Along tapering ice
trough was dug down to the water so the whale would slide gradually uphill, and
behind that two ice bridges created a three-foot-deep, three-foot-wide wedge of
ice to which a two-inch-thick rope was secured as an anchor for the block and
tackle. It took four men to carry each of the two pieces of block and tackle.
The blocks had three pulleys each. And then it was pull, and pull, and pull. It
took four hours to drag the whale, tail end first, onto the ice. Immediately
the men were at it with their butchering tools, long wooden-handled knives,
making inch-deep cuts in the black skin, marking out the shares in checkerboard
fashion. I climbed an ice hummock to see the entire animal. It looked both sad
and grotesque lying there on the ice, belly down, facing the ocean for the last
time. People milled around the huge black body, inspecting the multitude of
white scars it had incurred while alive. These three long jagged ones in back
were from a killer whale, an old man explained. This one might have been a
harpoon; that ugly curved scar on its back was probably from the propeller of a
large ship. Scars are more interesting to old people who know of such things.
The kids were intrigued by the head, the huge tongue visible because the jaw
had rigored half open; the beady eyes; the baleen, or whalebone, growing down
from the upper jawbone like a screen, the longer pieces seven feet in length.
The kids rubbed their mittens across them, playing them like vertical Venetian
blinds. Hundreds of pieces of plasticlike bone, long black hairs growing out of
the side, through which the animal filtered its minute food supply. Baleen was
what made these whales extra valuable in the 1880s and '90s. Like so many
animals that gave their pelts to the fashion world, the whale contributed its
natural plastic (before plastic was manufactured) for milady's corset stays. At
its peak, baleen brought $5 a pound and the plastic bone on a large whale might
be worth as much as $10,000. This in a time when a man might work for something
like a dollar a week.
Even though the
whale looked lost and forlorn on the ice, there was an ironic smile even in
death that said it really didn't matter; a whale-death smile, as though the
largest of the earth's creatures knew something about death that the rest of us
And then from
somewhere out across the water and ice:
The village had
taken another whale.
Our crew had the
second share in this whale and I stayed on the shore ice for another
butchering. This was a much larger animal and we cleared another ice trough and
dug two more ice supports beside the first whale. Before we got that one out,
two more had been taken. The wind had kicked up and stalking the huge beasts
was much easier.
The next five days
are as one single homogenized memory: endless hours of chopping ice with three
or four people standing by, waiting for the person using the ice tool to tire
or pause for a break—and then someone else stepping in saying, Here, let me try
that, brother. The fresh person whacking at the ice with the pick or the spud
or the ax until he tires. One of the elders comes over from his supervisory
post at the lean-to, watching us sternly, but if you look closely at the aged
and wrinkled face you can see that he is pleased, well pleased that the young
people show enthusiasm for the whaling. It is a knot, a strong knot that binds
his village together; if it is to continue it must be passed on to the youth.
He watches a young lad with eyes that have seen countless whales, polar bears,
seals, caribou and walrus and countless changes in his village, but here is
something that has not changed so much. Then he turns and walks quietly
There are endless
hours of pulling on the rope. If anything dramatizes the unity that whaling
brings to Point Hope it is the rope, the two-inch-thick rope running through
the block and tackle to the whale. There are a hundred hands on the rope; there
is pulling, grunting, straining. The rope is moving and the whale is coming up.
Someone shouts and we pull for all we are worth, the rope moving steadily now.
We are walking instead of tugging. We are making one step at a time, but there
is no more strength in our arms and we are good for only one more pull. And
then the two-inch rope pops like a rifle shot. People fall over each other and
the pulleys scream as the whale slides ever so slowly back toward the sea.
Three hours of pulling in vain. You want to say the hell with it and sleep—but
an elder is already splicing the rope.
There is endless
butchering. A whale is no exception to the rule that an animal should be
butchered as soon as possible after the killing; if the red body meat is not
gotten away from the stomach within 12 hours it will spoil. The bacteria in the
stomach are not dead and they create heat, and the Eskimos waste nothing—even
the two or three hundred feet of intestine are saved, savored at the whale
feast in June after it is all over. But mostly the Eskimos want the muktuk, the
two-inch-thick slab of black skin and blubber that tastes like oysters or clams
and looks like vulcanized rubber and brings $4 a pound this year at the coop in
Kotzebue, a nonwhaling village. Under the skin is a foot-thick slab of pink
blubber speckled with red flakes and looking exactly like strawberry ice cream,
oil-rich blubber that they burn mixed with driftwood in their home stoves. But
first, before all this, comes the bloodletting—sticking the whale behind the
head with a long-shafted knife, the blood gushing out of the beast like water
from a hydrant. It is a stream of red blood thick as a man's arm gushing for
two minutes, four minutes, hot steaming blood melting the ice and fouling the
air, holding everyone's attention and awe—even those who have seen it many