A VERY SPECIAL DAY IN KAKTOVIK by Moe Witschard
This past September, after guiding my final Arctic Wild trip of the season, I found myself at the Okpilak/
Hulahula Delta with two friends, getting picked up from an 11 day personal trip. We were met by our Inupiat friend Eddie, who gave us a ride in his motorboat back to his home village, Kaktovik, on Barter Island, from where we planned to fly back home the following day. As we paddled up to his boat, Eddie greeted us and excitedly told us “ I think you guys are gonna see a whale. It sounds like they got one today ! “.
The fall arctic air was cold on our faces as we motored past Bear Island, which was littered with polar bears, probably fifteen. As we pulled onto the beach in Kaktovik and got out of Eddie’s boat, we learned that it was true. A local Inupiat captain had taken a 42 foot Bowhead Whale a few hours before, and was towing it to the village.
The Inupiat have always been whalers and the people of Kaktovik are allowed to take three Bowhead Whales each whaling season, which runs from mid August to mid September, roughly. This was the third and final whale of the season. The tail of this whale was hooked up to a front loader and the carcass dragged up onto the beach. The entire village was out to meet the whale in celebration. Everyone was there. As tradition has it, the first step is for the children of the village to take turns proudly standing on top of the whale. Following this exciting time when many, many smiles were shared and pictures were taken, the work began. After rinsing the whale, men from the village, led by the family of the captain who took the whale, get busy butchering. We watched for about 5 hours and the men were about half way done when we decided to head to bed as we were hoping to not to meet any of the polar bears that wander the village freely after dark.
The feast went well into the evening. Chunks of the deep maroon colored meat were boiled and served up with a large selection of condiments: salt, pepper, A1 steak sauce, bread and butter pickles, jalapeños, and much more. The meat was complemented by Unalit the outer two inches of the skin and blubber of the animal, which is sliced thin, boiled, and served. I never thought I’d eat whale, but it was truly delicious !….not unlike a fine cut of elk. People wonder it it’s fishy: not true. In the days that followed, the whale was distributed to members of the village, with the captain’s family keeping some of the finer cuts.
I never thought I’d have an experience like that in the arctic. It’s all about the timing. Now I understand how activities like the regulated Bowhead whale hunt keeps a village like Kaktovik vibrant and proud.