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Hunting in Arctic Regions - Harper's



Although in the remote and dreary ice regions of the extreme North a variety of game, including bear, whale, walrus, seal, reindeer, foxes, wolves, ptarmigan, ducks, and geese, is found and pursued by the hardy Esquimau, or Innuit, it is upon the capture of the seal that he expends the most time and labor. The seal is everything to him, and without it life could hardly be sustained. In the words of Captain Hall: "To the Innuit the seal is all that flocks and herds, grain fields, forests, coal mines, and petroleum wells are to dwellers in more favored lands. It furnishes him with food, fuel, and clothing."

"Nutchook" (the seal) is one of the most wary and suspicious of animals, and to capture him when he is on his guard requires an almost incredible amount of skill and perseverance. The Innuits say that "Ninoo" (the bear) taught them to capture the seal, and that if they could talk to Nutchook as cleverly as Ninoo does, they would capture him much oftener than they do. When Ninoo sees, at a distance upon the ice, a black spot that he knows to be Nutchook taking a nap beside his air-hole, he makes up his mind that he will dine that day off seal.

Nutchook's nap is a series of "cat-naps," each lasting about ten seconds, and after each he lifts his head and looks around. Ninoo crouches low upon the ice, and creeps along when the seal is napping. The moment his head is raised, the bear stops short and begins to talk to Nutchook. The sound that he utters while thus talking is quite different from his ordinary voice, and seems to charm the seal, who lays his head down for another nap, during which Ninoo again advances. At last the bear is within springing distance, and in a moment all is over with poor Nutchook.

Although seals are caught at all seasons of the year, the great hunts take place in the spring and early summer months. At this time the fur is in the best possible condition, and as they play in the open water lanes near the coast, or bask in great numbers on the ice, their capture is comparatively easy. During the summer the glare of the sun so affects the eyes of the seal that he becomes almost blind, and is easily approached.

Hundreds of vessels, many of them steamers, are engaged in the seal fishery, and on the first page of this number is a picture of the boats belonging to one of these "sealers" drifting cautiously down upon a number of seals that have been basking and frolicking on the ice, heedless of the approach of danger. Hundreds of thousands of seals are thus killed every year for the sake of their skins, which are shipped to every part of the world, and from which are made the beautiful sacques, muffs, tippets, and gloves with which most of our readers are so familiar. Only last month a disaster occurred that vividly illustrates the danger of sealing. A huge ice-field a hundred miles long, and bringing with it thousands of seals, drifted down from the North, and stranded on the coast of Newfoundland near St. Johns. For several days the people living along the coast ventured far out on the ice, and captured great numbers of the seals.

Suddenly, on the 4th of April, the northeast wind that had been blowing steadily for two weeks, and keeping the ice packed, changed to a warm southerly breeze. The ice-pack broke, became intersected in every direction by lanes of water, and began to drift out to sea, carrying with it more than two hundred of the hardy hunters. Many of these were rescued by steamers, but others were borne away into the fog, beyond the hope of rescue, far out to sea, where they have perished from starvation, freezing, or drowning. For weeks past dead bodies have been cast upon the rugged coast by the sea, but the fate of many of the lost will never be known.

Mr. Ninoo, who hunts the seal so successfully, is hunted in turn for the sake of his thick soft fur, and often falls a victim both to white men and Esquimaux. The latter sometimes kill him by rolling a thick piece of whalebone, about two feet long and four inches wide, into a small coil, and wrapping it in a piece of seal blubber so that it forms a ball. Placed outside the hut, it soon freezes hard. Provided with this frozen bait, the natives search for Ninoo. When they find him, they run away, and he chases them; but they drop the ball of blubber, and he, meeting with it, greedily swallows it whole. In a few minutes the heat of his body thaws the blubber and releases the whalebone. It uncoils with terrible force, and so tears his stomach that the great bear falls down in helpless agony, to which an end is quickly put by the hunter, who now hurries to the spot.