Popular Science Monthly/Volume 38/April 1891/Whale-Catching at Point Barrow

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1196399Popular Science Monthly Volume 38 April 1891 — Whale-Catching at Point Barrow1891John Murdoch



ALL through the latter part of the winter the seal-hunters, who are out every day tending their nets, along the shore from Cape Smyth to Point Barrow, have been watching and studying the ice. Running along nearly parallel to the shore and about a thousand yards off, is a bar on which the water is not more than two or three fathoms deep. On this the heavy pack-ice, coming in with the autumn gales, usually grounds, piling itself up into a wall of rugged masses of ice, while inshore the sea freezes over smooth and level. Outside of this is the rough pack, broken masses of ice piled up in irregular heaps like the craggy fragments on a frost-riven mountain-top, but interspersed with undulating fields of ice, many seasons old, and thick enough to resist the pressure when the ice-fields come together before the winds and currents. Occasionally, too, the grounding of heavy masses of ice—there are no true icebergs in this part of the Arctic Ocean—affords sheltered spaces where fields of "new ice" can form undisturbed by the movements of the pack.

Through January, February, and March these ice-fields remain motionless, or are only crushed closer together and pressed harder upon the land by the prevailing westerly gales; but in April the pack gradually begins to loosen, and when the long-wished-for east wind blows, cracks open six or seven miles from the shore, extending often for miles, parallel to the land. These cracks or "leads," as they are called, seldom remain the same for many days, but open and close as the wind changes, now spreading clear of all obstructions for hundreds of yards or even for a mile in width, now filled with loose ice, floating with the current. It is in these leads of open water that the whales work their way to their unknown breeding grounds in the northeast, passing by Point Barrow chiefly during the months of May and June, and it is during this season of migration that they are hunted by the Eskimos.

The chase of the whale is of great importance to these people. The capture of one of these monsters means meat in abundance; blubber for the lamps, and for trade with the Eskimos whom they meet in the summer; whalebone to purchase ammunition; tools and luxuries from the ships; and the choicest morsel that an Eskimo knows, the "black-skin" or epidermis of the whale. Consequently, the successful whaleman is the best man in the village, and soon grows rich and influential.

But to return to the seal-hunters and their observations of the ice. From long experience, the Eskimos are able to judge pretty accurately where the "leads" will first open in the spring, and, when they have concluded where the boats will be launched, they set to work to select the best path for dragging out the boats through the rough ice-field. They soon make a regular beaten trail, winding in and out among the hummocks, taking advantage of all the smooth fields of ice that they can, and, from time to time as they pass back and forth from their seal-nets, they chip off projecting corners of ice with their ice-picks, and with the same implement widen out the narrow defiles in the road, and smooth off the roughest places. Men sometimes go out on purpose to work for a few hours on the road, using ice-picks or "whale-spades" (something like a heavy, broad chisel, mounted on a long pole, used for cutting the blubber off a whale), which they have obtained from the white men. It is a pretty rough path, however, at the best.

By the middle of April all the hunters have returned from the winter deer-hunt, and the business of getting ready for whaling is taken seriously in hand. The frames of the great skin boats must be taken down from the scaffolds where they have rested all winter, and carefully overhauled and repaired, while every article of wood that will be used in whaling, from the timbers of the boat to the shafts of the spears and harpoons, must be scraped perfectly clean, in honor of the noble quarry. Gear must be looked to, and the skin covers for the boats repaired and soaked in the sea, through holes in the ice cut close to the shore, till they are soft enough to stretch over the framework.

Meanwhile, a careful watch is kept from the village cliff for the dark cloud to seaward which indicates open water; and if the much-talked-of east wind does not speedily begin to blow, the most skillful of the wizards or medicine-men get out on the bluff, and with magic songs and beating of drums do their best to make it come.

It is not every man in the village who owns an umiak that fits it out for whaling, as it requires a good deal of property to procure the necessary outfit. About eight or ten boats from each village make up the usual fleet. The crews—eight or ten men to a boat—are made up during the winter.

The owner of the boat—who is always the captain and steersman—sometimes hires his crew outright, paying them with tobacco or cartridges or other goods, and sometimes allows them a share in the profits, but, I believe, always feeds them while the boat is "in commission." When enough men for a full crew can not be secured, women and even half-grown lads take their places in the boat. One man is selected for harpooner and posted in the bow, and usually another, amidships, has charge of a whaleman's bomb-gun, for firing an explosive lance into the whale, for most of the rich Eskimo whalemen now own these guns.

