Posts Tagged ‘Whale’

Highlights of six weeks in Barrow

March 1, 2011

You might say it flew far like a sparrow

Or fast and straight like an arrow.

     But either way time

     Like a vacation sublime

Went fast while we were in Barrow

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 just finished an assignment at the hospital in Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost point in the United States, and I’m in Anchorage for two days.

Six weeks in Barrow, Alaska, has flown by.  We arrived at the end of the two-month Arctic night.  We went out in -75 degree F temperatures, and we stayed inside while the worst blizzard in four years raged outside.


Blizzard in Barrow

I worked 360 hours while here, but the other doctors worked more hours than I did.  I received the lightest load on the call schedule.  I didn’t work any nights.

I saw a lot of broken ankles, from snow machine accidents and falls on the ice.  I picked up two cases of vitamin B12 deficiency, nine cases of vitamin D deficiency, two cases of hypothyroidism, and not one case of frostbite. 

I took care of people from all over Alaska, including Barrow.  I also saw those from Tonga, the Philippines, Hawaii, Korea, California, Tennessee, Kentucky, Mexico, Canada, Puerto Rico, Florida, England, South Africa, Colombia, and Ireland.

I met people who had survived plane crashes and gunshot wounds.  I made personal acquaintance with more than a dozen whaling captains, and more than two dozen who had personally killed whales.

A lot of the men had taken polar bears, most at close range with low-powered rifles, many in self-defense.  One had killed a polar bear without a firearm at all.  

I talked to women who sew the seal skins onto umiak frames, and the men who hunted the seals.

When a white-out shut the town down for four days, I suited up and went outside.  Twenty paces from the building I thought better of the venture and turned back.

I didn't have to go out in a blizzard to ice up.

We watched the first dawn after sixty-three days of darkness on the afternoon of January 24, and watched it set less than two hours later.

First sunset and first sunrise in 63 days, at the point. January 23 2011

The medical community viewed the Superbowl in the Commons room, farther north than any other medical staff activity in the country.

I talked to other hunters who shot caribou, wolf, goose, duck, wolverine, seal, and walrus.  Several people had been hunted by polar bears, but lived.

We saw the Northern Lights, I for the first time and Bethany for the second.

We attended Kiviuk, the Messenger Feast that happens every two years.  I saw dancers passionately portray heroic stories with their dances.

Afterwards, while the Northern Lights swept mutely across the sky, we watched the best fireworks display I’ve seen.

While we were here we saw pressure ridges form in the ice on the Arctic Ocean.

For every active drunk I took care of I met two in recovery.

Bethany taught sign, Inupiak, Special Ed, third grade and fifth grade.  She made a lot of new friends, one of whom she started into knitting.  She got a lot of exercise.

I drove twice, a total of less than fifteen miles.

We had the best Kung Pao chicken and Mongolian beef we’ve ever had.

Both of us lost a few pounds.


Nalukataaq, Inuit for Whale Festival

June 28, 2010

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.

“I hurt my neck pulling in my gramma’s whale.”

June 16, 2010

Here is a heck of a deal

The oil that comes from a seal

     Has vitamin D

     And Omega three

But lacks universal appeal

A patient who said, “I hurt my neck pulling in my gramma’s whale” gave me permission to quote.

These are not words you will hear in Sioux City.

The more you do something the more likely you are to get injured doing it.  In turn-of-the-century Sioux City and current Arthur County, Nebraska, for example, horses regularly injured and killed people.

When I did industrial medicine for the packing plants in Iowa I saw overuse and animal related injuries.   A combination of carpal tunnel syndrome, tennis elbow, and biceps tendonitis comprised the syndrome we called “packer’s shoulder.” 

A whale is a very big thing.  It stands to reason that if you live in a place where whales mean the difference between starvation and plenty, people will get whale related injuries.

I don’t know that the following story is true; I suspect it is as I’ve heard the same details from multiple sources.  A group of people were pulling a whale onto the ice using a block and tackle.  The strap on the tail broke and the block and tackle rocketed backwards, killing two, including a doctor’s wife who was decapitated.

I am surprised I’ve seen no cuts from the very sharp tools used on whales. 

A great many people suffer from constipation because they eat so much muktuk (raw whale blubber attached to whale skin). 

They also suffer overuse injuries from cutting up the whale, including tendonitis of the biceps and the brachioradialis (the tendon in your forearm a palm’s breadth up from your thumb).  If I see enough cases, I might publish a paper and call it “whaler’s arm.”

I am surprised to have seen so little frostbite or its sequelae.

I opened my day with seven abnormal and two normal vitamin D levels.  I went to the pharmacist to work out a vitamin D replacement schedule.  I will start the patients on vitamin D replacement at standard doses but I’ll miss the follow up in 8 weeks. 

Seal oil is very high in vitamin D, and the only patients who have come up with normal vitamin D levels have been high consumers of seal oil.  But almost everyone here eats whale blubber, so I suspect it has little vitamin D.

Twenty four pop machines, a whale skull, and convenience store under the roof of the court

June 15, 2010




There’s really no sense in pretending

These machines are useful for vending.

     I don’t really know

     Why they’re out in the snow;

In the winter, no one is spending.

One soft drink vending machine holds no visual interest unless it’s out of context.  Neither do five or six.  Eight pop machines in context but viewed from the proper angle can be made visually interesting.  Twenty-four soda sellers like these is visually striking even if photographed in context.

One vending machine emerging from a melting snow bank is out of context and has the potential for being a good photograph.  Twenty-four Coke and Pepsi machines, divided into two lines of twelve each, makes such a visual impact that they generate their own context, then everything around them becomes out of context.  I have no idea why those machines are there and why they would have stayed there over the winter.

These things don’t come in by rail,

The boaters use paddle, not sail,

     A trophy, a prize

     A skull of this size

Could only come from a whale


On Sunday I took a walk over to the Heritage Center.  The Inuit around here refer to themselves as the People of the Whale; the rhythm of life here in Barrow revolves around subsistence whaling.  This year they brought in 14.  The best year that people can recall they got 25.  But they don’t remember exactly which year in the calendar it was, they remember “the year we got 25 whales.”

The spring whale hunt is conducted from the sea ice for bowhead whales.  The whalers go into the water in a locally made skin boat called an umiak.  The harpoons are mostly handmade.  They approach the whale hunt with the same religious reverence the Acoma  approach deer hunting. 

I had no idea the size of a whale skull till I stood next to one.

Please don’t laugh and don’t snort

If there’s a storm there’s a port

     Here is the proof

     For under one roof

There’s the Quick Stop, and then there’s the Court


I had heard of a convenience store close by the hospital, and I’d walked by the courthouse several times.  I hadn’t realized that the store was in the same building as the court.  I’m sure there’s a statement, but I don’t know what the statement means.

Contrast is still the essence of meaning.