Harper's Monthly Magazine
 
Solving the Problem
of
the Arctic
 
Hunting Caribou and Building Snow Houses
part IV
 
By: Vilhjalmur Stefansson
(1919)
Doubtless the average man turns to polar narratives, if he turns to them at all, with the desire and expectation of reading about suffering, heroic preseverance against formidable odds, and tragedy either actual or narrowly averted. Perhaps, then, it is the "law of supply and demand" that accounts for the general tenor of Arctic books. However that be, my main interest in the story I am telling is to "get across" to the reader the idea that if you are of ordinary health and strength, if you are young enough to be adaptable and independent enough to shake off the influence of books and belief, you can find good reason to be as content and comfortable in the north as anywhere on earth. An example to me is the fall of 1914, to which I frequently look back as a time I wish I might live over again.
 
To begin with, we had that all-important thing, an object for which to work. The Mary Sachs had brought us the news that Karluk had been wrecked near Wrangell Island, that the main resources of our expedition were gone, and it was up to us to make good in spite of that. I confess I had found the idea of a large expedition less of a challenge than the new conditions imposed. When you have under you many officers and more subordinates of a lower rank, it is with a commander largely a case of "He spake and it was so," an easy but uninteresting way of bringing anything about. Now, with most of our best men and resources gone, it had become a matter of individual prowess. We had to show that by adapting ourselves, unaided, to local conditions a few could do the work of many.
 
The first point was that, although the Mary Sachs had brought a certain amount of food, it would by no means have been enough even for one winter, if men and dogs had subsisted entirely on the cargo. Furthermore, as polar expeditions have proved from the earliest times down to Scott, living on ship's food brings danger of scurvy. We did not have dozens of competent and locally familiar Eskimo hunters as Peary did, for instance, to send out here and there to bring meat of walrus or musk-ox or caribou. We had only one Eskimo hunter, Natkusiak, my companion of many years, and we had not even those easily secured walrus and musk-ox to depend on, for they are absent from Banks Island and its vicinity.
 
That the native resources in this place were less than are commonly found in the north made the task all the more absorbing. It was purely a question of caribou and seals, and the seals we left to the midwinter, turning our attention to caribou in the fall. This for two reasons: first, you can kill seals under favorable circumstances even in the twilight of winter when the sun never rises; but for caribou-hunting, where the field-glasses are as important as the rifle, daylight is necessary for any considerable success. Then, to us who have lived long in the north, the lean caribou of midwinter and spring are only food, and not a  very satisfactory one at that; but the fat caribou of the autumn are a delicacy which the ordinary civilized man of to-day is not fitted by experience to imagin, although King Arthur and King Alfred would have understood the matter, for theirs was an age which judged meat by taste and called it sweet, and not as our toothless generation who bestow strange flavor on meat by seasoning and praise it by calling it tender.
 
Wilkins, Natkusiak, and I, therfore, commenced our hunt at once.
 
We traveled three days northeasterly from our base at Kellett. It was snowing hard most of the time. We could not see more than a mile or two, and all caribou tracks were naturally buried by the fast-falling snow. It is an idiosyncracy with me, or possibly a matter of pride, that, however abundant the food-supply is in the camp from which we start upon a hunt, we seldom carry more than two or three days' provisions. We have never yet failed to get some game before the fund was gone. To start with little food is generally a good policy, for one travels more rapidly and hunts more energentically and feels a greater reward in his success when he knows that it is a question of getting more game or going without meals. It need not be thought, either, that the method is dangerous, for no one who has tried starvation can be induced to fear four or five days without food. You get no hungrier after the aftrenoon of the first day, and any one who tells about having suffered from going three or four days without food will get scant sympathy from me. Having three days' provisions in the sled really means that your party is good for at least ten days, before which time something is sure to turn up.
 
Constructing a snow house - the first block.
 
