Arctic Spring

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.

The Bones of a Village

New enough to reveal steel and aluminum nails, old enough to be well-weathered by the Arctic climate, the bones of this seal-skin whaling boat were left behind when Point Hope (Tikigaq) relocated two-and-a-half miles inland in the 1970s. Point Hope is one of the longest continuously inhabited places in North America.

The Inupiaq name for Point Hope Village, Tikigaq (tick-ee-yahk) means index finger and described the way the gravel point once hooked into the Chukchi Sea. Time and tide long ago washed away the crook of the finger, leaving behind a triangular point near enough to deep water that the whales that first drew the Inupiat people here thousands of years ago still swim close to shore. The 2.3 mile hike from the current town out to the point gets a little tough once the road ends and the pea-to-chunk-size gravel begins, but it is well worth the effort. In addition to bowhead and other whales, which are frequently sighted, the collision of currents at the point holds large schools of finger-sized baitfish, which in turn draw flocks of Arctic terns, gulls, murres, puffins, jaegers, guillemots and ducks while various sandpipers patrol the shore. At times, the sea and sky are filled with hundreds–if not thousands–of birds. The small fish also attract roving schools of pink, silver and Chinook salmon and sea-run Dolly Varden which in turn are followed by spotted, common and bearded seals. Walruses show up from time to time as well.

The walk to the point passes through the Old Village, a ghost town of semi-subetranean homes made from sod, whale bone and driftwood as well as more modern, wood and metal houses. It’s fascinating to walk through the Old Village and contemplate what life would have been like up here before electricity, running water, guns and gasoline engines–when the only “grocery stores” were the great herds of caribou 25 or more miles to the east, bowhead whales swimming in the freezing Arctic Ocean, and the various fish, seals, berries and plants gathered in their seasons.

Arctic Ocean

We put our fingers into the icy cold water during our walk along the beach. It reminded me of the cold waters of Lake Tahoe in the Sierras. I remember swimming in those waters as a child until my body went numb. Jack remembered taking a dip in the Merced River in Yosemite…the shortest dip of his life.

There is a woman in Barrow who will issue a Polar Dip certificate, officially proving that the bearer has fully immersed herself in the Arctic Ocean. No gracias.

Donachys on Ice

We did it!

Last year, I told my students in Sacramento that I would post a picture of myself standing on the frozen sea. When the ice first covered the Chukchi, I was tempted. It looked safe enough, but there was no evidence that anyone else had ventured out. Shortly thereafter, the ice broke open, providing evidence of how unreliable early ice is. But that was months ago. Now there are snowmachine tracks on the ice parallelling the coast, and seal hunters talk about going all the way out to the edge in search of their quarry.

For the past few months, each time I’ve looked at the frozen sheet ice stretching beyond the horizon, I’ve been tempted. It’s starting to warm up and I know my chances are diminishing. I half kiddingly asked Jack to walk out with me today and take my picture. One of our students was hanging around with us. We saw fresh snow machine tracks and decided today was the day. Part way out, we came upon a crack, which we stepped over! Ok, that was far enough. Our young friend took our photo to prove our kept promise. We did it!