Joe Leavitt was interviewed on November 13, 2013 by Karen Brewster and Dyre "Oliver" Dammann in the classroom of the Tuzzy Consortium Library in Barrow, Alaska. In this first part of a two part interview, Joe talks about the unusual ice and whaling conditions of Spring 2013, in particular the thin ice and his crew having to change locations. He also talks about understanding the ice and how to be safe on it, and how the wind, weather and ice is changing in Barrow and effecting their whaling.
Digital Asset Information
Project: Sea Ice in Northern Alaska
Date of Interview: Nov 13, 2013
Narrator(s): Joe Leavitt
Interviewer(s): Karen Brewster, Dyre Oliver Dammann
Videographer: Karen Brewster
Transcriber: Joan O'Leary
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Landfast ice conditions in Spring 2013
Ice breakout event in February 2013
Deciding where to put whale camp and trail
Changes in the weather and wind
Other bad ice years (1963, late 1980s)
Interaction of multiyear ice, wind, tide, young ice, and pressure ridges
Ice safety and formation of pressure ridges
Prevalence of young, first-year ice
Effect of southeast wind on the ice
Effect of changing conditions on future whaling
Testing the ice and current to ensure safety on the ice
Effect of current
Continued relevance of traditional knowledge learned from elders
Selecting whale camp location
Choosing to travel on the ice
Monitoring the ice
Importance of whaling and willingness to take risk
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KAREN BREWSTER: So today is November 13th 2013. This is Karen Brewster and Oliver Dammann here in Barrow with Joe Leavitt. Thank you Joe for coming to talk to us today.
DYRE “OLIVER” DAMMANN: Yeah, thank you, thank you, Joe. Do you want to start just telling us who you are and how and when you got into whaling?
JOE LEAVITT: Okay. I'm Joe Leavitt and I’m a -- I’ve been a captain for about three years, but I’ve been whaling maybe --participating in whaling over forty years. And I’m from Barrow and -- Next question.
DYRE “OLIVER” DAMMANN: Yeah, so, can you describe last year’s landfast ice condition?
JOE LEAVITT: I think last year’s ice conditions were -- maybe they were formed out of very young ice. We never -- we never saw any multi-year ice to keep the ice together and I had built a trail right out of the -- right out of the end of the runway over on Barrow side and our trail was one of the first trails to be taken out and our trail --
head of our trail was right at the end of the runway. And we got taken out looks on the 6th of May and that’s real early for -- for the ice to take out our trails.
But what we thought took out -- took off our trail -- and when our trail took off, you know, it was only maybe 100, 200 feet off the beach. That’s all it -- all the ice that was left there.
But when I talked to some of the people, it seemed like the big pieces -- a bigger piece of ice hit on the northeast side of the point and it -- it just took all the young ice out of there going towards Barrow.
But it -- there was a little piece of ice like on this -- like on edge over here on "I" -- this -- when it formed last year this piece was already there. This piece -- only this piece around Nunivak area was -- stayed all winter.
That -- that was some of the strongest ice that was over here. Same with this from the -- from the dump going to the point.
That was -- most of this stayed all spring, and the Nunivak area stayed all spring.
But that -- that’s the shorefast has formed early on these areas, but when it hit our trail, it actually went all the way in and took out our trail.
Last year was a very poor season for us. For us whalers it was a very poor season, but that’s the way whaling is. Whaling is --
whaling is the -- it's up to the weather. We can’t control the weather so we just -- some years we just have to get a bad season and some years we’ll get a good season, but last year was a very poor season because of all the ice conditions.
I actually saw only one whale last year and that was pretty late, May 28th. That was the only whale I ever did see and we were not on -- we were not even on the real lead. We were just on the polyna further down south.
So we had a real poor season last year. But I remember my father told me that in 1963 that he was the only one that caught a whale.
And, you know, that -- that was another poor season for Barrow. And this year, you know, I saw that whale in May 28th last spring and that was only -- only on the polyna.
The ice is -- the ice has -- is changing so much around Barrow. Even the weather is changing so much it’s starting to affect our whaling and --
but like I said it’s some years we get good season, some years we have -- we get bad season, but we have to -- we can’t control the weather that -- we can’t control the weather so we have to -- we just have to live with it and that’s the way it goes, you know.
We can’t control the weather and some years we get good season, some years bad season, but we just have to live with it. We --
even if we do get a season like that, you know, I’m still going to go out next year. It’s -- because I’ve been whaling most of my life and -- and even if you don’t get a whale, you know, you'll still go out next year.
Even -- even our crew, you know, one year we -- we never did catch a whale for nine years, but our father, you know, he never -- he never gave up, so we just keep -- keep on whaling that’s all we do.
DYRE “OLIVER” DAMMANN: So why do you think the -- this -- this piece here ended up breaking off? There was a breakout in -- in February. Was that the same area? Was that the same piece that came loose again?
