Robert "Bobby" Schaeffer was interviewed on March 30, 2016 by Karen Brewster, Andy Mahoney, and Rebecca Rolph in an apartment of the Fish and Wildlife Service bunkhouse in Kotzebue, Alaska. In this first part of a two part interview, Bobby talks about learning to seal hunt and travel on the ice from his father, his own seal hunting and crabbing activities, and changes he has observed in the ice, including thinning ice, changes in the timing of freeze-up, and changes in the landfast ice. He also discusses knowing how to be safe on the ice by understanding weather, wind and currents, and how ice changes have effected travel routes and subsistence activities.
Digital Asset Information
Project: Sea Ice Project Jukebox
Date of Interview: Mar 30, 2016
Narrator(s): Robert "Bobby" Schaeffer
Interviewer(s): Karen Brewster, Andrew "Andy" Mahoney, Rebecca Rolph
Transcriber: Denali Whiting
After clicking play, click on a section to navigate the audio or video clip.
Personal background and education
Working on climate change issues, and effect of climate change on the ocean
Changes in Kotzebue and reliance on fossil fuel
Learning to hunt and navigate from his father
Changes in the ice, ice thinning, and changes in travel routes
Adapting to changing conditions, and importance of safety
Changes in the timing of break-up and effect on seal hunting
Effect of wind and current on ice movement, and story about father getting trapped in the ice
Effect of thin ice on subsistence activities
Changes in the landfast ice
Seal hunting at Sealing Point, and changes in lifestyle
Setting out crab pots, and changes in the crab population
Changes in travel route - Kotzebue to Cape Espenberg
Changes in timing of freeze-up
Changes in the winter weather and effect on animals and hunting
Bearded seal hunting
Determining ice thickness and safety, and differences between saltwater and freshwater ice
Freshwater and saltwater boundary
Understanding and predicting the weather, and knowing the winds
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After clicking play, click a section of the transcript to navigate the audio or video clip.
KAREN BREWSTER: My name is Karen Brewster, today is March 30, 2016 and we are here in Kotzebue with Bobby Schaeffer.
And we’re at the Fish and Wildlife Service bunkhouse. And Andy Mahoney and Becca Rolph are here also.
And this is for the Northern Alaska Sea Ice project. Thank you, Bobby, for taking your time on this beautiful afternoon. BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Mm-hm.
KAREN BREWSTER: I know you want to be outside. Before we start talking about kind of the activities out on the ice, I'd like a little bit of background about yourself and your life.
And -- You were born here in Kotzebue?
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Yes, I was. Yeah. I was born on January 24, 1949.
Been here almost all my life, except for going out to high school. Boarding school. So --
KAREN BREWSTER: You went to Mt. Edgecumbe?
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: No. I went to Copper Valley School. KAREN BREWSTER: Oh, you -- okay.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: It was a Jesuit school right between Glennallen and Copper Center. In that area. KAREN BREWSTER: Uh-huh.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: And then after high school, of course, I went to the University of Alaska Fairbanks for -- for first semester. And next semester I went over to Fort Lewis College in Durango. But I never -- I never finished after I got back.
Back in ’68, I sorta got involved in the local political scene because there was nobody -- nobody at the time that was -- that was involved in it.
And it was sort of at the beginnings of things, of the land claims. And I sort of got involved through RurAL CAP, with -- with one of their programs, and I never had a chance to go back and finish college.
So I -- I got involved in the local Native political scene at the time and been involved with that for a lotta years, so.
KAREN BREWSTER: And did you hold political office? Or work for the city or borough or tribe or anything?
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Well, I for -- From1970, I started working for the non-profit. In fact, I started the whole thing. Back in 1970, the -- the -- the only nonprofit we had was a RurAL CAP program up here.
There was a NANA Inc. at the time, Northwest Alaska Native Association Inc. was -- who’s total emphases was --was -- was established in 1966, you know, to -- to have an organization that could represent this region and -- and support negotiations of the land claims in Washington.
But it didn’t have staff. I -- Back in 1970, after talking with the leadership of NANA, which was all the board members. KAREN BREWSTER: Mm-hm.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: They didn’t have no staff at all. We decided that what we’d do is -- is I’d be involved in NANA and we would merge or contract for RurALCap dollars to do pretty much the same thing that RurAL CAP was doing.
Low income -- folks trying to help out the low-income people. But anyway, that’s how I got involved in stuff.
I mean, in the Northwest Arctic, I was its first staff member. And then after that we start contracting for dollars and the staff increased.
In 1973 or ’74, I forgot what year it was, we got involved with the -- the hospital. We wanted to expand our -- our -- our program.
So we got involved being the ad -- or the advis -- advisory committee for operating at the Kotzebue hospital here through FIPHS. And, yeah.
And so we got involved in that and we got rid of the -- or eliminated that board. And then it had to have a new -- a NANA Inc. board be the advisory committee for that -- for that hospital.
And -- and -- in -- once the land claims was passed back in 1971, in late 1971, NANA Inc., John Schaeffer became their first -- the regional corporations, it was NANA Regional Corporation. KAREN BREWSTER: Mm-hm.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Became their first president. And so we worked together in trying to -- trying to establish the non -- the Regional Corporation.
And then also to foster programs that would help our -- our people.
We also advocated for -- for a lot of Native issues that were out there. That a lot of them were -- were -- were against what we thought was against our -- our way of life.
So we went out and -- and opposed a lot of -- And we also supported a lot of our issues that we felt were beneficial to -- to -- to our -- to our people.
So it was a -- sort of a quasi-political force. Yet, on the other hand -- it -- because at the time -- at the time when we started it, land claims wasn’t passed.
And that so we -- we did a lot of work to inform people about what was happening in Washington.
And on the other hand, we were concerned about the socio-economic status of our people and started putting programs together to try to help them. KAREN BREWSTER: Mm-hm.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: So that happened until 1975 and -- and then I -- I resigned and Dennis Tippleman took over.
And I spent some time on the Slope just getting away from the political end -- KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: -- because it was pretty tiresome at the time. I wanted to get away from it for a while.
And so I got away from it for a while, went to the Slope and did things, and I came back and worked for the IRA for a while.
In the meantime, back in ‘76, I also was appointed to -- to the new REAA -- the -- the Rural Educational Attendance Area school board.
At the time, the BIA was pulling out so all of our BIA schools here were going -- we were going completely, probably the responsibility of the state.
So I -- I from ’76 until 2003, I -- I sat on that board. And, of course, 1986 when the borough was formed it became a responsibility of the borough so I -- I --
We just sort of transferred over from the state to the borough at the time. But, so, I spent 25 years on the school board.
KAREN BREWSTER: Mm-hm. You said you worked for the borough for a while?
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: In 2006, I was hired as the Public Services Director by the mayor. And I spent six years there as the Public Services Director and then retired in 2012. But --
KAREN BREWSTER: And you said when you worked for the -- It's the Northwest Arctic Borough we should say. BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Yeah.
KAREN BREWSTER: You dealt with climate change issues, you'd mentioned?
