Alaska News

Whalers of the city: Little known Cook Inlet hunt targets belugas

This story was originally published on Aug. 14, 1994.

Percy Blatchford and his son, Joel, packed the guns and the brass-tipped harpoon and the rest of the whale-hunting gear into the boat while most of Anchorage was still asleep. It was early on a Monday morning. Percy, a 73-year-old Inupiat Eskimo with a military buzz cut and the bulky, muscular physique of an ex-boxer, had driven his station wagon from his house off Fireweed Lane to his son's place in a subdivision off Tudor Road in East Anchorage. They drank coffee and stepped outside to hook up the boat trailer to Joel's red pickup.

They drove downtown, passing car dealers and a 7-Eleven and men on Third Avenue emerging from a night in the city's homeless shelter. They reached the Ship Creek boat ramp, where the tide of Cook Inlet was coming up over the mud flats. They backed their 18-foot boat into the cold brown water, and looked at the dark clouds gathering over the mountains above the city. Joel, who is 39, parked the truck and trailer in a lot and slipped a pair of dollar bills into the pay slot.

As they headed off into the Inlet, Joel steered the boat toward the silver open water west of the city. They passed Fire Island and the wind picked up. The open boat plowed through the swells. Saltwater splashed in and rain began to fall. The city faded into the mist behind them.

An hour later, the rain stopped and the wind and water turned calm as the boat entered the milky tan shallows at the mouth of the Susitna River. The shore was flat and barren.

Percy Blatchford scanned the water. Within seconds he found what he was looking for.

"Look over there," he said in a voice strongly accented with Inupiaq. He pointed toward the river's mouth.

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Ahead and to the left, stretching for hundreds of yards, curving white forms rolled out of the water. They looked like plump bratwursts. They shot clouds of mist into the cool morning air. If you looked closely, you could see smaller blue-gray bodies moving alongside some of the white ones.

Beluga whales. Dozens of them.

They were 30 miles from downtown Anchorage. A jetliner bound for the city descended overhead. Off on the horizon below the Chugach Range, barely visible now and seeming tiny, stood the office towers and high-rise hotels of the city. People soon would be sitting down for lunch at the downtown restaurants overlooking the Inlet, some of them watching for the white whales that sometimes swim along Anchorage's waterfront.

Percy Blatchford gripped the steering wheel and the throttle handle and turned to his son.

"Get your harpoon ready and get your rifle ready," he said.

URBAN WHALE HUNTERS

Among Anchorage's 240,000 residents there are perhaps two or three dozen subsistence whale hunters.

From early spring to late fall, they drive out into the water from the Ship Creek dock and hunt all along Cook Inlet's upper shore. They butcher the animals at camps along the banks and bring slabs of meat, blubber and skin back home in coolers.

Few non-Natives know that the hunters exist. Yet in Anchorage's growing Native communities, beluga whale hunts have become a source of food and an urban adaptation of village subsistence culture. The hunts are an important cog in an underground barter and cash economy reaching between the city and dozens of villages.

Beluga meat and muktuk slices of skin with a thin layer of attached fat and a coveted food throughout much of coastal Alaska is sent from the city to families and acquaintances in villages. In return, villagers send seal oil, caribou meat, fur or other subsistence products not readily available in the city.

Dena'ina villages along Cook Inlet have a long history of hunting belugas, traditionally using hand-made harpoons, spears and skin kayaks. Some villagers in Tyonek, across the Inlet from Anchorage, still hunt belugas, now using skiffs and rifles.

But as more and more village residents have migrated to the city during the past 30 years, a whole new group of Native hunters have begun using the Inlet. They're mostly Inupiat and Yupik Eskimos with roots in coastal villages, people who grew up hunting belugas and other sea mammals back home. They've moved to Anchorage for the usual reasons better jobs, school, to be closer to relatives.

These Anchorage subsistence hunters are sometimes joined by relatives and friends from the villages visiting the city, people who combine trips to Costco or the Alaska Native Medical Center with Cook Inlet whale hunts. Sometimes they hunt seals, too.

Some years, village hunters come to the city to hunt when bad ice conditions and weather didn't make for good beluga hunting back home. Some people insist the taste of Cook Inlet belugas is superior to those found in the Bering Sea and Arctic Ocean and prefer Anchorage whales over those found near their homes along the coast.