JOE LEAVITT: That was probably formed later because when we -- when we started breaking our trails it was very young ice. You can tell young ice.
All this ice that was there last year was all -- it wasn’t well grounded that’s why it took off.
The reason I thought, when I was talking to one of my co-whalers that he told me the bigger pieces of ice had hit from the east side or the -- in front of NARL somewhere. Bigger pieces of ice had hit over here and it just got all this young ice out of there.
But some of this -- some of this was already shorefast -- the shorefast was already there from November. Some of this in the east side of Barrow -- northeast side of Barrow and southwest side of Barrow.
Towards Nunivak and towards NARL area there was already shorefast ice formed there, but not around Barrow. That was already -- probably -- it -- probably already broke off before because it was -- it was newly formed ice.
It wasn’t dark or anything maybe it was -- maybe it was about up to 18 inches of ice, you know, that’s pretty young.
When -- when the ice hits -- when the ice is that young and there's no grounded ice, when the ice is young, if the ice is big enough coming from the east side of the point, it can actually go all the way down to Point Franklin if it wants to.
That -- this area was the ice hit somewhere past the Point and it took off all the ice right in front of Barrow and it went back out towards the Nunivak area because that was already formed.
What -- what the elders tell us is north of the Point there's a shoal, up here where the two currents are. There's a lot of current around the Point area.
What the elders told us -- used to tell us is on the north -- north side of the Point because the two currents meet over there Qaisaġnaq and Piruġaġnaq. The ice -- the ice really piles up over there.
And, you know, the piling of that ice and there's a shoal over there coming from the southwest side and the northwest side, the two currents, all winter, north of the Point there has to be a pressure ridge well grounded and when there's no pressure ridge north of the Point, the -- all the young ice like we had last year seems to come off when it hits over there.
That -- that pressure ridge right off the Point is actually a good deflector of the ice coming in from the east. If that ice is big enough we’ve had -- we’ve had -- we’ve had our people taken out because of the -- when there’s no deflection zone for the, you know, right in the north area.
When there’s no grounded -- well-grounded ice, all this young ice can be broken up all the way down to Point Franklin if it wants to do that.
That -- you have to have -- that’s a main area that the elders used to tell us to go see -- the Point area make sure we got a deflection zone.
If there's no deflection zone and i's all young ice over here in front of Barrow then you have to expect to be taken out by the ice when it -- when it hits.
That -- that’s -- that’s a good theory there and I think that is very true.
DYRE “OLIVER” DAMMANN: What other things do you look for? What -- for you initially put in your trail here and moved up north and then decided to go south. So what -- can you walk us through your decision making for putting in the --
JOE LEAVITT: My -- my -- after we -- after we did -- end of Barrow we went towards NARL area. The water wouldn’t open up so my crew got all -- they got all, you know, they -- they -- we had to do something.
But there was still polynas down there on the ocean, you know.
My cousin -- one of my cousins called me up and so we have -- we -- we went to help him make his trail because, you know, we thought we still had to -- we couldn’t give up whaling yet.
It was around the 15th of May that we moved over to the NARL site.
And my cousin called me up so we went to help him finish out his trail, but the ocean still never opened up.
We just -- we just had to wait -- wait it out again.
And then later on in the season maybe after the 20th of May, or even May 22 around there, we actually headed towards Hollywood area and since there was already trails there we -- we -- we made it out to the polynas out here and waited for a whale.
Tried to get it. We got our gear all set up and everything, but still the -- the ocean never really opened up on us.
It -- it just -- there was just a crack that went forever that way and then there -- beyond that crack too there was a -- the lead was actually maybe two, three miles out when we hit the polynas on the south -- southwest side.
But beyond the -- beyond the first polynas there was actually a lead further out that we couldn’t get to. That was just, you know, that’s just -- that was just how poor our conditions were.
It just happens that, you know -- we just have to -- when something like that happen, we just have to live with it. We -- we -- we don’t control the weather and we just have to live with that some years.
Some years we'll have real good season and get our whaling done, you know, even on the first week of May and, you know, that’s a really good season.
The weather -- the weather is what -- the weather is what is changing. The -- now --
maybe 30, 40 years ago our prevailing wind used to be the east wind -- east wind. Now the prevailing wind even right now is southeast and if you got southeast winds that’s what takes out the water -- takes out the ice.
The southeast wind -- to me the southeast wind is like the west wind.
The wind -- the wind is what’s really changed, too. That’s -- the wind is really changing right now. It is always southeast. Ever since this fall too, it’s just been southeast and southeast.
When the elders talk to me about the wind, you used to be able to predict the wind just by following the -- the rotation of the wind which way it's heading.
When it's a west wind and it goes through the southeast and goes to the east, we know -- we used to know that it’s going to swing around to the west again in a couple days.
