Posts Tagged ‘whaling’

6 afternoon patients and an evening power failure.

October 22, 2017

With a light do you send out a scout

To see what the problem’s about?

For it gets pretty dark

And the prospects are stark

Up here when the power goes out.

Synopsis: I’m a Family Practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa. In 2010 I danced back from the brink of burnout, and honoring a 1 year non-compete clause, traveled and worked in out-of-the-way places in Alaska, Nebraska, Iowa, and New Zealand. I followed 3 years Community Health Center work with a return to traveling and adventures in temporary positions in Alaska, rural Iowa, suburban Pennsylvania and western Nebraska. After 3 months in northern British Columbia, and a month of occasional shifts in northwest Iowa, I have returned to the Arctic.  Any identifiable patient information has been included with permission.

On my first Friday back in the Arctic, I got to talk with a Native about village life.  After getting through the medical agenda, I asked about fishing.

The village in question right now does it a lot.  And, with freeze up coming, the Natives are working the set nets.  Soon the caribou migration will start.

But the whaling grabbed my attention.  We talked about a village that brought in their entire quota of 10 bowheads last spring; in times past the villagers sometimes had to make do with as few as 4.  In the process, we talked about making the bombs necessary for the complicated harpoon that the Natives use.


I had the thrill of making two people better before they left.  One I helped with massage and spinal manipulation, one with an exercise I saw on YouTube.  “YouTube?”  the patient exclaimed, “You mean I could be a doctor from YouTube?”

I said, “You want to learn to put in a chest tube or do a cricothyrotomy?  Go to YouTube.”  And, in fact, you can find instructions on almost any procedure.


Still learning, or relearning, the Electronic Medical Record system here, I only had 6 patients scheduled for the day, 2 in the morning and 4 in the afternoon.  I’m just getting the hang of sending the prescription to the pharmacy before the patient leaves, and finishing the remaining documentation later.

The docs here meet with staffers for morning report, much like we did during my time in Barrow (now called Utqiavik).  Shortly before the meeting started, I realized I’d brought the wrong cell phone, the one with no local signal.  Yet, wonder of wonders, I had two bars of service and updated email.  I texted Bethany to not text me on either phone, attributing the miracle to sun spot activity.  She didn’t get the message; I have no idea if solar flares were responsible.


We had settled in for the night when the power failed, and moonless Arctic nights have a deep, Stygian darkness.  We have had power failures everywhere we’ve gone, and for the most part we can laugh it off as part of the adventure.  But our all-electric housing has no alternative to combat the cold, and while I searched out flashlights and head lamps (a total of five) I started to worry about making it through the night.  While the hospital has emergency power and we have long underwear, here we lack the cold weather sleeping bags and tents residing comfortably in our basement in Iowa.

The words power outage take on new meaning in an unforgiving climate.


Utilidor, school, NAPA, Brower’s Cafe, a bus ride, and the airport: last day around town in Barrow

March 1, 2011

Please don’t laugh and don’t scoff

Today we took the day off

     We travelled round town

     And toured underground

The famous Utilidor trough.

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.

Bethany and I took the day off today and went around Barrow. 

We slept in, ate breakfast, and went to Barrow Utilities and Electric Cooperative, Inc.; they supply water, gas, electric, and sewer service in an area notable for technical difficulty.  We asked for and received a tour of the Utilidor.  Really an engineering marvel, it deserves a post of its own during the next week.  In short: the water pipes don’t freeze in the permafrost because the water circulates.

With temperatures soaring close to positive Fahrenheit and minus 15 Celsius, we walked with our hoods down, and I unzipped my parka.

We stopped at the elementary school where Bethany has been teaching. In a climate as unforgiving as the deep Arctic, and with polar bears a real consideration, the school includes a very large indoor playground.  She picked up her pay slip, and said her goodbyes.  I talked to a woman from South Africa who enjoys picking up a few words of a lot of languages, and taught her a very short joke in Spanish.  I spoke with one of Bethany’s colleagues, originally from Mexico, in English and Spanish.  We turned down offers of lunch (shepherd’s pie, a popular dish here).

We walked another mile to the NAPA store, which will also get its own post later in the week.  I learned more about whaling, and found out one must pass an FBI background check to purchase most whaling supplies.

We decided for lunch at Brower’s Café.  The building, erected in 1881 as a shelter for stranded whalers, now functions as a very decent restaurant, with Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and American dishes.  I introduced Bethany to the cook, a man who coached batting for the Mariners for twenty-five years, retired, and decided he disliked doing nothing.  We ate a very good chicken curry.