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Yes. I -- I -- I -- it was -- From 2006, I -- even before that, I read up a lot on it, because I was really concerned about global warming and its effect on -- on the sea ice.
I -- I was really concerned about the -- the carbon dioxide emissions and it’s effect on -- on all of our -- our sea mammals -- sea animals down there.
Because when I first heard back in the early 2000’s about the -- the effects of carbon dioxide on the oceans, and it started with the scientists recognizing the problem in the warmer waters around the world where the populations are.
But it was never really discussed about how it affected the waters in -- in colder -- colder regions until just recently, you know.
Until we -- and then -- but it -- it -- it’s -- our oceans are dying.
And in the Arctic they’re going to die even faster, because the water is a lot colder so the carbon dioxide stays in the water longer. It doesn’t even evaporate like it does in the warmer water areas.
So what the -- after five or six years of discussion with the scientists and reading up on it, I -- You know, our oceans are --are -- we’re passed the curve. KAREN BREWSTER: Mm-hm.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: The bell curve. It’s going down on the other side of that.
So our oceans will die. And it’s not going to be in my -- my lifetime. But it may be in my children’s lifetime where there’ll be nothing out there.
Because of -- of the emissions. But I was born in ’49. There was 2 billion people on this planet.
Now we’re reaching in the -- in the (inaudible) 7 billion. And everybody wants the two-car garage.
When I was born in ’49 there was -- you could count the countries that had -- that had industrial capabilities.
You can count the countries on your one hand as to who had a million cars, you know. And --
KAREN BREWSTER: Probably Kotzebue itself has changed a lot.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Every place was -- have changed, you know. There was just three or four major industrial countries back in ’49.
And then now every country is -- is -- has some sort of industrialization where they’re -- where they’re -- they’re -- they’re using more fossil fuels to do stuff.
Everybody wants a two-car garage and two -- from a billion cars, or million cars, it went to a billion, you know. KAREN BREWSTER: Mm-hm.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Outboard motors showed up here back in the -- back in the -- in the -- in the ‘50s, you know, ’60s. ‘50s.
And snowmobile made its presence here after the ‘60s, you know.
And all of the sudden we have airplanes all over the place. Any given time, you know, there’s three or four thousand airplanes flying at the same time and it’s just in the Lower 48, you know.
That’s just amazing the transformation, you know, from fossil fuels. And no one’s taking this light -- lightly, like, you know. You’re not gonna say wait a second, you know, if we’re killing the oceans, what is it -- what is -- what is it going to do to us in 50 years?
No one’s really looking at that, you know. They’re recognizing it now but, you know, they haven’t come -- come up with a solution.
Somebody’s gonna have to do it sometime. Because our reliance on fossil fuels is gonna be the -- the straw that breaks the camel's back when it comes to humanization, you know. It’s just gonna be gone.
KAREN BREWSTER: So when you go -- were growing up, did you do a lot of hunting and living off the land with your family?
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Yeah, all of us did. Dad had a family with a lot of boys.
And when it came to my turn to become a man he started taking us from the -- I’m number seven in the line of boys.
KAREN BREWSTER: Out of ten?
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Mom wanted girls, but she had seven boys in a row and I’m the number sev -- number seven.
After me there was two girls and three more boys, but it just -- so I had to wait my turn.
And when my turn came up, dad took us out and showed us and taught us how to recognize ice. The dangers of it, where to go and where you can't go, movement of currents.
We went seal hunting in the -- in the wintertime. We would notice different things. How the traditional winds make windrows. We call them qayuġłaks.
But I -- but they -- they make -- the wind blows certain areas in the wintertime versus spring and summer.
And so, how to find your way back when that -- that happens. What to follow.
KAREN BREWSTER: You mean like snow drifts? Is that -- BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Yeah, snow drifts.
KAREN BREWSTER: What’s the Iñupiaq word? BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Qaiuqlak. KAREN BREWSTER: Mm.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: And -- but it -- he taught us lot of different things of what to recognize and how to get out of stuff. How when you go out there, you have to make sure someone is there with -- with your gear.
Only one person or two people can go, so being -- since I was one of the younger ones I'd have to stay there and watch the gear, you know.
And make sure that it’s protected in case the ice moves in that -- so. But it all depended, you know, on -- on what the ice did that winter.
And every winter, when I was growing up you’d get 50 below almost guaranteed every winter.
You know, we played out in the cold all the time. We, you know, did a lot of things and growing up. You know, the things start changing pretty much because -- our -- our springs got shorter.
And it started happening probably back in late '80s early '90s when we really started noticing that, you know, that --
God, when we used to come back from school on May 21st or May 22nd it would still be winter here. It -- you know, that was just normal.
But things started changing, and rather than four months of summer, we all of a sudden had six to seven months of summer.
You know, so it’s -- it’s a lot different because, like what’s happening in our world today. I mean, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide emissions are so vast.
This -- this -- the people keep telling you, the scientists telling you, we're -- we put that little cap over the atmosphere that’s holding the -- holding the air, holding the heat in, it is true. And it’s really happening.
My dad before he passed on was talking, you know, talking about the weather, the ice conditions. How the ocean, the waters are getting higher on the beach.
He notices all of that stuff because, you know, he has -- he has a lifetime of -- of being out there and noticing the changes.
And he even noticed some hills that were -- used to be big hills were down, probably lost a hundred foot, two hundred foot of level, of -- of leverage, you know. Of elevation.
Because they just melted, because of, you know, that we -- we're having a longer and longer warm -- warm -- warmer seasons.
So that’s coming from him. Bugs that we never saw before, birds we never saw before coming up here.
Things like that that really, for an old man to observe and say those things, you know. And -- and he was right.
You can compare it to when he was growing up back in the early 1900’s. So there’s -- there’s a change, you know, and those of -- skeptics that come out and say it’s not really happening, that’s just a figment of science imagination, it’s not true.
It’s -- I’m scared of where it’s going. You can look at what’s happening in the Arctic up there with the ice conditions up in -- up in, you know, the Arctic Ocean and it’s a -- it’s a scary situation, you know.
KAREN BREWSTER: What kind of changes have you seen in your lifetime, like with the ice?
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: It’s not there no more. I mean, when we went out hunting we were safe, because there was steadfast ice to the beach.
And if -- if the ice will be -- during 30, 40 below it'll freeze good. But if the ice don’t -- salt water ice freezes at a lower, lot lower temperature.
And in order for it to freeze at a steady rate, it’s got to be 20 below or more for it to freeze. At two weeks at a time.
And in two weeks it'll -- it'll freeze, maybe a foot, foot and a half. But if you have longer periods of 30 to 40 below like we used to have, we went out there, the ice was five foot thick.
And it was always like that. And there was always a lead that always moved a tremendous ice pressure ridges and --
‘Cause we hunt seal out there. And my dad start taking me out when I was pretty young, and then when I got out of high school I spent a little time with him out there and it was always safe.
We always knew that the ice was thick enough. You could drive a CAT out there, you know, it was that thick. We could see it, how thick it was.
