To Catch a Whale : With Handmade Sealskin Boats and Snowmobiles, With 19th-Century Harpoons and Cellular Phones, Alaska's Inupiat Keep Alive the Most Profound Rite of Their Ancient Culture

John Balzar, the Times' Northwest Bureau chief, regards whale blubber as the most challenging food he has ever eaten

Finally, after a long arctic winter, the vast polar ice pack cracks and slowly opens up along Alaska's north coast, exposing a thin ribbon of ocean between two vast frozen plates. Spring is the season of wonder here: The temperature has risen to 5 degrees, the wind blusters out of the east with the distant tease of more warmth to come, and darkness has lifted--the sun bobs in the sky 23 hours a day. Now, as they have throughout their history, Inupiat Eskimos advance onto the blue-white shore ice in a ritual of renewal, affirmation, hope and blood. They have come to hunt the bowhead whale.

George Ahmaogak faces the ocean, the hood of his parka ringed with a ruff of wolverine fur and his almond eyes alive with anticipation. He grips my arm with a heavy-gloved hand and nods toward the horizon.

" Agvik ," he whispers. "Big one!"

Out in the water, a shiny wet-black hump breaks the surface, a spout of gray steam emerges with a hiss, and an otherworldly low-pitched song vibrates the air around us. A shiver runs down my neck.

"That's a *%* big whale," says Ahmaogak, peppering his speech, as usual, with the unprintable. A smile breaks out on his ruddy face. A smile with bite to it, the smile of a hunter who has sighted his prey.

At 45, Ahmaogak (pronounced Ah-MA-walk ) is the charismatic three-term mayor of Alaska's North Slope Borough, the northernmost municipal government in the United States. But more important, at least when the arctic whales migrate, he is one of a select group of men and women known as whaling captains. He and the others shoulder the responsibility of providing traditional food and keeping alive the most profound rite of Inupiat culture: the catching of the whales.

This is hunting on an epic scale. Hundreds of villagers are involved in the chase and conquest of one of the largest animals in the world. And there is no such thing as an observer. You are part of the crew or you are off the ice.

At Ahmaogak's signal, five whalers and I grab axes and chop a trail through blocky ice ridges between camp and the open water so Ahmaogak's two boats can be skidded to the edge and launched. One is an umiaq , a paddle craft out of the Stone Age made of laced sealskin, the other an 18-foot aluminum skiff with an 80-horsepower outboard motor. This is all-out work, and the crew breathes long streams of steam into the cold air. As ice cakes my beard, sweat runs down my back under my heavy parka.

Ahmaogak, as befits his captain's role, supervises. "How long do you think you'd last if you went into the water?" he asks me at one point.

"Just seconds," I hazard.

"This whole thing is full of danger," he says grimly. "And you have to know what the *%* you're doing."

I, of course, have no idea what I'm doing. I put my head down and chop.

Another whale--closer this time, huge--surfaces and blows. Pssssshhhh! I chop faster.

"Pretty soon, we go out there. Then it's boom boom," Ahmaogak says to no one in particular. He flashes his teeth in another wild smile.

FOR CENTURIES, GEORGE AHMAOGAK'S ANCESTORS HAVE LIVED AND whaled in the land above the Arctic Circle. Anthropologists believe the Inupiat are the descendants, along with other Eskimo groups, of the second wave of migrants to cross the Bering Sea about 4000 BC. Early evidence of their whaling skills dates from at least AD 800. By the 1800s, when Europeans finally ventured through the Bering Strait, these Eskimos were the best sea-mammal hunters on the planet, and their most formidable prey was the bowhead.

Like the buffalo for the Plains Indian, the whale was the stuff of survival and social structure for the Inupiat. Whale meat was their food; whale oil, their source of heat and light. The Inupiat commonly lived in separate family groups, but for the whaling effort, they pooled their resources and talents, with umiaq owners and the best whalers as leaders. Their most important social gatherings were celebrations of the hunt.

