Ice Out Ice Out
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Inupiat Eskimos Celebrate Arrival of Bowhead Whales
Contributed by Sheila Gaquin in Point Hope, Alaska.

April 24, 2001

Point Hope, Alaska, is above the Arctic Circle in the Chukchi Sea.

Though our days are warming up, we are still a long way from "ice-out." The Kukpuk River is frozen, Maryatt Lagoon, which is fed by the river, is frozen, and the sea is still covered by ice. Nonetheless, leads have opened in the sea ice, and this has allowing beluga and bowhead whales to begin migrating north to their summer feeding grounds.

Open leads are just what Point Hope has been waiting for. Last week crews traveled across the ice to the edge of the open water to watch and wait for whales. They took skin boats (called umiaks), tents, and harpoons with them for this rite of spring that has been repeated in Point Hope for thousands of years.

Bowhead Whales and Inupiat Culture

Photo Courtesy
Sheila Gaquin.

Harvesting whales has always been crucial to the survival of the Inupiat Eskimos. In the old days, the whales fed the village for almost the entire year. Today, the meat and muktuk is still important, but the whales serve another purpose: they are crucial to the survival of the rapidly changing Inupiat Culture.

Knowing this, you can imagine the great joy last evening when the village learned that John Oktollik's crew had taken the first bowhead whale of the season. Most of the village ventured out onto the constantly shifting ice to help pull the 30-foot whale from the water. After celebrating with fresh muktuk and Eskimo donuts, the work of cutting the whale into shares and moving them back to town began. Today our school is nearly empty because many students stayed on the ice throughout our day-lit night to help with the work.

A Question for You
As we wait for a true "ice out," can you guess which of our bodies of water--the river, the lagoon or the ocean--will be ice free first? Here's a hint to get you started in your thinking: The sun warms dark surfaces and this usually begins the melting process even before the air temperatures rise above freezing.

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