With fall whaling over for North Slope villages and the sun sinking lower each day, whaling crews have put up their gear and now prepare to enjoy what the season had to offer. As holidays draw near, communities look forward to the gatherings that will bring out traditional dishes and the fruits of hunters' hard work.
"I've been hunting and whaling for over 28 years," said Barrow whaling captain Ned Arey, Sr. "Since I was a young lad."
Arey, born and raised in Barrow, led his crew through the landing of this season's largest bowhead whale.
That whale was a 43 foot, 9 inch female bowhead, landed on Oct. 5. Average whale sizes range from 20 to 30 feet, Arey said. At one ton per foot, that day's landing brought in a good 15 tons more than a typical catch.
"It just provides more plenty for the community to have meat," Arey said.
The day's hunt began around noon, and by mid afternoon they'd spotted the whale, about three and a half miles from the point. This is within the near-shore range of their hunting area, Arey said, as they'll sometimes range 15 to 20 miles from the coast.
His crew, numbering around a dozen, pursued the whale and brought it in with the help of community members and other crews by 9 p.m. that evening.
"It's a community effort," Arey said. "So once a whale is spotted they'll report it to the rest of the crews and then they'll usually work together to harvest that whale."
This helps to ensure a successful landing and the safety of all crewmembers, he said.
Towing the whale in by the tail, the crew met community helpers gathered at the shore.
Three boats helped tow in the larger than average that evening, though usually there would be more, Arey said.
"The people that (are) on shore," Arey said, "they come over and help butcher the whale and we divide it among the community."
If the strike used has been transferred from another community, as this one was, the successful hunters will sometimes try to transport some of the meat to the community that transferred the strike. That gets very expensive though, and depends on whether there are funds available for a chartered flight.
It's his community and the traditions of his ancestors that inspire him to hunt each year, Arey said.
"To feed the community (so) that they don't go hungry — it's my driving force," he said. "It comes with an inheritance of my forefathers. What you learn since you were young man, or a young lad, and you hold on to that cultural way of life. We keep that culture alive."
Part of nurturing that culture is sharing the knowledge he has with the young people of his crew, Arey said, whether it's knowledge of whaling or other subsistence efforts.
"I have many young men and women in my crew," Arey said. "So I (teach) them how to hunt the whales and harvest, what I've been taught from my forefathers. We pass it to the younger generation."
Even as he spoke of the retreating fall season, Arey was preparing for spring, considering what he needed to ready his boat for the next season's hunt.
"So it's a cycle of life, it doesn't stop it just keep going," he said. "When I'm not whaling I'm out hunting, traveling the country, getting whatever I need to prepare myself for the whole season."
The benefit comes when you feed your community, Arey said, and are able to share through community feasts and with relatives when they come home to visit.
"They come to Barrow just for that specific moment," Arey said. "To have a piece of that muktuk."
Barrow crews landed all 10 of the strikes they had for the fall season. Though they reached their quota after spring whaling, they acquired more strikes for fall from Kivalina, Point Hope and the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission banked strikes.
Though there was some inclement weather throughout the season, it was a primarily safe and sound fall for northern crews.
Though St. Lawrence Island will likely continue whaling in December, said AEWC director Johnny Aiken, the year's whaling is over for other communities under the AEWC umbrella.
Barrow has 35 registered whaling captains, by far the largest concentration in one village, with a couple more registered in the outlying villages.
This story was originally published in The Arctic Sounder and is reprinted here with permission. Hannah Heimbuch can be reached at hheimbuch(at)reportalaska.com.