Eskimos and Arctic Survival – 8 Survival Lessons

Canada’s Eskimos are said to have an average IQ of 110, compared with a norm of 100, maybe because, over the centuries, only the smart survived. Their testing ground was North America’s desolate, rocky, icy Arctic desert, called the barren lands, where perpetual winds and winter temperatures of minus 50 to 65 degrees F. mean a wind-chill factor of 160 below zero.

Summer is treeless, shelterless, and miserable, plagued with hordes of mosquitos and black flies. The Eskimo’s idea of hell.

There, at Chesterfield Inlet, 1,500 miles north of Winnipeg, Manitoba, I worked in a remote radio/weather station on the northwest coast of Hudson’s Bay. As any atlas will show, it is beyond the tree-line where wood is scarce and precious. So the Eskimos had learned to subsist mainly on animals and their by-products using their hides, sinews, and bones to make clothes, implements, and weapons.

Eskimos meat procurement

Even in the 1950s and early 1960s, the only steel they used was for the women’s knives or Ulus, sewing needles, and the men’s snow knives. Unlike harpoons, rifles work only as long as you have ammunition, and fur trade stores are 300 miles apart.

The Eskimos survived through ingenuity, self-sufficiency, and the interdependence of husband and wife. He hunted for meat and skins and made his own implements. The woman sewed the skins into clothes, boots, and mitts so the man could hunt.

What I’ve learned from the Eskimos

During my two-year term at the Arctic radio station, I learned a few survival techniques that anyone can apply in the winter season.

You learn that the real necessities for survival are shelter, weapons for hunting, food, and fire in that order. Shelter, while hunting was still the ubiquitous build it, use it, and leave it, overnight igloo, built of snow blocks in less than half an hour. When settling in an area for a week or so, a larger multi-room igloo would be built that would take two families an hour or so to complete.

Normally an igloo cannot be heated above 29 degrees F. without it starting to melt the ice over inside and lose its insulative powers. A large igloo was sometimes insulated when it was to be used for a few weeks, and when caribou skins were plentiful. To do this, hides were pinned, hair outward, to the inside of the igloo, using thongs pushed out through the snow block wall, and toggles used as fasteners.

The fire was not necessary for cooking. Uisquemow is the Indian word for raw meat eaters, and the Eskimos relish meat and fish “raw” (in winter it’s mostly quick frozen), and so get the vitamins. The Franklin expedition perished in part because they wouldn’t eat raw meat! But a tiny fire will dry skin clothes and make an igloo warm enough to be able to take off one layer of clothing.

When you are many miles from the fur trade post with no matches or lighter, it’s back to the primitive combination of friction and tinder.

They used the age-old and simple method: a small bow with a loose thong for a string, and three small pieces of wood — a pencil-sized fire stick, a holder to apply downward pressure to the fire stick without burning your hand and a base piece with a little hollow into which a tiny amount of tinder (usually bone-dry sphagnum moss) was placed to start the flame.

You wrap the bowstring two or three times around the fire stick, saw it back and forth, turning the fire stick rapidly to generate the heat to ignite the moss.

The tiny bits of smoldering moss was then transferred to the edge of the half-moon shaped seal oil lamp or kudlik that served to heat the igloo and nursed into flame. Carefully tended, and kept tiny so as not to smoke up the igloo, the flames could dry skin clothes on a rack, and even (it takes a long time) cook an Oyok (stew). An Eskimo woman had to be a skillful flame tender as well as a good seamstress.

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Dangerous Sun

To hunt in the Arctic’s bright sun and pure reflective snows of early spring, you must avoid snow blindness. Without proper sunglasses, you can soon go snow-blind. It dis painful, disabling, and, in these regions where polar bears abound, deadly.

My first seal hunting trip taught me a valuable lesson. I went with a group of coastal Eskimos out on the Hudson Bay ice. My “guide,” Nouvuk, an Eskimo who did odd jobs at the radio station, was very angry when he found I had forgotten my sunglasses.

He stopped the dog team, set the sled on its side as a shelter from the wind, lit a candle, and, with the flame, sooted the metal end of his harpoon shaft. He then took the soot and rubbed it around my eyes. Since I have deep-set eyes this got me through the day with lots of squinting. I never made the same mistake again.

The Eskimos made their own “sunglasses” from wood or bone. But in an emergency, even a piece of thin card such as a cigarette pack will do. Open it up. With a knife make two eye slits. Pierce holes and use a string or thong to keep them in place.

Emergency footwear

Warm emergency footwear or “socks” can be made from rabbit skins or duck skins by pulling the skin off as whole as possible. If you need it right away, just turn it fur (or feather) side in and wear it as a slipper or a legging.

If you have time, scrape the skin and pack it with dried grass or other material to stretch and dry it. The Eskimos used eider duck skins, complete with down and feathers, as liners for sealskin boots. Simple emergency mitts can also be made by this method.

A real treasure for Eskimo hunters was a small 30-power telescope. Small, light, and easy to carry, it is worth its weight in full stomachs! Great for spotting polar bears or seals sunning on the sea ice Because there was no cover, once you spotted a seal you needed a way to sneak up on it.

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Hunting seals

One way was to lie on your stomach on a tiny sled and imitate a seal. Keeping arms along your side, pushing with your toes to move forward gradually, and raising your head and trunk (like a seal) from time to time. Some Eskimos even imitate seals’ barks as part of the deception.

An easier way was to make a moveable blind of a piece of bleached-white hide, or canvas, stretched over two crossed wands. A small hole was made in the center to see through and shoot through. The blind was held in front of the crouching hunter as he edged close enough to make a killing shot. A wounded seal would escape down the hole in the ice and be lost, a no-no in survival terms.

