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Jacob Adams, Sr., Interview 2, Part 1

Jacob Anaġi Adams, Sr. was interviewed on November 15, 2013 by Karen Brewster in the North Slope Borough Assembly's conference room at the Borough's central office building in Barrow, Alaska. In this first part of a two part interview, Jacob talks about learning to whale as a boy from his father and uncle, and learning how to read and understand the ice for being safe out there. He also discusses the wind and currents and their effects on the ice, and the specific conditions of the Spring 2013 whaling season when his crew landed a bowhead whale in late June 2013.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2013-25-07_PT.1

Project: Sea Ice in Northern Alaska
Date of Interview: Nov 15, 2013
Narrator(s): Jacob Adams, Sr.
Interviewer(s): Karen Brewster
Transcriber: Joan O'Leary
Location of Interview:
Funding Partners:
Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Coastal Marine Institute, North Pacific Research Board
Alternate Transcripts
There is no alternate transcript for this interview.
There is no slideshow for this person.

After clicking play, click on a section to navigate the audio or video clip.


Childhood and learning to go whaling

Learning about ice safety

Importance of the effect of wind and current on the ice

Determining a safe spot for whale camp

Observations of change and response to it

Unusual wind conditions in Spring 2013

Combined effect of wind and current

Ice conditions in Spring 2013 and relationship with freeze-up

Catching a whale in late June 2013

The joy of catching the whale

Location of whale camp in Spring 2013

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After clicking play, click a section of the transcript to navigate the audio or video clip.


KAREN BREWSTER: Today is November 15th, 2013 and I'm Karen Brewster here with Jacob Adams in Barrow, Alaska for the Sea Ice Project Jukebox.

Quyanaqpak, Jacob, for your time today.

JACOB ADAMS: I am glad to be here to participate in this project.

KAREN BREWSTER: Arigaa. To get us started I would like to just ask you to tell us a little about you -- when you were born -- when you started hunting and whaling.

JACOB ADAMS: Okay. My name is Jacob Adams. I was born December 11, 1946 and I started learning about hunting when I was a little boy.

Grew up with my parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts who give me some advice about hunting and life in general in Barrow, Alaska where I spend most of my life.

KAREN BREWSTER: You were born and raised in Barrow?

JACOB ADAMS: I was born and raised in Barrow. Never went much of anywhere else.

KAREN BREWSTER: Uh-huh. And who were your parents?

JACOB ADAMS: My parents are Baxter and Rebecca Adams. They have both since passed away.

KAREN BREWSTER: Uh-huh. Did you go out to school for a while?

JACOB ADAMS: Went out to Wrangell Institute for my eighth grade year, and for high school we went to Mount Edgecumbe in Sitka, Alaska.

KAREN BREWSTER: Okay. So how old were you when you first went out whaling and out on the ice?

JACOB ADAMS: Oh, I was probably -- When I first went out I was probably seven or eight years old following my dad, and my dad and uncle had a whaling crew that they both sponsored.

KAREN BREWSTER: Which uncle?

JACOB ADAMS: Uncle Whitlam.

KAREN BREWSTER: Okay. So what do you remember about that first time going out?

JACOB ADAMS: First time going out I listened to my dad and my uncles tell -- we're out there at the whaling camp. But what I remember most is that we had to sleep in a cold tent. It didn’t have any warmth in it.

They had a Coleman stove, but they only used that to make coffee or boil caribou meat or make soup -- about the only time it was on in the tent.

The rest of the time it was off and at night it was pretty cold.

KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. Yeah. So before you followed your dad and Uncle Whitlam out, did they give you any instructions or tell you anything about the ice?

JACOB ADAMS: Well, they talked about what I should know, how I should behave out there, and watch the ice pretty closely because that no way of telling when the ice might break off or the currents may change suddenly.

KAREN BREWSTER: Uh-huh. So what do you look for when -- to make sure it's not going to break off?

JACOB ADAMS: We look for cracks and the thickness of the ice and if the currents are moving.

They always tell us to watch for the northerly currents coming from the west, because that some times are the strongest currents that we notice out there.

KAREN BREWSTER: Hm. And so if that current -- that west northwest current comes in, what does that mean when you're on the ice -- what happens?

JACOB ADAMS: It means that we got to start preparing and break camp as soon as we notice the current because it can become very dangerous, especially if the ice pack is close to the shorefast ice.

But any time we see that westerly current flow we start breaking camp.

KAREN BREWSTER: So why is it so dangerous?

JACOB ADAMS: Because the shorefast ice is stationary and the pack ice is moving, and when they collide they smash each other up.

KAREN BREWSTER: So you -- you move back from the edge?

JACOB ADAMS: Yeah, we move back from the -- from the lead a safe distance.

KAREN BREWSTER: How do you decide where is the safe place to go? What -- what are you looking for?

JACOB ADAMS: Well, we're looking for solid ice where it's not -- where there's no cracks and thick enough to withstand some of the forces of the pack ice.

You usually see some ice ridges along where it has previously piled up and on the other side of it is fairly safe most of the time.

KAREN BREWSTER: So you just go on the inland -- the beach side of those --


What do you do if there're no pressure ridges, then where do you go?

JACOB ADAMS: Generally, we go up near the beach or up to the beach and leave our gear there.

KAREN BREWSTER: Okay. So is it happening that there are no ridges? Does that start -- has that happened?

JACOB ADAMS: That happens sometimes when there's very few ridges and the ridges are not high at all.

They're prone to continue building of the pressure ridge.

KAREN BREWSTER: Uh-huh. How do you decide that the ice is thick? I mean, go out on the ice it's all covered in snow I have no idea if it's thick or thin.