And then from 1968-69 until even the present, I notice a tremendous change. I mean, our hunting seasons have gotten short -- have gotten shorter, because ice never got this five foot thick anymore.
In 1999, I did a little crabbing study. We tried to find how many crab out here. And they give us augers and we had to go out there and -- and make holes and put our good pots down in the -- in the ice on certain strategic locations so that we could cover more areas and we -- and they want to in the ocean.
But we couldn’t get out there very far. Dad and them, when we used to hunt we used to go quite a ways. Maybe ten miles out from -- from -- from the beach. And we’d be safe.
But we couldn’t get out there because it was too thin, and there was too much movement of the ice, you know.
And wind has a tremendous effect on movement of the ice.
And if there was a storm that came through, if the ice was two to three foot thick it would break and move. If it was five foot thick, it had -- it stayed pretty much there.
But it was so thin that I noticed even back -- back then, you know, that it was hard to find a place to -- to put pots following the beach from Cape Krusenstern over toward Kivalina.
And we had to crab a little ways from the beach, ‘cause the lead was just right there. KAREN BREWSTER: Hm. ANDY MAHONEY: Hm.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: And it was there all winter. And it’s like that all the time now. ANDY MAHONEY: Hm.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: I was out there with my crab pots trying to find a place to set crab pots, and the ice is a foot thick out there. KAREN BREWSTER: Right now? BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Right now. KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. ANDY MAHONEY: Mm.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: This is steadfast ice to the beach. It just froze here within the last month, and it’s only about 12 to 14 inches thick.
And -- but it’s been like that. I’ll give you an example. Four years ago I went hunting caribou down here, and, normally, people that go to Deering makes big short cuts. They can go over -- REBECCA ROLPH: Where's that? BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Deering? Is right -- is right here. REBECCA ROLPH: Yeah.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: But in order for you to go -- a lot of times you're gonna go across, because when you have steadfast ice from here, from Krusenstern over to Sealing Point, if that freezes solid then the whole bay, Kotzebue Sound right here, is -- there’s no movement.
So it freezes safely, and you can go across. REBECCA ROLPH: Yeah.
KAREN BREWSTER: You mean Espenberg across? BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Espenberg across, yeah. KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah, I see what you mean.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: But it doesn’t do that anymore because it just doesn’t get cold enough for it to freeze across there no more.
And when that happens, the ice in here moves all the time because of strong currents. And so back --
It was March, when I went on the other side following the -- following the coast down here to see if I could run into some caribou.
But it was just like summertime. All the ice -- they had a storm the day before, all the beach ice, this whole area blew out in the ocean.
I got there, I -- I should have taken my boat. In March. You know, it was just wide open. ANDY MAHONEY: Wow.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: And so -- and I'd never seen it like that before. REBECCA ROLPH: In March?
ANDY MAHONEY: That was four years ago, you said? BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Yeah. ANDY MAHONEY: Yeah.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Four years ago. And so the ice is getting -- and staying thin.
You know, I mean, we haven’t had cold weather until March this year. February was our record warmest February we’ve ever had. ANDY MAHONEY: Yeah.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: We stayed in the 20’s, you know, for the whole -- the average for the 20's for the whole month. And that’s usually our coldest winter, our coldest part.
We had rain in December and January this year, you know, and -- It seems like it happens every year now.
So it’s just a definite change that everybody is -- that everybody is noticing. Especially those of us that have been around for a while, so --
ANDY MAHONEY: So with the -- the -- the landfast ice that used to form in the Sound allowed you to make the shortcut across Deering, do you -- do you have a name for that type of ice? In -- in Iñupiaq? Is it like tuvaq, or -- ?
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: I -- I -- I don’t -- I’m not -- I’m not sure what it -- what it is. (phone ringing) Dad -- hold on. KAREN BREWSTER: Is that -- BOBBY SCHAEFFER: That’s my phone. KAREN BREWSTER: Oh.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Must not be that important, right. ANDY MAHONEY: Okay.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: But I -- I -- landfast ice -- But the ice is, you know, we were so accustomed to seasons and how they -- ANDY MAHONEY: Mm.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: -- are the same. You know, they get 30, 40 below and you're gonna have a good --
REBECCA ROLPH: You mean the same throughout different years?
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Yeah. You know, we were so accustomed to it we -- because it happened that way for centuries, probably.
And then all of a sudden things have started changing -- ANDY MAHONEY: Hm.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: And -- And then, you know, you start getting a lot warmer, and so the ice gets thinner. And the movement of the ice, I mean, it’s just amazing what the wind does to it because it’s thin. It’s just --
Steadfast ice is kind of a thing of the past when it comes to Kotzebue Sound. ANDY MAHONEY: Mm.
REBECCA ROLPH: So has safety become more of an issue then because the movement of the ice?
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Yeah, safety becomes an issue. The ice gets thin.
When the wind blows, if the ice cracks, it moves certain ways -- certain ways.
The ice will freeze a quarter, half inch, then the wind will blow snow over it. And, you know so -- ANDY MAHONEY: Mm-hm. BOBBY SCHAEFFER: It becomes --
REBECCA ROLPH: You can’t see where it’s -- BOBBY SCHAEFFER: It becomes dangerous, yeah.
And then, you know, we’ve lost a few -- a few folks out there recent because of unsteady ice.
These -- these hunters go out there and try to get the early ugruks in the ice and so the seals, they go out to where the lead is.
But it -- it -- because of the thinness of the ice -- I was crabbing over at the time -- at the time just for my personal use, and I had to move out of there because -- ANDY MAHONEY: Hm.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: The ice got too thin too quick when the sun got hot. ANDY MAHONEY: Right.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Because it eats it -- eats it from the bottom. ANDY MAHONEY: Yeah.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: 'Cause the ice is sort of -- acts like a prism or a -- or a magnifying glass. And it doesn’t take long for it -- for a two and a half foot to get down to a one foot. And that’s what happened there.
But I noticed the change in the ice right away and I just -- I pulled my pots and got out of there for safety purposes.
But those folks that went out, I told them where not to go. And they decided to go out there and give it a chance, and lost their lives because of it. ANDY MAHONEY: Hm.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: So you have to, you know, it’s just -- The sun has a direct impact on the ice, the thickness of the ice. You know, it’s --
KAREN BREWSTER: So you -- you knew that the ice was getting thinner when you were out there, because of the sun you knew there’d be -- Were you testing the ice?
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: I was -- I -- I tuuq it out. KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: My holes. And I -- 'cause if we have a whole crab -- the holes, of course, it freezes inward. So you got to dig it down to make -- to keep it open all the time.
It takes a little work and it’s just, you know, I’m good at and good at that kind of stuff.
But, you keep the -- you can tell the thickness of the ice because, you know, it was probably two and a half foot thick at the time.
But by the time I got out of there in -- in April, it had already gotten thinner. And the -- that two and a half ice that was out there, I could tell it was breaking up, because there was ice piles that were there that weren’t there before.
