Project Jukebox

Digital Branch of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Oral History Program
Herman Ahsoak, Interview 1

Herman Ahsoak was interviewed on July 11, 2008 by Matthew Druckenmiller in Barrow, Alaska. This interview was part of Matthew's research for a Ph.D. in Snow, Ice and Permafrost Geophysics from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. For his project, he mapped the trails built by whalers to their camps at the edge of the sea ice and talked with local residents about ice conditions, whale camps, and trail building. Results of his research can be found in his dissertation Alaska Shorefast Ice: Interfacing Geophysics With Local Sea Ice Knowledge and Use (2011). In this interview, Herman talks about the ice conditions, trails, camp locations and whaling in Barrow during the 2008 spring season.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2013-25-08

Project: Sea Ice Project Jukebox
Date of Interview: Jul 11, 2008
Narrator(s): Herman Ahsoak
Interviewer(s): Matthew Druckenmiller
Transcriber: Joan O'Leary
Location of Interview:
Funding Partners:
North Pacific Research Board
Alternate Transcripts
There is no alternate transcript for this interview.
There is no slideshow for this person.

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Trails used and ice conditions along the trail

Multi-year ice

Selecting location for trail and safe retreat spot

Switching whaling camp and trail location because of ice break off

Rough trail conditions and melting

Multi-year ice, ice thickness, and ice movement

Retreating from incoming ice and effect of wind and current

Changes in ice thickness, pressure ridges, and ice breakage

Wind and current

Ice erosion, thin ice and watching for dangers

Usefulness of maps and scientific data, and interviewing hunters

Importance of learning from the elder whalers

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MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: This is an interview with Herman Ahsoak on July 11, 2008. Did I say your last name right?

HERMAN AHSOAK: Yeah, Ahsoak, yes, pretty close.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: So could you say, you know, which trail you used?

HERMAN AHSOAK: I was on Trail 7 with Jake Adams, Jonathan Aikin and Oliver Leavitt.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: And what was the trail conditions like along that trail?

HERMAN AHSOAK: The first mile and a half was the shorefast ice, which was pretty thick, probably four feet.

And then right about in the middle it was about probably three -- three and a half miles out there was young ice and it was like four inches thick.

But when we got near the -- near the lead -- right at the lead, there was multi-year ice that was connected with the young ice which was about four or five feet thick.

Thick enough to pull up the whales that we were trying to hunt.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Huh. Can you see the multi-year ice in this picture? This is from May 22nd, so it’s not -- it may not necessarily be taken at the time that you are remembering. So I’m not sure ice will be --

HERMAN AHSOAK: It was right at the lead.


That would be the multi-year's -- I don’t think the shorefast was multi-year though, but it was pretty thick.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: And were you guys also camped at the edge of -- of that -- uh -- Well, I spoke with Jacob Adams this morning. He was talking about how there was really thin flat ice at the edge.

HERMAN AHSOAK: There was where we were some thick ice. It was just connected with the thin.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: But then the thin -- thin multi-year ice is out here?

HERMAN AHSOAK: Yeah. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Bunches up. What you’re saying. Okay.

HERMAN AHSOAK: That’s what it looked like to me anyway was the multi-year.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Uh-huh. Then did you see any other multi-year ice on the landfast ice this year?

HERMAN AHSOAK: The main pack that was passing by was pretty thick.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Uh-huh, but not necessarily in the shorefast ice? HERMAN AHSOAK: Not in the shorefast ice.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Hum. Yeah, I wanted to explain to you, too, that I have a just short list of questions so I’ll just go through this.

I want to be somewhat consistent in asking everyone the same questions. HERMAN AHSOAK: Right.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: So, why did your crew choose to put your trail in this area here?

HERMAN AHSOAK: It was probably the flattest of the -- when we was looking at ice conditions by helicopter. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Oh.

HERMAN AHSOAK: Flattest meaning that it's the smoothest and you can run away if you have to. Run back to shore quickly. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Uh-huh.

