“The world is faster now,” Eskimo elders say apropos of environmental change, as if our planet were an overwound clock. Greenhouse gases, an insidious, global corrosion, corrupt the stability, shape, and duration of sea ice, which in some ways is an extension of land. This vital layer in Arctic Alaska vanishes faster than ever recorded. For North Slope Borough Mayor Harry Brower Jr., the son of a whaling legend, conditions aren’t as favorable as they used to be. “It’s very unstable… That multi-year ice is much safer to be on.” The 2019 minimum tied for second lowest with 2007 and 2016, affecting spring bowhead-whaling dependent on frozen launch and landing pads.

Industry’s exhalations on the Chukchi Sea coast between North America’s northernmost city Utqiaġvik and Nuvuk (Point Barrow, the tip of a spit) narrowed windows by shrinking stronger, multiyear ice. Here, the temperature since 1921 has climbed 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, over twice the average rate. A six-degree worldwide increase would herald utter mayhem. 

Ironically, a warming trend prompted whaling’s first flourishing in the region. Around 900 CE, the Thule people began chasing agvik through ice-free straits. For the first time in those tightfisted latitudes, single forays fed whole villages. Tracing bowhead migrations from the Bering Sea to Greenland, beyond present Inupiaq homelands, these kayaking proto-Inuit forged the Arctic’s dominant, most refined marine-mammal-centered culture. 

The millennium-old custom in this burg of 4,500 did not always mean subsistence. Gilded-Age Yankees hired Native harpooners for shore hunts and to crew steam whalers. Antique projectile fragments, land creatures’ claims staked in aquatic muscle, keep surfacing from Ahab’s coevals—flayed, pudgy Methuselahs. Inupiaq helpers earned cloth, iron kettles, utensils, ammunition, tobacco, flour, tea, rice, canned milk, and fruit. Robust skepticism met introduced vittles: beans were “caribou droppings,” oatmeal was “earwax,” mustard “baby shit,” and coffee, for its diuretic effects, “real river.” Whale, seal, and caribou supplemented by fish and waterfowl still are central to enduring on the periphery, to defining heritage, personhood, and one’s place.

Ephemeral terrain

The crystalline realm, forever vexing folks wringing livelihoods from it, spares neither limb nor habitation nor life. Clashing floes can crush legs, and the vise did wreck 32 U.S. whaling ships near Wainwright in one swoop, and when wind aided current, in about 1500 CE, buried two sleeping women permafrost later mummified. With classic scientific restraint, the Boulder, Colorado, National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) geophysicist Matthew Druckenmiller calls the mind-bending, splintering, groaning, booby-trapped flatland glacial zone “one of the more complex, ephemeral terrains on Earth.” It’s “a constantly evolving miniature mountain range of jagged and broken ice with endless peaks and valleys, but also fraught with cracks, many of which remain mostly concealed.”

A crack in sea ice exposes open water
A lead. Whales are forced to surface and breathe in such open places, and Inupiaq whalers ambush them there. Photo courtesy Matthew Druckenmiller

Elders recall freaky winter-travel hazards. A 1957 storm shattered ice right up to the beach; marooned crews survived though they lost much gear. The 1964 Good Friday quake wave surged ice to the foreshore. Snowmachine riders have gone missing, drifted out to sea or drowned trying to water-skip across an abyssal “lead.” During a 1997 rupture, helicopters rescued 142 whalers after a 20-mile, ripping seam bared inky water. Smaller floes in such circumstances become stepping-stones in a deadly game of subsistence hopscotch. “Ice may be beautiful but it’s immensely dangerous,” says Phyllis Stabeno, a physical oceanographer at NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Lab. “It’s nature. It’s powerful, and you have to treat it with respect. A lot of respect.”

The dynamic crust studied like scripture is “shorefast” tuvaq, ice temporarily moored to land, unlike the floating “pack.” “Once there are ice packs stuck to the bottom on the shallow [continental] shelf the coastal ice is usually pretty smooth,” the late Kenneth Toovak explained. “The ice usually goes out the middle or last part of July,” he added, “but the current can bring it back again.” Elija Kakinya from Anaktuvuk, 250 miles inland, joined the spring whaling and weathered 100 winters, observing how “Some years the ice…hangs around all summer months.” 

