A Whale Hunting Heritage
I am a resident of Barrow, Alaska; a whale hunting community on the northern most tip of Alaska. I was born and raised in Barrow with an unyielding urge to continue on living in the traditional ways that have been passed from one generation to another since time immemorial. I have done my best in recollecting and documenting the vents of whale hunting with various crews. I only hope my nephews, also whom I consider my sons, will benefit from this knowledge that was passed on to me by my grandfather Ned Nusunginya, from both my grandmothers, Faye Nusunginya, Lydia Itta, my father John Nusunginya Sr., also from my uncles.
I can’t remember how old I was when my father first took me out whale hunting, but I do remember we headed out to the whale camp by dog team. He told me that this was a trip I would not so easily forget. When we got to the whale camp he picked me up from the basket-sled and carried me to the tent; there were at least six crew members in or around the tent. I remember they were kind of excited to see me, saying things like, now we finally got a real whaler among us just because my name was Saqik, which means the lower lip or muktuk around the lower lip of the whale. I was named Kayuktook, also. I guess Kayuktook was a well known whaling captain. I read Jim Allen’s book, and he mentioned that Kayuktook was a well known whaling captain. They sure had all kinds of good stuff to eat, fresh donuts, tea, dried meat, walrus, caribou, all the things I enjoyed eating. He didn’t keep me down there with him for too long that first time: but I will never forget it.
I did not go out again that year. But the following year, my father had a new boat made. As he made progress, he showed me all the things to be done, and what they were for. He would ask me if I remembered what I had seen at the whale camp the previous year.
We had to clean out all the storage areas, such as the ice cellar. All the whaling gear had to be cleaned and sharpened: the flensing knifes, long handled meat-hooks, the killing lance, shoulder gun, the darting gun with a harpoon with just a handle is called lipiusiunn. We put a new rope on the darting guns harpoon, and the sealskin float, the ammunition box located under the second seat. Next we cleaned out the bombs for both the shoulder gun and the darting gun and made a new grub box. We also had to make a sled for the boat.
The flensing knife is a tool with at 10 foot handle and a sharp cutting blade on the end, and they have various types of blades. The killing lance is a tool used for killing a wounded whale: it has an five foot five inch rod with a tear-drop shaped cutting blade on the end, and a short wooden handle. As I recall, the killing lance we have used to have pointed tip, but after the time I used it on a whale, the sharp point had bended and it kept swarving off because of the bend. I asked our captain if I was to file off the point and made it into a tear-drop shape it would hold a sharp edge instead of bending when you strike a bone; he approved of it and I proceeded to file it into shape. Now a shoulder gun is very much like a 10 gauge shot-gun, only it is made with solid brass. The barrel is about 5/8 of an inch thick. We use a charge cap just like the old time brass reload powder, and has a blasting cap inside the tip. There is a hammer that hits the blasting cap, which in turn starts a fuse. The fuse is usually four to five seconds long. Which gives the bomb enough time to penetrate into the vital areas of the whale then explode.
My first trip with the crew
The big day finally arrived. They gave out some candy to all the kids; this is done so the people will hope for the crew to catch a whale.
The umiak was set on the sled. Next, we tied a rope from the bow of the umiak to the rear end as tightly as possible and then we set up the ridge posts, two paddles tied on the handles, then set it on the middle seat of the umiak in an “A” frame. Then we used a string to tie up that rope to the bottom of the ridge posts, to be used as a support for both ends of the umiak.
When we got everything loaded down, and all the dogs in their harnesses, someone picked me up and threw me into the umiak; then we were off. It sure was a rough ride, and the umiak was so big, with me bouncing around in there. I almost fell off a couple of times. I got hurt, too, but I was not about to complain, thinking they might send me back home again. The trail was made as we made our progress: one of the men using an ice-pick would be breaking down the ice ridges, or filling in the crevasses, and breaking a trail.
After we worked our way to the open lead (edge of the shore-ice), we had to look around for a place to set up camp. The shore ice lead formation is compiled of a variety of points and small bays, or sheer cliffs from 1 to 15 ft. high of rough-hewn edges that ran for miles on end sometimes. They say a traveling whale goes from point to point, or from bay to bay, so we settled down, mid-way between both.
Our crew was lucky that year. We got a whale early in the season, about the end of April. The whaling season usually lasts from the twentieth of April until the second week of June. I must say that the season was good for everyone at Barrow, with the exception of my sister. She had been helping the women with the cooking. When she tried to lift a pot from the stove it slipped from her hands, and she was badly burned on her chest. Well, my father has never taken his own crew out again since that year.
