Posts Tagged ‘black powder’

Not your standard NAPA store

March 3, 2011



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.


The flu epidemic continues but other illness doesn’t stop, freight barges across the Aleutian, and a bullet-free approach to polar bears

February 5, 2011

With an ether can wrapped up with bacon,

A bear can be sadly mistaken,

     For with just one bite

     That punctures it, right?

He’ll be dead before three steps are taken.

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’m on assignment at the hospital in Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost point in the United States.

Morning rounds on Friday dwelt on the flu.   The yearly influenza epidemic is raging in Barrow, though the peak hasn’t hit, we expect it next week.  Barrow’s three retail stores have run out of Tylenol. 

Most people do OK with the infection, but a few, especially the infants, have gotten very ill.  Some have been flown out on a Medevac plane.

Though the flu predominates, we see a wide variety of other problems.

When people suddenly decelerate from going too fast on a snow machine, car, motorcycle, airplane, or boat, flesh and bone try to occupy the same space as steel or glass, snow or ice.  The person always loses.  While limbs shatter quickly, lives shatter more slowly, then families shatter later.  A permanent injury taxes resilience of the person and his or her social context, and the effect ripples through generations.

Over the yearsm (before I came here) I attended two different male patients who had no social context.  Neither had any friends or family, both worked alone.  They died in their fifties of malignancies.

Most of my patients who had scheduled Friday morning appointments didn’t show.  In the afternoon, I took care of patients with, successively, influenza, diabetes, hypertension, car accident, back pain, more influenza, ankle injury, seizures, an eye problem, viral vomiting with dehydration, a productive cough, more influenza, and another ankle injury.

Through the day, on the job and outside my work, I talk to people.

I got information on the barge system.  This last year the Native government, Uqpiagvik Inuit Corporation (UIC) sent four barges up from Seattle.  One tug boat can handle one or two barges.  Most years the freight needs can be handled by three barges, but the new hospital construction demanded supplies.  Hazardous materials come by barge, including diesel fuel, gasoline, industrial chemicals, and the black powder used by the whaling crews.  UIC owns three barges and two tugs, and contracted with a private company to bring the other barge up.  Outside the short summer barge season, necessary supplies come up the Dalton Highway from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay, then fly air freight to Barrow.  The barges transport goods to the outlying villages, where they stop on the way to Barrow, but they also haul freight to Prudhoe Bay.

I was told that if one wraps a can of ether-based car starting fluid in bacon and throws it to a polar bear, the bear will bite the can, puncturing it, and will die in a matter of seconds.  I can’t swear to the veracity of the statement, and I’m not going to find out.  I’m darned sure not going to carry bacon around in bear country.

I love the smell of napalm in the morning: muzzleloading in Ponca State Park

September 19, 2010

You know, I said with a grunt,

Some just think it’s a stunt,

    With no scope for a sight

    And a load that is light

And a rifle that loads from the front

I went out to Ponca State Park this morning for their annual Outdoor Expo.  Because I’d been so busy in the past I hadn’t attended before, but this year when the Hawkeye Rifle and Pistol Club asked for volunteers, I couldn’t say no.  And I didn’t want to.

Back in February of 1988, my new partner at the time, John, picked up a flyer off his desk and said, “Did you see how long the muzzleloader deer season is in Iowa?  It’s almost three weeks long.”  He put down the flyer and he picked up an identically sized catalogue.  “And did you see how much muzzleloaders are at Comb’s?  They’re $99!” (Comb’s Authorized Liquidators has since changed ownership four times and to the best of my knowledge is out of business.  But they were fun while they lasted.)

For twenty dollars less I bought the kit, mail order.  One of my best stories to tell a live audience is my “take-it-apart-put-it-together” saga of Me and the Ten Failed Muzzleloader Kits.  If you ever meet me and ask for it, I’ll tell the story but it has a lot of visuals that don’t translate to the written page.  In July of that year I bought an actual front-stuffing rifle from Thompson; it served me well for fifteen years until the stock cracked under horrendous weather conditions.  The manufacturer stood behind their product when they didn’t have to, and that’s another very long story.

