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|Publisher:||Farrar, Straus and Giroux|
|Edition description:||First Edition|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.76(d)|
About the Author
Charles Wohlforth, formerly a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Outside and The New Republic. He is a life-long Alaskan.
Read an Excerpt
The Whale and the Supercomputer
THE BRINK OF THE SHOREFAST SEA ICE cut the water like the edge of a swimming pool. A white canvas tent, several snow-machines and big wooden sleds, and a sealskin umiaq whale boat waited like poolside furniture on the blue-white surface of the ice. Gentle puffs rippled the open water a foot or two below, except near the edge, where a fragile skin of new ice stilled the surface. Sun in the north reached from the far side of the lead, backlighting the water and picking out the imperfections in this clear, newborn ice with a contrast of yellow-orange and royal blue. This was after midnight on May 6, 2002, three miles offshore from the NAPA auto parts store in Barrow, Alaska.
A hushed voice urged me on toward the edge.
"Come on, there's a fox. They follow the polar bears."
The fox ran past the camp, beyond the ice edge, danced as it ran, upon that new skin of ice floating on the indigo water. An hour or two earlier there had been no ice there at all and now it looked no thicker than a crust of bread. The fox used tiny, rapid steps. Its feet disappeared in motion. Its back arched high and its tail pulled up tall, as if strings were helping suspend it on that insubstantial film of hardened water. Somehow it knew how much weight a brand-new sheen of ice could hold, and knew how to calibrate each step within that limit. The Iñupiaq whalers of Oliver Leavitt Crew watched and muttered with admiration as the fox pranced out ofsight. All were experienced hunters, even the young ones, but they were impressed by this skill. This animal knew something valuable, something they would like to know, something that could help them survive.
The five younger members of the crew had been building an ice trail back from the edge. Swinging ice axes and a pick ax, they pounded through ridges as high as a garden shed, pitching broken ice boulders to fill in the dips. The road would be an alternate escape route for the snow-machines and sleds should ice conditions deteriorate, and also a secondary access route to send a young guy back to town for pop and doughnuts if life in camp continued as normal. The young men had been working for twelve hours. Billy Jens Leavitt, the captain's son, was the boss of this job. He was gigantic, tall with huge limbs and feet, swinging a heavy pick ax like a nightstick. His father bragged, by complaining, that Billy Jens tended to throw the harpoon too hard, embedding not only its head but also the shaft in the whale. Ambrose Leavitt and Gilford Mongoyak were Billy Jens's juniors on the crew, but both adults. Ambrose missed his baby; Oliver wouldn't send him home on errands for fear he wouldn't come back. Gilford talked a lot of his one- and two-year-olds. Polite Jens Hopson was a high school kid and Brian Ahkiviana a seventh grader, shy but cheerful, and big for his age. Both had soft young faces but worked like men.
I was older than any of them and they treated me with noticeable respect, and that was a little awkward, since I knew a small fraction of what the youngest of them knew about what we were doing. When I arrived I had to take an ice ax from someone. There were only five axes and six of us. Billy Jens wouldn't tell me whose ice ax to take; he wouldn't tell an older man what to do. They stood around me in a circle as I tried quickly to size up the situation. Then I stepped up and took Billy Jens's big pick ax, thinking that would show I knew he was the boss, and I said, "You look like you could use a rest." In fact, he didn't need a rest, and he liked the heavy pick best. As we started working he took an ax from one of the younger guys, and when I set down the big one for a break he grabbed it but never said a word.
Oliver Leavitt himself sat on a long wooden sled next to his thermos and his VHF marine radio, silently gazing on the water and the ice chunks and bergs drifting by imperceptibly slowly on the calm surface. When I first went out on the sea ice with Iñupiaq hunters I was confused andsomewhat bored by long stops when, standing like statues, they stared at the horizon. I secretly thought these guys shouldn't smoke so much if they needed this much rest. One day I learned the purpose of the stillness. I was alone for a while at a whale lookout, pacing for warmth, when a hunter came to my side and took up that gazing posture, as if posing for a romantic painting of a noble Eskimo. Within a minute he pointed out a large polar bear that was approaching about a hundred yards away. To my eye, the bear's appearance was like magic, as if this hunter knew how to summon ghosts from their hiding places. Silent, motionless watching had made the bear visible and prevented us from being potential prey. The whiteness around us, which looked like a vast wreck, a static chaos without scale or reference, in fact was full of information for those who knew how to read it. But first, one must establish a pace slower than the change one wished to observe.
A polar bear swimming past the Oliver Leavitt Camp stopped and paddled in place, raising its long neck far above the water like a periscope to scan the area. On the horizon, across the wide lead of open water, the white tips of jagged pressure ridges showed like the tips of a mountain range on a distant continent.
No longer able to stay awake, I went to join the young guys in the tent. Like all Iñupiaq whalers, the crew used white canvas wall tents, smaller versions of the classic army tent, with sturdy lumber supports and panels of insulated plywood on the floor. A propane burner often brewed a pot of cowboy coffee (gritty coffee made by throwing grounds in with the water), but even when nothing was cooking the flame always stayed lit to keep the tent warm. The plywood grub box contained a bonanza of cookies, candy, and the Eskimos' favorite, frosted doughnuts. Warm meals arrived from home in plastic Igloo coolers: fried chicken, or aluuttigaaq (a delicious caribou stir-fry with thick gravy), or a treat of maktak, the whale's blubber and skin, raw or pickled. Anything with a lot of fat to keep you warm in cold weather. Next to the grub box were cases of Coke and 7-Up; the ice underneath kept them cool. Socks, gloves, and boot liners hung to dry on the ridgepole of the tent, but everyone had to sleep fully dressed in parkas, snow pants, and Arctic boots. Escaping breaking ice could depend on it; quick escapes happened several times a season. The men, as many as six or eight at a time, slept side by side on piles of blankets and the pelts of caribouand polar bear in an area the size of a king-sized bed. With sleep in short supply, close contact with other unwashed men was no barrier to drifting off.
I woke at 5:30 a.m. to see more polar bears; this time a mother and cub were swimming by, the cub resting on the mother's back. Oliver was still sitting in the same place, looking out in the same direction. The ice continent across the water was closer now: the pressure-ridge mountains were entirely visible. Oliver invited me to sit, drink coffee, and talk. I had been told to keep quiet in whale camp. Crewmen in the whale camp and skin boat, the umiaq, should be quiet and harmonious. Bowhead whales could hear at a great distance and had been seen to divert their paths at a camp noise such as a slamming grub box. In the dark of winter, before the whales arrived, the women who sewed the ugruk (bearded seal) cover for the umiaq worked in calm and harmony. When a whaling season went badly, people often said it was because of some conflict going on in town. The Iñupiat dislike conflict. In whale camp, teenagers didn't speak until spoken to. But Oliver said, "Hell, you're not a kid."
Oliver was a big, round man who used his face to tell you where you stood: he could switch quickly from a blank, inscrutable face, to an aggressive "just try me" face, to a knowing smile suggesting you could see half his cards but probably not the best ones. When he was a boy he shot ducks for elders who could no longer hunt for themselves. This skill gave him a small role in an event that helped start the militant phase of the movement for Alaska Native land claims. In May 1961, shortly after Alaska became a state, a game warden arrested a Barrow subsistence hunter for killing a duck out of season. A law made up far away, for reasons irrelevant to feeding Iñupiat families, closed duck hunting from March 10 to September 1, virtually the entire period migratory birds spent in the Arctic. Barrow villagers protested by holding a "duck-in"; they presented themselves to the game warden for arrest, each with a dead duck in hand, almost 150 men, women, and children in all. Oliver's crew provided most of the ducks, passing out about 150 of the 300 they had recently shot, so more people could turn themselves in (some took two, one for the arrest and one for dinner).
