Gift of the Whale: The Inupiat Bowhead Hunt, A Sacred Tradition
What's left for the journalist who burns for the great adventure? Is there anything out there for the modern-day Henry Stanley, who longs to go beyond the edge of the map? The poles? They make commercials on the ice cap these days. Outer space? Too high-tech and bureaucratic. New Guinea? Margaret Mead went there, did that. Journalistic derring-do, alas, is not what it was. It's no longer enough just to thrust yourself out there and describe what it's like. Everything and everyplace — well, almost everyplace — has been discovered, described, photographed, maybe even understood. I remember spending half a day once finding a rancher in a godforsaken part of Wyoming who could allegedly tell me about the wild horses that rambled on his acreage. On the way out his gate I was shocked to pass two vans bearing Charles Kuralt and his television crew, on their way in.
The passing of journalistic frontiers has left a void only now beginning to be filled by a new kind of chronicler-adventurer. Bill Hess, an Alaskan writer and photographer, is one of this breed. His goal is not just to introduce us to the Inupiat Eskimos of northern Alaska and their whale-centered culture, but to experience it, become a part of it, show us what it's like from the inside. It's an assignment that calls for stamina, patience and a long-suffering deference to the people and culture he chronicles. It's no longer the journalist-as-star, like Stanley searching for Livingstone or even Hunter S. Thompson searching for, well, anything. It's the scribe as plodding, shivering, miserable tagalong, enduring the scorn of his subjects while striving mightily to fit in, and, by God, seeing it through.
When he is finally granted permission to accompany the Inupiats on their hunts out of Point Barrow on Alaska's Arctic coast, Hess' first job is to trot alongside their skin-covered boat (umiak) while a snowmobile tows it across several miles of jagged ice field. "I struggled to keep my footing, let alone protect the umiak. We plummeted down the grade toward a shard of ice that threatened to poke a hole in the umiak skin—or in me. Suddenly my foot plunged into a crack hidden by drifted snow. I flopped forward. Snow stung my face as I fell flat. I jerked my head up to see George driving on and looking back through dark glasses that only seemed to magnify his disgust." The temperature on this particular day was a relatively balmy 20 below zero.
Hess paid his dues this way for several years beginning in the early 1980s, eventually becoming accepted as a willing if somewhat clumsy hand among the Eskimo crews, who sought to bring in the five to ten bowhead whales they were permitted to take annually under the terms of a complex and controversial agreement.
Hess evokes the spare pleasures of Inupiat life, the simple fellowship and the traditional sharing of the hunt's bounty, as well as the ubiquitous dangers: one man was killed by a polar bear while strolling a village street with his girlfriend. The book's language is lean and businesslike for the most part, although it detours into mysticism now and then. The photographs, appropriately black and white, capture the twilight harshness of the land and the leathery resiliency of the people.
Hess focuses on the hunt for the bowhead whale. He shows us how it feels to stand in an open boat bobbing on a frozen sea, waiting to take a harpoon-gun shot at a creature the size of an 18-wheeler. He makes us feel the frustration of holding fire because the quota for the season has already been reached. One hunter, almost quivering with eagerness with an over-quota bowhead only a few yards from his boat, turns to his crewmates and cries, "Doesn't anybody have ten thousand dollars?" — the fine he'd be assessed if he struck.
The current generation have adapted a few 20th-century niceties to their ancient techniques. They use snowmobiles, outboard motors and an explosive that detonates inside the target whale. But Hess also demonstrates that the hunt ultimately remains a rudimentary test of grit and the hunter's deep knowledge of his prey.
The book's most poignant chapter is an account of three gray whales who hit the front pages internationally in 1988, when they became trapped by ice that closed off their migration route. The drama unfolded for days as underdressed reporters raced to Point Barrow. Hunters repeatedly chain-sawed holes in the ice, enabling the whales to breathe. One man described how the grays stayed at the surface of the airholes four or five times longer than they would have normally, breathing rapidly like runners after a long race. But the creatures were doomed, and when they eventually disappeared the Eskimos mourned them like fallen friends.
Hess succeeds in giving us a portrait of a world we'd probably never know otherwise, but I think his real achievement is not so much his words and pictures as his courage, sensitivity and endurance. He simply hung in, and in the end he got the job done. Henry Stanley would have understood.
Donald Dale Jackson is a writer who is based in Connecticut.