That’s -- that’s how we used to be able to predict the weather. Now -- now the weather has changed so much. It's almost getting unpredictable.
And to carry -- and when the wind rotates to the north and stays at the north for awhile and goes to the east, than we know it’s going to be -- it’s going to stay at the east for awhile.
But that -- that’s -- it’s almost like that never works anymore. But if it goes to the southeast a little bit, and when it goes to the southeast instead of staying at east, the wind is just like it’s telling me it’s going to go back to the west.
That’s what’s -- that’s what’s been happening. The wind is not -- the wind is changing. Our prevailing wind is changing. That, you know, that’s what it boils down to. It's always southeast.
Southeast is not a good wind. It -- southeast there’s even a weather -- weather situation that can happen in the southeast.
They call it a Palusaġniq. Palusaġniq.That’s a kind of like a weather system.
Palusagnaq is a -- when it goes to the southeast and the ice is coming in and the weather is real warm, but even if it’s, you know, southeast and is blowing from southeast and blowing supposed to be blowing the ice out, Palusagnaq is when there's a southeast wind and the ice comes in.
And that’s, you know, that’s -- that’s a dangerous weather -- weather situation right there. They --
the Eskimos actually had a name for that weather system. Then one of the elders was telling me about this in a -- in a -- I think the weather -- the wind -- the wind --
the prevailing wind has been blowing from the southeast instead of going to the east and staying at east, it's been going to the southeast and staying at southeast for long periods of time.
DYRE “OLIVER” DAMMANN: So in -- you mentioned that 1963 was also a year with difficult ice conditions, but that wasn’t associated with all these -- this strange weather do you know?
JOE LEAVITT: To get ice conditions like that it would you know -- It was probably similar to situations with the weather.
Just looking back that far, you know, but my father -- my father would always tell me stories and that was one of his stories that he never -- he never forgot he just --
It’s always the weather that controls our whaling and the ice conditions that’s -- it’s just part of whaling.
It’s not the first time it's happened since my father knew about it.
And, you know, just by thinking about it myself I would say it was maybe the same kind of weather situation.
KAREN BREWSTER: There are years, as you say, there're have been years where its bad ice and you don’t get whales and then some years you do, but every time it's a bad year and you don’t get whales the ice conditions aren’t always the same. It happens for different reasons. Is that correct?
JOE LEAVITT: That could -- that could be true, but even -- even one time in the 1980’s, maybe late 80’s, the ice never did open up and we never saw any whales still May 22.
That was, you know, a late season. But the guy that owned the airline business up here back then -- we had only a crack that went all the way down and we -- four or five foot crack.
We know it’s there so we waited around there and we never did see any whales 'til May 22.
The guy who owned -- Tom Brower he owned an airline up here.
KAREN BREWSTER: Cape Smythe
JOE LEAVITT: Cape Smythe. He actually got on his Twin Otter and he -- he followed that crack just to tell, you know, just to help us whalers out.
He followed that crack all the way down towards the Bering Strait and he told us the whales were -- the whales had no passage to get -- to get by here, so that, you know, the whales have to have a path to get by here.
The whales were really congregating down by the Bering Straits somewhere around that area.
And we -- we actually never got any whales until around May 22 that -- in the late 80’s, I believe that was.
And the weather -- the weather -- the ice conditions every year you -- they’re always different. They’re always different, especially with this --
we never get anymore multi-year ice. We haven’t seen multi-year ice maybe about six, seven years now.
But when we -- when we do get multi-year ice some of it will come up towards Barrow area, but when we really -- when we get multi-year ice just like it -- the weather's back to normal for awhile, but that never -- that never lasts.
It’s -- when we got multi-year ice, we can just stay out in the ocean and we don’t even have to get off the -- get off the -- go to the safe camps.
But when we get ice conditions like that, it’s -- it seems to come back for a real short period how the ice used to be. We used to have multi-year ice all over the place, but that, you know, that multi-year ice has receded so far.
All this young ice -- the problem with the young ice is when the tide comes up, the first year ice, when the tide comes up, it can just lift it -- lift up the whole ice. That -- that’s a real big problem for us.
That’s why we’re getting -- taken out by the ice. The tide can actually lift up the whole ice -- all the ice all the way down the coast. The tide can actually do that without even the help of the wind.
That’s why we’re -- with all the young ice, but in the -- when it's got multi-year ice on there, some of it it gets well grounded and helps keep the Tuvaq intact -- the multi-year ice that’s -- or even big pressure ridges.
But we've had instances where there was big pressure ridges that some of the elders told us that they’ll never come off until June. But after one elder told us we camped on the north side of that towards the lead side of that big pressure ridge.
But when the ice had -- that -- that goes back to the deflection zone. That one year there was no deflection zone north of the Point and all the ice that year was fairly all young ice. And the ice that come in from the east side of Barrow -- Point Barrow, that ice hit and it -- it broke all the camps all the way down and all the way down even that big pressure ridge that one of the elders told us that -- that was well grounded. That’s still took off, too.
