The Caribou-Eaters are starving but manage to kill a hare and a ptarmigan for Christmas Eve, as well as a frozen stomach filled with goodies the day afterwards. The Caribou-Eaters never discuss the possibility of eating their dogs, since a superstition prevented them from doing so.
December 24, 1928
The Land of Feast and Famine
Suddenly I heard a shot and at the same moment I saw Antoine fly like the wind over to something in the snow and madly pounce upon it. Now what under Heaven! Up on top of the esker, whom should I see but Jonas, standing there, his crutch in one hand, his gun in the other. With a long and difficult shot he had felled the hare at the very moment Antoine had chased it from cover. How Jonas had ever managed to come out to this place of ours was a puzzle to me, until I saw his tracks in the snow. From the tent to the top of the esker I discovered a deep furrow carved through the yard-deep snow. That plucky little devil, he had dragged himself along on his belly!
Twilight had begun to fall and we turned back to the tent, where we prepared the hare and waited for the caribou-hunters to return. Later in the evening they appeared. The result of their hunt was one ptarmigan. So, after all, we had a Christmas Eve spread and this fact gave us much pleasure. With painful care we divided the food equally amongst ourselves and swallowed, as it were, all but the skin and the feathers. But Christmas Eve was no grand affair for the dogs.
Next morning, when we were ready to strike camp, Johnny found that he had lost all but one of his dogs. He had been careless enough to allow them to run loose during the night, and now they were unquestionably roaming the wastes in search of some game of their own. The chances that they would find their way back to the tent were certainly not great, but we decided to wait over a day, in any event, to see if they might not turn up. Johnny scraped up sticks of wood from near and far and made a little fire up on a hilltop so that the dogs might catch scent of the smoke. There he sat, half-frozen, all day long and half the night, in his endeavor to keep his fire burning. Along toward morning the dogs, tired and footsore, came trotting into camp.
Before we again broke camp, Antoine had a surprise for us. He dragged out a caribou stomach half-filled with blood and inner organs, which he had hidden away during an earlier hunt. He could not have given us a handsomer Christmas present. It was frozen as hard as a rock, but we chopped it up into fine bits with the ax and threw these into the large pot, which we then filled half-full of snow-water. The result was a greenish mess, but we drank it down greedily. Scraps of the skin of the stomach were dealt out equally and these we chewed carefully and swallowed bite by bite.
This proved to be our last meal for some time. We continued east for three days without food. A couple of times we experimented with some black lichens thoroughly boiled in water. They didn't taste at all bad, but they were not in the least degree filling. Aside from this it was tea, morning, noon, and night. We made enormous quantities of it and drank it scalding hot.
None of us were particularly spry as we tramped along on our snowshoes. It was a question of sparing the dogs as much as possible, so it was a rare occasion indeed when we could hop onto the load and ride. Gradually our gnawing hunger gave way to a feeling of general flaccidity. We felt the cold keenly at night, and in the daytime it was just as bad, for the icy snow of the Barrens would find its way in through the minutest rift in our clothing. The cold remained constant day after day and I am sure the temperature never rose above 40° below zero.
Nevertheless, the hardships which we ourselves endured were nothing compared with those which afflicted the dogs. It was a week now since they had eaten anything resembling a square meal, though they worked faithfully in the traces from morning till night, none the less. Their tails drooped and there was no longer the old pulling-power in their gait, but they moved along somehow. It is unbelievable what these dogs of the Northland can endure in the way of toil and deprivation, and inspiring is their patient willingness to work until their last ounce of strength is gone and they drop in the traces.
We crossed the divide, a conspicuous elevation in the terrain off to the northwest, and thereafter all the streams flowed east towards Hudson Bay. The third day after our meal of frozen caribou stomach we sighted some stunted spruces along a river course in a small valley. There we pitched our tent and held a general council to decide on the best course for us to pursue. Even the Indians could see that it would be dangerous to continue on our present course. Not a fresh caribou trail to be seen, and the wastes to the east of us gave promise of nothing. Hence we agreed to turn due south on the following morning. Everything considered, that must be the direction in which the caribou were holding themselves; hunting was the one matter which concerned us now. Along the way, too, we might cross the sled-trail of some white trapper who had a cabin somewhere along the edge of the forest. The Indians had heard about this cabin, but none knew its exact location.
I should like to mention in this place that not once, either then or on later occasions when we were suffering from hunger, did I ever hear the Indians mention the possibility of eating the dogs. This was due to an old superstition to the effect that dogs are cannibalistic and therefore unclean, a belief I shall treat later. It has happened on occasion that white trappers have eaten their dogs, but amongst Indians I have never heard of such an occurence.