Oliver first went to whale camp when he was in fifth grade. His father, who did odd jobs and unloaded freight, didn't have the wealth to outfit a whaling crew, so Oliver went with his uncles and learned from them in the traditional way, by watching, then doing, and receiving sharp correctionfor errors. One of his uncles would hit crewmen with a paddle; another was kindlydry Iñupiaq humor can be more corrective than violence.
Starting in eighth grade Oliver went away to a boarding school for Alaska Natives, graduated in 1963, received some vocational training, and lived in New York, Los Angeles, and the San Francisco Bay Area. He served in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive, then returned to Barrow in 1970. An oil company had made a huge find on the North Slope and Alaska Native claims were nearing approval in Congress. The Iñupiat would soon be rich and they needed the help of young men like Oliver who had seen the world.
Sitting on the sled, Oliver was looking for whales and gauging the ice. In traditional spring whaling, the umiaq perches on the ice edge ready for launch. If a whale surfaces nearby, the crew launches as quickly and quietly as possible and paddles to the whale or to a spot where the captain expects the whale to resurface. For the harpooner to hit the whale's vulnerable spot, just behind the skull, with a harpoon made from a long pole of heavy lumber, the captain has to maneuver the boat right onto the whale's back or within touching distance alongside. The whale can move much faster than the boat, so most of whaling is waiting quietly for a whale to come close enough to launch. In camp, no bright colors are allowed that might catch a whale's eye and crews avoid unnecessary noise and movement. Hunters wear white pullover parkas lined with caribou hide for camouflage on the white snow. That morning we saw only one whale, a far-off black back rolling across the surface, and heard another, a roaring blowhole exhalation from somewhere we could not see, hidden by the ice. Normally at this time of year, a crew would be seeing whales every few minutes. Crews farther down the lead were paddling in search of one, thinking the migration might be passing by on the other side of the big ice across the lead.
The ice was bad that year. It had been bad for a decade and seemed to be growing steadily worse.
The shore ice should form in the fall as bergs left over from the previous year float near the beach and are sewn together by new ice that freezes in the cooling temperatures. These big bergs are chunks of the previous year's ice pack that never melted over the summer. They usually form out of old pressure ridges, mountains of ice built by the collisions of huge ice sheets, becoming freshwater ice as warm spring temperatures drain pocketsof brine trapped inside. The surface becomes rounded and smooth and the ice becomes dense, hard, and brittle. The Iñupiat call it pigaluyak, or glacier ice. Under the surface whiteness it glows iridescent blue, like a glacier. Iñupiaq travelers use the fresh water for making tea far from home. Whalers seek out multiyear ice; it provides a strong platform for pulling up whales and it anchors the shorefast ice in place with its great mass.
In the winter of 2001-02, however, as for several years prior, little multiyear ice had appeared at Barrow. The shore ice didn't form as solidly as it should, and it lacked the big, solid anchors that multiyear ice, or even new ice with large pressure ridges, would have provided. And on March 18, something strange and unsettling had happened. The ice went out, leaving open water right up to the beach in front of Oliver Leavitt's house. A distant storm had created a tidal surge near Barrow that lifted and cracked the ice pack; a current had pulled it away. (The Arctic Ocean has virtually no lunar tides, but atmospheric pressure gradients cause rising and falling water levels, which the Iñupiat call tides). The ice should have been strong enough to withstand that. No one could ever remember the ice going out that early. Normally, it goes out in July. A dozen seal hunters floated out to sea on the ice. The North Slope Borough's Search and Rescue helicopters went to find them and bring them home. Some didn't know they were drifting away into the Arctic Ocean until the helicopter showed up for the rescue. You can't tell you're moving when your whole world starts to drift away.
Later, ice returned and refroze to the shore, but it wasn't sturdy ice and it still lacked good anchors. As whaling season began, a strong west wind pushed the ice against the shore for several days, then a strong east wind tested it and cleared away some of the junk ice. Oliver's theory now was that these events had cemented the ice adequately for safe whaling. He had chosen a flat area of ice with a color and height above the water that told him it was strong enough to pull up a whale. But every so often he sent someone to look at the watery crack that was a little behind us or to check the dark iceweak, brand-new icethat lay a mile or two back, between us and dry land.
Another threat occupied his mind even more that morning: the big mass of ice we could see across the lead, which was moving very slowly toward the southwest but also seemed to be getting closer at an imperceptible pace. Oliver said, "That's the dangerous ice. If people start noticing it's coming in, we'll be out of here in five minutes flat."
The momentum behind an ice floe, even if it is moving only slowly, is stupendous; when it hits the unmoving shore ice, the collision is like an immense, mountain-building earthquake, a terrifying event called an ivu. Oliver was young at the time of the big ivu in 1957, but he remembered how the ice went crazy, with big multiyear floes standing up on end and shattering far from the edge, forcing the crews to scramble for their lives over miles of cracking, piling ice, leaving camps, boats, and dog teams behindtheir entire means of supporting their families. Now he told the story of an ivu in the 1970s that came while the village was butchering a whale caught by his uncle, Jonathan Aiken. Men raced away on snow-machines, dragging off huge strips of maktak from the whale's side even as the ice devoured the whale's body. He told stories like this frequently in camp while the younger members of the crew listened. The ivu stories were the scariest.
In 1978, an elder, Vincent Nageak, told gathered villagers the story of an ivu in which boats and dogs were lost, as was one man, Aanga, who was caught by a moving chunk of ice:
Right after it had bit Aanga in its grip, they tried to hurriedly ... remove him from there all right, when [the ice] stopped for a little while, but he told them, "I don't think you can take me off from here with those little penknives, do you?" And here he was with his pipe in his mouth, they say. "I don't think you can be able to take me off with those little penknives, do you?" And so immediately after he had finished saying that, all of a sudden, without warning, it began again, and so Aanga [was taken] down under. Holding his pipe in his mouth, it is said, after [the ice] had bit him in its grip, when we was about to go out of sight, he just smiled at those [who were] there.
Iñupiaq chatter on the marine VHF radio by Oliver's side began to flow with comments from nervous captains up and down the lead. They saw the big pressure ridges across the open water growing noticeably closer.
The radio box was a sturdy plywood case with a car battery and a tall boat antenna. Each camp could hear its "base," usually the captain's home, and other camps spread out along twenty miles of the lead. Channel 72 was for whaling and channel 68 for routine in-town communication. VHF sets seemed always close at hand near kitchen tables and under the dash ofpickup trucks. In the morning people said "Good morning, good morning" to announce they were on the air, and the NAPA auto parts storewhich carried harpoon parts and other whaling supplieslet everyone know when they were open for business. In the evening, each person said "Good night" when turning off the radio, and the children and grandchildren of whalers said good night to their fathers and grandfathers out in campsweet broadcasts of kisses and love names that the whole town could hear. One evening I heard tough old Oliver Leavitt on the VHF trading silly I-love-yous with his granddaughters, Ashley, age seven, and Appa, four. During times of peril, the VHF allowed whalers to act almost as one, sharing observations about ice and water movement and dynamics from many perspectives.
The whalers handled these technical conversations in Iñupiaq, even though many younger people are not fluent. Some handy words don't exist in English, such as mauragaq, to cross open water by jumping from one piece of ice to the next; or tuagilaaq, to kill a whale with a single blow to the sensitive spot behind the skull; or uitliterally "to open one's eyes"a term used to indicate the breaking away of pack ice from shore ice to form an open lead of water. But one cannot attain the full benefit of Iñupiaq by simply incorporating individual words into English as technical jargon. The very structure of Iñupiaq helps deal with situations in a unique environment. Speakers can convey information quickly in a moving landscape without landmarks or any visible distinction between ocean and shore. In the absence of physical reference points, the speaker can position objects and events using movement, the relative locations of speaker and listener, and the directional orientation of the ocean and rivers. For example, pigña indicates that the thing you are talking about is above, has a length less than three times its width, is visible and stationary, and stands at equal distance between speaker and listener. Pagña contains all the same information, except that the subject's length is more than three times its width. English has a few such words, such as hither and yonder, but they are largely obsolete and not nearly as useful. Iñupiaq endings also aid coordination by allowing speakers to pass on oral information without losing nuances about the quality of the knowledge and how it was obtained. They cover a gradient roughly ranging from "I saw it myself and it is certain" to "Someone saw it and it might be true." (Contrary to popular belief, however, the Eskimos do not have a hundred words for snow.)
