Herman Ahsoak was interviewed on February 24, 2016 by Karen Brewster at the Tuzzy Consortium Library in Barrow, Alaska. In this interview, Herman talks about his knowledge of and experience with the sea ice around Barrow. He discusses first going out whaling and learning about ice, changes he has seen in the ice including thinner ice, and how to be safe out on the ice. He also talks about the role of ice in whaling, including choosing a camp location, trail building, identifiying safe ice and moving camp for safety reasons, the effect of wind and current. He shares his experience with a large ice break-off event in 1997 and the ensuing rescue effort, the effect of changes in the ice on subsistence, and the responsibility of a whaling captain in making decisions about ice safety and whether to put a whaling crew out.
Digital Asset Information
Project: Sea Ice Project Jukebox
Date of Interview: Feb 24, 2016
Narrator(s): Herman Ahsoak
Interviewer(s): Karen Brewster
Transcriber: Sue Beck
After clicking play, click on a section to navigate the audio or video clip.
Personal and family background
Learning to hunt and first going out on the ice
First experiences going whaling
Multi-year ice (Piqaluyak)
Choosing a location to set up whaling camp
Pressure ridges, thin ice, and the effect of the wind on ice conditions
Changes in the ice since the 1980s
Thinner ice and safety hazards
Trails used to get to whaling camp
Responsibility of a whaling captain to watching the current and keep the crew safe
Ice break-off event and rescue
Effect of wind and current on ice conditions and safety
Checking the current and testing the ice
Moving the crew and whaling camp for safety reasons
Learning about hunting, whaling, and ice conditions, generational passing on of knowledge
Rough ice and pressure ridges
Trail building, and identifying safe ice
Timing of whaling
Effect of changes in the ice on subsistence activities
Unusual conditions of 2013
Winter weather conditions of 2016
Determining when it is safe to go out on the ice, and deciding whether to put a whaling crew out or not
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After clicking play, click a section of the transcript to navigate the audio or video clip.
KAREN BREWSTER: Okay, today is February 24, 2016, and this is Karen Brewster, and I’m here with Herman Ahsoak in Barrow, Alaska for the Sea Ice Jukebox interview collection.
Herman, thank you, for coming to talk to me today.
HERMAN AHSOAK: You’re welcome.
KAREN BREWSTER: I think you’re sort of used to being interviewed a little bit, huh? HERMAN AHSOAK: Yes.
KAREN BREWSTER: So, I just would like to set some background for people who don’t know you who might be listening to this.
Tell me a little bit about, you know, when you were born and growing up here in Barrow. Things like that.
HERMAN AHSOAK: Okay. So, my name is Herman Ahsoak and I was born in Barrow, Alaska, on November 16, 1964. I have seven -- six -- seven sisters and four brothers.
And I work for Ukpeagvik Inupiat Corporation as an expediter, and also I’ve been a whaling captain since the fall of 2004.
KAREN BREWSTER: Okay. And you’ve been a firefighter?
HERMAN AHSOAK: And I’ve also been in the fire department. Today marks twenty-nine years.
KAREN BREWSTER: That’s great. And what kind of education. You went to high school here in Barrow?
HERMAN AHSOAK: High school. I graduated from high school. I also -- all the training that I received through the fire department was locally. I was locally trained by our fire chiefs.
KAREN BREWSTER: Okay. And your parents were -- ?
HERMAN AHSOAK: My parents are the late Mark and Jennie Ahsoak.
KAREN BREWSTER: Okay. And when -- how old were you when you first went out hunting and out on the ice?
HERMAN AHSOAK: I’d have to think about that one. I think it might’ve been about -- I was --
I started later, and I was probably about eighteen or so when I first actually went out on the ice.
KAREN BREWSTER: Did your dad go out whaling?
HERMAN AHSOAK: Oh, yes. He went whaling with my Uncle Nate Nageak’s crew and Harry -- his cousin Harry Brower, Sr.
KAREN BREWSTER: But he didn’t take you out 'til later?
HERMAN AHSOAK: 'Til -- 'til I was -- 'til a little bit later.
KAREN BREWSTER: What about seal hunting?