Today in Barrow, and in seven other villages that dot the 89,000-square-mile North Slope Borough, the Inupiat continue to practice "subsistence" hunting--and the whale remains their most prized prey. The whalers are still the community leaders. During my visit, the Borough Assembly couldn't muster a quorum at its monthly meeting in Barrow--too many of its members were out on the ice, captaining whale boats. And, as they have through the ages, entire villages still assemble on the ice to haul in a whale and celebrate its capture.

To outsiders, it can seem a curious world. In 1994, these Eskimos take Hawaii vacations and own big-screen TVs. They wear starched white shirts and drive fancy pickups. Some are businessmen, and all of them are shareholders of the Arctic Slope Regional Corp., which was established by the federal Alaskan Native Land Claims Settlement Act in 1972. Thanks to the tax levies they collect on the Prudhoe Bay oil fields, which lie on their ancestral lands, and the corporation's investments, families of the North Slope Borough have the 29th highest median income in the United States. But they also must spend a lot: A bag of Chee-Toes costs $4.99 in Barrow. And what other jurisdiction with so few citizens--6,300 total, 70% of whom are native--pays its chief elected official $160,000 a year?

For the Inupiat, however, dollar prosperity is no substitute for whaling; it is a means to achieve it. Captains pony up thousands for the canvas tents, snowmobiles (which the Alaskans call snow machines), food, fuel, boats, weapons and radios.

More important, in the late 1970s the Inupiat applied their new wealth to scientific studies and international lobbying, beating back angry attempts by environmentalists to eliminate the native hunt along with all other forms of whaling. Now, the International Whaling Commission grants the Inupiat an annual quota of bowhead, based on the number scientists judge can be harvested without further jeopardizing this endangered species.

Today, with their prehistoric skin boats and turn-of-the-century harpoons, with their snow machines and rescue helicopters, with their old razor-sharp pole knives and fur clothing, with their briefcases and stock portfolios, the Inupiat Eskimos hover between the past and the present. Holding onto the hunt, they believe, provides the ballast that keeps them upright in the late 20th Century.

"It's our food, our culture, our tradition, our heritage," Ahmaogak says simply.

"Without whaling there would be no purpose to Barrow," says Glenn Roy Edwards, Ahmaogak's second in command and a jet-set businessman with the Arctic Slope Regional Corp. "I depend on my job, I like my job. But if it came down to a choice, I'd leave it to come out here and go whaling. I am first a whaler."



A resupply party is about to depart Barrow for Ahmaogak's whaling camp, about 10 miles out on the shore ice.

"Might as well learn now," I'm told.

In coastal Barrow, all the streets are gravel, and those that lead to the ocean are not impeded by stop signs. We have driven off the end of one of them. In summer, we would be on an Arctic Ocean beach. Today our caravan of three snow machines is aimed north on the ice. One of them tows a heavy wooden sled.

"OK," I say, "What do I do?"

"You'll see."

I grab the back of the sled and position my feet on the runners. An hour later, after bouncing across fractured shadowy white and aquamarine ice, I have become a sled steerer. Or at least I was able to hang on.

Winding through a two-story-tall pressure ridge, where shifting ice plates have collided and formed a mini-mountain range, we come screaming into the camp. It is pitched in what might be called a flat meadow of ice, lightly dusted with dry snow. Ahmaogak and his crew set it up a few days ago, when the ice first began to break up. It holds as many as 10 whalers--the crew waxes and wanes with the press of outside business and the presence or absence of whales. At the moment, there are six of us packed into the camp's one plywood-floored 10-by-12 canvas tent.

Outside, an umiaq and an aluminum boat rest on sleds next to crates of supplies and fuel. Everything is camouflaged white. Whales are known to be spooked by colors. High-powered rifles are slung casually on snow machines and propped against the tent. This is polar bear country, and polar bears aren't spooked by much of anything.

A quarter-mile away, across much thinner "young" ice, is the crack where the polar pack begins to recede. Depending on the wind and ocean currents, this "lead" of water can grow to almost three miles wide, only to close right back up hours later. Through this lead, the bowheads are migrating northeast from their winter grounds in the Bering Sea to their summer range north of the Canadian Yukon in the Beaufort Sea.

