Whale Hunt, Barrow

  • Leaving Barrow and a Final Thank You

    Above: Geoff and Ben take a break with some dried salmon and hot chocolate after bagging 150+ white fish from Geoff’s nets.

    My time in Barrow is up. I’m not sure where to begin processing the past seven months in the Arctic. I leave with several large canvases in progress. I have given the smaller paintings to several of the friends I made since arriving on April 4th. A few of the larger studies are hanging in the Polar Bear Theater where they will remain until I return with the final body of work. A triptych hangs in the new Samuel Simmonds Memorial Hospital administration office. I will spend the next year or two working on the final series. People in Barrow have shared many incredible experiences with me and I have seen so many things worthy of a large canvas. The next part of this project, the difficult part, will be doing justice to these experiences, to Barrow, to the whale hunt and to the people who live there. 

    When I first arrived in Barrow the sun still went down. Nighttime was growing shorter and shorter and I was quickly running out of chances to see the northern lights for the first time in my life. I didn’t sleep much then. My alarm was set to go off every couple of hours at which time I would throw on my jacket and step out into -20 degrees to look for the green strands and swirls of the aurora borealis above Barrow- but I saw nothing. Soon, it was too bright to see the lights and before long, the sun would stop setting altogether.

    However, nighttime is back and I have had the opportunity to witness the lights more than once. A couple of weeks ago, Austin was walking his dog, Sisuaq (a retired sled dog from Geoff’s dog team), at night. He took Sisuaq out onto the tundra and, despite a heavy fog, the lights could be seen overhead. From where I was, the town lights were too strong and bounced off of the fog. I met Austin at his place and we drove out, down Cake Eater Road, past the gas field. The below pictures are Austin’s photos and are from that night.

    Above: Northern Lights photos by Austin Parkhill.

    At a dinner party a few nights ago, the northern lights again came out, brighter than before. Most everyone stepped out onto the tundra. Again, these are Austin’s photos

    Above: Northern Lights by Austin Parkhill.

    On the 12th of October, on their 10 year anniversary, Austin Parkhill and his fiancee, Caitlin Walls, got married. Caitlin is a writer and currently teaches English at Ilisagvik. She keeps a wonderful blog at http://thaumatropemoon.blogspot.com. A few days prior, I received a text from Austin informing me of their plans in the most nonchalant manner imaginable. They chose to be married by their good friend, Sarah Martinsen, on the beach looking out towards Point Barrow. Sarah also works for the college as a Graphic Designer for the marketing department. She is a longtime friend of Austin and is also an incredibly talented painter. Her husband, Marty Martinsen, is the only year-round staff at the NOAA station out towards Point Barrow. The day of the wedding, we crammed into a few cars and drove out past shooting station. We stopped along the road. The spot was not predetermined. We climbed the berm and walked down to the water. The day was overcast and the wind was strong.

    As the couple were reading their vows, the sun broke through just long enough for the pronouncement of marriage by Sarah and a few good photos.

    Above: The newlyweds, Caitlin and Austin Parkhill, with their recently adopted sled dog, Sisuaq.

    Above: The wedding guests

    Above: By chance, I happened to have some tempera paint in the truck and Sarah got to work.

    Not long after, I joined Ben Toth with Geoff and his dog team out on a dog sled ride to the frozen lake where Geoff keeps several nets set. Ben is also a painter (Who would have guessed that Barrow would be such a magnet for painters?) He received a degree in painting, but soon after, went to Greenland where he worked for a contractor providing logistics for NSF funded research. There he met his wife, Shannon Coykendall, who was working for the same contractor. For the past ten years, Ben has worked in Greenland, Iceland and Antarctica doing similar work. Currently, he and Shannon spend the summers near Denali National Park building their dry cabin and winters in Barrow where Shannon works for NOAA with Marty.

    Once the dogs were harnessed, I stood out on the road to hold up any oncoming traffic so the sled team could pass. The dogs, eager to run, took off quickly up and over the road and past me. Geoff slowed the team down to a standstill. He motioned me to jump on the front of the sled. I carefully approached, assuming that if I ran up, the dogs would sense me running and start off again. Before I got on the sled, the dogs took off and I was forced to run alongside before I could jump on. Ben took Geoff’s snow machine and met us at the lake.

