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Forty Below: Traditional Life in the Arctic

Inuit hunter Avataq tows a seal back to the floe edge. Northwest Greenland, 1980.

Inuit hunter Avataq tows a seal back to the floe edge. Northwest Greenland, 1980.

Text and photos by Bryan and Cherry Alexander

Cold is synonymous with the Arctic, particularly during the winter months. In some areas, temperatures can plummet to minus 60°C and winds roar across the ice and tundra at more than 300 kph. It’s almost unbelievable that people have adapted to these extreme conditions to call the Arctic home. This only became possible with a simple invention some 100,000 years ago — the needle. After that, instead of throwing animal skins over their body to keep warm, people could make fitted, wind-proof, and well-insulated clothing. Arctic animals like seals, polar bear, caribou and fox are perfectly equipped to withstand intense cold, so hunters used their fur to make the garments they needed to survive.

From the 16th century when European explorers began venturing into the Arctic, the expeditions that fared best, like those of Knud Rasmussen and Robert Peary, often relied on local Inuit guides, and adopted their fur clothing and means of transport. One explorer, the Norwegian Roald Amundsen, famously commented:

“The English have loudly and openly told the world that skis and dogs are unusable in these regions and that fur clothes are rubbish. We will see — we will see.”

For the people who live there, cold and wind may be the most severe features of an Arctic winter but, particularly at higher latitudes, darkness is also significant. In the Thule district of northwest Greenland, the most northerly native community, the Sun sets in late October and doesn’t appear again until the following February. Once, visiting an Inuit friend called Ituko, I asked how he felt during the darkness; I wanted to know if he got depressed, or had difficulty sleeping — the kind of symptoms Europeans experience in winter.

Fortunately, famine is no longer a problem for Arctic peoples. In most native communities there are shops, and some larger places have supermarkets. But the cost of shipping into the Arctic makes imported foods extremely expensive, so while many young people prefer fried chicken and pizza, a lot of the older generation still eat traditional food such as caribou, seal, and whale – not only because it’s cheaper, but also because they enjoy it. Among the Inuit, a strong tradition of food sharing has endured to this day; when a hunter returns to Igloolik with game, he’ll often go on local radio and invite people to come and take some of it home. Similarly, in Ituko’s village of Moriussaq, he and another hunter together tended to provide most of the meat for its 60 inhabitants. He told me this with a little pride, since good hunters are always respected in Inuit society.

the Sun returns to most Arctic communities — an occasion long celebrated by the Inuit. In the Igloolik area, there was an ancient belief that, on the first day the Sun reappears, the whole community must start a new life, so children were sent from house to house to blow out the flames of every qulliq (sealoil lamp). After the old wick had been extinguished, it was removed and a new one put in place, then the lamp was relit. In the late 1980s, this tradition was reintroduced to the hamlet, and Inuit communities across the Arctic hold similar festivities. Every February 17th in Qaanaaq, north Greenland, for example, villagers climb the mountain behind the village to catch their first glimpse of the Sun for four months. As its first rays appear, they sing a traditional song, and later they organize celebrations and traditional games in the community hall. It’s ironic that the Sun makes its dramatic reappearance in the Arctic at the very coldest time of the year.

Every Inuit community has its yearly cycle, in which hunters go to specific areas at particular times for different types of game. During the winter months, they normally fish until the ice gets too thick. With the return of the Sun and the longer days, hunting activities increase, and hunters often go further afield. Some will travel to the floe edge and hunt seal, while others head inland in search of caribou. During February and March, some hunters in northwest Greenland prepare to travel long distances to hunt polar bear — the ultimate quarry, particularly in the Thule district, where trousers are still made of polar-bear skin for its durability and warmth. Generally, hunters from the north of the district head to Smith Sound to hunt bears along the floe edge, while those from the south usually hunt them on the moving ice sheets of Melville Bay. Polar-bear hunts can last for a month or more, and if the hunters are unlucky and the wind blows from the wrong direction, they can get stuck out on moving ice sheets for weeks. Hunts involve travelling long distances across the frozen sea in a continual search for bears or fresh tracks, and hunters often climb icebergs to scan the surrounding ice for signs. Once a bear is sighted, the hunters give chase — they cut some of the huskies’ traces so the dogs can race ahead to the prey. Polar bears seem to have an instinctive fear of dogs, so they’ll sometimes respond by standing at bay, giving the hunters time to catch up and shoot. Today, the number of polar bears that can be killed is strictly regulated — the annual quota for the whole Thule district is just 24.

The skin of an adult bear will usually provide three pairs of trousers, as well a great deal of meat, for a hunter and his family. The only part of the animal that isn’t used is the liver, which contains a very high concentration of vitamin A, making it poisonous to both men and dogs. This is something the early polar explorers discovered the hard way —
many of them died after consuming it.