 But at this time of the year the darkness was coming on rapidly and we had to make our harvest in it a proper season. The caribou were getting leaner and their meat less desirable every day. On the fourth day I asked Wilkins, as the man then least experienced of the three of us, (although he later became a first class hunter) to stay in camp to see that nothing happened to it and the dogs while Natkusiak and I struck off in different directions through a moderately thick blizzard to hunt. The visibility of caribou in that sort of storm was under 400 yards, but there is this compensatory advantage in a blizzard, that by real watchfulness you are practically certain to see caribou before they see you, and that at a range where you can begin shooting at once. Furthermore, the wind drowns any noise you might make and the storm itself seems to make the animals less watchful. While, therefore, you have a small chance of finding caribou at all, yet if you do happen to run into them you have a good chance of killing them.
 
We were in a country which none of us had previously seen, and there were no river-courses or landmarks that could be thoughtlessly followed away from camp with assurance that you could with equal thoughtlessness follow them back again. In that sort of weather it is a matter of the closest observation and the most careful reckoning to find your way home to camp. As you advance you must notice the speed with which you are walking and the time you are proceding in any given direction, and you must know exactly at what angle to the wind you are traveling. Furthermore, you must check the wind occasionally, either by your pocket compass or by a snowdrift on the ground, to see that it isn't changing, for an unnoticed change in the th wind would throw otherwise careful reckoning completely out of gear. The method of such a hunt, if you are leaving camp in unknown topography, is first to walk around the hill - for our hunting-camps are commonly on high hill tops - and examine each face of the hill carefully enough so that you feel sure that if you strike any point of it within half a mile of camp you will recognize it on the return. When the topography of the half-mile square or so surrounding camp has been memorized, you strike out perhaps right into the wind or perhaps at an angle of forty-five or ninety degrees to it, and travel straight for an hour or two hours, according to the degree of confidence you have and your ability to get back. If no game has been found, you turn at some  known angle (commonly a right angle) to your original course and walk in that direction a carefully estimated distance, perhaps as far as you did in the first direction. If then nothing has been found you turn again, and if you this time also make a right-angle turn, it is easy to calculate at what time you are opposite camp and one hour or two hours' walk away from it. Turning a third right angle, will face you directly for camp, and if you have been careful you will land within the area which you memorized before starting.  But should you miss it, you will know, at any rate, at what time you are close to it, and by carefully thinking the matter out you will see how to walk around in circles of continually increasing size until you find a place you know.
 
If in the course of your walk you do see game. Your first thought must be to take the time by the watch or make some similar observation to assure yourself at that moment of the direction of your camp. If you can kill game at that spot the matter is simple, but if you have to follow about a good deal, or if it is a trail you come upon rather than the game itself and you follow the trail, then it is not so easy to lay down the proper rules for getting back. Everything can, however, be summerized by saying that you must continually memorize your course; and if you do this it is only a matter of angles to determine the course you must eventually take when you start for home.
 
 This simple outline of our procedure in a storm, and in fact at all other times when direct vision will not serve, will show at once why it is that a white man of trained mind can find his way home so frequently where an Eskimo has to camp away from home and wait for clear weather.
 
In the hunt under discussion I walked about three miles into the wind, then three miles to one side and back to camp without seeing any sign of game, but it turned out that Natkusiak had been more lucky. Within two or three hours after my return we knew that this must be so, for otherwise he would have been back. And, sure enough, just as daylight was disappearing he returned with an account of seeing about thirty caribou and killing and skinning seventeen of them. Wolves were very numerous at this time and we frequently saw them in bands of ten or less, and our first concern was to get the meat of these deer home. By the next evening we had more than three-quarters of it safe, although the wolves did get some. When the meat had been gathered, Natkusiak and I again hunted, but in clearer weather. This time the luck was reversed; Natkusiak saw some deer which he failed to get, while I saw a band of twenty-three and secured them with twenty-seven shots.
 