The 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act, reauthorized by Congress earlier this year, allows Alaska Natives living in coastal areas to hunt a variety of sea mammals, including belugas, so long as a substantial portion of the animal is used. There are no restrictions on where Natives can hunt belugas or a requirement that they live in the area. Belugas are not a threatened or endangered species, and there are no catch limits. Under the law, hunters may sell a portion of the meat to other Natives.

Most Anchorage hunters have deliberately kept a low profile. Beluga whales are easily the most visible marine mammals in Anchorage, and some hunters suspect that urban whale-lovers would be aghast to learn that some of their neighbors regularly hunt and eat them. Several hunters refused to be interviewed, or were uncomfortable being identified in the newspaper or talking in detail about the hunts.

Percy Blatchford has hunted beluga whales in Cook Inlet for 50 years, and he doesn't care who knows it. He began exploring the Upper Inlet in a small skiff as a young man after the Air Force had transplanted him from his home on the coastal tundra to the city. He remembers being amazed at the wild natural world he discovered by driving a boat just an hour or two from downtown.

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THE HUNT

Joel Blatchford picked up his .30-06 rifle and crouched in the front of the boat. Percy, at the wheel, picked out a large whale at the edge of the group, 200 yards ahead.

Percy hit the gas. The whale vanished into the silty water. He steered left, in the direction the whale was headed, and watched for the animal to reappear. The beluga surfaced 30 or 40 feet ahead. Its white bulb of a forehead plowed through the water, leaving a wake. It exhaled a cloud of warm, steamy air and gasped a breath through its blowhole, then arched its back and vanished. The whale was only out of the water for a couple of seconds.

Joel fired the gun. The bullet slammed into the water with a splash a few feet behind the whale. A miss.

Percy continued in pursuit and tried to drive the whale away from the others. Ten seconds later the beluga surfaced again, this time off to the right. Percy cranked the wheel hard and the boat banked. Another shot rang out. The whale disappeared.

As Joel tried to follow the whale through the gun sight, Percy watched the water and glanced at the digital depth-finder gauge on the dashboard. The Susitna River drains a wide valley south of Mount McKinley, and its mouth empties into a broad, shallow, treacherous shelf of silt and gooey mud. Sandbars extend miles out from the river, and belugas are expert at navigating the narrow channels that cut through the shallows. A careless boater can wind up a broken propeller or beached.

6 ft. 8 ft. 4 ft. 2 ft.

The whale surfaced again straight ahead. Joel braced the rifle on the windshield, aimed and shot. Again, the whale vanished.

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After a couple minutes, Percy cut the engine. The whale was gone. The other belugas had moved off. On shore a couple hundred yards away, a sandhill crane pranced in tall rye grass. Two gulls bobbed in the water and watched the boat.

"Where'd he go?" said Percy, almost whispering.

"He's right here someplace," said Joel. "I hope he doesn't hit us."

They scanned the water.

"He outsmarted us!" said Percy, irritated and smiling at the same time. "He's smarter than we are."

The only sounds were of water lapping up against the boat and the quiet purr of the motor.

Then a gasp came from the water. The whale surfaced 30 or 40 feet ahead. Percy hit the throttle.

4 ft. 5 ft. 6 ft. 8 ft. 3 ft.

Joel fired a couple more rounds. He handed the rifle to his father and took the wheel.

Percy studied the whale's path beneath the water. He saw a barely detectable wake, with two slight ridges trailing the animal's tail flipper as it navigated through the shallows. When the whale hit an especially shallow spot, it left a trail of light mud in the water. Percy fired a couple rounds, missed, and handed the rifle back to his son. The boat seemed to be gaining on the whale. The animal was tiring.

The whale surfaced again and Joel shot. This time, the shot's sound was duller and louder than earlier misses.

"You got him," said Percy. The shell clinked onto the floor of the boat. The whale surfaced quickly and Joel shot again.

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The whale slowed. Percy brought the boat right up next to it. The whale was floating just below the surface. A narrow trail of blood flowed from the back of its head.

Joel reached for the harpoon a sharp brass point attached to a wooden pole and connected to a rope with orange-juice bottles tied to the end to serve as floats. The idea is to get the harpoon into the whale after it's been wounded, then follow the jugs to keep from losing the animal.

