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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 46/February 1895/A Day's Hunting with the Eskimos


KAIAK hunting has many dangers.

Though his father may have perished at sea, and very likely his brother and his friend as well, the Eskimo nevertheless goes quietly about his daily work, in storm no less than in calm. If the weather is too terrible, he may be chary of putting to sea; experience has taught him that in such weather many perish; but when once he is out he goes ahead as though it were all the most indifferent thing in the world.

Let us follow the Eskimo on a day's hunting.

Several hours before dawn he stands upon the outlook rock over the village, and scans the sea to ascertain whether the weather is going to be favorable. Having assured himself on this point, he comes slowly down to his house and gets out his kaiak jacket. His breakfast in the good old days consisted of a drink of water; now that European effeminacy has reached him too, it is generally one or two cups of strong coffee. He eats nothing in the morning; he declares that it makes him uneasy in the kaiak, and that he has more endurance without it. Nor does he take any food with him—only a quid of tobacco.

When the kaiak is carried down to the beach and the hunting weapons are ranged in their places, he slips into the kaiak hole, makes fast his jacket over the ring, and puts out to sea. From other houses in the village his neighbors are also putting forth at the same time. It is the bladder-nose that they are after to-day, and the hunting ground is on some banks nine miles out to the open sea.

It is calm, the smooth sea heaves in a long swell toward the rocky islets that fringe the shore, a light haze still lies over the sounds between them, and the sea birds floating on the surface seem double their natural size. The kaiaks cut their way forward, side by side, making only a silent ripple; the paddles swing in an even rhythm, while the men keep up an unbroken stream

PSM V46 D463 Seal hunting.jpg

of conversation, and now and then burst out into merry laughter. Bird-darts are thrown in sport, now by one, now by another, in order to keep eye and hand in practice. Presently an auk comes within range of one of them; the dart speeds through the air, and the bird, transfixed, attempts, with much flapping of wings, to dive, but is held up next moment upon the point of the dart. The point is pulled out, the hunter seizes the bird's beak between his teeth, and with a strong twitch breaks its neck, then fastens it to the back part of the kaiak.

They soon leave the sounds and islets behind them and put straight out to the open sea.

After some hours' paddling, they have at last reached the hunting ground. Great seal heads are seen peering over the water in many directions, and the hunters scatter in search of their prey.

Boas, one of the best hunters of the village, has seen a large he-seal far off, and has paddled toward it; but it has dived, and he lies and waits for its reappearance. There! a little way before him its round black head pops up. He bends well forward, while with noiseless and wary strokes he urges the kaiak toward the seal, which lies peaceful and undisturbed, stretching its neck and rocking up and down upon the swell. But suddenly it is on the alert; it has caught a glimpse of the flashing paddle blade, and now looks straight at him with its great round eyes. He instantly stops paddling and sits motionless, while the way on the kaiak carries it noiselessly forward. The seal discovers nothing new to be alarmed at, and resumes its former quietude. It throws its head backward, holds its snout straight up in the air, and bathes in the morning sun which gleams upon its black, wet skin. In the meantime the kaiak is rapidly nearing; every time the seal looks in that direction. Boas sits still and moves no muscle; but as soon as it turns its head away again, he shoots forward like a flash of lightning. He is coming within range; he gets his harpoon clear, sees that the line is properly coiled upon the stand; one stroke more and it is time to throw—when the seal quietly disappears under the water. It was not frightened, and will consequently come up again at no great distance. He lies still and waits. But the minutes drag on; a seal can remain under water an incredible time, and it seems even longer to one who is waiting for his prey. But the Eskimo is gifted with admirable patience; he lies absolutely motionless except for his head, with which he keeps watch on every side. At last the seal's head once more appears over the water a little way off and to one side. He cautiously turns the kaiak, unobserved by his prey, and once more he shoots toward it over the mirrorlike sea. But suddenly it catches sight of him again, looks at him sharply for a moment, and dives. He knows its habits, however, and at full speed he dashes toward the spot where it disappeared. Before many moments have passed it pops up its head again to look around. Now he is within range: the harpoon is seized and carried back over his shoulder, then with a strong movement, as if hurled from a steel spring, it rushes whistling from the throwing stick, whirling the line behind it. The seal gives a violent plunge, but at the moment it arches its back to dive, the harpoon sinks into its