When no rifle was available, a harpoon, time, and ingenuity on the sea ice could still bring food. First a sled dog (huskies) would sniff out the seal’s breathing hole hidden beneath the thin crust of snow. The Eskimo would then use a slender rod to confirm that the hole was there, gently scrape a small hollow over the tiny hole left by the rod, and put a piece of eiderdown on the hole.

Eskimos hunting seals

He would then settle into a half-standing crouch position, elbows braced on knees, harpoon at the ready, and be totally silent and motionless. A seal can stay underwater for 20 or 30 minutes at a time and may have more than one breathing hole in the ice. So patience and total concentration is a necessity.

As the seal rises in the hole, the air is pushed up, the feather lifts, and DOWN slashes the Eskimo’s harpoon. Then he enlarges the hole enough to pull the seal out onto the ice using the sealskin line that served as the harpoon “rope.” The dogs help pull up the big ones.

Eskimos use sealskin, to make waterproof boots and summer pants or cut it into long thin strips for dog harness and harpoon lines. They also weave it into dog whips and use it for lashing cross pieces to sled runners.

Making a sled

Long wooden sleds or komatiks are the Eskimos’ main winter mode of transportation. Caught without wood, they have made a sled from fish. The 6 to 8-pound Ikaloo (Arctic Char), hard frozen, were laid head to tail and wrapped in wet skins or canvas, which froze into a runner shape bent slightly upwards at the front.

The sled’s crossbars were made the same way and tied into place with sealskin lines. The running surface was made by digging up earth, heating it into mud with some snow water, and then molding it onto the runners.

The frozen, smoothed mud, in turn, was then coated with layer after layer of ice by melting snow, taking mouthfuls of water from the melt-pot, spraying it onto a polar bear-skin mit, and rubbing it onto the runner. The advantage of this sled was that if you ran out of food you could eat it. To keep the dogs from eating it overnight it was stored on top of the igloo.

Living Off Land, Sea

Two different types of Eskimos lived in that area, the seelamut (sea people) and the noonamut or land people. The seelamuts used single-man kayaks or family oomiaks. These had wood or whalebone frames covered with seal-skins sewn together. In summer this was the preferred method of travel —no mosquitos! For food they harpooned seals or walrus.

Their hunting harpoons had a float-free shaft. An inflated sealskin float attached to the line to tire the animals which were finished off with a short killing harpoon. Even when ammunition was plentiful, the animals were harpooned first so that, when they were shot, they would not sink and be lost.

The thick layers of fat or blubber of the walrus and seals were rendered down in sealskin bags to make cooking oil. The seal livers, a delicacy, are rich in vitamin A.

The noonamut hunted caribou, on land in winter, and often by kayak in the lakes in summer catching the migrating caribou (tuktu) when they were swimming across. The caribou are strong swimmers but cannot outpace an Eskimo in a kayak. The lesson here is that you can kill even a moose with a hunting knife — if he’s swimming!

The noonamut also fished through the lake ice in early winter but got most of their summer fish for drying by spearing them in stone-built fish-weir traps during the spawning run in summer. Though the Eskimos gorged themselves at the time, many fish were cleaned and laid out on the rocks in the sun of the long Arctic days to dry for later consumption.

The fish spear or kuggevuk, used for ice fishing in early winter before the ice becomes too thick, was pure Eskimo ingenuity. The kuggevuk has two springy bone sides, each of which ended in a backward-inward facing tooth. In the middle, protruding from the forward end of the shaft, was a bone or ivory spike about 2 to 3 inches long.

The fish were attracted to the hole in the ice by a little hookless bone or ivory jigger. When the kuggevuk hit, the tines slipped around the fish and hooked in. The central spike penetrated or severed the spinal cord. If you hit the fish, it is yours!

The Eskimos were able to live in relative comfort in subzero temperatures because of the design of their light-weight, highly insulative clothing.

Eskimo with kid and gun

The winter parkas and knee pants were made of scraped but uncured caribou skins. Two complete suits were worn. One next to the body, hair in; the other on top, hair out. Perspiration was controlled by permitting a flow-through of air from below, exiting at the face. This was done by tightening or loosening the drawstring around the koolitak (parka) hood’s face opening.

Sweating is dangerous because the clothing becomes wet, loses its protective insulating powers, then freezes. If it freezes, you die.

Caribou skin boots had extra soles sewn on, skin-side out, and made knee-high to meet the overlapping below-the-knee length caribou pants. Boot-soles wore out quickly and needed frequent replacement. The pants, with no fly, were held up with a drawstring and toggle.

The caribou skin sleeping bags were also double: the inside one with hair facing inward; the outside one, hair out. To keep the bags dry, frost that formed on the hair from your breath overnight was beaten off in the morning with a short stick. The “groundsheet” was a polar bear skin laid (waterproof) hair side down on the igloo’s snow sleeping bench to protect the untanned caribou skins from any snowmelt.

A last word

From these experiences, I learned a new respect for cold weather. Now my car trunk carries a winter survival kit. It contains the following:

  • For shelter, a sleeping bag, and ground-sheet;
  • For food, three beef jerky, three chocolate-coated granola bars (you can drink snow);
  • For fire, waterproof matches, butane lighter, candles, hiker’s mini-stove, thermo solid fuel;
  • For light, a small hurricane lantern, pint of fuel.

For the car:

  • 1-gal. gas;
  • 1-gal. methyl alcohol (gasoline antifreeze or emergency “gasoline” — your engine can burn it if you keep the choke 3/4 out);
  • first aid kit;
  • 3 road flares;
  • 6 marine flares with the gun;
  • milk carton of sand;
  • folding shovel; 50-foot paracord.

It all fits into a box 14 x 18 x 12 inches deep. Unlike car insurance, it’ll ensure survival.

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