Terrible Privations Encountered by Men And Dogs Hunting Alaskan Caribou
MICHAEL H. MASONApril11922
BUT still they travelled on. Day by day they toiled forward, grim and silent, every hour a week of misery. Every day their hope grew less and their bodies weaker. They felt that their backbones had turned to jelly, their knees to water, the heads and feet to lumps of lead, and their hips felt as if red hot sand had been mixed with their joints. And through it all, day and night, working forward or crouching over the fire, was the awful hunger for food. Sometimes they felt ravening, looking at their poor starving dogs with red and longing eyes, trying not to look at each other, or sick, feeling like vomiting, or else the hunger pang would twist and torture them with the shrinking of the stomach. They still had tea, but they left the tobacco alone.”
It reads like fiction, but it is the relation of the experiences of two caribou hunters on the lonely Chandalar river in Alaska. The hunters were Joe Fraser, a white Canadian, and Chandalar Sol, a full-blooded Indian. They left Fort Yukon at the time of the year when they would not see the sun for four months; but for six hours or so each day, unless there is a snow-storm, a man can see to travel. The whiteness of the snow increases the visibility, and the eyes of man become accustomed to the semi-darkness. With a good moon, travelling is possible at any hour. It took them about a week’s time to reach the middle fork of the Chandalar. It was towards the head of this river that they expected to find great herds of caribou. But day after day they travelled forward and saw not a track nor a sign of game. Nights they slept in “siwash” camps big holes dug in the snow, lined with green boughs and protected by a spruce bough wind-break.
On the sixth day on the Chandalar the food for the dogs gave out. They cut up caribou skins, brought along for bedding, and boiled them and fed them to the dogs. They had only one more day’s food for themselves. The dogs howled all night from sheer hunger, but sympathy for their misery held the men from beating them into silence. The next day they cut three feet from the length of their sled, and boiled the moose skin parchment from its sides. Most of this they gave to the dogs, but they ate a little themselves and kept the balance for breakfast the next morning. Next night they had nothing to give the dogs and only a morsel for themselves. Weaker and weaker they became, and as they weakened the cold took greater effect upon them. They tied their dogs up at night, no longer for convenience, but for fear. The dogs knew there was no more food and no longer howled in the night. They did their poor best every day, instinctively believing in the ability of their masters to get them meat. The men looked forward with horror to the time when weakness and cold would compel them to kill and eat their poor dumb helpers. Joe froze three fingers of his left hand down to the middle joints and his starving partner had to squat on the tail and rub the fingers back to life again. On the fourth foodless day they came to the mouth of a small creek flowing from the east. They turned up this and travelled for two days, but saw no signs of game. Not a living thing was in the country but themselves and the furry skeletons that whined and toiled in the harness. Even God seemed to be dead in the land and to have cast a curse and a blight upon it. Mr. Mason vividly describes the next few days of living death : “Every night, when they crawled into their sleeping robes, each would confidently assure the other that to-morrow they would find the caribou, but Joe would pray in his heart for strength to carry him through the ordeal of the next day. Sol, usually economical of speech, spoke not at all, except to express confidence for Joe’s sake, but his own thoughts were resignedly fatalistic, according to the nature of his race.
“On the sixth day they crossed the summit of the range, and started down the slope to the East Fork of the Chandalar. That they found strength, in their horrible weakness and emaciation, to make the ascent, must have been a gift from heaven. When-they reached the timber at the head of a little creek, and at last stopped for the night, they were in terrible danger of falling exhausted in the snow, unable to rise, and freezing to death, losing the race in the last lap. They made a slovenly little camp and fell asleep almost before they could get into their robes. Their spark of life sank down and down, and would probably have gone out if a fall of snow had not given them an extra blanket and warmed the spark to action again.
“As Sol was harnessing the dogs next morning he cried out to Joe:
“ ‘Look, Joe! Tchsidtse feel good!’ “Indeed, Tchsidtse Rui (Black Ears') the wise white leader, was pulling on his chain towards the lead harness, waving his plume tail in obvious anticipation of something good. So at last there was hope!
