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Ahmaogak Crew's Whale
Excerpts from The Whale and the Supercomputer. I took these photographs at the same time as the events described (the photos do not appear in the book).

Ahmaogak's whale spring 2002
Pulling in

At the cry of, “All hands!” we stood together holding the yellow rope, a great, joyous crowd in the early morning, strung out several hundred feet along the ice trail leading away from the whale’s tail, and someone cried out, “Walk away!” We walked, stretching the line, pulling harder as it grew taut, reaching the end of the trail and jogging back to the starting point to grab hold and keep pulling. We pulled hard, we got stuck, we were encouraged by loud calls of “Walk away, walk away,” we moved again. Some strained to pull, some paced themselves. Some strong young guys were caught smoking behind their tents and put back to work. The whale made little perceptible movement. We’d stretched that long rope out, however, pulling the two blocks of the secondary, helper block and tackle together so we could go no farther. Now it was time to reattach the helper block and tackle to the heavier block and tackle set--to bring the helper line in so we could pull it out once again.

A dozen men threw themselves to their knees along the larger block and tackle and, weaving their fingers among ropes as taut as steel bars, twisted the lines together to keep the whale from slipping back while the helper rope was released and retied. The line slipped a little, the men twisted harder, a member of the Ahmaogak crew jammed a long-handled tool into the block to stop it. The helper line was retied. A whale this size weighs well over 100,000 pounds, more than a fully loaded tractor trailer. In 1992 a ring holding the helper block separated--that was the same old whale in which Craig George found the stone spear point--and the 35-pound block shot through the air like a canon ball, faster than the eye could see, hitting two women pulling the helper line. One was killed instantly, the other died soon after. A sad whale, as people still say. But the work goes on. The process of resetting the helper line must be repeated many times to pull in one whale. Two hundred workers picked up the line and the cry went up—“Walk away”— and again the line stretched and creaked with growing tension.

No one can own a whale. The whale gives itself to the entire community. The whaling captain bears the considerable expense of year-round preparation for the hunt and carries the weight of command. The crew provides skill and muscle and endures cold, danger, and tedium. Other crews come to help kill a struck whale and tow it back to camp. All the crews, and the entire community, converge on the ice to pull the whale out of the water and butcher it. Everyone who helps receives a share of the whale, as do elders and the infirm in town, and relatives far away, who receive care packages through the mail. The choicest cuts go to the captain and the crews who made the largest contribution. The captain’s family then sets to work to prepare their share as a feast for the community, serving a banquet for all comers at their house as soon as possible. In addition, for every whale caught in the spring, the successful captain’s family serves the community at Nalukataq, an outdoor festival held in June with the Eskimo blanket toss. Falltime whales are served at other special meals--each family has its favorite whale recipes for Thanksgiving and Christmas. In the end, the captain’s compensation is intangible. He receives food for his family like everyone else, and the satisfaction that he has fed his people, and the honor and respect of the community--a fundamental kind of respect whose value does not fluctuate in the market of everyday relationships. These are not rules of whaling that can be broken or altered, such as those governing when a crew can use the aluminum, or what day the hunt  begins. You can’t be Iñupiaq and own a whale.

Top right, Charles Wohlforth and Richard Glenn, lower right, Brenton Rexford makes the first cut.

Charles and Richard
Rexford cutting
Boys resting
Tired boys absorb the whale's warmth.