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Last Updated: Tuesday, 17 October 2006, 10:09 GMT 11:09 UK
Hunting in the Arctic wilderness
Living deep inside the Arctic Circle is enough to test any man's survival instincts.

Stefan writing his piece for the BBC News website

Food writer Stefan Gates reports on how he is coping with the hunt for meat such as seal and walrus, and the effect that climate change is having on the existence of the Inuit population.

Over the last few days, I have done some extraordinary things.

I have eaten raw ringed seal, raw caribou meat and raw Beluga whale skin.

And to cap it all, I have dismembered a walrus.

No, I am not on a mission to become the most hated man in the Western world - I am making a TV series called Cooking in the Danger Zone, using food to understand people around the world who are going through crises or rapid change.

Glorious ice

I am currently stranded by bad weather in a tiny, isolated and increasingly smelly survival hut deep inside the Arctic Circle, Northern Canada.

An iceberg
For the Inuit, ice is to be celebrated

The sea is a mess of icebergs, three of which are locking our boat in.

It does not look like we are going anywhere soon, so instead, I am learning from our local guide, Theo (and his nephews John, Harry and Conrad), how they live by hunting, and how their way of life is being dramatically affected by climate change.

This is Inuit country. It is a hostile place with no vegetation, no agriculture and no natural shelter from temperatures that get as low as -65C.

The Inuit and their ancestors have lived here for 4,500 years and they have survived on the only viable food source: large marine mammals, which also provide clothing and trading potential.

The one thing the Inuit could depend on was ice. Lots of it.

To you or me, ice is generally a nuisance, but for the Inuit, ice is to be celebrated, and specifically the edge of the ice, because that is where their food lives.

The chase

I accompanied Theo on a hunt for seal.

Inuit hunter Theo (l) with Stefan (r)
Theo answers Stefan's questions about hunting and eating

I love food adventures, and I have done some pretty wild things in the search for culinary revelation, but even for me, this was a gruesome spectacle.

After motoring around the icebergs for a couple of hours, we spotted a young seal in shallow waters.

It kept popping its head up, curious to see what we were up to.

I kept silently wishing it to go away, but that was not really in the spirit of things.

We finally got close enough for Theo and Conrad to take a shot at it.

After five or six attempts they hit it, but it was still alive and swam away.

A couple more shots and it was all over.

Wipe out the hunting, and you wipe out 4,500 years of Inuit culture

It was not a particularly pretty way to go, but on balance, maybe it was better than being eaten by a killer whale.

More importantly for Theo, this one animal would feed four or five families for a day or two.

I tried to see it in terms of protein, despite the fact that its huge sorrowful eyes stared at me, melting my heart and filling me with guilt.

But the gruesome bit was yet to come.

'Country food'

We pulled up to some pack ice and the seal was butchered by Theo and his nephews.

Theo expertly skinned it and everyone else hacked the best bits off for a raw snack.

A dead seal on the snow
Widespread unemployment and expensive imported food make hunting essential for many Inuit

John cut off an eyeball and ate it whole.

He offered one to me, but I declined, opting instead for a chunk of flesh.

It was strange to eat still-warm seal, and I cannot say that I relished the idea, but it tasted like fine, well-hung beef fillet, and it would have been a far greater tragedy to let any of the animal go to waste.

That was my first taste of "country food", as the Inuit call it.

When I asked what Theo thought of people who protest against seal hunting, he dismissed them with disgust.

This is not just hunting. This is a way of life that has defined an ancient people.

Wipe out the hunting, and you wipe out 4,500 years of Inuit culture.

Global warming

Life here is changing rapidly.

As late as the 1950s, many were exclusively itinerant subsistence hunters, to whom cash and the accumulation of wealth meant nothing.

Then the Canadian government began encouraging them to settle in camps where they could be provided with healthcare and welfare (and Canada could stamp its sovereignty on a remote region that Cold War superpowers increasingly viewed as up-for-grabs).

Arctic sunrise
Will climate change be the ultimate threat to traditional subsistence?

With the shift to town (and a cash-based economy) came a whole host of social and cultural problems, as ancient ways of life became less relevant.

One thing continued to define the Inuit: hunting and the skills associated with it.

