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The Eskimo Dog

( Originally Published 1918 )



"WHAT I have just told you will make it plain enough that no domestic animal dependent on vegetable food can be kept in that country. Where could one find a supply of forage for the ox, horse, or even donkey, when the ground is covered with a thick layer of snow the greater part of the year, and when during the three or four months of summer all the verdure consists of meager greensward where a sheep would hardly find enough herbage to browse? Besides, these animals would succumb to the severity of the winter. There is but one species of this sort that can live in these desolate regions, and that is the reindeer, which is about as large as the stag, but more robust and more thick-set. Its horns, or antlers, are divided each into two branches, the shorter one pointing forward, the other, the longer, pointing backward, and both ending in enlargements that spread out somewhat like the palm and fingers of an open hand."

"According to your description," observed Louis, "the reindeer must be a superb animal and must need plenty of food. Where does it find pasturage when everything is covered with snow"

"If it needed the forage to which our cattle are accustomed, no doubt it would starve to death the first winter; but it is content with a kind of food that none of our animals would touch. It is a lichen, white in color and divided into a multitude of branches, close together and presenting the appearance of a little bush a few inches high. It grows on the ground, which it entirely covers for immense stretches. During the winter the reindeer scratch the snow with their fore hoofs and uncover the coarse plant, softened by moisture; and this plant they browse. Thus it is that interminable fields of snow, the desolate abodes of famine, supply nevertheless sufficient pasturage for these animals. This lichen, last vegetable resource of the extreme north, is called reindeer moss, and is found everywhere, in the most arid lands, between the poles and the equator. Among the underbrush of our most barren hills you will find it in abundance, fresh and supple in winter, dried up and crackling under the feet in summer."

"The reindeer ought to live in our country," Jules remarked, "since there is lichen for it to feed on."

"The climate is much too warm for it. Hardly would it be able to endure the mildness of our winters ; and how about the heat of our summers! It needs the snows and the harsh climate of the polar regions, away-from which it rapidly dies out.

"In Lapland the reindeer is a domestic animal. There it fills the place of our cattle and serves at one and the same time as cow, sheep, and horse. The Laplander lives on reindeer milk and its products, and on the animal's flesh. He clothes himself with its warm fur, and makes a very soft leather out of its skin. When the ground is covered with snow, he harnesses the reindeer to his sled and travels as many as thirty leagues a day, his swift equipage with its broad runners gliding over the snow and hardly leaving a trace behind.

"The reindeer is not rare in Greenland, but there it lives in the wild state, for the Eskimo, much less civilized than the Laplander, has not yet learned how to win it to his uses and accustom it to domestic life. It runs at large and merely furnishes the game on which the Greenlanders count to vary somewhat their diet of fish. For domestic animals, then, what is there left to the Eskimo, since the only species able to live in that land of snow huts, the reindeer, is, in that desolate region, a wild animal approached by the hunter only with ruse and caution? There remains the dog, the faithful companion which, thanks to its kind of food, can accompany man every-where, even on his most daring expeditions toward one or other of the poles. Where the reindeer would have to pause, lichen failing or being covered with too thick a layer of snow, the dog continues to go forward, since for food it needs only a fishbone, and the neighboring sea furnishes fish in plenty. The dog is the Eskimo's all, in the way of domestic animals."

"That all is very little," said Jules.

"Very little, certainly; but still without the dog the Eskimo could not live in his gloomy country. With the help of the dog he chases the wild reindeer, the flesh of which gives him food, and the skin furnishing for his hut; on the ice he attacks the white bear, whose fur will become a warm winter cloak; he makes himself master of the seal which will give him its intestines for ropes and its oily fat for fuel to feed his ever-burning lamp. In fact, the dog is to him not only a hunting companion, but also a draft animal able to transport him at a good rate of speed whithersoever he wishes to go.

"The Eskimo dog is about the size of our shepherd dog, but more robust in build. It has upstanding ears, tail coiled in a circle, hair thick and woolly, as it should be to resist the atrocious cold of the country it inhabits. No domestic species leads a harder life. At long intervals a meat-bone or a large fishbone for food, and nothing more; no shelter except the hole it may dig for itself in the snow; cuffs much oftener than caresses; after the fatigues of the chase the still more exhausting labor of drawing the sled—such is its life of hardship. Harsh treatment and constant hunger are not conducive to gentleness of disposition. So the Eskimo dogs are quarrelsome among themselves, surly toward man, always ready to show their teeth, and especially disposed. to attack their victuals with voracity. Nowhere in the world are there more audacious pillagers : so extreme are the pangs of hunger that no punishment avails to prevent their snapping up any morsel unguardedly left within their reach."

