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To Catch a Whale : With Handmade Sealskin Boats and Snowmobiles, With 19th-Century Harpoons and Cellular Phones, Alaska's Inupiat Keep Alive the Most Profound Rite of Their Ancient Culture

July 24, 1994|John Balzar | John Balzar, the Times' Northwest Bureau chief, regards whale blubber as the most challenging food he has ever eaten

Finally, after a long arctic winter, the vast polar ice pack cracks and slowly opens up along Alaska's north coast, exposing a thin ribbon of ocean between two vast frozen plates. Spring is the season of wonder here: The temperature has risen to 5 degrees, the wind blusters out of the east with the distant tease of more warmth to come, and darkness has lifted--the sun bobs in the sky 23 hours a day. Now, as they have throughout their history, Inupiat Eskimos advance onto the blue-white shore ice in a ritual of renewal, affirmation, hope and blood. They have come to hunt the bowhead whale.

George Ahmaogak faces the ocean, the hood of his parka ringed with a ruff of wolverine fur and his almond eyes alive with anticipation. He grips my arm with a heavy-gloved hand and nods toward the horizon.

" Agvik ," he whispers. "Big one!"

Out in the water, a shiny wet-black hump breaks the surface, a spout of gray steam emerges with a hiss, and an otherworldly low-pitched song vibrates the air around us. A shiver runs down my neck.

"That's a *%* big whale," says Ahmaogak, peppering his speech, as usual, with the unprintable. A smile breaks out on his ruddy face. A smile with bite to it, the smile of a hunter who has sighted his prey.

At 45, Ahmaogak (pronounced Ah-MA-walk ) is the charismatic three-term mayor of Alaska's North Slope Borough, the northernmost municipal government in the United States. But more important, at least when the arctic whales migrate, he is one of a select group of men and women known as whaling captains. He and the others shoulder the responsibility of providing traditional food and keeping alive the most profound rite of Inupiat culture: the catching of the whales.

This is hunting on an epic scale. Hundreds of villagers are involved in the chase and conquest of one of the largest animals in the world. And there is no such thing as an observer. You are part of the crew or you are off the ice.

At Ahmaogak's signal, five whalers and I grab axes and chop a trail through blocky ice ridges between camp and the open water so Ahmaogak's two boats can be skidded to the edge and launched. One is an umiaq , a paddle craft out of the Stone Age made of laced sealskin, the other an 18-foot aluminum skiff with an 80-horsepower outboard motor. This is all-out work, and the crew breathes long streams of steam into the cold air. As ice cakes my beard, sweat runs down my back under my heavy parka.

Ahmaogak, as befits his captain's role, supervises. "How long do you think you'd last if you went into the water?" he asks me at one point.

"Just seconds," I hazard.

"This whole thing is full of danger," he says grimly. "And you have to know what the *%* you're doing."

I, of course, have no idea what I'm doing. I put my head down and chop.

Another whale--closer this time, huge--surfaces and blows. Pssssshhhh! I chop faster.

"Pretty soon, we go out there. Then it's boom boom," Ahmaogak says to no one in particular. He flashes his teeth in another wild smile.

FOR CENTURIES, GEORGE AHMAOGAK'S ANCESTORS HAVE LIVED AND whaled in the land above the Arctic Circle. Anthropologists believe the Inupiat are the descendants, along with other Eskimo groups, of the second wave of migrants to cross the Bering Sea about 4000 BC. Early evidence of their whaling skills dates from at least AD 800. By the 1800s, when Europeans finally ventured through the Bering Strait, these Eskimos were the best sea-mammal hunters on the planet, and their most formidable prey was the bowhead.

Like the buffalo for the Plains Indian, the whale was the stuff of survival and social structure for the Inupiat. Whale meat was their food; whale oil, their source of heat and light. The Inupiat commonly lived in separate family groups, but for the whaling effort, they pooled their resources and talents, with umiaq owners and the best whalers as leaders. Their most important social gatherings were celebrations of the hunt.

Today in Barrow, and in seven other villages that dot the 89,000-square-mile North Slope Borough, the Inupiat continue to practice "subsistence" hunting--and the whale remains their most prized prey. The whalers are still the community leaders. During my visit, the Borough Assembly couldn't muster a quorum at its monthly meeting in Barrow--too many of its members were out on the ice, captaining whale boats. And, as they have through the ages, entire villages still assemble on the ice to haul in a whale and celebrate its capture.

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