The hunters usually heave the harpoon through the air. There was no need on this hunt. With the whale floating listlessly in the water a few feet away, Joel simply reached over the side of the boat and stabbed it.

The whale didn't move. The hunt had lasted about 15 minutes.

'THAT'S A NICE BELUGA'

The beluga was about 11 feet long a young adult. Percy positioned the boat alongside the whale, and he and Joel fastened ropes around the carcass to tow it into shore.

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The skin was white as a piece of typing paper and mostly smooth, with patches of rippled surface at several places, like fingertips after a long bath. For the first time, the hunters saw its head a large rounded forehead, brown almond-shaped

eyes and a wide mouth.

As the hunters tied the whale to the boat, seven or eight younger whales swam up behind the boat. They blew air and gasped as they surfaced and seemed curious about the boat and the motionless beluga. They were six or seven feet long, and their skin was dark.

Had they shot a mother? The hunters didn't think so. They hadn't seen the calves earlier. But there was no way to tell for sure until they dragged it ashore.

Once the carcass was secured, Percy again hit the gas and, using the depth-gauge, found the channel and slowly chugged into the Susitna River. The young whales remained behind, circling in the muddy water.

Joel reached down over the side of the boat and patted the dead whale's cold, rubbery skin.

"That's a nice beluga," he said softly, as the boat crept toward shore. "Thank you, Jesus."

RAISED THE OLD WAY

The Susitna spills out into the Inlet in two fat channels, split at the mouth by a broad, low patch of sedge and grass called Big Island. In spring and fall, massive flocks of ducks and geese stop here, and huge runs of salmon and hooligan clog the streams in the summer. The mouth supports a healthy population of harbor seals, and sometimes killer whales will venture in when the tide is high.

There are no trees. With clusters of ramshackle fishing and hunting camps along the flat shore, the land along the edge of the upper Inlet looks like nothing so much as the western Alaska tundra. It has always reminded Percy Blatchford of home.

He grew up the old way in villages along Norton Sound, born in Golovin and raised by his grandmother in Elim. He didn't learn English until he went to school, and he finished only the third grade. He spent his youth hunting and fishing and left for the first time when he was drafted into World War II.

A strong, barrel of a man who stands nearly 6 feet tall, he took up boxing and became the armed forces heavyweight champion for Alaska from 1944 to 1946. During the war, he survived a four-round exhibition at Adak against world heavyweight champ Joe Louis.

Military life suited Blatchford, and after the war he made it a career. He became an air-sea rescue paramedic. He stayed in the Air Force 30 years, based much of that time in Anchorage, where he married and raised a family.

He went on missions all over the world, from the familiar Arctic environment of the polar ice cap to tropical jungles of Central America, where he encountered panthers and 30-foot snakes. ("Just watch what the monkeys eat," he said, "and they'll show you how to survive.") Over his career he made 326 parachute jumps, and the Air Force sent him to Texas to help write its Arctic survival manual.

He retired as a master sergeant in 1970 and immediately went to work for the state driving heavy equipment. He retired for good 10 years later.

Since then, living on his government pensions, Blatchford's life has revolved around hunting and fishing and his friends and relatives. His wife, Mary, died from cancer in 1989.

The beluga hunts are a piece in a patchwork of activities to provide food for himself, relatives and friends. Some years he and Joel hunt two belugas one for themselves and a few relatives and a second later in the summer, which they share and, sometimes, sell to recoup their gas and ammunition costs. They hunt seals in Kachemak Bay, fish for salmon and halibut off the Kenai Peninsula and at Alexander Creek, hunt caribou and moose, and gather wild berries and greens.

Percy remains fit, with only a slight roll to his waist and just the first traces of wrinkles on his face. At 73, he could pass for 55. He talks in the slow, spare cadence of a village elder but also has the tight-ship manner of someone who spent most of his life living on military time. When he says he's leaving at 6:30 a.m., it's a good idea to show up at 6:15.

He lives a block from the Fireweed Theater, in the middle of the city. There's a bottle of seal oil in the refrigerator, and the freezer is packed with whale, berries, wild meat and fish.

Taped to the refrigerator is a "Far Side" comic. It shows an igloo with a giant, dead whale outside in the snow. Several little pieces of meat had been cut out of the whale's back. An Eskimo man and woman are standing in the doorway.

