Ahmaogak surveys the ice and picks a spot to launch the boats. Whaling captains are years in the making--men, and a few women, who have apprenticed for the job since their youth and who command the respect of enough villagers willing to sign on as crew. They must also be successful enough in their other lives to have the money to finance the endeavor.
We begin to chop trail. Good-natured harpooner Perry Okpeaha is helping; so is stoical shoulder-gunner Larry Itta and 12-year-old Qaiyaan Harcharek, a determined sixth-grader who is in his sixth season as apprentice whaler.
By midmorning, we have finished the trail and pulled the aluminum boat down to the water's edge, lifted it off its sled and skidded it to the lip of ice, which rises white for several inches above the water and descends translucent blue for a foot underneath. But the wind shifts and the lead begins to close. We retreat. At midafternoon, the water opens again, and the boat is launched. By 6:30, the crew has chased four whales but never quite come close enough for Okpeaha to hurl the harpoon.
The routine is typical and repeated often--the crew advances, retreats, rests and then resumes the hunt.
On the marine radio, static turns into cheers. A few miles west of us, captain Jake Adams has caught the first whale of the year for Barrow, a 28-footer. "Bambi," says Ahmaogak. Once Adams' whale is secured by a rope to the tail and maneuvered to the shore ice, the crew delivers a prayer of thanks. Then the village airwaves crackle into life, filled with the news. In Barrow and on the ice, snow machines are fired up to carry as many as can come out to Adams' camp to help pull the bowhead from the water and butcher it into slabs of blubber and meat.
The first whale of the year is always divided up among all the crews in Barrow. From then on, only those who come out onto the ice to help will receive a share. It can take up to 36 hours or more of nonstop effort to land and cut up a big bowhead. A large portion of the food is stockpiled for the year's many coming feasts.
Something else comes over the radio. Not far away the ice has broken loose and two crews are adrift in the sea. On a big sheet of ice, there is little immediate worry. But big sheets can shatter into little ones by force of waves or in a collision with drifting icebergs, and that can be catastrophic. A search-and-rescue helicopter is launched from Barrow to retrieve the crews and their gear. "Should have watched their back door. Gotta watch the back door," growls Ahmaogak. Ha ha ha.
We hurriedly check the ice at our own back door. Holding solid, say those who know such things. By now, I'm so spooked I step only in the footprints of someone else. I have been advised to carry a quick-draw sheath knife so that if I fall into the water, I can stab the ice and keep from slipping under until help arrives, if help is handy. I try to visualize the experience.
We spend the evening--which looks almost the same as the morning under the arctic sun--sitting on a boat sled, with a white canvas windbreak stretched behind us, quietly scanning the water for the steam geysers of surfacing whales. Hours pass with hardly a word.
Even here, the primitive landscape of ice and water is clouded by development. With the Prudhoe Bay oil fields now past their peak, oil companies have their eye on expanding offshore drilling in the Arctic Ocean to keep the Trans-Alaska pipeline flowing. The Inupiat strongly oppose the idea. Not only would they receive no tax revenues for operations beyond the three-mile coastal boundary, they also fear an oil-well blowout would jeopardize the survival of the bowhead. But they are plenty eager for more onshore drilling, particularly in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the east. Their taxing authority would extend to such development, plus they hold mineral deeds to some of the potential sites.
As the winds pick up, massive ice floes begin to dance across the near horizon. "That is some heavy *%*," says Ahmaogak. "Imagine wind and current pushing on this--that's our worry. No drilling rig could stand up to that."
AS LONG AS THE LEAD IS OPEN, WE SLEEP ONLY INTERMITTENTLY, ON NO schedule whatsoever. Sometimes the tent is too full, and I borrow a bearskin and curl up in an 18-foot skiff. It is hard to keep a grip on time. "I have a feeling it's going to be a long day tonight," is the way one of the other whalers puts it.
Whatever stimulates Ahmaogak into action remains a mystery to me. One moment we are sitting quietly. And the next, scrambling.
Ahmaogak and crew launch the skin boat and come within feet of striking a whale that approaches head on. They paddle behind a distant iceberg and I find myself alone on the ice. Just two days ago, a polar bear wandered near camp. Ahmaogak could put both of his oversized arctic boots inside the bear's paw print. The marine radio has been reporting bears lurking around other camps. Where did they leave those rifles? I wonder.