Historical Events

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Ingstad prepares a cache of six thousand fish for dog-food while hanging out with the local Chipewyan Indians.

October 8, 1928

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The Land of Feast and Famine

Helge Ingstad

Pre-civilization races
Carnivore Diet

There would be another month before snowfall, and I thought it would be just as well to put this interim to some good use. "Hudson Bay" was in need of dog-feed to last them over the winter and I undertook to supply them with five thousand or more fish at eight cents apiece. During those years I had had a good bit to do with the Hudson's Bay Company: had felled, floated, and hauled hundreds of logs for the three new trading stores which Dale and I built, had chopped scores of cords of firewood, and had otherwise picked up odd jobs from them during the summer months when there was nothing else to do. Thus I was always able to earn a bit of loose money. But this fishing contract of mine stood in a class by itself. It was an economic triumph, for, as it turned out, there were no end of fish in the Snowdrift River that year. 


Hanging from a cache I had in the neighborhood of six thousand fish, waiting to be called for.


With the bright, sparkling autumn days at hand, it was grand to be a fisherman. Each morning I would paddle up the river to see to my nets, and when, at noon-time, I turned back, I would be sitting to my knees in fish. With ears erect and eyes ablaze with expectancy, the dogs would be standing on the outermost stones in the river to meet me. Sk0ieren would wade right out in the water and peep over the side of the canoe in order to make sure for himself what prospects there were for lunch. 


The Indians did not have many fish left over. They cast out their nets in the simplest manner possible, in the immediate vicinity of their tepees, and never did they make any notable catches. When at first I shifted my nets from place to place in order to discover, by experiment, where the fishing was best, they simply smiled superciliously. But after observing the excellent results I obtained, they began to study my movements. One morning I discovered Indian nets set on both sides and immediately in front of each of my own. I objected strenuously. The Indians took the whole affair as the most normal thing in the world, hauled in their lines right under my nose, sang and joked, boasted of their catch, and enjoyed themselves hugely whenever they peeped into my canoe, where only the very smallest variety of fish glittered in the bottom. 


There was no law to prohibit the Indians from setting out their nets wherever they desired, and it did one no good to fume when met by smiles and a clear conscience. Therefore I chose other tactics, based upon my knowledge that all the fish were swimming downstream and that the Indians were somewhat lazy. I drew out all my nets and set them several miles farther upstream, right at the foot of the first rapid. No one cared to follow me that far, and once more the fishing was excellent. 


This affair caused no rift whatever in our friendly relations. It was a hard and fast custom which took me, each evening, over to my neighbors to pay them a visit. In Antoine's tepee a place was always reserved for me on a huge caribou hide where I could stretch out and make myself at home. The hunters would assemble, and far into the night we would lie there, drawing on our pipes and chatting about hunting and distant lands. These people knew a minimum of English, their vocabulary being confined to such words as " white fox," " lots," " sticks," " far," " sleep," and a number of other words of this kind. I had, in the meantime, begun to acquire some insight into the Chipewyan language. My vocabulary was limited, my gutturals had a singular ring and caused an excusable stir, but I stammered away at it and made steady progress. 


I surely found no lack of clothes for the winter, for I had the young girls of the camp to make them for me. They made me mittens edged with caribou-skin, duffels (socks), and deerskin parkas. But I had to work like a blacksmith in order to avoid getting Indian sizes. The young girls could never stop giggling whenever they made mention of the white man's moccasins which had to be so inconceivably nacha (large).