Recently I have been reading “The Land of Feast and Famine” by Helge Ingstad; an account of his time living in the Northwest Territories of Canada as a hunter and fur trapper in the late 1920s. Having travelled to Yellowknife a few summers ago, the book recalled some of my most treasured memories of the beautiful landscapes I encountered there. Yellowknife is located on the northern shore of Great Slave Lake and is from here that we departed for our journey up the Yellowknife River whereas Ingstad spent most of his time east of the lake. That the stories Ingstad shares in his book occurred so close to where we were meant the book strikes a resounding chord with me. His story seems almost fantastical, and one that someone interested in the outdoors, like myself, likely dreams of living. For years, he survived off the land, hunting and fishing in order to sustain himself; canoeing, building his own cabin, running a dog sled, dodging wolves and bears, and more spectacular feats required in order to survive in such a treacherous environment.
The book (which I recommend to anyone; hunter/angler or not), has left me with a mix of emotions. Envious of his life, interested to learn more about similar adventures, and most of all both grateful as well as frustrated to be living in this time. As much as I wish it could be, it has also made me keenly aware that this sort of lifestyle may not be possible in the same way it was in Ingstad’s story. What I mean by this is that being a hunter and fisherman nowadays seems to require far more than it did during his time.
It is this odd sort of conundrum for myself. While reading I cannot help but imagine what living a life like this might be like, it concurrently made me grateful to be alive today. The appeal of living in a completely self-sustaining lifestyle on such a spectacular landscape is certainly irresistible, one that is seemingly less complex than ours.
“The Land of Feast and Famine” depicts a time and place in which men like Ingstad’s way of living was not only accepted, but considered an honest way of doing so. Nowadays, there exists far more sensitivity surrounding hunting and fishing and it becomes impossible to ignore. With a society in which opinions are increasingly polarizing, those who seek to live a life outdoors are not excluded from this phenomenon. In attempting to explain my passions, hunting and fishing in particular, to others many a times I have received a varying amount of recoil (pun intended). While at times this can be frustrating, I realize most times it is not from a place of deep-seeded hate, but most often is misplaced due to miseducation or comprehension of the topic. In general, I find it irritating when people have formed opinions before doing at least some research on a subject, I guess it happens more so with this. Despite this, I am also appreciative of these experiences as they have contributed to the expansion of my knowledge. It has made me reflect upon my convictions; an exercise that I believe has only been to my benefit.
In this time, game was bountiful, and fur trappers and hunters were able to earn a living and survive living on this astounding landscape. When he was hungry he would shoot a couple caribou or moose, or pitch a net in a river and pull out more fish than most bag limits would allow. There are seasons, public/private land, methods of take, and a number of other logistics to take into account when planning a trip. Sure, the idea of wandering off and returning with more than you could eat for a week is tantalizing, I am at ease with ceding this for our current model in order for our model of conservation to prosper. The science involved in this has made me more keenly aware of my actions in the outdoors and how these function as a part of it. Again, this has been to my benefit and contributed to my both my appreciation and respect for these activities I love.
There are a number of other comparisons I could draw: we are able to enjoy the security of GPS systems rather than the stars and compasses or sheer hearsay; clothing and gear is constantly evolving and better than it has ever been before; there are public/private land issues; and so on. While all this might be true, as much of some things have changed, almost a century later the essence of it remains the same. That fire of adventure to seek the wild is still burning today. To carve a living and sustain yourself from the land by your own hand is still strong today. My experiences are limited so far but as I seek to expand them I am anxious to see how these will all come together and shape them.
Written by Juliano Malizia