    Part way to the lake, Geoff stopped the team to give me a chance to stand at the back of the sled and guide the dogs on my own. He strapped on skis, tied himself to the sled and skied most of the rest of the way there.

    Back on the sled, Geoff guided the dogs out onto the frozen lake alongside the nets where Ben was waiting for us. Geoff tethered the sled and dogs to the ice and we got to work pulling the nets out and sorting the fish into piles of ten. Working for Alaska Fish and Game, Geoff made sure the fish were counted, sorted and bagged properly and all data recorded. The holes in each net had a different gauge and the sacks of fish coincided with the specific nets. The sacks would later be weighed at Geoff’s house before spreading the fish out onto a tarp to freeze overnight.

    Click here to see a clip of Geoff feeding the dogs from the day’s catch.

    The fish Geoff catches will be dog food for the winter. The dogs live on a diet of frozen white fish, frozen maktak and some kibble. Once the nets were back under the ice and all fish had been bagged, Geoff fed his team with the new catch. After, we settled down to dried salmon and hot chocolate as the sun dipped below the horizon. The way back, across the tundra, was under a dark sky. Yet, with little guidance from Ben (Geoff took the snow machine back and Ben took the sled.) the dogs kept to the snowy trail and found their way back home.

    Above: Geoff feeds the puppies maktak after we return.

    I was invited to teach painting workshops in Kaktovik and Anaktuvuk Pass by Diana Solenberger, Community and Administrative Training Facilitator at Ilisagvik College. Diana has been incredibly helpful throughout the project. She helped find funding towards workshop supplies through both the Rotary Club of Barrow-Nuvuk and Ilisagvik and she organized my trip out to the villages. The workshops were through Ilisagvik’s Cooperative Extension Program. Austin joined me in Anaktuvuk Pass where we were scheduled to teach art classes for all grades, K-12, at the local school in addition to workshops. 

    My first stop, however, was Kaktovik. The population of Kaktovik is currently around 300. This number increases during whaling season with tourists who come from across the world to witness the tiny village being overrun by an onslaught of polar bears. Kaktovik is allotted 3 whale strikes for the year. If all three strikes occur without landing a whale, the village is without a major source of subsistence food unless another village transfers to Kaktovik one of its own allotted strikes. Keep in mind, Barrow, with a population of around 4,200, is allotted 22 strikes a year. 

    Kaktovik is nestled on the edge of Barter Island. To the south of the village rests the Brooks Range. To the north- the Arctic Ocean.

    Above: Brooks Range- first time I have seen any significant elevation in nearly seven months.

    Whaling in Kaktovik occurs only in the fall (September) when the whales return towards the Bering Strait. This season, over the course of three weeks, three whales were harvested. During this time, the polar bears converge onto this town, more than any other village in the North Slope, looking for a free meal. No one is quite sure why Kaktovik gets such an influx of bears. Whaling near Kaktovik has occurred for centuries, arguably, longer than in Barrow. Geoff believes that the village and the bears have evolved together and this relationship between the two has become something of a natural phenomenon.

    (Click here to see a video by Kaktovik resident, Flora Rexford, of polar bears feeding on the remains of one of this season’s whales. Source: Anchorage Daily News.)

    By the time I arrived, whaling had been over for nearly a month. The bears had moved out onto the surrounding islands. I taught two workshops during my brief stay. A few teachers were kind enough to give me tours around town. Tracy Burns, a teacher at the local school, and her mother, Nora Jane, took me out one evening after a workshop to look for bears. We drove down to the whalebone pile past the airstrip. Here, Nora Jane took out a flashlight from behind her seat to reveal six polar bears resting and feeding on the scraps from the pile.

    Click here to see a clip of the polar bears.

    The following day, I got a ride back out past the airport near the bone pile where we spotted four bears resting on the ice offshore.

    Above: Kaktovik whale bone pile .

    Above: Looking back towards the mainland, a boat remains frozen in the ice with the Brooks range in the background.

    A muskox skull perched on the edge of a shack in Kaktovik.

