Protecting the Body Fire
Text by Liz McKenzie and Photos by Richard Nelson
People of the Frozen World
In the traditions of Koyukon Indian people—who live near the Arctic Circle in Alaska's interior—cold is not just an element of the physical environment; it is a powerful, conscious, and sensitive spiritual being. If someone offends this temperamental spirit, it can cause dangerously cold weather.
Village elders warn: "You should never brag about how tough you are, like saying the cold could never get the best of you." If someone does that, they advise, "The cold might teach them a lesson." And in the wilds of the far north, it could be a fatal one.
Inupiaq Eskimos on the arctic coast, and Athabascan Indians in the interior have thrived for thousands of years through the extremes of high latitude winters. They are among the world's greatest experts in dealing with deep cold. Long before the arrival of Euro-Americans, these people had perfected some of the world's warmest clothing and ingenious shelters; they learned the best ways to behave in extreme cold; and they mastered the art of using cold for their own benefit.
Imagine a person suddenly caught with no clothing in minus 50-degree temperatures. Exposed flesh would start freezing almost immediately and survival time could be measured in minutes. Northern people depend on meticulously designed and beautifully crafted clothing to survive in extreme winter conditions. People who wear this clothing can be out for days in temperatures far below zero, often accompanied by gales and blinding blizzards.
The key to the success of their clothing is that it's made from materials that evolved over millions of years to keep animals warm in the far northern climate. Caribou fur, for example, consists of densely packed hollow hairs that trap the air and super-insulate the animal. A person who wears clothing made from caribou hide borrows this same advantage from the animal.
Other furs that are used in traditional clothing include beaver, moose, wolf, Dall sheep, snowshoe hare, muskrat, and marten. Wolf and wolverine fur make exceptional parka ruffs because they easily shed frost that accumulates from breath, and the long fur creates a sheltered pool of warm air around the wearer's face.
The warm materials are one reason why Alaska native people's clothing is superior in cold temperatures, and the other reasons are design and craftsmanship. Eskimo and Athabascan women are expert seamstresses. Ancestral native people invented the parka—a jacket with an attached hood that gives unexcelled protection from cold and wind. Today, parkas are manufactured all over the world using all sorts of modern materials—there simply isn't anything better for winter wear.
Another example of superbly warm winter clothing is traditional footgear. Like the parka, native boots are made of durable animal hides–especially caribou and moose. Women also use sealskin for waterproof boots worn on the sea ice or wet spring snow. Winter boots usually reach just below the knee, and apart from being incredibly warm, they are also lightweight and flexible, far more comfortable than most heavy commercial boots. Women make the foot part of traditional boots with the fur turned inside for maximum warmth where it's needed most and the leggings are made with the fur side out.
Other items of clothing made from animal skins include pants, mittens, neck scarfs or mufflers, socks and undergarments—all are extraordinarily warm--as good as any manufactured clothing made today, if not better. The reason many native villagers use store-bought winter clothing nowadays is convenience rather than effectiveness, and the decline of sewing skills among younger women educated in schools rather than trained by their elders.
It's important to add that traditional native clothing is not only warm and often waterproof, but also made by seamstresses with a keen eye for beauty. Parkas, mittens, and boots often feature elegant color patterns and elaborate trim using a variety of furs. Women take great care to sew tight seams with even stitches, first because this makes the clothing warm, but secondly because other villagers are likely to give it a critical inspection. As in all human endeavors, with praise comes prestige.
A House of Snow
Before Europeans came into the North Country, Alaska Native people had developed many kinds of winter homes and shelters, including substantial houses built of wood and sod, as well as tents made out of animal hides, like the ingenious caribou skin tents made by Nunamuit Eskimo people.
Inupiaq Eskimos on the arctic coast have long made snow houses, but they are not domed shaped like those of Inuit people in the Canadian Arctic—popularly known as "igloos" (from iglu, which actually means a house of any kind). Snow dwellings made by Alaskan Eskimo people are rectangular—made with blocks of snow stacked vertically for the walls and leaned up against each other to form a peaked roof much like that on a wooden house. Snow along the arctic coast is blown hard by winter gales, so it can be cut with a saw or knife into rectangular blocks that are excellent building material.