The caption says: "Leftovers again tonight?"

CONCERNS OVER TOXINS

Back on the riverbank, Percy and Joel sharpened long butcher knives and began slicing away chunks of skin and the underlying layer of fat the muktuk. They cut it into foot-square slabs, rinsing them in the gray river water before piling them into a oversized cooler in the boat.

The black head of a harbor seal popped out of the river and vanished. Later, a bald eagle glided past the hunters and the whale, and roosted down the beach on a piece of driftwood, staring at them.

"I think that eagle owns this beach," said Percy.

A mile or so down the shore, a couple of Inupiat families from the city were out on the shore, gathered around several tents. They, too, had landed a beluga. The camp is used by several groups of hunters.

The butchering took hours. In the middle of the job, Percy unpacked a Coleman gas stove, boiled a pot of water, cut some of the muktuk into bite- sized chunks and dropped them in. After a few minutes, he jabbed one of the pieces with a stick and ate the whale skin. The muktuk was tender and tasted like chicken fat and hard-boiled egg whites. High protein, said Percy. Keeps you warm, he said.

They returned to work on the whale, stripping away giant slabs of dark red meat from its back. Neither Percy nor Joel said much.

As he cut away a flipper, which the Blatchfords will eventually eat, Joel couldn't resist and sang the words of a familiar TV theme.

"They all love . . . flipper, flipper, flipper . . .."

Percy didn't say anything.

They did not take the internal organs. Liver, kidneys and other organs are traditional Inupiat foods, but both Percy and Joel said they're worried about pollutants, which can accumulate over the life of a whale, 30 years or more. They've stopped eating organs, as have at least some other Inlet hunters.

They roll the carcass over and discovered it was a male.

Joel cut off the tail, which they also eat, and lay it on the bank. With the meat and fat stripped, he and his father pushed the carcass into the river and watched it disappear into the swirling, dark current.

They drove the boat down the bank to a wooden frame built above the tide line, and cut the big slabs of red meat into strips and hung them on the rack to dry. They got in the boat and headed upriver. The butchering had taken all afternoon.

Off across the Inlet, you could see the dinnertime sun reflecting off picture windows on the Anchorage Hillside.

BEAVERS IN THE DITCHES

They spent the night in a 12-by-8 foot duck-hunting shack. Percy's cabin lies up a slough passable only on high tides, and he wouldn't be able to reach it this trip.

Percy Blatchford settled down in Anchorage in the 1950s. At the time, Fireweed Lane was the edge of the city. Kids caught king salmon down the hill in Chester Creek. Beavers swam in the ditches.

Today, people in the neighborhood sometimes see drug deals and flying bullets. Percy and Mary built the river cabin and after his retirement spent a lot of time on the Susitna together. The wilderness there is another world from the city. Through the years, Blatchford has seen stray walruses, pilot whales and sea lions at the mouth of the Susitna.

"I like the outdoor life," he said.

Joel Blatchford grew up in the city and went down the wrong path in his younger days. He had brushes with drugs and the law. He had little interest in hunting or his Inupiat roots. Both finally helped save him, he says. Now he works as a snow-equipment operator at Elmendorf, which gives him most of the summer off to hunt and fish. He and his wife, Debbie, a teacher's aide, have two kids. They eat beluga and moose. Since Mary died, Percy is a frequent dinner guest.

Back in the cabin, Percy cut some whale steak into chunks and fried it with margarine in a cast-iron skillet, seasoning it with salt and pepper. The meat was so dark that it was hard to tell when the center of the steaks were done. He sliced off a bite-sized piece to taste, and as he cooked, hummed "Amazing Grace."

Percy boiled potatoes and served pilot bread with strawberry jam and coffee.

At home, they eat muktuk — boiled, pickled and, occasionally, raw, and they fry or barbecue the steaks.

The wind picked up outside, whipping up whitecaps on the river. The Inlet can be treacherous for small boats when weather moves in, and tides are among the most extreme on Earth, with two-foot riptides that can swamp a skiff. Several years ago, Percy and Joel were returning to the city when they saw another boat flip behind them near the Little Susitna River. A man drowned.