(How the Umiak is set up)
The next few years (I can’t remember how many years) I went whale hunting with my grandfather’s crew, and that I must say, was a lot more stringent than the time I was in my father’s crew. He, my Grandfather (although indirectly), kept on my heels the whole two seasons. Showing me everything: how to make the load on the bombs, and keeping the weapons clean, how the umiak is set up, where the shoulder guns are set, how to set up the daring gun (the darting gun is actually a harpoon with gun). I also learned that the rope for the harpoon and the float is rolled up on the sealskin float, then set on the front of second seat of the umiak. We used a light string and hung the harpoon rope along the top of the outer right hand side of the umiak, onto the bow of the umiak. Starting from the right hand tip of the bow the harpoon rope runs along the edge then rolled in a flat coil on the whole surface of the bow. Then the darting gun is set on the right hand side of the bow, with the butt end set just below the right top edge of the boat slipped into the rib or the stringing of the skin. There is a groove made to retain the darting gun (harpoon) about mid-way on the bow. The shoulder gun is set in front of the second seat. The box for the spare bombs, and the all weapon accessories is set under the second seat. The barrel cleaner with a piece of burlap cloth on it is set on the side of the second seat, within easy reach. All the paddles are set by each seat with a couple of spare paddles within easy reach. Then the edge of the ice is scraped down for the umiak launch. We then set a chunk of ice, just big enough for the rear bottom of the umiak to set on, this is done to elevate it from the ice and to keep the umiak from icing up onto the ice. The other whale gun was set up on the ice by the umiak a little ways off to the right side, also the darting gun, but the darting gun did not have a harpoon. We had a harpoon with a float set up along side of the whale gun and the darting gun.
How the Whale Camp is set up
The wind-break is set just behind the umiak, and there is a sled (usually the sled we use for the umiak) used for a seat with caribou skins on top. The tent is set up behind the wind-break. The dogs were tied down quite a ways away from the ten. I, being the youngest of the crew, had to keep ice water on hand, had to keep the coleman stove going, always had to have pot of coffee ready, make chow for the crew, keep the dogs fed everyday, and all the menial tasks to be done around the whale camp. It had always been a tradition among the whaling crew members, that the apprentice start from the bottom and earn his status; either he was the youngest, or he had never been out whaling before. I had to learn about the ice conditions. If we were heading out toward the lead, for instance.
I had to continually watch closely for any cracks, and if we ran across one, we would have to stop and watch the crack to see if the other side of it moved up and down. If there was any movement, the ice is breaking off the shore-fast ice and slowly driving out. Also if an ice flow were to bump into the shore-fast ice we were on I was to check to see if there is a break on the ice along the trail and if there is, that ice we’re on has broken off and about to drift out.
Kippi, Aahllik, Nungaasak were the crewmembers when I first started whale hunting with my Grandfather’s crew; ones I remembered. Then the younger ones were Eddie, Sigwein, Laakuu, my father, Ahkuuk, Sakaailuuk, and Ahllik. My father would tell me once in awhile, the place to shoot the whale or to harpoon it. “About three inches below the waterline, and about six inches behind the eye. It all depends on how big the whale is. You must calculate for yourself, it also depends on how far you are from the whale and you have to try and strike it in the middle part of the body.” He told me that watching the whale as it swims by you got to remember where the first three soines are. “This is why you have to go help butcher whales to learn all of these things.”
The whale gun my father has, had been given to him by the Allen family. He once told me, “When you get a share from the use of the whale gun, you give it all to Alice Killbear and her family”. The whale gun has inscriptions on it “Balaena” No. 403; taken from the whaling factory ship “Balaena”, it was shipwrecked northwest from Kotzebue from what I have gathered.
The ocean currents in the Arctic Ocean are quite complicated if you have no previous experience. What I have been taught throughout the years of hunting bearded seal, walrus, common seal, and whale hunting; I find this quite interesting. The one technique in checking the ocean currents in different levels and depths; you must have a sinker hook and a line and preferably a hole with no ice-berge to obstruct the ocean current. Sink the sinker hook slowly and watch the line as it descend, the line will follow the current, but if there is change in the lower levels the sinker will shift to whatever the direction that current at that level. It could be the opposite from the top currents, and there could very well be three different directions of currents and at different levels. Also when the wind is bound to change from the North-east to the South-Southwest the tide moves in. In other words if you were located near Point Barrow or The Point and out on the lead; the ice would start to lift up with the tide. If you were closely observing the ice situation the ice ridges would be higher than the lead. Once the tide start to move in the ice start to lift above the ice ridges; so you would be in clear view of the land looking up from the lead. Where as, when the tide is normal or near normal you would not be able to see the land right from the lead.
Ocean Current directions are as follows:
“Kaissangnnik” Current coming from the East Parallel to the land and Shore-ice.
“Piissuugaannik” Current going West parallel to the land and shore-ice.
“Anchannmunn” Current going out from the shore-ice—Northerly direction.
“Iillumuktuk” Current coming in toward the shore-ice—Southerly direction.
