I suppose we will all promise anything in the first flush of romance. So it was with British Polar explorer Wally Herbert, who offered to take his newly wedded wife, Marie Herbert and their 10-month old daughter to live 800 miles within the Arctic Circle with one of the most isolated people on Earth – the Inughuit or ‘real people’.
The young family came to live on Herbert Island, just off the mainland of Greenland, and took up residence in the middle of an Inughuit village in a small wooden hut where they remained for nearly two years. What follows in Marie Herbert’s account ‘The Snow People’ is nothing short of a magical adventure full of danger, excitement and uncertainty. At the same time, it is also a warm and illuminating portrait of the domestic life of an inscrutable people living in the furthest reaches of our planet. As the walrus meat bubbles in a pot on the stove, as the women get together to stretch and clean polar bear skin, as the children skip dangerously on ice floes near the shore and sadly as the villagers get punch drunk at the beginning of every month (the introduction of alcohol being the ‘white man’s curse’), a picture emerges of how this Inughuit community lived 40 years ago.
Marie Herbert describes them as a very proud people, as well they should be. They are a testament to the incredible survival instinct of man. But the most beautiful thing about the book is how the central character always remains the grand Arctic itself. It is the protagonist, anti-hero, stage and backdrop; a ferocious presence at all times, central to everything.
The villagers are very welcoming of the young British family and as is customary adults, and children especially, tumble in and out of each other’s houses at any hour. The hands of the clock did not dictate what the Inughuit did. People ate when they felt hungry and slept when they were tired. Besides, with the sun in the sky throughout summer and a long, dark polar night for half the year, it seemed pointless to regiment life into 24 hours.
As they settle in to Arctic life on Herbert Island, they make an important investment in a dog team that will help them travel in the winter months when the sea freezes over. The dog-sledding journeys made in the darkness over the unforgiving, frozen landscapes are some of the most thrilling parts of the book. The dogs are so hyper-active that they are like ferocious tigers on psychedelic drugs. The only way to rule a dog team is through fear and the only thing the dogs fear is the cracking of the whip.
Some of the challenges of such travel in the Arctic winter are impossible to fathom. On one such journey of 90 miles, when they are returning to Herbert Island from Dundas they are forced by bad weather to break journey and hunker down in a tent. Around them the harshest forces of nature are being unleashed as Arctic winds whip past at 207 miles per hour, some of the fastest recorded wind speeds on Earth! Fortunately, they leave their daughter with a local family onthat trip.
When they return, there is much rejoicing in the village as the Inughuits had assumed that they would never have survived such weather.
As winter forces people indoors, the writer describes some fascinating aspects of Inughuit life, especially their diet. On one evening, she stumbles upon a rather scruffy scene at a dinner table with birds’ feathers, bones and sticky juices running down people’s faces. A special winter feast of kiviak is being devoured. During the summer months, when birds are plentiful in the Arctic, the Inughuit catch hundreds of tiny birds called Auks and stuff them, feathers and all inside the body of a seal. Prior to the stuffing, the seal’s entrains are carefully removed from its mouth so that no other cuts to its outer sack need to be made, keeping it as air tight as possible. This seal stuffed with birds is then buried underground with a big stone placed over it and it is allowed to ferment over time with the blubber in the seal skin seeping through to the birds. The writer is forced to discreetly discard her portion in a rubbish heap.
The Inughuits in the village had converted to Christianity and as Christmas approaches the women in the village get really busy creating new clothes and kamiks for everyone. People exchange presents and that year the writer’s gift is a dead frozen fox fresh from its trap! There is an endearing depth and warmth to the friendships that the family forges with some Inughuit families, especially the one with Maria and Avatak. Avatak especially loves their 10-month old daughter Kari, to tears.
As the long winter months make way for a brief burst of animal and plant life in the spring and summer, the Inughuits really come into their element. They move out of their homes into summer camps and use the abundance of sunlight to do some frenzied hunting. During these months there is an interesting, even if slight, divergence in sensibilities towards killing animals. The Britishers take a fancy towards an eider duck that has just laid some eggs and hope that their Inughuit friends don’t discover it, lest they eat it. Sure enough a few days later, the children have made a lip-smacking meal of it.
After all those months spent in the village, the friendships have become so deep and emotional that the family’s friends feel depressed at the thought of them leaving; as they surely will one day. That day arrives the following winter when they receive news that Wally’s father has died.
To return to England, they first need to make the dangerous 90-mile journey once again in the darkness from Hertbert Island to Dundas, except this time they have to take their daughter along. Even as they wonder how they will ever manage a dangerous journey with a baby on board, Avatak says to Wally, “I will take you to Dundas because you are my greatest friend.”
After months of communal life with the Inughuits, they leave quite suddenly, leaving behind friendships that blossomed in a beautifully bleak bit of the earth.