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Stefansson describes a long trip through a blizzard and how he must depend upon four year dead whale blubber, caribou fur dipped in seal oil, and even clothing material and buried scientific specimens. He even explains why it's a bad idea to eat your own dogs.

November 23, 1909

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My Life with the Eskimo - Chapter 7

Vilhjalmur Stefansson

Man The Fat Hunter
Facultative Carnivore
Eskimo
Carnivore Diet

When we parted with Dr. Anderson, November 23d, at the mouth of Horton River, we each had about two days' provisions. It was blowing a blizzard from the southwest and was very cold, but the wind was nearly fair for him, and he would be able, we thought, to make our meat cache at Langton Bay in three days (which he succeeded in doing ). It would take us longer, we knew, to get home to our hunting-camp. It turned out that it took us thirteen days. The sun was gone, and there were blizzards more than half the time. We had counted on getting both ptarmigan and rabbits along the way, but on account of the snowstorms and darkness we got not a single rabbit and only seven ptarmigan. 


On the beach near the mouth of Horton River we had discovered the carcass of a bow-head whale that had (we afterward learned ) been dead four years. It would have been securely hidden from sight by the level three feet or so of snow that covered it had not the Arctic foxes smelled it out and by their tracks and burrowings given us the clue. After working half a day to shovel off the snow, we got at the carcass at last, and chopped off from the tongue of the huge animal about a hundred pounds of what we intended for dog feed. When fresh the tongue is mostly fat, but after four years of weathering there remained chiefly the connective tissues, so that what we cut off more resembled chunks of felt than pieces of meat. Of these one hundred pounds Dr. Anderson and I each had taken  half; he took no more because he expected to reach Langton Bay with its cache of caribou and bear-meat in three days; I took no more because I expected to find plenty of small game along Horton River as we ascended it toward our main camp. 


After Dr. Anderson left us we were kept in camp two days by a blizzard so violent that our dogs would not face it. Whether your dogs will or will not face the wind is the test of fit and unfit traveling weather in the Arctic, for a properly dressed man will face a wind that is too much for the Eskimo dog. These two storm -bound days used up most of our ordinary food, and on the first day of actual travel we were on half -allowance. The second day out we boiled up some sealskins that we had intended for boots ; the third day we ate some more skins and boiled a little of the whale tongue. This last all of us found unpalatable, for the tongue had been so long awash on the beach that it had become thoroughly impregnated with sea salts ( other than sodium chloride ). No doubt it was these salts, too, that made us sick, so that two or three days farther on our jour when —between men and dogs — we had finished the whale tongue, we were really better off than while we had it. We had tried slicing it thin and boiling it twice and even three times, but it seemed impossible to get rid of the quinine-like bitterness. 


I must not give the impression that we were really starving, or even suffering much from hunger. We had plenty of seal-oil sealskin bag full of it - and of this we ate all we wanted. All of us found, however, that we could not take much of it "straight” the stomach needs bulky food; it craves to be filled with something. For this reason we used to eat the oil soaked up in tea leaves, ptar migan feathers, or caribou hair. Most commonly we used to take long-haired caribou skin, cut it in small pieces, dip the pieces in oil, and eat them that way. This is, too, the method we used in feeding oil to dogs in an emergency; on this trip, as on many other occasions, we and our dogs fared exactly alike. The tenth day out (December 4th) we camped near the place where two months before we had cached our grizzly bear skins. I had then been so profoundly impressed with their value to science that I had spent a day in burying them safely in frozen ground; now their food value impressed us so strongly that we spent a day in digging them up to eat the heads and paws, though we destroyed thereby the scientific value of the skins. There was one ham of caribou cached at the same place, but that and the heads and paws of the bears all went in one day, as well as five Canada jays we had killed and kept as ornithological specimens, our dogs getting a share, of course. They were now so weak that we had to pull most of the weight of the sleds ourselves, though we were a little weak, too. I have noticed — and Dr. Anderson's experience has been the same as mine —that on a diet of fats alone one gradually loses strength, but that this symptom of malnutrition is not so conspicuous as sleepiness and a mental inability to call quickly into action such strength as one has. 