I can not remember all the details of the time my Grandfather’s crew got a whale, I will sure do the best I can in bringing up that one event. Well the rest of the crew left me to watch the camp while they went on a chase. I did not find out they had gotten a whale until couple of hours after they left on their chase, when I finally saw them heading toward our camp with a whale in tow. Now once we land a whale (although I was not personally there I know, from past experience, I know the procedure) we start the butchering right from the location of the kill. We put holes near the points of the flippers and tie the flippers together; this is done so they do not create a “drag” while in tow; from the flippers, we tie a rope on to the drag line. The drag line is wrapped around the small of the tail. The main “drag line” is hitched up to the Captain’s umiak which is manned by the crew that landed the whale. The other crews umiaks tie into the main drag line behind the Captain’s umiak. Upon catching the whale we put up a crew flag to show everyone which crew has landed the whale. My Grandfather’s crew had a black and white checkered flag. Each crew has their own design on their flag and they are unique, you can tell whose flag it is, if you had been around a long while.
When we reach the shore-ice with the whale in tow; other crew members left on shore-ice on the whale chase, have already made a launch or a ramp chipped down on the edge of the shore-ice. An anchor, is made on the ice by making two holes on the ice about two feet apart then chip a hole on the bottom about two and a half feet down then tie an anchor (a thick rope) onto the ice then to the block and tackle for pulling the whale on top of the ice. The anchor hole is usually 80 yards or less from the edge of the shore-ice. Using a block and tackle sure makes it easier to pull the whale up onto the ice. But it still takes; at very least, 40 people to pull in a small whale. Now, a small whale is anywhere between 22’ to 28’.
Whale Butcher and distribution
Once we have a whale on top of the ice and ready for butchering, the Captain marks the skin along the side of the whole length of the whale. The Captain usually starts to mark the muktak from the mid-section of the belly, or what we call the Tufsii; usually, average a foot in width of muktak. The muktak is cut at that width the whole round of the whale; especially around the belt portion that the Captain takes for himself. One flipper is usually given to the crews as a share to each crew. All the rest of the other flipper is left up to the Captain’s discretion. The Captain’s crew gets the half of the baleen of that whale and the other half is distributed to the rest of the other crews, or it is left at the discretion of the Captain. All the other crews (average 33 crews for Barrow) that were out on the lead and participating in the whaling, distributes an equal share of the half of the whale; that is the half of the whale on both the muktak and the meat. The people participating on the butchering, also are included in that share of the first half of the muktak and the meat. Internal organs and a portion of the other half of the muktak and mean are eaten at the Captain and his wife’s feast the same day the whale is landed.
All the rest of the muktak and meat of the other half of the whale is called uuaattii, saved for the various feasts such as the blanket toss whaling festival in mid-June (the date is set at the discretion of the Captain), the Thanksgiving Feast, and the Christmas Feast. I have seen individual whalers send all their share of muktak and meat to their relatives in the non-whaling communities.
I was picked, to carry the flag for our crew all the way up to my Grandfather’s house. I remember when I reached my grandfather’s house, I did not bother to wake my Grandmother up; I just proceeded to climb up to the roof. First I made a make-shift ladder up to the roof of the porch, and have someone else lift me up to the edge of the main roof. I proceeded to tie the flag onto the air-vent near the ridge of the house. After I tied the flag on the vent, I hollered down through the vent to wake everyone up, then I proceeded to climb down. As I ran into the house my Aunt, Uinnik was by the door first then there was Grandma, all excited and had just woke up for it must have been about 5:30 A.M. when I made it to the house.
Eddie would mention the time they were on top of the whale. My Grandfather had been the gunner. I do not remember who the harpooner was, it could of been either Kippi, or Nungaasak. I must say that I would need help for not remembering all the other crewmembers, and some of the events.
I used to hate it when the High School students came back from Mt. Edgecumbe, they used to let me work harder, and besides that they made far too much noise. When I tried to tell them what they were doing wrong, they would just laugh at me, or ignore me.
Grandpa Strikes and land a whale
One other time my Grandfather struck a whale just west of our camp. He had just been up on the ice ridges behind our tent, looking out toward the west. Then he came down and picked up the whale gun, and, as he walked toward ice ridges west of our camp he told me. “You got to keep watch by the windbreak and do not leave your post.” Well, he was not there for long before he fired a shot; (this is called “kuullaangiisuk” striking a whale from the shore-ice) I watched him fire that shot and it must of hurt considerably, because he was thrown clear off the ice, but managed to keep his footing. The bomb could of been iced up inside the whale gun, but then again someone could have put too much charge (black-gun powder) in the charge-cap. I sure wanted to ask if he was okay, or ask to see if he was hurt, but then I was scared to ask; but I mention this to one of the crew members, I believe it was Eddie. I ran over to him without even waking up the rest of the crew, and there he was standing by the edge of the ice with the whale floating in front of him. The left flipper was within easy reach, because the whale was floating on his side. He told me to hang on to the flipper while he got the rest of the crew and the boat (I remember, I made a remark, like, what if the whale is still alive; he just ignored me and made his way back to the camp). To be sure, he did not want me to pressure him about his shoulder, I could tell he was in a lot of pain from the sound of his voice, and the way he favored his left arm. I sure had a hard time holding onto the whale because of the slight current parallel to the shore-ice going east. Laakuu walked over to me; he took his time by walking instead of running. I told him to help by laying down beside me to hang on to the flipper, while the rest of the crew got the darting gun disarmed, and set aside, to get them off the way while we tow the whale to the low spot just east of our whalecamp.