With the ice in front of us constantly moving, the landscape changes as if in a time-lapse movie. Watch carefully and you can see floes tugged this way and that. Ten minutes later, it's all different. The ice we are camped on could break loose at any time and join this flotilla. For the next seven days, we will rarely take off our boots and never remove our clothes, always ready to dash for safety.

As the newcomer, I am the lowest person in the crew hierarchy; never mind that I am also the oldest and city-softest. I am assigned to chop and melt ice for fresh water, make the coffee--endless pots of coffee--do the dishes, help cook, chop trail, steer sleds. Even the children--apprentice whalers--outrank me.

I have lots of questions. Like, how do I get fresh water from a sheet of frozen sea ice?

"That's old ice there, the salt has leached out," Ahmaogak points to a nearby jumble of clear ice blocks with slightly rounded edges. "Now that, that is sea ice. No good." He points to another pile of younger ice farther away with sharper corners and a bluish cast. It is still filled with salt.

With no warning, he laughs--a huge, contagious ha-ha-ha bellow, entirely free of cynicism. I am, as he will tell me from time to time, "a *%* dummy. Ha ha ha." I always laugh too.

It's dinner time, and the lead is closed so the atmosphere at camp is relaxed. Ahmaogak's wife, Maggie, is demonstrating the two recipes in the Inupiat cookbook--animal flesh, uncooked or boiled. She is executive director of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, the Inupiat organization that manages the annual whale hunts and lobbies Eskimo interests before international regulators. Outside the tent, she opens a wooden grub box and gathers an armload of frozen caribou chunks, each a square the size of a fist. Here, the outdoors serves as meat locker, and ice chests are used to keep items such as soda pop from freezing. Tonight's menu turns out to be, first, slivers of uncooked caribou shaved from the frozen chunks, then caribou soup--boiled, half-raw meat in a liquid thickened with pancake mix because someone forgot to bring flour.

A kerosene heater and a one-burner propane stove keep the temperature as uncomfortably hot inside the tent as it is uncomfortably cold outside. Idle time is passed smoking cigarettes and cigars and making small talk, half of it conducted in the language of the Inupiat, an emphatic monotone that few non-natives even attempt. We sit inside on storage boxes or on polar bear rugs that double as sleeping mats.

Always, someone is outside on watch, for bears, for signs that our ice is breaking loose, for whales. I feel myself becoming lazy and comfortable. Ahmaogak, lounging on a bearskin, detects a shift in the wind and is suddenly worried. If the breeze strengthens from the north, the ice pack in the distance could be propelled our way.

"That big ice out there starts moving, well, *%*. We gotta be ready to evacuate, or we'll end up in Siberia. Ha ha ha."

Ahmaogak, like many Inupiat, speaks English softly, like a whisper brought up the register to normal volume, and gives equal emphasis to each syllable and every word, as if they are not to be expended lightly.

In the arctic twilight that passes for night, six of us prepare to sleep together Eskimo style, under shared blankets. Wind rattles the canvas. "*%*. I hope we don't have to evacuate at 4 a.m., if this country goes to hell," Ahmaogak says.

The snoring that commences puts me at ease. Better than listening for the ice to crack underneath me. Below that is 120 feet of frigid Arctic Ocean.

ALTHOUGH LEGEND TELLS OF BOWHEADS MORE THAN 60 FEET IN length, most of the large ones documented now are in the 50-foot range, and 30-footers are most commonly caught by the Inupiat. Chunkier than most whales, a big bowhead can weigh up to 100 tons. These days, the International Whaling Commission estimates that the bowhead population hovers between 6,900 and 9,200 in the waters off Alaska, compared with an estimated 20,000 a century and a half ago. But bowheads are increasing in number, and the Barrow whalers have been allotted a 1994 spring quota of 18 whales, including those that are landed and those that are harpooned but lost.

Bowheads are in the family of baleen whales, with giant mouths in the shape of upside-down smiles. Instead of teeth, they have an arrangement of slats, like vertical Venetian blinds. These baleens strain seawater for krill, the small shrimp that is the bowhead's main food. Bowhead eyes are down by their bellies, just at the corner of their mouths, and their breathing holes are atop a streamlined hump that forms the apex of a bow-like silhouette.

