Helge Ingstad Pelsjegerliv

The land of feast and famine

Some reflections upon reading “Pelsjegerliv” (https://lccn.loc.gov/32004499). The book was translated into English in 1993 with the title “The land of feast and famine”. ​​https://lccn.loc.gov/33027296

Helge Ingstad published the book in Norwegian in 1931, shortly after his return from a 4-year long stay in Canada’s North-East. It’s a riveting read.

The book is a chronological account of Ingstad’s experience, with a short chapter containing facts and reflections on the lives of the indigenous population, which Ingstad refers to as “indians” in line with the usage of the time.

For this reader, the book provided the thrill of wilderness adventures from the comfort of a cozy chair, slowly morphing into an elegy of a land, and its way of life, that was lost in the span of a few centuries.

The book is infused with a large dose of romantic feelings for nature. When the author has a full belly of reindeer – from all corners of the animal – and has lit his pipe in front of a fire of logs, and the stars are twinkling over the tundra – then he envies no man.

The life that Ingstad describes is physically extremely demanding, and it would have been impossible without the lojal and hard-working sled dogs. Ingstad’s devotion to these animals is palpable throughout. They are an integral part of the experience. At one point the dogs probably save his life (my translation):

Certain lead (sled) dogs find the way home under all sorts of conditions. Tiger turned out to be one of them. The first time I tried Tiger I was skeptical. Driving snow and darkness came upon me on the tundra, giving me the choice of digging into the snow or taking a chance on Tiger. I chose the latter. Hour after hour we raced along. I let the dogs carry on as they wanted whilst I lay there on the bottom of the “cariole” with my mittens protecting my face from the blizzard. It was so dark that I could only glimpse the dogs nearest to the sled. But Tiger had no doubts, keeping his course and a constant speed. At one point we ran into a flock of reindeer, and the pack turned after it; but a short command was enough to set Tiger back on course. Finally with a jolt the sled came to a standstill. I looked up – and there was my camp. “That was quite a dog”, I said to Tiger and patted him. But Tiger just looked at me with a superior demeanor as if to say “o, that was nothing for a sled dog like myself”,

The description Ingstad gives of the life of the First Nation people is unflinching and free from judgement from what I can tell. They lead a hard life at the mercy of mother Nature. If she sends reindeer, there is feasting. If the reindeer stay away, there is famine and sometimes death. Ingstad portrays a patriarchical society which is based around the nuclear family. The role of the man is to provide food, the rest is up to the women. Children have to work, and work hard, from an early age.

The erotic life of the First Nation runs like a subterranean river through the narrative. Infidelity takes place, and not infrequently. The young women are attractive, but “fade quickly” with the harsh conditions. The only time Ingstad seems to judge is when he describes the callous treatment of dogs by First Nation – presumably connected to their belief that dogs are “dirty”. He also describes their lack of planning and structure – saving for a rainy day is not in their culture.

The end is quite sad, and this reader suddenly realised that Ingstad’s trip took place in a world where “modern civilization” was already present. The numbers of wild animals and First Nation people had passed through centuries of decline.  The mining interests were steadily encroaching on the virgin lands. Reading up on the history of Canada you realise that the 1920s was late in time in the history of the First Nation. Their world already belonged to the past, and what Ingstad encountered were merely remnants of a large population.

Most telling of all, Ingstad arrives in Fort Resolution by paddle steamer and four years later  leaves by seaplane.

The book contains about 20 photos which make the book even more interesting.

Skøyern (Joker) to the right.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s