Historical Events

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"The main part of the food was whale, the carcass of which had drifted into the beach just before the freeze-up in the fall. This animal had been freshly killed when he drifted ashore, and furnished us, therefore, a supply of food which was not only abundant but also palatable." The challenges of hunting caribou and camping in the cold are also covered.

December 4, 1910

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My Life with the Eskimo - Chapter 14

Man The Fat Hunter
Facultative Carnivore
Eskimo
Carnivore Diet

Vilhjalmur Stefansson

Before quite reaching Langton Bay harbor, however, we came upon sled tracks, and at the harbor itself we found Dr. Anderson and our Eskimo safe, comfortably housed and fairly well supplied with food. The main part of the food was whale, the carcass of which had drifted into the beach just before the freeze-up in the fall. This animal had been freshly killed when he drifted ashore, and furnished us, therefore, a supply of food which was not only abundant but also palatable. I found here waiting for me some mail, to get which Dr. Anderson had had to make a thousand-mile trip the previous summer west to the whaling-station at Herschel Island. My most recent letter had been written on the 13th of May, 1910, and it was now the 4th of December.


After resting about two weeks we started back toward Bear Lake, leaving the same four Eskimo behind, although Dr. Anderson accompanied us. Knowing the character of the country, and having plenty of food at Langton Bay, we loaded the sleds with provisions, which, together with the caribou meat we had cached inland, would be equal to about twenty-five days' full rations. Had everything on the homeward road been as it was on the northwestward journey, this would have been ample, for we had come from Bear Lake to the sea in twenty-six days, but we were now a month later in the season; the sun had long ago gone away and we had only twilight at noon, and the snow lay thick and soft in many places in the river where on the way north there was glare ice. Our progress southward was therefore very slow, and by the time we reached that point of Horton River where one begins the portage to Bear Lake we were on short rations again. In our two days' crossing of the Barren Ground we again had a blizzard, but again it happened to be blowing at our backs and rather helped than hindered us, although we could see practically nothing of the country through which we traveled.


On our second day in the Barren Ground we had the last and most striking proof of Johnny's infallibility. We had come to perhaps a dozen trees, and I said to Johnny, “ Well, this is fine; now we are back in your Bear Lake woods again." No, that was not so, he said. There were two ranges of hills on the Barren Ground. One of these was right in the middle of the Barren Ground, and on the southerly slope of this range were a few trees. It was at these trees we now were, and if we left them, it would take us another whole day of travel before we came to the next. He told us, therefore, that unless we wanted to camp without firewood we must camp here. Dr. Anderson and I talked this over, and we agreed that Johnny had never in the past proved right in anything; but still it seemed better to do as he advised, for, after all, this was his own country, and he ought to know something about it. The blizzard was still blowing, and it was intensely cold. If we had pitched camp where there were no trees we should have made a small tent, Eskimo fashion, and it would have taken us only a few moments to do so; but now that we had trees we put up an Indian-style tepee, a difficult thing to do in a storm, and a matter of two hours or so of hard work during which all of us froze our faces several times and suffered other minor inconveniences. My idea had been, on seeing these few trees, that we were now on the edge of the forest, and that a few miles more of travel would bring us into the thick of woods where no wind can stir the snow; and in the morning when we awoke and looked out, sure enough, there was the edge of the forest only a few hundred yards away, with the woods stretching black and unbroken toward Bear Lake. But for the wisdom of Johnny Sanderson we might have camped in its shelter and escaped one of the most disagreeable camp making experiences we ever had.


The next day we had traveled only a few miles before we came upon the tracks of caribou. Our thermometer had broken some time before, and so I speak without the book, but there is little doubt that the temperature was considerably below 50 ° Fahrenheit. There was not a breath of air stirring. While the other three proceeded with the sled I struck out to one side to look for caribou. First I saw a band that had been frightened by our main party. There were only a few clearings in the woods, but wherever the animals were you could discover their presence by the clouds of steam that rose from them high above the tops of the trees.


There are few things one sees in the North so nearly beyond belief as certain of the phenomena of intense cold as I saw and heard them that day. It turned out that the woods were full of caribou, and wherever a band was running you could not only see the steam rising from it and revealing its presence, even on the other side of a fairly high hill, but, more remarkable still, the air was so calm that where an animal ran past rapidly he left behind him a cloud of steam hovering over his trail and marking it out plainly for a mile behind him. When you stopped to listen, you could hear the tramp of marching caribou all around you. On such days as this I have watched caribou bands a full mile away whose walking I could hear distinctly although there was no crust on the snow; and as for them, they could not only hear me walking, but could even tell the difference in the sounds of my footsteps from those of the hundreds of caribou that were walking about at the same time.

My first opportunity to shoot came through my hearing the approach of a small band. I stopped still and waited for them. I was not nervous, but rather absent-minded. In other words, my mind was more fully occupied than it should have been with the importance of getting those particular caribou. I always carry the magazine of my rifle full but the chamber empty, and as the animals approached I drew back the bolt to throw a cartridge into the chamber, but when I tried to shove the bolt forward it stuck fast. This is the only time in four years of hard usage that anything has interfered with the perfect working of my Mannlicher-Schoenauer. The caribou were moving past without seeing me, and I became a bit excited. I knew the rifle was strong, and I hammered on the end of the bolt with the palm of my hand, but it would not move. When the caribou were finally out of range and when nothing more could be done, I for the first time took a good look at the rifle to try to discover the trouble, and saw that one side of the bolt had something frozen fast to it. It turned out that when I had drawn the bolt back to load the rifle I had carelessly allowed the palm of my bare hand to rest against the bolt, and a piece of skin about an inch long and a quarter of an inch wide had frozen fast to the bolt and been torn away from my hand without my noticing it. It took but a few moments scraping with my hunting knife to remove the blood from the bolt, and the rifle was in good working order again.


Three days later we reached the house of Melvill and Hornby on Bear Lake, thirty-three days after leaving Langton Bay. After a short visit with them and Mr. Hodgson we proceeded up the Dease River and found Tannaumirk and Pannigabluk well, although getting short of food, for Tannaumirk was not a hunter of much enterprise.


No caribou were just then to be found near our winter quarters, so Dr. Anderson, one of the Eskimo, and myself struck out south to look for them. On the second day we found them near the northeast corner of Bear Lake, but had hard luck that day on account of variable faint airs that continually gave the animals our wind. The next day, however, we got sixteen, and within the next twenty days thereafter fifty -two more, which was plenty of meat for the rest of the winter.