Rural Alaska

Amid a weak caribou harvest, one North Slope village flew more than a ton of whale meat to another for Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving Whale

It’s not uncommon for Alaskans to carry specialty foods back and forth on airplane flights, whether it’s muktuk from the Chukchi coast, herring eggs from Sitka or Krispy Kreme donuts from Anchorage.

But in November, just two days before Thanksgiving, a Cessna Caravan arrived in the Inupaiq community of Anaktuvuk Pass up in the Brooks Range carrying more than 2,000 pounds of bowhead whale.

“That was a really big blessing for them to send whale meat and muktuk and fish and share their catch with us,” said Casey Edwards, who sits on the Anaktuvuk Pass city council and helped facilitate the shipment from a whaling captain in Nuiqsut, 144 miles farther north toward the Beaufort Sea coast.

“We brought it all to the city and then a bunch of people volunteered to cut it up into small cubes,” Edwards said. After that, it was distributed at the community’s Thanksgiving feast.

Sharing food and taking care of one another are core tenets in the Inupiaq value system. Likewise, trading and bartering subsistence foods, particularly between different regions, is an ancient practice in Alaska and around the circumpolar north. But this year’s transfer of a full ton of whale was due in part to misfortune: Anaktuvuk Pass saw almost no caribou move through the area this fall, depriving the community of its central subsistence staple.

“We’re in hardship due to no migration of our caribou,” said Anaktuvuk mayor Esther Hugo. “There’s been some broken hearts up here. We live on that caribou diet.”

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When an inland Inupiat band permanently settled present day Anaktuvuk Pass in the mid-20th century, they picked a particular saddle in the Brooks Range that essentially funneled the migrating caribou into a concentrated area between mountain peaks that made for optimal hunting. The town’s name itself is derived from the Inupiaq for the “place of caribou droppings.” But, according to Hugo, the last several seasons have seen low to non-existent opportunities for harvesting. This Thanksgiving, there was only enough caribou meat for people to dole out modest portions of soup to “try to make sure everybody gets a bite.”

Having whale helped satisfy some of the hunger for traditional foods.

“It’s hard for us to access muktuk, the whale. But the community of Nuiqsut foresaw that a few years ago, and now the families and relatives there have been helping us out,” Hugo said. “They’re very helpful and thoughtful people.”

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The animal was landed in August by the Ipalook Whaling Crew, helmed by Herbert Ipalook Sr.

“My family still shares what we catch. It’s part of our heart to share,” Ipalook said.

His crew was fortunate this year, harvesting two bowheads during the fall whaling season. He estimates they sent between 2,000 and 2,500 pounds of food on the plane from Nuiqsut to Anaktuvuk Pass.

“It’s just part of it. But that’s a lot,” he said.

Large hunks of frozen flesh were put into heavy duty black contractor bags, placed in the Caravan’s belly atop plastic sheeting, Ipalook said.

It is not the first time he’s helped facilitate a bulk whale shipment to a community where there was a need. This was the second instance he gifted a significant portion to Anaktuvuk Pass, and did the same another year for Utqiagvik after a lackluster whaling season there.

Though there’s not a formal system in place, local entities like the North Slope Borough and regional air carriers try to work with communities to accommodate large shipments of subsistence foods.

“It’s real common for us to take tons of stuff around the holidays,” said Matt Atkinson, one of the owners of Wright Air Service, which operated the chartered Caravan from Nuiqsut last month.

The company is typically contacted by the borough or a city official, and work with them to handle pickup and delivery. Most often hundreds of pounds of whale meat or white fish is packaged in burlap bags or rubber totes from the store, according to Atkinson.

“During whaling season it’s impressive. It’s a lot of meat,” he said.

Often the borough or city government will cover the cost for the special freight transfers, which takes the financial pressure off the donating crew or community.

“That was a big plus for us to share our part of our whale,” Ipalook said.

He’s presently coordinating with the North Slope Borough to send another large share of bowhead to Wainwright ahead of the Christmas holiday.

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“I’m not special,” Ipalook said. “It’s something that … when a captain thinks about, it comes from the whaling captain’s heart.”

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Zachariah Hughes

Zachariah Hughes covers the military, dog mushing, politics, subsistence issues and general assignments for the Anchorage Daily News. Prior to joining the ADN he worked in Alaska’s public radio network, and got his start in journalism at KNOM in Nome.

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