After a day of high living on the one caribou ham, eight bear-paws, and five Canada jays we were down to a diet of skins and oil again. We also ate our snow-shoe lashings and several fathoms of other raw hide thongs — fresh rawhide is good eating; it reminds one of pig's feet, if well boiled. It occurs to one in this connection ( seriously speaking) that one of the material advantages of skin clothing over woolens in Arctic exploration is that one can eat them in an emergency, or feed them to one's dogs if the need is not quite so pressing. This puts actual starvation off by a week or so. As for eating one's dogs, the very thought is an abomination. Not that I have any prejudice against dog-meat, as such; it is probably very much like wolf, and wolf I know to be excellent. But on a long, hard sled trip the dogs become your friends; they work for you single-mindedly and uncomplainingly ; they revel with you in prosperity and good fortune; they take starvation and hard knocks with an equanimity that says to you : “We have seen hard times together before, we shall see good times again ; but if this be the last, you can count on us to the end.” To me the death of a dog that has stood by me in failure and helped me to success is the death of a comrade in arms; to eat him would be but a step removed from cannibalism. 


After finishing our bear- paws we had only two more days on deer skins and oil, and it was lucky we had no more, for on the evening of the second day when we were about eighteen miles short of our camp, Ilavinirk, Mamayauk, and Kunasluk all complained of weakness and Mamayauk seemed so sick that we feared not being able to move camp the following day. For some days past the dogs had not been pulling much. They had been losing strength faster than we, for although they had about the same allowance as we of deerskins and oil, they were forced to sleep outdoors in the cold while we had al ways our cozy and cheerful camp, and the cold saps strength as quickly as does hard work . Ilavinirk and I had therefore been pulling the sleds with little assistance from the dogs, and now it seemed clear that if he were to cease work and Mamayauk's weight were to be added to the sled, it would be out of the question for me alone to try to move it . Evidently the one thing for me to do was to try to hurry ahead to where Pannigabluk was guarding our meat cache, to fetch a back-load of food for men and dogs. 


Although I was both tired and sleepy I accordingly, at the end of the day's work on December 7th, shared with the rest my last meal of skins and oil, and then, between 8.30 P.M. and 4.15 next morning, I walked through a starlit night against a fairly strong wind the eighteen miles to our camp. I found Pannigabluk up and cooking over a cheerful open fire, for, like many other elderly people, she was an early riser. It was a pleasant home-coming. Contrary to what might have been expected, I did not sit down to a huge meal. I was too tired for that, and sleepy, and tumbled at once into bed. It was not until 10.30 o'clock in the forenoon that Pannigabluk, according to my directions, awoke me to eat. At 11.45 I was on the road back, with thirty pounds or so of dried meat. I met the party about five miles away from our camp, for Mamayauk had felt better in the morning and was able to travel. We made camp where I met them and by noon the next day we were all sitting around huge troughs of boiled venison in our comfortable winter house. Most of the meat we had killed in the fall was still on hand. Pannigabluk had of course eaten some while we were away, and a wolverine had stolen a few pieces from under her very nose — they are animals with a genius for thievery and mischief. For the time our prospects were not bad, except that out of the six Eskimo I now had with me three were more or less sick from the effects of the diet of deer hair and oil -or rather, perhaps, from the effect of overeating when they got where meat was abundant. We now had meat to do us about two months, we thought, but we were short of fat. Some blubber cached on the coast was one of the things Dr. Anderson had gone to get for us. 


When we arrived at our home camp, December 7th, it seemed for the time being that all our troubles were over. We took a look the next day at our stock of caribou meat and it was an imposing pile. But then, frozen carcasses always do make a great showing. We agreed that there must be food enough there for two months for men and dogs, and fresh caribou tracks were numerous all around the house, so that it seemed we surely ought to be able to get plenty more fresh meat when the stock on hand was gone.