As whaling season approaches, captains complete the trails and the community comes together to bless the hunters for a safe and successful harvest.
About 50 Utqiagvik residents gathered in New Beginnings Church on the morning of March 30 for the Whaling Blessing Service.
“It went really well,” said whaler captain Herman Ahsoak.
Ahsoak has been working for weeks to break up the whaling trail and says he can see the water at the end of the trail.
“All three crew, we just got back from Point Barrow and are approaching the water,” he said. “There’s already plenty of water between Point Lay and Wainwright. It’s starting to open up a bit from the gravel pit south of here.”
Ashoak said some crews have already completed trail construction and are ready to try harvesting. He and his whaling partners have about 100 meters more before hitting the water and still have to make a launch pad.
“Once you get in the water, the whales are there. You could probably start whaling next weekend,” he said. “As soon as my trail is over and there are whales, I’m good to go.”
Other villagers are also ready for the season, whether they’re heading out to the ocean to hunt, work on hide boats, or simply support and cheer on the whalers.
Hymns, scripture readings, discussions and singing filled New Beginnings Church on Wednesday. Pastoralists, community renters, skin-sewing women and members of the whaling association talked about the upcoming season.
The whale blessing service was led by pastors from three local churches; New Beginnings, Calvary Bible Baptist Church and Inupiat Assembly of God Church. There were also people from the Presbyterian church although there was no pastor from there.
The blessing takes place every year, with residents trying to time it as early as possible, so the ceremony doesn’t interfere with the opening of the trails or the Spring Festival.
Another annual tradition during the service is the Song of the Whale: former North Slope Borough Wildlife Management Department biologist John Craighead George, known to residents as Craig, sings it year after year, has Ahsoak said.
“He created a whaling song when he was in Barrow in the 70s,” Ahsoak said, “and we’ve asked him to sing it every year now.”
George said he wrote the song nearly 40 years ago, inspired by stories he heard from veteran whalers in the community, like Harry Brower.
“I wrote this song very spontaneously,” he said, “and people seem to like it. It’s about a whaler coming of age and what happens on the ice and how beautiful it is there.”
The narrator of the song talks about being born into the tradition of whaling and practicing that tradition from an early age, as his father and previous generations did. He also talks about the women in charge of sewing the skins of the boats, the people’s enthusiasm for the spring sun and the whales themselves.
When George arrived in Utqiagvik in 1977, he said everywhere he looked there were posters saying ‘Keep hunting’, referring to a short-lived moratorium on whaling that was put in place. earlier that year. Impressed by the strong response to the moratorium in the community and the multi-faceted love for whalers, George also included a passage about this part of Alaska’s whaling history in the song.
“Keep on whaling” became the chorus of George’s song, expanding it from a story of a whaler to a hymn for the millennial tradition.