It must not be supposed that killing twenty-three caribou in twenty-seven shots is anything remarkable. This will appear when you see how it is done. To begin with, with my powerful fieldglasses I saw the band at a distance of seven or eight miles. I advanced to within about a mile of where they were grazing, climbed a hill much higher than the rest of the country, and spent half an hour or so in memorizing all the topography in that vicinity. There were various small hills and little hallows and creek beds here and there, with branches in varied directions. All this could be studied from the greater elevation, and the main difficulty of the hunt was to remember the important details after you had descended into the lower country, where everything on closer view looked different. The wind was fairly steady and I made the approach from leeward. But I found, when I got within half a mile of the deer, that they had moved to the top of a ridge and were feeding along the top, as it happened, about sidewise to the wind. There was no cover by which they could be  directly approached, so I went to the ridge about half a mile from them  and lay down to wait. They grazed in my direction very slowly for half an hour or so, and then lay down and rested an hour and a half or more. Meantime I had nothing to do but wait. If, when they got through resting, they had decided either to descend from the ridge or reverse their course and graze back to where they came from, I should merely have had to make another d'etour and start the hunt over again. But they grazed toward me, and in another hour every one of the twenty-three was within two hundred yards of me, and some of them within fifty yards. Caribou and other wild animals commonly fail to recognize danger in anything that is motionless, so long as they are not able to smell it. They saw me plainly, of course, just as they saw all the rest of the scenery, but their intelligence was not equal to realizing that I was something quite different from the other things they saw.
 
The first tier completed.
 
About this time, when the lakes are freezing all around, the lake ice and, even the ground itself, keeps cracking with a loud, explosive noise, so caribou frequently seem to take rifle-shots for the cracking of ice and are not disturbed. I took pains to see that my first shots especially should be of the right kind. In a situation like this  the brain or spine is the best place to hit, for if the animal drops stone dead the herd is not inclined to be frightened. What you must guard against is a wound through or near the heart, for an animal shot that way will commonly startle the herd by making a sprint of fifty to two hundred yards at top speed and then dropping, turning a somersault in falling. But he will always run in the direction he is facing when shot, so that you can control his movements by waiting until he is facing a suitable direction. When an animal is frightened he will run toward the center of the band, and if he is already in the middle of the band will probably not run at all, at least for the moment. But caribou shot through the body back of the diaphram will usually stand still where they are, or after running half a dozen yards, lie down quietly as they would when well fed and inclined to rest. I therefore now did a thing that may seem cruel, but which is necessary in our work; I shot two or three animals through the body, and they lay quietly down. The noise of the shots had attracted the attention of the herd, but  had not frightened them, because they were so used to the cracking of ice. Furthermore, the sight of an animal quietly lying down is conclusive with caribou an allays their fear from almost any source. I was therefore in no hurry, so that, after shooting one animal, I moved my rifle so slowly that the caribou did not even notice the movement and brought it to bear on the next one, holding it so near the ground that the working of the bolt in reloading was equally not noticed. After the first animals had lain down, I shot two or three near by through the neck, and then I began shooting for the hearts of those farthest away, so that any of them, if they ran, would run toward me. The calves I left till the last.
 
The very deliberation with which this sort of hunting is done, while it makes conspicous the element of cruelty, makes it the least cruel method possible from the point of view of the pain caused the animals. A number of hunters greatly excited and blazing away in the manner of those inexperienced or afflicted with "buck fever," will result in all sorts of painful wounds that are not fatal and that may be borne for days or weeks by animals that escape. The most cruel of wounds  to caribou is a broken leg, for there is no hope of recovery, and yet they can escape for the time being. I have on two or three occasions had a chance to study these animals afterward. They appear to realize that their speed, now that they have only three legs to run on, is inferior to the rest of the herd, and they are in evident and continual dread of the wolves that are sure eventually to drag them down unless a hunter's bullet mercifully intervenes. In a properly conducted hut by such a method as ours, a wounded animal hardly ever escapes, and with our powerful rifles even a shot through the abdominal cavity will tear so many blood-vessels that death takes place inside five minutes.
 
The reason for killing entire bands of caribou is that of convnience. If you kill them in scattered places the freighting problem becomes serious, and especially the matter of protection from wolves. But with a big kill you can camp right by the meat and see that none of it gets lost. Furthermore, in islands like Banks Island caribou are so scarce that in the ordinary fall hunts, in order to get enough meat, we have to kill 75 per cent, or more of all the animals seen. In the fall of 1914 we had only two or three weeks of reasonably good daylight in which to get the meat for all winter. For when the daylight comes again in the spring we are not only busy with the ice exploratory work, but also the meat is lean and, while edible, neither nutritious nor half as palatable as the fall-killed meat.
 