When we finally got the whale all stored away, and after the feast was over, I asked my Grandmother about Grandpa. She had not been told about whale-gun that was over-charged or had been iced up when Grandpa shot the whale. I know from the way he was thrown back so far and barely keeping his balance, that he was undoubtedly hurt. I made certain that no one heard me telling Grandma about the incident, and she assured me she would check on him.
Uncle Don’s Crew
When my Grandfather gave his whaling gear to my uncle (the second oldest son), I started going out with his crew. That same year my father had given his umiak to his older brother as a birthday present. By then, I had learned most of the odds and ends of getting the gear ready. I found that there was a lot more to learn as each year went by. I did complain now and then about having to be the one to go help butcher the whales that other crews landed. I realized that I was learning all the aspects about the whale and how to actually kill the whale. Being able to enucleate the whale meant you know all the vital strike areas. I feel that this is left up to the individual to find out for himself, and that means oyu will have to experience and watch the actual movement of the whale as it swims by and remember the bone structure, also all the vital organs.
So I would advise you not to be lazy or come up with excuses and avoid the task of having to help in the whale butchering. Like the old saying goes, experience counts. No matter how intricately I explain (ENUCLEATE) how to kill a whale, the movement of the whale will more than likely deceive my explanation. I will try to do so anyway. As soon as the whale tilts is head forward after it breathes in, you can see there is a low spot just behind the blowhole. That low spot is followed by the main hump of the back. If you were to strike the whale, you got to strike about three inches below the waterline unless you are practically on top of the whale, in which case you’d have to strike the whale near the center of the body and on the front part of that main hump of the back. The back of that low spot forward of the main hump is the area where the first few spines are located.
I had an opportunity to listen to all the sea mammals on a pair of hydrophones. For reasons I do not remember, I had decided to walk home that one day; and I happened upon a scientist that was recording all the sea mammals. He was sitting by a seal air hole about a half way out from the shore and about a mile east of the main trail. I had to go quite a ways off my way to get to him. Anyway, as I listened to the headphones he described the sound of each sea mammal. “The whale usually start on a high pitch, sort of like whistle, then slowly lower their tone, with sudden high pitch toned intervals, then back down to a very low tone, sometimes sort of chatter as they change tones. Sometimes sounding like an elephant. I told him I had heard such sounds sitting by the lead on calm days. The other animal sounds I will describe the sounds they make in another part of this story.
I remember the days we would be waiting by the windbreak, there would be Ahlik, Sakaaluk, Laakuu, Ahsiisaaunn, Eddie, Ahkuuk. We took turns in the watch, and we would (softly) talk about all the other times we had landed a whale, we did this to occupy our time, also to refresh our memory. They had always pressured me to talk very softly, or murmur when you have to talk, and to avoid shouting at all cost. Because, they had mentioned that the sounds that we make can travel a long ways, and that there was a good chance on scaring the whales from coming to our spot.
This one time we were on a chase (piuktuk, going after a whale), I found myself sitting by the whale gun. I had inadvertently sat down by it when we all jumped in. Ahsiisaaunn was seated by me, which was by the seal-skin float. I whispered to him that I was afraid that if I fired the whale gun it would throw me clear off the umiak; he laughed at me and assured me that he would catch me if I flew too high. I was sure relieved when we did not see that whale again (rather secretly).
Our Crew had a close call – – drifting out with the ice-flow
It was warm and no wind, very calm; ducks were flying by occasionally. That had been a time when I was alone on watch. Everyone was asleep, and I was watching the iceflow slowly drifting by. A big iceflow hit the shore-ice up above our camp; our camp was situated on a point. So, thinking back on what I had been told, I walked up along the trail, and lo and behold, about fifty yards up from our camp there was a break on the ice. The break was about a foot wide when I reached it. I ran back to the camp shouting, and waking up the crew. By the time we reached the crack with everything we had in tow; the break on the ice was about two and a half feet apart. As I recall, just moments after the big iceberg hit the shore-ice, there was a snap I felt and heard. This was before we started using C.B. Radios, and I think a couple seasons of using snow-machines (transition from dog-team to modern-day snow-machines). I remember we used my uncle Charlie Edwardsen’s show machine that year. Before that we had used either a snow-traveler, or the dog-team.