    Heading towards Kaktovik, the small plane first stopped in the village of Nuiqsut. We then stayed under the clouds, cruising over the oil fields of Prudhoe Bay and, finally, on to my destination. After spending three nights in Kaktovik teaching two painting workshops, I caught a plane directly to Fairbanks where I met up with Austin and Ben Glover before we headed to Anaktuvuk Pass. Ben is Dean of Community and Workforce Development for Ilisagvik and was teaching classes in Anaktuvuk at the same time. The pilot of the plane to Fairbanks was in his 20’s. He lives in Chelsea in New York City. Each month he spends two weeks in the city and two weeks flying through bush Alaska. 

    On the 29th of October, Austin, Ben and I flew to Anaktuvuk Pass from Fairbanks.  Our morning flight was cancelled due to ice fog in the mountains. In the afternoon, we had the tiny plane to ourselves. Most of the flight was above heavy cloud cover over the Brooks Range which separates the North Slope from the rest of Alaska. 

    Eventually, we dipped into the clouds. Once we broke out we were inside a valley with peaks all around us and the village of Anaktuvuk Pass below.

    Anaktuvuk Pass is the only remaining settlement of the Nunamiut Inupiat people. Nunamiut means people of the land. Anaktuvuk Pass is nestled deep into the northern side of the Brooks Range. For centuries, while most of the Inupiat population remained along the coast hunting marine mammals and fish, the Nunamiut stayed inland and lived mostly off of caribou. Often the inland and coastal people would trade with each other. The relationship between these two communities has always been a fluid one. When disease struck the Nunamiut communities, many moved to the coast. And it has been documented that there was a time when many of the villages along the coast were abandoned also due to disease and a significant population of the inland Inupiat people moved to the coast to take up the harpoon and fill the void in order to continue to hunt from the ocean and provide for the Inupiat communities- both coastal and those remaining inland.

    Above: Austin strolls through town.

    The latest census puts the population at around 325. At one time, the post office was considered to be the most isolated in the United States- currently, the post office is inoperable and mail is flown in through the private air traffic. The mountains are inhabited by grizzlies instead of polar bears and wolves are sometimes found strolling the streets.

    By the 31st, we had taught all but one grade. Many of the students came to class in their Halloween costumes and the school held a costume contest towards the end of the day. We flew out that afternoon, back to Fairbanks for a night and then back to Barrow early the following morning for my three remaining days in the Arctic.

    Above: The last class- 3rd grade. Photo by Austin Parkhill.

    Above: From the landing strip, waiting for the plane.

    Above: Flying out of the Brooks Range- photo by Austin Parkhill.

    Above: Flying out of the Brooks Range- photo by Austin Parkhill.

    Above: Early sunset from the Polar Bear Theater. One of my final sunsets in Barrow.

    Above: New York’s Finest enjoying pickled maktak.

    I sent some jars of the pickled maktak that my friend Abra and I made down to family and friends in San Francisco, Arizona and New York. In the above photo, a friend in New York shares with his coworkers. 

    Though my initial seven months in Barrow is over, the Whale Hunt painting project is just beginning. Over the next year or two in New York, I will continue to paint works for the series from the many memories, references and props I have collected. With any luck, I plan to return in the spring in time for the spring hunt. I will certainly return to Barrow to exhibit the final series when the work is finished. Though by no means will that be my final visit. 

    I want to thank all of those that have helped me with the project so far:

    A huge thank you to the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium for providing much of the logistics and specifically to Glenn Sheehan for taking interest in my project from the beginning and helping to jump start the seven month stay in Barrow.  Also, thank you to Anne Jensen, Nokinba Acker and Richard Glenn (and his entire family). Thank you to the Barrow Whaling Captains Association and to the Savik Crew and its captain, Roy Ahmaogak, also to the NSB Department of Wildlife including Craig George, Cyd Hanns and Raphaela Stimmelmayr. Thank you to Angela Cox, VP of Administration for ASNA and to Ilisagvik’s Cooperative Extension program. Thanks, also, to the Rotary Club of Barrow-Nuvuk, to City Mayor, Bob Harcharek, and to Mike Mason. Thanks to all of my friends in Barrow including: Abra and Jaime Patkotak, Austin (www.austinparkhill.com), Caitlin http://thaumatropemoon.blogspot.com, Sarah and Marty (Matt), Diana, Ben and Shannon, Geoff, John, Jimmy, Laura and Bryan Thomas (and family) and so many others. Thank you, also, to the paint companies Guerra Paint and Pigment (http://www.guerrapaint.com), Kremer Pigments (http://kremerpigments.com) and Golden Paints (http://www.goldenpaints.com) for their generous donations towards the workshops and the series. And thank you to the communities of the North Slope of Alaska and the town of Barrow, Alaska.