Not anymore. And neither did the whales for a while.

Sustainable whaling

The nineteenth and twentieth centuries’ assembly-line slaughter gutted the Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort Seas bowhead population to fewer than 3,000, resulting in a 1982 international suspension of commercial pursuit. Inupiaq subsistence whalers since 1978 have been granted quotas. Heeding biologists’ estimates, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) determines how many whales can be taken sustainably. The Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission (AEWC) then allocates U.S. quotas to 11 Eskimo settlements according to their size and needs. Scientists assess the animals’ health through blood and tissue samples and their age through eye lenses hunters turn in.

Today’s allowance of 280 strikes for a five-year period is not only split among AEWC members but also with a handful of Siberian villages. No more than 67 strikes can fall within a given year, and lethal or not, any hit counts. In a typical year, 2017, of 57 whales targeted 50 were dispatched, less than 0.3 percent of the sub-population. Slow, rather placid, buoyant when dead bowheads are no cunning, hull-busting Moby Dicks. All nine Utqiaġvik harpooned two springs ago could be retrieved.

The instant word of a kill spreads, half the town rushes to the floe edge, men, women, elders, tots repurposing upper jaws (the “bows” of possibly sonar-like, breathing hole-opening noggins) as slides, a throng reveling, snapping cell phone photos for absent kin, and playing tug of war with cetacean gravity.

The Inupiat’s garden

Inupiat, like Thule predecessors, have watched this icescape solidify in late fall and last into early summer. It has to be thick enough to bear whales twice as heavy as school buses, rubbery mounds winched ashore by the tail with tackle running through hubcap-size anchored blocks.

Three men and a child in winter gear sit on a wooden bench beside a whaling boat behind a wall made of snow blocks
Harry Brower Jr.’s “Little Kupaaq” crew waits behind a windbreak at the shorefast ice edge. Photo courtesy Jenny Evans.

Camped behind snow-brick windbreaks since the end of April, up to 41 male crews and one female captain hope for bushy-V blows misting along the main lead, ready to ambush posthaste 16,000 bowheads leaving muddy wakes in shallows, cruising east to grazing ranges earlier now and hounded by orcas.

A dozen terms encode a whale’s sex, age, size, or developmental stage. Other expressions parse ice. Puyugruaq “steam fog” above warmer water and kissuk “water sky,” mirroring dark leads on cloud bellies, alert the expectant to highways hundreds of feet deep. When not scanning a rift in the sea’s lid, crews chat on the whalers’ channel. They’ve cleared rubble and sledged in supplies and equipment such as umiat, light, quiet, bearded-seal skin on driftwood-frame boats. They set up rearward safe camps—canvas wall-tents—and flagged escape routes. Trails they leveled with pickaxes web Utqiaġvik’s environs, dodging ikuġaat (turquoise “melt ponds”) and aunniq (“rotten ice”) and crossing ivunġich (bulwark-like “pressure ridges”) that can keep a year’s worth of meals from families. Over 65 ice references rival the proverbial Eskimo eloquence for types of snow. The elements and people’s judgments over time realign trails; the network thus mutates.

To Druckenmiller, who’s patrolled ice often chaotic and noisy despite blatant absences for 13 springs, it remains foreign. His first tries to survey and map lanes and to pinpoint hunting-crew whereabouts smacked of whack-a-mole. Bit by bit though, patterns emerged for how the town uses sea ice and for how it changes. Druckenmiller admires the locals’ knowledge and ease. “It’s their backyard; it’s their garden,” he says.

