Barrow 9-year-old may be youngest to harvest a whale

October 11, 2009 

A fourth-grader delivered the killing blow to a 32-foot bowhead whale in Barrow recently: A singular, hands-on hunting lesson from the boy's Inupiat uncles.

Paul Patkotak, 9, is the youngest whaler in memory credited with a kill, said his uncle and whaling crew captain, Qulliuq Pebley.

"Every now and then it happens. But he's the youngest guy, for sure," Pebley said. "The youngest before was one of my cousins, and he was 15."

The crew landed the whale Tuesday as Barrow hunters approached the city's annual quota of 22 bowhead whales in what has quickly become a successful fall season. With each successful strike on a whale, several boats haul the bowhead back to the old Barrow airport runway where the animals are butchered and shared throughout the Arctic city of 4,100.

Patkotak's father, Ellis Patkotak, described the boy as a shy kid who loves snowmachining and playing "Rock Band" on his PlayStation 3. And hunting.

Paul joined his uncle's crew during the city's largely unsuccessful spring whaling season. The crew came home empty-handed, but Paul proved himself.

"He set a real good example for how a whaler should swing a pick axe for breaking trail," Pebley said.

The uncle asked Paul if he wanted to play a bigger role in the fall season. The boy said he did.

"This day we were very, very fortunate," Pebley said of landing the 32-foot, 7-inch bowhead. "I gave him what he asked for because he's such a hard-working little man."

THE HUNT

Pebley's 24-foot off-shore fishing boat rocked in 3- to 5-foot waves Tuesday about 19 miles from Point Barrow, the nation's northernmost point, as the captain and his nephew shot video of a cow bowhead and its calf.

"I told (the five-member crew) I don't want to bother these two too much," Pebley said. They put the camera down. Pebley grabbed a cup of coffee. Soon someone spotted a promising bowhead -- not too big -- and they followed it for 20 minutes.

Pebley's uncle, Pauyuuraq Brower, harpooned the whale using a darting gun. The weapon is a harpoon with an apparatus that fires an explosive charge into the whale upon impact.

But the initial blow didn't kill the bowhead. Brower used a shoulder-fired rifle to launch a second explosive into the whale, but that bomb failed to go off, Pebley said.

"That's when I told him I wanted Paul to go up front and throw the harpoon in again. Put another bomb into it," Pebley said.

Paul was given another darting gun. With a handle carved from a Fairbanks birch tree, it was roughly 8 feet long and weighed 30 pounds when loaded, Pebley said.

Paul, on the other hand, weighs about 75 pounds soaking wet and wearing his warm-weather gear, Pebley said. "He's kind of a little guy but he's pretty tough for his age."

Brower aimed the harpoon for the boy and told him when and where to throw it, Pebley said.

"Paul did the rest. He threw like he had been doing it for years and years," he said.

It was a short throw, Paul later told his father. Maybe a foot, striking the bowhead in the neck. The bomb exploded, killing the whale.

"Ideal shot right there," the father said. "That's how you dispatch a whale immediately."

SHARING THE FOOD

The whole thing took about 10 minutes, Pebley said.

Butchering the bowhead lasted another three or four hours and Paul's family received hundreds of pounds of meat, his father said.

Barrow whaling crews are allowed 22 "strikes" a year. That means they can take as many as 22 whales -- but if they strike and wound a whale without landing it, the attempt counts against the total.

Local crews struck and landed only four whales during the spring season, but the fall season began with a fast start Sept. 26 as crews took four bowheads the first day. Barrow whalers landed the last two bowheads of the season Saturday, said Pebley, who at 26 is one of the youngest captains in Barrow.

His crew is called the Panigeo crew.

"It's my mom's maiden name," Pebley said. "Before the crew was mine, it was my uncle's. And before that it was my grandfather's."

OUTSIDE REACTION

The 9-year-old's role in a recent hunt drew fresh attention to Barrow whaling and reaction to the news has highlighted the raw divide between the way people view subsistence whale hunting in and outside Alaska.

The Daily News posted photos of Paul and the whale, along with a description of the hunt by the boy's aunt, on the paper's Web site Wednesday.

Soon someone pasted the picture and story on www.Care2.com, a social-networking site for animal-welfare advocates and other activists. The tale drew dozens of comments from members calling the news "disgusting" and "horrific." A few defended the traditional hunt, while others wrote personal attacks against the young hunter.

"What a proud little murderer," wrote one of the Web site's members, adding: "These people can buy their food for the winter at the store."

More than 300 miles above the Arctic Circle, Barrow is the northernmost town in North America. The sun disappears for two months in the winter, and most residents are Inupiat, according to the state Division of Community and Regional Affairs. Local leaders call whaling a unifying tradition. The borough mayor is a captain himself and recently held an open house to feed passersby muktuk, heart, meat, intestines, kidneys and flippers.

Pebley was aware of the Internet outrage. He's used to it, he said.

"For me it's just like everybody has a right to their own opinion," he said. "I don't judge them on their opinion. One of the values I was taught was not to judge people by what they do or say."

A FAMILY TRADITION

Paul's father, Ellis Patkotak, is proud. His son is mature for his age, he said, and by the time he's a teenager, hunting will be second nature.

"It's a skill only certain people do, and it looks like he knows what he's doing. Kind of instinct," Patkotak said.

Bowheads are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. The International Whaling Commission, which governs the world's large whale stocks, voted in 2007 to extend subsistence bowhead hunting in Alaska through 2012.

"The Inupiat people have lived off this animal for thousands and thousands of years, and there's no way you can just put a stop to that just right away," Pebley said. "We'll find a way to do it. We'll make a way if we have to."

The crew is saving a portion of Tuesday's whale for Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts at local churches, he said.

Ellis Patkotak said it's rare for kids to go on whaling trips, though the practice may be growing more common. Ten to 20 years ago, you wouldn't expect to see someone under 14 join the hunt, he said.

Pebley sees the apprenticeship as a family tradition.

"I've taken it upon myself to pass on as much knowledge that I can to him. Just like my uncles have done for me, when I was his age," said the young captain, who has a 3-year-old son of his own.

"Maybe some day (Paul) will take my son out and pass on what I've taught," he said.


Read The Village, the ADN's blog about rural Alaska, at adn.com/thevillage. Twitter updates: twitter.com/adnvillage. Call Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334.

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