PSM V46 D465 Eskimos kayaking before the wind.jpg
Before the Wind.

side and buries itself up to the shaft. A few convulsive strokes of its tail churn the water into foam, and away it goes, dragging the harpoon line behind it toward the depths. In the meantime Boas has seized the throwing stick between his teeth and, quicker than thought, has thrown the bladder out of the kaiak behind him. It dances away over the surface of the sea, now and then seeming on the point of disappearing, as indeed it finally does. Before long, however, it again comes in sight, and he chases after it as quickly as his paddle can take him, snapping up on his way his harpoon shaft which has floated to the surface. The lance is laid ready for use. Next moment the seal comes up; infuriated at its inability to escape, it turns upon its pursuer, attacks first the bladder, which it tears to pieces, and then goes straight for the kaiak. Again Boas is within range; the animal arches its back and hurls itself forward with gaping maw, so that the water foams around it. A miss may now cost him his life; but he calmly raises his lance and sends it speeding with terrible force through the seal's mouth and out at the back of its neck. A shudder runs through it, and its head sinks; but the next moment it raises itself perpendicularly in the water, the blood pours frothing from its mouth, it gapes wildly and utters a smothered roar, while the hood over its nose is inflated to an astounding size. It shakes its head so that the lance shaft quivers and waves to and fro; but it does not succeed in breaking it or getting free from it. A moment more and Boas's second lance has pierced through one of its fore flappers into its lungs; the seal collapses and the fight is over. He paddles up to its side, and, as it still moves a little, he gives it a finishing stab with his long-handled knife. Then he sets quietly about pulling out his lances and replacing them in the kaiak, takes out his towing line and blows up his towing bladder, which he fastens to the seal, cuts the harpoon head out and once more makes it fast to the shaft, coils the line on the stand, and takes out a new bladder and places it behind him. Next, the seal's flappers are lashed close to its body with the thong designed for that purpose, and the animal is attached by means of the towing line to one side of the kaiak, so that it can easily be towed along, its head being fastened to the foremost pair of thongs on the deck and its tail to the hindmost. Now Boas is ready to look about him for more game. He is lucky, and has not paddled far before he catches sight of another seal. In an instant he has cast loose the one already killed, which is kept afloat by the towing bladder, while he again sets off in pursuit. This one, too, he kills, after some wary stalking and eager waiting; he takes it in tow and returns for his first prey. The two great animals are fastened one on each side of the kaiak. He has now a good cargo, and can not get very quickly through the water; but that does not prevent him from increasing his bag. As soon as another seal comes in sight those already secured are cast loose, and when the next one is killed it is fastened behind the others. In this way one man will sometimes come towing as many as four seals, or even more at a pinch.

Tobias, in the meantime, another of the best hunters of the village, has not been quite so fortunate as Boas. He began by chasing a seal which dived and did not come up again within sight. Then he set off after another; but as he is skimming over the sea toward it, the huge head of a hooded seal[2] suddenly pops up right in front of the kaiak, and is harpooned in an instant. It makes a frightful wallowing and dives, the harpoon line whirls out, but suddenly gets fouled under the bird-dart throwing stick; the bow of the kaiak is drawn under with an irresistible rush, and before Tobias knows where he is, the water is up to his armpits, and nothing can be seen of him but his head and shoulders and the stern of the kaiak, which sticks right up into the air. It looks as if it were all over with him; those who are near him paddle with all their might to his assistance, but with scant hope of arriving in time to save him. Tobias, however, is a first-rate kaiak man. In spite of his difficult position, he keeps upon even keel while he is dragged through the water by the seal, which does all it can to get him entirely under. At last it comes up again, and in a moment he has seized his lance and, with a deadly aim, has pierced it right through the head. A feeble movement, and it is dead. The others come up in time to find Tobias busy making his booty fast, and to get their pieces of blubber from it.[3] They can not restrain their admiration for his coolness and skill, and speak of it long afterward. Tobias and Boas, however, are the best hunters of the village. It is related of them that, in their younger days, they were such masters of their craft that they even disdained the use of bladders. They made fast the harpoon line round their own waist or round the kaiak ring, and when the harpooned seal was not killed at the first stroke they let it drag themselves and the kaiak after it instead of the bladder. This is looked upon by the Greenlanders as the summit of possible achievement, but there are very few who attain such mastery.

