"I did well on this entirely meat diet and never missed bread, potatoes, salt, or sugar. I was never ill during the long winters, and my teeth were perfect."
January 1, 1931
The Land of Feast and Famine
Sixty-five years ago I sold my thriving lawyer's practice in Norway and made for the Canadian wilderness of the Northwest Territories. For four years (1926—30) I lived as a trapper in the isolated region north-east of Great Slave Lake. I had decided to realize a dream that had always been with me: a primitive life in northern, practically uncharted wilds, in a region where the lives of the natives still largely followed their ancient traditions.
The wilderness north-east of Great Slave Lake proved to be what' I had been looking for. After a long voyage by canoe, my partner Hjalmar Dale and I lit upon an enormous stretch of land with forests and tundras, extending to the Arctic Ocean in the north. A few groups of Indians, of Chipewyan stock, had their hunting grounds here. They were known as the Caribou-Eaters, a name they had received because their lives were utterly dependent on the caribou. At that time there were still great numbers - probably several hundred thousands — of caribou in the Northwest Territories. But the migrations of the caribou herds are mysterious. The Indians have a saying: "They are like ghosts; they come from nowhere, fill up all the land, then disappear." When thousands of these animals poured over the land, the Indians and the few white trappers there were filled with joy; when the animals disappeared, hunger and famine followed in their wake — at times, people starved to death.
These were years of many long dog-sled journeys through forests and over the Barrens — they took me to the upper Thelon River and to other uncharted regions. The trappers were convinced that there were more wolves, more white foxes, in the far-off distances on the blue horizon, that it was there that the greatest riches were to be found.
We lived off the land. Practically all of the caribou was eaten: meat, fat, marrow, brain, liver, kidneys, blood - sometimes we ate the contents of the stomach as well. I did well on this entirely meat diet and never missed bread, potatoes, salt, or sugar. I was never ill during the long winters, and my teeth were perfect.
For a year I lived with a group of Indians ("CaribouEaters") in the inland forests, and I was the only white man there. I often think of these people with whom I shared everything for so long, and who became my good friends. It felt strange to become part of the world of the Indians, where so much ancient tradition was still alive. I imagine that most of these Indian friends of mine are dead by now, but I shall always remember them. The year I lived with them was not quite an easy year — but even though there were few caribou, we managed quite well, thanks to the Indians' skills and their principle of the hunt: the catch was shared by all. But the fate of three men who spent the year north of us was tragic — they all starved to death.
Forty years later a Canadian friend visited me at home in Norway. He showed me a Canadian map, and to my great surprise I saw that a small river south-east of the southern part of Artillery Lake had been named after me. I had lived alone with my dogs in these parts by the very edge of the Barrens for a year, hunting and trapping wolves. From my tent I only needed to walk up a hill to see the endless Barrens. This was a good year, with plenty of caribou. And I had music almost every evening — on the hills around the wolves used to howl, and they were soon joined by the howling of my dogs. Quite an orchestra ...
Today, the foreboding which I describe on the last page of this book has come true: civilization has invaded the Northwest Territories. When I was there, air traffic was only just starting. During all the years I was there, I saw only two small planes — today there are planes everywhere, there are oil wells, there are mines, there is commercial fishing and much else connected with modern life. At Snowdrift, that beautiful place by Great Slave Lake where the Hudson's Bay Company had a small trading post and where we trappers raised our tents together with the Indians, enjoying the light summer after the hardships of a long and cold winter, there are many houses now and alcohol is a danger. The polar dogs are largely being replaced by noisy snowmobiles. I am glad to have been born at a time when silence reigned in the wilderness, when dog teams and canoes were the only means of transport.