Taissumani, May 11
Saved by a Turd
It was January of 1923 and conditions in Foxe Basin were bitterly cold. Peter Freuchen was travelling by sled with another Dane, Helge Bangsted, and an Inuk from northern Greenland named Arqioq. They were mapping the Baffin coast east of Igloolik.
The loads their sleds carried were heavy and at one point they had to cache some items and proceed ahead to make camp. Freuchen then doubled back to retrieve the items and, on the way back to camp, a storm arose and he became lost.
No problem, he thought, I’ll just build a snowhouse and wait for the storm to pass. But the snow conditions were not right and he was unable to build an igloo.
Desperately tired, he made a bad decision, one that would have terrible consequences for him.
But Freuchen’s stories are best told by Freuchen himself – one of the best raconteurs the Arctic has ever known. Here is his story:
“I began digging in the solid snow and soon I had a depression long enough for me to lie down in. I put my sled on top of this strange bed… I had built my bed in such a way that the end opened into the cave where the dogs were asleep, and I left this side uncovered, since it was well protected by a large boulder.
“On my sled I had the skin of a bear’s head I had killed some days before, and I took this along for a pillow. Finally as I crawled into my snug little shelter, I pulled my small sleeping bag in place with my foot, so that it covered the opening like a door.
“I was well protected against the sub-zero temperature, dressed like an Eskimo in two layers of fur… I had heavy boots and good gloves… Warm and comfortable at last, I soon fell asleep.”
“When I finally woke up I was very cold. I knew I had to get out and move about at once. What worried me the most was the fact that my feet did not hurt any more – a sure sign of danger.”
But Freuchen was trapped in his little cave. He had intended to simply push the sled away when he awoke, but snow had drifted over it and he was unable to move it. He rolled over and pushed up on it with his back, but the sled wouldn’t budge. Hoping to dig his way out, he discovered that the condensation from his breath had turned the walls of the tiny cavity into ice.
He tried scratching with his hands, but that proved futile. Freuchen was buried alive! Desperate, he managed to pull the skin of the bear’s head down from the end of the cave. He chewed on the edge of it until it was saturated with spit, then let it freeze. He was able to dig a little with the frozen skin, but it softened quickly. Nonetheless, he managed to create a small hole. Then things got worse.
“I pushed with all my strength but the hole was much too small. I got out far enough to expose my face to the drifting snow. My long beard was moist from my breathing and from the spit which had drooled from my bearskin. The moment my face got through the hole my beard came in contact with the runners of the sled and instantly froze to them. I was trapped. The hole was too small to let me get through, my beard would not let me retire into my grave again. But what a way to die – my body twisted in an unnatural position, my beard frozen to the sled above, and the storm beating my face without mercy…
“With all my strength I pulled my head back. At first the beard would not come free, but I went on pulling and my whiskers and some of my skin were torn off, and finally I got loose. I withdrew into my hole and stretched out once more.”
After resting for a time, Freuchen had a new idea. He explains:
“I had often seen dog’s dung in the sled track and had noticed that it would freeze as solid as a rock. Would not the cold have the same effect on human discharge? Repulsive as the thought was, I decided to try the experiment. I moved my bowels and from the excrement I managed to fashion a chisel-like instrument which I left to freeze. This time I was patient. I did not want to risk breaking my new tool by using it too soon. While I waited the hole I had made filled up with fresh snow. It was soft and easy to remove, but I had to pull it down into my grave, which was slowly filling up. At last I decided to try my chisel, and it worked! Very gently and very slowly I worked at the hole. As I dug I could feel the blood trickling down my face from the scars where the beard had been torn away.”
Freuchen managed to work his body into the hole, and to move the sled which had blocked his passage. He was free at last, his life saved by his own excrement.
He concludes: “Fortunately, I then did not know the ordeal was to cost me my foot.”