I’ve decided to take a new tact in my posts. On Mondays I’m going to start putting up excerpts from my book “The Add-on Eskimo”. Hope you enjoy them.
The storm came up suddenly as Tinglit was returning from his fox trap line. It was 20 degrees below zero and, as the snow began to fall heavily, the wind picked up with 50 mile-an-hour gusts. Within a few minutes, visibility dropped to almost zero as an artic white-out closed in.
Here on the Far East Asian coast, just beyond Siberia where the Yupik Eskimos lived—and died—life was tenuous. Tinglit had experience in all kinds of weather, but this was the worst he had ever seen.
He kept his sled dogs moving in what he hoped was the right direction. As they went down into a small valley, the wind lessened. Tinglit halted his dogs and focused with all his senses. It seemed to him that something was breaking the wind’s force.
He didn’t dare leave the sled for fear he wouldn’t find it again, but he also didn’t want to get turned around and lose the direction of what he thought was the trail. But he knew that if he didn’t find some shelter soon, he would die along with his dogs.
Taking a chance, he directed his dogs to the left and came to a creek bed which had high walls blocking much of the wind’s force. Tinglit got off the back of the sled and led his dogs down the embankment out of the wind. Here I may have a chance to wait out the storm, he thought.
He unharnessed his dogs, then turned the sled with its back towards the wind. He sat on the sled and called his dogs to him. They crowded around and he had them lie down on both sides of him, with one on his lap for warmth.
Tinglit was dressed well, with several layers of clothes, topped by sealskin pants, boots and Parka. The wolfskin fur on his hood helped to shield his face from the cold. Still, it was 20 below and the 50 mile-per-hour wind made the actual temperature much lower.
He hoped the shelter from the wind and the dogs’ warmth would save him. However, after the storm abated, his son, Okfagit, found him, still sitting on the sled, frozen in place. The artic had claimed another of its own.
Ayit slipped out from under his caribou-skin cover and groped in the darkness to find the flint and metal. Striking them, he lit the seal-oil lamp to warm the tent. Even though it was May, the temperatures here on the edge of Siberia in far-eastern Russia were well below freezing, and there were still two feet of snow on the ground.
As the youngest of the six children, it was his job to climb out into the cold each morning and start things for the day. As soon as the lamp was burning, he jumped right back under his covers. He let his eyes linger on the flame of the lamp, golden yellow, burning steadily in the darkness. How beautiful, he thought.
As the tent warmed, he got up again and stirred the coals left from last night’s fire, putting more driftwood on. He and his family were in the living quarters of their house. Most of the twenty by thirty-foot structure (see picture below), which was made of a frame of whale ribs with driftwood sides and a roof covered with walrus hide, was used for storage.
It was much too large to heat, so their actual living space was a small inside tent which was heated primarily with the seal-oil lamps. Here they slept and ate. When they could find driftwood, they would use that for heat and light as well, but it was not always available.
As the wood fire warmed the tent further, his mother, Nisana, got up and began to prepare a breakfast of walrus meat, vegetable-like plants taken from the sea, and tea. As she worked, she talked with Ayit.
“My son, my little son! Thank you for lighting the lamps. I am so thankful for your helpfulness! You are an unusual boy!” Ayit beamed with pleasure.
Soon the others were stirring, slipping out from under their skin covers, putting on their sealskin shirts, pulling on their sealskin pants and boots. They all sat down on the walrus skin floor in a circle and ate, holding the walrus meat in their teeth and with an upward motion with a knife, cutting off a small, chewable piece —a practice that sometimes resulted in cutting off the end of one’s nose!