Eddie Rexford butchering a bowhead whale head on the beach in Kaktovik. September 6, 2012. Loren Holmes photo
April 13th, 2014. Barrow whaling captain Herman Ahsoak took a break from chopping a trail through the sea ice on the first day of the spring whaling season to ponder the upcoming hunt. He and his crew had been on the ice for five days at that point and were chipping away by hand with ice picks to break trail and get their boats to open water.
The season started a week ago, and excitement overtook exhaustion as Ahsoak and his young five- to eight-man crew worked away. They were already about three miles from shore Thursday evening, and still had a ways to go, Ahsoak said from the ice.
Once the trail to the water’s edge is open, a launch pad is made for the skin boats. Crews will camp on the ice next to their launch. Some groups will join forces for the arduous task of making the paths in the ice, Ahsoak explained, with reports of some crews having to break five miles of sea ice to reach open water.
The past few years, crews are seeing more “young ice,” said Ahsoak, who has been a captain for 10 years.
“That can be two to three feet thick, which can be pretty dangerous when it gets into May and it starts really melting,” he said. “It’s getting thinner and thinner every year.”
The concern with thinning ice is that chunks will break off while crews are camped, Ahsoak said, recalling the rescue of more than 100 hunters in 1997 who had drifted out to sea after the ice broke off behind their camp. “It’s always in the back of our minds, but when we’re breaking trail we monitor the ice from the shore to where we’re at, to make sure there’s no movement.”
Once the boats are in the water, crews wait for the bowhead to come within paddling distance, usually a couple miles or less from the ice.
The number of strikes allowed has gone up to 25 for Barrow crews this spring, from 22 last year.
The International Whaling Commission allows 67 annual strikes to Alaska bowhead whalers in 11 communities. Last week, the St. Lawrence Island village of Savoonga landed its first bowhead of the season.
But on the North Slope, winter is still going strong, with temperatures still well below zero at night. “My crew is really excited,” Ahsoak said. “We’re one of the youngest crews, and they’re really gung ho this spring.”
Last spring was bad for hunters as a west wind and an ocean current from the south held the ice closer to shore, Ahsoak recalled. The ice didn’t move out until late May. “We were fortunate to get two whales in June and one in July, but last year was a really bad season in the springtime,” he said. “We made up for it in the fall time, though.”
If crews don’t use the allotted strikes in the spring, they carry over to the fall hunt.
One whale can feed an entire community, Ahsoak said. But the more, the better. Different parts of the behemoth are shared around the community at various times during the year.
In June, captains will serve up fermented whale at the blanket toss festival while some meat is saved for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
“Every captain does the same thing, it’s been done since time immemorial and has never changed,” Ahsoak said. “I wish all the crews good luck and hopefully we have a good year.” The blessing that kicked off the season happened April 2 at the Assembly of God church in Barrow, with a standing-room-only crowd, said Eugene Brower, president of the Barrow Whaling Captains Association.
“We don’t have much open water, but it’s still early,” Brower said. “God willing, we’ll have a bountiful season.”
With around 35 crews in Barrow, it was quite lively out on the ice last week, he added.
On April 1, belugas were spotted at Point Hope, though there has been no word of bowhead moving through. Once bowhead are spotted around Point Hope, they take about a week to migrate to the Barrow area.
“Each captain has a preference where they want to go and wait for them,” Brower said. “Hopefully they’ll pop up right in front of them.”
The traditions vary slightly from village to village along the coast, but one thing is the same, the spring whaling season in the Arctic brings communities together with the promise of feasts and warmer days ahead.
“The whole town gets involved, it’s really, really exciting,” said Leonard Barger, a crewmember for captain Herbert ‘Popsy’ Kinneeveauk in Point Hope. “We’re out there to feed the people, especially the elders.”