Black smoke rises out at sea; it is the tanker S.S. Manhattan, smashing her way through the sea-ice barrier that once warded off civilization nine months of the year.* A knock at my door; it is the special constable Kayak, come to ask if I know the best model of radio-telephone for his boat. Swift indeed comes the change.
I have always sought out the Eskimos in their igloos to learn their ways, approaching them not only as priest but as hunting companion, as amateur doctor, and as anthropologist. I have been their teacher and they have been mine. Often I have felt that I understood them well. But then, always, some small incident will convince me that I still have much to learn.
Once on a sled trip in northern Baffin Island, I stopped at the igloo of my friend Utak. As is usual in the Arctic, I offered him food—some of my biscuits. Seeing how slender was my supply, he refused, and took from his own larder a chunk of igunaq, walrus meat that had “cured” in a summer cache. It was streaked with vivid colors—indigo, yellow, deep green—that would have graced the palette of a van Gogh, but not the palate of the hungriest of men. We began eating our respective meals. When I had finished, hunger unsated, I watched with growing fascination as he ate. Finally I accepted a small piece of his colorful fare. Pride forced it down, but barely.
Noting my disgust despite my best efforts to conceal it, Utak confided calmly, “I dislike this rotten meat too. But igunaq is all. I have. “Traditional Eskimo life is, in truth, a struggle for existence. Neither the tundra, swept by the northwest winds, nor the mountains, still encumbered by glaciers, are inviting to man. The life of the Eskimo is a marvel of adaptation to a fierce environment.
Experience has taught him that flexibility is more effective than force in the fight for survival, that the way of the reed is better than that of the oak. Like the judo expert, he turns each threat of his relentless adversary, the cold, to his own advantage.
Lost in a blizzard, an Eskimo does not plunge ahead but—fully aware of the snow’s insulating qualities—builds an igloo for shelter and waits it out. Realizing that glossy surfaces slide best on snow, he glazes his sled runners with ice. If he lacks wood to fashion a frame for his sled, here again he makes use of the cold: He soaks a seal skin in water, then wraps it around several split fish and lets the cold transform the bundle into a rigid beam.
Like the budget-wise housewife, he assigns priorities to his meager resources. He knows that, if his supply of fat is small, he can survive longer by eating it than by burning it to keep himself warm.
Nothing Insulates Like Caribou Hairs
In years past the Eskimos obtained almost all their food by hunting. This still holds true for the few who remain in the camps. Settlement dwellers, however, rely on game for only about a quarter of their diet, obtaining the rest from the shelves of alluring goods at the Hudson’s Bay Company store.