The cost of food

Outposts like Utqiaġvik run on a “mixed economy,” partaking in cycles of bartering, cash, and subsistence. Oil and gas extraction accounts for roughly 90 percent of Alaska’s revenue, and North Slope Inupiat profit from taxes oil companies pay, from leases of Native lands, and from a few infrastructure jobs. Still, well paid, full-time work is rare in remote villages, and living costs soar due to logistics. A gallon of milk sells for $10, a loaf of bread for $6, a pound of beef, if available, for $10 to $20. Imported, frequently Oscar Mayer-ed meats are less nutritious.

Whale tail and belly—tender, gamey, like moose or reindeer with a hint of the sea—contain more protein than most pork or beef. Convalescents recover faster with familiar fare. “You can’t get an old-timer Eskimo and just switch them over to white [people’s] food,” an octogenarian nursing-home resident says. Some Inupiat in white-collar city careers spend four months per year hunting and subsistence fishing to stay immersed in the culture. One Utqiaġvik urbanite enriching a 30-day diet with eight to 10 ounces of whale lost weight and felt healthier in body and mind. Depressed teens improve with traditional dishes, manifestations of group support, though researchers suspect the fats that once imbued margarines might factor too. Lastly, whale flipper, as a North Slope recipe booklet notes, benefits teething babies.

Man standing on top of whale carcass uses a tool to peel the blubber off
Flensing a bowhead whale at Utqiaġvik. With the help of a long-handled knife, the carcass is stripped of blubber. Photo courtesy Joseph Phillips

So, one to two million pounds per year—45 to 50 whales parceled into one long-haul truck’s freight (equivalent to the chow wasted daily at Rikers Island)—fill bellies and nourish souls while sparing wallets. Replacing them with beef would require 11 to 30 million dollars. In average years, Kaktovik, Wainwright, and Utqiaġvik households with annual incomes of $28,000 to $32,000 secure 700 to almost 900 pounds of wild meats per person.

One must deduct expenses from this, the gasoline, outboard motors, and boats launched at the less arduous fall hunt from firm ground, where a loader or forklift sometimes handles the catch. In October or November, with shorefast ice not yet regrown and westbound bowheads on their own obscure paths, farther out, whalers in sturdier craft face greater distances, 20-to-40-mile round-trips. High-tech shoulder harpoon guns are $800 and the blunderbuss bombs $200 a pop. Gas is $7 to $10 per gallon, despite oil perking up in wells mere miles away. (Piped to Valdez, it is then shipped to stateside refineries, returning on trucks, trains, or barges.)

Modern technology

Arctic pragmatists, Utqiaġvik’s whalers embrace Space-Age technology. In 2001, a GPS tracker-wielding biologist assisted the Alaska Territorial Guard veteran Warren Matumeak who drew Barrow’s first known ice-trails map in a notebook as a community service.

Since 2007, engineering savvy has enhanced it. Druckenmiller’s institute, partnering with the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the Barrow Whaling Captains Association, and the village corporation, inspects coastal ice annually. They measure its thickness with an instrument sled a snowmachine hauls over each trail section. Capitalizing on the fact that saltwater conducts electricity while ice doesn’t, the device creates an electromagnetic field and reads the strength of a resulting secondary field, sensing the vertical distance between the instrument and water. A weak rebound signal spells equanimity, a strong one, trouble. The team charts trails by GPS and collates the information with radar satellite imagery of jumbled or even ice. Hunters consult paper and digital versions of these maps off and on. 

Quantification may save lives especially now that the old ice wisdom less fits the climate’s crazy slant.

People walk on landscape of ice and melted water ponds
Researchers study Arctic sea ice and melt ponds on the Chuckchi Sea. Photo courtesy NASA, Kathryn Hansen

Nutrient-dense fare

It’s all par for the course—the main course. Traditionally, the Inupiat utilized every scrap of a whale, out of necessity and gratefulness toward the sentient being that offered itself, they believed, so that two-legged ones could thrive. They ate the whale’s tongue, heart, kidney, and small intestine. Meat kept well in cellars dug into permafrost; it still does, if no longer reliably. The 20-inch blubber coat fueled stone cooking-lamps that also heated pit houses arched with ribs and mandibles. (Thule indwellers entered through cranium portals, swallowed by what they ate.) Bones became drills, adzes, picks, or harpoon heads. Fringed 15-foot, black, springy lamellae—a screen of fingernails matter that filters out pool-loads of shrimp-y krill—were carved into toys, amulets, sled runners, and warriors’ breastplates or split for basket fiber and ptarmigan snares. Engraved with wildlife and hunting scenes, this baleen now delights tourists and gallery owners.

