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Rural Alaska

Whaler makes history as Barrow's first known woman to take a whale

  • Author: Jillian Rogers
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published October 2, 2014

Bernadette Adams remembers pitching fits as a young girl out on the sea ice wanting desperately to go out whaling with her father. With no brothers, her hunting career started at a young age. And last week, she made local history as the first woman in the community to harpoon a bowhead. Usually women don't go out in boats with the whaling crews. And while community members in Barrow are touting her as the first woman to kill a whale, she's actually not sure if that's the case. But it doesn't matter to her either way.

"Everyone keeps asking me but I just say 'I don't know, I don't keep up with that, all I do is go whaling,'" said Adams, 31, last week.

Adams went out with captain George Ahmaogak Sr.'s crew Monday, Sept. 22, on a calm morning.

The boat was about 20 miles offshore from Point Barrow when something in the water caught Adams' eye.

She looked to her left and saw movement under the water's surface. Sure enough, moments later, a whale breached and the chase was on.

The crew pursued the behemoth for about 30 minutes before they were close enough for a strike.

"We followed it for a while and it came right up, right next to the boat and I threw the harpoon," Adams recalled.

The whale turned toward the boat just before the bomb attached to the well-placed harpoon went off.

"You have to throw it hard enough so the trigger rod will hit the muktuk," she explained. "You try your best to kill it as fast as you can. Sometimes that doesn't happen, but we were blessed this time because all it took was one bomb and it died."

The whale died quickly, proving that the throw was well executed. The Ahmaogak crew's whale measured in at 27 feet, 6 inches. But before celebrating commenced, the crew tied the front fins together, attaching a float, then used thick rope to tie the tail to the boat. A second boat was in the water to assist with the trip home. After the whale was secure, a prayer was said and a call to shore was made to let the community know they were heading home successful.

Even then, Adams said, it took a while for it to sink in that she had just taken her first whale. It took the crew nearly six hours to tow the whale home.

"I think it took a while for it to set in for me because that was my first time throwing a harpoon," she said. "It's very rare, I know that. I don't know if I'm the first one but I know it's rare for females to even get in the boat."

Adams has been whaling for six or seven years during the fall hunt, so she's knows how important the entire crew is for a successful hunt.

"You can't get close enough to a whale without a good driver," she said. "I give a lot of credit to the driver... but we talked and we both said we couldn't have done it without the good Lord."

By the time the whale was brought to town and the meat, muktuk and organs were harvested, it was getting dark. A large portion of the whale goes to the captain who hands it out at Thanksgiving and Christmas, while the rest is divided up and given out to the crew and the rest of the community. Locals line up outside the captain's house the day after to collect a portion of the bounty.

As of Monday, a total of four whales had been landed in Barrow; three on Sept. 22 and one on the evening of Sept. 24.

Eight strikes will open up next week and the fall whale hunt will continue until the allotted number of strikes are used up.

"It's a good time to see the community come together; that's what we do during whaling," Adams said.

As for her favorite part of the whale, she likes it all, she said. And while the whaling season is over for her for now, she's got plenty of hunts ahead.

"Whaling is year round, you get ready for it all year long," she said. "What I do is go hunting all summer -- seal hunting, walrus hunting, caribou hunting...

"I happen to have no brothers, so I had to find some way to help the family out."

This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.

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