Any one who sees charm in the life of the hunter in the open will need no argument to convince him that the lives of Arctic hunters are interesting, but he may, nevertheless, think they are uncomfortable enough for that to be a serious drawback. This is by no means the case, thanks to the comfortable dwellings in which we spend our nights and excessively stormy days and any periods that are idle through necessity or choice.
 
A snow house that is essentially as comfortable as a room of the same size in an ordinary dwelling-house can be put up in fifty minutes or an hour. Somewhere near the deer-kill we find a snowbank that is of the right depth and consistency. With our soft deerskin boots we walk around on the drifts, and if we see  faint imprints of our feet but nowhere break through, we assume that the drift is a suitable one, but examine it farther by probing with a rod similar to the rod  of  an umbrella or a very slender cane. When the right bank has been found we get out our sixteen-inch butcher-knives or twenty-inch machetes and  cut the snow into domino-shaped blocks about four inches thick, fifteen to twenty inches wide, and twenty to twenty-five inches long. These blocks, according to their size and the density of the snow, will weigh from fifty to over a hundred pounds, and must be strong enough to stand not only their own weight when propped up on edge or when being carried around, but if they are intended for the lower tiers of the house they must also be capable of supporting the weight of three to five hundred pounds of other blocks resting upon them.
 
The house itself should be built preferably on a level part of the drift where the snow is three or more feet deep. The first block is set on edge as a domino might be on a table, but with your knife you slightly undercut the inner edge of it so as to make the block lean inward at a very slight angle if the house is to be a big one. If, to use the language of physics, you want to lean the block over enough to bring the line of the center of gravity outside the base, this can be done by putting up a second block at the same time and propping one against the other. But this is never done in actual practice, for a house small as to necessitate this would be too small for human habitation.
 
Laying the first block of the second tier.
 
The oval or circle that is to be the ground plan of the house may be determined by eye as the builder sets up the blocks one after the other; but in practice I make an outline with a string with pegs at either end, one peg planted in the center of the house and the other used to describe the circumference, somewhat as a schoolboy may use two pencils and a string to make a circle on a piece of paper. I find that even the best snow-house builders, Eskimo or white, if they rely on the eye alone in determining the size and shape, will now and then err in the size of the house, making it uncomfortably small  or unnecessarily large for the intended number of  occupants. But with a string a simple mathematical calculation always tells you how many feet of radius will accommodate the intended number of lodgers.
 
It will be seen by the photographs that when you once have your first block standing on edge, it is simple matter to prop all the other blocks up by leaning one against the other, The nature of snow is such that when a block has been standing on a snowbank or leaning on  another block for a matter of five or ten minutes in frosty weather, it is cemented to the other blocks and to the snow below at all points of contact and can be moved only by exerting force enough to break it loose.
 
When the first tier has been completed, the question arises, How can the second tier be begun? There are many ways, but the simplest is to select any point in the circle formed by your first tier and from the top edge of one of the blocks make a diagonal cut downward to the bottom edge of the far corner of the same block, or the second or third block. In the niche thus formed you place the first block of the second tier, its end abutting onth the last block of the ground tier. After that  you lean the second block on the second tier, and so on, building up spirally. The blocks of each tier must be inclined inward at a greater angle than those of the tier below and less angle than those of the tier above. In other words, what you are trying to do is build an approximately perfect dome.
 
A halt for dinner.
 