So, you know, it’s just -- It’s just a good indication that, my gosh, I think it’s a good time to pull out and get out of there, because you don’t wanna get caught. ANDY MAHONEY: So you -- BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Out there.
ANDY MAHONEY: Do you remember what would normally be the time that you’d start to see the ice thinning from the bottom? Like in --
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Yeah. It doesn’t have to get real warm for it to do that. ANDY MAHONEY: Yeah.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: You know, especially sea ice. It melts quicker than -- than fresh ice. ANDY MAHONEY: Uh-huh.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Because of the salt content. But I noticed when the sun started getting warm, when you go out there you could take off your stuff. That’s when I noticed -- ANDY MAHONEY: Hm.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: -- a real rapid decrease in the thickness of the ice. And -- But it’s --
KAREN BREWSTER: Is that like in May or in April or June? BOBBY SCHAEFFER: April. KAREN BREWSTER: April?
BOBBY SCHAEFFER. Yeah. Before May, I usually get out of there. ‘Cause like I said, you know, summers are getting a lot longer.
Springs are getting a lot shorter.
KAREN BREWSTER: So nowadays do you leave -- Do you get out earlier than you used to? BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Yeah. KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Mm-hm.
REBECCA ROLPH: So you said springs are getting shorter?
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: The springs are getting shorter. Our summers are getting longer.
And we thought it was a fluke about -- I forgot how many years ago it was, but it got warm in April.
And we thought it was going to get cold like it normally does, but it didn’t. ANDY MAHONEY: Hm.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: We had the earliest -- one of the earliest break-ups up here. The ice moved out a lot quicker. People were hunting at the end of May.
They were hunting ugruks out there, and were done pretty much by June 1st. Normally, you get done by July 1st. ANDY MAHONEY: Hm.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: And -- But they were done before June 1st.
KAREN BREWSTER: And that’s ugruk hunting in a boat in and amongst broken ice? BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Yeah.
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. Not hunting them on the shorefast? BOBBY SCHAEFFER: No. No. KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah, I was wondering what --
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: You can’t get out there and do that anymore hardly at all, without, you know, without compromising safety.
You have to -- you -- it’s just -- like right now, like I told you, the ice is froze over there and I’m kinda surprised it was fourteen inches thick. Twelve to fourteen inches.
But I took a chance and went out there. And I wasn’t -- I -- I walked it first to make sure it was held safe.
But it -- By the time I got done, and when I went over to check it three days later, it was a crack that was only a foot wide, and then I decided to keep it out there, thinking maybe it won’t move. And I was dead wrong.
It moved three foot and -- but it -- but it froze enough to snowmachine across and pick up my pot and got -- get it out of there, but -- ANDY MAHONEY: Hm.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: It -- When it's thin, it moves. It's not -- The wind has direct effect on -- on how it -- where it goes.
KAREN BREWSTER: What about the effect of the current? How does that play into it?
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: We know -- we know the currents. We have tides like everyplace else. Not much of one, but the current comes in at a certain time and goes out at a certain --
It usually doesn’t affect the ice that much. Unless it’s really thin. KAREN BREWSTER: Mm-hm.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: What affects it most is the surface wind. And -- ‘cause it’ll make a -- it’ll make a huge crack and a certain section of ice can just -- Even a long time ago, my dad was telling me, you know, when he used to hunt back in the ‘30s that they had to watch the ice, ‘cause he hunted out there all the time. You know, at time we had probably 3-400 people living in Kotzebue and everybody had dogs.
So they spent a lot of time out there in the wintertime getting seals for dog food.
And he said he got caught out there one time and the wind started blowing. They weren’t sure if they’re gonna take off from that spot because the wind was blowing too hard. When the -- when the wind quit, they noticed a blackness on the backside where they came in. ANDY MAHONEY: Hm.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: The wind had blown that whole chunk that they were on out. Before it blown too far it it -- it had stopped. But they had to follow it -- They were able to follow it to where it touched the other side and were able to get off it without having to --
Them days, you got lost out here you're pretty much dead. There was no search and rescue, there was no airplanes and -- ANDY MAHONEY: Hm. BOBBY SCHAEFFER: -- anythings of that nature.
So, but they were able to all -- all three of them gentlemen were able to go to shore. Steadfast ice on the beach. And they were all happy. It was when they --
One of the guys panicked huge. He said he was kind of comical, but he -- dad, my dad was -- always knew the conditions, you know.
He knew that they were in trouble when the wind showed up. They couldn’t go, because the wind picked up too strong and it was -- became white out conditions, you couldn’t see nothing. So they just stayed in their tents.
He said next morning, though, he knew. As soon as he looked and it started clearing up and it was getting daylight, you could see the black. “Ah!”
KAREN BREWSTER: So that black line was shore -- the shore?
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: No, the black line was open water. KAREN BREWSTER: Open water, okay.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Yeah. He could see the open water. ANDY MAHONEY: Did he --
KAREN BREWSTER: Oh, that he was on the other side of? Yeah.
ANDY MAHONEY: Did you see the black in the sky? Or -- BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Yeah. ANDY MAHONEY: Or your dad.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: No, yeah. It always happens that way. Where --
ANDY MAHONEY: Do you have a name for that? When -- when you see the black in the sky?
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Oh, gosh, I just -- I used -- I used to know it. I haven’t thought about it for a long time. KAREN BREWSTER: I’m trying to think of it.
ANDY MAHONEY: I can’t remember it in Barrow. Yeah. They -- there’s -- It’s in our book, I can’t remember.
KAREN BREWSTER: It’s like qingu or something. ANDY MAHONEY: Yeah.
KAREN BREWSTER: It’s not what it is, but maybe I’ll think of it later.
But so what -- your dad, what he noticed, okay, they’re on the wrong side of the lead. They drifted back around?
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: No. He just figured if it was gonna go out, the steadfast ice on the -- there was a curve -- he figured it’d be okay on the other side. ANDY MAHONEY: Mm. KAREN BREWSTER: Okay.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Rather than try to go back out this way, ‘cause you’d be heading out to the ocean.
So they just followed on the inside of it until -- until they got to where it had piled up.
KAREN BREWSTER: They found a place to cross.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Yeah. It was piled up. And so they -- they -- they were able to push their sleds and dogs across that pile-up and onto steadfast ice.
But it happened a couple of times out there to him.
It almost happened to us once. We weren’t watching and all of a sudden it started moving, but, you know, that’s how my dad taught us when we were young.
He said keep an eye on that -- watch that little crack right there. Let me know if it’s gonna get any bigger.
We got a few seal and all of a sudden I notice it’s starting to spread out a little bit. I told him. Went over and told him it’s getting -- it’s getting bigger.
He said, "Let’s get out -- let’s get the hell out of here." So, you know, we got on our snowmobiles and zipped across it before it -- before we got in trouble.
But, you know, I don’t know, people have to watch. You have to have someone watch.
And, you know, whenever you go out, especially out on the ocean.