A snow dwelling insulates beautifully against the deep cold and storm winds, but the interior will start dripping if temperatures rise much above freezing. There is a solution, however, by putting up a tent inside the snow house. This creates an extremely effective double-walled insulation with a dead-air space between the tent and the snow blocks.
In traditional times, snow houses were heated by burning seal oil in a dish-shaped stone lamp, which provided both heat and light. In modern times, people use gas- burning camp stoves and lanterns, sometimes letting them burn all night to stay warm and snug. Richard Nelson recalls staying with Inupiaq hunters in canvas wall tent within a rectangular snow house. During a powerful blizzard at minus 30 degrees, the temperature inside was uncomfortably hot and the sound of the shuddering gale was difficult to hear.
In the forests of interior Alaska, snow is mostly sheltered from strong winds, so it accumulates as soft, light powder. But Athabaskan Indian people have learned to make excellent shelters by piling the snow up into a big mound. Then they wait for an hour or so until the snow recrystallizes and hardens. The colder the temperature, the faster this natural process happens. Finally they dig a tunnel into the mound, hollowing it out like a cave, which becomes a snow mound house.
Inside any kind of snow house, animal hides make an excellent mattress that insulates against the snow or ground, and people often put an extra layer of boughs or branches underneath the hides. Caribou is most often used as a camp mattress, but other furs also work well, such as moose, polar bear, or Dall sheep. In former times people also used animal hide blankets or sleeping bags, but these have now been replaced by commercial bags.
A Mind for Winter
Clothing and shelter are the most obvious and visible keys to human survival in the bitter cold of high latitude winters. But equally important are the ways that people behave in extreme temperatures—and northern native people are among the world's greatest experts in the art of winter survival.
To begin with, the elders teach and show by example that they respect cold—they don't mess around with it, they don't play with it, they don't temp it, and they have no interest in showing bravado when they deal with extreme temperatures. In their traditions, dealing with challenges outdoors is not a sport; it may be passionately loved but it is also the earnest and compelling business of life.
For example, people have learned to avoid eating snow to quench a winter thirst, because this can lower your body temperature and make you thirstier. In former times, an Inupiaq hunter carried a small water bag made from a seal flipper, which hung on a string around his neck underneath his parka. He stuffed snow inside the bag so it would melt from his body heat, and whenever he drank some water he put in more snow.
It's important in cold weather to eat foods that help your body produce heat. All northern people especially treasure fat because it allows you to create a lot of metabolic heat. Inupiaq elders advise young hunters that a person will get more heat by eating fat than by burning the fat in a lamp.
Athabaskan and Eskimo people are also wise and careful about preventing frostbite. For example, when he starts feeling a sharp bite of cold on his face, an experienced hunter takes a hand out of his mitten and holds it against his skin. Less experienced people often try something that Native experts would never do—they hold a mitten or sleeve up to their face and blow into it. This does quickly warm the skin, but it also leaves a coating of moisture that chills flesh at very low temperatures and can cause frostbite instead of preventing it.
In the same way, an old Eskimo tradition teaches that cold feet are best warmed by holding them against another person's belly. Not only is it good for the feet, it's also an excellent test of friendship!
Lessons From Many Winters
These lessons and many more have been passed along through countless generations of people living with deep winter cold.
For example, if someone is lost or stranded outdoors in frigid weather, the most important thing to do is stay put. Find a cabin, put up a tent, make a shelter, get behind a dog sled or snow machine or snow block wall to escape the wind. In the forest or along a coast with driftwood, of course it's critically important to make a fire…and keep it going.
Inupiaq elders emphasize that if you are caught out, you should rest as much as possible, and this includes napping. There is a common myth that someone who falls asleep in the cold may never wake up. But the old Eskimo hunters have learned from their own experience that when you get cold enough, you will wake up. Many of us know the truth of this from our own teenage camping trips—constantly awakening to shiver inside our thin sleeping bag.
The elders say that when you start getting cold, it's time to jog around or do a little dance until your body warms up again…but never so much that you sweat. Always be careful to avoid perspiring, they say, because making your clothes wet inside robs their insulating qualities so that you lose more body heat.