Out back of Brower’s Café we found the whale bone arch we’d posed at this summer, and had our picture taken, again.

Winter at the Brower's Cafe whale bone arches


The two bones in the background came from a bowhead whale; they stand outside of Brower's Cafe in Barrow, Alaska

Another mile into the heart of Barrow’s business district, I stepped into the Wells Fargo Bank, the northernmost bank in the country, the only such financial institution on Alaska’s north slope, serving an area the size of Wyoming.  From here, all finances go south.

Then we just rode the bus around Barrow.  The town has a public transportation system consisting of a couple of small buses that run one fixed route, including housing five miles outside of town.  Elders, like us, ride for free. 

We got off by the airport in an unsuccessful bid to 1) photograph the sticky hangar door made world-famous in Discovery Channel’s show Flying Wild Alaska and 2) check in early.

But we walked back to the hospital housing, well exercised and ready for supper.

Packing after six weeks went easier than I had hoped but came with emotional difficulty.  Well-wishers stopped in to see us one last time before we left.

I’ve enjoyed my time here.  I don’t have plans to come back but I won’t rule it out. Life is too full of uncertainties.

Hanging with real hunters, egg fu young, playing saxophone, and Northern Lights

February 4, 2011

Long are the dark arctic nights,

If you’ve come out just to see sights.

     Be cautious, I swear,

     Of the great polar bear,

And look up to see Northern Lights.

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.

When I tell people in the lower 48 about Barrow, they frequently ask, “Why would anyone want to live there?  In this day and age?  Are you kidding me?”

I read the Unabomber Manifesto when it appeared in the Washington Post in 1995 .  The distillation of his treatise comes down to this:  modern society’s problems result from people having their basic needs of food and shelter met without working for them; most people are bored and without psychological fulfillment because they haven’t had to overcome obstacles to avoid death from starvation or exposure.

To my dismay, I agreed with his sentiments till Ted Kaczynski tried to justify killing and bombing other people.

Twenty-first century American ennui doesn’t happen in Barrow because most Natives are subsistence hunters.  

One of the reasons that I love Barrow is that the folks here really are happier than most places.  If I go to the store, I see smiles on most of the faces; I don’t see that many grins anyplace outside the North Slope except at a comedy club.

I also get to hang out with real hunters all day.  Their lives and the lives of their families depend on the success of their hunt.  The people here exist because of a combination of modern firearms and the ancient accumulated wisdom of centuries of hunting and fishing in the planet’s most hostile environment.

I talked with a man who shot more than five hundred geese during the whaling season; he told me about getting three with one shot.  Another person, who has harpooned seven whales over the course of his life, recounted killing two of those whales in one day.  A fisherman I spoke with caught eight hundred smelt on a day when his friend caught three thousand and expounded on how great they are to eat frozen.

Even though I hunt, next to the subsistence hunters here I feel like a tourist with a muzzleloader.

Tonight, the mercury sits at 11 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.  Bethany and I walked a kilometer to Brower’s café and ordered egg fu young with hot and sour soup.  The prices of restaurant food run high here but the portion size stacks up with the largest; we brought home leftovers, though polar bears have been sighted in that part of Barrow during the last two weeks.

After I dropped Bethany off at the apartment, I took my saxophone to the house of the guitar player who anchored the band when I worked here last summer (see my posts from June and July).  We miss our trumpet player and leader, but we still like making the music.  Halfway through, Bethany called to tell me to go outside.

We came here with the intention of seeing the Northern Lights.  This evening’s Aurora Borealis streaked green across the sky from horizon to horizon.

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.

Another Nalukataaq injury; what goes around comes around

July 9, 2010

I recalled my broken bones past

As I set to replacing a cast

     Inadequate priming

     Throws off the timing

And a lateral malleolus gets trashed

I replaced a cast on a young man’s ankle, and he gave me permission to publish this information.

Preparing for the Nalukataaq, or blanket toss, his whaling crew was getting the blanket ready.

Remember that at a blanket toss, they don’t really use a blanket.  It looks like a blanket till you get a few meters away, then you realize the trampoline sized object is sewn together from two layers of seal skins.  The skins came from one of the successful whaling boats, constructed by hand here in Barrow, and were part of some bearded seals hunted nearby.  Stout rope handles, ten to a side, are sewn between the skins.  Long ropes running from corner to corner are sewn in as well; the whole “blanket” is supported by those ropes which are anchored into the permafrost, tightened with block-and-tackle, and held eight feet off the ground by timbers.  To actually “toss” someone, forty strong men gather around the “blanket” and synchronously apply more tension to the baseline tension.  When the rhythm works (which is most of the time) the results are impressive, people sail thirty feet into the air.

