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With the possible exception of the Bowhead Whale, the Caribou is without doubt the most important animal of the Arctic. There is scarcely anything manufactured which can equal Caribou skin as an article of clothing; in many districts the natives live for long periods almost exclusively upon the meat of the Caribou, while there are many vast sections of the land which could with difficulty even be explored without relying upon finding the herds of Caribou.

May 10, 1910

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My Life with the Eskimo - Caribou - Tuktu

Vilhjalmur Stefansson

Man The Fat Hunter
Facultative Carnivore
Eskimo
Carnivore Diet

Rangifer arcticus (Richardsons). Barren Ground Caribou. " Tûk'tū ” (universal Eskimo name).

Adult bull, Pag'nirk. Adult female, Kūl'la -vŭk. Fawn, Nö'wak.


With the possible exception of the Bowhead Whale, the Caribou is without doubt the most important animal of the Arctic. There is scarcely anything manufactured which can equal Caribou skin as an article of clothing; in many districts the natives live for long periods almost exclusively upon the meat of the Caribou, while there are many vast sections of the land which could with difficulty even be explored without relying upon finding the herds of Caribou. The Caribou were formerly universally and abundantly distributed over all parts of Arctic Alaska and Canada, but the numbers have been enormously decreased nearly everywhere within the last twenty years. Until a few years ago the coastal plain of Arctic Alaska, from Point Barrow to the Mackenzie, was the pasture of vast herds. Only an occasional scattered band is now seen. As a consequence most of the Eskimo have been compelled by starvation to move out, notably from the Colville River region. The Caribou are practically extinct around Point Barrow, and our party in the year 1908-1909 found only a few between Cape Halkett and the Colville. We saw a herd of perhaps four hundred in the Kuparuk River delta (the only large band seen by anybody in northern Alaska that season) and other small bands as far west as Demarcation Point. Around the mouth of the Mackenzie the Caribou have practically disappeared, although stragglers are occasionally seen on Richard Island and in the Eskimo Lakes region. Few are now found on the Cape Bathurst peninsula, and only small numbers around Langton Bay and Darnley Bay. There are places in the interior of Alaska which are more favored. In the southern foothills on the Endicott Mountains, on one of the northern tributaries of the Yukon, beyond the ordinary range of the Indians or the white prospectors, I saw in 1908 as many as one thousand Caribou in a single herd. Farther east, the Caribou are much more plentiful. Victoria Island pastures great numbers in summer. These herds cross to the mainland south of Victoria Island as soon as Dolphin and Union Straits and Coronation Gulf are frozen over in the fall (in 1910, about November 8th - 10th ), returning north over the ice in April and May. Some Caribou are found all summer around Great Bear Lake and the Coppermine River. Large numbers winter on Caribou Point, the large peninsula between Dease Bay and Mc Tavish Bay at the eastern end of Great Bear Lake. Here on the cold, calm days of midwinter the steam from the massed herds often rises like a cloud over the tops of the scattering spruce forests. Although a large number of Caribou come down into the Bear Lake woods, and go out on the Barren Grounds in spring, not all the Caribou seek the shelter of the woods in winter. Some Caribou are found in midwinter on the most wind-swept barrens and occur on almost any part of the Arctic coast at any season of the year. 


The Eskimo of the Coronation Gulf and Victoria Island region have no firearms and kill Caribou by driving a herd between long rows of rock monuments into an ambush or into lakes where the Caribou are pursued and speared from kayaks. Two or three stones or a bunch of turf placed on top of a rock two or three feet high, or even less, to resemble persons, form these little cairns, often extending for miles and converging in some valley or gulch. The Caribou ordinarily pay no attention to these monuments, but when alarmed by the sight of people, seem to become confused and do not venture to cross the lines of mounds. The custom is to have a person stationed here and there along the line, while others surround the herd of Caribou and start it moving towards the line. As the Caribou approach, the people along the line of rock monuments display themselves, throwing the herd into a panic and as the herd rushes along between the converging lines into the ambush where concealed bowmen have an opportunity to shoot the Caribou at very short range. On the Barren Grounds around Coronation Gulf these inuktjuit (inuk [man ] -like) Caribou drives are found everywhere. But even in this most favorable Caribou country the older people say that in their youth the Caribou were much more abundant than at present. 


