Hand stitched ugruk (bearded seal) skins cover the wooden ribs of this traditionally-crafted boat as it sits atop a rack in Point Hope, Alaska. With spring officially here (the Vernal Equinox was March 20), whaling season has begun. Whaling crews have been going out to break trail these past few days. This is rough going across the frozen, buckled landscape of the Arctic Ocean.
Each Arctic day is lengthening by eight minutes, and the sun is shining with perceptible warmth as months of negative double digit cold gradually give way to highs approaching an even zero degrees Fahrenheit. Although the seas continue to be locked up tight, that is how it should be this time of year. Once the trail is broken, the village’s two whaling crews will set up their camps far out on the ice near open water, where, with boats stitched together from the skins of bearded seals at the ready, men dressed in warm, white parkas will wait and watch.
A small skiff seems to await the Chukchi Sea’s thaw.
Last year, three whales gave themselves to the village. That is the way people here say it. Animals are not “killed.” They give themselves, and for a whale to give itself, the hunters’ skill, preparation and worthiness must all come together. Point Hope is one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the Americas. Perhaps the oldest. Here, the unique interplay of sea and river, hills and tundra bring salmon, char, seabirds, caribou, whales and even berries to the inhabitants. Compared to many other villages, the people of Tikigaq (Crooked Finger – so named for a narrow thrust of land at the tip of the peninsula that long since eroded away) have seldom had to go far for food.
The whales are bowheads, a right whale. These baleen whales may weigh 30 tons or more. Occasionally ivory, slate and jade harpoon heads of old are discovered buried deep in a whale’s blubber, indicating that they have a lifespan of at least 150 years. Although commercial whaling in the 1800’s pushed populations to near extinction, they have gradually recovered and numbers in the Chukchi Sea continue to grow by about 3% each year to over 10,000 currently.
Inuit artist Kenojuak Ashevak’s painting (above) depicts the circle of Arctic seasons. Her painting shows open water for less than half of the year.
When we leave the village in mid-May to spend our summer further south in Alaska, much of the tundra and the Chukchi Sea will still be locked in ice. When we return in mid-August, the tundra will be carpeted in shades of green, some of it already giving way to Autumn’s gold. In high summer, flowers bloom in profusion, but by August, most will be done. Berries – cloudberries, cranberries and crowberries near the village, joined by blueberries further out – will follow. Waves will tumble on the shore as though the ice never existed, and salmon and char will be swimming in the clear-green water.