HERMAN AHSOAK: I was -- being the youngest man in the family, I was always left behind. So my older brothers were all -- went instead.
That went -- seal hunted with my father a lot.
KAREN BREWSTER: Uh-huh. So what was that like that first time you went out? Do you remember?
HERMAN AHSOAK: What I can remember, in them days the -- the shorefast ice, the ice -- the sea ice that’s connected to the land, the shorefast ice was a good ten, twelve feet thick, and it was really stable and that’s what I can remember.
And it was hard to -- harder to chop.
KAREN BREWSTER: Do you remember how far out you had to go to get to the lead?
HERMAN AHSOAK: Well, at times about five, six miles to my -- to my best recollection.
KAREN BREWSTER: Hm-mm. And so what were the first things you did as a young man your first time going whaling?
HERMAN AHSOAK: The first time I went whaling I had to learn how to find the correct ice to make water, so I can make coffee for the whalers, and also to cook and also to wash the dishes.
And I had to learn how to keep the tent clean and keep the area right next to the skin boat clean, as a boyer.
And I was also the shock absorber when our crew was out -- a human shock absorber for the skin boat.
So I was in front of the boat when my older brother was towing it. And when the sled and the skin boat came -- came across a bump, I had to stop the -- the skin boat from hitting the ice so hard that it could kinda damage it.
KAREN BREWSTER: And so -- you’re standing on the sled then?
HERMAN AHSOAK: I was -- I -- you have to stand and you have to hop back on the skin boat when the trail is smoother and catch your breath up because you’re running with the -- the boat.
KAREN BREWSTER: So you’d jump onto the side of the sled. You’re not standing on the back?
HERMAN AHSOAK: No. You’re jumping right back onto the front of the boat in front -- in front of the sled. So you’re a human shock absorber.
KAREN BREWSTER: That sounds pretty tiring.
HERMAN AHSOAK: Oh, yeah, it is. It was -- I mean, I had to do it for many years.
KAREN BREWSTER: ‘Cause you were the young guy in the best shape? HERMAN AHSOAK: Yep.
KAREN BREWSTER: So you mentioned finding that freshwater ice. HERMAN AHSOAK: Piqaluyak?
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. So what did -- what were you told to look for?
HERMAN AHSOAK: What I was told to look for is -- when you’re looking for piqaluyak it’s also covered in snow a little bit and it’s a round -- really -- mound. Really round mound.
And then you would have to remove the snow and then dig down to the ice. And it's glacier ice, and it’s -- that’s what I was taught.
KAREN BREWSTER: And is -- do you still find that?
HERMAN AHSOAK: Oh, yeah. We still -- if you look good enough and you’re diligent out there on the ice, you -- you can find it.
KAREN BREWSTER: 'Cause I’ve heard that there’s not as much of that multi-year ice anymore.
HERMAN AHSOAK: Yes. It -- it used to come every year, but the past ten -- ten years, I -- it’s -- you see it once in a while.
And it -- once in a while -- once in a while it’s froze to the shore. KAREN BREWSTER: Oh!
HERMAN AHSOAK: And it’s getting rarer every -- more rare every day.
KAREN BREWSTER: So does that mean you guys haul out drinking water and stuff from town? HERMAN AHSOAK: Yes. Yep.
KAREN BREWSTER: And you said you learned about how to find a good place to put your camp. What’s a good place to put your whale camp?
HERMAN AHSOAK: For your crew to -- if you’re blessed with a whale -- for your crew to be able to pull up a whale, the ice has to be a certain thickness. You want it to be at least four or five feet thick to pull up a whale.
And the past couple of years it’s been only about ten inches and it’s getting thinner.
And so once in a while a big chunk of ice will come, and you’ll be lucky to find that to put a -- put your whale camp.
KAREN BREWSTER: So you want to put your whale camp where there’s thick enough ice for the ramp for pulling it up? HERMAN AHSOAK: Yep. Yes.
KAREN BREWSTER: What -- are there other things you look for?
HERMAN AHSOAK: Other things that you want to look for while you’re looking for ice out there is you want to look for cracks that could -- that your crew drift away if you’re not paying attention.
You want to look for the cracks. You also want to look for a solid piece of ice so if you happen to drift away -- if the shorefast ice breaks away, you want to be on a thick enough piece of ice to protect your gear and yourself from -- from being crushed.
