Project Jukebox

Digital Branch of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Oral History Program
Benjamin Nageak

Benjamin "Ben" Nageak was interviewed on July 1, 2009 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, Ben talks about the ice conditions, trails, camp locations and whaling in Barrow during the 2009 spring season, and how conditions have changed over time.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2013-25-20

Project: Sea Ice Project Jukebox
Date of Interview: Jul 1, 2009
Narrator(s): Benjamin Nageak
Interviewer(s): Matthew Druckenmiller
Transcriber: Joan O'Leary
Location of Interview:
Funding Partners:
Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Coastal Marine Institute, North Pacific Research Board
Alternate Transcripts
There is no alternate transcript for this interview.
Slideshow
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Sections

Pressure ridges and problems pulling up whales

Slush ice

Selecting location for whaling camp, and unusual whaling season

Unusual and changing ice conditions

Multi-year ice

Deciding when to come off the ice and when it is no longer safe, and effect of wind

Getting caught in a large ice break-off event

Changes in ice conditions and presence of sheer wall of ice

Differences in ice conditions in different places out from Barrow

Thickness of ice, importance of current, and relevance of scientific measurement

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Transcript

BEN NAGEAK: Well, we were using the trail No. 10.

Roy, my -- my brother, we went down there to -- to the lead. It was the worst spots I ever for whalers this year. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Um.

BEN NAGEAK: Because the ice pileups were right on the -- where the ice broke. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Uh-huh.

BEN NAGEAK: You know, where the lead started. And the ice was jumbled up way, way up.

And I have never seen that in my entire life whaling.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Are you talking about that slush pileup or --

BEN NAGEAK: Yeah. I mean, you know, you know the ridges. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Oh.

BEN NAGEAK: Ice ridges. I mean they’re -- they're right against the water. I mean, you know, and like a wall. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Uh-huh.

BEN NAGEAK: And I’ve never seen that. Usually, you know, there's places where you can, you know, kind of flat spaces, but they were few and far between this spring. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Uh-huh.

BEN NAGEAK: I mean, you know, we had to go way over there.

And then when Gordon got his whale, you know, he had to cut a hole in the ice kind of like a square, right there.

It was way up there -- oh I’d say about ten feet. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Uh-huh.

BEN NAGEAK: And he put a hole right there through -- I mean, you know, he cut it cause he went out looking for a place where he could butcher the whale.

That's the only place he could find. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Huh.

BEN NAGEAK: And then when they had to cut out -- and I don't know if you were there.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: No, I -- Well, I was out on these trails I wasn’t there the day they got their whale.

BEN NAGEAK: But they cut a -- like a square to get the whale up and I’ve never seen that.

Well, when I was younger I've seen it where the young ice where it wouldn’t go away and kind of young about a foot -- a foot and a half -- two feet.

And it wouldn’t go away, so -- but they got several whales, you know, it wouldn’t hold it, so what we did was we put holes along -- along the ice -- the young ice and put a rope and start pulling. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Um.

BEN NAGEAK: And then the whale would come up and then it would break the ice. And we did that for several hours one time, I remember that.

And we went to the shorefast ice. I've seen that happen before and that was young ice, but this I’ve never seen before. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Huh.

BEN NAGEAK: Where it piled up in ridges.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Yeah.

BEN NAGEAK: And then, you know, we had to -- we were lucky we had -- we went about oh I’d say about four -- four feet maybe, about that, make a incline just to launch a boat.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Yeah.

BEN NAGEAK: It was still pretty high, you know, about four feet. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Uh-huh.

BEN NAGEAK: You know, into the water so we just made a slide right into the -- run into the water. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Yeah.

BEN NAGEAK: So I haven’t seen that -- I haven’t seen that in a long time either; if I had seen it.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Did those ridges that you were talking about that were building with the young ice, is that what they call Muġałłiq or is that --

BEN NAGEAK: Muġałłiq -- You know, Muġałłiq is when all that ice, you know, when it builds up and when there's a storm or whatever and all that young ice some of it goes underneath the -- MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Um.

BEN NAGEAK: Underneath the shorefast ice. And then -- and then it adds some -- some of that when it goes under the water and then -- then it stops.

Then it's called -- and then some move a little bit and then there's a Ivuaq. And they call it Ivuaq. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Huh.

BEN NAGEAK: You know, it adds to their -- and then, you know, usually it starts going, you know, it push that -- that young ice out -- MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Uh-huh.

BEN NAGEAK: Along with some of the ridges.

And then on a current on -- Muġałłiq some of that goes under there and then it just comes out when the current comes in. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Um.

