As the search for a respected bowhead whale researcher was on hold, his family, friends and former colleagues spoke about his contributions to science and his role in the community.
John Craighead “Craig” George was swept under a logjam last Wednesday on the Chulitna River near Cantwell, Alaska State Troopers said. The dive team responded to the area Friday morning but found that the water was too high to deploy their tools, said troopers spokesman Austin McDaniel.
“We’re still holding off for river conditions to improve so that way the dive team can potentially put down a remote-operated vehicle or sonar in the area to begin searching underwater there,” McDaniel said Monday.
Last Wednesday, five people — including George, his wife Cyd Hanns and his longtime friend J.R. Patee — joined what was planned to be a five-day-long trip on two rafts and one pack raft, said Patee, who organized and led the trip.
Later that day, Patee said that the group encountered an unusual amount of logjams on the river. George “got knocked out of the boat by a log” upstream from the rest of the group, he said. Patee and his wife, as well as a pack rafter, were able to avoid the obstacles unharmed. They jumped from their boats and pulled out from the river to the partially submerged sandbar before the logjam. Then they helped George’s wife, Cyd Hanns, who was still in the raft pinned to the logjam.
“She hadn’t seen Craig since they hit the logjam,” Patee said.
Dedicated bowhead researcher
George is an internationally acclaimed wildlife researcher who has contributed to projects in the physiology of the bowhead whales and studies on how they can survive in extremely cold temperatures, his younger brother Luke George said. George participated in early acoustic surveys and studies of Iñupiat traditional knowledge on bowhead biology. He was also a part of the team that learned that bowhead whales could live for up to 211 years.
“He helped us all understand the bowhead so much better than we did before,” Luke George said.
Originally from upstate New York, George was a son to Jean Craighead George, the author of the classic book “Julie of the Wolves” about a girl lost on the Alaska tundra who survives with the help of a wolf pack. George’s uncles were well-known experts on grizzly bears at Yellowstone National Park.
George moved to Utqiaġvik in 1977. He worked as a senior wildlife biologist for more than 30 years at the North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management before retiring a few years ago.
One of the main projects George contributed to was a whale census — an abundance estimate for bowhead whales in the Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort stock. The project started in the late ‘70s after the International Whaling Commission — a management organization created to conserve whale stocks — became concerned about the low whale population and put a moratorium on whaling.
“They felt that the population was too small to support the subsistence hunt and we basically came up with counting techniques and put in years and years of hard work to count the bowhead whale population and show that it was adequate,” said Geoff Carroll, a retired wildlife biologist, George’s former colleague and a close friend. “It was a big support to the subsistence whalers.”
From hunters and Indigenous experts, George and other biologists learned that the whales might be able to migrate far away offshore and travel under the ice: hunters have been hearing them singing through holes in the ice. So for the new whale census, scientists developed acoustics equipment such as hydrophones to count whales by analyzing their vocalization and estimating the distance to where they were. As a result, the population estimate increased by six times.
With the new whale count, the International Whaling Commission established a sustainable whaling quota that ”could actually support the human population while not damaging the whale population,” Carroll said.
What that collaboration also did was bridge the gap between Indigenous and Western science, Luke George said.
George “worked very closely with the local whaling captains, really listened to what they had to say and learned from them and I think was one of several people that helped bring their knowledge, the Indigenous knowledge, into the scientific realm,” Luke George said.
“He helped so many people and helped preserve and protect an Inupiat culture that was judged and stereotyped for years by outsiders,” said D.J. Fauske, the North Slope Borough’s director of government and external affairs, in a Facebook post. “He helped combine thousands of years of traditional local Inupiat knowledge with world-class technology and data.”
In the course of his career, George continued monitoring the bowhead whale population.
“He and his coworkers always came to take samples of each harvested bowhead whale to study the health of each one and the health of the stock,” Utqiaġvik whaling captain Herman Ahsoak said.
In 1992, George and his colleagues examined an unusually old whale and found in it an old harpoon head that people haven’t used in more than 100 years. This provided backup for the studies on the longevity of bowhead whales, potentially the longest-lived mammals on the planet.
For his contribution to science and for his commitment to the local whaling community, the Barrow Whaling Captains Association commissioned George as an honorary whaling captain, said Marie Adams Carroll, former Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission director.
“There is nobody else like him,” she said.
When George came to Utqiaġvik in 1977, everywhere he looked, he saw posters saying “Keep on whaling,” referring to a short-lived moratorium on whaling, George told the Arctic Sounder in 2022. Impressed with the strong response to the moratorium — and inspired by the stories he heard from the senior whale hunters such as late Harry Brower Sr. — George spontaneously wrote a song “Keep On Whaling.”
The song became popular among the residents, Ahsoak said, and George was asked to perform it on various occasions, including blessing services for the whaling crews.
“Craig was a brilliant and humble person who had an immense impact while making sure others got the credit,” said Charles Wohlforth, a former Anchorage Daily News columnist and author of the book “The Whale and the Supercomputer.” “He shepherded science on the bowhead from his office in Utqiaġvik, being a friend to all — the local community, visiting scientists, and even outside writers like me. And he stayed there to raise his family, play music, and be part of the community. All the while, he refused to step in front of the Native subsistence leaders on the stage. He was always there to support them.”
A life full of curiosity
Outside of studying bowhead whales, George and his wife Cyd Hanns, a retired veterinary and wildlife research technician, raised two sons, Luke and Sam.
George has always had a full life, looking forward to his next adventure, said Luke George, Craig George’s brother who is four years younger than him. Together, Luke and Craig George climbed the Grand Teton and drove across the country many times, Luke George said.
“We were very close growing up, and he kind of took me under his wing,” Luke George said. “He has just been a real source of support and strength for me throughout my life really and has always been my champion, has been a friend and helped me through all kinds of things. Just a good human being, a big brother. I just feel so lucky I’ve had him my life.”
George was also a great listener and made friends everywhere he went, striking up conversations with grocery store clerks and airplane passengers next to him, Luke George said.
“He’s one of the funniest people I know,” Luke George said. “You never know what you’re going to encounter when Craig shows up.”
In Utqiaġvik, George had a long list of hobbies, from working on his cabin to making music, Carroll said.
“We just did everything together. We shared a dog team, you know, we both really enjoyed skiing,” Carroll said. ”And there were so many, many river trips.”
Patee said one of the first river trips he did with George was floating down the Copper River in 1981, together with their families and children. Since then, they’ve rafted down the Chulitna several times, as well as Tatsenshini and Kukparek rivers.
Whether it was studying bowhead whales or floating rivers, Patee said the main driver behind everything George did was curiosity.
“The night before we left for the river trip, we were discussing honeybees, the importance of honeybees, and how many trips a honeybee must make in his lifetime to make a gram of honey,” Patee said. “He was just fascinated with all sorts of stuff. He was a preeminent scientist, always curious, always asking, ‘How does this work?’ ‘What do you do with that?’ ‘What’s the story?’”
As of Monday, the search for George was ongoing.