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In summer we much preferred wolf meat to caribou, for it is usually tender and fat, and the caribou, all except the oldest bulls, are in very indifferent condition. We never ate venison when there was wolf meat to be had at this season

July 1, 1910

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My Life with the Eskimo - Chapter 13

Man The Fat Hunter
Facultative Carnivore
Carnivore Diet

Vilhjalmur Stefansson

I was about to shoot, and he was so near that there was no doubt of the result, when suddenly, almost in line with the hare, I saw a caribou disappearing over a ridge. He evidently had seen me while my attention was concentrated on the hare and while I was exposed against the sky-line on top of the rock ridge along which the hare was running. Of course I gave no further thought to the hare. Caribou, when they merely see a man and do not get his wind, ordinarily do not run far, and within an hour I had come up to this one again. It turned out I had seen only one of two animals, both of which I now found quietly feeding upon a level spot - so level, indeed, that it took several hours of careful stalking before I got within range. The animals proved to be two young bulls, skin-poor, with the mar row as blood in their bones. Nevertheless there was great rejoicing in camp when I returned , after being out about twenty-four hours, with a back-load of caribou meat. I have found that Eskimo in a strange country are typically sceptical of the possibilities of finding food, and my people had several days ago made up their minds that all the caribou had left the district and we were destined to have to live the whole summer on squirrels and ptarmigan. 


Natkusiak had not yet returned when I got home, and it was nearly another twenty-four hours before he put in an appearance, but he had been more successful than I in securing three old bull caribou which were in fair condition at this season of the year, and best of all he had shot a wolf that was as fat as a pig. In summer we much preferred wolf meat to caribou, for it is usually tender and fat, and the caribou, all except the oldest bulls, are in very indifferent condition. We never ate venison when there was wolf meat to be had at this season; at least that was true of all of us except Pannigabluk, to whose family and ancestors the wolf is taboo. 


As the caribou killed by Natkusiak were in a southeasterly direction, we brought into camp at once the meat of the two that I had killed, and then proceeded farther upstream to a point from which it was only seven or eight miles to where Natkusiak had cached the other meat. We learned that at this season the caribou in the Coppermine country were all bulls, and none of them were moving. In general singly, or by twos and threes, they had taken possession of some snow-bank protected from the sun by a northward-facing precipice, and there they stayed. They would feed for an hour or two on the grass or moss in the neighborhood, and then go back to lie on the snow, where they had a measure of protection from the clouds of mosquitoes, and where the intense heat of the sun was more bearable to them. 


On an average the number of caribou was not more than about one for every hundred square miles of country, and we always had to go south to kill the next one. Occasionally either Natkusiak or myself would hunt back downstream twenty or thirty miles, with the idea that caribou might have moved in behind us, but with no result; and each time we killed a caribou to the south and moved up to get its meat we got that much farther from our sled cache and from my camera and writing materials; so that by the latter part of June it had become evident that we should never be able to go back to the cache during the summer, for to go back meant starvation . By killing the caribou as we went we had burned our bridges behind us. 


Later on, after we had succeeded in joining the Eskimo, there was scarcely a half-hour when some picturesque or unusual scene in their lives during the summer did not bring back to me the absence of my camera. As for my diary for the summer, it was written in my small pocket notebook in so microscopic a hand that it is difficult to read without a magnifying glass, and even so I had to trust to my memory for many things that in ordinary course I should have recorded. 


July was intolerably hot. We had no thermometer, but I feel sure that many a day the temperature must have been over one hun dred degrees in the sun, and sometimes for weeks on end there was not a cloud in the sky. At midnight the sun was what we would call an hour high, so that it beat down on us without rest the twenty four hours through. The hottest period of the day was about eight o'clock in the evening, and the coolest perhaps four or five in the morning. The mosquitoes were so bad that several of our dogs went completely blind for the time, through the swelling closed of their eyes, and all of them were lame from running sores caused by the mosquito stings on the line where the hair meets the pad of the foot. It is true that on our entire expedition we had no experience that more nearly deserved the name of sufferingthan this of the combined heat and mosquitoes of our Coppermine River summer. 


By the last week in July we had proceeded upstream as far as the mouth of the Kendall River, which flows in from the west from Dismal Lake. We had continually been putting off the crossing of the river, hoping to find a better place, and also being in no hurry, for we did not think the Rae River Eskimo whom we wanted to join would reach Dismal Lake before early August. We finally selected for the crossing a strip of river where there is half a mile of quiet water between two strong rapids, built a raft from dry spruce grow ing near the river, and got across with all our belongings, including at that time about three hundred pounds of dry caribou meat. Immediately upon landing on the west side we cached the meat safely in a rock crevice, under huge stones, intending it for a store against some future emergency, but our fortunes that summer never brought us back to the place again; so doubtless it is there yet unless some wandering Eskimo may have happened to find it. 


On the north shore of Dismal Lake, which we reached in a two days march from the Coppermine, we ran completely out of food for the only time in our period of fourteen months of absence from our base at Langton Bay. Of course, in an extremity we could have gone back to where we had cached the dried meat two days before, but our general policy was never to retreat, for we knew well that the chances of food ahead were always a little better than behind. The morning of July 29th I broke the rule against shooting ptarmigan, and used one of my valuable Mannlicher-Schoenauer bullets to secure half a pound of meat. That half-pound was the breakfast for the four of us, and the dogs, poor fellows, got nothing. But our fortune was soon to turn, for when immediately after breakfast I climbed the high hill behind our camp I saw a caribou coming from the north and disappearing among some hills to the east in a way to make it uncertain in just what direction he was going. The three of us therefore started to meet him by different routes. It happened that I was the one to get sight of him first, and it turned out he had a companion that must evidently have preceded him into the hills a moment before I turned my field glasses that way. The two of them were in good flesh, so that by four in the afternoon both ourselves and our dogs had had a square meal of better meat than ordinary.