Sunday, October 30, 2011

Save the whales for dinner, part II

October in Barrow... simultaneously the most dreary month (that I've experienced so far and by word of mouth) and the most interesting.  It started out with temperatures in the 30s and a light dusting of snow with lots of animal sightings and is ending with temperatures in the teens (single digits with wind chill), snow drifts that can be as high as 4 feet and dead whales.  On one hand, I have seen the sky maybe twice all month with mostly constant snow clouds adding to the dreary feeling... and on the other hand I've seen one of the coolest things I've seen in my entire life.  Don't know quite how to feel about October!

I had thought the whaling season was over seeing ice on the horizon and all, but what happened was one last big push that brought in three more whales!  Luckily, Ian was able to get me the news with enough heads up to get me and the boy dressed and out the door.  Providence allowed this perfect timing day to be on one of the two beautiful days this month... with no wind!  So 12 degrees felt like 12 degrees and not -5!  A wind can make what would be a decent day into a brutal day.  I managed to get us out of the house in 20 minutes flat... some kind of record... and before long we were skidding along the icy streets in the notorious Stroudmobile.  It seemed like no time before we could see all the vehicles of the family, crew, and interested on-lookers on the right side of the road just past the blue Barrow whalers football field with the ice-laden Chukchi Sea on our left.   I found a "parking lot" with an entrance I thought we could manage and parked the van feeling rather relieved when it seemed certain it wouldn't die in park.  It needed to stay running in order to assure that we'd be able leave.  You never know when the van gods will smile on your or not!  I loaded Atticus into the stroller, the only thing I could come up with on how I would be able to take photographs and keep up with him and pushed it awkwardly toward the large bowhead whale laying on its side a short walk away.  It hadn't been long since the large machinery had pulled it out of the ocean and had deposited it at the end of the old runway where they do their butchering.  This being the sixth whale caught this whaling season, most of the people there were family and friends of the crew and a handful of scientists who show up to measure and and record the contents of the whale's stomach, etc.  This was a great situation for me seeing as I wanted to take some pictures without people in them.  Since it was about 2pm, the sun was also fairly low in the sky, casting long shadows and a lovely warm light.  Kids were having fun running around and climbing on the whale's jaw area before the butchering drove them out of the way and the general feeling around was one of muted joy.  Everyone was smiling and having a good time, except for the crew hard at work.  They worked at a rate that was rather amazing to behold.  They can dismantle a whale so quickly!  It's obvious they know what they're doing.  After we had been out there about 30 minutes, a woman came around offering hot tea to all the onlookers.  It was nice to be there and be part of it all.  Even Atticus didn't seem to mind too much being cooped up in the stroller for an hour so long as I moved him around a little bit.  After about an hour, though, he was ready to go and my memory card was pretty much used up by then too.  So we walked slowly back to the van, which was thankfully still running and very warm, and drove back to town.  It was great.  When we got back, I heard that two more whales had been brought in.  I think this fall whale hunt has been a fairly successful one!

For those interested in the whaling, in the fall they do go out in modern fishing boats.  This is mostly because the ocean is open and it is safer to go out in the modern boats when there isn't a lot of ice around.  Ice can do a lot of damage to metal boats, though, so in the spring they still go out in their sealskin umiaqs.  Sealskin is much easier to repair in the case of damage.  The umiaqs are also quieter, which helps the hunt.  So while some people may frown on subsistence whale hunting saying that it isn't the same since they use modern tools, they DO still use traditional methods as well.  The spring hunt used to be the primary whaling time until the ocean started getting a touch warmer and the ice they camp on more unstable.  Now the fall has become the primary whaling time.  The whale hunt is sustainable and every part of the whale is used, and it is an integral part of this very unique culture.


  1. That is fascinating stuff Mary Virginia! Thanks for sharing the pictures and experience with us!

  2. It really is interesting to hear a first hand account of this traditional hunt. I am not sure I would have been able to watch it though. Glad to have gotten to see it through your eyes.

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