Loons are water birds found in North America and North Europe/Asia. They are the size of small geese.
Loons are excellent swimmers, their webbed feet sit far back on their bodies, giving them lots of thrust in water, but making walking on land awkward. They are also very good divers and can stay a remarkably long time under water before needing a breath.
They have heavier bones than most birds and help to keep themselves below water by expelling air from their lungs, feathers and internal air sacs. Their main diet is fish and crustaceans which they swallow whole.
Loons can also fly long distances at great speeds (up to 70 miles per hour / 110 km per hour). However, taking off is difficult because their wings are short compared with their body weight, so, like an aeroplane, they have to use the wind as well as speed to get airborne.
Loons migrate each spring and autumn and can live up to 30 years. They have haunting calls which vary according to purpose:eg the ‘wail’ sounds a bit like a wolf’s howl and is used for contacting other loons, whereas the’ tremelo’, rather like a crazy laugh, is an alarm signal or used to defend territory.
Who are the Inuit?
The Inuit are people who have lived in the arctic regions of the world for over 5000 years. Their ancestors appear to have inhabited Alaska first, then moved out north east to Greenland and east to Canada. They were hunters on land, sea and ice, moving around according to the seasons and the possible prey.
By 2000 years ago, they were not only superb hunters and fishers but also highly skilled craftsmen who made their weapons and tools. As they moved so often, their homes needed to be easy to build. Their summer camps were made of skin tents, often caribou or seal skin, fastened down by stones. In the long cold, dark winters, they built snow houses, often called igloos, by cutting blocks of snow and building them round and round in a spiral, from the inside, leaning in slightly to make a dome. Any cracks are filled with snow to keep the cold and wind out and the warmth in.
Men traditionally did the hunting, which could take them away from the home for days, even weeks on end.
The women prepared the skins (a lengthy process), the food and made the warm clothes necessary for them all to survive the harsh arctic conditions.
Building their shelters and making the tools were often shared tasks which all family members needed to know about, and participate in, to survive.
For thousands of years the Inuit have not only survived in the Arctic’s inhospitable environment, in conditions which would be intolerable for most of us, but lived satisfying, creative lives.
How did the Inuit get their food?
Caribou in the Arctic
Because of the harsh conditions in the Arctic, very few plants grow and so the Inuit ate mostly meat and fish. However, full use was made of all the creatures that were hunted, nothing was wasted. For example, in the summer, they hunted caribou, which provided them with meat, skin for huts and clothes and bones for tools and weapons.
Seals were probably the important part of the diet, especially during the winter months and, as well as food, they provided skins for clothes, tents and boats and blubber for lighting and heating.
How seals were caught varied throughout the year. In the summer they may be hunted in boats or along shores, but for the rest of the year, they were mostly caught at breathing holes in the ice.
Because seals are mammals they need to come up for air sometimes, and create holes in the ice cover. An Inuit
hunter would wait near a hole, maybe for hours, and when the seal poked out its nose, the hunter would strike with his harpoon.
Fishing is also traditionally done with a ‘lure’ (something dangling in the water to attract the fish) and a harpoon. Of course, a hole would need to be made in the ice first.
A wide variety of arctic wild life would attract an Inuit hunter including birds and bears and even walrus and whales (as in the story).
In the short late spring and summer seasons, women and children would collect, eggs, roots, berries, leaves and seaweeds to supplement the diet. In the autumn and long winters, they were all reliant on whatever the hunter could bring home and, often, the hunting expeditions lasted days and even weeks.
What was the life of an Inuit child like?
An Inuit family
Children were named after family members, often ones who had died recently. However, names are not distinguished by gender, so, for example, a girl could have her grandfather’s name or a boy his aunt’s. The world of an Inuit child would have contained just a few human beings: a father and mother, brothers and sisters, grandparents and the other children and adults of the camp.
Like all children, they would grow up watching and imitating the actions of the adults. They would learn about the creatures around: for example, they would know what seals, walruses, caribous, bears, foxes and hares all looked like from the outside and from the inside also, as they see adults cut open and skin the creatures to provide their food, shelter, clothing and tools. So children grew up with a good understanding of the creatures and plants around them, knowledge they needed in order to survive.
Their diet is the same as the adults, quite restricted, especially in the winter when there are no plants. They will eat meat and fish mainly, with eggs, roots, berries and seaweed when available. Since much of the food is eaten raw, essential vitamins, like vitamin C are not destroyed when found, for example, in whale skin.
From a very early age children learn how to make and use the tools, shelters and weapons needed for daily living. They would also learn how to build a komatik (sledge), a kayak (canoe) and an umiak (larger boat). They do all this by watching the adults and being encouraged to take part. Inuit believe their children will develop into responsible adults if they have a lot of love and freedom. Some behaviour maybe frowned upon, but children are not punished, which is what makes the actions of the stepmother in the story so
horrible, they learn the right way by example.