There are several sources of food in the arctic and subarctic regions. The type of food--fish, animal, fowl, or plant--and the ease in obtaining it depend on the time of the year and your location.
During the summer months, you can easily get fish and other water life from coastal waters, streams, rivers, and lakes. Use the techniques described in Chapter 8 to catch fish.
The North Atlantic and North Pacific coastal waters are rich in seafood. You can easily find crawfish, snails, clams, oysters, and king crab. In areas where there is a great difference between the high and low tide water levels, you can easily find shellfish at low tide. Dig in the sand on the tidal flats. Look in tidal pools and on offshore reefs. In areas where there is a small difference between the high- and low-tide water levels, storm waves often wash shellfish onto the beaches.
The eggs of the spiny sea urchin that lives in the waters around the Aleutian Islands and southern Alaska are excellent food. Look for the sea urchins in tidal pools. Break the shell by placing it between two stones. The eggs are bright yellow in color.
Most northern fish and fish eggs are edible. Exceptions are the meat of the arctic shark and the eggs of the sculpins.
The bivalves, such as clams and mussels, are usually more palatable than spiral-shelled seafood, such as snails.
The black mussel, a common mollusk of the far north, may be poisonous in any season. Toxins sometimes found in the mussel's tissue are as dangerous as strychnine.
The sea cucumber is another edible sea animal. Inside its body are five long white muscles that taste much like clam meat.
In early summer, smelt spawn in the beach surf. Sometimes you can scoop them up with your hands.
You can often find herring eggs on the seaweed in midsummer. Kelp, the long ribbonlike seaweed, and other smaller seaweed that grow among offshore rocks are also edible.
Sea Ice Animals
You find polar bears in practically all arctic coastal regions, but rarely inland. Avoid them if possible. They are the most dangerous of all bears. They are tireless, clever hunters with good sight and an extraordinary sense of smell. If you must kill one for food, approach it cautiously. Aim for the brain; a bullet elsewhere will rarely kill one. Always cook polar bear meat before eating it.
Do not eat polar bear liver as it contains a toxic concentration of vitamin A.
Earless seal meat is some of the best meat available. You need considerable skill, however, to get close enough to an earless seal to kill it. In spring, seals often bask on the ice beside their breathing holes. They raise their heads about every 30 seconds, however, to look for their enemy, the polar bear.
To approach a seal, do as the Eskimos do--stay downwind from it, cautiously moving closer while it sleeps. If it moves, stop and imitate its movements by lying flat on the ice, raising your head up and down, and wriggling your body slightly. Approach the seal with your body side-ways to it and your arms close to your body so that you look as much like another seal as possible. The ice at the edge of the breathing hole is usually smooth and at an incline, so the least movement of the seal may cause it to slide into the water. Therefore, try to get within 22 to 45 meters of the seal and kill it instantly (aim for the brain). Try to reach the seal before it slips into the water. In winter, a dead seal will usually float, but it is difficult to retrieve from the water.
Keep the seal blubber and skin from coming into contact with any scratch or broken skin you may have. You could get "spekk-finger," that is, a reaction that causes the hands to become badly swollen.
Keep in mind that where there are seals, there are usually polar bears, and polar bears have stalked and killed seal hunters.
You can find porcupines in southern subarctic regions where there are trees. Porcupines feed on bark; if you find tree limbs stripped bare, you are likely to find porcupines in the area.
Ptarmigans, owls, Canadian jays, grouse, and ravens are the only birds that remain in the arctic during the winter. They are scarce north of the tree line. Ptarmigans and owls are as good for food as any game bird. Ravens are too thin to be worth the effort it takes to catch them. Ptarmigans, which change color to blend with their surroundings, are hard to spot. Rock ptarmigans travel in pairs and you can easily approach them. Willow ptarmigans live among willow clumps in bottom-lands. They gather in large flocks and you can easily snare them. During the summer months all arctic birds have a 2- to 3-week molting period during which they cannot fly and are easy to catch. Use one of the techniques described in Chapter 8 to catch them.
Skin and butcher game (see Chapter 8) while it is still warm. If you do not have time to skin the game, at least remove its entrails, musk glands, and genitals before storing. If time allows, cut the meat into usable pieces and freeze each separately so that you can use the pieces as needed. Leave the fat on all animals except seals. During the winter, game freezes quickly if left in the open. During the summer, you can store it in underground ice holes.
Although tundras support a variety of plants during the warm months, all are small, however, when compared to plants in warmer climates. For instance, the arctic willow and birch are shrubs rather than trees. The following is a list of some plant foods found in arctic and subarctic regions (see Appendix B for descriptions).
- Arctic raspberry and blueberry
- Arctic willow
- Eskimo potato
- Iceland moss
- Marsh marigold
- Reindeer moss
- Rock tripe
There are some plants growing in arctic and subarctic regions that are poisonous if eaten (see Appendix C). Use the plants that you know are edible. When in doubt, follow the Universal Edibility Test in Chapter 9, Figure 9-5.