The snow fell deep that winter and it was impossible to hunt because of the many storms. But Okfagit and his family, as well as the rest of the village didn’t need to hunt, for they had enough to eat with all Okfagit’s whale had given them.
As with the other Eskimos, his family spent their time indoors making and repairing equipment and clothing. Nisana taught her daughters the fine art of making mukluks, waterproof boots from seal skin. Okfagit taught his sons how to make floats for seal hunting and snowshoes for traveling. He trained them further in how to clean and prepare their guns and how to keep their knives sharp.
Okfagit was also a carver, making beautiful figures from the tusks of walrus. This also he taught to his sons so they could trade these to whalers for ammunition, salt and sugar.
In late November there came a break in the weather. The high winds subsided and, although the snow was deep, they were able to dig their way out of the house and, using their snowshoes, to get about. Others also came out and there was talk of hunting again.
Since the weather had been so bad, Okfagit thought that polar bears might have been forced off the ice in search of food, so he and his sons decided to go and look. But first he gathered his family to pray to Jesus for his help.
“We ask that you send us a polar bear,” he said.
Ayit also chimed in, “And protect us as we go, not just from the polar bears, but from the spirits, too.”
They decided to go at first light, which came about 10 a.m. They only had four hours to hunt, as the sun set by 1:30 p.m. and it was dark by 2:00.
They put on their parkas, then a white canvas cover over it to make themselves less visible in the snow. They set off along the shore, going north by the place where the villagers disposed of old food and items no longer useful. Beyond that they came the bone yard where all the useful bones of whales were kept.
“If food is short, these are places where bears may come to find something to eat,” said Okfagit. He had on his Eskimo sunglasses, round pieces of bone with a slot cut in them, covering each of his eyes, fastened with thin seal rope and tied behind his head. The bones shut out most of the light, making it easier to see in the glare of the sun off the snow.
He moved slowly, carefully searching the landscape, for a white bear is hard to see in the snow. Suddenly Ayit whispered, “Over there, Father.” Okfagit slowly turned his head, and there was a bear digging for the bones which still had some dried meat left on them.
The hunters were downwind from the bear, so he was unaware of them. They slowly crept closer until Okfagit thought he could get a good shot. He slowly raised his rifle, took careful aim and slowly pulled the trigger. The bear looked up, surprised at the red spot on his shoulder. He rose up on his hind legs and looked around for the source of the noise and discomfort. Okfagit shot again, this time hitting him in the heart. The bear slowly sank to the ground, rolled over and was still.
“Wow, what a big bear,” one of the boys said. “Shall we go to it, father?”
“No, we will wait a bit to make sure it is dead. A wounded bear is very dangerous.” After half an hour, they crept up to it, and prodding it with their feet, determined that it was truly dead.
Unbeknownst to these human hunters, the bear had a mate who saw them approach the prone bear. Polar bears have no fear of humans and if they are hungry, as this one was, are glad to eat people as well as seals. So, the bear lowered itself into the snow and crept towards the unsuspecting hunters as they leaned over the first bear. Okfagit got out his knife and began cutting off the skin.
The second bear came within fifty yards before it rose up and charged. One of the boys saw the movement and shouted a warning. Okfagit looked up but didn’t have time to pick up his rifle. He watched the bear charging and at the last second flung himself to the bear’s right side.
The bear went by, turned and came on again. Okfagit used the same evasion, falling to the bear’s right side. By this time Ayit had his father’s rifle, took aim and shot. The bear slumped down and was still.
“Father, are you all right?” Ayit asked, rushing to his side.
“Yes, I am fine,” his father replied. “It is a good thing that polar bears are left-handed. They will never swipe to the right, and that is why I tried to stay on the bear’s right side. That was very important to know when we hunted them with spears and arrows. With rifles it’s not so important, but today it was.”
Picture: Hunting Polar bears with bow and arrows