    Above: Summer Whale, in progress. Photo by Nokinba Acker. http://www.youtube.com/user/nokinba123


  • Why Eat Whale...

    Above: The day following a successful hunt, a man holds his crew’s flag over the captain’s house to let the community know that they are now serving.

    For thousands of years, the survival of the Inupiaq people in the Arctic has depended on the survival of the bowhead whale species. This is still true today. They live in a place too cold for fruits and vegetables. Trees cannot survive the winters. 

    The Inupiat subsistence whaling practice follows the regulations set by the International Whaling Commission to insure the sustainability of the bowhead population. Centuries before yankee whalers decided to hunt the bowhead for capital gain, the Inupiat people survived off of the whale. In the thousands of years that the Inupiat have hunted this creature, we know of only once when the population of the species has been dramatically threatened. That was when the commercial whalers first came to the Arctic. Since the collapse of the commercial whaling market, the species has bounced back and the population has been growing ever since.

    Most Americans are descendants from other lands. One can imagine why the Inupitat may find it irksome to be told what they can and cannot eat in their own home; to stop hunting the same whales their ancestors survived on for centuries upon centuries. In fact, isn't it a good thing that there is a group of people out there whose own survival and identity depends directly on the survival of another species? After all, this promotes sustainability. 

    Sustainability seems to end when capital gains begin. Time has proven that man, driven by greed, will often wipe out a species when a profit is to be made. In pursuit of the dollar, we will likely continue to eradicate one species after another. Besides a minimal market for handcrafted artwork made from material left over after the butchering, there is no financial profit to be made from subsistence whaling. The meat and blubber are distributed among the families during several community events throughout the year. The whale hunt is the source for celebrations, for stories between elders and youth, for a sense of belonging and is the foundation of this community. 

    These images may be gruesome to some. But keep in mind that most of us never witness the cow that was slaughtered for our burgers and steaks. And most of us never have to think about how this cow may have been forced to survive on only corn and kept in a pen with little room to move. These whales have the freedom to explore the depths of the Arctic ocean. They have the potential of living 200 years before they might meet the harpoon of an Inupiat whaler and become physical and spiritual nourishment for an entire community. 

    Even today, for many living on the North Slope of Alaska, subsistence food is the main source of nourishment. Without a more temperate climate to provide fruits, vegetables and grains, the Inupiat people evolved an almost exclusively protein-rich diet. To expect an entire people to suddenly adopt the contemporary, American diet which is high in carbs and high in sugar is to invite health complications such as diabetes and heart failure. According to the American Diabetes Association, the native population is 2.2 times more likely to have diabetes than non-Hispanic whites. It is one thing to adopt a new diet and quite another to adapt to it.

    I once heard someone say that Eskimos should just go to the grocery store “like everyone else”. Taking into consideration the price of shipping products to the Arctic, the cost of living is 278 percent higher than in the lower 48. This individual's argument is to insist that the Inupiaq population pay the food industries to provide them with vastly overpriced goods simply because some have decided that the Inupiat must change their lifestyle and adopt a diet of processed meat, produce, soda and snacks.

    The Inupiaq are proud of their heritage. Their lives, culture and identity cannot be separated from the whale and all that the whale provides. A subsistence lifestyle means that they are dependent on the survival and well-being of those animals that they hunt. The IWC gives the  North Slope communities an annual quota of whale strikes based on the most up-to-date bowhead census determined by IWC appointed experts. The whalers follow all protocol that has been set by the commission to best insure the most efficient and humane kill with the least amount of suffering.

