Not your standard NAPA store


 

 

The things you might find on sale

While the wind outside blows a gale

     Wrenches and wires

     And Firestone tires

And stuff for hunting a whale

Synopsis:  I’m a family practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa.  Avoiding burnout, I’m taking a sabbatical while my one-year non-compete clause winds down, having adventures, visiting family and friends, and working in out-of-the-way places.  Currently I’ve just finished an assignment at the hospital in Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost point in the United States, and I’m on my way home.  I wrote this piece two days ago.

I meant to get to the NAPA store before now.

Most NAPA stores only sell stuff to fix cars.  In Barrow, the NAPA store, not surprisingly, doubles as the Polaris dealer, and sells snow machines, four-wheelers, and ATVs along with their parts.  They also sell ammunition, firearms, reloading gear, Yak Trax, clothing, and whaling supplies.

Bethany, snow machines, and an ATV at the Barrow NAPA store

The NAPA outlet sells things necessary to hunting cetaceans to subsistence whalers around the North Slope, and, recently, to Russian Inuit.

The Inuit harpoon, adopted in 1840 from Yankee whalers, stands as a marvel of functional complexity.  The head, with a steel shank and a brass toggle, attaches to a homemade wooden shaft.  When the head penetrates far enough, contact with the whale pushes in a connecting rod that runs parallel to the foreshaft.   Rearward movement of the connecting rod activates a complex trigger attached to the shaft, which sets off a #11 percussion cap, which in turn detonates a 70 grain black powder charge, firing a pipe bomb into the whale and starting a fuse that delays explosion for three to seven seconds.

Whaling supplies on display: Top right: brass shoulder gun. Top left: pipe bomb for harpoon. Bottom left: brass and steel harpoon head. Bottom right: smaller harpoon head and explosive brass dart for shoulder gun. Note car supplies on the shelf below display.

The second person in the boat, right behind the harpooner, carries a shoulder gun, a single-shot, break action, 8-gauge brass firearm that dwarfs an elephant gun, weighing about thirty pounds.  Although a breech-loader, it utilizes a black powder charge measured out (the proper term is “thrown”) each time, set off by another #11 percussion cap, and firing an explosive dart slightly smaller than the bomb from the harpoon.  It doesn’t use fixed ammunition, such as a cartridge, and thus does not qualify as a repeater. 

Each bomb and each dart cost about $150, the shoulder gun runs along the lines of $2000.   The harpoon may or may not be retrieved after the harvest, and costs well into the four figure range as.  Getting the seal skins sewn onto the umiak requires $1500 payment for the women who do it.  Clearing trail across the sea ice to open water takes weeks of hand labor and miles of running snow machines, and camping supplies on the ice take money.  All in all, whaling doesn’t come cheap, and few crews bring in a whale more often than once in three years.

Whalers will tell you that they have no success in the hunt if the whale doesn’t give itself.

I learned a lot standing in a store, between Polaris snow machines, bottles of antifreeze, and car tires.

It’s not your standard NAPA store.

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