“ ‘Caribou this time al right!’ Sol said with a genuine grin.
" ‘Mebbe!’ said Joe, putting on his snowshoes. ‘Liable ter hit ’em, but I ain’t figger’n’ on nothin’. Guess the poor old devil’s gone daffy. ’Tain’t wunnerful!’ He limped painfully down the creek, the white dog following close, his tail in the air for the first time for a week.
“But Joe had not much hope. He thought they would have to kill their dogs one by one and eat them, till they could get back to Fort Yukon. They would be lucky to get back even at that rate. As he walked slowly down through the alternate soft snow, hard crust and glare ice of the rocky creek, Joe thought of many things.
“His thoughts wandered again, and he saw a vision of glorious brown eyes and hair, curved red lips, and......Back to earth at a shout from Sol:
“ ‘Joe—ah! Zuk! Zuk vutsai! “(‘Oh, Joe! Look! Look at the caribou!’)
“On the skyline of a hill, some four miles away, stood a band of caribou, looking back. Then they laughed and chattered and sprang forward with a lighter step, for they had found the caribou, found the meat which is the fuel of life.
“They stopped and built camp, laying the fire without lighting it; then both men put on their big hunting snow-shoes, and started along the trail after the deer. Within half an hour they could see them, on a bare mountain-side a mile further on. After a careful stalk they got within about 250 yards.
“The caribou were pawing at the pockets of soft snow between the ridges to get at their food, the moss below.
“Joe took steady aim from his knees and brought down the biggest bull with a soft-nosed bullet in the shoulder.
“As the caribou stood momentarily bewildered at the collapse of their leader, Joe killed a fine barren cow, and Sol, firing about ten shots rapidly, after the manner of his kind, brought down five more animals. For three days the men and their dogs just feasted and slept. Then the hunters went back to their work again, killing in all fifty-one caribou before the week was over. They spent a strenuous time building a huge cache in which to store them.”
But on their way back they came upon a starving tribe to whom they gave most of their meat—that is the meat they were carrying with them on their sled. The only hunter in this tribe had broken his rifle and was thus unable to bring down game. So Joe gave him his rifle and a plentiful supply of ammunition.
They were delayed by bad weather in making their way back to'Fort Yukon and were once more in danger of starving when a pack of wolves killed a big bull moose near their camp. They took the meat away from the wolves and they and their dogs feasted upon it, the wolves howling in a circle all night as if trying to call down vengeance on the creatures that had taken their food away from them. Mr. Mason gives a grim description of that night in the wilderness:—
“The men butchered the meat, packed it to the bank, and put it up on a cache. They gave their dogs a huge chunk apiece and fed full themselves, having built their camp alongside the cache.
“When darkness came the four plundered plunderers lifted their voices in mournful howling. The dogs shivered and whined in terror. The men loosed them, and they cowered round the fire in abject fear of the vengeful fury and long-fanged, powerful jaws of the wild cousins whose meal and lawful kill they had usurped.
“This may sound cowardly, but the ‘husky’ dog is no more a match for a timber wolf than an asthmatic poodle is for a ‘husky.’ Wolves take great delight in dog-murder. The men fired a few shots into the dark, but they would not be driven from their stolen meat. All night they stayed round the camp, making night ghastly with their mournful lamentations. The fire was made to last all night in case the wolves should get bold in the darkness and kill the dogs while the men slept. Tchsidtse, the old white leader, shivering shamelessly, crawled, uninvited, into the camp, and squeezed his frightened form against the comforting bulk of Joe’s reclining body.
“The howl of the timber wolf, the hunger cry or the cry to the moon, is the wildest and most mournful noise in all the wild and mournful northern winter. Beautiful and musical, it is also horrible and tragic. The listening man feels his hair move on the nape of his neck when he first hears it, even in the dim distance.
“But the partners did not trouble about the wolves. Full fed and with a top-heavy load, they pressed on to Fort Yukon, which they reached the following morning.”
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