That’s why north of the Point we're supposed to do scouting around that area to make sure there’s a deflection zone set up up there.
The deflection zone can -- is -- is formed all winter long from the wind changing from the east and the west, and it always hits at the points.
And that -- that way you got -- you got ice that formed up, added onto the pressure ridge from the east side, and the west wind just adds more on to it and it -- it really stabilizes our ice in Barrow.
When there’s no deflection zone and the ice coming in from the east of Barrow when it hits -- when it hits on the -- even east of the Point it can actually take out all the young ice even all the way to Point Franklin if it's all young ice. That -- that can happen.
DYRE “OLIVER” DAMMANN: How do you assess the safety of the ice last year compared to previously?
JOE LEAVITT: Well, it just -- there was one crew got taken out, but there was no real danger. All it did was lift up and move out and it never -- then it stayed there.
It didn’t want to go anywhere because it was actually moving further out from where it opened up.
It never really -- a lot of people went to watch that crew that got taken out. All they did was drive their snowmachines around and find a place to crack and they cracked. They just crossed at a safe spot.
DYRE “OLIVER” DAMMANN: You mentioned the importance of grounding and there was less groundings. You weren’t -- in the beginning of the whaling season you weren’t concerned that the ice conditions were more unsafe than usual really?
JOE LEAVITT: The -- we have to be aware of when it’s young ice, we have to be aware that even the tide can lift that up. We have to be aware of that.
That -- when there’s all young ice it’s -- that always happens. When the tide comes in, it just lifts up the whole ice and leaves us a little bit of Tuvaq.
That we have to be aware of that when it is all young ice, but when there’s multi-year ice and big -- big pressure ridges, we never get anymore of those big pressure ridges either.
We used to -- when I first started whaling, you know, in the 1970’s, the pressure ridges were so high that even right off Barrow, two miles out of Barrow, you couldn’t even see the village. That’s how high the pressure ridges used to be.
Now -- now even -- even from a -- even from the land sites all year around you could see the water. It’s just low terrain. The ice is always low now. There’s no more big pressure ridges.
You need -- if you want to have big pressure ridges like that the ice -- the ice has -- and the weather and the current, you need to have really big pieces of ice on the ocean side to build up -- to build up the pressure ridges.
When the ice is all the same all it wants to do is -- instead of making the big pressure ridges, it just wants to rub. It just wants to rub like that and just -- when that happens we just call it -- let me think of the name here.
Agiukpak. Agiukpak. It just rubs and just builds a wall of snow and ice.
When that happens, you know, there’s no ice big enough to -- there’s hardly anymore ice out in our ocean to push all the young ice up into big pressure ridges. There’s, you know, the ice has receded so far that that’s beginning to be a problem and, you know.
That’s the way I understand it I could -- I could -- I’ve been on the ice, you know, for so long I could -- when I see the ice I could actually visualize how the ice formed and to me that’s the way it looked to me.
There’s no big pieces of ice. You need to have real big piece of ice out there like a real big ice island to make the real big pressure ridges pile up right -- even right on the beach if you want -- if you have a real big piece of ice. That -- that’s what will push the ice onto the beach and we’ll get real good grounded ice.
There's no more big pieces of ice out there that’s, you know, all the ice on the ocean wants to be first year ice. And when it’s all first year ice it’s not heavy enough to do any pushing to make ridges even on top of the land.
When it’s like that, all that same year -- that ice that’s formed in the same time of the year all it ever does is rub against each other and that’s when it creates a Agiukpak.
And Agiukpak is just slush ice actually. You can actually go down to -- with a conduit pole. If you hit it long enough, you'll go all the way down and it’s not solid. It’s just snow and broken and crushed up ice that’s all it is.
You can actually go all the way down, if you hit it long enough you can actually go down all the way into the water.
That’s what Muġałłiq is. That’s the way it is.
When we’re making trail we -- when we see that kind of ice that’s -- that we cross on making our trail, we -- we some guys will point it out real quick and to us that’s going to be the weak spot of the ice.
If you -- if it was, you know, thicker ice you -- you can’t -- you can’t -- you can’t pound a conduit down if it’s solid, but when it's that slush ice, you can actually just keep hitting it and it will actually go all the way into the water.
When we're breaking trail we -- some guys will point it out real early that we cross some Muġałłiq, and that tells us -- that’s -- that’s actually telling us that that’s where the weak spot of the ice is going to be -- the Tuvaq.
DYRE “OLIVER” DAMMANN: Any other things with your trails that you noticed unusual? You mentioned it was very smooth condition. Was it easier to -- to get out and whale now than before or -- ?
JOE LEAVITT: That’s been going on for maybe 15, 20 years now. We've never -- that’s the only kind of ice we've been getting is -- but that’s the only kind of ice conditions we’re starting to have now.