HERMAN AHSOAK: And you don’t have to break too much to make the trail.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Did you guys have a designated spot to revert back to if -- if the conditions were bad?

HERMAN AHSOAK: Probably about three miles in from the lead for the safe -- where we -- where we would consider ourselves being safe.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Hum. Is that where you kept your boats, too?

HERMAN AHSOAK: The boats and tents, yes.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Yeah. So -- so it would have been somewhere back in here?


MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Yeah. So were -- were your boats there at the same place that Jacob Adams had his?


HERMAN AHSOAK: But during the middle part of the season I took my -- I moved my crew all the way to Aiviq's trail, which is on No. 1.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Okay. So when did you move your -- your --

HERMAN AHSOAK: Probably May -- May 10th. Cause he got the whale -- he got the whale on May 11th.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Oh, so you guys just one day after?

HERMAN AHSOAK: So it was one day after moving north that we got the whale.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Huh. And what was the reason that you moved?

HERMAN AHSOAK: Because of the -- how when it broke off, there was -- it would have been too rough to try to make a trail to get back by the water.


HERMAN AHSOAK: Why we moved.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: So it broke off and the ice came in and --

HERMAN AHSOAK: It had broke off and try to make another trail would take too long cause they would have still -- they would have been catching the whales while we were trying to make a trail back to the water.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Oh, okay. HERMAN AHSOAK: Cause it was so rough.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Yeah, but when it did break off, but was it just open or did other ice come in?

HERMAN AHSOAK: It was open all the way.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Okay. But why I’m -- so why would you have needed to make -- oh, just a trail to the new camp you mean?

HERMAN AHSOAK: A new trail to get back by the water too -- to get boats by the water.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Oh, okay. I understand you.

HERMAN AHSOAK: And Aiviq's trail had already been made, and the day of the 10th we went to the guys that are furthest north and we asked them if we can use the trail and they said go right ahead then we -- so we went right on to Trail No. 1.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Hum, so your camp -- your second camp was out here somewhere?

HERMAN AHSOAK: Second camp was at Trail No. 1.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Yeah. And what were the ice conditions along this trail?

HERMAN AHSOAK: There was some -- some places where there were some holes probably in the middle of the trail that you could see water in. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Uh-huh.

HERMAN AHSOAK: And when it started melting the next day I mean you could just see the holes already there. So there was some young ice also.

And the -- there was Aveoganna's trail, which was like a rollercoaster. It was pretty bad. Their trail was like the roughest trail I ever seen in my lifetime.


MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Yeah, I think I was on that. Oh, wait, was this -- this trail was put in early in the year too, wasn’t it?

HERMAN AHSOAK: Early in the year, yeah.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Yeah. Yeah, that was a rough trail. I went out there late in the season, too, with Perry.

So then did you see any -- you mentioned weak spots along -- or holes along this Trail 1, but what -- what about did you notice that it was grounded well or --


HERMAN AHSOAK: And the wet -- those ice that we put the whale on was probably multi-year ice that I was thinking about. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Hum.

HERMAN AHSOAK: Cause we were able to get the whale up really quick.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: How -- how thick was that ice that you pulled the whale onto?

HERMAN AHSOAK: Probably five feet thick. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Oh, really. HERMAN AHSOAK: Like six feet, yeah.

And I talked with other captains that -- that moved same day we did and they were talking to me and they were telling me that they finally -- had finally seen that kind of ice for like after five, six years.


HERMAN AHSOAK: Where we were -- when we were by the lead.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: And what is -- was that -- the multi-year ice that you mentioned on Trail 7 and on Trail 1 would that have been there throughout the winter or is that ice that had been brought in later?

HERMAN AHSOAK: The ice had been brought in and then it connected with the shorefast.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Do you know when that came in? HERMAN AHSOAK: No.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Cause that's one of the things that -- that we’re interested in is -- is how -- how and when that there's multi-year ice that comes -- that comes into the shore ice and catches.

It is -- it's very difficult to see it in satellite images. If you know it's multi-year ice, you can find it, but if you don't know, it's difficult.