By the simple experiment of propping two books of the same size against each other on a table, it will be found that they cannot fall unless they slide past each other where they meet at the corners or slip on the table. But snow is so sticky that the blocks do not slip on the snowbank where you are building, and we cut the corners in such a way that they meet with even faces and do not tend to slip past one another any more than do blocks in a masonry dome. The matter of building with snow blocks is far simpler than that of building with blocks of masonry, for  stone is an intractable substance and has to be shaped according to a mathematical calculation or molded in an exact form before it is put in its intended position; but, snow being a most tractable substance, all forethought becomes unnecessary. We place the block in its approximate position in the wall and then lean it gradually against the block that next preceded it, and, by the method of trial and error, continually snip off piece after piece until the block settles comfortably into the position where it belongs. A glance at the photographs, especially the ones illustrating the latter steps in the building, shows that the blocks cannot possibly fall unless they first break.
 
 It becomes evident, therefore, that, with photographs and description and possibly, for surety's sake, a diagram or two in addition, the building of snow houses could be taught by correspondence to boys in any place on earth where the winters are cold enough and the winds strong enough to form hard drifts that last for several days or weeks at a time. Yet it is curious and hard to explain that the building of snow houses has until just lately been considered a sort of mystery. Sir Leopold McClintock was one of the first (if not the first) of polar explorers to point out that snow houses are so comfortable that their use would make Arctic exploration a simpler, safer, and pleasanter occupation, but he goes on to say that unfortunately white men cannot make snow houses, and that he himself did the next best thing by erecting vertical walls of snow and roofing them  over with a tarpaulin. He comments on the inferiority of this dwelling to the real snow house, but insistes that it is greatly superior to ther ordinary tent used in exploration. While it is odd that McClintock should be so far behind the Eskimos with whom he associated, in that he could not build the snow houses  which they build with ease, it is also notable that, so far as white men were concerned, He was a genration ahead of his time in realizing their value. Any one who tries it will agree with him that snow walls with a tarpaulin roof make a much better camp than the silk tents used by many explorers down to the present time.
 
Care is required to get the blocks in position.
 
If four men co-operate in the building of a snow house, one usually cuts the blocks, a second carries them, a third man builds inside, and a fourth follows the builder around and chinks in all the crevices between the blocks with soft snow. Ten minutes after this has been done the soft snow in the crevices has become as hard as, and even a good deal harder than, the blocks themselves, so that the house, although fragile when being built, becomes moderately strong half an hour later.
 
When the snow dome has been otherwise finished a tunnel is dug through the drift into the house, giving a sort of a trap-door entrance through the floor. Most Eskimos, failing to understand certain principles of thermodynamics, use a door in the side of the house. But it is obvious that if a door in the wall is open and if the interior of the house is being artificially heated, then (warm air being lighter than cold) there will be a continual current of the heated air going out through the upper half of the doorway and cold current from outside entering along the floor. But if the door is on a level with the floor or a little below it, then the warm air from the house cannot go out through the door, even with the door open, because warm air has no inclination except that of rising. It is equally obvious that the cold air cannot come in through the open door in the floor so long as the house above the floor is filled with warmer air, for two bodies cannot occupy the same space at the same time. In heating the house, whether it be by blue-flame kerosene-stove, seal-oil lamp, or the bodies and breathing of people, poisons accumulate and ventilation becomes necessary. So we have a ventilating hole in the roof, depending in diameter on the various conditions of external temperature, abundance of fuel, and on whether people are awake or asleep.
 
When the tunnel and door have been excavated, the bedding is  passed into the house, and  a layer of deerskins with the hair down is spread to cover the entire floor except just where the cooking is done. Over this layer we spread another layer of skins with the hair up. The reason for the double insulation is that the interior of the house is going to be warmer presently and people are going to sit around on  the floor and later are going to sleep on it, and if the insulation were not practically perfect, the heat from cooking and from the bodies of the sleepers and would penetrate through the bedding to  the snow underneath and by melting it would make the bedcloths wet. By actual experience we find that when the temperature of  the weather outside, is anything like zero Fahrenheit, or lower, then double layer of deerskins will prevent any thawing taking place underneath the bed, the snow there remaining as dry a sand in a desert.
 
The last block but one in place.
 