From Oliver's vantage he could see that the apparent nearing of the ice across the lead was only the passage of a point; part of the ice island drifting parallel to our ice protruded in our direction, creating the illusion that the entire floe was moving quickly toward us. Oliver uttered a few words of Iñupiaq on the radio and the discussion stopped. "You got to talk to them quick before they scare themselves," he said. Each captain's experience and expertise were well known, another factor in how whalers evaluated conditions and safety. Oliver Leavitt's name carried unquestioned authority.
When I first saw Oliver Leavitt Crew at work they were building the boat that now stood at the edge of the ice. The Iñupiat Heritage Center, a well-equipped cultural center and living museum in Barrow, had a large workshop called the Traditional Room, where whalers, artists, and others involved in cultural activities came to build things. Oliver's boat was on one side while Julius and Delbert Rexford's Atqaan crew repaired and mounted a new skin on their umiaq in the other. Oliver was known for his boat-building skills. He worked with a few crew members his own age, men like Hubert Hopson, strong and skilled but past their prime, giving them instructions as equals. The next generation in the room was represented by the Rexfords and their senior crewmen: they were around my age, nearing forty, with plenty of responsibilities of their ownDelbert was a former borough assembly member. But they asked for Oliver's opinions, and when Oliver saw Julius doing something he didn't likeattaching a piece to one of his own sledsOliver gruffly told him so and Julius quickly changed it to the way Oliver recommended. Next in seniority were Oliver's younger crewmen, men in their twenties, including Billy Jens, Gilford, and Ambrose. They did skilled work, but under direct supervision. Oliver taught them and they listened carefully. At the bottom rung, teenage boys stood around the edges of the room waiting to be told what to do and holding their tongues. They wore their snow pants and warm boots indoors, aware that they could be sent to the store or the wood pile at any moment and would have to jump quickly.
I once asked a high school class in Barrow why teenagers were so respectful around their whaling captains. They politely made it clear this was a foolish question: no one in his right mind would risk his place on a whaling crew, a position of high status for even the lowest member. They would as soon risk a chance for a basketball scholarship. (Barrow's other mania is basketball. Besides closely following the teams of the NBA andNCAA, young fans knew the name of the first Iñupiat to dunk the ball, a player for the Barrow High School Whalers.) But fear of being excluded from whaling was only a part of it. Young people in Barrow generally were more respectful than they were in Anchorage. Respect is fundamental in Iñupiaq culture; I think they learned it by seeing it practiced.
As the day wore on in camp, the young men did chores, checked the ice, and built a blind of ice blocks. Jens tried to complete an American history term paper that was due in a couple of days. Oliver informed him about President Warren G. Harding and the National Petroleum Reserve at Teapot Dome, Wyoming. He then told the history of the National Petroleum ReserveAlaska, just south of us, where oil exploration brought modernity to Barrow fifty years ago and where an oil strike and the new money it would bring were still hoped for. Oliver claimed he wasn't as articulate in English as in Iñupiaq, but he knew how to tell a good story: slowly, with sharp, percussive words, well-chosen profanity, a clear point at the end, and often a punch line.
Many of the stories were about whaling screwups: mishandled weapons, misread whale behavior, missed signs of danger on the ice. Some stories taught the history of grappling with the white world. Oliver had presided at a meeting in the early 1970s when the oil companies sent a chartered 737 full of lawyers to Barrow to say they didn't recognize the new local government and wouldn't pay property taxes on their oil discoveries at Prudhoe Bay. Oliver and his colleagues got the upper hand through sheer terror, playing the part of the exotic primitives. They carried lawyers in business suits to the meeting on long snowmachine rides in bitter cold March weather (really, it was a short walk). Oliver used a billy club for a gavel and threatened to mace the audience if they didn't maintain order, offering a safety briefing to go along with the threat: "The trick is don't panic. You will be taken to the hospital. The doctors will wash your eyes out. There's no running water here. Just don't rub your eyes."
As afternoon progressed, the sun was bright and unseasonably warm. The ice reflected brilliantly while the deep, dark water swallowed light. The details of the pressure ridge mountains across the lead were clearly visible. The radio grew lively again. Oliver stood and watched the ice across the water intently. Everyone else stood, too, waiting for what he would say. Then, calmly, "We better start packing up."
The younger men began by emptying the tent. Oliver and Hubertworked on disabling the weapons and putting away the radio. Now you could see the ice moving through the water directly toward us. The work already was going fasteveryone knew his job without a wordbut Oliver said, "Better hurry up, Billy." When speaking to the younger part of the crew, he addressed only Billy Jens, like an officer giving orders to a sergeant. Billy Jens grunted a few orders to the others. I tried to help, grabbing plywood floor panels and dropping them on a sled. Again, "Better hurry up, Billy." Oliver's voice had an increasingly urgent edge to it. Things not fitting in right, the boys started throwing stuff on the sleds haphazardly. Less than ten minutes had passed, but the lead was quite narrow now, just a few hundred feet. "Better hurry up, Billy," the tone each time a little higher.
Billy Jens had too much to do; I tried to tie down one of the sled loads for him, using half-hitch knots for speed rather than the quick-release knots the Eskimos prefer. The load came looseI had tied the lashing line to the wrong rope. Billy Jens came around to retie it, but my tight half hitches were tough to untie. The boat was ready to go on the sled. The ice was a hundred feet away and closing fast. Oliver said, "Billy, pick up the boat." Billy was still trying to fix my mistake, without saying a word. I tried to help with the boat, but I didn't know where to grab it. "Better hurry up, Billy." Billy Jens grabbed the gunwale, we heaved the boat onto the sled and started strapping it down. I could see the crystal-thin rim of ice where the fox had run the night before and, with the lead of water almost closed, I could see the same rim on the other side approaching. We needed to escape before a possible ivu could break our ice free from the shore. "Better hurry up, Billy." Miscellaneous gear was thrown in the boat. Oliver told me to grab the back of a sled, where I stood, holding the handles. The snowmachines moved into place to hitch up. Only minutes had passed.
As I was jerked into motion behind Hubert's machine, I could see the collision begin. The glassy film of new ice from each side made contact and the delicate tracery that had supported the fox shattered and disappeared into the ocean.
We bounced wildly down the ice road we had built the night before, the boats pitching up to crazy angles on their sleds before they topped the ridges and raced down behind the snowmachines. The trail that had seemed so smooth and straight when we were chopping it now swung me wide with each turn on the back of a heavy sled of gear, crashing into iceblocks and ridges while I held on tight, bracing for each jolt. Hubert turned his head and yelled, "Steer!"
We stopped on a big flat pan of ice near town. Crew after crew filtered in from the trails and joined us, until rows of sleds and boats stood side by side as if in a big parking lot. It was sunny and warm and a good time for friends to meetteens with teens, captains with captainsand to talk of guns, snow machines, and ice conditions. No fear, no sense of relief. These days, with the bad ice and warm weather, an escape like this was routine.
John Craighead George, known as Craig, arrived in Barrow in 1977, having taken a job caring for animals at the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory, America's primary research station in the Arctic, universally known as NARL. He had escaped to Alaska from Moose, Wyoming, at the base of the Tetons, a refugee from an illustrious family. His uncles, John and Frank Craighead, were world-famous experts on the grizzly bears of Yellowstone National Park. His mother, Jean Craighead George, was the author of the classic children's books My Side of the Mountain and Julie of the Wolves. Craig himself was a scruffy mountain climber, a member of a Jackson Hole fraternity dedicated to redundant conquests of black Grand Teton and its pointy neighboring mountains. His grades were lackluster, his scientific experience thin, and his family's success daunting. "That's why I ran," he said. "It's kind of a heavy dose."
