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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Everything was moving north except the wind and the sea gulls. The wind blew from the northeast and the gulls circled overhead, landing in the water and then getting up again and traveling in any direction there might be food. But the creatures of interest, the sea-birds and the whales, all were traveling north in the spring migration. Of the two species of birds, the murres and the eider ducks, only the ducks interested the people. Every camp had at least two shotguns mixed in with its assortment of firearms. The shotguns were for the eider ducks. The rifles were for seal and polar bear, in the event one wandered by.

Moving north also were two species of whale. There was the small torpedolike beluga, the adults perhaps 12 to 15 feet long, playful and delicate and milk-white. Miniature Moby Dicks. There was something ethereal about them, small white whales weaving in and out of the black brackish waters of the ocean. They interested the Eskimos because they were hunted when no black whales came. But today it was the big black whales, the bowheads, the Eskimos wanted. They were out there, too. A few had already been sighted and chased.

The northeast wind had broken the ice just a mile from the village, and it seemed the whole population milled at the ice edge, looking out into the open water. You could see the dark frame structures of Point Hope by climbing one of the high ice ridges and looking shoreward.

Men sat or stood on these ridges but no one looked toward the village. All eyes searched the open water, or the lead, which was only two or three hundred yards wide. To the south, the black water extended as far as the eye could see. Open water ran north, too, to the distant point where the ice curved, describing the shoreline. There was no reason to believe that the open water did not extend as far north as it did south.

It was a world of black and white, austere and uncomplicated; there was the sky and the ocean and the ice. Through the sky passed the flocks of migrating birds, but much of the time it was empty. The birds were in the ocean, too, the black-and-white murres bobbing carelessly close to the ice, the eiders, when they were not flying, staying farther out in the open water. The white whales were easily seen in the black water, always swimming north. Sometimes an hour would pass without them and then another pod would pass, 10, 15 or 20 white shadows, usually with five or six swimming side by side. On the ice the people watched and waited for the black whales.

I waited with them, just four days removed from the din and clatter of Fairbanks: pedestrians, jet planes, shopping centers, the cash-money survival. Five years ago I had worked on a construction job with Joe Frankson, Joe Towksejea and John Tingook, all three Eskimos from Point Hope. Come up and go whaling with us, they had said. So here I was, removed from my element and into theirs, just as they had come from the village into the white man's world. I had spent two days waiting for the ice to move. "Who checks to see if the ice opens?" I asked.

"Oh, someone. Someone will know."

The ice opened late the next afternoon. Someone certainly found out about it and word spread like choice gossip through the village. Within 15 minutes every snowmobile in town that would run was fired up and pulling sleds full of gear and people toward the ice. I hadn't packed yet for the boat. In characteristic Eskimo fashion—they like you to learn from experience—all Joe Frankson had told me was "dress warm and bring some white man's food in case you can't eat ours." I had warm enough clothes and I had four pounds of cheese in case my system resented seal oil and muktuk, but I also had things like a spotting scope and hip boots and two different kinds of winter boots strewn about the bunkhouse in front of Joe's red frame home.

It took half an hour to pack everything. I stepped out of the bunkhouse and all the noise of the village had moved out onto the ice field, bouncing and echoing off the large chunks of sea ice. It represented the motorized noise of whale hunting, 1976.

I walked past a dog team, a dozen husky and malamute types chained up, excited because they knew something was happening, but confused because they didn't know what. In the old days it was they who pulled the gear onto the ice. Then I passed a few frame houses and angled toward the water, out of the deep crusted snow that had piled up in town, and onto the black finely graveled sand, nearly without snow cover, blown free by the wind. I walked the beach looking for the cut in the piled-up shore ice, the snowmobile avenue out to the whaling camps.

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