BEN NAGEAK: There's a name for it. I can’t remember the name of it. But it just comes out.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Yeah.

BEN NAGEAK: You know, so you got to be careful cause of those chunks are big. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Uh-huh.

BEN NAGEAK: You know, when the current comes. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Yeah.

BEN NAGEAK: So, you have to go -- you have to be real careful. And so -- and but it was strange this -- this spring -- very strange.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Why did you guys decide to go up to hunt where you did on that trail?

BEN NAGEAK: That's the only place that was fairly decent to launch from. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Uh-huh.

BEN NAGEAK: I think there are some boats, excuse me, some boats were going through the -- were looking around and they found this spot. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Uh-huh.

BEN NAGEAK: So some of them were launched from there. So -- I mean you got to go look for a good spot.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Yeah.

BEN NAGEAK: You know. And that was a good spot for this year. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Uh-huh.

BEN NAGEAK: I mean it was terrible, but it still was a -- and then we -- and then by the time --

by the time the ice got, you know, the water went out, then we could go out into the water, it was after the 15th -- MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Uh-huh.

BEN NAGEAK: -- of May and that's when we could start the outboard motors and -- MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Yeah.

BEN NAGEAK: You know, the skiffs -- aluminum skiffs.

So just -- we just use aluminum because there was no way we can go -- I mean, you know, go after a whale that -- when you, you know, that much -- that's too high and stuff. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Yeah.

BEN NAGEAK: You know, so it was really strange this year. Hopefully, it'll get better next year.

But it gets late, you know, it gets -- it gets frozen later, you know, anymore. November, December, sometimes January. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Uh-huh.

BEN NAGEAK: You know, and that's all young ice and it jumbles up, you know.

Some of that near shore is not that thick and, you know, and then underneath there's a current and it doesn’t freeze, you know, too much. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Uh-huh.

BEN NAGEAK: So you have to be careful. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Yeah.

BEN NAGEAK: You know to -- to -- so they'll telltale signs of that happening is just a small hole or crack or whatever and there is seepage, you know.

So -- but you got -- after a storm -- snowstorm some of that gets covered and you don’t know there's a hole there or not. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Yeah.

BEN NAGEAK: You know, cause it covers up the hole before it really freezes and, you know, that insulation, you know, the ice -- the snow acts as an insulation, so you have to be careful. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Uh-huh.

BEN NAGEAK: You know, where you go cause you can go over towards where it looks solid, but then go through -- through the hole. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Yeah.

BEN NAGEAK: So it’s, you know, it's kind of strange for the past several years. It has changed so.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: I did go out on -- on a trail that you guys were on with Roy Ahmaogak. BEN NAGEAK: Yeah.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: And we --we -- I saw a bunch of what looked like multi-year ice, old -- old ice.

BEN NAGEAK: Some of them. There's some. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Yeah.

BEN NAGEAK: But not down -- where was that -- not that much. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: No.

BEN NAGEAK: I didn’t see much this year. It's called ah -- my mind's not working right.

Multi-year ice is fresh, you know, it's just -- MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Uh-huh.

BEN NAGEAK: The salt is leached from -- leaches out. And then that's a good water source for the whalers. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Uh-huh.

BEN NAGEAK: You know, it's like a mound. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Yeah.

BEN NAGEAK: You can tell who made -- when there's a multi-year ice and you know all that salt is gone from the top and then you can get ice water from that. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Uh-huh.

BEN NAGEAK: That's what we look for when we go out camping. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Yeah.

BEN NAGEAK: When we go whaling. So -- so --

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Has that changed -- the amount of --

BEN NAGEAK: Yeah, over the years, you know, there hasn’t much noticeable change. Oh, you know, it comes and goes, you know.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Yeah.

BEN NAGEAK: Depends on what -- what happens out there. And you can -- most -- most of the time you can see quite a bit of it. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Um.

BEN NAGEAK: And, you know, they're easy to -- they’re just rounded mounds, you know, they’re not jagged and stuff.

And it's ice, you know, it's ice and it's clear. It's really the best water in the world.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Yeah.

BEN NAGEAK: We call it __________ .

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: So when did you guys decide to pull off the ice this year?

BEN NAGEAK: After the last whale. I mean, you know, I was out by the , but by time I got there, it was pretty bad. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Uh-huh.

BEN NAGEAK: So I mean, you know, they decided to go. I mean moved at the last hour I think and then somebody --

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: In that area, yeah.

BEN NAGEAK: I think, but anyway that's -- they weren’t bad anyway. And there was a polar bear up there and he was fast, holy cow.