A first flight into Barrow felt like flying to another planet. You took off in a jet from Fairbanks, a town of 80,000 in the middle of Alaska, without having left the usual interchangeable mall of gates, jetways, and airplane cabins. On a clear day you could watch untracked wilderness pass below you for a solid hour and a half: the great river valleys of the Interior, the insane multiplicity of mountain peaks in the Brooks Range, and then an area that resembled infinitythe flat green tundra of the North Slope with its randomly wandering rivers and lakes like water droplets on a windshield. On the plane's descent nothing man-made appeared outside the windowno roads or buildings, just more oblong lakes and strands of swampy tundraand it looked like you were going to land in one of them. The town showed up just before touchdown. From the air it looked like aload of cardboard boxes that fell off a truck in a place identical to every other place as far as the horizon.
On a map, Barrow's location appeared quite logical, at the extreme northern tip of Alaska, on a shoreline that showed up, like any other, as a sharp boundary between the manageable terrestrial kingdom of dry land and the invisible wilderness of the sea. But here that line was a misleading metaphor. A smudgy watercolor gradation would be a more accurate one. Land and ocean were both made of water. During ten weeks of summer, the land, flat and treeless, was only a slightly warmer shade of green than the ocean. A thin layer of tundra lay atop permanently frozen ground called permafrost. Surface water sloshed around on that ice. Innumerable lakes, all lined up southeast to northwest, perpendicular to the prevailing wind, shredded the very idea of land into temporary lacy tendrils that barely stretched around reflections of the sky. The line between this flat, wet ground and the flat sea seemed entirely arbitrary. For nine months of the year the sea and land merged in whiteness. In winter, the visual difference between land and shorefast ice was merely one of texture. The shapes on shore were soft, those on the sea angular. At times, an ivu smudged the distinction further, pushing over the shore, digging and overtopping the land, and crushing anything in its path.
The town itself was strange to a new visitor, too. You left the aviation cocoon abruptly, disembarking not into a terminal but onto cold tarmac. When Craig arrived, the airport terminal consisted of a twenty-foot-square building with blankets hung in the corners to hide the toilets, which were buckets. Even in 2002, Alaska bush communities had no business district, no shops, and few signs (everyone already knew where everything was). Other than NAPA and the building supply store, everything came from Stuaqpaq ("big store," in English), where you could buy groceries, clothing, ivory carvings, all-terrain vehicles, deli sandwiches, books, music, and so on. The houses, arrayed along wide gravel roads, were mostly plywood cubes sitting on pilingsthe warmth inside isolated from the permafrost to prevent the ground from melting and turning to mush. Meat or fowl would hang to dry outside, snowmachine parts and animal bones lay here and there, and dogs orbited on tethers. To visit, you had to enter, unbidden, the first room of the house, the quanitchaq, or Arctic entry, a sort of airlock to keep the cold weather at bay. For anyone to hear you inside,you had to knock on the inner door, inside the quanitchaq. But in most Eskimo homes, the quanitchaq was piled high with boots, coats, toys, tools, snowmachine oil, garbage, frozen meat, skins, and other miscellanyit seemed like a personal spaceand shutting the outer door before knocking on the inner door plunged you into total darkness. Even the addresses were indecipherable to an outsider because, instead of using street names, each building was designated solely by a unique number. To find your way around, you simply had to know the numbers: when a person said "4337," for example, that meant the mayor's house.
I was always treated with politeness and respect in Barrowalthough the form politeness sometimes took in Alaska Native culture could come across to whites as sullennessbut for a long time many people couldn't remember who I was from one meeting to the next, either by name or by face. Craig joked to me, "You've got to do your apprenticeship. You've got to be here five years before they'll recognize you, and then another five years before they'll talk to you." My theory was that Native people learned unconsciously to ignore a new white face until the newcomer behaved like a member of the community. From the perspective of traditional Iñupiaq norms of behavior most whites were rude: they talked too fast and didn't give others a chance to say anything, they stared, they spoke too directly, contradicted others, and didn't listen for meaningful nuances, they couldn't sit still, and they didn't reciprocate the gifts of knowledge and hospitality they received. Iñupiaq people spoke slowly, used stories to make points, and always avoided conflict; an elder once expressed a strong disagreement to me by saying, "Different people see things different ways." Besides, outsiders cycled through too fast to remember them all, and local people often got burned by their brief, voracious presence: burned by unethical journalists, researchers, and contractors, and burned by people who came to work just for the high wages or gave up on the place after a year.
And from an outsider's perspective, who could stand to live long in the Arctic on the outside of that chilly shell? When Craig saw how flat the place was and how different his life would be, he freaked out and decided to leave.
His boss persuaded him to give it another chance. When Craig arrived, the foundation of Iñupiaq culture was in peril. Iñupiaq whaling appeared to be in its death throes. In 1977, Eskimo whalers struck 111 bowhead whales out of a population estimated by government scientists to numberonly 1,300. The International Whaling Commission, a treaty organization dedicated to saving the world's whales from extinction, ordered the hunt stopped. The word from the IWC arrived on the North Slope as a fait accompli. The Iñupiat mourned. Whale accounted for a large percentage of the protein they consumed, but the death was a cultural death. And it seemed unnecessary. The whalers and elders knew there were more whales than the scientists had counted.
The bowhead, also known as a right whale, is a large baleen whale. It filters shrimp and other small creatures through fibers on rows of hundreds of flexible, bony black strips called baleen, which range in length from a few feet to more than fourteen feet. Before the advent of plastic, baleen was a common household material used in anything that needed to be strong and flexible, such as umbrellas and women's corsets. Nineteenth-century commercial whalers depleted the Atlantic right whale to the point of extinction, where it still hovered a century later. The right whales of the Pacific were distinct, with slight physiological differences. They were called bowhead for the hard, bony skull that allowed them to surface through thin or broken ice. Commercial whalers overhunted the bowhead, but not as severely as they did the Atlantic right whales. Eskimo whaling traditions waned but never died out completely, and, by the time the Iñupiat were told to stop, they believed with confidence that whale numbers were strongly rebounding.
What chance was there that the world would believe Eskimo hunters over learned scientists? A paper delivered to an IWC conference by U.S. government scientists predicted eventual extinction of the bowhead even if no hunting were allowed. In the world of science and public policy, Iñupiat knowledge appeared anecdotal and self-interested. Some environmentalists, including one senior IWC official, charged that the Iñupiat's culture was inauthentic because harpoons were tipped with metal instead of bone and said that the whaling captains were really just trophy hunters. Even some allies privately doubted the Eskimos' claims. But, thanks to Prudhoe Bay crude oil, the Iñupiat had the resources to push their case. They had won the fight to tax the richest oil field in North America by forming a county-level local government covering the entire region. The North Slope Borough helped fund creation of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, which successfully lobbied with the international commission for an annual quota of twelve whalesnot enough to feed the nine Iñupiaqwhaling villages, but something to keep the tradition alive. Meanwhile, the new borough's Department of Wildlife Management (known around town simply as "Wildlife") hired scientists to develop knowledge in the western style that could support the subsistence way of life.
Tom Albert, a research veterinarian from Pennsylvania, became the senior scientist of Wildlife (established in the facilities of NARL, which was closing) and hired Craig to manage the new whale count program. Harry Brower, Sr., became Tom Albert's teacher. Harry was one of Barrow's most respected elders, a successful whaler and a former science support worker at NARL, and he knew how to communicate his knowledge to Tom and the other scientists. Other whalers trusted Tom and his team because Harry did. Harry died in 1992 and Tom retired back to Pennsylvania in 2001, but their relationship lives on as a legend in Barrow, memorialized by a museum exhibit in the Iñupiat Heritage Center.
