Three years ago, I was invited to go with a group that was visiting the Barrow Whaling Festival. With great anticipation, we began our journey to Barrow, a city on the Bering Sea and the most northern city in Alaska, north of the Arctic Circle. We left Anchorage airport at 9 a.m., flying in a luxurious super DC-3 airplane. Weather was great for flying, with a perfect blue sky and very little wind. My daughter, Andrea Larson, the owner of TransNorthern Aviation, was flying the plane.
We arrived in Barrow at 2 p.m. It was a chilly 34 degrees, not unusual for this part of Alaska in the month of June. At first glance, Barrow looked very barren. No trees or shrubbery of any kind. Houses are built a few feet off the ground on something resembling stilts, permafrost and tundra being the reason.
Houses are built of wood, not logs as I am familiar with throughout most of northern Alaska. The wood has to be shipped in by cargo ships or flown in cargo planes. Automobiles have to be transported in the same way.
After taking care of the paperwork at the Barrow airport and refueling the plane, we left the airport and proceeded to the whaling festival area, a distance of approximately one mile.
It seemed much longer as there are very few sidewalks in Barrow, mostly gravel roads. The scenery is nondescript except for glimpses of the Bering Sea. We saw no flowers anywhere except for a lone daisy in a vase as we glanced at a window of one of the houses we passed.
We finally arrived at the festival grounds. There was a large circle of people the Inupiat natives sitting on the ground, on coolers, on makeshift stools and some benches. The area cordoned off was the size of a football field.
All were waiting for the whale meat to be distributed. Many of the Inupiat were dressed in native garb jackets trimmed in fur, mukluks on their feet, all very colorful.
I sat down on the ground next to an Inupiat woman who was very old and missing several teeth, but smiling broadly. We struck up a conversation of sorts and I quickly found out time was of little concern. I gathered from her conversation that the people sit in the circle for hours, waiting for the food to be served.
Finally, after prayers by a prominent Inupiat, thanking God for a successful whale hunt, the food was distributed.
The elders were served first. My new friend held out her bowl and plate and was given duck and caribou soup, followed by muktuk (fermented whale meat) and quaq (whale meat cut up in cubes). She graciously offered me some, but I politely declined. By this time, my stomach seemed to have a mind of its own.
Then came the cake. I didn’t know what the ingredients were and was afraid to ask. Finally came the Nalukataq (blanket toss), the main event of the evening. A large canvas-type blanket was secured by several ropes and several of the Inupiat natives surrounded the blanket and held its edges. An Inupiat native was placed in the center of the blanket, then tossed approximately 20 to 30 feet up into the air. Everyone cheered as he, or she, landed safely (sometimes not so safely) on the blanket.
This was the one big event of the season so people were in no hurry to leave a great time for socializing.
We headed back to the airport and joined the rest of the group back on the plane. We flew within a few hundred feet of Mt. McKinley on our flight back so we could see the splendid mountain. We arrived back at 11 p.m. and it seemed like it was noon. This was June 21, and the summer solstice gave us almost 24 hours of daylight.
I had heard many stories about Barrow and its customs, and was delighted to have had the opportunity to visit this very unusual and interesting area of Alaska.
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