It’s all first year ice and that first year ice, you know, even when you’re making the trails you -- usually early in the season you start thinking that I hope the tide comes up before our whaling season because the tide seems to just lift up the whole -- the whole ocean and all the way down to the -- all the way down the coast.
That’s the problem with the first year ice.
And the ice conditions have been like that, you know, for 15 -- last 15, 20 years. But maybe out of that, you know, out of 15, 20 years maybe twice we had heavy ice.
And when we get heavy ice on the Tuvaq, it seems to be like we’re back in the old days where the ice was all solid all the time.
Even when the ice is heavy along the shore -- along the lead, we don’t even have to run to our safe camps because we know the ice. When we look at the ice coming in, that’s what usually drives us to our safe camps.
We -- we know that ice won’t -- that ice is so young it won’t -- it don’t scare us when we got the solid ice. When we got good -- good multi-year ice.
Maybe out of the last 15, 20 years we’ve had maybe two seasons that were -- we had a lot of old ice out there -- the multi-year ice or the heavier ice.
The weather is -- I think the prevailing wind has a lot to do with the forming of our ice now -- getting all this young ice all year round.
The -- the prevailing wind is actually it wants to be the southeast wind right now. It used to be the east wind the prevailing wind -- east wind west wind. Now it’s always staying at southeast.
When it goes to southeast to me that it's going to swing back to the west. The prevailing wind seems to be changing, too.
KAREN BREWSTER: What does the southeast wind mean for ice formation?
JOE LEAVITT: Southeast wind -- southeast wind the tide can actually come up. That’s why they call -- they have that weather system they call Palusagnaq.
Palusagnaq is when the weather gets real warm from the southeast wind. You know, being southeast winds one would think that the ice would be blowing out with the southeast wind.
But in the southeast wind it usually -- the tide comes up and the ice starts coming in. That’s why they call it a weather -- they have a name for that weather system. It’s Palusagnaq. The Eskimos do.
KAREN BREWSTER: So the ice comes in and closes the lead?
JOE LEAVITT: Yeah, yeah. That -- when that happens they -- they call it by a name Palusagnaq. That’s actually -- to me that’s actually like a weather system they have a name for.
Southeast winds we -- we know, you know, we know it's -- once it -- the wind gets to the southeast, we used to know that it’s going to go right to the west and we wouldn’t stay long in the ocean.
KAREN BREWSTER: Uh-huh.
JOE LEAVITT: Now it wants to stay at southeast forever like -- Even this year its just been southeast, southeast. It hardly goes ever to east wind anymore.
The weather -- the wind is -- the wind seems to be changing on us too -- the prevailing wind.
KAREN BREWSTER: And so last spring it was all that southeast wind that kept the ice closed?
JOE LEAVITT: Maybe -- maybe the current. It’s hard to -- it’s hard to tell even the current.
When we get a good year, the weather cooperates with us. East wind and the currents are nice to us, but every year, you know, it’s always different. It’s --
the weather is just more unpredictable. It’s just more unpredictable these days. It’s -- it’s changed so much, but it’s -- it’s really unpredictable now.
DYRE “OLIVER” DAMMANN: So what -- do you have any opinions of how whaling might change or how the condition might change? Do you think it goes back to how it used to be or -- yeah, what do you think?
JOE LEAVITT: I think we’ll still do our spring whaling. To me spring whaling is the most important time of whaling for me even all year round because --
because we have our Nalukataq festival in the -- it’s all -- when you go away when you become a whaling captain it’s all about feeding the people and you want to be successful to feed the people.
And we can still do our spring whaling, but the weather has to co -- when we're out whaling, the weather has to cooperate with us. If it doesn’t, you know, we’ll end up with seasons like last year.
It’s always -- it’s always depending on the weather and we don’t control the weather, but we’ll still be back next year to try it again.
It’s - it’s just getting so unpredictable, the weather is.
You used to be able to look at the -- look at the weather to get the all around you and you used to be able to predict the weather what it’s going to do. But now that’s almost impossible because our wind stays constantly on the southeast.
KAREN BREWSTER: So if you can’t predict the weather the same way, how do you determine how to be safe out there?
JOE LEAVITT: Well, you have to -- when you -- when you got -- when you got any doubt at all if you’re safe or not you got -- you got to do your sounding. You got to monitor -- monitor the currents.
That’s -- that’s why they -- even seal hunters there’s a, you know, they’re taught at a young age to do sounding.
And when you do your sounding, you know, you can actually tell where the current is flowing.
There'll be no current on the top, but you put down your sounding line you’ll actually hit current.
Then -- then that’s a good prediction right there.
Sometimes you’ll go do your sounding and you like get no current all the way down to the bottom.
And the way I was taught was the current starts at the bottom and it rises to the top.
That’s how it -- I was taught how to do my sounding.