Uncle Percy’s Crew (1966?)
The year Grandfather abruptly took the whaling gear from the second eldest son, and gave them all to his youngest son. I will try to recall the events the best I can of the time he landed his first few whales.
Our Crew lands and almost loses the whale (1967?)
(I wish I had someone to converse some of these events with, for I might have mistaken this event with Uncle Don’s or Uncle Joe’s crew.)
Our Captain was the harpooner, and Ahsiisaaunn was the gunner. After our captain had thrown the harpoon and Ahsiisaaunn had shot the whale; I do not know who hit me, but I was hit pretty hard. All because I had hesitated on throwing the sealskin float out of the umiak. I figured the whale did not have any strength to go much further, which turned out to be the case. But I must say that what I did that moment was endangering the whole crew by hesitating on throwing the sealskin float over board. After I threw the float over-board, I noticed the empty whale gun just sitting there by me. I grabbed the whale gun and took out the spented charge-cap from the barrel, and you know what I did? I threw the brass charge cap right into the water without thinking of the value that brass charge cap had. Just on impulse. I continued to clean the empty barrel, then pulled the ammo-box out from under my seat and took a bomb out (the bomb weighs just a few ounces despite the size, which is about one foot long, and about the width of a ten or eight gauge shot gun). I slipped it into the barrel then I took a ready-made brass charge cap (a charge cap consists of what looks like an old time ten or eight gauge shot-gun shell, made of brass with a replaceable primer, and only about one and a quarter inches in height) from the saatguunn and slipped it into the barrel, and got the whale gun ready for another shot. By then the whale was up on the surface off to the left and more behind our umiak. The crew was trying to turn the umiak around, but, I protested by saying that we should just paddle backwards towards the whale and work the umiak closer to the wounded whale. I was holding the whale gun. Ahsiisaaunn tried to grab the gun away from me but I was not about to let him have it. When we got close enough to the whale, I took aim. But, I figured the whale was not in the right position so I humped back over to the third seat, pushing someone off the way and took my position to shoot. I fired the last bomb we had. I distinctively remember the way the whale-gun reacted with me, it felt like a twelve gauge shot-gun, only a little stronger. I could even say that I felt the bomb speeding out of the barrel, and saw the muktak buff out as the bomb entered the whale not more then six feet under me right next to the umiak. By then another crew’s umiak was with us. Maaligiaaluurrak was in that other umiak.
Killing lance is used on a dying whale
Maaligiaaluurrak was the one that decided to use the killing lance on the whale, because the whale was practically dead; just could not move forward, all it could do was come up for air then slip its head back into the water. I notice that he had been trying to hit the heart, the lungs and the kidneys with the killing lance, as I watched him on top the whale. It is very tiresome to use the killing lance on a live whale, because Maaligiaalluurrak did not stay on there very long, he would be breathing quite heavily when he got on the umiak. He would jump back on top of the whale, slipping the killing lance into and out of the whale at least four times before jumping back on the umiak. Then the whale would submerge couple of feet below the surface. I had been trying to tell him to move his position forward of the whale a little more; but my heed was not being heard. I began to notice that he was winded from all the physical exertion using the killing lance. But, I was adamant on giving it a try myself. Maaligiaaluurrak kept telling me that I was not strong enough to use the killing lance, but I kept right after him; I told him that I had worked the last two winters selling and delivering ice-blocks for the community of Barrow, and could easily apply my strength on using the killing lance. He finally gave in, and shoved the killing lance to me from the other umiak. I jumped right on top of the whale and proceeded to walk on the back of the whale. I had been trying to locate the flipper on the left side and could not find it, so I proceeded to walk toward the tail, I could feel the whale muktak which seemed to try and fold over my feet with each step I took. Maaligiaaluurrak was screaming at me for walking towards the tail and saying that there was a chance that the whale would throw me over; his heed was falling on deaf ears, as was earlier for him when he was on top of the whale. I walked as far as the mid-section of the back, and turned around toward the front. I slowly walked forward as I looked over the left side, trying to locate the flipper. I finally located it and set my right foot forward to try and feel for the sloping part of the main hump behind the head, I finally got to where I wanted to place my first thrust. As I applied pressure on the lance, I could feel the spasm of the meat, I had to keep the blade moving up and down to keep it from getting stuck, just the way Maaligiaaluurrak was doing it earlier. I found it very hard to keep tight hold of the lance, for it was slippery from the oil slick on the rod from the blubber. I managed to slip it in that first try, but I hit the spine, I tried again, but hit the spine the second and third time. It was getting harder and harder to hold a steady up and down thrusts, for I was getting rather tired. The final fourth try, I managed to hit a noticeably softer spot and jumped up a little to gain more thrust and put all my strength on the final thrust. It paid off, I felt the muktak quiver beneath my feet after I thrusted in the killing lance. One of the crew members asked me if I felt the quivering beneath me, and I replied “yes” without looking up, for I was busy trying to pull the lance out from the whale. I pulled hard on the rope handle, but it broke off. I managed to keep my footing, but almost fell over board. I had managed to grab hold of the wooden handle of the lance to keep my balance. I took hold of the lance from the base of the handle and pulled hard, it was stuck solid. I noticed that whale was slowly sinking lower, and lilting toward the right. I bended the killing lance toward the left, then jumped off the sinking whale. I must say that I did puncture a hole on my waterproof sealskin mukluks with the killing lance; although a slight cut I’d consider myself lucky to still have all my toes. My uncle had been shouting at me for leaving the killing lance stuck in the whale. The whale was sinking slowly while our crew was holding onto the harpoon rope, and while the harpoon could not hold up the weight of the whale the harpoon pulled out from the whale.
