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Notes from DaVic Gallery: ‘Winter Camp’ – Entire groups of families cast their fates together in the struggle to survive and in these travelling groups the more hunters there are the better chance of successful seal hunt and the survival their families.
Sometime before the winter solstice, once the sea ice was solid and enough snow had accumulated to enable them to build igloos, families would leave their camps on the land and move onto the ice, taking with them only the barest necessities. The lucky ones had a dog team to pull their loaded sleds. Many carried all their possessions on their backs: the caribou skins to keep them warm, the qulliq (soapstone oil lamp) to heat and light the igloo, and the winter seal-hunting tools that had been readied over the preceding months.
Now the most difficult phase of life in the Arctic begins. Windswept and barren, the sea ice will be the people’s home and their principal hunting ground for half the year. For several months there will be very little light, sometimes only twilight, by which to travel and hunt. Igloos are built with the frozen snow and have a window mounted from a cut ice block from the frozen lake water. Much of the time, the families are hungry and have little blubber to burn in the lamps.
The hunters will go out in search of nattiq, the ringed seal. At the onset of freeze-up, the seals make small holes through the relatively thin ice so that they can breathe. As winter progresses, they swim under the ever-thickening ice from one aglu to the next to the next in turn, keeping them open by gnawing and scraping at the ice. It is these holes (agluit) that the hunters look for. In the winter hunt, called mauliq, the hunters wait for the seals to appear at their breathing holes and strike them with their harpoon as the animals rise to the surface to take a breath.
The hunters put on caribou-skin parkas, the warmest coat there is, made from the thick hides of the autumn caribou. Their pants and mittens, too, are made from caribou skin while boots from seal skin. Each hunter sets up at a different hole. The hunter usually stands on something, such as an old piece of caribou hide with the hair still on, to muffle any sound his feet might make on the hard-packed squeaky snow. Each hunter hopes for success. But far more important, they all understand, is their collective success. If just one of them catches a single seal, everyone in camp will have something to eat and every igloo will have some blubber for the lamp. If several men catch seals, they will feast. If one of them is fortunate enough to catch two in the day, he will consider it a very good day. More than that, and it will likely be a day he will never forget.