Hometown U: Old whales, whalers inspire writer's fiction

Hometown UFebruary 2, 2013 

Writer Don Rearden is imagining a whale that lived for centuries -- long enough to witness three distinct eras of whaling off Alaska, from before the first Europeans arrived to today's Native subsistence whalers.

The idea of using an ancient whale as the spine for a story came to him after scientists dated fragments of ivory- and stone-tipped harpoons -- discovered in the 1980s and '90s by Alaska whalers -- to hunting weapons that were no longer in use by the 1880s.

That confirmed the work other scientists who studied amino acids in the eyes of whales to set their ages between one and two centuries. When a Barrow resident mailed 48 frozen whale eyeballs to a Scripps Institute scientist in California, most proved younger than 60 years, except for five older males, aged 91, 135, 159, 172 and 211 years.

That development set Rearden, who teaches introductory writing at UAA, to pondering what such a hoary old whale might have lived through, from the 1917 "War to End All Wars," to all the wars that followed. From the arrival of wind-driven whaling fleets to submarines under the ice. From nuclear blasts at Amchitka in the Aleutians in the late 1960s to Homer's nuclear-free-zone today.

Of course, Rearden needs humans to tell a whale's story. That's why he spent a week last summer as a scholar in residence at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts. A creative projects grant from UAA helped him earn that status and gain access to original whaling sources and artifacts.

Back east, Rearden poured over spidery entries in ships logs that charted weather, direction, strange sea sightings and more. The Yankee whaling fleets of the 1800s usually journeyed from Nantucket or New Bedford, around Africa's Cape Horn to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) for re-provisioning, before heading north into the Bering Sea.

Were they good writers? Sometimes, Rearden says, but often the blunt facts were as compelling as anything he's ever read. Like one log entry, noting an injury to the first mate's hand. Rearden followed the log as the journey progressed.

"A couple of weeks later, the hand is still bad. By four weeks in, there's a meeting with other captains deciding who's going to take the hand. Finally, a captain from another bark (vessel) says he's comfortable doing it, because he's taken a few fingers before. ..."

An April 17, 1877, log entry described the Mount Wallaston passing through an ocean layered with Portuguese man o' war jellyfish, their venomous tentacles stretching 20 and 30 feet.

"In some places we sailed through streaks so thick they resembled the bodies of whales just under the surface," read the log. "At others, we saw the long sinuous tracks of immense sea serpents ..."

Rearden identified with the whalers' fear and wonder.

Taking breaks from research, Rearden could wander from the archives into the museum to handle whalers' harpoons, climb into the cramped forecastle of a renovated bark to see where the crew slept shoulder-to-shoulder, stand in the tiny galley where their food was prepared and study the red brick ovens that held pots for rendering whale oil aboard ship.

A big surprise for Rearden was the international character of crews. One historical account puts fleet strength at the height of Yankee whaling at 10,000 men, with nearly 3,000 of them African. Many others were Polynesian and Pacific Islanders.

"This is something Alaskans probably don't think about," Rearden says, just how strong was the historic pull to the Arctic for global sailors. Rearden found an account of two Hawaiian seamen who refused to leave a vessel stuck in the ice. Everyone else departed; as the only eventual survivors, they lived to tell their story to Hawaiian newspapers when they got back home.

That story, and one of a single crewman who wintered over with the Inupiaq people after the great whaling disaster of 1871, are facts from which Rearden will weave fiction. In that remarkable event, strong winds pushed the pack ice toward Alaska's shoreline, locking in some 40 vessels strung along the coast near Wainwright. More than 1,200 people survived, but total economic losses were put at $1.6 million. East Coast news accounts about the single survivor report that Inupiaq men wanted to kill him, but Inupiaq women kept him alive. The man reported that he wouldn't do it ever again.

In addition to a character representing the Yankee whaling fleets, Rearden will develop the figure of an ancient, "pre-contact" hunter. He's already got a modern Barrow whaler in mind, and hopes for an opportunity to learn more from him through subsistence hunts that continue to this day.


Kathleen McCoy is an electronic media specialist at UAA, where she highlights campus life through social and online media.

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