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Alaska’s North Slope whalers bring in spring bounty

  • Author: Shady Grove Oliver, The Arctic Sounder
  • Updated: May 6
  • Published May 6

Frederick Brower’s Little Whalers Crew hauls their bowhead onto the ice on April 25 as captured by a drone overhead. (Yves Brower)

It was a busy few weeks for North Slope whalers with several crews bringing in whales, or aġvik, within the space of a few days.

Because the season is dependent on the migration of the bowhead, it can go from start to finish very quickly, whalers said.

"The aġvik has sustained us as a people for thousands of years," Utqiaġvik whaler Herman Ahsoak wrote on Facebook this week. "… When we eat it frozen, aged, freshly boiled or fermented it fills us mind, body and spirit. We must never ever give up when it is time to help other crews in harvesting, butchering and dividing it to feed our people. We must continue to teach our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren how important it is to our survival. Let us all finish this spring season strong."

First-year captains Herb and Eva Kinneeveauk brought in Point Hope's first whale before any other community. In Wainwright, Edwin Tazruk's Iceberg 18 crew landed the village's first bowhead on April 26. The first whale was tricky for Utqiaġvik, according to Little Whalers Crew Captain Frederick Brower

"We struck our first whale on April 22 and after we prayed and tied up the whale to begin towing, the whale started to sink," Brower said. "We were connected and (it) started to take our boat underwater and had to cut away from it for our safety."

That first whale was considered a strike and a loss, he said, though it may still appear over the next several days.

His crew had to wait out some high winds for the next couple of days before they could head out on the ice again.

"The ice conditions are similar to last year (with) lots of young ice," Brower said. "… We all went out and broke trail to the edge, but a high west wind came along and added about three-quarters to 1 mile of ice and (we) had to break trail through that and began whaling from the new edge. … The conditions were not favorable but we made (do) with what we had and continued on with our whaling season."

On April 25, his crew had another opportunity.

"That afternoon we struck and landed our second whale which came out to be 29-foot 4-inch female," said Brower. "… While trying to pull the whale on the ice, the tow strap started to cut into the tail. For safety of the people pulling up the whale, we had to pull the whale up headfirst. After (a) couple failed attempts, we got it up later that day."

Once on the ice, it was cut up into manageable pieces and hauled back to town. The Little Whaler banner went up over the house afterward and the community came to join in the feast.

That same day, two other crews landed successful strikes: Anagi Crew, captained by Jacob Adams Sr., and Harry Brower Jr.'s Little Kupaaq Crew.

Messages and posts letting the community know who was serving at which house popped up throughout the day and evening and people made the rounds to collect shares and give thanks and congratulations.

The next day, Michael Donovan's Quuniq Crew landed a 32-foot, 5-inch bowhead. The Olemaun Crew, now captained by Tommy Olemaun, landed a 29 foot, 1 inch whale, as well.

Finally, Lucy "Bucca" Leavitt's Pamiilaq Crew landed a 26-foot, 1-inch whale on April 27.

It's a community effort to bring in each of the whales and so many successes kept Utqiaġvik on its toes for many days.

Anaktuvuk Pass resident Esther Hugo happened to be in town at the right time and got a chance to help out and see firsthand what it takes to make the spring harvest come together.

"Being from inland and (not having to) wonder how they prepare after harvesting — to be part of it means a lifetime experience," she said. "A Nunamiut helping."

She helped out at the Quuniq Crew's home base. When she first arrived, she worked to cut up the flipper.

"Then I went to the garage where Mary Patkotak and I were ask to help cook the maktak, tongue, heart and intestines. We ended up staying until all cooking was done, maybe three to four hours."

Getting to see firsthand what happens when a whale is killed was an exciting experience, she said.

"My eyes were so huge," said Hugo. "I (would) just ask questions (about) the work they do to feed the community. How to cook, not overcooking the liver, heart, intestines. … Wow, the totes were full (and) everyone (was) doing their share. Had a guy there (who was) very humorous helping with putting or adding water to the eight propane burners and containers that we were cooking. Had ladies cooling off meat to bring inside so they can start bagging for community that come by when feeding time."

It takes the whole family and many friends to make it all go smoothly. Being from an inland village, Hugo is no stranger to processing harvests, but it's a unique experience to help out a whaling crew, and something not many people outside the whaling communities ever get the chance to do.

"In my lifetime I felt complete to know how they do things after the whale is brought to home in preparation to cook and feed," said Hugo. "I'm very honored to participate and hope it's not my last time. Might add I was very honored to pray for Amikak whaling crew. Just (the) right timing and I had that honor to be part of the blessing to the crew."

Now that all of last week's aġviq is in homes and cellars, the rest of the crews will try their best to land a bowhead before the animals move on to the next village.

In Brower's words:"Good luck to all the whalers, be safe, keep the faith and continue whaling!"

This story is republished with permission from The Arctic Sounder.

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