Most hunters, including me, fear the cold when they first start thinking about booking a spring musk ox hunt. I am a northern latitudes kind of guy and I live with long, cold winters and deep snow. I am also usually a “jump in with both feet” kind of guy, willing to try anything once. But I’ll admit that, for the first time in many years, I had doubts. There is something about the thought of venturing north of the Arctic Circle in late winter with nothing but a small tent for shelter that can be terrifying for anybody.
The land is vast, windswept and as barren as any place on earth, or probably Mars for that matter. After making camp on Eviaginak Lake, fifty miles by snowmobile from anything resembling civilization, a couple of the Inuit guides started chopping a hole in the ice in front of the tents so they could go fishing. They were down a measured six and one half feet into the ice before they hit water. Had Toto been there, I would have felt compelled to comment that we were not in Kansas anymore.
When I did comment on how much work it was just to go fishing, one of the guides laughed and said, “You should have been on the last hunt! That lake wasn’t as protected as this one and the ice was even thicker. The first two holes we chopped hit dirt instead of water because the lake had frozen all the way to the bottom.” With the easy-going attitude that the Inuit have he just shrugged his shoulders and said, “the third time we tried, we found water, but no fish.” I couldn’t help but think of the old song, “don’t worry – be happy.” If there is one single phrase that would sum up our guides’ outlook on life, that song was it.
My guide was a small Eskimo in his sixties named Charlie Bolt, who spoke broken English with a unique syntax that I loved hearing. Charlie was one of those rare people I liked almost instantly. He has a great sense of humor and a comic’s flair for timing. One night we were in the tent, talking in the soft glow of the candlelight. He was telling me about his years of trapping and hunting in the Arctic. Charlie often talks in “lists” and when I asked about what animals he had hunted and trapped, he responded with a long list that he ran through with a slow, deliberate cadence. I later asked about eating the animals and he said that, yes, at one time or another he had eaten them all. Then he started with another list, “I eat caribou, seal, musk ox, wolf, polar bear, wolverine; and on and on until if he missed an Arctic critter not extinct I didn’t notice. When the list ran out, he stopped. So, I asked the obvious question, “How do they taste?”
“Well, wolf is for sure not my favorite.”
“What is your favorite?”
Charlie turned to me so the candlelight was shining on his wrinkled face and reflecting in his eyes as he turned them up to the heavens above the tent. He pondered the question for so long before speaking and I was starting to think he had fallen asleep. Then he slowly rubbed his wispy chin whiskers and with a sardonic grin said, “I really like chicken.”
Charlie and I shared a small, floorless, double-wall tent. He tossed some caribou hides on the ice and that was enough for him. On my side he also added a three inch foam pad. I travel a lot and most years I only sleep in my own bed about half the nights, if I am lucky. I have slept in literally thousands of beds over the years and I don’t remember one that was as comfortable as the sack in that frigid tent.
Our heat came from a two-burner Coleman cooking stove. Even with both burners running wide open it would never have the tent approaching anything I would call warm. But, with the outside temperature at thirty below zero, it would warm the tent to plus twenty, which, in contrast, felt damn near balmy. Charlie would turn the stove off at night to save fuel and the tent would cool close to the ambient temperature, often 40 below zero.
One evening, as we lay in the tent sipping tea, Charlie told me about a fur hunting trip years before that went bad. Charlie had been following wolf tracks for miles on his snowmobile before the rising wind blew them over with snow and he had to stop. He turned to follow his own tracks back, but the same wind had obliterated them as well. The windblown snow created a whiteout which hid all the landmarks and even the sun. Charlie kept going through the bitter cold until his machine ran out of gas. Then he picked up his rifle and started walking.
You must remember, this was north of the Arctic Circle, one of the coldest, most inhospitable places on earth and it was in January, the coldest time of the year. The average American wouldn’t have lasted the night.
Charlie survived by walking all day and then burrowing into the snow at night. Ten days later, some friends found him and took him home. “My wife,” he said with a chuckle, “She was plenty mad at me when I get back.”
Charlie told me how he had shot a caribou and wrapped the hide around his body and legs, where it had frozen in place. He kept a piece of frozen meat with him to chew on at night. He had a small tin can and each night he would pack it with snow before he burrowed “like a fox” into the snow to escape the cold.
“I put the can between my legs and the snow would melt during the night and in the morning I had enough water for one or two sips, but it was enough.”
Later he told me more of the story, a part I suspect he usually does not share.
“On that last night I was so cold and so hopeless. I was in my snow cave and ready to give up, I knew that was the night I would die. Suddenly the little cave was filled with a red light and for the first time in days I was warm. It felt so good, like the most wonderful thing on earth. A voice was in my head that said all I had to do was accept this and I would never be cold again. I wanted to do that so bad, in fact I was going to, but then I remembered my wife and I wanted to see her again. The moment I had that thought the light disappeared and it was so cold again. But I knew I would make it. The next day my friends found me.”
If you were there to hear that story told you would never have a doubt about Charlie or the truth in his tale. And, just like the proverbial foxhole, there were no atheists in that cold tent that day.