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Hunters of the Polar North
by Wally Herbert
with photographs by Bryan Alexander
reviewed by Stijn Heijs
When Time-Life Books decided in the early 1980s to include a volume on the Inuit in their People of the Wild series, they had two tasks: first to find a group of Inuit still living in their traditional culture and, second, to find a writer and a photographer with the skill and stamina necessary to work for several months far above the Arctic Circle. The first they found in north-west Greenland. These Inuit lived less then a 1000 miles (1600 km) from the North Pole. Their extremely remote location helped to isolate them from the rest of Greenland as well from foreign contacts. They still supported themselves primarily by hunting in the ways of their ancestors, and traveled by dog sledge. Time-Life completed the second task in finding Wally Herbert and Bryan Alexander, both acknowledged arctic experts with prior experience of polar Inuit life. To write and illustrate Hunters of the Polar North the two men spent ten months criss-crossing the polar region, sledding and hunting with the Inuit and sharing their homes.
The result was published in 1981 by Time-Life books in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. The book contains five chapters covering the different seasons in the polar area, describing the life of the Inuit and their way of hunting for survival in the polar climate.
Chapter One. "At Home North of the World" describes the history of how the Inuit migrated from the Bering Straits region to Canada's Ellesmere Island and then on to Greenland. It gives an introduction to the culture and the history and relationship to the polar expeditions and development of Greenland.
Chapter Two. "Surviving the Long Polar Night" describes Inuit life and hunting walrus in winter, from late October until February. Part of this second chapter is a special picture essay on the Inuit Dog, entitled "The indispensable husky". It shows in fourteen pages the Inuit Dog in its full potential as a sled dog. The chapter ends with a day in the life of a Greenlander woman.
Chapter Three. "Longer Days, Longer Journeys" describes life in the season from February until the end of April, when the sun shines for a full twenty-three hours. This chapter is all about hunting and ends with a twenty-page picture essay: "The Ultimate Quarry". In this part we see the Inuit Dog as sled dog as well as in its full potential as a hunting dog in the successful pursuit of a polar bear.
Chapter Four. "Spell of the Summer Sun" describes the warmer summer period, when hunting seals, little auks and narwhal is done by kayak.
Chapter Five. "Building a Future on the Past" describes the influence of the non-Inuit on Inuit culture and how the Greenlanders struggled with changes to their living habits.
This book gives an excellent insight into the role of the Inuit Dog in the everyday life of the Inuit in their traditional culture. It contains over one hundred and twenty wonderful full-color pictures of Inuit life. Half of the images include Inuit Dogs, seen as indispensable part of that life.
It is clear that this book was written before Ken MacRury did his Master of Philosophy in Polar Studies Inuit Dog thesis project. Otherwise Herbert would have known the stand on the link between the wolf and the Inuit Dog and not publish on page 48 that "… the husky, of course is not a domestic animal. It is a wild dog, descended through cross-breeding from wolves." Still, this book is an absolute must for a real Inuit Dog addict.
Hunters of the Polar North: the Eskimos1 by Wally Herbert, 1981, Time-Life Books, ISBN 7054 0701 2, was published in English, in German as: Jäger des hohen Nordens, Die Eskimos and in French as: Les chausseurs du grand nord, les esquimaux. The book is now out of print but can be found through secondhand booksellers and the internet. At the time of writing this review, the European website www.antiqbook.com still has several copies in German and French, and the website www.biblio.com has several English and French copies available2. Prices fluctuate between US$15 and US$20. Payment can be done by regular credit card or Paypal.
I wish all of you good reading and ISD mushing.
About the author: "I am Stijn Heijs, a 46 year-old businessman, happily married with two children, living in the south of The Netherlands. My family includes three polar dogs, all Alaskan Malamutes.
I like to go mushing with my mals on mid-distance recreational tours. With the mals, eight years ago, came the virus for mushing and an interest in polar culture. I connected with the ISDI almost a year ago when looking for information on the Inuit Dog, this because my first dogs were seven years old, and continuing to mush requires adding new dogs. Because good working habits are not easy to find in today’s European malamutes, we are evaluating the Inuit Dog."
1 The complete, official title (for internet search purposes) is Hunters of the Polar North, the Eskimos. Ed.
2 Several English version copies are also currently available from amazon.com. Ed.