a pile of whale blubber sliced small for snacking
Bowhead whale blubber and skin (maktak) cut for uunaalik (fresh boiled meat), snacked on during Utqiaġvik’s spring hunt. Photo courtesy Leslie Pierce, NSB-DWM

Chomped raw, maktak cubes stoke your engine on chilly days. Picture thumb-length licorice-marshmallow. The black skin, thick as a card deck, with a pink blubber layer that packs more calories than butter but 0% saturated fats, yields as much Vitamin C as orange juice. The nutty power bars’ omega-3 fatty acids don’t clog arteries. Hunters chew this al dente sashimi before heading out onto the ice. It’s very filling, so a little bit goes a long way. 

Who knew happiness could be a chin glazed with oil?

Sharing the bounty

Man is bounced high by a group of people holding a large blanket
Utqiaġvik community members participate in a blanket toss at nalukataq, the whale harvest feast. Photo courtesy Floyd Davidson, Wikimedia Commons

Calibrated rules for a whale’s division vary locally. In Utqiaġvik, prime slabs steaming with lingering warmth, dragged with grapples, go to the captain, the umialik that provided leadership, know-how, the boat, grub, equipment, and to eight to 10 crewmembers, normally family. The harpooner gets a flipper. Crews that helped with towing the bounty to shore and dismantling it—hard, slippery, nonstop work until sundown with blades mounted on ax handles and staffs—are entitled to shares. Half of the tavsi or “belt,” a swath peeled off the whale’s belly, is cooked and served to the public at the captain’s house, a trickle-down of good fortune to everybody. With the flensing and distribution complete, the captain signals for anyone else to claim portions. 

Large group of male drummers use sticks to beat handheld drumheads
Drumheads like these used by Utqiaġvik’s largest dance group are sometimes made from the membrane of a bowhead whale liver. Photo courtesy Floyd Davidson, Wikimedia Commons

Frozen, cut quaq meat circulates widely also at Christmas, Thanksgiving, weddings, and potluck dinners. Celebrants carry leftovers home in Ziplocs or Tupperware take-alongs. They relish fluke and hunks of ice-scarred back at the nalukataq, the multiday June jubilee featuring blanket tosses and all-night drum-dances that honor successful crews. (Historically, the acrobatic trampoline act gave lookouts extra elevation to espy bowheads in country that can feel strangely two-dimensional.) Women relatives of the crews prepare lavish blanket-toss spreads: mikigaq—barrel-fermented meat, maktak, or tongue ripened in a five-gallon bucket in a dark spot, tasting best after one month; seal oil or caribou fat and wild berries whipped into “Eskimo ice cream;” pan-fried donuts; and mamaaq, the white chewing-gum tissue from the gums of bowhead-baleen teeth, so to speak. Tobacco, baleen, clothing, and tools handed out as further proof of an umialik’s generosity accrue political currency in this fabric of obligations.

In the fall, crews will celebrate apugauti, the beaching of boats they park on decayed ice. Those that reeled in a big one fly their insignia on pennants and give thanks for a season without injuries.

The whale’s gift

To a people poised between feasts and famines encapsulated in countless tales, aġvik the whale, manna that the deep veils, promised numinous affluence. Looming large once in ceremonies, whales are the glue that keeps bonding society. They link generations, neighbors, and family members in Fairbanks or Anchorage, and even non-whaling villages, recipients of fragrant packages. The hunt, from trail building to the stalking, the butchering, and the blanket toss, demands cooperation, the imagining of a common good. Just as the safety margin maps add can’t be quantified, whaling’s economic heft blends with its social impact. The whale “feeds our spirit,” the Inupiat say. “The whale and the harvest are our way of life, our cultural identity, and a means for survival.”