The hunting is often more dangerous than that described above. It will easily be understood that from his constrained position in the kaiak, which does not permit of much turning, the hunter can not throw backward or to the right. If, then, a wounded seal suddenly attacks him from these quarters, it requires both skill and presence of mind to elude it or to turn so quickly as to aim a fatal throw at it before it has time to do him damage. It is just as bad when he is attacked from below, or when the animal suddenly shoots up close at his side, for it is lightninglike in its movements, and lacks neither courage nor strength. If it once gets up on the kaiak and capsizes it, there is

PSM V46 D468 A kayak man attacked by a walrus.jpg
A Kaiak Man attacked by a Walrus.

little hope of rescue. It will often attack the hunter under water, or throw itself upon the bottom of the kaiak and tear holes in it. In such a predicament it needs very unusual self-mastery to preserve the coolness necessary for recovering one's self upon even keel and renewing the fight with the furious adversary. And yet it sometimes happens that after being thus capsized the kaiak man brings the seal home in triumph.

A still more terrible adversary is the walrus; therefore there are generally several in company when they go walrus-hunting, so that one can stand by another if anything should happen. But often enough, too, a single hunter will attack and overcome this monster.

Hitherto the weather has been fine, the glassy surface of the sea has been heaving softly under the rising sun. But in the course of the last hour or two black and threatening banks of clouds have begun to draw up over the southern horizon. Just as Tobias has made fast his seal, a distant roar is heard and a sort of steam can be seen rising over the sea to the southward. It is a storm approaching, and the steam is the flying spray which it drives before it. Of all winds, the Greenlanders fear the south wind (nigek) most, for it is always violent and sets up a heavy sea.

The thing is now to get under the land as quickly as possible. Those who have no seals in tow have the best of it, yet they try to keep with the others. One relieves Boas of one of his seals. They have not paddled far before the storm is upon them; it thrashes the water to foam as it approaches, and the kaiak men feel it on their backs, like a giant lifting and hurling them forward. The sport has now turned to earnest; the seas soon tower into mountains of water and break and welter down upon them. They are making for the land with the wind nearly abeam; but they are still far off, they can see nothing around them for the spray, and almost every wave buries them so that only a few heads, arms, and ends of paddles can be seen above the combs of froth.

Here comes a gigantic roller—they can see it shining black and white in the far distance. It towers aloft so that the sky is almost hidden. In a moment they have stuck their paddles under the thongs on the windward side and bent their bodies forward so that the crest of the wave breaks upon their backs. For a second almost everything has disappeared; those who are farther a-lee await their turn in anxiety; then the billow passes, and once more the kaiaks skim forward as before. But such a sea does not come singly; the next will be worse. They hold their paddles flat to the deck and projecting to windward, bend their bodies forward, and at the moment when the white cataract thunders down upon them they hurl themselves into its very jaws, thus somewhat breaking its force. For a moment they have again disappeared—then one kaiak comes up on even keel, and presently another appears bottom upward. It is Pedersuak (i. e., the big Peter) who has capsized. His comrade speeds to his side, but at the same moment the third wave breaks over them and he must look out for himself. It is too late the two kaiaks lie heaving bottom upward. The second manages to right himself, and his first thought is for his comrade, to whose assistance he once more

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A Kaiak Man rescuing a Comrade.

hastens. He runs his kaiak alongside of the other, lays his paddle across both, bends down so that he gets hold under the water of his comrade's arm, and with a jerk drags him up upon his side, so that he too can get hold of the paddle and in an instant raise himself upon even keel. The water-tight jacket has come a little loose from the ring on one side and some water has got in; not so much, however, but that he can still keep afloat. The others have in the meantime come up; they get hold of the lost paddle, and all can again push forward.