Harry and other whalers explained what the scientists were missing and why. The whale counts used the same simple technique used to count whales anywhere: pick a spot along the migration route, count the whales you see, then make a statistical adjustment for the whales you think you missed. The Iñupiat believed this methodology missed whales two ways: the migration passed on a much wider band than the scientists assumed, and the whales often swam under the ice, where they could not be observed. Eskimos could hear them day and night spouting through holes in the ice.
Craig's team would have to invent a way of counting unseen whales and do it out on the dangerous ice. In Barrow's long scientific history, NARL researchers and later those at Wildlife had come to believe that, as Craig said, going out on the ice without a Native guide was "sheer death." Scientists always had appreciated the Iñupiat's superior practical understanding of sea ice, although they often discounted the fundamental knowledge that supported that practical understandingknowledge of ice strength and dynamics, weather and currents. Craig had all that to learn. He was tall, muscular, an experienced outdoorsmanhis climbing experience had gotten him the jobbut his outdoor skills came from recreation, not work. Mountain climbing, however adventurous, was an unnecessary hardship. Mountaineers valued an accomplishment for its difficulty. The Eskimos' utilitarian way of camping shared nothing with the ideal of contrived challenges.
"My first trip out with Benny Nageak, camping on the Colville River," Craig recalled, "I pull out this dome tent and a little baby MSR stove and some dried food. And Benny's like, 'Wait a minute. Where's the wall tent? Where's the Coleman?' And you know, he basically said, Where are the cookies and the coffee and all the good stuff? And the pop? And he said, 'For God's sakes,' he said, 'you don't know how to camp.' And here I had just climbed McKinley and all this kind of stuff, and I went, 'Oh my God, I'm not in Kansas anymore.' There were a lot of things like that. I didn't bring a radio. You know, you never brought an AM radio going up in the backcountry in Yellowstone. That would be sacrilege. He was like, 'Where's the radio? The VHF and the AM radio? We can't listen to KBRW and the birthday program. What the hell is this?'"
KBRW was Barrow's radio station and a key node in the communities' neural network of communications. Out on the ice, upriver in fish camp, or in the pickup truck around town, KBRW was often playing, relaying All Things Considered, National Public Radio interviews with authors and classical musicians, frequent weather forecasts, the evening show when elders told stories in Iñupiaq, the morning show with interviews of visiting scientists and politicians, and, perhaps most popular of all, the birthday show. Each evening around dinnertime listeners called in to wish a happy birthday or happy anniversary to whomever they wished, short messages following a relaxed kind of ritual form, flowing gracefully one right after the other like a psalm of goodwill. Safety came from being part of the community. No radio meant you were alone.
Craig and his colleagues set themselves to learning Iñupiaq ways of evaluating the ice and keeping safe while they developed technology to substantiate Iñupiaq perceptions of how many whales were underneath the ice. Still, Craig remained skeptical about the whalers' claim that bowhead numbers were good and that the scientific consensus was wrong: "We weren't sitting on a thousand years of traditional knowledge, and we frankly were taught we were scientists and we were doing stuff scientifically, carefully, and the other information was anecdotal." The methods they developed would have to withstand tough peer review from other scientists who felt the same way. The answer would be a number and, underneath that number, more numbersdata points corresponding to whale sightings, processed statistically using methods mathematicians could accept. The only channel for Iñupiat knowledge would be in the help offeredto keep the workers alive on the ice and to tell them where to look for whales.
Counting whales you couldn't see wasn't easy. Not until 1984 did the team perfect the gear to do it: arrays of hydrophones that could listen for whale vocalizations and triangulate the animals' positions using the time it took for sound to arrive at widely separated points. Specialists in submarine acoustics, electronics, mathematics, and computers built the equipment and the computer programs to pinpoint individual whales and keep track of them as they slowly swam through the twelve-mile range of the microphones. Craig himself came up with the idea of putting the equipment on enclosed sleds researchers could drag over the whaling trails behind snowmachines. Scientists linked the equipment to synchronize the signals, then matched the sound print to visual sightings made from a series of perches set up on high pressure ridges. It took an army to field the entire array of sensors and eyes, maintain the camp, and guard against polar bears, and to do it around the clock, whenever conditions permitted, for a migration that started in April and ended in June.
The first year with the new equipment was a disaster. The inventions workedon the headphones it was possible to hear whales passing in stereobut the ice conditions were bad and the count failed.
"Set up the gear, put up a perch, and slam, the sea ice slams into it, and we'd lose all our gear. All of it," Craig said. "It was like a war. We were using lead acid batteries. Fifty-pound batteries. All our clothes were ruined with battery acid."
Each spring a couple of dozen workers arrived in Barrow for the count, mostly young academics, bunking together in NARL's old Animal Research Facility, known as the ARF. The ARF was low and weather-scarred, like other buildings at NARL, but inside it became the home of two decades of exciting, exotic wildlife research. The walls were papered with homemade cartoons about the count, data sheets with facetious entries alongside graphs of real, hand-plotted data, letters and postcards from former workers, and signs importuning everyone to take off bloody or muddy boots and to unload guns at the door. Whaling season involved days and sometimes weeks of waiting for weather to break. Workers listened to KBRW, swapped paperback books, and talked around the kitchen table. Information flowed through the office, a radio room like those in old war movies.Bunk beds lined a series of strangely shaped roomssome of them former animal examination roomsand the TV and VCR stood in the pantry, with shelves solidly stacked with cans of Spam and Dinty Moore stew. Through a door at the back of the living quarters lay Dr. Frankenstein's lab, where biologists processed and stored their samplessinks, a Butcher Boy band saw, freezers, a workshop, walrus skulls and whale bones, and shelf after shelf of jars with labels such as "walrus fetus," "bowhead brains," "polar bear head," "whale lice," and, my favorite, "testes, unknown."
Barrow became a center of whale research because only here could scientists get samples of large, freshly killed baleen whales. Wildlife became the gatekeeper for a stream of researchers who wanted a piece of a whale. Working with some of those scientists, Craig made an important discovery. Another scientist had experimented with measuring the aspartic acid (an amino acid) in whales' eyes to find their age but gave up because the ages always came out too high. A test of a newly mature female came up with an age of twenty-three years, which seemed impossible. In 1992, Craig was present at the butchering of a big bowhead when a friend pointed out an ulcer on the skin. He reached his hand into the doughy wound and pulled out a stone spear tip. The next year, a stone spearhead was found in another whale, and there have been several others. The Iñupiat switched to metal harpoons in the 1880s, so these whales had to be more than 110 years old. Using that knowledge, Craig and his colleagues calibrated the aspartic acid aging technique and established that the bowhead's normal life span was around 130 to 150 years, making it the world's longest-living mammal. Results suggested one whale was 211 years old.
The most important project, the count, finally hit its stride in 1985. Using the new equipment and with the help of statistician Judy Zeh, who brought more sophisticated mathematical techniques to accounting for missed whales, the team produced a population estimate of 7,200 whales, almost six times the original midrange estimates. Wildlife also produced evidence showing the dietary needs of the villages. The IWC responded by cautiously increasing the Iñupiat's bowhead hunting quota by a few each year. Counts in subsequent years yielded ever-higher whale numbers. Despite increased Native whaling, the bowhead population was strong and rising. In 2002, Craig missed spring whaling to present findings at the IWC meeting in Japan. The new official number was 10,000. The quota hadreached a level the Iñupiat considered adequate: seventy-five strikes, or fifty-one whales landed, whichever comes first, distributed over ten whaling villages with 163 crews.
"The Natives were vindicated," Craig said. "They were right. They were right about all these things."
Like any legend, the story of how the Iñupiat regained whaling became a lesson and a touchstone, both for the Eskimos and for environmental scientists studying the Arctic. From the Native perspective, the whale count amounted to a lot of trouble (and $10 million) to find out something they already knew, and they related the story to demonstrate how Iñupiaq culture could win if its defenders fought hard enough. But from the scientists' perspective, the lesson was about knowledge. Researchersat least those paying attention to anything beyond their own workhad to accept that there was another valid way of knowing complex facts about the environment. Indeed, for this system of many parts in constant change, the Iñupiat were able to draw broad, useful conclusions in near real time, something hypothesis-based science couldn't come close to doing.