KAREN BREWSTER: So how do you know whether you’re on a piece that might float out or not?
HERMAN AHSOAK: You start -- you start from shore. And then you -- There’s men already scouting the ice right now for a trail to be cut for this spring whaling, and so what they’re doing is looking for cracks.
They’re looking for -- where the places the shorefast ice is most solid, and then they go from there.
And then they cut their trail through what they think’s the safe -- the safest.
And so you’re scouting out on the ice in front of town towards the Nuvuk and towards the gravel pit and the Monument.
KAREN BREWSTER: So how’s it -- have you been out there this year?
HERMAN AHSOAK: Not yet. I’ve been busy getting whaling gear ready and I haven’t scouted yet.
KAREN BREWSTER: Have you heard what the other people are saying about what the ice looks like this year?
HERMAN AHSOAK: What I’m hearing is -- and I’ve -- I've noticed just driving on the shore where you can see the sea ice, the shorefast ice is pretty thin.
It’s about ten inches, so it just froze just last fall and it’s pretty thin in -- in a lot of the areas close to town. Is how I can describe it.
KAREN BREWSTER: Does it look like there’s a lot of pressure ridges or it looks pretty smooth?
HERMAN AHSOAK: There was some pretty high ones, but we’ve had so much north, northeast winds, it’s been breaking off. And so there was -- there was a couple of really high ones near -- near the gravel pit and near town that have since fallen into the sea and come off.
And so the lead is getting closer to the shore with all this wind that we’ve been having.
KAREN BREWSTER: I didn’t realize that the wind could break up the pressure ridges. I mean, I know the west wind will build them, right?
HERMAN AHSOAK: Yeah. The west wind and the current coming from the south will -- will build up the pressure ridges, the ivuniqs.
And when it’s -- when the -- when the young ice crumples up and builds up, it’s easier -- it’s easy for wave action to break it up and let it come off.
KAREN BREWSTER: Oh, okay. Because it’s that younger, thinner ice?
HERMAN AHSOAK: Younger, thinner ice. And it’s not as grounded to the shore as it is -- as it -- as if the shore -- The multi-year ice would hold on much longer.
KAREN BREWSTER: So, when you first started whaling, what year was that?
HERMAN AHSOAK: It was in the -- it was in the -- probably the -- the late ‘80s, with my --
And my older brothers were whaling in the ‘70s with my uncles, and, you know, it wasn’t until later than that that my father actually finally let me go.
KAREN BREWSTER: And so in the ‘80s when you were first starting, can you talk about how the ice might have been different?
HERMAN AHSOAK: Ice was thicker and the pressure ridges, we had -- we have to cut a trail through it. And it took much longer to cut trails enough for the boat and the sled and the snow machines to fit through.
And it took longer. And it stayed longer, connected longer to the shore.
KAREN BREWSTER: You mean it stayed longer, you mean the season was longer?
HERMAN AHSOAK: The season was longer. And it was -- it was easier to pull up a whale on the -- the multi-year ice than -- versus the first --
The past couple of years we’ve been lucky to find multi-year ice that attached to the -- attached to the shorefast ice, and just this last spring, the last spring of the -- the last whale of the spring was probably a sixty footer, and -- and
we were really fortunate that the captain had a place where it was multi-year ice where he could almost get the whole thing up out of the water.
KAREN BREWSTER: Wow. That sounds pretty rare to find multi-year ice spot like that now. Is it?
HERMAN AHSOAK: It’s getting more rare, and when they were -- when you had to go to the butchering site, we had to cross a couple of black holes, so -- and it is getting quite dangerous out there.
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. ’Cause it was late? And what -- those black holes are because it’s melting late in spring?
HERMAN AHSOAK: Because the ice is thinner and -- and the snowmachines and just driving over it, and the current underneath melts it faster, so it creates holes.
KAREN BREWSTER: That sounds sort of scary.
HERMAN AHSOAK: Oh, yeah. You could lose snowmachines. You could lose people. You could lose gear if you’re not paying attention.
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. So how do you get across those holes?
HERMAN AHSOAK: You have to speed across, and that’s what they were doing.
