KIVALINA, Alaska — A bowhead whale hasn’t been caught in Kivalina, a tiny Alaska town on a strip of land 80 miles north of the Arctic Circle, for more than 20 years.
And that’s a big problem.
Kivalina is one of 11 indigenous whaling communities in Alaska that sustainably hunts whales, never exceeding quotas that would endanger the population.
When a whale is caught in Kivalina, everyone rejoices. The whaling captain is celebrated, the elders distribute the meat down to every last morsel, stories of heroism are shared, and people celebrate for days.
Catching a whale can feed the community for months and it forecasts good times to come.
But as the climate changes, the ice that whalers camp on during the hunt is becoming unreliable. A snow-covered hole might open up, causing you and your snowmobile to plunge into icy waters. A fissure could crackle underneath, causing the ice sheet you’re camping on to drift toward Russia. Or there may be no ice at all.
In recent years, warming waters have made this trip perilous and almost all whalers have a story to share about the ice giving out in a disastrous ways. If you’re not knowledgeable about ice conditions, a journey can quickly turn fatal.
But that doesn’t mean the Native Americans who live in Kivalina are abandoning this centuries-long practice.
People here insist that even if everyone else forgot how to whale, they would go out into the icy tundra alone, year after year, to keep the tradition alive.
When I visited Kivalina in early April, everyone was also certain that this was the year that the whale-less streak would end. People believed so strongly that a whale was imminent, that they could sense the spirit of the whale, promising better days, just beyond the ice’s edge. Looking off into the horizon, tears glossed one girl’s eyes as she swore that this was the year.
And now, the preparation is beginning — the near future is all that matters.
Snowmobiles from previous seasons are fixed, provisions are packed into coolers, and camping supplies are gathered.
Whaling captains — an elite title usually passed down over generations after decades spent learning and training — are corralling their crew. They’re responsible for the lives of all their crew members and have to be expert in anticipating unforeseen variables — like how the wind will affect a campsite and whether the ice will hold.
Reppi, a widely respected whaling captain in this town, has been working on snowmobiles. Crowds gather around him. Wolf and caribou pelts are stacked behind him. His teenage son Lazarus is going out on a whale hunt for the first time this year. He’s a master mechanic and when he takes off his glove to shake my hand he pulls it back because it’s covered in soot.
His wife Dolly has packed coolers full of goods — including maktaaq, frozen bowhead whale skin and blubber, the whaler’s snack of choice.
Above all, Reppi’s waiting for the right sign.
In the past, the right sign was really anytime in April or May because the ice was once reliable.
These days, the right sign is more inscrutable. It has to be studied. It depends on a combination of a deep intuitive knowledge of ice conditions, consultations with the National Oceanic Atmospheric Association’s web site, and intuition.
It’s ultimately a highly educated guess — but Reppi has honed this skill over many years.
All the while, the deep, mournful sounds of bowheads can be heard on the horizon, caroming across the ice, beckoning whalers to their dreams.
Inside his home, he brings out his whaling gun, whaling bullets, and the massive harpoon used to stick the whale. He’s wearing a t-shirt and sweatpants and has frostbite scars on his cheeks from time spent out on the ice.
On the ice, he’ll be clad in thick snow gear, 20 miles from the shore, spending day after day waiting on the ice, sleeping in a tent, trying staying warm, catching fish for meals, laughing, joking, waiting.
If a whale appears within striking distance, then the hunt will rapidly begin. The gun will be hoisted, the crew will position themselves, and a drought of more than 20 years could be ended, with Reppi, leading the charge back to shore, victorious, benevolent, a hero.