. Kamchadals did not prize the sea otter pelt as highly as that of foxes and sables, but the Cossacks who traded for them knew better.
When Europeans discovered them, there may have been only 2,000 individuals left. This small population was quickly wiped out by fur traders, seal hunters, and others who followed Vitus Bering's route past its habitat to Alaska. It was also hunted to collect its valuable subcutaneous fat. The animal was hunted and used by Ivan Krassilnikov in 1754 and Ivan Korovin 1762, but Dimitri Bragin, in 1772, and others later, did not see it. Brandt thus concluded that by 1768, twenty-seven years after it had been discovered by Europeans, the species was extinct. In 1887, Stejneger estimated that there had been fewer than 1,500 individuals remaining at the time of Steller's discovery, and argued there was already an immediate danger of the sea cow's extinction.
The first attempt to hunt the animal by Steller and the other crew members was unsuccessful due to its strength and thick hide. They had attempted to impale it and haul it to shore using a large hook and heavy cable, but the crew could not pierce its skin. In a second attempt a month later, a harpooner speared an animal, and men on shore hauled it in while others repeatedly stabbed it with bayonets. It was dragged into shallow waters, and the crew waited until the tide receded and it was beached to butcher it. After this, they were hunted with relative ease, the challenge being in hauling the animal back to shore. This bounty inspired maritime fur traders to detour to the Commander Islands and restock their food supplies during North Pacific expeditions.
April 1, 1770
A Journey from Prince of Wales's Fort in Hudson's Bay to the Northern Ocean.
Samuele Hearne travels with the Northern Native Americans in order to explore the Northwest Passage and explains how they were reliant on fish alone followed by other animals like deer and beaver.
The remaining part of this month passed on without any interruption, or material occurrence, to disturb our repose, worth relating: our fishing nets provided us with daily food, and the Indians had too much philosophy about them to give themselves much additional trouble; for during the whole time not one of them offered to look for a partridge, or anything else which could yield a change of diet.
As the time may now be supposed to have lain heavy on my hands, it may not be improper to inform the reader how I employed it. In the first place, I embraced every favourable opportunity of observing the latitude of the place, the mean of which was 58° 46' 30" North; and the longitude by account was 5° 57' West, from Prince of Wales's Fort. I then corrected my reckoning from my last observation; brought up my journal, and filled up my chart, to the place of our residence. I built also some traps, and caught a few martins; and by way of saving my ammunition, set some snares for partridges. The former is performed by means of a few logs, so arranged that when the martin attempts to take away the bait laid for him, he with very little struggle pulls down a small post that supports the whole weight of the trap; when, if the animal be not killed by the weight of the logs, he is confined till he be frozen to death, or killed by the hunter going his rounds.
To snare partridges requires no other process than making a few little hedges across a creek, or a few short hedges projecting at right angles from the side of an island of willows, which those birds are found to frequent. Several openings must be left in each hedge, to admit the birds to pass through, and in each of them a snare must be set; so that when the partridges are hopping along the edge of the willows to feed, which is their usual custom, some of them soon get into the snares, where they are confined till they are taken out. I have caught from three to ten partridges in a day by this simple contrivance; which requires no further attendance than going round them night and morning.
-- April 1st, 1770
I have already observed that nothing material happened to disturb our repose till the first of April, when to our great surprise the fishing nets did not afford us a single fish. Though some of the preceding days had been pretty successful, yet my companions, like true Indians, seldom went to sleep till they had cleared the tent of every article of provision. As nothing was to be caught in the nets, we all went out to angle; but in this we were equally unsuccessful, as we could not procure one fish the whole day. This sudden change of circumstances alarmed one of my companions so much, that he began to think of resuming the use of his gun, after having laid it by for near a month.
Early in the morning we arose; when my guide Conne-e-quese went a hunting, and the rest attended the nets and hooks near home; but all with such bad success, that we could not procure enough in one day to serve two men for a supper. This, instead of awakening the rest of my companions, sent them to sleep; and scarcely any of them had the prudence to look at the fishing nets, though they were not more than two or three hundred yards from the tent door.
-- April 1770.
My guide, who was a steady man, and an excellent hunter, having for many years been accustomed to provide for a large family, seemed by far the most industrious of all my crew; he closely pursued his hunting for several days, and seldom returned to the tent till after dark, while those at the tent passed most of their time in smoking and sleeping.
--April 10th 1770.
Several days passed without any signs of relief, till the 10th, when my guide continued out longer than ordinary, which made us conjecture that he had met with strangers, or seen some deer, or other game, which occasioned his delay. We all therefore lay down to sleep, having had but little refreshment for the three preceding days, except a pipe of tobacco and a draught of water; even partridges had become so scarce that not one was to be got; the heavy thaws had driven them all out towards the barren grounds. About midnight, to our great joy, our hunter arrived, and brought with him the blood and fragments of two deer that he had killed. This unexpected success soon roused the sleepers, who, in an instant, were busily employed in cooking a large kettle of broth, made with the blood, and some fat and scraps of meat shred small, boiled in it. This might be reckoned a dainty dish at any time, but was more particularly so in our present almost famished condition.
-- April 11 1770.
After partaking of this refreshment, we resumed our rest, and early in the morning set out in a body for the place where the deer were lying. As we intended to make our stay but short, we left our tent standing, containing all our baggage. On our arrival at the place of destination, some were immediately employed in making a hut or barrocado with young pine trees; while one man skinned the deer, the remainder went a hunting, and in the afternoon returned to the hut, after having killed two deer.
Several days were now spent in feasting and gluttony; during which the Indians killed five more deer and three fine beavers; finding at last, however, that there was little prospect of procuring either more deer or beavers, we determined to return to our tent, with the remains of what we had already obtained.
-- April 22 1770.
The flesh of these deer, though none of the largest, might with frugality have served our small number, (being only six) for some time; but my companions, like other Indians, feasted day and night while it lasted; and were so indolent and unthinking, as not to attend properly to the fishing nets; so that many fine fish, which had been entangled in the nets, were entirely spoiled, and in about twelve or fourteen days we were nearly in as great distress for provisions as ever.