The hunting of the Barren Ground Caribou, as it is practiced by white men and the Eskimo who use firearms, is in theory a very simple matter. The prime requisites are unlimited patience and much hard work. The field -glass or telescope is almost as necessary as the rifle, since the Caribou should be discovered at a distance. The herd is spied out from the highest knolls or elevations, and if the country is rough enough to afford even a little cover, the approach is comparatively easy by hunting up the wind, as the Caribou do not see very far. Their powers of scent and hearing are very acute, however. On a broad, flat tundra plain, where there is no cover, and there are not enough hunters to approach from several sides, obviously the proper thing to do is to wait for the Caribou to browse slowly along and move on to more favorable ground for stalking. During the short days of winter this is often impossible and under any circumstances is trying to the patience. The reputed superiority of the Eskimo hunter over his white confrère seems to be mainly in the former's willingness to spend unlimited time in approaching his quarry. The Great Bear Lake Indians often take advantage of the Caribou's frequent habit of circling around the hunter until certain of the danger. They will sneak up as far as practicable, then come out into the open and run directly at the Caribou, which often stand stupidly until the hunter is very near or else circle blindly around until they get the scent of the hunter and make off. I have always found it much easier to approach a small herd than a large one, because there is always a straggler or two on the flanks of a large herd to give alarm before the main body is approached. 


For the purposes of making clothing, the skins of the Caribou are at their best from the 1st of August until about the 10th of September. Later than that the hair becomes too long and heavy. Towards the end of winter the hair begins to get loose, and by the last of April is so very loose that the skin is practically worthless. During June and July the Caribou usually have a more or less patchy appearance, due to bunches of loose, faded, old hair remaining in places. Summer skins are often badly perforated by the grubs of a species of bot- fly. Caribou skins are exceptional non -conductors of heat. When a number of Caribou are killed during the short days of mid winter, the Eskimo often skin only the legs, double the legs under the body, and pack soft snow around the carcass. I have seen many Caribou left out overnight at a temperature of —45° Fahrenheit, and lower, and the heat retained by the skin so that the body was warm and readily skinned the next day. 


The fawns, seldom more than one in number, are born between the 1st and 15th of June. Two young fawns taken near the Colville delta, Alaska, June 16th, 1909, were quite different in color, one being decidedly brown, with short, sleek coat; the other was whitish gray with very little " fawn ” color, and hair longer and softer, more woolly in texture. No traces of spotting on either specimen. The Caribou seen east of the Coppermine River and on the south side of Coronation Gulf seemed to average much lighter in color than the Caribou found on Great Bear Lake or on the Arctic coast west of Cape Parry. With very few exceptions the Coppermine Caribou were very light, with legs nearly white. The heads of these Caribou appeared to be much shorter than those of the Great Bear Lake Caribou, with a noticeable fullness or convexity between forehead and nose, reminding one in some degree of the profile of a rabbit. The difference is not very noticeable on the skulls, the fullness of the face being largely due to the fuzziness of the whorl of hair on front of face. 


The old bull Caribou begin to shed their antlers by the first of January or earlier, and most of them have dropped them by the month of February. The young bulls and cows retain their antlers until May. On Caribou Point the old bulls herded together in winter, and in their antler-less condition presented a pitiably tame and defense-less appearance, in contrast to the bull Caribou’s belligerent-looking autumn attitude. By the 10th of May the new antlers of the old bulls are about a foot long, with blunt, knobby ends. 


Many Eskimo claim to be able to pick out the fat Caribou from a herd by observing the shape of the horns. This is probably merely the ability to distinguish between the sexes in a herd at the different At Great Bear Lake in the fall, before the rutting season, the old bulls had the greatest quantities of fat. In midwinter all the bulls were poor, while the cows often had considerable fat. Towards spring the young bulls began to pick up a little fat, while the cows seemed to fall away as the calving season approached. The cows can usually be distinguished from young bulls by the relative slenderness of their antlers. Old bulls seldom have much fat before the end of the mosquito season. When the antlers are full grown, then they begin to pick up rapidly. The largest slab of back-fat which I have seen taken from a Caribou on the Arctic coast was from a bull killed near Langton Bay early in September, the fat weighing 39 pounds. seasons. A large bull killed by Mr. Stefansson on Dease River in October had back-fat 72 mm. in thickness (2 inches). Comparing the thickness of this with the Langton Bay specimen, the back-fat of the Dease River bull must have weighed at least 50 pounds. The thicker the back-fat of a Caribou is, the richer it is in proportion —the amount of connective tissue remaining the same, and the additional weight consisting of interstitial fat.