Even with boats, you know, we had to have someone watch the ice -- movement of the ice all the time. ANDY MAHONEY: Mm-hm.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: 'Cause it can close you in and then you’d be in trouble. ANDY MAHONEY: Hm.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: But, let me tell ya, I’ve never seen the ice so thin ever out there. I’ve been out there for, you know, 50 years. And I’ve never seen it so thin.
ANDY MAHONEY: As it is this year, you mean? Or -- BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Yeah. ANDY MAHONEY: Yeah.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: This year. When it froze in March, you know, it’s still vulnerable to the wind. ANDY MAHONEY: Mm-hm.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: So there’s -- You got to watch those cracks. That’s why I told you about the crack that got three foot in no time. You gotta get out of there.
But I went on the other side of it and I had hoped that the steadfast ice that was only -- only fourteen inches would not crack further in, because I have equipment out there. Crab pots. ANDY MAHONEY: Hm. BOBBY SCHAEFFER: But --
ANDY MAHONEY: So do you think there are any hunting or crabbing locations, places you go that you just will have to stop using if the ice keeps getting thinner?
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: All of it. ANDY MAHONEY: All of it.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Normally, I go out -- the steadfast ice is in that area for the last -- since 1995 has been pretty much a mile and a half, probably between a mile and a half to three miles out before we start hitting the lead.
And it’s always steadfast so it’s always pretty solid, you know, and it never moved much.
I mean, the only time we get out of there is the springtime when it -- like I said, the adhesive of -- of all the ice piles sort of diminishes because of the heat and the sun.
And it becomes brittle, and so it opens up depending on the currents and the wind.
So we have to watch those. But in the wintertime, when you got all froze together the ice piles and you got snow on top is a good insulator -- ANDY MAHONEY:Mm-hm. BOBBY SCHAEFFER: For the ice to stay put. So it’s just like glued. ANDY MAHONEY: Hm.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Because of the heat, you know, or the -- or the freezing of it. But you have to watch those ‘cause they’ll break right in the middle of a huge 30 foot ice chunk sometimes.
You know, when that sun start hitting it and that adhesive disappears it’ll start spreading.
And it happened a few times when we were out there and, you know we had -- we had to watch it. Be real careful of -- of -- at least be mindful of it so that you can, you know, try to save yourself or save your equipment -- ANDY MAHONEY: Hm.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: -- if something does happen. But I’ve lost some equipment out there.
I lost a auger and a few things where the ice broke where you never thought it would and it just moved out, you know. I lost crab pots out there.
Being on that ocean when the ice is iffy is kinda dangerous. I don’t -- I don’t do that no more, but I -- I decided to try it this year just to -- because my brother, Ross, was out there, and said the ice has about a foot, a foot and a half out there where they were hunting.
And I thought it would be good enough, easy crabbing for me. ANDY MAHONEY: Mm-hm.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Rather than trying to go down three foot, you just go down one foot and -- But I was able to get crab, you know. ANDY MAHONEY: Yeah.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: I got two pots out now. And we haven’t had much wind. If the wind shows up, though, I’ll be out there pulling it up. ANDY MAHONEY: Hm. BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Yeah.
KAREN BREWSTER: So you said that steadfast ice, now it’s like one or two miles out? When you were a boy, was it much wider?
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Unlimited, pretty much. When you went to Anigaaq in that area you could go four or five miles out, even -- even longer. Sometimes you could go twenty miles out, depending on the winter, and you -- you wouldn’t run into -- into the lead out there for -- for a long, long time.
You know, dad and them used to go and say they go to by Sealing Point, and right now from Sealing Point it’s just about less than a mile out. It’s all wide open, you know.
And normally you can go out a mile, two miles, because everything is stuck to the beach. But it’s nothing -- nothing -- nothing’s -- there’s no steadfast shore ice at all. KAREN BREWSTER: Mm-hm.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: The reason I’m happy where I’m at because the ice piled up so high that there was about a 20-30 foot ice pile, but you know it’s stuck to the bottom. ANDY MAHONEY: Mm-hm.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: So that part’s not gonna move to the beach. So I know I’m safe.
ANDY MAHONEY: As long as you’re between the beach and that pile you’re okay? BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Yeah. Yeah. Won't (inaudible) it. REBECCA ROLPH: Yeah.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Because the ice -- the crack that happened, happened outside of it where I had my pot.
KAREN BREWSTER: Uh-huh. BOBBY SCHAEFFER: You know, so I just moved my pot into where ever the crack was. So --
KAREN BREWSTER: So when your dad used to go out Sealing Point, they’d go out to the lead with a kayak and -- ?
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: No. They’d go out there with their dogs. They had a kayak with them. KAREN BREWSTER: Mm-hm.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: They’d go out there with their dogs or snowmobile after 1965 or so.
But they’d go out and always went there because it was a good place to -- to hunt seal. KAREN BREWSTER: Mm-hm.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Depending on if there’s a crack over toward -- toward Anigaq, which is about 15 miles this side, if they can get -- if they can get to those places that’s a lot shorter. KAREN BREWSTER: Mm-hm.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: But sometimes they ended up going over there because there’s no -- no way because there’s jumbled up ice all, you know -- ice piles -- that they wouldn’t be able to get their snowmobiles or dogs through it.
So they’d try to find a place that’s flat over to the end of the -- over to the lead. KAREN BREWSTER: Mm-hm.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: And we’ve done that lots of times. I’ve done that lots of times with him.
We’d go -- go try to find the flattest place. We had to go over there a couple of times, over towards Sealing Point, because that was the only place that was flat where you can go out to the end of the -- and then hunt seal and then come back home safely.
KAREN BREWSTER: And would you camp out there or you’d come home every night?
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: After snowmachine came around, we’d come home every night. KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Before, they’d camp out there because dogs take a whole day to get there and -- ANDY MAHONEY: Mm-hm.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: And they’d spend two or three days getting their load and then coming back, you know.
But with snowmobile everybody just goes out there. Oh, it’s getting dark, let's go home. ANDY MAHONEY: Mm-hm.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: A couple hours home.
KAREN BREWSTER: And that was for ugruk or natchiq? BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Natchiq. KAREN BREWSTER: Mm-hm. BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Natchiq.
KAREN BREWSTER: And what time of year?
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: They start probably when the days got longer. Late February, March, April.
Used to be in May, but not anymore. It's just we don’t have --
ANDY MAHONEY: There’s not enough good ice in -- in May anymore? BOBBY SCHAEFFER: No. No more. That’s all gone.
ANDY MAHONEY: Did you or do you know of anyone ever like chopping trail through -- through pile-ups in the ice to get through? BOBBY SCHAEFFER: We used to. ANDY MAHONEY: Yeah.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Nowadays, we -- with the snowmobile, we just find a place we can get to. ANDY MAHONEY: Right.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Without too much effort, you know. We’re getting pretty lazy.
We -- it’s not like it used to -- It’s kind of ironic, because I -- I was watching a film made by the missionaries back in 1938, and they had a celebration of beluga hunting for Kotzebue over at Sisualik, which is like 8 miles -- ANDY MAHONEY: Hm
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: -- 8 miles across the bay here. And they were all -- watching all these people dancing and celebrating and eating maktak.