And for that last whale it was the only place they probably could have pulled it up.
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. So, even with a loaded sled full of maktak you could get across those holes?
HERMAN AHSOAK: You -- you just gotta go fast enough. You still -- you still can do it.
KAREN BREWSTER: It sounds pretty -- but interest -- Yeah. You had to make a decision, it sounds like. It was the only place for the whale -- HERMAN AHSOAK: Yep. KAREN BREWSTER: -- but the trail was dangerous.
HERMAN AHSOAK: Yes. And where my trail was, the longer the season got, the more water -- the water started building up on top of the shorefast ice and so that’s help makes the holes faster and much more dangerous.
KAREN BREWSTER: On that map there that’s in front of you, those are the trails from last year. Which -- which was your trail?
HERMAN AHSOAK: My trail was number six and that was almost straight out from my home.
And that was -- after talking with my crew, to try and preserve gas ‘cause gas is so -- gas prices are so high in Barrow.
For me and my crew to last a season we -- we decided to cut a trail almost straight down from -- from Browerville and NARL.
KAREN BREWSTER: And that last sixty-foot whale you’re talking about, which trail was that on? HERMAN AHSOAK: It was on my trail. KAREN BREWSTER: It was on your trail? HERMAN AHSOAK: Yes.
KAREN BREWSTER: Okay. How far out did you have to break trail to get to the edge?
HERMAN AHSOAK: It kept -- some of it kept detaching, so it was getting closer.
So I would say it was about a good -- it wasn’t -- it wasn't very far. It was probably about three and a half miles out from the shore.
KAREN BREWSTER: ‘Cause I was thinking, you were talking about saving gas. HERMAN AHSOAK: Yeah. Yes. KAREN BREWSTER: If you have to go way out, that’s a lot of gas. HERMAN AHSOAK: Yes. Especially if you have to haul maktak.
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. Because as you say, when you first started, when it -- the lead edge was -- I don’t know --?
HERMAN AHSOAK: Further apart. Further away. KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. HERMAN AHSOAK: Probably another good mile, two miles or more.
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. Over all that twisty -- through all the pressure ridges. It must’ve used a lot more gas.
HERMAN AHSOAK: Yes. And so as a whaling captain, it’s my responsibility to watch the current, the wind, the ice conditions, if the -- the main pack is close by.
What we need to look out for is the -- the current that’s coming from the south, called qaisaġnaq, ‘cause that -- when the main pack is out there, it can come and break up your trail and your -- where your camp pretty quick when the current is strong, the qaisaġnaq is strong.
And so as a whaling captain, I have to watch out for the current, the wind conditions, the sea ice conditions.
And I -- we -- I’ve learned to pull my men back when the wind is more than thirty miles an hour, because in the ‘90s a big chunk of ice broke off ‘cause -- then they had to rescue 172 whalers when the -- and all their gear and all the whaling crews and people where the shorefast -- part of the shorefast ice broke away, and so that created a pretty big rescue.
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. I remember that was, I think, ’97? HERMAN AHSOAK: Yes.
KAREN BREWSTER: Were you out there?
HERMAN AHSOAK: I was helping butcher a whale. I didn’t -- I didn’t have a snowmachine. I just found a ride out there to help butcher.
KAREN BREWSTER: And so where you were butchering, did that break off?
HERMAN AHSOAK: Where we were butchering, it broke off. And so they lost the whale. And -- and everything was retrieved except two snowmachines -- thankful --thankfully to North Slope Borough Search and Rescue.
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. So how did you guys know you were drifting?
HERMAN AHSOAK: The way we found out we were drifting is some people decided to go back to get more supplies, and on their way back to shore they noticed that they were moving.
So they had to hurry back to the butcher site to the solid piece of ice we were on.
KAREN BREWSTER: So there was a crack in the trail or something?
HERMAN AHSOAK: There was a crack in the trail and -- and it broke, and so everybody started drifting.
KAREN BREWSTER: So what was the response?
HERMAN AHSOAK: The response was to get everybody on that big, solid piece of ice we were on, where we were trying to pull the whale up, and take a headcount.
And then we called -- or the whaling captain called the rescue base and told them how many people we had, what we had out there.