    Concern for the whale, from the outside world, is appreciated by the very people who depend on the survival of the species. But it is misdirected. Perhaps concern should be focused on the right of all animals, including livestock, to live full, healthy and unconfined lives like the respected bowhead whale does here in the Arctic. It may not look like it from the perspective of an outsider unfamiliar with the Inupiat culture, but that photo of the children playing on the majestic sea mammal is documentation of that respect and that close relationship between man and whale that is cultivated from an early age and that goes back thousands of years. It is that relationship, that can be seen in the photograph, that will insure the survival of the bowhead whale species. And it is that relationship that I wish to convey in my Whale Hunt paintings.

    Please visit http://iwc.int/aboriginal for more information on the International Whaling Commission’s policy towards Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling.

    Above: That's me in the blue hat.

    Above: Abra helping pull maktak. 

    On one of the final days of the fall hunt, my friends Abra and Jaime Patkotak decided to help the Arie crew butcher their whale. I had managed to photograph nearly every fall whale brought in this season and realized that this was my last chance to be able to experience, first hand, the subject of several of my paintings. I put down the camera and asked the captain if he’d mind if I helped. 

    Anyone who stays to help is given a share. Different cuts of the animal are gathered in different areas around the scene and at the end of the entire process, a large portion of the harvested whale is evenly distributed among the helpers.

    Two days later, I joined Abra and some members of her family and everyone got to work making uunaalik (boiled maktak), mikiaq (fermented whale meat- still fermenting), and pickled maktak.

    Above: Truck full of maktak.

    Above: The final product: pickled maktak from our combined shares.

  • Walking the Sled Dogs with Geoff Carroll

    On Sunday, I joined Austin Parkhill, John Bergman and others for a 5 mile walk along the half frozen Ikroavik Lake, just outside of Barrow. We joined Geoff Carroll, his wife, Marie, and their sled dog team.

    Geoff is the Area Wildlife Biologist for Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game. He has lived in Barrow since the 70’s. He came to study the bowhead. Since settling in Barrow, Geoff has become the only remaining owner of a sled dog team in town. Some of his dogs have been born and bred here in Barrow, others have come from as far away as Greenland- pulling a sled. Others are retired dogs from the team of sled dog musher, John Baker. In 2011, Baker became the first Inupiat Eskimo to win the Iditorad. He and his team live in Kotzebue.

    In 1986, Geoff joined Will Steger on a trek to the North Pole by sled.

    His team, bred for extreme cold temperatures, lives mostly off of white fish pulled out of the lake, whale blubber and snow. The dogs live within a large kennel beside his house. When I first met Geoff, it was to join him on his walk with a new litter of puppies.

    Click here to watch a video of getting the sled dogs ready for their walk: http://youtu.be/Tn5ga8flZPo

    Click here to watch a video of the dogs on the tundra: http://youtu.be/b2IQtL1VD_Q

    I have made it out for a couple more fall whales. People’s freezers and ice cellars are getting filled. I wouldn’t be surprised if Barrow met its annual quota by the end of the week.

    Above: Craig George and Raphaela Stimmelmayr from NSB Wildlife Management take notes and samples from the whale.


  • The Whales Have Returned.

    The fall hunt is upon us. The whales have returned. The Barrow Whaling Captains Association called “Open Fire” on Saturday, September 14th.

    I was invited by Richard Glenn to join him, his wife, Arlene, and their friend, Vito, to the Glenn’s cabin on the Beaufort  side of the Point a week ago. Reachable by boat only, it took six hours in fog and high waves. We went southeast, past the barrier islands, into one of the many bays that lead to various rivers which lead into numerous lagoons. Many of the families in Barrow have summer cabins, built by hand over multiple years. These cabins dot the coast and are hidden among the various river channels. Often, the site that the cabin sits on can be traced, in one way or another, through ancestry.

