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Kenneth Toovak

Kenneth Toovak was interviewed on July 12, 1978 in Barrow, Alaska for a project related to potential oil development of the Alaskan continental shelf. The original interview was in Inupiaq. The interview was first translated in 1979 by Molly Pederson and appears in the Historical References to Ice Conditions Along the Beaufort Sea Coast of Alaska (Scientific Report, Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks, 1979, p. A-II-36). The interview was translated again in January 2014 by Muriel Hopson and appears below synced with the Inupiaq audio. In this interview, Kenneth discusses his observations of sea ice conditions along the coast near Barrow and near the Colville River, in particular the build up of pressure ridges and the effect of wind, currents and weather on the ice.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 97-64-03

Project: Sea Ice in Northern Alaska
Date of Interview: Jul 12, 1978
Narrator(s): Kenneth Toovak
Transcriber: Muriel Hopson
Location of Interview:
Funding Partners:
Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Coastal Marine Institute, North Pacific Research Board
Alternate Transcripts
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Fall freezeup of the ocean at Barrow

Seeing pressure ridges taller than the bluff on the shore in front of Barrow

Working with bulldozers to break up a pressure ridge

Grounded ice around Barrow and Nuvuk (Point Barrow)

Ice conditions east of Barrow along the Beaufort Sea coast

Effect of wind, current and weather

Elders sharing knowledge

Ice staying around all summer and effect on whaling

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2014 Translation by Muriel Hopson. See 1979 Translation by Molly Pederson for further details.

KENNETH TOOVAK: My name is Kenneth Toovak

I’ve lived here in Barrow fifty five years up to now, having been born and raised here. And now to switch topic and talk about other villages, I have not lived in other villages but only in Barrow up until now.

If I am going to talk about the sea ice, I cannot with accuracy on the dates talk about it, as far as specifics go. But

the ocean, our ocean, begins to finally freeze in the month of October.

Sometimes when the weather is mild, it can take going through the first half of the month of October with no thin ice on the ocean. And so when a layer of slush ice begins clinging to the shore and the winds die down, it makes it possible for the ocean to begin to freeze.

In many years past,

in the fall month of October, it becomes covered with thin ice. Sometimes in the fall, the ocean current flowing from the east begins to develop. And so when the current forces the large freshwater ice to beach onto shore, the elders have said that the ocean has frozen too soon.

When the ocean becomes rough from a storm and large freshwater ice begins to collect on the shore it usually means that freeze-up has taken place sooner than anticipated. From the time I was a boy and became aware of my surroundings, I will not be able to talk about the ice conditions from the back of my head.

But the elders have always said that the ice becomes grounded too early in front of Barrow from the shore to the ocean.

Even when the storm hits and the ice has already become grounded, it cannot break it up.

One story I have is of my parents spending the fall season upriver. I used to go along with them as a young boy. I’d make it to Barrow on my own when I became old enough to do so. One time on my trip to Barrow in the winter time, I reached Barrow and saw that ice pressure ridges had reached past the bluff while the houses were still not visible. Ice pressure ridges had really built up in Barrow.

I can’t say the year to be exact. But there were a lot of ice pressure ridges around Barrow. The whole area in front of Barrow was covered with ice pressure ridges. The bluff at that time was pretty high and there was so much ice pressure ridge built up that it reached the top of the bluff and for some distance was on the ground at the top of the bluff.

Also as a boy, where Charlie Brower’s Store was in Browerville before the sand began to recede, there used to have a big sand bar off the ocean. And so the sand bar would become very visible there off Charlie Brower’s Store. When you saw it you would see that it went far into the ocean.

And so I got right up to the ice pressure ridge with a height of fifteen to twenty feet. And so the ice pressure ridge had reached Charlie Brower’s Store, Tom Brower’s father. This occurred sometime around 1938

or it may have been around 1935 or ‘36. I do remember that as a boy myself. I’m talking about an event that I had personally encountered.

Also when I began to work for Arctic Contractors, Navy personnel, ice pressure ridges could be seen in front of the work place. I cannot tell it to its entirety but in either January or February the ocean was covered with ice pressure ridges. The ridges stood fifteen feet high piled up on top of each other right there in front of where the Navy’s post was.