It's the opposite of the clouds because some days, you know, you’ll see -- there will be no -- no wind on the -- on the ground, but you see the clouds moving real fast.
They say the current is opposite of the weather.
When I use that as an example, you know, when you see the clouds moving and there’s no wind on the ground, the wind will actually come down and then you’ll get wind on the ground.
That’s how the current is. That’s why monitoring the -- sounding -- doing your sounding on the ocean that’s why it's so important. If you got any doubt at all if you’re safe or not, you’ll do your sounding.
And the current usually starts at the bottom -- bottom. Using your sounding line and a weight on the end of it, you can actually -- you can actually follow the current going up.
You can actually follow that. When it starts at the bottom, it usually takes a couple days to reach the top.
That’s that, you know, that’s -- that’s -- that’s -- that’s almost foolproof and that’s one of the ways that we -- if we got doubt, you know, we got to do our sounding. Even the seal hunters when they out they’re supposed to do their sounding. That way they know what the current is doing.
KAREN BREWSTER: So does the current -- which is the current that affects the ice the most? The one at the top?
JOE LEAVITT: It -- it -- it varies a lot right there on that one because, you know, pressure ridges.
Pressure ridges, you know, they go some -- some are 20, 30 feet high, but you have to remember most of the ice is under the water. That’s why, you know, you got pressure ridges that are high.
Even -- even with the east wind some of these big pieces of ice will be actually going towards the northeast.
That, you know, when we see -- when we see a situation like that right in front of our eyes when we’re watching the ice, we know it’s getting close to if we have to get out of the ocean.
When the big pressure ridges floating out in the ocean, the big ice pans, or big old pressure ridges, when there’s a east wind and when those big pieces of ice are going into the wind that tells us we have to get out of the water.
Get out of the ice. At least go to the safe camp.
KAREN BREWSTER: Because the current's moving?
JOE LEAVITT: The current is moving -- when the current is moving the bigger pieces of ice into the wind.
That -- that - we know the ice is or the ocean is starting to get dangerous. That’s, you know, that’s one of the things that we look out for also.
KAREN BREWSTER: Do you have Inupiaq name -- terms for the different depths of current?
JOE LEAVITT: No, no, no, the current is always just Saġvaq. Saġvaq.
And where -- when everybody's waiting for the water the first currents that start to show up are usually the ones who reported -- the people who reported first are the ones nearest to the Point. Those ones will report it first.
DYRE “OLIVER” DAMMANN: Is there a certain current system or situation that is more dangerous that you look out for more than others?
JOE LEAVITT: Qaisaġnaq. Qaisaġnaq is the current coming from the west and the southwest side.
When the current and the wind get together and they are coming from the same direction, that’s, you know, that’s the most dangerous you’ll ever see the ocean get.
It’s -- it’s just that’s -- Qaisaġnaq is the one that we really monitor when it’s -- especially when there’s a west with it. That -- that’s -- that’s -- that tells us, you know, we just -- we just don’t stay out that long.
The other current is usually a good current. Piruġaġnaq coming from the northeast side, because that always opens up our water and that’s a current that we want to stay -- we want to -- we want to -- we want to see that.
That’s a good current -- it just -- because it just cleans out the ice in front of Barrow and opens up all the ice for our whaling.
Qaisaġnaq will actually bring in -- my friend. I never seen him for a long time.
KAREN BREWSTER: Oh, out the window?
JOE LEAVITT: Yeah. Anyway -- anyway Qaisaġnaq is the current that we monitor the most. We know the ice is actually going to come in.
But there's always also currents out there that even when we got Qaisaġnaq along the lead, when we’re looking at the pack ice. The pack ice will be actually going the other direction.
The -- the elders tell us there’s three different currents that are actually out there. And even when the current is going from the northeast at the shorefast ice, we can actually look out in the ocean and the ice pack is going the other direction.
See that -- that’s telling us where the current is. Where the currents meet usually -- usually the, you know, the whales will like to follow the Piruġaġnaq.
They usually like to follow that kind -- the current around there.
DYRE “OLIVER” DAMMANN: So, these things that your -- your elders have -- have described to you is -- Does that apply just as much as it used to or are things --
JOE LEAVITT: It -- the current -- the current is the one that I think is -- is still predictable because -- because of the sounding. If you have any doubt at all out there if it's safe or not, you do your sounding.
And after I do my sounding, I feel a lot better, you know. I know what’s going on underneath.
But the wind -- the wind is the one that’s -- the weather, you know. It’s -- it’s just getting almost impossible to predict anymore.
Maybe the -- maybe the weather is a good -- the good indicator for the weather is when there’s an east wind blowing pretty hard maybe 15, 20 and then you hear a plane to the west coming in from Wainwright and you hear it and it’s a long ways off.
That tells me -- that tells me that the wind is going to change around. You could actually hear planes that are coming.