But all that is beginning to change due to global warming.

Summer sea ice is melting at a rate of 9.6% per decade, threatening polar bears and ice-dwelling seals.

As well as threatening their prey, the thin ice makes hunting more difficult and dangerous, with several recent deaths after hunters fell through the ice on their snowmobiles.

The changes are clear.

Theo tells me that the sea should have started freezing over a month ago, but it is happening later each year, disrupting the hunting that provides a quarter of what he eats (the rest he buys at his local shop).

But food at the local shop has to be transported thousands of miles, making it extremely expensive, so hunting is essential to provide for Theo, his family and friends, many of whom are unemployed.

Crime and unemployment

With the decline in the relevance of ancient hunting and survival skills, comes a fracturing of the society.

Iglulik, where Theo lives, feels friendly and open - everyone says hello and is interested in what we are doing here.

But it is a town beset by social problems: crime, domestic abuse, and unemployment are rife.

Theo gives Stefan a shooting lesson
You need a rifle with you when you leave the hut for a pee

There is a 2200 curfew to try to keep the town's youths under control.

Thankfully, booze is not a problem here, but only because the town has banned alcohol, having seen other towns decimated by alcoholism.

Theo and his people are having to adapt at an extraordinary pace.

He says he has seen the same amount of change the West saw since Columbus, but the Inuit have had only 50 years to cope with it.

One of the few connections to their old way of life is hunting, and if that declines any further, the Inuit may have a tough time coping.

Survival and tradition

Here in the wilderness nothing is easy.

You need a rifle with you when you leave the hut for a pee, and with only a 20-minute rifle training session with Theo to prepare me, I am more likely to shoot Marc, the director, than I am to shoot a rampaging polar bear.

We are going to make a gargantuan effort this afternoon to hack apart the icebergs, and try to make a break for Iglulik, where I may get the chance for my first shower in a week.

In the meantime, I am glad that Theo has not lost his traditional Inuit skills.

They have kept me alive in this Godforsaken wilderness so far, and for that I am truly thankful.

If he can get me home before next spring, that would be even better.

The new series of Cooking in the Danger Zone will be shown on BBC Four in February 2007 and repeated on BBC Two.

Here are a selection of your questions that we received.

I read in this report that Theo views people who protest against seal hunting with 'disgust.' Do you know what his views are on the clubbing of seals to death, without even using the dead carcass for anything useful afterwards, such as a source of food?
Alex Plant, Kenilworth, England

As a hunter myself, do you feel a pressure from the media and society to stop hunting? Even in rural West Virginia we are seeing an increase in PETA and other groups.
Russ Stover, Belington, WV USA

What would Theo like to see happen in terms of government policy regarding social services in town? What solutions might there be from Theo's perspective in dealing with the issues in Iglulik that you mention (crime, domestic abuse, unemployment)?
Allison, Toronto, Canada

Had you or anyone in your crew eaten raw meat before? Are they eating it just to survive or have they developed a taste for it now? Which meat is the most palatable?
Trevor, Basel

Do Inuits still make and use igloos or is that now a thing of the past and how do you get a fire going on the ice? Do you use wood and if so, does this have to be imported?
Marc Jones, Leeds, England

Stefan, did your Inuit hosts tell you about the prevalence of tuberculosis among the Inuit in the mid-twentieth century, the international attention that received, the evacuation of many children and adults to hospitals in southern Canada for long-term treatment, and the consequences all that had for the Inuit culture?
Alan M Baker, Toronto, Canada

Have the Inuits noticed a decline in the number of seals? Have they had to go further out to sea to find them?
Len Schrantz, Washington DC, USA

Arctic life - your questions answered
19 Oct 06 |  Programmes
Company sells kayaks to the Inuit
09 May 06 |  North West Wales
Time to return the Arctic favour
20 Jan 06 |  Science/Nature
Inuit sue US over climate policy
08 Dec 05 |  Science/Nature
Arctic ice 'disappearing quickly'
28 Sep 05 |  Science/Nature
Inuit threat over global warming
11 Dec 03 |  Americas
Toxin threat to Inuit food
01 Apr 03 |  Science/Nature


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