    The weather wasn’t ideal when we set off from Barrow on Richard’s boat, Popeye, but the forecast had called for clearing skies later into the evening. Until we got into the bay, several hours later, I spent much of my time in the boat focusing on a point on the horizon over the bow to ease my stomach. But once in the bay, the water was protected from the winds. Night had begun to settle (the days of midnight sun have long passed) and a fog rolled in. The water was low and the boat bottom dredged along, looking for 2+ feet of water to safely push ahead.

    Eventually, we came to a flag, a marker that Richard and Arlene had left years ago on the bank of one of the many river channels. Richard managed to find the cabin in the dark, a small speck on the open tundra, and brought the boat to rest against the shore. I was impressed with his ability to navigate through the labyrinth of lagoons and rivers and thankful to be back on solid, but squishy tundra.

    In the dark, we unloaded the boat. Richard had brought wood to build an outhouse. Arlene opened the cabin and checked for animals and damage as a bear had broken into the cabin a couple years earlier. We quickly settled to caribou stew and some sausage brought by Vito. (Vito owns East Coast Pizza, the best restaurant in Barrow. A sign of the Brooklyn Bridge hangs over the door.) 

    Eventually the mattresses were pulled out and we sprawled on the floor for the night. Vito loaded his AK47 and leaned it against the wall beside him. A few months earlier, I would have seen such an act as extreme and questionable. But knowing that we were out in the middle of the tundra where a bear could (and has before) easily knock over a wall at anytime during the night, especially with the left over caribou stew inside the cabin, a loaded weapon within reach begins to make some sense. 

    We woke in the morning to clear skies and a west wind which, according to Richard, is perfect wind for heading home. There was talk of staying an extra day but the forecast called for heavy winds to come.

    I stepped outside the cabin into a cold morning air and watched two caribou graze on the other side of the lake. Arlene made everyone scrambled eggs mixed with Vito’s left over sausage. Richard, Vito and I took the plywood down that covered the window revealing the view across the water.

    We spent a few hours enjoying the morning but soon it was time to pack up and head back to Barrow. Building the outhouse would have to wait. Arlene drew our portraits on the wall- a cabin tradition.

    The cabin was cleaned. Bleach was sprinkled in front of the doorway to deter any animals. The door was tied shut- keeping it shut against the elements but providing easy access for any person seeking shelter in the middle of winter. Nearly all cabins, houses and cars in and around Barrow are left open for this reason- to provide immediate shelter and safety from both bears and the cold. The window was covered once again with plywood. We set off back towards Barrow with Richard, once again, navigating the shallow, watery maze back out to the ocean.

    We made three stops along the way. The first was to visit the flag marker. This flag has sentimental weight and Arlene visits the site when possible.

    The second was to visit Arnold Brower’s cabin. Arnold Brower, now passed, had several cabins in the area which were used during hunting outings.

    And the third stop was to float in the middle of a pod of 100+ feeding bowhead whales...

    Richard mentioned that at a point near Cooper Island, whales are often spotted on their steady migration south towards the Bering Strait. As we neared the area, I began to see small black dots rise and fall near the horizon. The dots turned into flukes and multiple spouts could be seen rising from the water. Richard calls the spouts, “smoke”. At first, I was the only one that saw them. I kept shouting and pointing them out but by the time the others had looked, the whales had gone. This happened several times and I began to worry that the others perhaps thought I was making it up. But soon enough we came to a place where every where you looked, 360 degrees, there were several whales breaching the surface; some near the boat, some out by the horizon.

    Richard is a member of the Savik crew. His uncle is Savik Ahmaogak and his cousin is Roy. He was co-captain with Roy until recently when he passed on that responsibility to Roy’s son which freed up his time to pursue other responsibilities and interests. Richard is a board member of ASRC, he is board president of BASC, and he can often be found in Washington D.C., meeting with government officials to discuss the future of U.S. Arctic policy. 

    For a while we floated with the engine off. Whales broke the glass water all around. You could hear the bowheads exhale. Richard said that when the whales are this close you can smell their breath. He was right- the air smelled oily. It is a familiar smell here. It is the same smell that the walruses gave on the beach, and the seal being butchered in town and the whale butchering by the boat docks. I will forever associate that smell with Barrow and the Arctic. Oddly, it is a similar smell to the linseed oil I sometimes use in my paint. 