Other controversies that arose made the same point again. The oil industry wanted to operate ships that emitted loud noises to take sea floor seismic readings. The science said the ships would affect whales only up to four miles away. The Iñupiat said they would affect whales much farther than that. Better studies conducted in 1996 to 1998 found whales deflected from their paths twelve miles around the ships, at the very least. In other cases, Eskimos' knowledge improved scientists' surveys of land animals to help set hunting levels. And so on.
No one reverse-engineered Iñupiaq discoveries to find out how the community reached its conclusions, but Craig thought about the question as a scientist respected by both cultures. Iñupiaq skills of observation and communication were the key. Every Native home was an information node. The effect could be disorienting: the VHF competed with KBRW, a pinochle game, a TV, and sometimes a computer, kids ran around, and elder family members sat at the table sipping coffee and telling stories. At the Volunteer Search and Rescue base many of those elements were present, plus a pool game in progress, a hunk of walrus boiling, a big wall map to coordinate rescues, and various different conversations in two languages. Everyone seemed to share information all the time, from around town, out on the tundra or the ice, and around the world. I learned on myfirst visit to Barrow that if I asked a question someone else might give me the answer the next dayyou couldn't say a word you didn't want everyone to hear.
Outdoors, communication among many observershunters and fishermencreated a continuous picture of a large area, an area far larger and for a duration far longer than the measurements taken by any scientific team going into the field for a few weeks at a time. The Iñupiat were trained observers, they were covering a whole system for a long time, and they had a way to process the enormous data set they derived into useful information for making decisions. In science, you come closer to truthknown as a high statistical level of confidenceas you add more data points. Craig compared the community to a giant machine gathering and crunching data.
"It's a bit of a black box to me," he said. "There's conversation, conversation, conversation back and forth, and then there's this statement that comes out: 'We know this.' They're taking in massive amounts of data and processing it like a supercomputer."
Arnold Brower, Sr., one of Barrow's most successful whaling captains, now in his eighties, had watched as the Arctic climate changed. "Unusually changed," he said. "And the pattern of animals, as to how they behave, like caribou and the fish, the seasons of spawning and seasons of ice forming on the surface.
"And that blanket of clouds that had been protective of tremendous heat that would be there every day for twenty-four hours. I don't know how it is that it got up there that way ... . And the temperatures are warmer. Earlier and later, are freezing and getting where, kind of, you can't predict each year to be the same.
"The weather patterns, you can pretty near predict if weather is going to be cold at that time or whether it is going to be warming up ... . But I think we had a crazy type of a change.
"The current has been kind of unpredictable here, because the current would change and then it would change back, and sometimes it would quiet down and form into like a big pool of water, a lake out there in the ocean. And all of us sat there and without hardly any warning the current would shove out to one side and run for a week and then change overagain. But in younger years it used to be two-way, and it would take time, and the wind wouldn't change it at all ... . So it's not predictable at all what it's going to do next. It's unusual.
"It was something that you could predict to go out there and hunt all day and not think about getting stranded out there, if you use the method of sounding and the wind."
Kenny Toovak, born in 1923, said, "In the springtime, we used to go out camping on the riverbanks and wherever and geese hunt. Sometimes we spend out there a week, ten days, two weeks. And the thaw was kind of gradual. Each time the snow melted in a gradual way. Today, seems like good and hard snow, and then overnight the weather change, the temperature, and the sun gets clear and sunshine, and in one day's time the snow started to melt away. Kind of rapid.
"My parents used to go out camping after the whale season out down the coast, down coast by Will Rogers monument, Ualaqpaa or farther from Ualaqpaa sometimes, we'd spend the summertime out camping in that area or hunting for ugruk, seals, or whatever. You name it. And sometimes our old tents were not that good, that we had for years and years, and sometimes they've always got a hole in part of the tent. But we never get bothered by mosquitoes. Hardly any mosquitoes in that area in the summer months. That means kind of decent temperature. So today, when you go down coast and hit the beach, boy, there are all kinds of flies. You've got to have that insect repellent, boy, all over."
Harry Brower, Jr., the son of Tom Albert's friend, collects traditional knowledge for Wildlife and is a whaling captain. He said, "It's hard to find a place to pull up the whale. If you have this first-year ice, it's not really thick enough to hold the whale, pulling it up out of the water. With that multiyear ice, if you have a large pan identified, you could pull up a whale there. We had an area specifically last spring where one big pan had fastened itself to that first-year ice and it probably was grounded, because of that weight. At the time we had a real high surge of wind and the ocean current or tide went way up and the big ice pan came in, and when the current shifted and the tide went back down I think it got grounded and it stuck there all throughout the late spring, and early summer it finally drifted out. And I think we butchered like seventeen whales on that ice pan. It was the only one heavy enough to pull up the whales. And there was a couple of attempts to pull up the whales on this first-year ice and itdidn't succeed. The ice was just breaking up. We ended up towing them to that ice pan."
Oliver Leavitt took longer to convince than some others that the climate had warmed. He kept hoping that the difference lay in the way people were perceiving the weather or that the changes were part of a cycle that would finally swing back to normal. But if it was a cycle, it was such a long one that no one could remember conditions like these, so bad for so long, nor did the elders tell of periodic warming and weakening of the ice to this degree. Evidence from tree rings and permafrost temperature measurements also indicated the warming was unprecedented and helped push Oliver over the line. Once he accepted that something was happening, many observations he had been holding in abeyance slipped quickly into the pattern.
"We used to get a lot more pressure ridges and heavy ice," he said. "Now it breaks away a lot more.
"Even the tundra thaws a lot more than it used to. Now, if you're making an ice cellar, you can go down four feet [before hitting frozen ground]. You were lucky to go down a couple of feet when I was a kid."
The shore seemed to be eroding faster. There was not much land left in front of Oliver's house. Big waves had a chance to build up in the absence of ice, and that could be contributing to the problem.
But Oliver wouldn't dwell on the subject. "Technology changes, the face of the earth changes, you change. Look at the Italians. They still eat pasta."
On May 7, the day after we scrammed from Oliver's camp, crews went back out on the ice. Then, in the evening, a ferocious current that looked like a river began flowing south to north. One moment the water was relatively still, a few minutes later small bergs were speeding by and water was flowing out from under the iceI saw a large jellyfish emerge and shoot off into the distance in the clear water. This kind of current could break off the weak ice. The crews bugged out again.
On May 8, we returned to the ice. The sun blazed, surrounded by sun dogs, and the temperature was too warm for parkas, up to 34 degrees Fahrenheit. The snow was melting and water stood in puddles in dips all over the sea ice. It was unnerving to run a snowmachine through water sitting on top of ice that was sitting on top of 130 feet of water. Oliver had kept a haunch of caribou meat frozen in snow that was now disappearing. It was a traditional hunter's food: kill a caribou in cold weather, let itfreeze, then carry the frozen haunch and snack on it, cutting chunks out with a sharp knife whenever energy flags or you feel cold. The raw, frozen meat was delicious: as it thawed in the mouth it released a bloody flavor like rare beef. Warmth soon returned to your cheeks. Techniques like these, using the Arctic cold to preserve food, helped the Iñupiat survive through long times of shortage and over journeys of great distance. But in this warm weather, Oliver's caribou had thawed. It was spoiled. He was seeing few whales. He said, "They've probably gone by. We're not seeing them in numbers. Probably gone by. Terrible year."
As the evening wore on, Billy Jens checked the crack behind us. He prepared to pack up for a quick escape. Oliver and the boys told stories of being surprised by whales, of accidents when someone mishandled the weapons, of close calls on the ice. At 1:00 a.m., the entire ice sheet we were sitting on dropped a little with a jolt. Soon the camp was packed again and we were retreating back down the trail with the sleds bouncing, crashing, and splashing over pressure ridges and through the slush and expanding pools.