Throughout the winter, hunters continue to search for seals at breathing holes and also at the floe edge. In the northern part of the Thule district, they also hunt walrus; in winter, this is fraught with danger, and normally two or more men will hunt together. As well as requiring a plentiful supply of clams and other molluscs, walruses tend to stay where strong currents keep the sea ice thin so they can break through to breathe. As a result, hunters often have to walk for hours on newly formed ice, so thin that it bends under their weight. When a walrus surfaces, the hunter will get as close as possible to the hole before throwing his harpoon. If it finds its mark he quickly loops the harpoon line around an ice-pick, which he holds against his foot until the walrus is forced to surface for breath.

At that moment, he kills it by shooting it in the head with a rifle. Standing on thin ice, holding a harpoon line with a wounded walrus on the end, is a heartstopping exercise, but hunters are prepared to risk it for the chance of a catch that can provide a ton of meat or more.

Once the walrus is dead, its carcass is hauled up onto the ice by either a team of dogs or a group of hunters. It’s then dragged to safer, thicker ice where it can be butchered — one particular Inuit favourite is clams fresh from the stomach of a newly killed walrus. The flesh is also used for a popular Inuit delicacy called igunaq— to make it, meat is cut into pieces and placed in large bags sewn from the skin. These bags are sealed and buried under stones for a few months until their contents has fermented, and become tasty and tangy — it’s eaten raw. The Chukchi, Siberian hunters on the Bering Strait, ferment walrus meat in much the same way and call it kapalkhen. It’s not just the quantity of meat a walrus provides that makes it so desirable — the flesh and fat is also extraordinarily sustaining for both humans and their dogs. At the end of a cold day on the frozen sea, a meal of freshly boiled walrus will keep you warmer for much longer than seal.

Although in most coastal Inuit communities, hunters prey mainly on marine mammals, in some areas they also travel inland during the winter to hunt caribou or fish such as Arctic char and lake trout, using nets set under the ice. At this time of year, they also trap Arctic foxes — although markets for this fur have declined, Arctic peoples still use it to make clothing.

The Arctic winter is long — in some areas, the sea is frozen for nine months, and there is snow on the land from September to June. The summer, when it eventually arrives, is short, but very welcome.

Hunters in summer
It’s a happy thing
To feel warmth,
Come to the great World
And see the Sun
Follow its old footsteps
In the summer night.
Tatilgak, Inuit elder, early 20th century

With the approach of Arctic summer, the thaw sets in. Snow gradually disappears from the land, and pools of melt-water form on the sea ice. The Sun remains above the horizon for 24 hours each day, compensating for the long months of winter darkness, yet summer temperatures in the high Arctic seldom rise much above 14°C. Despite the sunlight and warmer temperatures in mid-June, there are patches of snow on north facing-slopes. The sea and many of the lakes will still be covered in ice — in the past, I have travelled by snowmobile on sea ice as late as mid-July.

The Arctic’s short summer is a frenetic time for nature, with more than 200 species of migratory bird arriving to make the most of the 24-hour daylight and abundant food the Arctic has to offer. Of these, the Arctic tern is perhaps the most remarkable — it flies between Antarctica and the Arctic, experiencing two summers and completing an annual journey of about 70,900 km.

Despite the long winter and extreme sub-zero temperatures, about 760 flowering plant species manage to survive in the Arctic, though they become progressively more scarce north of the Arctic Circle. A wide variety of grasses, tubers, roots, stems, fireweed and edible seaweed were traditionally gathered and eaten by native peoples, providing a valuable source of vitamin C. Mountain cranberry, bilberry and cloudberry are both eaten fresh and stored for winter, and many native people still collect these, but they’re no longer so vital to their diet. Today, a year-round selection of fresh, canned, and frozen fruit is available in many shops.

In the same way as the midnight Sun makes up for months of winter darkness, the silence of Arctic winter is compensated for in summer by the clamour of bird song and the sound of running water.

Although nowadays most Inuit live in permanent villages rather than small, scattered camps, many families choose to leave their villages and head off to summer hunting places. For the children, it’s a time to have fun — with school holidays and 24-hour sunlight, they can play and explore the tundra all night and sleep all day if they choose. For the men, summer is a busy time for hunting seals, walrus and whales, as well as for collecting birds’ eggs and fishing for migratory species like Arctic char and salmon. On the Chukotka side of the Bering Strait, the Chukchi hunt walruses near their haul-outs, and also grey whales that
arrive each summer to feed in the Arctic’s rich waters.

Traditionally, Inuit families used umiaks (open skin boats) and sealskin kayaks to travel to their summer camps, and in some Alaskan coastal communities, umiaks are still used to hunt bowhead whales, but these elegant craft have largely had their day, and most Inuit travel in glass-fibre boats with powerful outboard engines. In one area, however — the Thule district of northwest Greenland — the kayak is still used for summer hunting. Here, local regulations state that Inuit who hunt narwhal in Inglefield Bay must use traditional kayaks and hand-held harpoons. This and a whole range of other longstanding local hunting regulations are designed to conserve game as well as Inuit culture. In addition, there’s an annual districthunting quota of 64 narwhal.