Now, as to the instruments used for the capture of the whale. Instead of harpooning the whale, or "fastening" to him, as the white whalemen say, and keeping the end of the line fast in the boat, which the whale is made to drag about till the crew can manage to haul up and lance him to death, there is but a short line attached to each harpoon, to the end of which are fastened two floats made of whole seal-skins, inflated, which are thrown overboard as soon as the harpoon is fixed in the whale. Each boat carries four or five harpoons, and several boats crowd round and endeavor to attach these floats to the whale every time he comes to the surface, until he can dive no longer, and lies upon the water ready for the death-stroke. Some of the harpoons are regular whalemen's "irons," but they still also use their own ingenious harpoons, in which the head, made of bone or walrus ivory, with a point of stone or metal set into it, is alone fastened to the line, and is contrived so as to "unship" from the shaft as soon as it is thrust into the whale, and to turn at right angles to the line, like a toggle, under the skin. To kill the whale after he is harpooned, they used in old times long lances, with beautifully flaked flint heads, as broad as one's hand; but now they all have regular steel whale lances, and, as I have said before, most of them own bomb-guns.

Some of the boats are carried out over the ice to the place where they are to be launched before the "lead" opens, and, as soon as open water is reported by the scouts, all start. There is a great deal of ceremony and superstition connected with the whale-fishery. The captain and harpooner of each boat wear special trappings, and streak their faces with black-lead, as, indeed, is often done on festive occasions. Long before the time for whaling, all those who intend to command whaling boats during the coming season assemble, with all their gear, in the public room and hold a solemn ceremony, with drumming and singing, to insure good luck. Charms and amulets of many kinds are carried in the boats. They believe that the whales are supernaturally sensitive. If the women should sew while the boats are out, or the men hammer on wood, the whales, they say, would leave the region in disgust.

Let us see, now, how the boats are carried out over the path I have described. The boat is firmly lashed on a flat sledge, to which a team of dogs is attached, while the men and women hold on to the sides of the boat, pushing and guiding. Hearing, one day in May, 1882, that one of the Cape Smyth boats was starting for the edge of the ice, two of us set out over the trail, and overtook the party about two miles from the shore, where they were resting, having sent the dogs ahead 'in charge of two women, with another sledge loaded with all sorts of gear—rifles, spears, and so on. The party consisted of five men and two women. The captain of the boat and the harpooner wore on their heads fillets of the light-colored skin of the mountain sheep, from which dangled on each side a little image of a whale, rudely flaked from rockcrystal or jasper. The captain's head-dress was fringed with the incisor teeth of the mountain sheep, and the harpooner had another stone whale on his breast. One of the women was decorated with a stripe of black-lead diagonally across her face. In the boat, for charms, were two wolves' skulls, the dried skin of a raven, a seal's vertebra, and several bunches of eagle's feathers. They say the skin of the golden eagle—"the great bird"—or a bunch of hairs from the tip of the tail of a red fox, bring great luck. In the boat were also five or six inflated seal-skins, which, when we came up, they were using for seats on the ice.

One of the women soon came back with the dogs, the seal-skin floats were tossed into the boat, the dogs hitched up, and we started ahead, the woman leading the dogs, and the men shoving alongside. When we came up with the first sledge, the dogs were unhitched from the boat and sent ahead with a load of gear for another stage, and so on. On smooth ice the boat travels easily and rapidly; but where it is broken it is hard shoving and rough scrambling for the men, while occasional stops have to be made to chisel out projecting pieces of ice and widen narrow places in the path. Then the dogs get tangled up from time to time, and have to be kicked apart, so that their progress on the whole is slow. When they reach the open water the boat is launched and the gear put on board, and the sledges drawn up out of the way. Everything is put in readiness for chasing the whales, and the boats begin patrolling the open water. The harpoon, with the floats attached, rests in a crotch of ivory lashed to the bow of the boat, and everybody is on the alert. Sails and oars are never used in the boat when whaling, but the boat is propelled by paddles alone.

Thus they spend the months of May and June, eating and sleeping when they can, for the daylight now lasts through the twenty-four hours, occasionally hauling the boat up to the edge of the ice for a rest. Somebody, however, is always on the watch for whales or seals or ducks, which last now and then at this season pass by in thousands on their way to the north.

When the "leads" close, the boats are hauled up safely on the ice, and all hands come home till an east wind and "water sky" warn them of a fresh chance for whaling.