Finally retrieve the whale
It sure took a while to finally convince the rest of the crew on where the whale was located, we had passed right over it twice because I could distinctly make out the white portion of the lower snout and it had been about 3/4 of an hour since we had struck that whale. We tried to push a harpoon into the whale but to no avail, it kept bouncing with the harpoon for the whale was afloat just above the ocean floor. We had tried to use a long handle hook and just could not seem to get it to work. I tried to fish for the handle of the killing lance, but I just could not handle the cold water for too long because I had my whole arm stuck into the water, Ahsiisaaunn finally set the hook into the 1/4 inch long-handled meat hook, while one of the guys pushed a harpoon into the whale. We ended up putting two harpoons into the whale before we tried to pull it up. It took three umiaks pulling hard on two harpoon lines, and one line on the long-handled meat hook.
Before we finished butchering the whale, I showed Maaligiaaluurrak the spot where the lance penetration was before they took the head off. Between the head and the first spine there is a hole on top about four and a half inches wide, and about three-inch space in between the head and the spine. The name of that spot, they call it “Iittiigssiinningaa” or tuaagiiyaagvia. The spot where to kill instantly.
After we pulled the whale up on the ice and proceeded to butcher the whale, I mentioned to the guys that before they pulled the killing lance out I wanted to check the placement of the killing lance. But, they had already pulled it out while I was busy cutting muktak around the belt section. I had to find out for myself exactly where the killing lance had penetrated the spine. They were in the process of taking the head off. I took over that task. As soon as I reached the first spine, I opened up the meat around that spine and as soon as I got the spinal cord in view I ran over to Maaligiaaluurrak and showed him the cut the lance had made, dead center of the spinal cord and barely missing the head bone; the lance had gotten stuck around the ligaments near the head.
After all the world was done on putting away the whale meat, our crew and all the rest of the whalers had to move away from the open water, for the iceflow was moving in towards the shore ice, making it dangerous to stay out there. We set up our camp in front of the shooting station, or rather more toward Point Barrow, which was about six miles north-east of Barrow.
I had not slept for the last forty-eight hours since we had gotten the whale, and I finally fell asleep as soon as the tent was put up, we were still setting up the inside, but I was so tired and I just made sure I had something beneath me and fell into a deep slumber. I could near the rest of the guys outside trying to set up the camp. I do not know which of the guys told me to get up and help, but Maaligiaaluurrak told him that I had gone through enough for the last two days, and needed a break. He also mentioned that I should be considred a full fletched whale hunter, after what had happened during the preceding days (to this day I do not know whether he was serious or not).
When I woke up, one of the crew members was making some caribou soup. As usual, Maaligiaaluurrak was clowning around. He was shouting as loud as he could, wondering how hard it was for me to wake up; incidentally, he had heard that I was pretty hard sleeper them younger days, and he was checking it out first hand. I had awoken earlier before he started shouting, just relaxing with my eyes closed. I just let him go right on shouting, and all the rest of the guys were laughing, either at me or Maaligiaaluurrak. But, when I finally lifted my head, they laughed even harder. I said that I heard them talking earlier, and I was having fun listening to him shouting all sorts of words that were funny. I’m sure if I mentioned this to him he would remember the events that took place that year.
We had not seen too many whales that day. However, this one whale sure made a show of itself. The whale was traveling east, and it’s not unusual for a whale to be breaching (thrusting most of its body out of the water) as they travel. This particular whale was breaching about fifty yards from the shore ice. It was spectacular. You could see all the details of the whale’s features as it leaped out of the water, with three quarters of its body exposed. It was too bad I did not have a camera on hand.