When the floor has been covered and the bedding, cooking-gear, writing materials, and other things brought in, a fire is lighted, the fuel varying according to circumstances. The end to be gained, if fuel is abundant, is to heat the house until the snow in its roof and walls begins to thaw. If the fuel allows it, we sometimes bring the temerature within-doors temporarily as high as eighty degrees Fahrenheit. We keep feeling of the roof and walls to watch the progress of thawing. The thawing, of course, is most rapid in the roof, as the hot air accumulates against it, and usually the lowest tieer blocks near the floor does not thaw at all. As thawing proceeds no dripping occurs, because dry snow is the best sort of blotter and soaks the water into itself as fast as it forms. When the inner later of the roof has become properly wet with the thawing and the walls damp to a less degree, we either put out the fire temporarily or make a large hole in the roof, or both, and allow the house to freeze. This forms a glazing film of ice for the house, giving it far greater strength than it had before, with the further advantage that if you rub against the glazed surface scarcely anything will adhere to your clothing, while if you were to rub against the dry snow before the glazing takes place you will get your shoulder white, with a good deal of snow perhaps falling on the bed. After this glazing the house is so strong that, without taking special care, any number of men could climb on top of it, and polar bears may, and occasionally do, walk over these houses, and I have never known one of breaking. Their strength, however, is somewhat the same as the strenght of an egg-shell, and while they are difficult to crush with pressure, they are easy to break with a blow. A polar bear has no trouble in getting in if he wants to, for one sweep of his paw will scratch a great penetrating hole.
 
The walls are built but the crevices have still to be filled.
 
Two hours after the building of the house is begun every one is comfortably inside, eating a warm supper. Whether on the sea-ice or ashore, we usually feel that we have an abundance of fuel. This will explain any apparent discrepancy between our accounts of the comfort of our snow houses and the accounts of others, who describe the temperature in them as being ten or twenty degrees below freezing. Those who have depended in cooking and heating on the alcohol or other fuel brought with them, have usually omitted heating except as it was incidental to the cooking. They had cunningly devised means for concentrating the flame of either alcohol or kerosene stoves against the bottom of the pot, and if any heat escaped into the house it was  in spite of them. When the cooking was done the stove was promptly extinguished. We, by contrast, take no pains to concentrate our fire against the pot and are glad to have half the heat escape into the room, but even at that our houses are seldom warm  enough when the cooking is finished and we burn the stove for some time afterward. If the house was built at fifty below zero, each block in the wall was also of that temperature and contained what we may unscientifically speak of as a great deal of "latent cold." To neutralize this is necessary to keep the house at a temperature of about sixty degrees Fahrenheit for a considerable time, which we usually do. The snow out of which the house has been built is so nearly cold-proof that when the latent cold has once been neutralized, the heat of our bodies keeps the temperature well above the freezing-point, even whith the hole in the roof for ventilation. but if the weather outside  gets a little warmer than when we made camp, our body heat may be too great or the cooking may produce too much heat, and the roof in that case will begin to melt. This we take not so much as a sign that the house is too warm, but rather  that the roof is too thick, so we send a man out with a knife  to shave it down, perhaps from four inches to two inches, giving the cold from outside a chance to penetrate and neutralize the heat from within, stopping  the thawing. It may happen the next day that the wether turns cold again and in that case hoar frost begins to form on the roof and drops in the form of snowflakes on the bed. That is a sign that the roof is now too thin, and a man goes out with a shovel and piles the necessary amount of soft snow on the roof to blanket it till the formation of hoar frost stops.
 
The snow house complete.
 
If you remember that all of us who have spent more than a year "living on the country" are quite of the Eskimo opinion that no food on earth is better than caribou meat, and if you have any experience in the life of a hunter anywhere, you will realize that in the evenings when we sit in these warm houses, feasting with keen appetites on unlimited quantities of boiled ribs, we have all the creature comforts. What we lack, if we feel any lack at all, will be possibly the presence of friends far away, or the chance to hear opera or see the movies. At any rate, it is true that today in the movie-invested city I long for more snow-house evenings after caribou-hunts as I never in the north longed for clubs or concerts or orange-groves. And this is not peculiar to me. The men who have hunted with me are nearly all of the same mind - they are either in the north now, on the way back there by whaling-ship, or eating their hearts out because they cannot go.
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