"Not the most docile sort of companion, I should say," Jules remarked.

"The women, who treat them more gently, feed them, and take care of them when they are little, can easily make them obey. Nearly always, even when these poor animals suffer most cruelly from hunger, the women succeed in getting them together to be harnessed to the sled."

"I should like, Uncle," put in Emile, "before hearing the rest, to know just what an Eskimo sled is. I can't imagine exactly what it is like."

"The sled, as its name indicates, is a kind of light vehicle without wheels, designed for dragging over the ice or snow where sliding is easy. The Eskimo sled is rudely built. Imagine two strips of wood curving upward at each end and placed side by side at a certain distance from each other. They are the chief pieces, which are to support all the rest and themselves glide on the snow. Between the two is constructed a framework of light transverse bars, and on this framework rises a sort of niche lined with furs, where the traveler squats. That is the Eskimo sled.

"The two chief pieces, resembling long skates gliding over the hard snow, I said were of wood; but I hasten to add that generally they are made of other material, as wood is one of the rarest things in this country where there is not enough vegetation to furnish even a broomstick. All the wood in use is washed ashore by the sea, from far countries, at the time of heavy storms. So the Eskimo has not always at his disposal the two narrow strips necessary. He uses instead two long whalebones, chosen for their, shape and curvature. If bones are lacking there remains one last resort. With the intestines of the seal or thongs of skin he ties large fish in two bundles, makes them of the desired shape, and ex-poses them to the frost, which hardens them like stone until summer comes again. Those are the two runners, the two chief pieces of the sled."

"What a queer country, where the people use bundles of frozen fish for runners!" Emile could not but exclaim.

"But the runner has not yet played out its part After it has slidden all winter over the snowy plain, it thaws out with the return of warm weather and the fish composing it are popped into the bag of boiling water to cook."

"The people eat them?"

"Why, certainly, my friend; they eat the frame-work of the demolished sled.''

"Once more, I say, if ever those people invite me to dinner I shall decline. I should n't relish their licking the food to clean it, nor should I care for fish that had been dragged about for months, nobody knows where."

"Now that you know about the sled, let us speak of the team. The dog's harness is composed of two thongs of reindeer skin, one going round the neck, the other round the breast, and both connected by a third thong passing between the fore legs. To this harness, near the shoulders, are attached two long leather straps which are fastened to the sled at the other end. The dog team numbers from twelve to fifteen. One dog, the most intelligent and with the keenest scent, goes along at the head of the pack; the others follow, several abreast, the novices nearest to the sled. Seated in the niche of his vehicle, one leg out this way, one the other, feet almost skimming the snow, the Eskimo drives his equipage with an enormously long whip, for this whip must be able to reach the farthest dog, seven or eight meters from the sled. But he refrains as much as possible from using it, since a lash from the whip is more likely to promote disorder than to increase the speed. The dog struck, not knowing whence the blow came, lays the blame on its neighbor and bites it; the latter passes the compliment along to another, which in turn hastens to worry the next; and in a moment, spreading through the pack, the rough-and-tumble fight becomes general. Then it is a task in-deed to restore peace and get the broken or tangled harness straightened out.

"Hence the whip is but rarely called into service to correct a too unruly dog, and it is chiefly with the voice that the driver guides his team. The leading dog is particularly attentive to the master's word : he turns to the right, left, or goes straight ahead, increases or slackens speed, and the others govern themselves accordingly. Every time an order is given, the leader turns its head without stopping and looks at the master, as if to say, `I understand.' If the route has been already traveled the driver has nothing to do : the leader follows the trail even when it is invisible to man. In black darkness, in the midst of violent snow-squalls, aided by its sense of smell and its astonishing sagacity, it continues to guide the rest of the team,, and very seldom goes astray.

In a single day 150 kilometers are thus made. If fatigue calls a halt, the Eskimo builds himself a shelter with snow piled up for walls and a large slab of ice for roof. Here he disposes himself as best he can for sleeping, after a frugal lunch of salt fish or flesh, thawed by the heat of a lamp. On awakening, a signal is given and immediately all about the hut little mounds of snow move and shake themselves. They are the dog-team, which has slept outside, covered by the falling snow. The Eskimo doles out to them a meager pittance, which is instantly swallowed, and without delay he harnesses the sled to resume his journey in quest of the white bear or the reindeer on which he has set his heart."



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