Man, the whalers are pumped.
Going up in thirty foot jumps.
After what they have done
They are having their fun
And no one is down in the dumps.
Most people here who speak Inupiak and English will tell you that Nalukataaq means Whale Festival. But you can’t understand anything without understanding its context.
Imagine living in Barrow where the sun disappears for months at a time. The preparation starts in June, hunting the bearded seal and preparing the skins, sewing the skins onto a homemade wood frame to make the boat called an umiak. The crews start in March, clearing trails with pick axes across the sea ice to open water. When the trails are ready to handle snow machines, the crews set up camp at the sea ice’s edge. When someone spots a whale, the boat is launched with the minimum of noise, the crew paddles without speaking till the whale is intercepted.
Not everyone can handle a harpoon, and not everyone can fabricate the explosive head of the 8 gauge shoulder gun, and the entire season usually boils down to exactly one shot. All that work rides on one man in a homemade boat with a bunch of his buddies paddling.
Bowhead whales weigh about 30 tons, the largest being 45. When a mortally wounded creature like that dives, the crew ships paddles noiselessly and nobody talks. When the whale breaches again he is usually dead, trailing blaze orange buoys attached to the harpoon.
Then the work starts. The animal must be towed to the edge of the ice and pulled up with a block and tackle. The crew works literally day and night till the animal has been dissembled into pieces small enough for one person to move. The snow mobiles pull homemade trailers full of blubber.
If you ask a whaler hunter, he will say that the best part is the sharing, bringing the meat and blubber to the village so that elders and others who don’t hunt can have some.
Food prep takes about six weeks, and the whaling crews, led by a captain, celebrate by feeding the town. Caribou, duck, and goose soup, along with whale served raw as muktuk or fermented as mikiuk, prepared in five gallon increments and distributed to anyone who comes. The city sets aside a parking lot and with a wind break of 2×4’s and sheets of plastic
The “blanket” of the blanket toss is made out of seal skins from one of the umiaks. If a new captain gets a whale, he donates the skins from his boat for the ‘blanket’.
Imagine the synthesis of a year’s worth of preparation and backbreaking work, imagine you are the captain of a successful crew. Wearing you best parka with wolverine on the hood, you take your place on the blanket and the hands gather and in short order you fly thirty vertical feet into the air. Below you, thousands of faces look up. You see the entire town and the Arctic sea stretching away towards the North Pole.
Mine was one of the faces looking up. Before the captain jumped he yelled, “YEAH! TOP O’ THE WORLD, BABY!” At the peak of his trajectory he threw candy over the crowd.
Before I left he had jumped three rounds. An expert every time, he danced in the air, yelled with the same enthusiasm, and never went fewer than six jumps.
Nalukataaq translates to English as Whale Festival, or Blanket Toss. But not well.