Before leaving, Mamarut lays two ribs and a pile of steaming intestines on the ice. "For nanoq," he says, the polar bear. "He is teaching us all the time. He can move on water or ice equally and hunt anything. He is worth our admiration. Without knowing the polar bear's ways, I would have died out here many times."
As the last of the meat is stacked, steaming, Jens hooks his dogs to the sled, and Mamarut stops to look skyward. "Sometimes we're lucky, and other times things go against us, and we don't get anything to eat," he says. "Our lives are based on how nature gives us animals."
March 21, the vernal equinox and our fourth day on the sea ice, a front moves in, and the temperature drops again from minus 35°F to minus 40°F. "Weneed to go quickly before the storm hits," Jens warns. Rushing to load the sleds, the men kneel on flapping reindeer skins, pulling the lash ropes tight. The dogs are wild-eyed. The moment they feel the lines hitched to the sled, they take off. With flying leaps, the hunters barely make it aboard.
Out on the frozen sea the ice is smoother between wind-driven snowdrifts. We follow the mountainous coastline south toward the village of Moriusaq and the place the hunters call Walrus El Dorado near Appat Island, where last year they killed 13 walruses in just a few days. Ocean currents have squeezed and shattered plates of ice, and our sled comes to a halt. Stopped by the laby-rinth, the dogs moan and cry. Which way do we go? Jens looks and shrugs, smiling. Then, using his enormous strength, lifts the front of the sled—freighted down by 800 pounds of meat and gear—until it points the other way. The dogs lurch forward, and Jens hops on as we bump through a narrow passage.
We travel for hours against a hard wind. It's too cold to stop and let the dogs rest, and the storm is coming in fast. Ice fog has lowered itself to the ground. We're headed for one of the wooden huts the hunters have built on the coastline for shelter during storms. A single pointed mountain protrudes through the fog. "Iviangeq!" Jens yells to Mamarut, whose sled comes alongside ours. He laughs and makes a cupping gesture to indicate a woman's breast. Ahead the roof of a tiny hut pokes from a snowdrift. The sled shudders as the dogs careen toward it onto land.
The traditional low entryway is dug out; shuttered windows are opened. Laughing, Gedion kicks the wall with his feet because there is no feeling in them. My hands are numb from the wrist forward. Two Primus stoves are lit, and Jens holds my fingers over the tiny flame.
In the old days there were no huts, no Primus stoves, and dogsleds were made from whale bones and reindeer antlers with frozen char rolled up as runners. The only heat and light was made from rendered whale and seal blubber.
Being out of food meant you were not only hungry but also cold.