My patient, wearing clunky rubber boots, climbed onto the blanket.  Thinking the crew was ready, he started to jump.  As only a few were tossing, when he went up for a back flip the timing was off and a fractured ankle was the result.

As I replaced his cast, I recounted my first-hand experience with not one but two broken ankles when I was sixteen.  I had run too far for too long and stress fractures of the outside ankle bone (lateral malleolus)were the result.  I didn’t follow the orthopedist’s instructions about cast care.  In the days before fiberglass casting material I destroyed three casts before my doc gave up and gave me ankle supports, forbidding me to run till cleared.

What goes around comes around.

I talked with another of my patients, suffering from a good deal of self-imposed stress, about the joys of delegation and not being the boss; I was given permission to include a good deal more information than I will include here.  I observed that most outsiders who come to Barrow are not seeking a fast-paced, wall-to-wall lifestyle, and that we change more about what we do to ourselves than about the things that are done to us. 

A lot of mental illness outside of stress and harsh life experiences afflicts the people here, with no regard to ethnic group.  Schizophrenics are more integrated into family and society here than back home where they are marginalized and isolated.    Bipolar disease (formerly known as manic-depression) occurs throughout the world and does not spare Barrow.

I’m using my Inupiak language skills and I’m getting better.  I can say Hello, How are you?  I’m fine, and My name is Dr. Gordon.  I can also say the Inupiak word for seal oil (think of it as seal schmaltz), bearded seal, whale, poop, goose, walrus, bow (as in archery), and Good morning.

It’s the least I can do.

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.

Shotguns on a four-wheeler parked outside the library. Where else but Barrow?

June 23, 2010

A four wheeler’s shotgun’s on guard

At the library.  I got a new card.

     With the price out of reach,

     I bought not a peach,

And gasped at the price of the lard.

The whale festival, the Nalukaataq, is this week.  It should be quite a celebration.  The whalers brought in fourteen this year.

One of the perks of my job is that I get to talk to whalers. 

I’ve seen five whaling related injuries so far this year, all from whale processing, and none related to the actual hunting.  I understand from my colleagues that the run-up to whaling season brings in a lot of injuries.  The crews put in incredible hours making trails on the sea ice.

The docs here also talk about the injuries we’ll see from the Nalukaataq blanket toss; people are thrown 20 feet into the air and for the most part land upright and standing.  Occasionally they miss the blanket.  Some of my patients haven’t been blanket tossed for years and are still dealing with the injuries.

The clinic morning went long; I admitted a patient over the lunch hour.  I started seeing patients shortly before one and did my best to keep things going in a timely fashion.  At the end of the day I had found three more hyperthyroids and a B12 deficiency.

The patient with the strange neurologic findings came back looking vastly improved.  Now that he’s on the right medicine he’s feeling better and he’ll probably make a full recovery.

After clinic I walked the dike between the two lagoons, across the tundra to the library, in the process seeing another furry brown lemming dashing through the grass.

The library is a very nice facility adjoining the Heritage Center.  I was issued a card today, and I checked out two DVD’s on Alaska, one of them about Barrow.  In the library parking lot was a four-wheeler carrying two gun cases and a goose decoy.  I didn’t get a chance to interview the driver.

Here in Barrow I am not a Senior but an Elder.  The term carries considerably more respect.  Without even thinking about it, the community gives reverence to the aged.

I crossed the gravel permafrost road to the grocery store.  Nectarines were on sale at $3.88 a pound, comparable to the worst midwinter prices in Sioux City, and I got two pounds.  With peaches closer to $8.00 a pound, I decided I really liked nectarines more.  I bought celery, a red onion, mayonnaise, mustard, olives, pickles and grape juice and paid $40.  The price on meat products is like the scenery in Alaska: breathtaking.

The hospital community is organizing a barbecue on Saturday, and I’ll be making potato salad on Friday night.  Of course I’ll have to get potatoes, a knife, a cutting board, a bowl and a pot.  If requested by the readership, I’ll give the recipe (leave the request in the comments).

Our band’s next gig is the hospital get-together.  Our trumpeter is covering the clinic in the far distant outpost of Wainwright, till Friday and the guitarist and I will be getting together on Thursday.

“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.