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arrow Stories and Tales of the Coast & Geodetic Survey
arrow Alaska Tales


Arctic Field Party Work by Captain Robert A. Earle, C&GS

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During May and June herds containing thousands of caribou migrated along the Arctic coast, passing within a few miles of our camp. These animals would graze on the tender greens and the small flowers which spring up when the tundra started to thaw. When the snow was still on the ground they would paw and dig holes in the snow in order to get to the withered and dry tundra grass. These herds were generally followed by bands of from 4 to 12 wolves which were always seeking the chance to bring down a fawn or old caribou which had strayed from the main herd. On many occasions we witnessed the plight of a lone caribou followed by groups of wolves.

After our daily working period ended, the Esquimos would usually form parties to stalk and hunt these animals. A successful hunt would often end more than a dozen caribou, which were then dressed and placed in the individual ice cellars which each of the native families had dug in the tundra.

Ptarmigan and many types of wild duck were abundant along this stretch of Arctic coastline. These birds, plus fresh fish and seals, were also taken by the native hunters and added to the store of food in the ice cellars. It is estimated that approximately 50% of the natives' food consisted of various types of wild game and fish.

The natives' apparent disregard of the bitter cold was always a cause of amazement to the men from the States. Early in March when the temperatures ranged from -10 to -30 degrees, we were surprised one morning to note that a dogsled was coming towards camp. When it arrived, we found it contained the wife and six children all below the age of 11, of one of our native workmen. This family had crossed 150 miles of icy waters with no assistance from any male adult. On questioning, we found that this was not an unusual procedure and that this small group had traveled about 30 miles daily during the hours of daylight. When darkness fell, this woman would stop her team, erect a small tent, pile snow around it, and pile a lot of furs on the floor. She would feed the family, often with frozen, raw meat, then bed them down until dawn broke, when she would again hitch the dogs to the sled, pile her blankets and children thereon and proceed through the wilderness. It might be stated that most of the natives enjoyed raw meat as much as cooked meat; thus cooking was never much of a problem when they were traveling.

The 4th of July was always celebrated with games and many other activities in all of our camps. On Tigvariak Island we organized races for children and families, horseshoe pitching contests, and a volley ball tournament. Early in the afternoon we had a feast for all Americans and natives in the area. At this time hams, turkeys, and haunches of caribou, along with many vegetables and desserts, were placed on long, wooden tables in front of the camp. Paper plates were provided to hold the food; however, the natives' families had to be cautioned that they should use knives and forks in getting food from the containers, as this was contrary to the native customs of grabbing handfuls of food and shoving it into their mouths. This meal was a huge success, as the natives, after helping themselves until all main items of food had been exhausted, proceeded to take remaining items such as pounds of butter and devour it with enthusiasm. After the feast, the evening's festivities were climaxed by a series of native dances which were part of the various groups.

Early in July, the writer left Tigvariak Island on a small bush plane and proceeded to Point Barrow, 300 miles distant, where I took over as Officer in Charge of all the different Coast Survey camps on the coast of Alaska. Point Barrow at this stage was considered a luxurious town where hot showers could be obtained, movies could be viewed, and many of the luxuries of civilized existence could be experienced.

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