The Blatchfords have had their own close calls. On a beluga hunt several years ago, two whales rammed the boat simultaneously, knocking Percy into the cold water. A daughter, Barbara, pulled him out by the neck. Mary once saved Percy's life when their boat overturned at the mouth of the Susitna. He and Joel now wear bright orange float coats in rough weather.

After dinner, Percy sat in the cabin by the wood stove and talked quickly about the jungles of Panama, about growing up along Norton Sound, about villagers adrift in the city today cut off from the subsistence life back home and struggling to maneuver through the western world.

Blatchford long ago learned how to live successfully in urban society, at least in Alaska urban society, and says he never really considered going back because of the opportunities he found outside. But it hasn't always been easy being Inupiat in a white world. His eyes welled up when he described how a white neighbor once dismissed his opinion "because he said I was just a dumb Native." He became emotional when he talked about Natives lost to booze and crime, dope and despair.

He misses his wife. After she died five years ago, Percy drove his boat alone across the Inlet to the mouth of the Susitna. While he waited for the tide to rise so he could drive in to the cabin, he stopped the boat and was quickly surrounded by a pod of belugas. He turned on a cassette he'd brought of Native performers singing hymns.

"Those whales came right up to the boat. Some of them had babies riding on their backs. I told them, 'I'm not going to kill you.' "

He sat there for a long time, he said, listening to the hymns and thinking about God and Mary and just watching the whales.

SAYING GOOD-BYE

After dinner, as they stretched their sleeping bags across the wooden bunks and prepared for bed, Percy and Joel talked about the young belugas that had circled the boat earlier.

"Maybe they were his brothers and sisters," said Percy.

Joel wondered if the whale had been a baby-sitter. Groups of young belugas often swim off together with a couple of adults.

"I think they weren't afraid of the boat like the older whales and they were curious," said Percy.

The wind outside rattled the walls. Before he dozed off, Percy had another thought.

"Maybe those young ones were coming over to say good-bye to their brother," he said.

THE WAY HOME

They rose early, as usual. Percy, who is diabetic, injected himself with insulin and had breakfast cereal with milk he brought in the cooler and a hard-boiled egg.

They hopped in the boat and headed upriver to Gull Island. The reason for its name was obvious. Birds by the thousands swarmed overhead. Native hunters sometimes come here for eggs.

They passed the other whale camp on the way out of the river. The people sat on the shore next to their beluga, which had been stripped of meat and muktuk.

Blatchford had bad words about some — not all — of the other beluga hunters. He said some of them are "dirty hunters." They don't keep clean camps, he said. He doesn't like the way some of them leave whale carcasses on the beach or the way some of them drink. He has told them this to their faces.

"Maybe I shouldn't say this because they're my own race, but I have to," he said. Some of the other hunters resent the criticism, and don't like how open Percy has been with biologists and others trying to learn more about the Inlet beluga hunts.

Joel pointed the boat toward the open water. The wind had died overnight and the sky was rich blue. Mount McKinley rose to the north. They headed back to Anchorage, a huge cooler loaded with muktuk and a few choice whale steaks. They would return in a few days for the meat left drying on the rack.

As they searched for a channel, their hull scraped the muddy bottom. They were four or five miles from shore. Off to the east, where they killed the whale yesterday, the hunters saw another large group of belugas, swimming back and forth at the river's mouth.

The trip back across the Inlet was smooth. As they approached the city, the sky over the water filled with planes jetliners, floatplanes coming and going between the city and the Susitna Valley, a military transport heading into Elmendorf. It was the middle of the day, and you could hear the sounds of cars and trucks and heavy equipment as the boat slowed along the downtown shore.

At the Ship Creek dock, Joel backed the boat trailer down the ramp. He and Percy pulled the skiff out of the water, took off their rubber boots and drove away, past the railroad yard and the urban salmon fishermen wading in the creek trying to land a big fish. Then the hunters drove across the bridge, unnoticed, and they melted into the traffic of the city.

COMING MONDAY:

Scientists try to determine how many beluga whales are in Cook Inlet and how healthy the population is.

David Hulen

David Hulen is editor of the ADN, He's been a reporter and editor at ADN for 36 years. As a reporter, he traveled extensively in Alaska. He was a writer on the Pulitzer Prize winning "People In Peril" series and covered the Exxon Valdez oil spill. He was co-editor of the Pulitzer-winning "Lawless" series. Reach him at dhulen@adn.com.

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