It grows worse and worse for those who have seals in tow; they lag far behind, and the great beasts lie heaving and jarring against the sides of the kaiaks. They think of sacrificing their prey, but one difficult sea passes after another, and they will still try to hang on for a while. The proudest moments in a hunter's life are those in which he comes home towing his prey, and sees his wife's, his daughter's, and his handmaiden's happy faces beaming upon him from the shore. Far out at sea he already sees them in his mind's eye, and rejoices like a child. No wonder that he will not cast loose his prey save at the direst pinch of need.

After passing through many ugly rollers, they have at last got under the land. Here they are somewhat protected by a group of islands lying far to the southward. The seas become less violent, and as they gradually get farther in they push on more quickly for home over the smoother water.

In the meantime the women at home have been in the greatest anxiety. When the storm arose they ran up to the outlook rock or out upon the headlands, and stood there in groups gazing eagerly over the angry sea for their sons, husbands, fathers, and brothers. So they stand watching and shivering, until, with eyes rendered keener by anxiety, they at last discern what seem like black specks approaching from the horizon, and the whole village echoes to one glad shout: "They are coming! They are coming!" They begin to count how many there are; two are missing! No, there is one of them! No, they are all there! They are all there!

They soon begin to recognize individuals, partly by their method of paddling, partly by the kaiaks, although as yet they are little more than tiny dots. Suddenly there sounds a wild shout of joy: "Boase kaligpok!" ("Boas is towing")—him they easily identify by his size. This joyful intelligence passes from house to house, the children rush around and shout it in through the windows, and the groups upon the rocks dance for joy. Then comes a new shout: "Ama Tobiase kaligpok!" ("Tobias too is towing"); and this news likewise passes from house to house. Next is heard: "Ama Simo kaligpok!" "Ama David kaligpok!" And now again comes another swarm of women out of the houses and up to the rocks to look out over the sea breaking white against the islets and cliffs, where eleven black dots can now and then be seen far out amid the rolling masses of water, moving slowly nearer.

At last the leading kaiaks shoot into the little bight in front of the village. They are those who have no seals. Lightly and with assured aim one after the other dashes up on the flat beach, carried high upon the crest of the waves. The women stand ready to receive them and to draw them farther up.

Then come those who have seals in tow; they must proceed somewhat more cautiously. First, they cast loose their prey and see that it comes to the hands of the women on shore. Then they themselves make for the land. When once they have got out of the kaiak they, like the first comers, pay no heed to anything but themselves and their weapons, which they carry to their places above high-water mark. They do not even look at their prey as it lies on the shore. From this time forward all work in connection with the "take" falls to the share of the women.

The men go to their homes, take off their wet clothes, and put on their indoor dress, which, as we have seen, was in the heathen times exceedingly airy, but has now become more visible.

Then at last comes the first meal of the day; but it does not begin in earnest till the day's "take" is boiled and served up in a huge dish placed in the middle of the floor. Then there disappear incredible quantities of flesh and raw blubber.

When hunger is appeased, the women always set themselves to some household work, sewing or the like, while the men give themselves up to well-earned laziness, or attend a little to their weapons, hang up the harpoon line to dry, and so forth.


  1. Both the illustrations and the text of this article are reprinted from Eskimo Life, by Dr. Fridtjof Nansen, with the kind permission of the publishers, Messrs. Longmans, Green & Co.
  2. Hættesæl the full-grown male of the Klapmyts (bladder-nose). It has a hood over its nose, which it can inflate enormously.
  3. When a seal is killed, each of the kaiak men in the neighborhood receives a piece of its blubber, which he generally devours forthwith.