Let us suppose that there is good open water, and that a couple of boats are hauled up on the edge of the land floe, their crews resting and gossiping, perhaps waiting for the return of the women who have been sent home to the village for food. Suddenly a faint puffing sigh is heard, and a little puff of vapor is seen over toward the edge of the ice. It is a whale "blowing." The men all spring to their feet and quickly run the boats off into the water, and, scrambling on board, grasp their paddles and are off in the direction of the "blow." If they are lucky enough to reach the whale before he escapes, the harpooner, standing up, thrusts the heavy harpoon into him with both hands, and quickly recovers the pole, to be used again. The nearest boat rushes in; other boats, seeing what is going on, come up and join in the attack until the whale is captured. Sometimes, indeed, an opportunity occurs for a successful shot with the bomb-gun as soon as the whale is struck, and the contest is ended at once. But the attack is not always so successful. Sometimes the whale escapes into the loose ice before the boats can reach him; sometimes the harpooner is clumsy, or the harpoon does not hold. Sometimes, too, the whale escapes before enough floats can be attached to him to hamper him, and carries off the harpoons, floats and all. Even if the whale is killed, he sometimes sinks before he can be towed to the edge of the ice, where the "cutting in" is to be done.

When the "lead" of open water is narrow, the natives who own bomb-guns patrol the edge of the ice, watching an opportunity to shoot the whales as they pass. It was when engaged in this kind of hunting that a young acquaintance of ours at Cape Smyth came near losing his life. A man near him, handling his bomb-gun carelessly—the Eskimos are all frightfully reckless with fire-arms—discharged it by accident, sending the bomb into the ice under his feet, where it exploded, shaking him up like a small earthquake.

"When the whale is killed, it is towed, as I have said, to the edge of the solid floe, and the work of cutting him np begins. By long-established custom, universal among the Eskimos, the skin, blubber, and flesh of a whale belong to the whole community, no matter who killed it; but, at Point Barrow, the whalebone must be equally divided among all the boats that were in sight when the whale was killed.

They have none of the appliances used by civilized whalemen for easily and rapidly stripping off all the blubber, but hack away at everything in reach, getting off all they can before the carcass sinks. The news soon reaches the villages that a whale has been killed, and there are very few households that do not send a representative to the scene of action as speedily as they can, with sledges and dogs to bring away their share of the spoils. As may be supposed, there is a lively scramble round the carcass. Some on the ice, some crowding the boats, they cluster round the whale like flies round a honey-pot. Leaning over the edge of the boats, careless of the water, they hack and cut and slash with whalespades and knives, each trying to get the most he can. So far as I have ever heard, this is a perfectly good-natured scramble, and no one ever thinks of stealing from another's pile on the ice. The blubber, meat, "blackskin," and whalebone are soon carried home to the village. The blubber is not tried out, but is packed away in bags made of whole seal-skins, and, with the meat, is stowed away in little underground chambers, of which there are many in the villages.

The "blackskin" is eaten fresh, and is seldom if ever cooked. This curious dainty is the epidermis or cuticle of the whale. It is about an inch thick, and looks, for all the world, like black India rubber; it is not so tough, however. Civilized whalemen are nearly as fond of it as the Eskimos, but are not in the habit of eating it raw. When nicely fried in the fresh, sweet oil of the "try-pots," when they are "boiling out" the blubber of a whale, for instance, it is very palatable, tasting much like fried pigs' feet. It is also good boiled and "soused" with vinegar and spices. The Eskimos are fond, too, of the tough white gum round the roots of the whalebone.

The jawbones of the whale are cut out and preserved. From these and from the ribs are sawed out strips of bone for shoeing the runners of the sledges. In fact, everything that can be cut off from the whale, before the carcass sinks or is carried off by the current, serves some useful purpose.

The most favorable time for whaling is when there is a continuous "lead" of open water, not more than a couple of hundred yards wide, with a solid pack of ice beyond it. Then the whales must pass up within sight or hearing of the boats. When the open water is very wide, the whales may pass at a distance unnoticed, or so far off that it is impossible for a boat to overtake them.

If there is much loose ice, the crafty animals take advantage of it, and come up to breathe at little holes among the floes where a boat can not reach them.

As the season advances, the whales grow scarcer, and the whalemen relax their vigilance and pay more attention to the capture of seals, which they shoot through the head when they rise near the boat, securing them with light harpoons before they have time to sink. At this season, also, the whale-boats some times capture walrus and white whales.

At length several days pass without a whale being seen, and one by one the crews give up looking for them and bring home their boats, until by the first of July the whaling is over for the year, the boats are all in, and everybody is preparing to leave the village for the summer excursions.