And it was a -- just a celebration that Eskimos had for a successful beluga hunting season.
And I tried to look for one obese person and I couldn’t find one. ANDY MAHONEY: Hm.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: People worked hard. There was no outboard motors, snowmobiles. Everything was done by summertime by oaring or by kayaks. I mean, men went out kayaking for belugas. That’s how they hunted them with kayaks and lances and spears and that’s how they got them, you know.
And everything was done by hand. When you get someplace, you had to walk, you know.
And then we were sitting at a meeting one day not too long -- not too long ago, and I sat there and looked at all the people. There was one skinny person amongst that group of -- of people.
People have become lazy and people have become obese. And it’s affected the health, you know, of our people. And it’s -- it’s unfortunate, you know.
So the comparison -- I thought is really -- I thought for comparison it's kind of interesting.
KAREN BREWSTER: But, so you -- you're putting crab pots in, you said you started doing that around 1995? BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Yes.
KAREN BREWSTER: So people didn’t do that traditionally?
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: No. We -- we knew there was crab out there, because we'd run into -- on the beaches whenever we were there, we'd run into crab legs washed up on the shore, you know.
It's all just different kinds species of -- of critters that lived out there. But it was in 1995 that a friend of mine and I went out.
He went out and cut a hole and got a crab hand-lining.
And after that, we started to put little pots out there, and getting crab, you know. And it sort of started a new food for us. It was good, delicious. KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Crabs are scrumptious. We didn’t know that they were out there in that abundance until we started setting summertime pots and -- and there -- there’s a lot of crab that come up here.
And as the -- like the Fish and Game says, you know, as the waters warm the Gulf of Alaska, we’re getting to see more and more tuna, and white sharks, and different kind of things moving northward.
He said what’s going to happen past the Aleutians is that the -- the -- once it starts warming up there it’s going to chase the crab further north so we’re gonna get more crab.
So, you know, global warmings have a direct effect -- effect on -- KAREN BREWSTER: Mm-hm.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: -- on -- on critters that we’re seeing up here. And we’re probably gonna get a lot more because of our colder waters.
KAREN BREWSTER: And so you put the crab pots in at the lead edge? Or you put them, you said, at a crack or --
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: I -- I make -- I usually make a hole ‘cause that’s the safest. ANDY MAHONEY: Hm.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: You go to the edge, you could never tell if it’s gonna break off, you know. ANDY MAHONEY: Yeah.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: So -- I lost -- when we did that study back in ‘99, I must’ve lost five or six pots. You know, so you have to really be careful. But we did it because we didn’t have time.
The ice was pretty thick at the time. 1999, we had probably four foot of ice. And it was really difficult to make holes.
But nowadays, man, today, man, lickity split. I had a pot out in no time, you know. ANDY MAHONEY: Hm.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: It was just so thin. But there’s -- there’s a difference.
You know, even from 1999 until -- until today. A huge difference.
We worked our butts off for that crabbing study trying to drill holes in four foot of ice everywhere. KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Even go across, straight across, over toward Espenberg and go straight to Espenberg from Kotzebue without any problems. No cracks, no nothing, just go, you know.
And it happened almost every year. Until the last probably fifteen years and it became real iffy. Too many cracks out there.
We’d go out there trying to follow Frank Goodhope’s trail up there and -- and we’d have to -- the crack would be over here, the trail would be here -- and part of -- you know, holy smokes.
You know, look down there and see how thick it is. Try to gauge whether it were safe or not. But if Frank could do it, you know, everybody in Shishmaref used to wait for Fred to make the trail to Kotzebue -- ANDY MAHONEY: Mm-hm.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Because once he made the trail, they knew it was safe. But it -- it -- it’s a tremendous change.
Especially the last -- within the last ten years. Huge, huge change.
From being the thick ice anymore. My gosh, you know, I -- it’s --
KAREN BREWSTER: What about freeze-up? Has that changed?
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Yeah, in a way. You know, might be six or seven years ago we -- normally we’d freeze up at the end of September, first part of October. ANDY MAHONEY: Mm-hm.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: We’d be done. But, in fact, maybe like ten years ago, my brother and I decided we were going to go spend Thanksgiving at our camp up at -- toward the the mouth of the Kobuk River because it never froze until last part of -- of -- of November.
We were driving boats in November. Hunting seals with boats in November ANDY MAHONEY: Mm.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: You know, that’s unheard of. ANDY MAHONEY: Right.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: You know, we were gonna drive up to the camp in November where normally we'd have -- we'd already have three foot of ice up there already, we could drive up there with snowmobile. ANDY MAHONEY: Huh.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: But, you know, it -- it -- so every -- every fall is different, you know. We had a long fall -- we have longer falls.
It -- it wasn’t until about the middle of October this year that we were able to go fishing and, you know -- for tom cod and smelt.
And then first of November, we went over to the mouth to get sheefish. But it’s just -- it’s a lot of -- it’s getting to be a lot longer falls.
And a lot earlier springs, you know. So we have a lot more time to play with boats. ANDY MAHONEY: Mm-hm.
REBECCA ROLPH: So longer falls, does that mean longer time for freeze-up? Is that what you -- BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Yeah.
REBECCA ROLPH: What else does that? BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Hm?
REBECCA ROLPH: Oh, what else -- what does a long fall mean compared to a short fall?
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Well, guys hunting seal longer. Going out into the rivers and, you know, catching the caribou when they come through.
REBECCA ROLPH: So basically, they have open water? Or yeah --
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Yeah, we have open water. REBECCA ROLPH: Okay. BOBBY SCHAEFFER: A lot longer. We don’t, you know, -- it just doesn’t freeze for a longer period of time.
ANDY MAHONEY: Is there a time when the ocean’s no good for boating, but you’re waiting for it to freeze up before you can drive a snowmachine on it? BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Yeah.
ANDY MAHONEY: And is -- is that -- I mean, that sounds like a frustrating time of year, right? ‘Cause you can’t do one or the other. Does that --
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Yeah, especially in the villages, you know. In some of our villages, because they have a lot of -- lot of creeks and -- and -- and things that stay open because of -- because of warmth, you know. And I -- it’s hanging around longer. ANDY MAHONEY: Mm-hm.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: And so lakes and rivers stay dangerous for a while. That’s why we lost -- lose so many people. ANDY MAHONEY: Hm.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: You know, that they -- they fall through taking chances trying to -- trying to go on thin ice, you know.
To do their subsistence or -- or gathering activities when normally you can go and drive on that ice, you know. At -- in -- in -- in October. ANDY MAHONEY: Right.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: You know. But it doesn’t happen that way anymore. People are being more cautious.
You get -- people get less, less -- you know, getting out less and less. And -- in October like they used to.
Because in October used to freeze pretty good. We always knew the thickness of the ice.
We knew where all the creeks were, what to avoid, you know. So it was always pretty safe.
But sometimes it would freeze and then all this low pressure would come up here, and then it would start raining and -- and so you could never tell from one day to the next -- ANDY MAHONEY: Mm-hm. BOBBY SCHAEFFER: What’s going to happen.