Then we were pulling in for -- and the ice came in, and took the boat back. And then there was a bear coming out of where we were. Very strange. Not strange, it's just kind of awesome to see a bear running. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Yeah. BEN NAGEAK: Yeah.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Well, one of the main things when you guys are deciding that the ice is unsafe and to pull back, what are the main things that you're looking at in terms of the ice?

BEN NAGEAK: Wind condition. Whether it's blowing from the west or from the east, or northwest, northeast, you know, you got to be careful about -- You know, you always be cognizant of which way the wind's blowing.

And, you know, cause when it's a west wind the ice starts coming in. East wind, northeast wind, east wind starts blowing the ice away so those are some of the things that you look for in the currents.

And that's why every camp has a little compass thing trying to find a -- you know, right on the edge. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Uh-huh.

BEN NAGEAK: You know, the compass when you see it, it stays on the set, you know, on -- points to the --

When it doesn’t move. Points the same way every day. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Yeah.

BEN NAGEAK: But you look at it and you put a marker or something right there, it's -- so in front of it and, you know, then you look at it and when it starts going like that, then you know the ice is moving, you better get the hell out of there.

You know, because that means the ice is moving and, you know, that happened in 1999, 1998, ’99. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Uh-huh.

BEN NAGEAK: Somewhere around there it happened. And I was out there with my brothers and we started going out and we got -- there was ‘84 almost got stuck in a big chunk of ice. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Um.

BEN NAGEAK: And I was the last person to get out of the ice with my director of search and rescue. We were the first guys -- and the chairman of the Eskimo Whaling Commission.

We were the last three to get off there. I was also the mayor at the time. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Huh.

BEN NAGEAK: You know, we wanted everybody else out there, you know, the captain never leaves his ship, you know. That's always, you know, when you’re in charge, you know, you got to make sure everybody's safe before you think about your safety.

That's what Atkaan, Burton down there taught us each day a long time. But Price was my director of search and rescue when I was the mayor, so we were the last ones out. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Uh-huh.

BEN NAGEAK: When that happened. And I was -- that was really --

I didn’t think it was a big deal until I saw all those trucks parked way up at the search and rescue. They'd be way down the street. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Yeah.

BEN NAGEAK: Hundreds and hundreds of people crying, because nobody knew who was, you know, if there's anybody left out there or not or something, you know.

And when we were coming in -- coming up from the helicopter, we looked all over the town, holy moly, was there -- MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Huh.

BEN NAGEAK: And we couldn’t -- we had to go in and sign in -- sign in our names, initial and be accounted for. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Uh-huh.

BEN NAGEAK: So, everyone was accounted for when I signed last.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: That’s great.

BEN NAGEAK: Yeah. If there was -- so there's been a whole lot of changes over the years as opposed to when I was younger. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Uh-huh.

BEN NAGEAK: I mean, we used to stay out there until June. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Yeah.

BEN NAGEAK: You know, now we can’t even go past May -- past mid-May.

You know, that’s quite a change.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Well, the ridges that you talked about this year, how are those different than they were in the past?

Is it just because it's young ice building the ridges instead of --

BEN NAGEAK: Well, I told you they -- the wall -- I mean there's a wall of ice. You know, it’s hard to launch boats when there’s that much ice --

I mean right to the water and there’s a sheer cliff of ice. I mean straight like somebody cut a knife right through it. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Uh-huh. BEN NAGEAK: You know. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Yeah.

BEN NAGEAK: It’s straight all the way down the coast. We went down -- we went to Suŋŋuruaq one time this spring, and we were -- we were out --

And that other ice that moved out -- we were along shore -- we went along the shoreline of that on this side -- on the south side of it.

And we followed it all the way to Suŋŋuruaq, which is about twenty miles from here. Twenty, twenty-five miles from here down the coast.

And so -- and then we headed back and there was some indication over towards there that, you know, and the conditions were good but they’re so -- still far away. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Uh-huh.

BEN NAGEAK: And then it -- it start over to the Monument and there's a change. When we went to the Monument, you could tell.

There're some spots -- several spots close to town that you could pretty -- launch from. So if you had to build a trail through those pressure ridges. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Uh-huh.

BEN NAGEAK: Pretty high. So it was really strange, and then we came across those sheer walls of ice. You know, there was no way between Barrow and to where we were on No. 10, just sheer walls of ice. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Uh-huh.

BEN NAGEAK: So and there was -- we didn’t see any camps. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Yeah.

BEN NAGEAK: Close by town.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: And you guys were -- you guys were -- out there -- ?