Traveling on the edges and leads of the shifting polar ice, the bowhead has developed the ability to break through ice two feet thick to reach air. (Those were not bowheads but less-well-adapted gray whales that made news around the world when they found themselves trapped under the ice near Barrow in 1988.) No one knows how long bowheads live. But twice in recent years, the Inupiat have found ivory and jade harpoon tips embedded in the blubber of captured whales, which tantalizes the imagination: Such tips were last used on harpoons at the turn of the century.

Like other great whales, the bowhead was savaged in the 19th Century by commercial whaling. In 1848, with other waters exhausted, Yankee whalers finally ventured north, through the strait between Siberia and Alaska, following the oil-rich bowheads. Within four years, there were 220 whaling ships in the Arctic, seeking oil and whalebone and bringing whites into everyday contact with the Eskimo. By the turn of the century, the abundant bowhead was dying out and so was commercial whaling.

Though contact with whites diminished along with commercial whaling on Alaska's north coast, the Inupiat culture had already been changed irrevocably. Missionaries had arrived, white diseases had taken their toll, and the natives had begun to adopt new weapons and tools.

Today in the Arctic, the traces of the Yankee whaling days are easy to see--in the bloodlines of the Eskimos, for instance, and in the Christian invocation pronounced whenever a whale is taken. Nowhere is the link so apparent as in the primary tools used by the contemporary Inupiat to hunt bowheads.

Unlike the harpoon cannons of the modern commercial whalers, the Inupiat harpoon is unchanged from those of Yankee whalers in the last century. Hand held and hand thrown, it carries a brass-tipped point and is fixed with a brass gun barrel. The harpoons are still manufactured in New England, once the capital of the Yankee whalers.

The attack commences like this: The boat is driven, or paddled, alongside a surfacing whale. In the bow, the harpooner, standing within a few feet of the whale's back, jabs the animal. Once the tip of the harpoon is embedded in the blubber, it pulls off from the 10-foot wooden harpoon shaft and triggers the firing of a "bomb" from the gun barrel--an exploding foot-long shell on a seven-second fuse. The harpoon tip is attached to 33 fathoms of rope and a large float that can be followed when the whale dives. If the shell penetrates deeply into the animal and explodes near a vital organ, the whale dies immediately. Other times, it can take a dozen or more bombs fired from a supplementary 50-pound brass shoulder gun.

A minimum crew in a motor-powered aluminum boat is three people. With it, the strategy is to strike with speed. Success with the much more commonly used umiaq requires stealth and as many as eight paddlers to follow and stay with the whale. Once a whale is struck, the chase can last for minutes or for hours.

"$%&*, DID YOU SNORE!"

Good. I must have slept after all.

Ahmaogak fills a skillet with Crisco and fries egg rolls for breakfast, a good-luck gift from a Filipino, a friend who runs a taxi in Barrow--one of among the dozens of outsiders who drift here hoping to share in the oil wealth. The coffee is rich and gritty, four handfuls of grounds dumped into a pot of melted ice. The tent fills with cigarette smoke and kerosene fumes. A portable receiver is tuned to Alaska Public Radio and a marine-band radio crackles with "good mornings" as the whalers--there are 44 crews on the ice from Barrow this year--check in with their families. I have never met an Eskimo who did not have at least one electronic receiver on at all times--CB, TV, AM, FM--often several together. And this year, Ahmaogak is experimenting with a new toy, a cellular telephone.

I ask about two Eskimo myths I remember from my childhood. Back in their more nomadic days, I was told, they left their elderly behind in the snow when they could not keep up.

True, says one. Not true, says another.

How about the one where a male traveler was invited to sleep with the Eskimo's wife?

Used to be, if he liked you. But the missionaries took care of that.

Ahmaogak has been described as "the Eskimo John Kennedy," a man who inspires his people. He is like no politician I have ever met--confident, authentically magnetic, entirely open, rough-hewn, bawdy and temperamental. It's a rare elected official you don't mind sharing a tent with. Ahmaogak boasts of earning three days of "good time" off his 10-day jail sentence after a drunken binge. He is a champion of native rights but has hired plenty of non-natives to keep the town running smoothly. He and Maggie met in high school and married in Los Angeles while she attended MTI Business College and UCLA and he went to Northrop-Rice Aviation Institute of Technology in Inglewood. At home in Barrow, they have a 54-inch TV in the living room and a whale skull and several frozen seal carcasses in the front yard.