That summer John and I learned how to shoot and maintain our new rifles.  Over the next five years at least one of us took a crippled deer each year. 

As time passed I acquired a flint-lock, two Civil War era reproductions, modern in-line front loading weapons, and a bunch of spare parts.  I have taken deer and elk for meat. 

I naturally fit in as a volunteer at the Club’s muzzleloader booth.

We kept the loads light, about 40 grains of a black powder substitute propelling round balls with a greased linen patch.  Nobody complained about the recoil.  Several people shot very well.  Lots of folk didn’t know how to aim without a telescopic sight. 

One volunteer gatekeeper, four loaders, and four coaches kept the crowd moving.  It was a good mix of ages, ethnicities, genders and experiences.   A lot of women fired a gun for the first time. 

 At some point I found myself both loading and coaching.  After a few shots my loading went very fast. 

We took a break while three mountain man re-enactors gave a great flintlock demonstration.  One fellow got a shot off every twenty seconds.  Another man dressed correctly for 1760 used a historically accurate “trade musket” loaded with a handful of powder, leaves from the ground for a first wad, a handful of gravel as a charge, and more leaves for a top wad.  He pointed out that with flint and powder he could still have a weapon with whatever he found lying around.

A gig at Pepe’s and a visit to a whaling captian

July 11, 2010

I didn’t know it would happen

While I sang with maracas a-snappin’.

    But I dealt with the stress

    Of financial success

And went to the home of a whaling captain.

Saturday the weather turned windy again, the air temp went down to 38 degrees and the sky clouded over.  I called family and friends in the afternoon.  I looked out the dining room window while I talked and watched sea ice floes form and disappear.

It is difficult for people not on the North Slope to imagine what it’s like to live in a place accessible only by plane or by water.  It’s a lot like living on an island and affects the sociology of the town.  Theft is uncommon and mostly petty.  Interpersonal violence is unusual; when the young and the drunk lose their tempers, a wall is the more likely victim of their fist than is another person.  Few households are without a small arsenal of firearms, but shootings (accidental or not) are rare.

At four-thirty in the afternoon I carried my saxophone case in a light, spitting rain to the house of the guitarist, meeting there with the trumpeter.  A Tagalog-speaking cab driver drove us and the equipment to Pepe’s where our other vocalist waited.

Taxis, long a symbol of urbanism, have integrated into North Slope villagescape.  Waits are short, rides are cheap, and tips are not expected.  Most of the taxi drivers come from Pacific islands or southeast Asia.

We played to a crowd that occasionally numbered into the double digits and we had a great time.  I qualified as the percussionist because a waiter handed me a pair of maracas.  I excelled in songs of post-Victorian vintage through the old standards, from Summertime and Five Foot Two through Georgia On My Mind and Sentimental Journey. When I didn’t have the notes under my fingers, I sat out and played maracas and sang.

We played two and a half hours without a break till the trumpeter/ leader had to go back to the hospital to take call (he’s also a family practitioner).

I don’t know who put out the tip jar, nor did I notice people putting money in it, but at the end we had $22 to split four ways.  We also got to order off the menu and Fran, the owner (who deserves her own post), let us eat for free.  We elected the guitarist to be the treasurer (I had to stuff the bills into his pocket) and he paid for the taxi to carry the equipment back to his house.

I’m ambivalent about the money.   I play for the sheer joy of playing, making music I like to hear and seeing peoples’ heads bob while they’re eating their enchiladas. 

Forty years ago when I was a musician we ended jobs at two in the morning and rarely got into bed before four.  I don’t want those kind of hours any more.  Playing dinner music appeals to me much more than playing a dance.

As it is I had time after the gig to go to the house of a whaling captain, taking a taxi all the way across town (about three miles, six dollars).

I got to heft a harpoon and a shoulder gun.  We talked about grades of black powder, number 11 percussion caps, and powder measures.

I watched footage that including him harpooning a whale.  He talked about whaling as a religious experience.