There was an incident that I would consider quite extraordinary. Ahmikak and I were on watch. Everyone else was busy out behind the tent, cutting up meat for chow. We were observing this seal that popped up in front of our camp. For no apparent reason, I made a comment to the seal, “Suuvat Kaavaannii”, what is happening east of us? The seal awkwardly kept pointing with its nose towards the east three times. I could not interpret the action of the seal, so I just walked into the tent and lay down. As I lay there wondering, the C.B. Radio came to life. Kuunnuk’s crew had gotten a whale; this was to be the last whale on Barrow’s quota for the season.
We had seen about nine whales that morning before we struck this one whale. The whole cre was awake, and it was kind of early in the day. I had been up all night and was just winding down, getting ready to go to sleep, when this small whale surfaced about a hundred yards west of our camp. Most of the crew got in the umiak, which was filled to capacity, we call this Piiuktuuk. I was seated by the gunner with Kunaknunaaruk seated by me and Naasunguuluk was the harpooner. I was in full view of the gunner and the whale, but I could not see the harpoon after he threw it. Kunaknunaaruk fired the whale gun. Naasunguuluk had thrown the harpoon and had started pulling the rope for the harpoon.
Then the whole harpoon surfaced intact somehow, the harpoon must of been thrown off balance because it struck the whale broadside. I could speculate that the charge of the whale gun had thrown the harpoon off balance. All we could do was to wait for the whale 300 to 400 yards forward of the whale from where it last surfaced, so we proceeded to paddle eastward; this is called “Iingiigak”, and we waited for the whale to surface “Puingiigsik”.
We stopped about three hundred yards from the place we had struck the whale. We pulled the umiak up by the shore-ice rear end first, called Paamiuktak. Maasak was holding the umiak at bay with a meat hook. I had mentioned that a wounded whale could stay under water for forty minutes or more. But someone said that our whale probably could not make it that far, because of where Kunaknunaaruk had shot it. Off we went, back to our camp. I grumpily bolted off the umiak when we got back to our launch. I just sat down with a cup of coffee in hand.
Not two minutes went by after we had pulled the umiak onto our launch and the whale surfaced, rolling as it did so. Bert Panigeo’s crew was east of our camp, and all we could do was watch them go after the whale we had struck, not more than forty minutes before. Even though the whale surfaced in front of Panigeo’s camp, they got there too late. If only we had waited a few more minutes we would have been almost on top of the whale where it had surfaced. Sorrily we admitted the loss of that particular whale. We did not see any sign of that whale again.
Our crew catches a whale
We had to move camp west in front of Nnaparrak, just west of Ahtuutigrruak. We observed traveling pattern of the whales, and decided to set up our camp on the smooth ice and on a little bay. Before I headed back to the old camp a small whale came up right in the middle of the bay and within striking distance. I had the darting-gun without the harpoon on hand and ready to strike, Percy had the whale gun; I looked at the whale and could not strike it from my position. I have never struck a whale that was not in the right position for me. I have got to make sure it is in the right position and within easy reach before I strike it. Even though this what was so close, I could not bring myself to strike it. It was surfacing in an awkward position from where I was, but it seemed in a right position for Percy. I just watched it slowly dive toward the shore ice right into the inverted point of the bay. Aside the awkward position of the whale, the umiak was not even ready, for it was still sitting on top of the sled behind the tent. We proceeded to get the umiak ready soon afterward, and set up the whale guns and darting guns.
As I was heading back to the old camp to pick up the rest of the camping gear, I had an accident. I almost fell off when I hit a small knoll of smooth young ice; almost flipping the snow machine over. I pushed the machine with my left foot to keep it in balance, and badly sprained my left foot.
While I was laid up, the crew caught a whale early the next morning. I missed the whole excitement. They had gotten a small whale.
Setting up the Blanket toss festivals
We started by taking all the whale meat we needed for the Blanket-toss Festival, that is from the ice-cellars (Ice cellars are made by digging into the ground which is perma-frost below three feet; we dig into the ground to about twelve to fifteen feet, and make more room by making a circle at the base, it varies from ten to thirteen feet in diameter). Cut up the muktak into small pieces to about two to three inches square. To be distributed to families, and each family member gets a piece each, until we run out of muktak; we do the same with the meat, and fermented whale meat, Miikigaak. We also give out various types of native foods gathered by the captain or his crew members: fish, walrus meat, dried bearded seal meat and seal oil, caribou meat, various types of water-fowl.
