Dale Brown

PRPE-108 -  Trip tale  -  February 13, 2006


  Whaling in Point Hope, Alaska

    The Inupiaq people have been whaling for survival for thousands of years.  Their understanding of the northern ice packs on the Arctic Ocean is remarkable.  Their different understanding of the land and its animals is beyond my comprehension.

    So I believe that one of the most stimulating and dangerous things I have ever done was to get invited, and go whaling in Point Hope, Alaska with them. I was going to have a new outlook on things after that experience. The trip was about more than just whaling; I found out many new things about myself, and the Inupiaq culture.

    Point Hope is a village on the coast of Alaska, above the Artic Circle. There are no trees there, due to the harsh climate. I flew to Point Hope in a twin otter airplane; these planes were used a lot for flying in freight and passengers into small villages. Against the large mass of ice, the village seemed like a little spot.

    As I stepped off the plane into about twenty below weather, it was sunny but cold. The sun on all that snow was enough to blind a man. Bill and his family had invited me to go whaling. Bill and my friend Peter were at the airport to pick me up with the snow machine. We had to head out onto the ice pack before it got dark because there were many polar bears. When we arrived at the camp, I did not expect it to be positioned right at the water’s edge. A hunter’s snow blind was built right at the edge of the ice. As the waves moved under the ice, it lifted the campsite as if it was in a boat in rough  seas; the feeling was most eerie and hard to describe. Right after arriving, we got a bite to eat, and I discovered frozen fish and seal oil is not bad.

    After eating, the elders said that it was time to move the camp; all of us took down the tent and moved the camp back to the spot that the elders had decided on. This was done none too soon, for after a couple hours, the ice broke off right back to the new campsite, and just floated away. The ice floating away was pretty amazing to me and scary at the same time. That night was to be a new experience for me; I was to be a “boyar.” A “boyar” is a person who stays up at night while everyone else sleeps; he feeds the fire to keep it burning.  There was no wood to burn, so we had to use seal fat as fuel; it has a real bad odor when it is burning. I really learned to appreciate stove oil. That smell made for a very long first night, with the wind blowing, and the ice moving up and down. It was dark and cold and I had a strange sensation, like a smooth earthquake, never stopping. Here I was on something solid, but it moved as if it was soft ice slush.

    The Elders came back out the next morning ready for a day of hunting. It is hard for me to believe how wise they were about things. I realized out there that I would not stand a chance without them there to guide me. After Bill had shot a seal, we had to go and get it. That was going to be my first time in a skin boat as a rower. Yes! I had been moved up this was great. However I didn’t realize how hard it was going to be because once you started, there was no stopping until the job was done. There you hunt to survive; it is the way of life. Let me just say I was ready for sleep that night - cold or not.

    The Elders had many good tales of past hunts, and in telling them, they were also passing on many traditions to the next generation that would keep the hunter’s safe while out on the ice pack. The next morning, there was a whale spotted. The fun and joking around were over. There were eight of us to row and one as the harpooner. I would not want his job. He shoots a pipe-looking-rifle with a stick of dynamite in it to spread the hooks with a long rope tied to a buoy to track the whale. We rowed with everything we had, but that day, it was not enough, so back to the edge of the ice pack we went. I know now that those whales are a lot bigger in life. The next couple of days we did not see any more whales, just some seals. Although we did not get a whale, the trip was unforgettable.

    I learned many new things from the Elders that I still carry with me to this day, such as respect for my Elders, and respect for the land and animals that provide for us. The greatest gift of all was the Inupiaq people themselves. I was so inspired by their knowledge and understanding of me being different than them; I guess deep down inside I know all the people on earth are the same with much to share, and that is the gift that I like to share with others. As I took off from the airport, my thoughts were on that warm bed waiting for me back home in Kotzebue, Alaska.  

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