BEN NAGEAK: There was just toward there, yeah, second to the last.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: So you guys were kind of higher?

BEN NAGEAK: Yeah. Well, we were the last.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Yeah, oh yeah, because that was the sensible thing --

BEN NAGEAK: Yeah. Right here. We went past --

That day when we went out, we went past here we saw you guys and we waved. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Uh-huh.

BEN NAGEAK: And then we went down that way. And the Monument's here and Suŋŋuruaq is over here. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Um.

BEN NAGEAK: And right over here. And that’s how far we went and then we --

And then we went back to the shorefast ice and then we travel along the coast or along the shorefast ice, so --

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Are the ice conditions up there where you guys were this year, are they typically different than they are further south -- ? BEN NAGEAK: It was --

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: -- down by Monument?

BEN NAGEAK: Yeah. You know, the ice, well, we could go right up on top of the ice and that’s this -- right here on this side. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Yeah.

BEN NAGEAK: So over by the Monument we could go right on top of the -- right on top of the ice with our skidoos.

A couple spots. So it was strange this year.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Yeah, well, I've -- I’ve heard a lot of people comment that they've never seen it like this.

BEN NAGEAK: No. I have never seen sheer walls. But when we -- usually between the gravel pit and where we are, you know, that’s --

there'd be a whole lot of camps along there. Not this year. I mean, you know, it just -- it was a strange, strange --

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: You mean camps out as --

BEN NAGEAK: Yeah. Strange. Sheer walls. I mean, you know, you can see where --

You can see where there's not very many camps over between Barrow and Hollywood and going out to Hollywood you go -- you go right down there.

It's way down there. Close to Barrow, it's close, but it's not that easy to get to. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Yeah.

BEN NAGEAK: So it was really strange.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Well, that’s helpful. As I said, we -- we measured ice thickness along all these trails, but it's difficult to really understand what those measurements mean for the community or for people who were out there and have --

BEN NAGEAK: To me it doesn’t matter what the thickness of our ice. What matters is the current. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Um.

BEN NAGEAK: You know, current does a lot of things to the ice like normally wind wouldn’t do. So you have to be careful when the current -- the current takes away some of the ice from the bottom so it kind of thins it out.

And, you know, it blows away some of that Muġałłiq, you know, that is just sitting there.

And I read -- I saw a show on TV on Discovery Channel where a lot of that ice instead of freezing solid is not crystallizing and all that ice that’s forming is all crystal. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Uh-huh.

BEN NAGEAK: Crystallized and it's unstable.

So you might -- you guys might want to see what -- see what kind of change there might be when it's crystallized ice and it just kind of jumbles together and freezes within the individual crystals. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Uh-huh.

BEN NAGEAK: And not very safe. I saw that on Discovery Channel. And I never realized that. You know, it's all crystallized ice. It's really --

It's really one of the worst kinds of ice, you know, for, in terms of stability. And I didn’t know that.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Yeah. It's -- There's definitely some things that we haven’t looked at that we should. Currents being the primary one, I think.

BEN NAGEAK: Yeah. You don’t have -- I mean, you know, I think it would behoove you guys to check in to see the, you know, how thick they are.

And keep those, you know, keep checking them every day. You know, put a current meter down there or something. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Yeah.

BEN NAGEAK: On a -- and then go check it so it don’t stick to the, you know, so keep the hole open to see how -- to see --

See how much current there is underneath, you know, the shorefast ice. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Uh-huh.

BEN NAGEAK: Because that'll tell you a lot of the things you need to know.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Yeah. We did that one day last year. We put a current meter under the ice.

And I can’t remember how fast it was going, but I was really surprised. BEN NAGEAK: Oh, yeah.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: It was screaming. It was -- I think it was up here somewhere in (inaudible).

BEN NAGEAK: You know, that's -- our elders said you got to be careful cause you know there’s things that you can’t see that are happening that have an effect on the ice. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Uh-huh.

BEN NAGEAK: You know, so that’s why you have to look for cracks and see if there's any -- any water seepage.

You know, you can tell through the ice -- through the snow that there’s any water coming out. You can start seeing that new change in color. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Uh-huh.

BEN NAGEAK: You know, the snow and it's kind of like mushy. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Yeah.

BEN NAGEAK: You know, so you got to be careful. You see that, is that, you know, you should take that for that area and see what’s there. MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Uh-huh.

BEN NAGEAK: Because there's already a big crack happening right underneath you, you don’t even know about.

MATTHEW DRUCKENMILLER: Uh-huh. Well, thanks for your time. BEN NAGEAK: Yep.