    Richard explained how a crew would follow a whale by watching for their “footprints”. As the whale swims away, the crew watches for patterns in the water: circles of soft water that form as the fluke of the whale pushes water up to the surface.

    Notice the circular “footprint” on the water behind the bowhead.

    A whale surfaced by the boat then disappeared again. But, like he said, the whale left a line of “footprints”. At times the trail would go cold. Everyone on board would scan the water. Arlene sat at the front of the boat and was quick to spot the “footprints” as they reappeared. This went on for what could have been 10 minutes. The whale had to come up for air soon. 

    And then it did.

    While we watched the whales surface all around, I noticed Arlene tear up. Another time, we were joking about the whales and she was quick to end the conversation, saying that the whales could hear us. Whether or not she truly believes this isn’t the point. Traditionally, the Inupiat people believe that the whale chooses the village and the hunter to whom they “give themselves”. If the hunters aren’t respectful, if the town is not prepared, the whales will know. The whales choose those who are in good spirits and have a clean camp and a fresh, white umiaq. That belief carries on today, if only to promote respect and good hunting practices within the village and within the crew. The connection between the bowhead whale and the Inupiat people runs deep. My time amongst the whales with Richard and Arlene demonstrated this to me.

    The day after we returned, I began the new, large butchering scene. Four men pull a slab of meat across the canvas to the left. On the right, a man contemplates the organs that have spilled out. Another man cuts into the whale in the top, right corner and a girl, center, holds the hook she will soon use to pierce the blubber or the meat and help carry it away from the scene.

    This is the third day of working on this piece. 180”x80”. It is going fast, but I doubt I will finish before I have to leave Barrow. On the last week of October, I will be flying to Kaktovik and Anaktuvuk Pass to give painting workshops. After that, I head back to the lower 48. I should stop painting by the end of the first week of October to give the paint time to dry before it is rolled up. 

    It is hard to believe that my time here in Barrow is coming to an end. The project will continue. Once back in Brooklyn, I will spend the next year or two working on this series. I hope to visit Barrow again, next spring, in another attempt to witness a successful spring hunt. Once the entire series is finished, I will return to Barrow once more to exhibit the work in town.

    As I mentioned, Saturday the 14th, was the first day of the fall hunt. Around the same time, the ground had frozen and snow now dusts the tundra. It is cold again. The temperature of the water is below freezing and it is only a matter of time before the ice returns. Nok gave me a vhf radio so that I can listen in on the crews as they hunt. Any struck whale is announced on the radio followed by a steady stream of congratulations. 

    That Sunday, three whales were harvested. Word came in the morning that two crews had struck whales. They were 16 miles out and it would take a solid few hours to tow the whales back to land. By the time I reached the runway past NARL, where the fall whales are butchered, the first was being pulled in.

    Above: Makaklik Crew's whale

    The whale was small, at 25’ long. The smaller the whale, the more tender the meat. Also, there is less strain on the heavy machinery used to transport the animal from the beach to the runway. The same machinery is used to build the berms along the coast to protect the town from devastating storm surges.

    There were the usual photo ops while everyone waited for the crew to arrive. Upon arrival, the crew also posed for photos in front of their catch. Then, the whale was rolled onto its side and people quickly got to work.

    Around the same time the butchering of the first whale was finishing up, the Panigeo crew could be seen towing the second towards the beach. This whale was larger, at about 37’. Two loaders were needed to bring it to the runway. The head of a bowhead whale is about 1/3 the entire length of its body. The loaders bearing the weight at the head tipped forward and the back wheels lifted off the ground as it brought the animal to its butchering place.

    The job took the crew and their help well into the night. Eventually, lights were brought in to light up the scene and many of the cars that circled kept their lights on.

    At around 10:30 p.m., the sound of cheers and car horns welcomed in the Oliver Leavitt Crew’s whale- the third and final whale of the day.

    The following day, two more whales were brought in. Barrow is allotted 22 strikes by the International Whaling Commission. The number is based on the latest scientific evidence of the species population. Currently, the bowhead is thriving. Only three or four strikes were used during the spring due to the bad ice conditions. This means Barrow has about 15 strikes left to use for the year. 