Maybe that’s the way I could predict the weather -- the wind now, you know, that, you know. When I hear -- when there’s a good east wind and I hear a plane way, way, way down there -- way down south coming into Barrow and I could hear it, that’s telling me the wind is going to change.
That’s -- that’s a good -- that’s a good way to predict the wind, at least.
But the weather I think is getting too unpredictable up here, because the prevailing wind is -- is moving to the southeast right now.
It’s -- it’s just been like that for how many years now? It just wants to stay southeast wind all the time.
KAREN BREWSTER: What about your -- the things your elders taught you about ice and looking at the ice and understanding the ice and knowing where it’s safe? Do those things still apply? Can you still use that knowledge?
JOE LEAVITT: The -- you -- the way I was taught is if you want to make a safe ice camp, you try to go to the first pressure ridge from the land.
There’s actually a name. They call that Igniġnaq. That one still works on the ice conditions like that.
We try to make our safe camps from the first pressure ridge from the coast. That’s why there is a name for it, Igniġnaq.
That’s -- that’s where you’re supposed to have your safe camp.
But you can also have safe camps further out from Igniġnaq, but you would have to look at how thick the -- all the ice that formed around there is -- how thick that is.
Sometimes there'll be thick pieces of ice and when there's thicker ice in the Tuvaq, you can actually have a safe camp on the lead side of the Igniġnaq .Igniġnaq is the first pressure ridge from the beach and that -- that still seems to work, yeah. That one seems to work.
DYRE “OLIVER” DAMMANN: What about the ice edge, what role does that play and how was this last year?
JOE LEAVITT: What do you mean?
DYRE “OLIVER” DAMMANN: So the ice edge, what are you looking for in a good whaling spot?
JOE LEAVITT: Oh, the ice -- when you -- when you hit the lead you want to -- a lot of it depends with a lot of people, but when you -- when you -- when you're a whaler and you watch whales all the time, you can -- you learn how to -- where to -- you learn how to predict where the whales are going to come up.
To me a good whaling spot is when I’m looking to the southwest and I got -- I got, you know, I got visibility going that way forever and ever, and I could see the whales coming.
To me that’s a good whaling spot is when I’m sitting with my boat going -- pointed towards the southeast.
To me that’s a good whaling spot there, because I got, you know, visibility all the way around and I could see water even south of me.
To me that’s a good whaling spot. I could -- I could actually see the whales coming to me.
And when you look at whales, you know, when you’re a whaler you can actually time the whales and predict when they’re going to come up. You can actually time.
If you see a blow, you know, it'll come to you maybe three blow -- three times it'll come up before it reaches your area.
You can actually predict or time the whales and to me that works. We can -- we actually time the whales.
When it's getting close for a small whale to come up, we’ll actually go by the boat and wait by the boats. So we know the whale is coming.
That way we don’t have to -- when the whale comes up near our boat, we don’t to have all run to the boat.
We time the whales so we’ll know when -- when they’ll actually come up. You can actually time a whale.
The big whales, you know, they can take 20 minutes under.
Smaller whales they’ll maybe 10, 12 minutes. You can actually -- you can actually time the whale, because they’ll come up two or three times before they get close to you when you see them way far on the lead or coming towards you.
DYRE “OLIVER” DAMMANN: How do you know when the -- like it was a breakout event in February last year -- how do you know after that when the -- how do you read the ice or know when after that when the ice is again safe to -- to walk on and to whale from?
JOE LEAVITT: When -- when -- when there’s a breakout like that, you know, close to the -- close to the beach -- when the ice comes back in, it'll stay for a while maybe two, three weeks and then -- and then it will breakout again.
That way we know it’s frozen. It’s frozen again. That -- that’s the way we look at the ice.
When the ice comes in from the west, it'll stay there and close up the leads for two, three weeks, maybe even a month, and then it will breakout further out then we know it’s safer ice that’s already frozen right there just from -- just from keeping track of how many times it opened up and how long it stayed closed.
Sometimes we’ll -- sometimes we’ll -- we’ll be -- there'll be no open water all winter and when that happens Barrow always get real cold.
But in the middle of the winter too, you know, the lead can open up and then Barrow will have real mild weather.
That, you know, it's stuff like that we keep track of.
When we want to do our whaling, that -- that’s the kind of stuff that you learn to watch all winter long. It’s just watching the ice.
Barrow is a good place for whaling, because you can actually know where it opened up last and where it -- where it added on and all that -- all that stuff that has to do with ice.
KAREN BREWSTER: So last spring you went out to this place that was the thinner ice. Why did you decide to go out there versus going north or south, the first time you went out before you lost your trail?
JOE LEAVITT: We like the trail right there because gas is getting expensive. It’s -- it’s just -- you got to do with what you got, you know.
That’s why we picked that trail. We didn’t want to go way, way far because gas is -- just costs too much for us.