And, you know, it’s just -- this year was very strange, because it stayed so warm but if -- all the fresh water ice froze pretty good, pretty early. It was pretty nice. But it never got cold -- ANDY MAHONEY: Mm-hm.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: -- to where it can freeze ocean water. ANDY MAHONEY: Right, right.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Yeah, and that -- that -- we knew that was going to be a problem, especially after February when we had a record high month. ANDY MAHONEY: Mm-hm.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: In February. It was unbelievable, beautiful weather. And everybody loved it to death, you know. February for god sake.
You know, it was 25-30 degrees the whole month, but it was, you know, and -- and -- but it had an effect on the ice out there.
So -- and it’s going to affect not only us, our ability to hunt in the springtime, but it’s gonna affect the animals, as well, you know. Because the ice will go too quick and the walrus when they -- with their migration won’t have that ice to go play on, so they’ll end up going to the beaches and things of that nature, you know.
And so it -- it's going to disappear pretty quickly this year. Once we get spring, my fear is that it’s gonna go so fast that we won’t have much time to -- to prepare to go out and get our -- our yearly ugruk hunting done. ANDY MAHONEY: Hm.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Normally, we have a good 'ol month to do that, but now, just like last year, we -- God, within two weeks it was all gone.
KAREN BREWSTER: And if you can’t get the ugruk in the spring, or, you know, May, June, is that the only time all year or can you get them another time of year?
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Well, we can get -- we can’t -- Well, they migrate. They follow the ice in the springtime heading north. As the ice moves, they move with the ice and they -- they -- they summer up there.
But the younger ones, you know, the young ones, the premature ones stay within the Kotzebue Sound, and some of the other small -- major -- major rivers, because that’s good food for the younger ones, you know.
And so they grow. All the young ones, they grow in those areas.
And -- but the big ones all head north. We don’t see them until the spring of next year. So people --
KAREN BREWSTER: So -- so if you can’t get those ugruk in May amongst the broken ice, that’s it? That’s the only time of year? BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Pretty much, yeah. That’s it. KAREN BREWSTER: Okay.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: You can get, like I said, you get the young ones. They can grow to five or six foot. The young ones by -- by falltime.
Not very big, but you know, people eat them. But they don’t -- it doesn’t -- they don’t pro -- provide the springtime drying and oil capabilities. ANDY MAHONEY: Hm. KAREN BREWSTER: Mm-hm.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: That we have to -- we have with the big, monster ugruks we get in the spring.
KAREN BREWSTER: So if you got them in the fall, you couldn’t prepare the food the same way?
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: You could if you wanted to.
KAREN BREWSTER: It doesn’t dry as well though does it? BOBBY SCHAEFFER: No, it doesn’t dry as well. KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Yeah. We like to get the big ones so that one or two would be enough for the family. When you get the smaller ones -- we don’t like to get the smaller ones.
People shoot them, but it’s -- it’s -- it’s the next generation of ugruks, you know, that'll -- that will come back to us. KAREN BREWSTER: Mm-hm. BOBBY SCHAEFFER: So.
REBECCA ROLPH: So you don’t want to kill the small ones, because then they won’t know to come back? Or -- or -- I mean the -- that -- that’s --
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: People -- people -- it’s -- it’s -- I’ve killed a few in my time. As long as they’re big enough and fat enough, you know, they’re good.
That’s what I normally judge it on. When they’re small, you just let them -- see, they’re so tame, you know, they’re -- ‘cause they don’t know the danger.
REBECCA ROLPH: That -- they don’t know to be scared of. BOBBY SCHAEFFER: They don’t -- they don’t know to be scared. REBECCA ROLPH: Yeah.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: So they -- they’re pretty tame. But they pretty much grow up in -- in all the little tributaries up within the Kotzebue Sound.
I’m sure there’s other places they do that, too, but -- but we’re just used to seeing them every year along with the qasigiaq, the natchiq, you know.
That come up here. There’s so many it’s just -- just unbelievable.
KAREN BREWSTER: Hm. So how -- when you’re waiting in the fall time for the ice to form, how thick does it have to get before you feel it’s safe to go out on it?
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Well, people like in the Kobuk Lake like to set -- set nets under the ice. And they like to get the sheefish as soon as -- early as possible.
But, you know, it’s been very difficult because it really never gets that cold. Cold enough to make it three, four inches to where you can feel comfortable. KAREN BREWSTER: Mm-hm.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: And some guys take chances and go out there and then walk out and set their net. And just to try to get fresh fish.
People that live out -- out in the -- out in the -- out in the lake, in the area year round. But it’ll get three, four inches thick and then a low pressure would come by and would -- it would rain on top of it, you know.
And then -- but it wouldn't melt much, and then it would freeze again, so. You know, it happens almost every year now. It doesn’t -- it’s nothing new.
REBECCA ROLPH: The rain?
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Yeah. We like to -- like normal, we wait until late fall when it gets nice and thick. And the ice gets thick enough for snow to come.
Because snow is an insulater, and if the ice is thin and you get a lot of snow, then it's real dangerous because you have an insulator.
It might get cold in other parts of the ice where it’s open, where it’s clear of snow, it will get thick. But any place where there’s snow drifts it'll stay very thin.
And it just takes a lot colder weather to thicken the ice even the -- you know, for safety purposes.
So because of long falls, we just -- you know, people are being more cautious as to traveling, you know.
KAREN BREWSTER: What you were just describing, that’s that fresh water out on Kobuk Lake, right? BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Yeah.
KAREN BREWSTER: What about the sea ice? How thick -- how long do you wait -- how thick it gets before you go out on that?
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: All depends. If it’s like this year, which was a very unusual year, you know, we -- we -- you wouldn’t catch me dead out there unless I had a helicopter or something.
You know. It was just so bad. It moved around so much.
Every time the wind blew it was just black out there. KAREN BREWSTER: Hm.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: The sky was -- this is how the open water creates this black, like a cloud. It just stayed that way for the whole fall.
You could go out to the end of it -- end of the -- of the shallows and -- But I wouldn’t venture -- I wouldn’t have ventured out there. We just had a really warm fall. KAREN BREWSTER: Mm-hm.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: But once it started freezing, it got a foot thick. And people, you know, it started getting down in temperature and people started traveling on it quite a bit. KAREN BREWSTER: So --
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: But it didn -- but this is fresh water ice. KAREN BREWSTER: Mm-hm.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: But the salt water ice, like I say, it -- it -- it freezes at a lot lower temperature. And it'll sikuliaq, it’ll make a real moving ice like it's a ice berg. It’s just moveable, you know.
Fresh water ice, of course, you grab it and break it. But this stuff right here just moves, it’s the same thickness, and it’s still bendable, you know.
And when the temperature gets like 30 degrees it becomes even more pliable. More -- it becomes weaker, because it’s just a -- that -- that -- so, when it’s cold out you can walk on stuff that is this thick and feel comfortable because it won’t break on you.