It stretched all the way to Nuvuk . I can’t tell it to entirety, but sometime around March I was working as an equipment operator during the time Navy personnel were unloading their supplies through their own tug boats. The supplies ordered were for Arctic Contractors and so it happened around March. I was an equipment operator. There were four bulldozer tractors that were used to bulldoze the ice pressure ridge nearby the Navy base. There were four of us operating the bulldozers when he gave the orders to bulldoze the ice pressure ridge in front of where the Navy’s base was

with the idea that the shoreline ice would melt enough (to allow the Navy’s tug boat to make it). We worked at it for several weeks from March through May bulldozing the area. The weather became mild as we continued to work through the month of May. The work began in March and continued through half of May

working on the huge pressure ridge. And so when we finally completed it, the wind shifted to northwest wind and the ice began to come back in towards the shore. The ice pressure ridges formed back again similar to the previous ice pressure ridges and returned to the shore. But it didn’t reach the heights of the first ice pressure ridge.

It was late May or June when we undertook the job of removing some of the ice pressure ridge. In those months it’s difficult to operate a bulldozer. And so we began bulldozing it out further. It was a task that we had accomplished before and we were doing it again sometimes with difficulty. The ice which was covered with sand

, we began spraying it with a water pump with operates with a generator to remove the sand on the ice so that the ice could melt sooner down to the ocean. We couldn’t operate the bulldozer down to the ocean. The supervisor back then who was in charge made the order to Arctic Contractors to sandblast the ice that was covered with sand in hopes that it would melt sooner against the heat of the sun.

Back then when the ice pressure ridges were high around here, I was not aware

at that time that there was grounded ice pile, but I can say that since there wasn’t much grounded ice pile, I’m aware of the ice pressure ridges that do form, but there wasn’t much grounded ice pile. Around Barrow there used to be grounded ice pile which extended from three quarters of a mile to one mile.

When the grounded ice pile comes into contact with the submerged sand bar, it causes it to pile up more. I mentioned earlier that it was from three quarters of a mile to one mile. Extending all the way to Nuvuk. But it would only make it to the south side of Nuvuk because of Piġniq being an area with an inlet. And so when the grounded forms around the month of November they don’t start off being huge.

Unless it causes the sea ice that has become fresh to beach up to the shore. The ice that forms on the ocean and becomes thick sometime around the month of January, sometimes after Christmas Day, it finally begins to become grounded as long as it’s thick enough. Sometimes when it freezes early it’ll happen in December and before long it’s grounded ice. There have also been many years when it occurred in January. And so when the grounded ice includes the sea ice that has become fresh they can still help to ground the ice. The elders always said after the ice has grounded, they would take and bring their qayaqs onto the roads to get them so that they aren’t affected by the grounded ice. They did not worry once it has become grounded ice even when a storm hits

for fear of losing their qayaqs even in a storm. That was the way that the elders did things. Before it becomes solid and unbreakable the elders used to leave their qayaqs on solid ice where they would not be in fear of losing their qayaqs. They used to leave their qayaqs where they would be on solid ice. It was not a chore for them to do it. An Iñupiaq man was not lazy to do work like that.

We probably would not want to do the work ourselves which our forefathers performed. They treasured their hunting gear and equipment. They never wished to lose them. They took them to safe ground. Where there is no open lead on the ocean the whalers leave their boats where it will be safe on the ice.

I’ve just spoke about two events that took place in one year which I remember clearly. Back in 1974 a fierce northwest wind the ice had become about eight inches thick and there was a lot of young ice that had formed, around the month of November, I believe I can say it was in November. It was probably half a mile long all with piled up ice all the way to the bottom of the base. Back then a stretch of smooth ice parallel to shore located between the offshore pressure ice ridges and beach existed and it was rough.

There wasn’t any of that back then. What we call ‘igniġnaq’ is what they referred to what starts from the shore and goes all the way to the grounded ice which is the back side of submerged sandbar. They say it is that way when the ice is rough and ragged on the surface.

And so I didn’t spend time as I was growing up in the east,

going all the way to Barter Island. Just in the Barrow area. I can’t say with certainty

how the ice behaves but it can be true about what I said about Barrow after it became grounded ice the submerged sandbar east of the deepest area can be smooth.