KAREN BREWSTER: Did people try and get in their umiaqs and paddle across the break?
HERMAN AHSOAK: No. No. The ice was beginning to move too fast when that occurred.
KAREN BREWSTER: And what were the wind and current conditions? Do you remember?
HERMAN AHSOAK: The way I can remember that day, it was pretty calm, if I remember correctly. But the current was strong, going out.
KAREN BREWSTER: So it was a north -- HERMAN AHSOAK: It was -- KAREN BREWSTER: -- or east current? HERMAN AHSOAK: Yes.
KAREN BREWSTER: That would push the ice out like that?
HERMAN AHSOAK: Yes. And it took it out fast. And we do have footage of it. I do have some footage of it from Heartbeat Alaska, because they were here when that incident occurred, and they did take video footage of that and interviewed people for that.
KAREN BREWSTER: Cool. So, can you talk a little bit about the wind and the current and how those work together or against each other to make the ice safe or dangerous?
HERMAN AHSOAK: The -- For you to be out there safely whaling, you need to know that the shore -- that it’s connected to the shore well and there’s -- there's no cracks behind you. Meaning that there’s no cracks near the shore where if -- if the current change and the wind change at the same time, that it could take you away.
And so being a whaling captain, your number one priority is just to pay attention to the currents. And also you have VHF radios, where you communicate with all the other whaling crews that are near the -- near the water.
They also -- some are to the south, some are to the north. They also help you watch the current and the winds.
KAREN BREWSTER: So which is more important to pay attention to, the current or the wind?
HERMAN AHSOAK: To me, it would be the current, ‘cause when we had that rescue in ‘97, I -- I don’t believe there was very much wind.
And that current was going straight out.
KAREN BREWSTER: Okay. Because I think people who don’t live on the ice like you guys might think, "Oh, ice is wind driven. That’s what moves it around."
HERMAN AHSOAK: Maybe sometimes.
KAREN BREWSTER: But it sounds like you’re saying it’s more the current. HERMAN AHSOAK: More the current. Yes.
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. So how do you check the current?
HERMAN AHSOAK: We usually get a weight and twine and toss the weight into the water, and you’ll see which way the current will take the object.
KAREN BREWSTER: And you can tell how strong the current is? HERMAN AHSOAK: And you can tell how strong it is. Yes. KAREN BREWSTER: By how fast it -- HERMAN AHSOAK: How fast it goes.
And that’s what we -- we were taught by our elders, you know, is -- Even if you are not by the water, you can still do it if you drill a hole in the shorefast ice, and you can do it that way also.
KAREN BREWSTER: So do you do that when you’re making trail out? You test it along the way?
HERMAN AHSOAK: Only -- only when -- probably when you’re by the edge, when you -- when you have all your gear by the water.
KAREN BREWSTER: You said you -- you'll move your crew if the wind is more than thirty miles an hour. HERMAN AHSOAK: Yes. KAREN BREWSTER: From what direction?
HERMAN AHSOAK: It can be west winds where wave action can occur and break up the shorefast ice or it can also be north or northeast wind where it can -- when the ice breaks away it’ll kinda push the ice out.
So you want to watch for those winds.
KAREN BREWSTER: So if it’s a southwest wind -- no, southeast wind, that’s okay?
HERMAN AHSOAK: You’ll want to watch that also, southeast.
KAREN BREWSTER: What does a southeast wind do?
HERMAN AHSOAK: It can push the ice out into the ocean from the shore.
KAREN BREWSTER: And so the west wind can bring ice in and then that can ivu? HERMAN AHSOAK: Yes. KAREN BREWSTER: Cause a problem? HERMAN AHSOAK: Yes.
And you really want to watch for wave action, because that make -- that breaks up the shorefast ice faster is wave action.
KAREN BREWSTER: Oh, okay. And you had mentioned going out, you know, around eighteen. Who -- who taught you about all these things?
HERMAN AHSOAK: Learning from my older brothers, also from other whaling captains that -- where I went to help butcher some whales, you know.
There’s some whaling captains out there that were -- that teach, you know, the younger generation -- in my days they were teaching the younger generation what to watch out for.
And thankful that I came across a few like that.