    Immediately following the butchering of a whale, the crew and the crew’s families get to work preparing the meat, blubber and organs for the community. When all is ready, the captain hangs a flag above his house and anyone may come by to get a bag or two of mixed pieces. It is a time to congratulate the families involved and for them to share with the community. I stopped by the Panigeo captain’s house with my friend Abra Patkotak. As there was a long line of people out the door, little time was wasted and before I knew it, I was back out the door holding two bags of whale. 

    I keep the vhf radio close by. Most of what I hear is the town wishing each other good morning and then good afternoon, good evening, happy birthday and good night.The wind has picked up since Tuesday and snow has been falling lightly ever since. As far as I can tell, no crews have gone back out.

    Above, clockwise from top: tongue (?), meat, maktak (blubber with skin), and liver.

  • Polar Bear!

    I was heading south along the beach to Monument with a group of three other people. We were all on four wheelers. I was in back in case those who were carrying some of the equipment dropped anything. The water seemed extra high that morning and the waves, extra strong. There isn’t much of a tide in the Arctic but at times there is a noticeable rise of the ocean along the beach and it can make passing via four wheeler difficult and sometimes impossible. 

    That morning there was talk of a polar bear in the area. It had been spooked out towards the gravel pits at the edge of town. About a quarter of the way down to Monument, I spotted the bear in the surf eating a walrus carcass. I slowed down assuming the other three ahead of me would see the bear and we would turn back around to find a safer route. 

    The entire way to Monument, the beach is sandwiched between the bluff and the ocean. At times, there is maybe 50 feet width of beach to ride and, other times, you are pressed against the bluff. (On my last ride out to Monument, the water had risen up to the bluff at some places and we had to wait for a wave to settle, then ride quickly across the stretch of now bare beach before another wave would come to swallow everything up. I was towing the trailer that day and got stuck in the middle of the stretch. The wheels sunk deep. It took all of us to push it out of the mud and surf.)

    At the point where the polar bear was eating the walrus, there was a distance of about 30 feet from the bear to the bluff.

    I soon noticed that the other three were not slowing down. In fact, they didn’t see it. I think perhaps the white of the surf was camouflaging the bear and it takes quite a bit of concentration to dodge the various obstacles that can throw you off your four wheeler. I tried calling out to the person in front but the engines of our four wheelers were too loud. I stopped and watched as the other three drove not 20 feet past the bear. The animal sat in the surf and watched them as they went by.

    But then it occurred to me that the rest of my party was on the other side of a polar bear. They seemed to get by just fine. It was either ride past the bear as well or turn around. So I tried to give the four wheeler extra gas to push by the bear as quickly as I could. This was fine until a wave came up as I was right in front of the bear and my four wheeler began to sputter. But it quickly recovered and I made it past the polar bear with my thumb still on the throttle. 

    Only about 50 feet further down, I noticed some of the equipment on the beach that had fallen off of one of the four wheelers. At this moment, I stopped, grabbed the piece of equipment, snapped these photos of the bear and then pushed ahead as quickly as I possibly could. The adrenaline from the event made it difficult to capture a clear photo. 

    The other three people had waited for me down by a creek that empties into the ocean which we had to cross. As I drove up with the equipment, I felt just a bit like Indiana Jones. One person from the group asked if I had seen the red peppers that had somehow found their way to the beach. I asked if they had seen the polar bear that they passed within 20 feet of- they hadn’t.

    It seemed like the bear couldn’t have cared less. It simply watched as the four wheelers drove by. The animal didn’t seem spooked by the engines or threatened in the least. It seemed perfectly content to stay exactly where it was with the walrus carcass. 

    In my entry, Driving Along the Plover Islands, I mentioned the first polar bear I saw. At that time, Glen from the Savik Crew literally chased a polar bear away from the carcass heap, on his snow machine. I imagine my second polar bear encounter is just another day in the life of many who live along the coast of the North Slope, especially those who are from Kaktovic. So, Indiana Jones, I am not. But it was close enough to be an experience I won’t soon forget.

    Above: Ribcage of a ringed seal. Once the ice melted, several carcasses washed up along the beaches.