It’s part of -- that’s part of why we went right over here and towards that looked real low and we knew we could reach the water if there was any water out there.
KAREN BREWSTER: Because it sounds like you knew it was thin ice -- young ice?
JOE LEAVITT: Uh-huh. We knew -- we knew -- we knew the ice was thin all the way.
KAREN BREWSTER: Uh-huh.
JOE LEAVITT: Even from people telling us the same kind of ice down -- down south, up north.
We knew -- we knew it was, you know, we knew it was thin ice because we had no multi-year ice.
KAREN BREWSTER: But you chose to go out there anyway?
JOE LEAVITT: Uh-huh. Uh-huh.
KAREN BREWSTER: And that’s why I'm wondering why?
JOE LEAVITT: Because before -- last year was really early breakup. That kind of breakup usually occurs around middle of May when the current comes in, but last year that happened real early.
In May -- latter part of May the current gets really strong from the southeast side. That’s what we have to be aware of that the current.
It usually, you know, happened around the middle of the month of May that’s -- that used to happen like that. But last year was just a early, early -- it just happened early and everything broke off.
DYRE “OLIVER” DAMMANN: So last year after that when you went north, you started creating a trail and then there was some cracks developing what -- and I remember you also showed me there’s -- that there’s people --
there’s usually a crew member out there, how long do they stay out there? What do -- what do they look for in changes in that crack?
JOE LEAVITT: Oh, they'll just monitor the crack. They’ll just monitor the crack and if it's moving at all.
When there’s a crack like that, you want to do your sounding. That, you know, sounding is -- they want to go out there and get some ducks or something. They’ve always monitored the crack.
They’ll always monitor the crack and it's just you -- when you’re -- when you’re a whaler, you just want to be out in the ocean.
And when you’re out there long enough you’ll start figuring out what’s going on, especially with your sounding.
DYRE “OLIVER” DAMMANN: So at what point would they choose to -- what -- because I remember you said that the ice might, you know, come suddenly like crushing towards you like what --
Is there something particular that you can -- that can warn you? You mentioned the currents, but is there some ice movement that might give an indication?
JOE LEAVITT: The wind. It's mostly the current when it’s nice and calm, but you watch out for the wind.
You mostly watch out for the wind and the current. That -- that can help you predict what the ice is going to do.
You have to monitor that even, you know, even when there’s no water you want to -- you still want to monitor -- you still want to know what’s going on with the weather.
Even if you can’t do your sounding, you want to watch the weather.
KAREN BREWSTER: I was wondering that -- it’s happened before, I think it was what 90’s -- late 90’s -- ’97 that big Iiguaq, that big breakoff. JOE LEAVITT: Uh-huh.
KAREN BREWSTER: And all those crews -- JOE LEAVITT: Uh-huh.
KAREN BREWSTER: -- were floated off and had to be rescued.
And I’ve heard stories from the elders, people get taken out, and so even if you’re monitoring sometimes things happen, right? What causes --
JOE LEAVITT: What, you know, the main cause of us being taken out is the whales are passing. KAREN BREWSTER: Uh-huh.
JOE LEAVITT: And people -- people, you know, they ain’t going -- they ain’t going wait on the beach for the weather to get good.
They’ll -- they’ll go out to where the whales are moving.
That -- if we miss the whales, we miss the whales. They have to be out there.
Even if they get taken out, but they don’t want to get taken out. But when the whales are moving, people get very anxious and they -- they want to be out there or else we’ll miss the whole whaling, you know.
KAREN BREWSTER: Uh-huh.
JOE LEAVITT: The main herds -- the main pods of whales that are going by. You want to be out there when they’re -- when they’re going by.
That’s what drives us out into the water. Even when the conditions are bad we -- we just --
you just got to be out there to at least, you know, to get some food for the community. KAREN BREWSTER: Uh-huh.
JOE LEAVITT: That’s -- that’s always in the whaling captain’s mind is you got to do your harvest while the whales are there or else you’ll stay real late into the season like we did last year.
You -- we just have to be out there. That’s what drives us out there is because we know the whales are passing by, and, you know, we got to be out there when the whales are going by.
We -- we have to find a way. We have to go south. We have to go north. We just -- we just don’t want to sit idle on the beach. We have to do something.
It's just so we could feed the community. That’s -- that’s -- that’s what's always on the whaling captain’s mind is don’t just wait until it opens up.
If you wait on the land, you know, wait until it’s good, the chances are the whales will be all past you already. That’s what -- that’s what drives us out there is we know the whales are going by.
And, you know, that’s -- we have to be out there even -- even conditions are bad sometimes we -- we just have to take a chance at that. That -- we have to.
We just don’t want to sit idle on the beach. We have to -- that’s what drives us out there is we know the whales are out there going by.
That’s why we have to go out there and risk everything we got, but sometimes we’re lucky and sometimes we’re not.
I think that covered it.