A man, a harpoon, and a whale

A man once stood on the ice,

And a whale came up, very nice

    His crewmates did hike,

    But he made a good strike

And the tale’s been told, more than twice.

Synopsis: I’m a family practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa.  I’m taking a sabbatical to come back from the brink of burnout.  While my one-year non-compete clause ticks off, I’m having adventures, working in out-of-the-way places, and visiting family and friends.  Currently I’m on assignment in Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost point in the US.

Talking with whalers has become the highlight of my day.

Barrow depends on whaling for subsistence.  In the spring, April and May, the whaling crews go out in umiaqs, or skin boats, with harpoons and shoulder guns, for bowhead whales.  They make the boats on wood frames with skins harvested from walrus (other places use bearded seal).  With components of 19th century technology, percussion caps, black powder, and locally worked wood, they make sophisticated harpoons. 

Barrow has about fifty whaling crews, each has a captain.  Intelligent, forceful, and decisive, every captain has strong leadership skills.  The crews will get together in a few weeks and start clearing trails out to the ice, when the first breaks appear and leads of open water show through.

Bowhead whales got their name from using their heads as battering rams.  If they want to come up to breathe, they can smash through six feet of ice when necessary with their bow-shaped heads.  They migrate north into the Arctic Ocean before any other sea mammal.

I have heard the following story from several sources, and I have no reason to doubt its veracity.

Last spring whaling season the captain of a crew decided to move the tent to a place closer to the water; all but one member left to bring equipment further out on the sea ice.  One member, left alone, spotted a whale, who offered himself to be killed, and came to the edge of the ice.

The man, alone, standing at the water’s edge, threw the harpoon, and made a good strike and didn’t know it.  The whale ran, as struck whales do, directly away from where he stood, and the man watched the three hundred feet of line attached to the harpoon play out.  Just before the end of the rope, just before the blaze orange float went into the water, the whale turned around, and swam directly back towards the man.

Then, giving his soul to eternity and his body to the people, the whale died.

And started to drift with the current.

The man grabbed the line attached to the harpoon.  With no way to call for help, it took all his strength to keep the whale from drifting away.

He maneuvered the rope around, looped it on a snow machine, and before the whale could drag it into the sea, he grabbed the radio and signaled for assistance.

He held onto the whale for another 45 minutes before his crew members arrived.

They say he collapsed when he arrived at the hospital, but he lived.

When I’ve heard the story, I’ve inferred that it happened because the man was hunting right, his heart was pure. 

The whalers have agreed with me.


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