KAREN BREWSTER: And did you just start asking questions or they brought the young guys over and said, “I’m going to teach you."?
HERMAN AHSOAK: I started asking questions, and that’s the only way to gain more knowledge.
I’m -- I'm still pretty young. I’m only fifty-one, so it’s always good to listen to your elder -- elders that know much more than we do.
KAREN BREWSTER: But -- and even now -- fifty-one. There’s twenty-year-olds that to them you’re the elder now. HERMAN AHSOAK: Yes. KAREN BREWSTER: Right? HERMAN AHSOAK: Yes.
KAREN BREWSTER: And are you -- Do you have some guys in your crew you’re teaching?
HERMAN AHSOAK: Yes. My nephews, my sons, my nieces that are coming out whaling with me and --
KAREN BREWSTER: Oh, really? HERMAN AHSOAK: Yes. So I -- So I’m starting to teach them about what -- what we need to watch out for to be safe out there.
KAREN BREWSTER: That’s interesting that you have nieces who are going out whaling now.
HERMAN AHSOAK: Yes. I did have one of my nieces, her name is Flora, she’s also my co-captain.
And last spring she was -- she helped me paddle all -- we were paddling to whales all day, one day last spring. So, she was in the boat with me.
My daughter one -- my daughter was out there one time also, and she also helped me paddle to a whale also.
KAREN BREWSTER: Great. And are you the harpooner?
HERMAN AHSOAK: Oh, no. I’m the steersman. My nephew Jonas, he’s my harpooner.
KAREN BREWSTER: Cool. So, I kind of heard that last year some of those trails, it was kind of rough ice compared to other recent years. HERMAN AHSOAK: Yes.
KAREN BREWSTER: Can you sort of describe the conditions?
HERMAN AHSOAK: Some of them had big drops, and you had to kind of fill them -- fill it with ice.
And some of them pressure ridges were a lot higher than -- than previous years, so you have to chop more.
And it’s a lot of hard labor chopping ice to try and cut a trail.
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. Do you remember what the weather conditions were that maybe caused there to be more pressure ridges like that?
HERMAN AHSOAK: Two years ago, we had a strong south -- a current that qaisaġnaq was -- and it kept the ice in the whole time.
And we had a tough year in whaling about two years ago 'cause the current was coming from the south keeping the ice in and it kept building up the pressure ridges, and sometimes it would extend the lead further out.
KAREN BREWSTER: And was that -- I don’t know that -- you can’t say something’s normal, but that year with that strong qaisaġniq, has that happened before or -- ?
HERMAN AHSOAK: That was the first time I’ve ever noticed it, you know, in all the years that I’ve been whaling.
I’m sure other captains would be differently, but that was the first time I’ve ever experienced that current and that southeast -- southwest wind that we had that kept the ice in. And that was really odd.
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. But then last spring, 2015, where there’s sort of this rough ice, what was that like getting out to the lead and -- ?
Was the -- I guess, was the weather -- What was going on with the weather? Could you get out whaling? Was there a lead? Was it safe?
HERMAN AHSOAK: Yep. There was a lead and I had a good place to pull up a whale, and cutting the trail to the lead we had to cross through thinner -- thinner ice to get to the place where we wanted to be.
And there was a few rough spots from the ivu, from the pressure ridges. There was some high spots that we had to cut through. That’s what I can recollect.
KAREN BREWSTER: So building your trail last year, did you have other crews working on that trail with you?
HERMAN AHSOAK: Yes, there was about four other crews that were working with us.
KAREN BREWSTER: That is -- Do you usually work with other crews to build a trail?
HERMAN AHSOAK: Yes. You cut it quicker. It takes less time, and -- and it’s smoother when you work with other -- other crews.
KAREN BREWSTER: And does it -- you tend to use the same crews? Do you tend to always work together or every year it’s different crews?
HERMAN AHSOAK: Every year it’s different crews.
And when I -- when I follow a captain and cut a trail, they’re usually older and I -- and I listen to them, you know, whanever they talk about this --
Where they think it’s safe is where I’m going to go. The older whaling captains.
KAREN BREWSTER: Can you think of any specific thing they’ve said about what to look for? How they tell it’s safe?
