The Caribou-Eaters are out of caribou to eat and drive into the territory of two remote white trappers, one of whom gives a gift of dried back-fat to Ingstad. After three days, they resume their journey and at least meet the thousands of caribou in the Barren Grounds.
December 30, 1928
The Land of Feast and Famine - To the Upper Thelon
Once again we resumed our journey southward. It was extremely difficult going, no less because of the cold, which was so intense that one could not remain still an instant without beginning to grow stiff. We floundered along for quite some time, ever on the look-out for the caribou herd and the white trappers' cabin. About us lay the snow-fields devoid of any sign of life, and we encountered one disappointment after another. We did manage to shoot a pair of lone caribou, but their meat did not go far with our hungry band. At length we were snowed in tight for two days during a blizzard; then it was that our spirits reached their lowest ebb.
But at last one evening, just as we were on the point of pitching camp, Isep discovered the faint trail of a toboggan in the snow. We did not dare risk the possibility that drift snow might obliterate the trail, so, after a brief halt, we loaded all our stuff back on the sleds and continued on our way throughout a long moonlight night, with frequent rests out of deference to the dogs, which every now and then would drop in the traces. Countless times we lost the trail. Then we would spread in formation out over the plain and would search high and low, now and then creeping about on all fours as we felt in the snow for signs of the trail. Thus we proceeded until sunrise, when we glimpsed the forest's first outposts — rows of dwarf spruce growing in the lee of each elevation. In a snug hollow we built ourselves a mighty fire, poured scalding tea into ourselves, and continued to follow the sled-trail down the length of a long, narrow lake. Just as we were rounding a jut of land, we spied smoke curling up from a clump of spruce, and a log cabin cosily situated in amongst the trees.
Jonas was the first to pull up in front of the door. Two dumfounded trappers came forward, wondering for all they were worth who in blazes had managed to find his way out into this part of the country. Their amazement hardly diminished when they saw a tattered Indian limp out of the sled with his crutch, lay his hand on his belly and say: "Long time, misu dowte (Long time, no food)." This mixture of English, Cree, and his own Chipewyan language was the very best that Jonas could do in the way of speaking a foreign language.
Hospitality is the law of the land, but to provide for a starving band like ourselves was a problem in itself. Old McKay and Clark didn't know what they could find to offer us, for they had barely enough to scrape through the rest of the winter themselves. Mac presented me with a large slab of dried back-fat left over from the autumn hunt; this slab was two inches thick. I shall never forget him for that. I was tempted sorely to swallow the whole thing down just as fast as ever I could, but luckily I had common sense enough to refrain from doing that. I cut it up into small bits and stuffed my pockets with these, went about like a living warehouse and nibbled fat for over a week. The dogs also received their share, and it was amazing how this braced them up. To get along on little and to recuperate quickly are second nature to these animals.
We learned that the caribou had gone on strike in this part of the country as well. After the autumn trek had passed in October, the herds had become sparse and few in number. McKay and Clark had been forced to use all their time hunting food for themselves and their dogs. Trapping had had to go by the board. Thus they had wasted a year, and no combination of toil and saving had amounted to anything. To begin with, there had been their autumn journey through the wilderness from Fitzgerald, following a canoe route of nearly four hundred and fifty miles, with fifty portages; then there had been their daily struggle for food through a long winter of cold and storm in the Barren Lands. After all this they would find themselves poorer than they were the day they had set out through the wilderness and would have to go in debt to " Hudson Bay " in order to buy their next year's equipment. But, even so, Clark and old Mac had nothing but good humor to express. Good luck or bad — why, great Heaven, it is the gamble that makes the life of a trapper such an interesting adventure! One must always take the bitter with the sweet.
We remained with our hosts for three days, then set out in a northwesterly direction and kept going until we crossed the trail we had made on the way out. Thereafter we made for the camp of the Caribou-Eaters at the rapid pace always chosen by Indian hunters when they are returning home to their wives and children. We drove as often at night as during the day and, in the darkness, took many rash chances as we traveled over steep rough country or over river rapids where the ice gave way beneath us and the water splashed about our carioles. Crossing the larger lakes, we would lie in our sleds and sleep. We did not once pitch our tent; instead, we slept beside an open camp-fire wherever possible and then only long enough to allow the dogs to recover their strength.
After we had been driving for three days, we encountered the main body of the caribou! Herds numbering thousands came grazing along toward the east. It was indeed ironical to see the plains now literally alive with the very hosts we had talked of and dreamed of so many times on the way out, when the plains had lain cold and lifeless. And bitter was the thought that, had we made our journey but a few weeks later, we should have lived on the fat of the land and, in addition to this, reaped a golden harvest of white-fox pelts on the banks of the Thelon.