I got my seabag
out of the umiak and thanked Joe for the lift, saying I'd better find my crew
and help set up camp. The sight of the open water had excited him and he was
all business now and barely heard me. I shouldered my bag and walked away.
visit us, Ron," he called after me.
The other Joe, Joe
Frankson, had already set up about half a mile down the ice. There was a lot of
ribbing and joking about how I had missed the boat and most of the work but
there was still a wide trough to be chopped for the boat, since the ice along
the water in front of the tent was piled six feet high. We chopped with axes
and picks and a long wooden-handled ice tool with teeth like a jack-o'-lantern.
In two hours we had a driveway cut through the ice and the umiak stuck out over
the water by three feet.
"That's so we
go into the water quiet," Joe Frankson explained. "Don't make any noise
when you're near the water. Whales can hear you."
It was a waiting
and watching game. No, it wasn't exactly a game; you had only to look into the
faces of the older hunters to know that. Whaling was still an important part of
life for them: the two months of the migration, April and May, meant something
important. Two months every year spent chasing the big black whales, one-sixth
of their lives. It was much more than a game, but I wondered what. Was it the
ancestral link with their fathers and grandfathers buried in the
whale-rib-lined cemetery behind the village? A way of saying we remember? We
loved you as children and remember the awe and respect we felt when you pulled
these huge black beasts from the ocean. We remember the pride and strength we
felt for our people that they could do such a thing. We remember it as one of
the strong knots that held us together and we will not let it die. Is that what
was in the faces of the old people? Was there more? Did there need to be more?
Surely there was the challenge of the hunt. Hunting the largest creature on
earth in its own environment. Having to get close enough to this beast to
hand-throw a harpoon into it. Surely the challenge was there. And what of the
mass of food they got from the whale? I wondered how badly they needed this
food, the taking of which required so much outlay of specialized equipment,
time, energy and money. There were other meat sources available. Ducks,
thousands that flew overhead, at present ignored. Caribou and ptarmigan in the
nearby hills, fish and seal and polar bear from the ocean. One source was
conspicuously unavailable. There was no meat counter at the village store.
No, there was
something more than merely providing in the look of the older men in their
traditional white hunting parkas, standing on the ice ridges stoically watching
the sea. It was a way of providing, and a substantial one if successful, but
there was also the feeling of preserving. Preserving a ritual, a tradition, a
way of life and a way of death; of keeping in tune with the ocean and its
seasonal bounty. There was a religious energy among the older people that was
not quite shared by the youth. Many of the younger people had moved out of the
village to larger cities, as in small-town America. For them, whale hunting was
a reunion, a time to get together and see what had happened to whom. The
younger people did not look out to sea so much, but gathered in small groups
away from the ice edge, talking about who was in town and what crew they were
with. Most of them wore colorful down parkas and the popular store-bought boots
with the rubber bottoms and leather tops. Mostly they spoke English while the
elders communicated in Inupiat, the Eskimo tongue.
I was not sure
what was expected of me, a guest, an outsider participating in this unique
hunt. I am a hunter and could surely help with the harvest of ducks that flew
overhead, but what of the whale? All I knew of whaling was from books and most
of these were of a historical nature. I knew the white man had hunted them far
differently from the Eskimo. The early New Bedforders hunted the open ocean
from sleek company-owned clipper ships. When the whaling industry moved to the
Northern Pacific in the late 1800s, they used both steam and sailing ships that
also carried smaller whaling boats. The Eskimo had always hunted from the ice
out of the umiak, and it was not until the early 1890s that they began using
gunpowder. Before that, they killed the whales with harpoons and lances, the
heads and cutting edges made from ivory and slate. The idea was to hamstring
the animal near the flukes to prevent it from diving and then sever an artery
so it would bleed to death. Charles D. Brower, a white man who actually hunted
with Eskimos using these primitive tactics, tells in his book, Fifty Years
Below Zero, of a single whale pulling 21 sealskin floats before it was finally
killed. Every float was attached to a harpoon head stuck in the whale.
About 1890 the
Eskimo began adopting those white man's tools that fitted him. Most notable was
the use of gunpowder and the "whale bomb." That's what I was interested
in. Exactly what is it that kills a whale in 1976?
I walked quietly
down to the ice cut where the umiak waited, perched over the water with a
harpoon sticking out over the bow. A yellow polyethylene line ran from the
factory-made harpoon head up the shaft and lay coiled in the bottom of the
boat. Attached to it was the skin of a spotted seal blown into a float. It
looked like a stuffed toy with cute pudgy arms sticking out from a balloon
body. Here were the old and the new working together: a nylon line attached to
a primitive sealskin float.
"What do you
think of that sealskin?"