The sense of reciprocity that guides Inupiaq sharing encompasses prey. One gray-haired Inuit shaman thought the greatest of dangers was that “man’s food consists entirely of souls,” the inuat of beasts so quickly offended. Disrespect, evident in neglectful procedure or in wasting or bragging, brought repercussions: game scarcity, accidents, sickness, or death dogging the hunter, his household, or his village. Taboo, incantation, and arcane ritual gestures ruled no other pursuit as strictly.

Six bowhead whales swimming in open water next to ice
A bowhead whale pod feeds in the Arctic. Plankton blooms cause the animals’ annual migration north as the ice recedes. Photo courtesy Amelia Brower, NOAA

Northwest Alaska’s Native whalers envisioned agvik’s essence as a young woman. She lodged in its skull and recycled with that into the sea, if placated properly, slipped into an unborn whale to be caught again. Clean, ornate, thoroughly made, well-maintained hunting implements—tokens of effort and dedication—pleased giants drawn to pretty things as to zooplankton blooms. Slate blades sheathed inside wooden-whale effigies got acquainted with flesh awaiting the lance. Likenesses sculpted on the underside of a captain’s boat-seat entranced conspecifics, as did songs praising them. Bowheads squeezing out jazzy pulses and moans to wow potential mates judged the singers’ worth, the belief a reflection of wary animals always listening. Harpooners aimed for the first vertebra, crux of the life force. The umialik’s wife, singing on shore, welcomed any whale killed with freshwater dipped from a wood pail adorned with walrus-ivory carvings, because, swimming in brine, it surely was thirsty. 

An economy so profoundly spiritual, so embedded in nature, caused few ecological ripples. It forestalled overhunting, mechanized whaling’s callous tsunami. The whale’s gift came with responsibilities of which a good captain was aware.

Traditional whaling skills

Before his death in 2010, Warren Matumeak told a story to Craig George, the North Slope wildlife management biologist pitching in with the original map. One time, hunting seals as a youth, Matumeak ventured alone onto the glaring expanse. Something hadn’t felt right. Looking back, he saw a chink 30 feet wide in the ocean’s armor separating him from the village. He urged his team to the ice lip and threw the lead dog into the water. It churned across, and when it scrabbled up the far side, dragged the sled into the maw. The hunter sank up to his hips in freezing water, but the dogs pulled him out and then home.

The outcome was animistic payback perhaps—interest on a man’s treading lightly, carefully, apprehensively.

Aerial of homes along coastline and frozen ocean
Young shorefast sea ice forms on the coast outside Utqiaġvik. Photo courtesy Matthew Druckenmiller

Experiences like Warren Matumeak’s prove the value of probing the puzzle underfoot, formerly only done with a hooked, iron-tipped staff. Clues today flow also from drill cores, sea level gages, a webcam and drone, remote-sensing feeds almost in real-time, and temperature and salinity profiles. For all that, Craig George says, the NSIDC’s contribution to Utqiaġvik’s labors is “more about safety and putting food on the table than about ice physics.”

People need to eat regardless of pandemic restrictions, so whaling must continue. Instead of flying north in 2020, the sea-ice team sent the electromagnetic instrument there in pieces and George assembled it. After checking the trails’ substrate as usual, he submitted the data, which NSIDC processed for the most recent set of maps.

Those, George emphasizes, are but one dart in the modern Arctic whaler’s kit. The expertise of hunters that wagered their lives for millennia on senses and oral archives pertaining to weather, wind, currents, and tides, stays paramount. “Not to sound apocalyptic,” George says, “but given the price of oil [and likely recession in COVID-19’s wake], the state soon may be bankrupt and traditional hunting skills more important than ever.” Or, to be exact, as important as they were before hardtack, corned beef, and heat waves altered these shores.


Michael Engelhard is the author of Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon. An inveterate cabin dweller, he lives in Fairbanks and works as a wilderness guide. Read more of his work at michaelengelhard.com and read Ice Bear here.

Comments are closed.