Hunting Walrus

Hunting Walrus

The whole village was now eagerly waiting for the breakup of the shore ice, and when it came one evening, every man rushed to get his boat off the rack. Each already had their equipment ready, so it didn’t take long to load everything into the boat, including four sled dogs along with the six men and push away from the shore. Of the six men in Okfagit’s boat, four paddled at a time, periodically switching off while Okfagit manned the rudder.

They wove their way through small icebergs, heading for the open sea. At times they came to very large sheets of ice, so they would drag the boat up onto it, hitch the dogs in front and with the men lined up on each side, pulled the boat across the ice.

This was the first walrus hunt for one of Okfagit’s sons, and he kept falling through the thin ice as they ran along the sides of the boat; then he had to haul himself back up by holding onto the side of the boat. It did him no harm because his seal-skin boots and pants were waterproof, however it was impeding their progress. His father said, “Stop trying to lift the boat, just pull it forward.” Lesson learned and that was the end of his falling.

After crossing several of these ice fields, they spotted a herd of walrus on an ice floe. Walrus live on clams, diving to the bottom of the sea, digging up the clams with their tusks, crushing the shells with their great molars, and swallowing the clams.  When they are full, they climb up on an ice floe and sleep. However, one is always on duty as a watchman.

As Okfagit’s boat approached the walrus, the guard walrus nudged his sleeping neighbor, who then nudged his neighbor, and so on down the line until all the walrus where awake, looking at the boat, bobbing their heads.

It is difficult to kill a walrus, for their hide is so thick that bullets can’t penetrate to mortally wound them. A shot to the head can harmlessly bounce off the bone which is several inches thick. The only effective place to shoot them is in the temple where the bone is thin.

Okfagit pointed out the two walrus he wanted. His men aimed and fired; the two selected slumped over while the rest leaped off into the water. That was amazing shooting, for the boat was bobbing up and down in the swells, the ice floe was also bobbing to a different rhythm, and the walrus were constantly moving their heads, yet the Okfagit’s crew hit their targets dead on.

Okfagit directed the boat up to the ice floe, and the men climbed out. The first action was to pound an anchor into the ice. To have the boat drift away would result in certain death for them all.

After offering the dead walrus some fresh water, the men went to work butchering the two large animals, each bigger than a Holstein bull.

In a short time, they had cut the skin into large squares, chopped the meat into pieces and bundled them up in the skin squares, making packages they called “meat balls.”

They took especial care with the stomachs, full of clams. They cut one open and ate their fill of these “pre-marinated” delicacies, then put the rest in the boat.  The liver also was prized for its mild and pleasant taste, each one weighing over 100 pounds.

The packets of meat were loaded into the boat, along with the heads with their great tusks, then the remaining bones were pushed off into the sea—another way of honoring the animals they had just killed. All that was left were the large red blood stains on the ice. For one to eat, another must die.

After the men and dogs climbed aboard, the boat sat low in the water with the sides only about six inches above water level. Now they all paddled, for if a storm came, or even a strong wind, the boat could sink, so they had to get back to shore as quickly as possible.

Now when they came to a large ice floe, they would unload the meat, pull the boat up onto the ice, and with the dogs pulling the boat, each man would put a band around his head with a rope tied to a 150-pound meat ball, pulling these while guiding the boat on its journey back to open water.

When they finally paddled up to the beach in front of the village, the boat was pulled up as far as they could with it being so heavily loaded, and an anchor was pounded into the sand.

The packets of skin and meat were divided among the hunters, with the boat captain and his assistant also taking the walrus heads. They would use the tusks to make carvings and hunting equipment and, of course, eat whatever they could from the head, but only after showing their respect for the walrus.

The head would be kept in the home for three to five days, during which time they would honor it by offering it food and telling it stories, making sure they didn’t offend the spirits that guarded the walrus. Then they would then remove what was edible and take out the tusks.,

These hunters had worked long and hard for over 14 hours: paddling, pulling, butchering, and then paddling the heavily laden boat home, yet, they didn’t seem especially tired. They were a hardy folk, tough and strong, used to heavy, dangerous work.

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