SI Vault
Ron Rau
November 01, 1976
The whales were moving north and, just as they had for centuries, the Eskimos were waiting to begin the traditional hunt that preserves a way of life
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November 01, 1976

Black Water, Red Death

The whales were moving north and, just as they had for centuries, the Eskimos were waiting to begin the traditional hunt that preserves a way of life

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One last snowmobile came from the village pulling a sled with two men and gear on it. They cut across the black sand in front of me, the men jumping off and pushing, the engine laboring in the sand, finally gaining the smooth lane of crusted snow that runs between the uncovered beach and the huge piles of shore ice. The machine stopped, and the driver got off and waved. It was my old friend Joe Towksejea. "Hey, Ron," he shouted. "You get left behind? Come with us. We'll take you out there."

I threw my gear on the old dogsled and sat down. Joe throttled the snow machine and we started into the ice field. Actually, it was more like an ice forest. Chunks five to 15 feet high stuck up above us, and Joe followed the wandering path the others had taken. It was a rough ride. There were mounds and ridges and cracks where the ice had worked and the long freight sled thudded and banged along behind. Then Joe cut the engine and I looked up to see what we would be chasing whales in.

A skin boat.

The boat was lashed to an even larger sled and a faded green tarpaulin was thrown over it. As the hunters removed the cover, I looked the boat over. Next to a snowmobile it looked like a relic in need of a museum. The boat was about 15 feet long, canoe-shaped, with a wooden frame and wooden seats. The skin that covered it was a smooth creamy white, transparent in the sunlight although it was a quarter-inch thick. There were five such skins sewn together, the hand stitching neat and even-spaced as though done by machine. I dug my thumbnail along it, leaving a wet white trail across the creamy skin. It smelled faintly like cow manure, faint enough to be pleasant.

"You can't dig a hole in there with your thumb, Ron," Joe said, walking up to me, smiling a boyish smile on a face 40 years old and weather-creased, like a Kansas dirt farmer's. "This is from uguruk. That's a bearded seal. Tough skin. Strong boat. Fast. Light. Quiet. Go through water like this." His hand was the boat and he pushed it knifelike through the water in front of him, pursing his lips and making a swishing noise.

"Hear that? That's all you hear from this boat. Sssshhhhssss. Those whales hear pretty good but they don't hear these. All these years we've been using skin boats and white man hasn't made anything better."

"If he did, would you use it?"

"Shoe-er we would," Joe said. "We use snowmobile, don't we? Wreck our sleds all to hell, break our gear, break down all the time, eat gas, but still we use. But umiak, you'll never replace the umiak."

We transferred the gear into the umiak and hitched it up to our freight train, Joe arranging the balance while the rest of us carried the tent, rifles, shotguns, groceries, Coleman stove, caribou skins, tool box, ammunition box, kitchen utensil box and finally a cardboard box of comics and magazines from the sled to the ice beside the boat. Joe Towksejea's wife Lucy arrived on another snowmobile with still more groceries held in the lap of another hunter.

Then we piled into the umiak, Andy, another young hunter and I, and the other hunter on Joe Towksejea's crew got on the snowmobile behind Lucy. We sped down the long smooth stretch and then cut into the ragged ice field again. And then we were at the edge of the ice, looking at a channel of open water, 200 yards across. There were other boats and sleds and snowmobiles and people scattered up and down the ice, setting up camp or looking out at the water. No one was idle. Even the lookers paused only a few moments and went back to work chopping ice or setting up the tent or working on a hunter's lean-to near the water.

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