And in terms of building this trail on Trail 7 -- HERMAN AHSOAK: Uh-huh. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: You said that it was fairly flat HERMAN AHSOAK: Pretty flat. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: And straight?

HERMAN AHSOAK: Pretty flat and straight.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: So how does the -- like the -- the actual effort that goes into building the trail, how -- how did this year compare to the type of trail building you usually do in the past?

HERMAN AHSOAK: It was -- it was the easiest that I can remember ever since I’ve been whaling. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Yeah.

HERMAN AHSOAK: It was good, but until it broke away.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Yeah. And that was on May 10th? HERMAN AHSOAK: Yes.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Yeah. Now when you were actually -- early on on this trail before you -- before you moved, what was your assessment on -- on how safe it was?

HERMAN AHSOAK: We were a little bit uneasy being by the water when we -- when we noticed the young ice. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Uh-huh.

HERMAN AHSOAK: Right in the middle of it.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: That -- that real thin ice.

HERMAN AHSOAK: Yeah. Yeah. You could -- I could poke a hole with my survival tool, with my ice pick part.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: What was that -- what side of -- cause on this trail -- there’s some fairly big ridges in here, right? HERMAN AHSOAK: Uh-huh.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Was that -- was that on the coastal -- was that closer to the beach or closer to the lead?

HERMAN AHSOAK: Closer to the beach.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Okay. So -- so on the land side of those ridges? HERMAN AHSOAK: Yeah.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: And then when you did switch to -- to hunting up north on Trail 1, is there a reason that you -- you chose to go up here as opposed to -- ?

HERMAN AHSOAK: The trail -- the trail was already made and we already had seek permission -- MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Oh, okay.

HERMAN AHSOAK: From the crew that made it.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Who is the captain of Aiviq Trail? What’s his name?

HERMAN AHSOAK: Uh, Joash Tukle.


HERMAN AHSOAK: Yeah. He retired though. He sold most of his gear already? MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Oh okay.

HERMAN AHSOAK: But you could talk to some of his men I’m sure that were building that trail.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: So when you were out on the ice this year, either on this first trail or second one, did you ever have to pull back from your camp because of --

HERMAN AHSOAK: Yeah, on Trail No. 7 we pulled back three times. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Hum.

HERMAN AHSOAK: On Trail 1, two times about.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: And what -- and what were the reasons?

HERMAN AHSOAK: The ice that was coming back in. The main pack that was hitting back.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Yeah, but it -- was that with a west wind? HERMAN AHSOAK: Yeah.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Did you notice any -- I know people have spoken about when -- with the west wind you have the increase in the water level.

Did you see any major increasing in water level that would be considered dangerous when you were camped out at the lead?

HERMAN AHSOAK: I didn’t really notice the water level. I was just concerned about the main ice.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Uh-huh. So on Trail 1 when you pulled back, how far did you guys --

HERMAN AHSOAK: We had pulled in quite a ways. Probably about a mile from shore where we were -- where we thought our gear would be safe. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Uh-huh.

HERMAN AHSOAK: Cause some of the ice that was passing by was pretty thick -- pretty heavy and solid. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Yeah.

HERMAN AHSOAK: And it would have tore it up really quick.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Yeah. And when you got your whale, the -- what was it like at the lead at that point? Was it -- was it -- you said it was just solid? HERMAN AHSOAK: Solid, yes. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Good ice.

HERMAN AHSOAK: And it didn’t move -- didn’t change any way.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Uh-huh. And you think -- you guys actually pulled your whale from multi-year ice? HERMAN AHSOAK: Multi-year ice, yes.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Yeah. Yeah, that -- that -- if you said five feet -- this first year ice, you know our site here. I think that the thickest we --

Well, I’m not sure I made tenth of what the thickness was, but that is about the maximum thickness, because it was put in fairly early -- of first year ice.

In general, how would you describe the landfast ice this year in terms of how stable it was?