The next day was warm again. The water was bright and motionless. The ice pack had receded dozens of miles from the shorefast ice. Many whalers on our part of the lead had given up. According to rules agreed to by the Barrow Whaling Captains Association, only the traditional, quiet style of whaling with the umiaq was allowed on the portion of the lead south of the tip of Point Barrow, or Nuvuk, which is about ten miles northeast of the town. North of there, whalers were permitted to use motorized aluminum boatsboats around fourteen feet long with 35-horsepower outboards, about as large as could be fit on a sled and dragged to the ice edge. The motor allowed whalers to range far afield to find a whale, but the noise chased the whales away from the shore. They called it "boating," and they called the boats "the aluminum." Some whalers thought their luck was so poor because those boating north of Nuvuk were diverting the whales offshore. In any event, with so few whales near the ice, there was a movement to allow the aluminum all along the lead. The decision was up to the three members of the executive committee of the Whaling Captains Association, of whom Oliver was one. The other two already had agreed. Oliver was among the very few still camped along the lead with an umiaq. He said he'd rather quit and go hunting upriver than whale with the aluminum.
"I'm out here whaling," he said. "To me, that's not whaling."
At 5:15 p.m., a prayer of thanksgiving came over the VHF, the harpooner of George Ahmaogak's crew thanking God for a safe and successful huntthey had killed a whale. In accordance with tradition, the prayer not only announced the kill but alerted everyone in town to come help pull the animal up and butcher it. After the prayer, voices came on the radio with congratulations and cries of "Hey-hey-hey," a whaling cheer that sounded like the catch phrase used by Bill Cosby's Fat Albert on Saturday-morning cartoons thirty years ago. The prayer of Ahmaogak Crew's harpooner came through the little speaker on Oliver's VHF with a tone as thin as wrinkled paper in the still, damp air at the ice edge. It concluded, "In Jesus' name. Hey-hey-hey," and then a cheer came up from their boat, so many miles away across the water.
The Ahmaogak boat gave coordinates from their Global Positioning System receiver and called for more fuel and more boats to pull the whale. They were 14 miles north-northeast of their camp, which was, in turn, two and a half miles off Nuvuk. Their boat, appropriate for trout fishing on an inland lake, was attached to a whale four times its length and four hundred times its weight. Billy Jens, Brian, and Jens would go up and help with the butchering and claim a share of the whale for Oliver's crew, but there was no rush. It would take all night to tow in the whale.
Clouds blanketed the sky as night fell. At 10:00 p.m. it began to rain. The crew put a tarp over Oliver's seating area on the sled. This weather felt more like a wet spring day in Anchorage than whaling season in the Arctic. Oliver was disgusted. He recalled as a young man wearing two pairs of snow pants for spring whaling, standing night watch in temperatures 20 degrees below zero, trying to warm up by the white gas stove during the brief minutes when he was sent to make tea for the older men.
"Here's your global warming," he said. "It never rains this time of year. It melts the snow real fast."
The weather station in Barrow read forecasts over the VHF during whaling season so crews could ask questions at the end. On May 10, not long after the rain, the meteorologist announced in a tone of disbelief, "There is officially no snow on the ground." A foot-deep snow pack had disappeared in three days. Since 1940, Barrow's snowmelt had come ever earlier on an accelerating line. That year's May 10 was forty days earlier than snowmelt in 1940. Adjusting for the human-caused changes aroundthe weather station (road dust in town enhances snowmelt) and using statistical analysis with a high confidence level, the snowmelt date had gotten eight days earlier, moving from about June 18 to June 10. Snowmelt on May 10 was off the charts.
As always, after the question-and-answer session on the VHF, someone said, "Thank you, weatherman." And the weatherman said, "You're welcome".
The ride was slushy and wet up north to the Ahmaogak Camp early the next morning. A parade of boats pulling the whale arrived at the ice edge at about 6:00 a.m., twelve hours after the kill. With little flat ice to work with, crews had made a boat ramp by smashing through a pressure ridge ten feet tall and fifty feet wide, one chop at a time, and many crews were using it to launch and retrieve their aluminum boats. Now it would be a whale ramp. Members of Ahmaogak Crew attached a heavy strap to the whale's tail. The flukes, a special delicacy, had been removed earlier to reduce drag while towing. A hand-held, gas-powered ice auger drilled a V-shaped channel in the ice several feet deep and about six inches in diameter, then crew members passed a heavy line through it. This was the deadman, or anchor point, for a block and tackle system. A set of two wooden and metal blocks each the size of a man's head had three wraps of yellow and black braided poly rope an inch and a half thick; the free end of that rope was attached to another, slightly lighter block and tackle, also with three wraps. Attached to the line leading off that block were the hands of about two hundred people ready to pull.
No one can own a whale. The whale gives itself to the entire community. The whaling captain bears the considerable expense of year-round preparation for the hunt and carries the weight of command. The crew provides skill and muscle and endures cold, danger, and tedium. Other crews come to help kill a struck whale and tow it back to camp. All the crews, and the entire community, converge on the ice to pull the whale out of the water and butcher it. Everyone who helps receives a share of the whale, as do elders and the infirm in town, and relatives far away, who receive care packages through the mail. The choicest cuts go to the captain and the crews who made the largest contribution. The captain's family then sets to work to prepare its share as a feast for the community, serving a banquet for all comers at the captain's house as soon as possible. In addition, for every whale caught in the spring, the successful captain's familyserves the community at Nalukataq, an outdoor festival in June with the Eskimo blanket toss, a game in which jumpers are hurled high in the air on a walrus skin blanket held around the edge by many hands. Falltime whales are served at other special mealseach family has its favorite whale recipes for Thanksgiving and Christmas. In the end, the captain's compensation is intangible. He receives food for his family like everyone else, and the satisfaction that he has fed his people, and the honor and respect of the communitya fundamental kind of respect whose value does not fluctuate in the market of everyday relationships. These are not rules of whaling that can be broken or altered, such as those governing when a crew can use the aluminum or what day the hunt begins. You can't be Iñupiaq and own a whale.
At the cry of "All hands!" we stood together holding the yellow rope, a great, joyous crowd in the early morning, strung out several hundred feet along the ice trail leading away from the whale's tail, and someone cried out, "Walk away!" We walked, stretching the line, pulling harder as it grew taut, reaching the end of the trail and jogging back to the starting point to grab hold and keep pulling. We pulled hard, we got stuck, we were encouraged by loud calls of "Walk away, walk away," we moved again. Some strained to pull, some paced themselves. Some strong young guys were caught smoking behind their tents and put back to work. The whale made little perceptible movement. We'd stretched that long rope out, however, pulling the two blocks of the secondary, helper block and tackle together so we could go no farther. Now it was time to reattach the helper block and tackle to the heavier block and tackle setto bring the helper line in so we could pull it out once again.
A dozen men threw themselves to their knees along the larger block and tackle and, weaving their fingers among ropes as taut as steel bars, twisted the lines together to keep the whale from slipping back while the helper rope was released and retied. The line slipped a little, the men twisted harder, a member of Ahmaogak Crew with a long-handled tool jammed rope in the block to stop it. The helper line was retied. A whale this size weighs well over 100,000 pounds, more than a fully loaded tractor trailer. In 1992 a ring holding the helper block separatedthat was the same old whale in which Craig George found the stone spear pointand the thirty-five-pound block shot through the air like a cannonball, faster than the eye could see, hitting two women pulling the helper line. One waskilled instantly, the other died soon after. A sad whale, as people still say. But the work goes on. The process of resetting the helper line must be repeated many times to pull in one whale. Two hundred workers picked up the line and the cry went up"Walk away"and again the line stretched and creaked with growing tension.