At some cue too subtle for me, everyone suddenly leaps up and explodes into motion. We jump onto snow machines and scream out to inspect the lead. In front of us, bowheads break the surface, their heads high out of the water.

"They're looking around--looking for a trail through the ice. Wouldn't you?" says Ahmaogak. We listen to their colossal splashes.

Ahmaogak surveys the ice and picks a spot to launch the boats. Whaling captains are years in the making--men, and a few women, who have apprenticed for the job since their youth and who command the respect of enough villagers willing to sign on as crew. They must also be successful enough in their other lives to have the money to finance the endeavor.

We begin to chop trail. Good-natured harpooner Perry Okpeaha is helping; so is stoical shoulder-gunner Larry Itta and 12-year-old Qaiyaan Harcharek, a determined sixth-grader who is in his sixth season as apprentice whaler.

By midmorning, we have finished the trail and pulled the aluminum boat down to the water's edge, lifted it off its sled and skidded it to the lip of ice, which rises white for several inches above the water and descends translucent blue for a foot underneath. But the wind shifts and the lead begins to close. We retreat. At midafternoon, the water opens again, and the boat is launched. By 6:30, the crew has chased four whales but never quite come close enough for Okpeaha to hurl the harpoon.

The routine is typical and repeated often--the crew advances, retreats, rests and then resumes the hunt.

On the marine radio, static turns into cheers. A few miles west of us, captain Jake Adams has caught the first whale of the year for Barrow, a 28-footer. "Bambi," says Ahmaogak. Once Adams' whale is secured by a rope to the tail and maneuvered to the shore ice, the crew delivers a prayer of thanks. Then the village airwaves crackle into life, filled with the news. In Barrow and on the ice, snow machines are fired up to carry as many as can come out to Adams' camp to help pull the bowhead from the water and butcher it into slabs of blubber and meat.

The first whale of the year is always divided up among all the crews in Barrow. From then on, only those who come out onto the ice to help will receive a share. It can take up to 36 hours or more of nonstop effort to land and cut up a big bowhead. A large portion of the food is stockpiled for the year's many coming feasts.

Something else comes over the radio. Not far away the ice has broken loose and two crews are adrift in the sea. On a big sheet of ice, there is little immediate worry. But big sheets can shatter into little ones by force of waves or in a collision with drifting icebergs, and that can be catastrophic. A search-and-rescue helicopter is launched from Barrow to retrieve the crews and their gear. "Should have watched their back door. Gotta watch the back door," growls Ahmaogak. Ha ha ha.

We hurriedly check the ice at our own back door. Holding solid, say those who know such things. By now, I'm so spooked I step only in the footprints of someone else. I have been advised to carry a quick-draw sheath knife so that if I fall into the water, I can stab the ice and keep from slipping under until help arrives, if help is handy. I try to visualize the experience.

We spend the evening--which looks almost the same as the morning under the arctic sun--sitting on a boat sled, with a white canvas windbreak stretched behind us, quietly scanning the water for the steam geysers of surfacing whales. Hours pass with hardly a word.

Even here, the primitive landscape of ice and water is clouded by development. With the Prudhoe Bay oil fields now past their peak, oil companies have their eye on expanding offshore drilling in the Arctic Ocean to keep the Trans-Alaska pipeline flowing. The Inupiat strongly oppose the idea. Not only would they receive no tax revenues for operations beyond the three-mile coastal boundary, they also fear an oil-well blowout would jeopardize the survival of the bowhead. But they are plenty eager for more onshore drilling, particularly in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the east. Their taxing authority would extend to such development, plus they hold mineral deeds to some of the potential sites.

As the winds pick up, massive ice floes begin to dance across the near horizon. "That is some heavy *%*," says Ahmaogak. "Imagine wind and current pushing on this--that's our worry. No drilling rig could stand up to that."

