Spring is coming into full swing here in Barrow, it consistently hovers around zero degrees or higher, the sun is back and if I hold still and face it, I think I might actually feel some warmth. In just a few more weeks whaling season begins. Puiraagiaqta, the Spring Festival is happening right now, a celebration of the turn of the seasons, which means hunting season is here. There is an unusual list of events that composes Puiraagiaqta, at least unusual by lower 48 standards. This list includes: snow machine races, whaling crew pinochle, harpoon throwing, a maklak race, nigliq (goose) calling contest, akutuq (eskimo ice cream)contest, umiaq (seal skin boat) race and of course a parade. All pretty foreign to me, but we are getting used to it, the parade was interesting, not really a parade but a train of the utility vehicles, and firetrucks decorated and throwing candy (I think mostly everyone goes for the candy)
I have amazed myself in how drastically I have changed in my opinions in certain areas since moving here, whaling and hunting happen to be one of those areas. Whaling is a substantial part of the Inupiat culture and I knew about that before excepting my job on the North Slope, I did my research before coming here.
I still maintain that it was quite a bit of fate that got me back into Alaska in the first place, I had never considered coming back here after I left a few years back. Although, I must admit I have often thought of what would have happened if I had stayed, I might still be married. My ex didn’t get very far outside of where I left him in Wasilla, in fact, he’s only about 10 minutes away from the house that I lived in with him, I’ve moved a lot further in the time since we have split, and maybe even grown a bit more, yet now I am even closer to him, I’ve seen him twice already in 2 months and talked more sincerly to him than I think we probably did that last year we had together. Although, I have to say, if I had stayed I probably would not have experienced Alaska quite like this, but I will always wonder what if. I’m not quite sure why I’m back here yet, but everything happens for a reason right? Granted for some, those reasons are often the result of bad decision making skills and poor choices, I would like to think myself above that though.
Whaling, something that one hears about as a kid, but no one ever thinks they will see, stories of times past, back when whale blubber was still used to power lamps and make perfume. Turns out in certain places whaling is still alive and well, part of a cultural and subsistence lifestyle, the North Slope is one of those places, the whale of choice is bowhead, but belugas are hunted as well, along with the other notorious arctic sea mammals, walrus, ringed seal, spotted seal, I suppose even the polar bear is considered an arctic sea mammal in way and it is not spared from hunting either. Its something I had to come to terms with before moving here, the hunting, the furs, the way of life. I needed to be sure that was something I wanted to experience and that I was okay with my son experiencing as well. So where else does someone go when the want to learn? Why, YouTube and Google, of course!
I googled for hours and what I found was gory, somewhat brutal and amazing. I was amazed with how much the children are present and allowed to participate in the rendering of the whale. It is quite a sight to watch a 35 ton animal be dismantled, I say dismantled, because butchering just doesn’t cut it when taking apart an animal that is larger than a school bus. Its quite a blood bath, this business, the blood pours from wounds like rivers, melting away the snow and ice underneath, creating giant blood puddles.
The children are allowed to play on the whale like a giant community playground, I wonder if they realize they are playing on carcass? I had wondered as I watched the videos. It is a giant celebration, the take down of these beautiful marine mammals, the animal is rendered fast as lightening, I’m definitely impressed with how quickly the animals are rationed out to the members of the community, intended as subsistence food until the next season permits more hunting. (Food at the store is so expensive in Barrow, many people still rely on subsistence food for their main source of nutrients.) I watched these videos with mixed horror and fascination, trying to picture myself there, I wonder if I have to eat any if its offered? Would it be disrespectful if I refused? What does it taste like? Does it smell? My mother had told me that everyone that lives in these communities smells a bit of whale, what does that smell like? I wondered if what my mother said was true, does everything smell of whale? My mom has a way of embellishing her strong, often slightly skewed views on other cultures, so it must be taken with a grain of salt. Do I want my son to be a part of this, is this what I want him seeing in his most formative years? I wasn’t really sure that it would be appropriate, so much death, maybe not so much, but such a large animal makes it seem like more death.
Turns out whaling is quite a different experience than I thought it would be, its exciting, the whole community is alive with activity. There is a lot more to this process than meets the eye, the preparation, if anything, is amazing in itself. The women stretch and prepare the umiaq’s for hunting, special explosive harpoons are prepped months ahead of time, much work goes into the process. I was privileged enough to attend this past falls whale hunt, and I brought my son. I think it was good for him, I let him play on the whale with the other kids, sliding down the body like a regular slip-and-slide, the blood and guts didn’t even phase him, and to my surprise, it didn’t phase me either.
It was a natural thing, to be there, I tasted maktak (boiled whale blubber and skin) it wasn’t terrible although I picked gray bits of skin from between my teeth for days after, it smelled and tasted of fish. The smell is interesting, a mix of metallic blood, fish and fat all in one. Much of the whale is partitioned out to the elders and some sent to the smaller villages to help people get through the season, many of the villages don’t have grocery stores and the only access to them is by bush plane.
I now see why there is still a need for hunting like this here, but maybe not to the extent that it is practiced. One thing I have seen, which I wish was different, is the amount of whale that has gone to waste, I often see it sitting next to dumpsters, smelling and rotting, or just discarded in a box on the side of the dirt roads, I think that is unfortunate, much of the animal goes to waste in that sense. I very much worry about how this place will look and smell when it finally thaws out, its enough to see the meat sitting outside the dumpsters, along with blood and scraps of bone and skin, but at least its cold and it doesn’t smell too awful, yet.
I am looking forward to the celebration of the spring whaling season, it is exciting if anything else, I don’t relish the thought of the death of whales, but the way it brings the community together here is amazing and a sight to see in itself. It is yet again, like most things in the arctic, one of those things that seems unbelievable and something that you wouldn’t agree with in normal circumstances, but things change, your view points change, you adapt, and that is exactly what I’ve started to do because this place is a whole different world.