It’ll just move with you as you go. When it get’s thicker it’s -- it don’t take much for you to get a snowmobile on top of it.
But the temperature’s got to be cold. You go out there when it’s too warm and you walk on that stuff or you take a snogo out on that stuff, I mean, you’re asking for trouble.
KAREN BREWSTER: Even if it’s a fre -- even if it’s a few inches thick? BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Yeah.
KAREN BREWSTER: When it’s warm it’s not good? BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Yeah. Well, the salt reacts to heat. KAREN BREWSTER: Mm-hm.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: You know, I mean it reacts to cold, as well. But it also reacts to heat.
It’ll -- it’ll -- it’ll make -- make the ice weaker. Yeah, you know. Just like augering a hole over -- for sheefish fishing you can take a while because it’s hard freshwater ice.
You go out there, do the same thing “vroom” it’s soft ice out there. They just -- oh, you have to watch your auger because if you get too much of a bite it might take you for a spin.
But so, and I do that all the time. I have to really be careful otherwise when I’m making my crab pot holes. Make sure I don’t put too much pressure because it starts digging around faster. ANDY MAHONEY: Mm-hm.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: But you go to fresh water ice, it takes a long time to make a hole because it’s really a solid ice. Freshwater ice. ANDY MAHONEY: Mm-hm. KAREN BREWSTER: Mm-hm. BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Yeah.
KAREN BREWSTER: Do -- is there a boundary out here of where it goes from fresh to salt? Do you have a -- BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Yeah. KAREN BREWSTER: Spot that -- ?
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Yeah. There’s a -- we got the main rivers, all the major rivers come right through Kotzebue. Where you have -- so we have a lot of freshwater coming out here pretty much year round.
The Selawik, the -- first the Noatak, the Kobuk, and the Selawik Rivers all drain out of Kotzebue, right in front of Kotzebue right here.
So they all have this major push of freshwater all the time. ‘Cause rivers don’t slow down, they always move throughout the winter. KAREN BREWSTER: Mm-hm.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: And, you know, and so there’s -- it goes out, I’d say, eight, nine miles out to the Ko -- going to the Kobuk Channel before you hit the -- the salt water where it’s really salty.
And then it spreads out out there. So you have a fresh water on top because the density of salt water is a lot heavier. The -- it -- it -- the salt water remains on the bottom.
Crab are bottom. You want to kill a crab, you take it home, put it under a faucet in fresh water, it’ll die right now. That’s just the way it is. ANDY MAHONEY: Hm.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Yeah, and so the crabs stay on the bottom of it, you know, because -- and all the -- the crustaceans and fishes that rely on salt to survive do the same thing.
But once they get into too much fresh water, they bug out. They -- they know when to bug out. So --
KAREN BREWSTER: But that fresh water, you say, that fresh water eight or nine miles out, is that just in the channel or it spreads out? BOBBY SCHAEFFER: It spreads out. KAREN BREWSTER: Mm-hm.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Yeah, it spreads out. But as you go further out, it -- it just disappears. KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: You know, into the -- into the salinity of the environment. It just makes -- it -- you can never tell where.
But I’ve traveled all through that area, you know, in the summertime and done fairly well out there.
But you always know that salt water is always gonna stay on the bottom and the fresh water when it comes to the top it starts spreading out.
And it gets less and less because it just sort of spreads out on the top and pretty soon dissipates into --
KAREN BREWSTER: So for crabbing you -- you go put your pots farther south from town? BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Yeah. KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: You can’t put them here, it's too fresh. The water’s too fresh. KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. BOBBY SCHAEFFER: You have to go out to salt water.
But like I said, it all depends on the tides. They come in -- they come in pretty strong over to Sisualik, 'cause we’ve caught crab over at Sisualik, you know.
And before -- people have caught them in their nets. KAREN BREWSTER: Hm.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: So, you know, as the fresh water goes out, like I said, the fresh intensifies the salt on the bottom. And as long as it’s springtime and then some -- somebody caught a bunch of them one time in July because a lot of the ocean came in.
The water came in, there was a southwest wind, and brought a bunch of crab and then they went out setting their net on this one sandbar and it was a -- they got thirteen monster crabs in that thing, you know. ANDY MAHONEY: Hm.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: And we were shocked that they would get crab in July.
So you can never tell, you know. If it's a real -- it gets real hot and the water starts heating up, then all the animals start -- that rely on the cold and the salt all head outward into the deeper water.
And it always happens that way. You get too much fresh water, then they’ll head down south. They’ll head west.
Get to learn them as you play with them. KAREN BREWSTER: Mm-hm. ANDY MAHONEY: Hm. BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Yeah.
KAREN BREWSTER: Are there other things that your dad taught you about what to look for when you go out on the ice to be safe?
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Yeah. You have to -- You have to know -- At the time, we had to predict the weather. We had to, you know, we’d look at the sun. If there’s a ring around it, there’s --
Look at the moon, if there’s a -- if it’s different, you know that the weather’s going to change, you know. They did that a lot before radio when the weather station showed up.
But you know, but nowadays, you know before I go out and venture out in the ocean, I -- I keep close tabs of what the weather’s gonna be like with -- with -- in the next day or two.
And you can see that right on -- on -- on NOAA websites. Or -- But the weather is pretty accurate on the radio. KAREN BREWSTER: Mm-hm.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: You know, you know what’s gonna happen. You know when not to go, and -- you know. So unlike before, you know, we -- we -- we can go --
People take chances and do get in trouble yet. You know, they just like to do that I guess.
But a lot of us don’t, we watch the weather. We make our -- make up our minds what we’re gonna do that day. If we decide to go out and the weather has to be nice.
You have to watch the wind. ‘Cause in certain areas the wind is your friend, but it can be your enemy in certain areas because it'll be in the opposite direction.
You have to watch that and use the forecast to understand that, you know, you don’t go out on the ocean and venture out there at certain winds. You just don’t.
KAREN BREWSTER: Which -- which -- what are good winds and what are bad winds?
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: Up here in the Kotzebue Sound, our -- our normal winds for storms are coming from the east or northeast. And they can get quite strong. We’ve had up to a hundred mile an hour winds, you know, and sometimes depending on the pressure, the power of the storm. But it -- if you’re --
Any kind of storm, you don’t go out there period. But when you’re -- when you go out there like I go -- when I go out there and if it was blowing offshore, as long as it’s not blowing more than fifteen, you could do things out there and still have time to think oh, is the visibility as good, you know.
You know, like your steadfast ice and there's a big ice pile that you know is stuck to the bottom, you can do things and -- and be safe.
But the rest of it you -- you gotta -- you gotta make up your mind whether you’re gonna take that chance or not. You know, if -- if --
And all that is when you just learn through years of experience out there. What to watch out for and what not to.
We don’t get that thick ice out there no more, so we had to change your -- your thinking when you go out there and become more cautious.
Otherwise, you’d end up, you know, taking a dirt nap. ANDY MAHONEY: Hm.
BOBBY SCHAEFFER: You don’t want to do that. KAREN BREWSTER: I have to change tape.