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Stefansson: "This was the only time in a period of fourteen months of continuous "living on the country” (eating a carnivorous diet) that I shot more animals than I thought we should need."

April 27, 1910

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My Life with the Eskimo - Chapter 10

Vilhjalmur Stefansson

Man The Fat Hunter
Facultative Carnivore
Eskimo
Carnivore Diet

We had with us on starting from Langton Bay about two weeks' supplies. These were neither here nor there as provisions for a year's exploration we would have been quite as well off had we started with only two days' supplies. From the outset, therefore, we tried to provide each day food for that day from the animals of the land. In carrying out such a programme for a party of four each bad to do his share. My main reliance was the Alaskan man Natkusiak , and the woman Pannigabluk; the Mackenzie River boy Tannaumirk, a boy in character, though perhaps twenty-five in years, was a cheerful and companionable sort of fellow, but with out initiative and (like many of his countrymen nowadays) not in the best of health. Our general plan was that the three Eskimo took care of the sled, one, usually the woman, walking ahead to pick out a trail through the rough sea ice, and the other two steadying the sled from upsetting too often, and pulling in harness at the same time to help the dogs. If they saw a seal or a bear, one of them would go after him while the other two waited at the sled, cooked a lunch if it was near midday, or made camp if night was approaching. If by camp-time no game had yet been seen, the woman Pannigabluk would stay by the camp to cook supper, while the two men went off in different directions to hunt. That the two should go in different directions was wise, for it doubled the chances of seeing game, but it at times caused unnecessary waste of ammunition and the killing of more meat than was needed. The very first time that both men went out to hunt in this manner, for instance, Natkusiak killed two seven or eight hundred pound bearded seals in one shot, and Tannaumirk a big, fat grizzly bear in four shots. This was meat enough for several weeks if we had (Eskimo fashion) stayed there to eat it up; traveling as we were, heavily loaded through rough ice, we could not take along more than a hundred pounds of meat. 


Although the Eskimo frequently killed an animal or two if they happened on them along the line of march, their chief business was getting the sled load as many miles ahead as convenient during the day, which was seldom over fifteen miles in a working day averaging perhaps eight hours. We were in no hurry, for we had no particular distance to go and no reason to hasten back, but expected to spend the summer wherever it overtook us, and the winter similarly in its turn. 


My companions traveled along the coast, made camp, and cooked, while I took upon myself the main burden of the food-providing. With this in view I used to strike inland about five miles in the morning, starting often a good while before the Eskimo broke camp, and then walking rapidly eastward parallel to the coast. With my snow-shoes I made easy and rapid progress compared to that of the sled along the coast, unless I happened on caribou. These had been in some numbers on the Parry peninsula before we left home. (We called the Langton Bay and Cape Parry district “home” for three years, for, no matter how many hundreds of miles of land and ice separated Dr. Anderson or me from it, we always had at least one Eskimo family there protecting what supplies we had and the scien tific collections already made.) Crossing Darnley Bay on the ice, we had of course seen no caribou; at Cape Lyon the Eskimo saw one yearling, but were unable to get it; and at Point Pierce, five days out from Langton Bay, we were stopped by an easterly blizzard without having yet secured any. The Eskimo, who had “known” all along that we were going into a gameless country, felt sure that the fawn they had seen at Lyon was the most easterly member of the deer species inhabiting the coast; it would, therefore, be wisdom to turn about now, they argued, before the road got too long for the back journey and we got too weak from hunger all this over huge troughs of boiled meat and raw blubber of the seals killed two days before, on which we were gorging ourselves, for much eating was always our chief pastime when delayed by a blizzard that the dogs would not face. As a matter of fact, what my Eskimo really dreaded was not so much hunger as the possibility of our success in the quest of what to me were the scientifically interesting “people who had never seen a white man,” but to them were the dreaded “Nagyuk togmiut, so called because they hook to themselves wives with the antlers of bull caribou; they kill all strangers.” Generally it is only in times of extreme need that one hunts caribou in a blizzard not that nine tenths of the blizzards in the Arctic need keep a healthy man indoors ; it is merely that the drift ing snow (even when you can see as far as two hundred yards) di minishes many times over the chance you have of finding game. If you do find caribou , however, the stronger the gale the better your chance of close approach without being seen, for these animals, though they double their watchfulness in foggy weather, seem to relax it in blizzard . In the present instance my reason for looking for caribou was that I wanted to kill a few for the moral effect it would have on my party; for in the midst of abundance they would be forced to fall back on their fear of the Nagyuktogmiut as the only argu ment for retreat, and this they were a bit ashamed of doing, even among themselves. It was therefore great luck for us, although we were in no immediate need of meat, that after a short hunt through the storm I ran into a band of seven cows and young bulls about five miles inland, southwest from Point Pierce. I came upon them quite without cover, but saw them through the drifting snow at three hundred yards before they saw me — the human eye is a great deal keener than that of the caribou , wolf, or any other animal with which I have had experience. By stepping back a few paces till the drifting snow had hidden the caribou again, and then guardedly circling them to leeward, I found a slight ridge which allowed safe approach to within about two hundred yards of where they had been. The main thing in stalking caribou that are not moving is the ability to keep in mind their location accurately while you are circling and winding about so as to approach them from a new direction behind cover of irregular hills and ridges that are of course unfamiliar to you. In this case my plans came suddenly to naught through the caribou appearing on the sky-line two hundred yards off. I shot three of them, though we could not possibly use more than the meat of one. The moral effect on my Eskimo of having food to throw away would, I knew, be invaluable to me. Had I killed only one, they would not have believed it to be for any reason other than that I was unable to kill more. This was the only time in a period of fourteen months of continuous "living on the country” that I shot more animals than I thought we should need, although I often had to kill a single large animal, such as a polar bear or bearded seal, when I knew we should be unable to haul with us more than a small part of its meat.


The land showed nothing but a white wolf or arctic fox now and then; ptarmigan there were, but they are too small game for a party of four that is going to go a year on nine hundred and sixty rounds of ammunition ; the foxes, too, were beneath our notice, though their meat is excellent; but a wolf that came within two hundred yards seldom got by me, for a fat one weighs a hundred pounds, and all of us preferred them at this season to caribou, except Pannigabluk, who would not taste the meat because it is taboo to her people.