For a man who is lost, the three great dangers in order of importance, are Fear, Cold, and Hunger. He may endure extreme hunger for a week and extreme cold for a day, but extreme fear may undo him in an hour. There is no way of guarding against this greatest danger excepting by assuring him that he is fortified against the other two.
Starvation is rare in warm regions and I suppose that no one ever starved during the late summer and early autumn. The woods then are full of roots, nuts, and berries that, as a rule, are wholesome and palatable, and usually there is a large amount of small game at this season.
The greatest danger of starvation is in the far north during winter. By the far north I do not mean the Polar regions, where few go and where life usually depends on keeping touch with the ship, but the wooded regions of Canada and Alaska where there are hundreds, yes, thousands of travelers each year, and where each year one hears of some one dying of starvation, through ignorance of the few emergency foods that abound in that country.
Fish are not included among these foods, for the wanderer in the snow is not likely to be equipped with fish hook, spear or net. The fish, moreover, are in winter protected by ice of great thickness. Animal food is exceedingly scarce at such times, the forms most likely to be found are rabbits, mice, insect-borers, ants, and rawhide gear. Of course the mounted Indian never starved, because he would bleed his horse each day and live on the blood; taking care that his steed had fodder enough to keep up his strength. But we must assume that this source of food is not available - that our traveler is on foot.
A well-known explorer states in his book that northern expeditions should be undertaken chiefly or only in rabbit years - that is, when rabbits are at the maximum of their remarkable periodic increase. While there is some truth in this, we must remember, first, a rabbit year in one region is not necessarily a rabbit year in another, so we could not foretell with certainty what would be a season of abundant food in the region proposed for the expedition; second, men will at any risk go into the vast northern wilderness every year, for it is destined to be the great field for exploration, and every traveler there ought to know the foods he can count on finding at all times.
If when in straits for food he have the luck to be in a rabbit country, he should select a thicket in which their tracks and runs are very numerous. By quietly walking around it, he is likely to see one of these silent, ghostlike hares, and can easily secure it with his gun. Without a gun his next best reliance is on snares. String, runs, each of which is guarded by a snare. They then drive the rabbits back and forth, capturing several at each drive.
Pole for rabbit snare and various ways of setting the noose.
The snare is fast to the end of the pole, and spread open in a well-worn runway. The loop is about four inches across and placed four inches from the ground. The pole twitch-up is held down by placing the cross-piece of the snare under some projecting snag, as shown. The rabbit, bounding along, puts his head in the noose, a slight jerk frees the cross piece from its holder, and in a moment the rabbit is dangling in the air. The cross piece can be dispensed with if the snare be wrapped three or four times around a snag. The squaws often build a little hedge across a rabbit thicket, so as to close all but three or four a shoelace, a buckskin thong, or even a strip of clothing, may be used as a snare. There are many ways of making a rabbit snare, but the simplest is the best. The essentials are, first, the snare - an ordinary running noose; second, a twitch-up; that is either a branch bent down, or a pole laid in the crotch of a sapling. If the nearest sapling does not have a crotch the twitch-up can be fastened to it with a willow withe.
Mice swarm in all the northern country wherever there is heavy sedge, or where the ground is deeply buried in moss, and that means most of the Far North. If I were seeking for mice I should pick out a sedgy hollow, one evidently not actually a pond in summer, and dig through snow and tangle down to the runways, at the level of the ground. If one has traps they may be set here with the certainty of taking some game within a few hours. But usually the mice are so common that they may be caught by hand. I have frequently done this, taking a hint from the method of a fox hunting mice. He advances very slowly, watching for a movement in the cover. As soon as this is seen he seizes the whole tussock, and, after the death squeeze, separates his victim from the grass.
Deep snow, unfortunately, puts the mice beyond reach, and excludes them from the bill of fare when most needed.
Ants, the next on our list, are usually to be found dormant in dead and hollow trees, sometimes in great numbers. Bears and flickers eat them in quantities, and I have met with men who claim to have done so, but I never tried them myself and suspect that they are unpleasantly acid.
These are the fat white grubs that winter under the bark of trees and in dead timber. They are accounted acceptable food by bears and by most birds, which is almost if not quite conclusive evidence that they are good for human food. Their claws, nippers, and spines should be removed. To get them one must have an axe.
Rawhide, or even leather, if boiled for hours, will make a nutritious soup. Many a man has bridged the awful gap by boiling his boots, whence the phrase to express the final extreme, "I'll eat my boots first." Mark Twain was once put to this final resort and recorded afterward that "the holes tasted the best".