AS LONG AS THE LEAD IS OPEN, WE SLEEP ONLY INTERMITTENTLY, ON NO schedule whatsoever. Sometimes the tent is too full, and I borrow a bearskin and curl up in an 18-foot skiff. It is hard to keep a grip on time. "I have a feeling it's going to be a long day tonight," is the way one of the other whalers puts it.

Whatever stimulates Ahmaogak into action remains a mystery to me. One moment we are sitting quietly. And the next, scrambling.

Ahmaogak and crew launch the skin boat and come within feet of striking a whale that approaches head on. They paddle behind a distant iceberg and I find myself alone on the ice. Just two days ago, a polar bear wandered near camp. Ahmaogak could put both of his oversized arctic boots inside the bear's paw print. The marine radio has been reporting bears lurking around other camps. Where did they leave those rifles? I wonder.

A bowhead breaches 100 feet from the ice edge, its mighty head rising more than 20 feet out of the water. I look into its saucer-sized black eye, and it emits a ghostly blow.

I take my turn in the aluminum boat as the crew races up and down the lead, futilely chasing whales but coming so near to their submarine-sized backs that my chest pounds. Okpeaha raises his harpoon, once, twice, three times. Never quite close enough to let fly.

Back at camp, our share of Jake Adams' whale is delivered to the tent, and I cook the traditional uunaalik-- pungent, boiled finger-sized pieces of whale blubber and skin with the overpowering redolence of fish oil that brings the whole crew scrambling to the pot. Recipe: Boil strips of whale in water until the blubber floats, about five minutes. We also snack on crunchy frozen chunks of whitefish dipped in seal oil. One night we break from the native menu and I open several cans of chili, which is followed by a rousing after-supper bout of gas passing, men and women joining in uproariously without the slightest self-consciousness.

"Let's change our diet!" says Ahmaogak during another lull in the action. We race off to hunt seals, but find none. We do find a new launch site and move our whaling boats from fragile ice to an even riskier location, where we have to leap across a watery two-foot crack to reach the lead. Here the ice is so thin and flexible it undulates to the rhythm of the sea waves. When the largest icebergs I've seen bear down on our camp, Ahmaogak laughs. "Maybe tomorrow we have to move camp back closer to town. Then we'll go have a shot of Courvoisier, a cigar and a shower. Ha ha ha. Or maybe we break off and ride to Siberia."

Instead, we stay put. Next day, the lead is clear. West of us, the whaling action picks up. Three whales are struck, and the chase is on. A cease-fire order comes via radio for the remaining crews while the pursuit continues. No whales are landed, although they eventually will begin to rot and float to the surface as "stinkers," animals that can be only partly salvaged.

Again the radio comes to life. Whaling captain Thomas Brower III has caught a 33-footer. I am set to leave soon; it's now or never if I want to see a whale brought in. I set out in a snow machine for the 30-mile journey across the ice to the Brower camp, joining perhaps 90 whalers and villagers who will converge to pull the whale out of the water and divide it up.

Over the course of more than an hour, in a massive tug of war, we use rope, block and tackle to inch the rubbery, lifeless whale onto the ice. Men climb onto the nine-foot-high carcass to slice it, crosswise, into 18-inch strips of skin and blubber that are undercut and peeled off in an assembly-line operation. While the adults work, children bounce and play on the carcass. Finally, the meat and tongue and internal organs are divided up. The baleens will be scrimshawed and sold to tourists, the only cash derived from a whale. By the time the job is finished, a ragged circle of snow near the lead has turned bright red.

WHEN I DRAG INTO CAMP 10 hours later, I'm as tired as I've ever been. I begin my goodbys.

Maybe, it is suggested, I'll come back for the nalukataq feast, which celebrates the end of the whaling season. Then there are the geese and ducks to hunt, as they migrate in their turn. "Boom boom," says the mayor. And after that the hunt for caribou and moose, and after that, the whales once again, during their return migration.

"It's something out here, isn't it?" Ha ha ha. Ahmaogak pulls off his polar-bear mitten, squeezes my hand and turns. He and his crew climb into the aluminum boat. The last I see of them are the backs of three Eskimo parkas, hunched against the wind, fur hood ruffs flying as the captain guns his outboard and disappears into a tangle of icebergs.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World