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"In an Arctic existence ordered as ours the necessities of life are meat and skins; the luxuries are fat caribou meat and short-haired summer caribou skins."

September 11, 1910

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My Life with the Eskimo - Chapter 7

Vilhjalmur Stefansson

Man The Fat Hunter
Carnivore Diet

We had no sooner landed at the Langton Bay harbor than we began preparations for going inland hunting, and, with us, to begin preparations was to be ready in a few hours. Although talkative by nature, Pannigabluk did not mind being alone for a day or a few days, so we left her to fix up camp as well as she could on the coast, while Natkusiak hunted southeast and I southwest in the hope of finding caribou. 


At Langton Bay the Melville Mountains, about a thousand feet high, are three miles inland. They are really the sea - front of a plateau that slopes almost imperceptibly south from their crest to Horton River, ten miles farther inland. Each of us climbed the mountains by a separate ravine, and each reached a commanding peak at about the same time. We were three miles apart, but could see each other clearly with the glasses. It was evident to me that Natkusiak soon got his eye on game to the south of him, for he spent but little time on his peak —there is always something decisive and unmistakable about a hunter's actions when he sets out toward a distant band of caribou. I read the signs clearly and with satisfaction, but I knew my man and that he needed no help, so, although I saw nothing from my point of vantage (except scenery, which at the approach of an Arctic winter has no attractiveness save as a fitting background for caribou ), I started southwest in the hope of picking up something. 


The afternoon developed for me into a profitless twenty-mile tramp over the spongy tundra. There were few tracks of caribou, none very fresh , and all going east -evidently we were a little too late to intercept the few animals that had spent the summer toward Liverpool Bay and were now moving to other pastures. I had given up hope of game for the day and had turned home, for the dusk of the short night was approaching, when I saw over a small ridge what I took to be the flutter of a raven. A little farther on, and I thought I saw four ravens. They were not quite in my line of march down the mountain toward the sea, so I turned my glasses on them, thinking to see if it was the carcass of a caribou they were feeding on. It was fortunate for me and for the American Museum that I was inquisitive, for this proved my first sight of the Barren Ground grizzly, Ursus arctos richardsoni, perhaps the rarest of the large land carnivoræ of the world in museums and the least known scientifically; but my inquisitiveness was unlucky for the bear, for he became the nucleus of our collection, which finally grew to number nineteen specimens. It was his four paws I had taken for four ravens; for he had been lying on his back, pawing the air like a fat puppy and fat he was, in truth. On the rump the blubber layer was about four inches thick, for he was an old male almost ready for hibernation. In the hurry of skinning him, a good deal of the fat remained with the hide; I allowed the paws and head to go with the skin for mounting pur poses, and the matted, woolly hair was wet, all of which went toward making that skin one of the heaviest back - loads I ever carried to camp - it must have weighed upwards of two hundred pounds. Natkusiak had seen several deer, but had been able to approach only three before it became too dark to shoot. He got those three, all fairly fat. In an Arctic existence ordered as ours the necessities of life are meat and skins; the luxuries are fat caribou meat and short-haired summer caribou skins. We had, therefore, begun well. In one day we had secured meat enough for perhaps three weeks, skins enough for one suit of outer clothes, and oil enough for light for a month. 


The next day Natkusiak and I hunted together. There were no caribou near the coast, but about ten miles inland we saw seven, all of which we shot. Ten caribou and a bear made a pretty good showing for the first two days of hunting, but we found that we had come to the end of our rope. The animals we had secured had been the rear guard of the east-moving herd, and it soon became evident that we could reach no more game from a hunting base on the sea coast . We therefore cached the meat of the bear and the three deer first killed at Langton Bay, and moved camp about ten miles inland to where we had buried the meat of the seven caribou — buried it with the double idea of keeping it fresh in the cool ground until the freeze-up (which was now only a few days distant) and of protecting it from foxes. The second day after moving camp inland I had one of the pleasantest surprises of my traveling experience. The general topography of the country led me to believe there should be a river at a greater or less distance to the southwest. To ascertain the truth of this I had gone about five miles southwest, when I suddenly came upon a deep ravine. Looking down this for half a mile to where it had its mouth into another and deeper ravine, I saw a small band of little Christmas trees struggling up the steep bank . I have never been half so glad to see the sun after its midwinter absence. I had intended to make an all-day hunt, but the news was too good to keep —the Eskimo were at home, I knew, and I had to go and tell them about it. The branch of evergreen I took to them carried an invitation not to be resisted . None of us had suspected that trees were anywhere near. We had been using small green willow twigs for fire. It was already autumn; ice formed every night on the ponds, and the drizzling rains of the season made comfort impos sible on the shelterless barren ground. There were no two opinions, therefore, about moving camp; and the following night found us sitting by a crackling fire of dry wood in a sheltered spruce grove in my creek-bottom. This creek proved to be a branch of Horton River, a stream about the size of the Hudson that it has been our privilege to add to the map of North America. This was the harvest season on the Arctic tundra; the caribou were still short-haired , and their skins therefore suitable for clothing; they were still fat, and their meat therefore good eating; but we knew that the approach of cold weather was about to change all that. We expected every day that Anderson's party would come to join ours, in which case between men and dogs our supply of meat would last less than a month. The Rosie H. had, it was true, landed about three months' supplies for us, besides ammunition and other gear, at Cape Parry, about seventy - five miles to the north, but these supplies we hoped not to be forced to touch for a long time, for we had several years — it turned out to be three —of work ahead of us, and could count on no reinforcements. We hunted, therefore, energetically every day from dawn till dark, but saw no caribou. One day, however, I picked up two more grizzlies. We were in the habit of considering a full-grown grizzly equal in food value to about two large bull caribou. I also shot a fat white wolf, which gave us a good seventy-five pounds of excellent meat