Death Escape by Peter Freuchen
Peter Freuchen was a giant man.
Standing almost two meters tall, he towered over the other members of the Fifth Thule Expedition and the Inuit of the Melville Peninsula.
The Inuit called him Piitarjuaq — Big Peter (Pitarsuaq in Greenlandic).
He was born in Denmark on February 20, 1886. As a young man, he dropped out of university to take part in an expedition to northern Greenland. Back in Denmark, he was working as a reporter when he met Knud Rasmussen. The two became fast friends.
In 1910 they established the North Star trading post in the Inughuit heartland of North Greenland, where Freuchen became the chief trader.
But he was much more than a merchant. Freuchen traveled and explored, adding to the geographical knowledge of northern Greenand.
He collects zoological, botanical and meteorological specimens for museums. But, more importantly, he learned the language of the local Inughuit and immersed himself in their customs.
A year after his arrival in the district, and intending to make his life there, Freuchen took as his wife a young woman, Navarana.
In Denmark, this marriage would at least have turned heads if it hadn’t drawn the ire of the local authorities, because Navarana was only 13 years old, while Freuchen was 26. But in Thule, it was considered normal. Hunters needed wives and most women married young.
The local missionaries took a dim view of this customary Inuit marriage, but it suited Freuchen just fine. He wrote to a friend: “I am hated by the mission and loved by the Eskimos. What more can I ask for? »
Navarana was to accompany the Fifth Thule Expedition — a major scientific and cultural expedition to the Canadian Arctic, begun in 1921 — as seamstress and general assistant, but she died before the expedition left Greenland. Freuchen decided to continue without her.
Later, he became world famous as a writer and storyteller, although many questioned the veracity of his stories.
For almost all of his stories, however, there was a basis of fact, although Freuchen was certainly not opposed to the embellishment of his tales. Many of his best-known stories are the result of his experiences on the Fifth Thule Expedition.
One was about a mapping trip he did with Helge Bangsted and guides Aaqqiuq and Patdloq.
At one point, Freuchen got separated from the group, then got lost when a storm hit. That was no problem, he thought: he would just build a snowhouse and wait out the storm.
Unfortunately, the snow conditions were not conducive to building an igloo, so here, in his own words, is what he did:
“I started digging in the solid snow and soon I had a depression long enough for me to lie down. I put my sled down on this strange bed…
“I had on my sled the skin of a bear’s head that I had killed a few days before, and I took it as a pillow. Finally, as I crawled into my cozy little shelter, I put my little sleeping bag in place with my foot, so that it covered the opening like a
“I was well protected against the freezing temperatures, dressed like an Eskimo with two layers of fur… I had big boots and good gloves… Finally warm and comfortable, I quickly fell asleep.
“When I finally woke up I was very cold. I knew I had to get out and move immediately. What worried me the most was the fact that my feet no longer hurt, a sure sign of danger.
Freuchen was stuck in his little cave.
He had intended to just push the sled away when he woke up, but the snow had drifted over it and he was unable to move it.
He rolled over and pushed on it with his back, but the sled didn’t move. Hoping to dig his way out, he discovered that the condensation of his breath had turned the walls of the tiny cavity to ice. He tried to scratch himself with his hands, but
it turned out to be in vain.
Freuchen was buried alive!
Desperate, he managed to rip the skin off the bear’s head from the bottom of the cave. He chewed the edge until it was saturated with saliva, then let it freeze.
He was able to dig in a bit with the frozen skin, but it softened quickly. Nevertheless, he managed to create a small hole. Then things got worse.
“I pushed with all my might but the hole was way too small. I got out far enough to expose my face to the blowing snow. My long beard was damp from my breath and the saliva that had drooled over my bear skin.
“The moment my face went through the hole, my beard made contact with the runners of the sled and instantly froze on them. I was trapped…
“With all my strength, I pulled my head back. At first, the beard wouldn’t come off, but I kept pulling and my whiskers and part of my skin were torn off, and finally I came off. I retreated into my hole and lay down once more.
After resting for a while, Freuchen had a new idea. He explains:
“I had often seen dog dung in the sled track and noticed that it froze as solid as a rock. Wouldn’t the cold have the same effect on human waste? As repulsive as that thought was, I decided to give it a try. I emptied my entrails and from the excrement I managed to make a chisel-shaped instrument which I left to freeze.
“This time I was patient. I didn’t want to risk breaking my new tool by using it too soon… Finally 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 running down my face from the scars where the beard had been pulled out.
Freuchen managed to get his body into the hole and move the sled that had blocked his way. He was finally free, his life saved by his own excrement.
Taissumani is an occasional column that recalls events of historical interest. Kenn Harper is a historian and writer who has lived in the Arctic for over 50 years. He is the author of “Minik: The Eskimo of New York” and “Thou Shalt Not Murder,” among other books. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to [email protected]