Traditional narwhal hunting requires a combination of patience, stealth, skill — and luck. Once the ice has gone and narwhal enter the bay to feed, hunters move to campsites along the shoreline that have a high vantage point and a good view of the water. This type of hunting is largely a waiting game during which hunters scan the surface of the bay through binoculars — they may have days, or even weeks, to wait. When they spot narwhal, that they think will pass close to their camp, the hunters take to their kayaks and paddle out into the bay. There, they wait silently — often positioning themselves close to drifting ice floes or pieces of glacial ice in an attempt at concealment. Stealth is paramount, since narwhal are easily alarmed by sudden movement, and even sunlight glinting off a wet paddle can cause them to dive.

Generally, these hunts are most successful on dull, overcast days. When a narwhal surfaces to breathe in front of a hunter, he paddles as fast as he can until he’s within range, then he hurls his harpoon — its toggle head is attached by a long line to an inflated sealskin float on the kayak deck. If the harpoon finds its mark, the hunter quickly throws the float into the water so it gets dragged down by the narwhal. Then, he waits for its reappearance to indicate where the creature will resurface; when this happens, another hunter will try to secure it with a second harpoon and maybe a third, before the narwhal is finally killed with a rifle or a lance. Then, it’s towed to shore for butchering. The muktuk (skin) of the narwhal is very high in vitamin C, with the same content per 100 g as citrus fruit. Among Inuit right across the Arctic, muktuk is considered a delicacy. A bonus for the hunter is the spiral ivory tusk (sometimes two metres long or more) that protrudes from the head of the male narwhal — because of these, narwhal are sometimes referred to as ‘sea unicorns’. Although international trade in narwhal tusks is now illegal, they were much in demand in Victorian times, and the smaller ones were often made
into walking sticks.

Narwhal is usually eaten fresh, but it’s also cut into strips and wind-dried for the winter. In other parts of the Arctic like the Bering Strait, Inuit and coastal Chukchi peoples hunt larger baleen whales like the bowhead and the grey. An adult bowhead can weigh over 60 tons and provide very large quantities of both muktuk and meat. (Also considered a delicacy in Chukotka, the tongue of a grey whale can weigh up to one ton). Meat and muktuk are shared among a community, with much of it being stored for winter.

With Arctic temperatures below freezing for much of the year, preserving food is no problem. In areas where they use sled dogs, it’s often stored on high meat racks outside, out of the reach of hungry huskies. Elsewhere, it’s buried under rocks or in pits dug in the permafrost, which acts as a freezer. During the summer, fish, whale and caribou
can also be wind-dried.

Late summer is also a popular time for hunting caribou, since the animals are normally at their fattest after spending the summer grazing, and their fur is usually in good condition for making clothes. In many areas, the best time is just as autumn approaches, when the caribou gather in large herds before they migrate south to their winterfeeding areas.

In north Greenland, by the end of August, the days of the midnight Sun are over. It sinks lower in the sky, and once again dips below the horizon at night. Each day becomes shorter by 20 minutes. At night, the temperature dips below 0°C, the first dusting of snow falls on the hilltops, and ice begins to form again on lakes and in sheltered bays along the coast. Once the sea starts to freeze, it becomes difficult for the Inuit to hunt, as there is a period that can last several weeks when there is too much ice for boating, but the ice is not thick enough to support dog sleds or snowmobiles. Once there has been a long-enough period of cold to thicken the sea ice, vast winter-hunting grounds open up.

Until the 1980s, local people expected the sea in Inglefield Bay to freeze during the second week of October. Now, the Arctic’s changing climate has made the timing of freeze-up impossible to predict. In recent years, it has been happening anything from one to two months later than normal, and the sea ice has been breaking up about a month early in the summer – it seems to be a similar story all over the Arctic. What’s more, the winter ice tends to be thinner and more hazardous, and many glaciers in north Greenland have become increasingly dangerous, and in some cases impassable. For hunters who depend on the sea ice as a highway to both their hunting grounds and neighbouring communities, the changing ice conditions have brought many problems, but climate change is not all bad news. In Chukotka, a hunter from Uelen told me that, because the sea was freezing later, grey whales were staying later in the autumn, giving hunters more opportunity. The Arctic’s indigenous peoples have experienced climate change in the past — the key to their survival is adaptation. Providing they keep their traditional culture, hunting peoples like the Inuit and Chukchi are in a far better position to survive climate change than those who live in the world’s great cities.

Editor’s Note: All photos and text published here represent unaltered excerpts from Bryan and Cherry Alexander’s fascinating hard-bound book titled, Forty Below, Traditional Life in the Arctic. The book, first released November 2011, is available for purchase online by visiting: www.arcticapublishing.com.