Just not -- not necessarily talking about this trail or that trail, but just in general, the entire coastline?

HERMAN AHSOAK: It's much thinner than -- Nowadays, when it breaks away from the shore it goes quicker. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Uh-huh.

HERMAN AHSOAK: Cause it usually would be the first, second week of July when it would finally break from the shore.

I notice it's a lot thinner. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Yeah.

HERMAN AHSOAK: Each captain has their own idea of how the ice is, what they -- what he thought he saw and -- MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Yeah.

HERMAN AHSOAK: Hi, Solomon . Yeah. I’m taping an interview.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: But, I mean, in terms of the -- the ridges and how grounded they were this year?

HERMAN AHSOAK: Probably in the middle of the shorefast ice it was pretty grounded. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Uh-huh. HERMAN AHSOAK: Cause of the washing -- It was pretty high some places where it was 50 feet -- at least 50 feet high. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Uh-huh.

HERMAN AHSOAK: When you go up there a little bit and it's way up there.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: And do you know where exactly that was? Like those -- like the highest ridges that really provide the most stability to this region here in this map. Do you know where that was approximately?

HERMAN AHSOAK: Probably up north where we were at Trail 1. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Yeah.

HERMAN AHSOAK: Right in -- by about in the middle. We were looking at them. Some of it was pretty high.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: And with -- Did you observe anything this year unusual with the -- with the winds or the currents?

HERMAN AHSOAK: When the current was taking the ice out, it was pretty strong.

Probably the only thing I noticed was when the ice was going south, it was going pretty fast.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: When the ice was going south -- HERMAN AHSOAK: Yeah. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: -- and getting taken out? HERMAN AHSOAK: Yeah, getting taken out.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Which was when? Just approximately?

HERMAN AHSOAK: Probably the first week of May. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: First week of May. HERMAN AHSOAK: Yeah.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: When this opens up here? HERMAN AHSOAK: When it first broke away, yeah. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Okay.

Oh, you mean when it went out when you were on this trail here? HERMAN AHSOAK: Yeah, when we were cutting the trail, we kept -- MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Yeah. HERMAN AHSOAK: -- looking at the ice.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: And was it the strong current or the winds? HERMAN AHSOAK: It was the strong currents. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Okay. HERMAN AHSOAK: Yeah.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: And did you notice at all this year on any of the times you were out there that there was -- the current was eroding the ice from beneath?

HERMAN AHSOAK: I don’t think I really noticed much of that. Just when the young ice started melting it, melt it pretty quick.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: And then -- This question is not necessarily specific to this year, but in general what conditions do you look for that would cause a break out in the landfast ice?

HERMAN AHSOAK: A break out would be the young ice that might be holding the thicker stuff. That’s what we watch out for so we won’t get drifted away or broke away.

That's what -- we try to avoid them spots. If we notice when we’re making a trail, we -- we -- If we notice that, we go ahead and go start another trail at a different site.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Did you notice any of those weak spots on any of these trails? 7 or 1?

HERMAN AHSOAK: The reason that we went on 7 was because it was the flattest. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Yeah.

HERMAN AHSOAK: Even we knew there was thin ice. You know, uh -- To have a quick getaway, you want to make the trails straight as possible. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Uh-huh.

HERMAN AHSOAK: So that’s why we chose number 7. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Yeah.

HERMAN AHSOAK: Even though there was some young ice.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: But in terms of -- are there certain winds or certain currents or combination of winds and currents that -- that are really an indicator that it's time to leave the -- the -- the lead?

HERMAN AHSOAK: Probably when we have a current going south with the east wind is when we're watching the ice.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: The current going south with the -- ? HERMAN AHSOAK: Yeah. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: With the -- Oh, with an east wind.

HERMAN AHSOAK: Piruġaġnaq. Piruġaġnaq and the east winds.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Okay. So that’s the time when it's --

HERMAN AHSOAK: That’s the time when we really watch what we’re on.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Uh-huh. Is there anything else that you would like to add about just the general discussion?