Native people know other tricks for dealing with cold. For instance, someone making a round trip during the winter should try to travel against the wind on the way out, because that's when you are warm and fresh. Having done this, when you're cold and tired on the way back, you won't have the wind in your face and it will help to push you homeward.
When highly experienced Alaska Native people travel by dog team, and more often now by snow machine, they go prepared for survival—realizing that they might not come back as planned.
For example, an Inupiaq Eskimo hunter heading out on the sea ice just for the day to hunt for seals, may put a caribou skin mattress on the sled, along with a camp stove and cooking pot, and some extra food. If he became stranded on the ice, he could build a snow house, lie on the insulating mattress, melt snow for warm water or tea, and cook some food, perhaps even a freshly killed seal.
Using the Cold
In addition to knowing how to survive in the cold, Eskimo and Athabascan people have learned ways of using the cold to their advantage. The snow house and snow dome are two excellent examples.
Another ingenious use of cold is the meat sled. In the old days, an Eskimo hunter would sometimes go out on foot and kill an animal far from the village or camp. Dragging it home would be slow and laborious, but what about making a sled from the animal itself? First he shaped some of the fresh, meat into a pair of long bars, turned up at one end like runners. Next, he laid out several smaller bars that would become crosspieces. When they froze solid, he fastened the pieces together to make a small sled, and then he piled on the rest of the meat and pulled the load home.
In temperatures far below zero, snow has a dry, almost sandy texture and loses its usual slipperiness. Sleds with wooden runners squeak along and the dogs struggle to pull their load. Long ago, people learned to put water on the bottom of the runners—either by squirting mouthfuls or pouring it from a cup—then spreading it evenly along the runner with moss, fur, or cloth. Multiple layers are applied, like waxing skis, until the runners glide as if they're traveling over slick ice.
One more cold weather trick: Athabaskan villagers often wait for a deep cold snap before splitting their firewood, because green wood—spruce and especially birch—is incredibly easy to split at 30 below and colder. Sometimes when it's intensely cold, hardly more than a tap with the ax is needed to split even a log full of knots or twisted grain.
It's another reward for getting out of the cabin when it's so cold that a cupful of hot water tossed in the air instantly vaporizes into a cloud of steam.
Protecting the Body Fire
Eskimo and Athabascan people are very protective of their bodily warmth. They treat it as a precious thing—you don't let go of it, you don't squander it, you hang onto it—as if it's your own body fire and you must not let it go out.
For example, people avoid sitting directly on a cold surface like snow or bare rock. Instead, they put something down like an animal hide. This extra layer of insulation compensates for the compressed clothing and minimizes heat loss from the big muscles of the legs and buttocks. Traditionally, Inupiaq Eskimos tied a feathered loon skin to their waist, so it hung outside their clothes like a backward apron. This gave them a convenient, warm, moisture-proof cushion whenever they sat on the sea ice or snow.
Native people are acutely conscious that deep cold is a potentially deadly thing. When it's really cold—minus 30, 40, 50 degrees—they don't mess around with it. Generations of experience have taught them never to underdress. Far better to overdress, or at least carry extra clothing, because they know how quickly and easily a person can die from the cold.
Spirit in the Air
Koyukon people have learned through their traditions that cold has a powerful spirit. It is important to respect this spirit—never bragging, never messing with it—because doing so can bring severe and dangerous cold weather.
Elders become concerned when a sudden temperature drop brings a peculiar frozen fog, the air fills with glittering frost crystals, and hoarfrost condenses on every needle and bough. It's a bad sign, they say, meaning someone could be out there lying dead from the cold.
But we live in an era of change and native people are acutely aware that the winters are not as intense as they used to be. "The weather is getting old," some Koyukon elders say, because the cold is losing its strength and vitality.
For people whose environment is shaped, as much as anything, by the dense cold and darkness of winter, this is not a welcome change. Cold has spawned the unique genius of northern people, has shaped their customs and culture, has come as both a danger and an opportunity, a challenge and a gift.
When a far northern cold snap is imminent, bright spots may appear on either side of the pale winter sun. Elders peer at the sky and say: The sun is building fires beside her ears." If it is midwinter, the temperature might soon plunge to forty or fifty below zero…sometimes even colder. But at least it does not come without warning… which confirms, yet again, that cold is not just a thing….
Cold is a spirit.