The day was hot, with broken overcast. Workers pulling the line threw down their coats and worked in flannel shirts and long underwear tops. A morning without breakfast was wearing on, and we were getting stuck more often. Fatigue had set in. Just in time, women from Ahmaogak Crew appeared from their tent, walking down the line with a big plastic bag of fresh homemade doughnuts and a metal cauldron filled with big chunks of boiled maktak, blubbery pieces cut from the skin of this very whale. Coffee and pop flowed freely, too. The maktak was best, tender and rich, a little salty, a little fishy, a little meaty, spreading a film of fat around the mouth and down the throatreally, like no other food. Tired workers gobbled fist-sized chunks and pulled again as if restoked with rocket fuel.
A flock of hundreds of eider ducks flew low overhead, bound toward the sea, their wings clapping and their voices ringing in thousand-part harmony. We were startled, and then the Iñupiaq people on the ice let out a spontaneous answering roar. A welcoming cheer, a cheer of pure exuberance for a bright day, for plenty, and for the prospect of fresh duck soup soon (although there's no duck hunting while whaling is in progress). The Iñupiat believesincerely, not just metaphoricallythat each animal makes a gift of itself to the hunter to sustain the people. Today's abundance was like Christmas morning.
At noon, after six hours of continuous pulling, the whale lay entirely on the ice. The carcass was so large it was difficult to see. At great enough distance to take in the entire length, the details disappeared. Close up, the black skin rose like a wall to twice the height of a man. It hardly seemed like a living creature at all. Until I touched her. Then I could feel that this had been an air-breathing mammal, like me. She was still warm. Boys lay on top, basking in the warmth. The skin, as black and thick as a neoprene wet suit, felt smooth and yielding but strong, slick but not slimy, not at all like the skin of a fish. A team from Wildlife, including some visiting biologists, measured the whale: fifty-four feet, eleven inches. She was probably fifty to one hundred years old. I looked at a big eye, closed to a slit as if on the edge of sleep, and thought of all the ocean it had seen, under the Arcticice and far out in the warm Pacific, over the course of most of a century. Eskimos were taking stock of the whale's size, too, their voices low and reverent. I felt humbled and grateful for this magnificent animal whose flesh I already had eaten.
The work of butchering began immediately. The whale had been dead too long. Bowhead spoil fast. The foot-thick blubber insulates them so completely that they don't cool after death. Wiry Brenton Rexford leaped upon the whale and began cutting with a blade on a long wooden pole, scribing rectangular slabs of maktak about eighteen inches wide and five feet long while a gang pulled the upper edge of the slab with hooks attached to ropes. As they pulled and Brenton cut, the maktak peeled back. When it was free, three or four of the hook holders ran away with the hundred-pound slab dragging on the ice behind them and swung it onto a sled.
Sleds quickly filled and snowmachines pulled them away. The ice turned red with blood. It poured out of the whale, flowing in little streams to crimson puddles inches deep. With the outer layer of the whale peeled back, workers began severing each vertebra, chopping with heavy tools while a dozen people heaved each piece free. They cut the black meat away from the bone, working forward one vertebra at a time, reaching the ribs, which looked like six-foot-long spare ribs. Someone tried a brand new chain saw, spraying blood around as in a slasher movie, but the whale got the better of it and the saw broke down. Others worked on the head, cut at the gelatinous sixteen-foot-long tongue, pulled apart the baleen, which was still entangled with the whale's last meal of shrimp, and noshed on the crumbly, pale gums from between the baleen strips, a bland, chewy snack. Only the bones and a few organs were not usedin the old days, the bones would have been used to hold up the roofs of sod houses. Some workers, such as Brenton, kept up a hard pace as the day passed by and evening came; more wandered away to their tents for a meal or a pop or sat joking with elders on the sidelines before setting back to work.
Victoria Woshner, a visiting Ph.D. veterinarian, seemed to relish pawing through the prodigious bloody entrailsthe Iñupiat's inedible leavingslooking for scientific samples. Tall and slender in canvas coveralls, she waded up to her waist into a pile of foul-smelling intestines as thick as vacuum cleaner hoses, plunging her arms in here and there in search of the colon. I joined a group of men helping her extract the uterus. While we listenedrespectfully, Victoria lectured on the whale's reproductive historyit had given birth many timesand laid out the parts like an enormous diagram from a high school sex education class: ovaries the size of volleyballs, fallopian tubes like drier vents, and the uterus itself, as big as a queen-sized water bed. The group broke up and some of us returned to our epic struggle with the tongue. One of the men said, under his breath, "Man, that's one big pussy."
By 10:00 p.m. many people were too tired to keep working effectively. Some whalers were back at sea. With meltwater on the ice as deep as a foot in places, word had come that Oliver had quit whaling and dropped his opposition to using the aluminum all along the lead. Billy Jens and other guys his age with strength and authority were out boating. At the Ahmaogak whale, tired elders and middle-aged Eskimos sat around watching and admonishing teens and young men to keep at it; the youths would work briefly, then wander off again. Experts skilled in the jobs that kept the whole process advancing were few. A pod of beluga whales surfaced just off the ice edge and all the young people left their work to climb a pressure ridge where they could see white backs slipping along the surface in yellow evening light. A moment arrived when only one man was left workingone of the expertsand, looking around and seeing he was alone, he threw down his tool in disgust. By now the whale looked like it had been blown to bits by a bomb, messier than the carcass of a carved-up turkey. Hardly a recognizable piece remained except the skull, which held one eye high aloft on a tall tower of bone. A leader of Ahmaogak Crew jumped up onto the bones of the mouth and, in a booming voice, gave a short speech in Iñupiaq: he allocated the remaining baleen and tongue to the crews who had helped pull in the whale, and he called for the division of what had already been butchered.
Each crew had entered its name on a roll that recorded who was working on the whale. There would be forty shares plus the captain's share. Workers already had started rows of piles on a big, flat pan of ice back from the edge. Everyone gathered with snowmachines and sleds in an enormous circle while, in the middle, an old man and an old woman walked back and forth making sure the piles were equal and allocating the meat that was still arriving. A small team of young workers dragged heavy chunks back and forth to carry out their commands. I saw Brian Ahkiviana, the shy seventh grader from Oliver Leavitt Crew, still working hard,stripped down to a University of Alaska sweatshirt to stay cool, trying gamely to comply with the seemingly arbitrary and niggling orders he received to move a chunk from here to over there, then to take another, smaller chunk back that way, and so on. After days of little sleep and twenty straight hours of hard labor, his face was drained and his eyes were heavy. The piles each contained as much food as might come from a side of beef. Later, the crews would divide them further among their families.
Ahmaogak Crew struck camp, sleds of gear and whale meat speeding off down the trail one by one. Their captain, George, the mayor, had been busy at a borough assembly meeting when the whale was struck, but the honor of the hunt still belonged to him. (He would be up for reelection in the fall.) With his wife, Maggie, who was executive director of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, George needed quickly to serve the community and stash his share in his ice cellar so he could get on a plane to Japan for a meeting of the IWC that had already started. He sped by the crowd, sitting back grandly on his snowmachine and smoking a cigar, which he held aloft to cry out, "Hey-hey-hey!"
In the failing light, now past midnight and into the next day, the gathered whalers let out a cheer so loud it seemed to fill the big, deep blue sky.
Copyright © 2004 by Charles Wohlforth
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Non-fiction book written by a journalist who lives in Alaska. He describes the culture of the climate scientists and the Eskimos who live on the land and how the debate and ef global warming has affected these two groups; their interactions amongst themselves and each other.
I read The Whale and The Supercomputer in one day. It reads like a novel, not like a science book. And yet the information is not skimpy. The science is presented in a clear and engaging fashion. I enjoyed the book very much, particularly the way the author interweaves stories with technical information. He does a great job of comparing the different cultures, beliefs, and attitudes of the people he met during his research without making judgments or being condescending towards anyone. All points-of-view contribute equally to the discussions. The Whale and The Supercomputer presents a very well-rounded look at the issues of global warming while making the characters come alive. To create change, I believe we need to address issues in both grass-roots bottom-up and political top-down processes. This book gives examples of both ends of the spectrum. If you are interested in the science of climate, or about Alaska, buy this book.