HERMAN AHSOAK: You want to be on a big, thick chunk where it’s safe to pull up a whale, where if you drifted away it would also shield you from when the ice is being impacted when they’re being drifted away.
Those are probably the two biggest points of --
KAREN BREWSTER: How do you tell it’s a big, thick, safe piece?
HERMAN AHSOAK: When you’re cutting trail to it and -- one of the captains who was older than I found it, and so we decided to help them.
KAREN BREWSTER: Did he tell you, “Oh, I can tell it’s thick and safe because it looks a certain way.”? HERMAN AHSOAK: Yes.
KAREN BREWSTER: What -- what does it look like?
HERMAN AHSOAK: It’s about -- some of it’s gonna be about six to eight feet thick. And it’s really -- it’s like a baby-blue color, the multi-year ice.
KAREN BREWSTER: That’s what I was -- baby-blue color. HERMAN AHSOAK: Yes.
KAREN BREWSTER: I -- I that -- Because I was wondering if color -- What is it you’re looking for? Color is an indicator? HERMAN AHSOAK: Yes. Color can be an indicator of the multi-year ice.
KAREN BREWSTER: What's color do you -- tells you it’s thin ice?
HERMAN AHSOAK: Usually gray or black, and you can also see it from the air in an airplane or helicopter you can see black ice.
KAREN BREWSTER: Do people go up in the air to check it out?
HERMAN AHSOAK: With Search and Rescue. North Slope Borough Search and Rescue do fly some of the captains, and they do go look at the ice with the helicopters.
And I’ve yet to hop on a chopper and do that myself. Someday.
And so they do bring the older captains first, ‘cause they know -- they know more about the ice than the -- than the younger generations.
KAREN BREWSTER: When they do that, how -- how much ahead of time? Like, you know, is it a couple weeks before whaling? A couple months?
HERMAN AHSOAK: They’ll probably start flying, probably in March. Probably in March, hopefully.
KAREN BREWSTER: And you tend to start going out whaling -- ?
HERMAN AHSOAK: The whaling crews have been going out little bit earlier in the past couple of years. I’ve heard crews out there by April 7, 10.
‘Cause the -- the migration of the whales is getting earlier and earlier. KAREN BREWSTER: Oh, it is? HERMAN AHSOAK: Is what I’m understanding.
KAREN BREWSTER: I mean, I kind of figured you’d go out earlier 'cause the ice gets thinner. You can’t stay out as long. HERMAN AHSOAK: Uh-huh.
KAREN BREWSTER: But I didn’t know if the whales were coming earlier, too.
HERMAN AHSOAK: That’s what I’m hearing, is there’s more smaller whales migrating quicker, earlier.
KAREN BREWSTER: So, you just said quicker. Are they going through faster?
HERMAN AHSOAK: I don’t think so. I mean, the -- the more water we get, the more feeding grounds they have.
KAREN BREWSTER: 'Cause I’ve been wondering with the change in the ice -- ‘cause you talk about it getting thinner, means you guys can’t go out as late. HERMAN AHSOAK: Or stay as late.
KAREN BREWSTER: Stay as late. Does that affect your ability to get whales?
HERMAN AHSOAK: It does, 'cause you do need it to pull it up. You do need the ice to pull it up.
And in 2013, they barely landed a whale towards the end of June, and my crew was finally blessed with a whale in July of 2013. KAREN BREWSTER: Oh, that was you guys?
HERMAN AHSOAK: The springtime, yes.
And so -- and that was only because I had a younger captain taking my gear out to try and harvest a whale. And they struck a whale and they lost it and then -- but we found it a few days later in July.
KAREN BREWSTER: And -- but in July there’s no more shorefast ice, is there?
HERMAN AHSOAK: No more. No more shorefast ice.
KAREN BREWSTER: So they were hunting in open water? HERMAN AHSOAK: And the whales were still migrating.
KAREN BREWSTER: And so it was open water or broken -- ? HERMAN AHSOAK: Open water. KAREN BREWSTER: Open water. HERMAN AHSOAK: Open water.
KAREN BREWSTER: And so, they hauled it onto shore and you butchered it?