HERMAN AHSOAK: We were just surprised how quickly the -- the middle of our trail -- MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Uh-huh.

HERMAN AHSOAK: When it broke away when we had that east wind and the south current.

We were surpris -- we just -- One night we were just watching it break piece by piece and I was surprised how fast it was going.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Uh-huh. And then that -- that multi-year that you'd seen there, so that got taken out? HERMAN AHSOAK: Taken out, yes.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: And it got taken out with the south current, so that was ice that's probably drifted -- HERMAN AHSOAK: Yeah. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: -- down the coast? HERMAN AHSOAK: Yeah.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: So then -- that’s pretty much all of my questions. Although, I wanted to ask, because this project is one where we want to -- because we’re doing a lot of measurements out on the ice and getting a lot of help from people we want to continue to put together maps like this or -- or provide any other information that is useful.

And so I -- I wanted to ask whether you had any suggestions on how either this map could be useful or other information would be useful for -- for -- I mean cause you already are pretty familiar with this stuff we’re doing. HERMAN AHSOAK: Yeah.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: So is there anything that we could do differently that would be more useful?

HERMAN AHSOAK: Whatever you’re doing is fine. I mean going out and getting the thicknesses. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Yeah.

HERMAN AHSOAK: Interviewing the hunters that go out on the ice. I think one suggestion would be if you can talk with Karl Kippi or Billy Adams. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Uh-huh.

HERMAN AHSOAK: Those two are the men in Barrow that go seal hunting quite a bit.

And they're usually out there quite a bit, you know, almost all year round. Or when the ice is here, they’re usually seal hunting. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Yeah.

HERMAN AHSOAK: And them two would be the experts to talk with, also.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Are they around? HERMAN AHSOAK: They’re in town, yeah. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, well I met Billy this year. HERMAN AHSOAK: Okay.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: He helped out a little bit when I -- we were -- when we did the trail you guys were on. HERMAN AHSOAK: Yeah.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: So we actually -- I have all this thickness data.

And I know, you know these -- these things -- I realize that showing this to someone now, it's not really that useful because it's -- all the ice is gone. HERMAN AHSOAK: Yeah.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: So next year what I would like to do is get this stuff to the whaling crews, if they’re interested -- share what's collected.

It's a little difficult because it's a lot of computer work, but I think just giving this stuff to people early on it might be more useful.

Even on this one, you can see like this area here where it's -- you can see that the ice -- the bottom of the ice goes all the way up to the water level. HERMAN AHSOAK: Uh-huh.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: I think this was a crack and so you have this along the entire trail, it could -- it might be useful or at least --

HERMAN AHSOAK: I'm sure the whaling captains would be interested in something like that.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: So I’ll try to do that next year. I think next year I’ll try a bit different. The whole season, so I can do better work with it.

And also we’re going to put together just a summary of -- of -- of our results. And I’m not sure when that will be available, but when it is I’ll mail a copy to your address.

HERMAN AHSOAK: Okay. And when I go whaling nowadays with my crew, I try to stick with some of the elder whalers. That knows more than I do. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Yeah.

HERMAN AHSOAK: You know, and that's always helpful when you're by captains that have been doing it for a long, long time.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: And is that generally with the same people every year that you try to go? HERMAN AHSOAK: Yes.


HERMAN AHSOAK: Jacob . Jonathan Aiken, Sr., he's one of the elder whaling captains. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Yeah.

HERMAN AHSOAK: You know, he’s seen it all. So we try to follow the men that have been doing it for a long time.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Yeah. And well that actually I think is a question I must have skipped,

which was just when you do decide where to go hunting are there certain areas you typically go based on -- on habit or tradition or do you -- is it different every year?

HERMAN AHSOAK: It’s different every year, but we try to stay with the elder whalers. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Huh.

HERMAN AHSOAK: Cause you know we’re still learning -- we’re still learning.

Every year it's different and we got, you know, lots of --

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Uh-huh. Well, thanks Herman. HERMAN AHSOAK: Great.