How the skin blanket is made for the blanket toss
We start making a blanket by taking off the old skin from the umiak. Cut it into pieces to be sewn together, and made into a big square. We then trim out the edges, and puncture holes at six to eight inches on center, along the edge of the blanket. We run the three quarter inch rope through the holes for the use of rope handles. We then take a three quarter inch rope and tailor fit it into the bottom of the blanket about a foot inside the outer edge of the blanket. Then, before we splice the ends of the rope together we weave the main rope along the edge of a ready-made half inch rope net, which usually has a six to ten inch mesh. After we weave the main rope into the net, we splice the ends of the main rope together. The corners are set, and we splice the corners with about ten to twelve inch rope to keep the corners intact and to keep it from expanding when pulled. Afterwards, we punch four holes right in line with the both sides of the main rope near the corners, to be tied down into the blanket. Those are the only places where the blanket is tied to be kept down into place. Once the blanket is made and ready, we use three quarter inch rope for anchor which are usually fifty to sixty feet long from each corner. We have to make sure the anchors are squared off to insure good balance for the blanket. Then, we use two block and tackles to tighten the anchors on two corner anchors, once this is done, we use two by twelve or two by ten boards, which are at least twelve feet in length and make “A” shaped braces that are placed mid-way between each anchor and the blanket, which gives the blanket the proper height for a very good trampoline spring action. Used to be that only people with kamipiaks were allowed on the blanket toss.
Our camp was about four miles out from the mainland, which was unusual, and I had been up all night; waiting for the young ice to move out, as was everyone. Occasionally, I checked the current. The crack on the young ice was about five hundred yards out from our camp. So, about 7:30 A.M. I decided to walk about there and check again. As usual, the crack was a little wider than the previous hour, but the current had changed. It was going straight out and very strong. The sinker-line I was using used to hit bottom at 28 to 32 fathoms. However, sinker-line I was using now was at least 40 fathoms and could not hit bottom because of the strong current.
I knew the ice was moving out at any moment, so I got on the C.B. radio and told the other whaling crews that the ice was bound to move out at any moment, mentioning the strong current. The response I got was not too well taken. They started contradicting my findings and saying that they themselves had checked earlier, making remarks that I was a young guy and did not know what I was talking about because of lack of experience. Well, I figured that no matter what I said from then on, they would continue cutting me off. As I recall on listening to the C.B., they were making their own speculations as to when the ice would move out, so I just kept to my own business.
I had to go up for my dental appointment so I went up with our captain, since he had to pick up some stuff for our crew and had a little business to conduct. About 8:30 A.M. we started for home. As we were heading up along the main trail we an into Ahkivgak’s crew camped by the main tuvak (main shore-ice you could tell the color of the snow and ice). As was everyone, they were waiting for the ice to move out.
We were just riding by them, but I jumped off the sled when I saw a fresh crack along the edge of the old ice; I had to check it as required of me from past experience. I stooped down by the fresh crack and when Percy looked back I waved for him to come over and look at this new crack. The outer side of the crack was moving up and down, and, that told me that this outer ice was free and about to move out at any moment. I told Abraham Stine to get on the C.B. to tell our crew and everyone else that the ice is about to move out on this fresh crack, but, my heed was falling on deaf ears. Percy just said that as soon as the ice starts to move out, the Ahkivgak crew would warn everyone. I made it known that I was mad at him for not listening, so, we just continued on our way for home.
I proceeded to take on my appointment, but it did not take more than an hour. So, I went back to my captain’s place and looked for him, but the snow-machine and the sled were gone. I figured he had left without me. I decided to wait it out and was pretty sure one of the crew members would drop by before heading out. I was watching T.V. when the whole crew walked in, telling me I had missed out on the excitement. They had to pack up real fast and move back up to mainland, because the ice had moved out right along the crack I had been leery of. I heard that there were crews that had to be assisted by the Search and Rescue helicopter’ I must mention that a couple of those crews were the ones that were contradicting me on my earlier findings about the currents and ice conditions.
Leslie Itta’s Crew
I moved to my first cousin’s crew in the mid-season of that year, 1982. Just before the quota was up on our last whale I sure wanted to get on the C.B. to say my opinion about the water conditions because the moving ice was pretty close to the shore ice. I wanted to tell everyone to hold out from striking any whales until there was more favorable water conditions, for there was a good chance of losing a wounded whale at the time.
Sure enough, a crew had struck a whale and could not find it; they were about a mile west of our camp, so we headed out to assist them. To no avail, we lost that whale. I had mentioned my feelings to my cousin James about the ice and open water minutes before that crew struck that last whale. So that was the end of the 1982 season.
The seal float is made with a seal skin with hair that is hard to pull out. When you do find a good seal skin you start from the mouth and actually peel the skin back as you are skinning the seal. A pocket knife or a small knife is best in doing this job. As you’re cutting the blubber just under the skin, you work your way through the whole body. When you get to the flippers you can cut the first joint off. Then you continue cutting just below the skin. After you peel all the skin off you may scrape off the excess blubber. Once you get the seal skin turned inside out you put a piece of stick, just big enough to slip into the opening of the head, then tie the skin onto the stick to seal up the hole. After you take most of the bones off the tail-flippers, you roll it over the orifice on the other end, also to seal off the hole. You then carve a piece of ivory or wood into an oval shape about an inch in diameter, with a groove around the edg