HERMAN AHSOAK: We -- we pulled it up like how they do it in the falltime with the tractors and the loaders. KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. Wow.
HERMAN AHSOAK: And that was the strangest year that I -- I mean, this whole -- I mean, the captains probably still talk about it today.
2013 was really, really a bad year for whaling.
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. That’s when the ice never opened up?
HERMAN AHSOAK: Yes, that’s when the whole ocean’s was covered with ice.
KAREN BREWSTER: When was the year there was the big break? Not 1997. There was another year with the big iiguaq that broke off and people kind of floated out again.
I thought that was 2013. Maybe it was 2012?
HERMAN AHSOAK: It could have been 2013, where one of the crews got caught and they were lucky the whole ocean was still ice, ‘cause they didn’t drift very far.
And we had that really big blizzard. And that’s when one of the crews got drifted to the other side.
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah, and it was a big area right in front of Barrow, right?
HERMAN AHSOAK: Right in front of Barrow, and they were really lucky that -- that the -- the whole ocean was still ice. KAREN BREWSTER: Oh, okay.
HERMAN AHSOAK: And it didn’t move that year, the ice.
KAREN BREWSTER: But they moved -- they got a little bit. But that area breaking off so close to shore, is that happening more and more?
HERMAN AHSOAK: It’s happening more and more. It can happen again this spring, because we have brand-new ice just ten, twelve inches thick.
That’s the shorefast ice. And it’s easy to break off and float away.
It can happen again if you’re not careful this spring.
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah, well, you guys just had this big blizzard a couple weeks ago, right? HERMAN AHSOAK: Yes.
KAREN BREWSTER: It didn’t break off?
HERMAN AHSOAK: It broke. What I -- after looking -- driving down the beach road, it did take some of the really high pressure ridges off, and the lead is creeping closer to the shore.
KAREN BREWSTER: But there’s some still some shorefast ice? HERMAN AHSOAK: There’s still some shorefast ice.
KAREN BREWSTER: That’s interesting. That just that -- What was that, like, forty mile an hour winds? HERMAN AHSOAK: Yes.
KAREN BREWSTER: That it could break up those pressure ridges. HERMAN AHSOAK: Yep.
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. There’s something else I was going to ask you about.
Oh, I guess maybe you’ve already said this, but, so, ice safety. When -- how you decide it’s safe to start going out?
HERMAN AHSOAK: If you’ve scouted the ice with other captains and you’ve -- you find a good solid piece where you can actually whale.
KAREN BREWSTER: But even to go out scouting. How do you know it’s okay to go put my snowmachine out on the -- ?
HERMAN AHSOAK: Ice can hold a lot of weight. Five inches will hold a snowmachine is my understanding, ‘cause the way they spread out.
And because of how the ice has been the past couple of years, I -- I tend to listen to the older captains and follow where they’re cutting trail for me to also be safe.
KAREN BREWSTER: Okay. Has there been a whaling season where you thought, "Oh, that ice. I’m not so sure about it. I’m not going to put my crew out."?
HERMAN AHSOAK: I’ve thought about it the past couple of years, but I still tend to do it, you know, to feed the people.
And if it -- if it does get worse in the future, that’ll cross my mind and I’ll not let my men go out. ‘Cause you can lose all your gear.
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. So, safety first?
HERMAN AHSOAK: Safety first. We work hard to go hunting and be men about it, but you have to also be man enough to keep your whole crew safe and make sure when you bring them out that everybody comes home.
KAREN BREWSTER: And what year did you become a whaling captain? HERMAN AHSOAK: I became a whaling captain the fall of 2004.
KAREN BREWSTER: Oh, that’s right. You said that. Okay.
Well, I appreciate your time. I don’t know, anything else?
Maybe I haven’t asked the right questions.
HERMAN AHSOAK: Just to all the people out there, keep -- you know, be safe. Safety comes first. You always have to bring everybody home.
KAREN BREWSTER: Alright. Well, thank you very much for your time, Herman.
As I said, I don’t know if I asked the right questions to -- It’s hard to talk about this sitting inside a room.
HERMAN AHSOAK: Yes. Okay, Karen. KAREN BREWSTER: Alright. Quyanaqpak. HERMAN AHSOAK: Yeah.