They say that the area in front of Beechey Point is always far out into the ocean. The location where open water usually opens up is said to be far out in front. But sometimes when we operated the cat trains going as far as Isuk in the spring time the grounded ice could be seen a mile and a half from Isuk. The high pressure ridges could be seen there. I have personally seen them. East from there could be seen smooth grounded ice when the deepest part has frozen early being covered with high pressure ridges. The submerged sandbar is very smooth and goes for some distance.

It’s also always smooth in front of Kuukpik . Sometimes it’ll get rough but I really haven’t seen it do that very often. We went by Cat train when I worked for Arctic Contractors several years and traveled there and what I can say is that it doesn’t get very rough looking.

I was talking about the ice and it concludes here. Another story I have to tell is about our weather which isn’t the same consistently.

It’s never the same. In the spring, when the ice melts in July, towards the middle or the end of the month, after the ice pack has previously gone out, it will often come back in. It is the ocean current that begins in the west flowing toward shore that brings in the ice. It’s almost always the ocean current originating from the west flowing toward shore in the spring. It’s rarely from the east in the spring. It’s almost always originating from the west flowing toward the shore throughout the summer. And in the winter, when it’s blowing from the east it can intensify. So it is like the wind has a direct effect on the ocean current. The current begins to flow being controlled by the winds in the winter. In the summer months when the ice pack has left, and the wind is blowing from the east, blowing almost consistently from the east for some days or weeks it’s said that that is when the ice pack is said to be far out in the ocean.

And so the elders of my time, the elders who were alive when I was a young boy that is, used to talk amongst themselves. They would gain knowledge, whether they’re neighbors, the men would gather together, whether it is in a qargi or by inviting each other and have a meeting.

Gathering knowledge by sharing their experiences on how things are done. That is how the elders of my time used to live. The ones who were alive at the time I became aware of my surroundings as a boy.

By talking they would discuss the issues at hand. They did not have paper and pen to rely on but they would get together inviting each other. Sometimes they would carry with them a windbreaker. My grandfather used to carry with him a windbreaker.

I was talking about the men who would meet together to discuss important issues. When they met and ended their meeting they knew what they would need to do with their hunting equipment on their own. Those were the ways in which things were done by the elders of my time. They didn’t have to deal with who was going to work on their hunting equipment like of modern times and instead they worked on them by themselves whatever that needed to be done.

Earlier I was talking about the ice when I non-intentionally began talking about something else.

The ice in the summer, the Iñupiat would say, the ocean current flowing from the east does not return for some time or not return at all before the currents become strong. And in the fall the thin ice can be seen when the current flowing from east in the ocean begins moving.

That is how the ice operates. It freezes in front of Barrow when the ice gets a little thick until it freezes until it gets pretty thick when the current begins moving from the east. And when the current dies down and the wind shifts to northwest wind it freezes in front of Barrow.

That is the way it’s been for Barrow ever since I became aware of my surroundings. I also recall of one incident. I cannot pinpoint the exact year in which it took place. It may have been in 1948-1949. When they began whaling in September towards the middle or the end of that month, when we began whaling, the huge submerged sandbar was the only sandbar left on the opposite side of Nuvuk. It went for twelve to fifteen miles starting from Nuvuk’s north side. We marked the spot where the huge piece of grounded ice had been left.

When we discovered the submerged sandbar, it couldn’t be seen from Nuvuk. But in those days the boats weren’t very fast back then, the boats with outboard motors within the boat. We called them ‘inboard motors’ and they didn’t go very fast but could go for miles.

The floating mass of ice was huge and stood very tall. I don’t’ believe that it melted all summer through the fall season. So when it starts icing up they stop whaling. They stop whaling when the ocean begins to ice over. I wonder if I’ve been talking for nothing. In 1945, ’46, is when it may have taken place. This was with the Navy before I began working for Arctic Contractors. I’ve just spoken about the big ice which I doubt ever melted. I hadn’t gone by dog team in the fall back then. Airplanes back then didn’t come very often either. There weren’t too many airplanes that landed back then to Barrow. The airplanes which landed in Barrow were Wien Airlines. Wien Airlines had not established a base in Barrow. Other people who flew airplanes were a minister and this is in 1945, around there.

That’s all that I have to say about that for now. If something comes up I can always talk about it later. That’s all.