JACOB ADAMS: Oh, you can generally tell by some of the ridges that are formed and the color of the ice and --

KAREN BREWSTER: So what color is -- what --

JACOB ADAMS: It's usually a deep blue and that means it's thick, but if it's kind of darker or not that type of color, you generally notice the ice is thinner.

KAREN BREWSTER: Uh-huh. What else -- what else does somebody need to know? Like you teach your boys, what else do they need to know when they go out there?

JACOB ADAMS: Wind direction is a very important part of being out there. Generally, east winds are the most preferred winds when we're out whaling.

And the west northwest winds are not what we prefer because they bring in the ice and the current.

KAREN BREWSTER: What about south or south --

JACOB ADAMS: South winds and the southwest winds do bring in the ice, too, and the currents and so that's what we watch for is which direction the wind is blowing.

KAREN BREWSTER: What happens if the wind comes from the southeast, what does that do to the ice when you're whaling?

JACOB ADAMS: From the southeast generally the ice blows out, but sometimes if the current is moving to the north northeast it will bring in the ice.

KAREN BREWSTER: Okay. But when you say the current is moving to the north, is it -- it starts by Nuvuk and comes down or it goes towards Nuvuk?

JACOB ADAMS: It generally goes towards Nuvuk.

KAREN BREWSTER: Okay. JACOB ADAMS: Most of the current because Nuvuk is further north and the

currents there are moving and much stronger up there. KAREN BREWSTER: Uh-huh.

JACOB ADAMS: Because they start bumping up against the land because they're moving -- the current moves under the ice and hits the Point .


JACOB ADAMS: Or close to it. That's why we have a lot of pressure ridges near -- near Nuvuk.

KAREN BREWSTER: Uh-huh. Yeah, I've heard it said that it's more dangerous out by Nuvuk?

JACOB ADAMS: Yeah, it is more dangerous out by Nuvuk.

KAREN BREWSTER: And why is that?

JACOB ADAMS: It's because the currents become stronger when they start hitting the ice north of Barrow.

And it's just that current starts kind of bunching in to make it stronger.

KAREN BREWSTER: Hm. And does it matter which direction the current goes up to do that?

JACOB ADAMS: Oh, the current moving from the east is less dangerous than the current moving north northeast.

KAREN BREWSTER: Okay. So Piruġaġnaq.

JACOB ADAMS: Piruġaġnaq. That's the current moving from the east northeast.



KAREN BREWSTER: And Qaisaġnaq is west?



JACOB ADAMS: Qaisaġnaq comes from the west. That's the currents that are moving from the southwest southeast -- I mean, southwest and west and south.

KAREN BREWSTER: Okay. And the one that comes from the north, that comes down from Nuvuk and goes south, what’s that one called?

JACOB ADAMS: That’s Iļunmuk. That means the current is moving in towards the land and that's also dangerous to be in so we --

most of the currents we watch for are the Qaisaġnaq and Iļunmuktuanik because that most of the time will bring in the ice.

KAREN BREWSTER: Hm. So when you're out whaling, are you -- you're camped on the lead edge, do you worry more about the pack ice coming in or about you breaking off?

JACOB ADAMS: We worry more about the pack ice coming in than the ice breaking off because generally we watch for locations that are -- are safe,

and easy to leave when we're going out looking for spots to -- KAREN BREWSTER: Uh-huh.

JACOB ADAMS: -- set up our whale camps.

We do watch lookout for ice, see if there's any cracks that are open all the way.

KAREN BREWSTER: So how do you decide it's a good place to put your whale camp? That it's safe at that spot?

JACOB ADAMS: There's generally fewer cracks and solid and smooth where we can set up camp.

KAREN BREWSTER: Uh-huh. Have you been able to find those kind of places in the last few years?

JACOB ADAMS: There're still places out there in the last few years. It's just the ice is not as thick as it used to be.

How it goes anywhere from three to six feet in the last several years depending on where some of that ice came from,

but the shorefast ice generally has been maybe three and a half to five feet thick.


JACOB ADAMS: Still strong enough to maintain a whale camp out there,

but we generally have to be more aware of all these other factors that may make it more dangerous than usual.

KAREN BREWSTER: So what are the factors that make it more dangerous?

JACOB ADAMS: The current, the pack ice, wind conditions.

KAREN BREWSTER: So all that has -- I'm wondering about how it's changed.

From what you remember when you were a boy, how have things changed out there on the ice?

JACOB ADAMS: It hasn’t changed that much of the activities we do out there, but we're just generally aware that the ice has gotten thinner.

It's not to the point where it poses a real danger to the -- to the whaling crews if we’re careful. But I think what it causes for us to be a little bit more cautious about what we do out there.

But if it gets any thinner than maybe three feet, we just have to be extra cautious out there.

KAREN BREWSTER: Uh-huh. Well, I heard that last spring before whaling some of the ice moved out in front of Barrow?

JACOB ADAMS: Yeah, some of the ice moved out pretty -- fairly close to the beach.

But that event was caused by some east winds and probably some fairly strong currents moving in,

but we were very aware of that area over there that a place where we wanted to avoid because,

you know, the ice isn’t that strong yet and thick enough to be out on that portion of the -- of the ocean, but other places the ice was still strong enough to be out there.


JACOB ADAMS: But our big problem last spring was that the leads weren’t opening up.

Most of the winds were either west, southwest, north, northwest, south that prevented the leads from opening up.

Probably about 98 percent of the time we did not have any open water.

KAREN BREWSTER: Uh-huh. And when you did get an east wind, how come it didn’t open it up?

JACOB ADAMS: We hardly had any east winds last spring. KAREN BREWSTER: Oh, you just didn’t get enough of it, yeah.

JACOB ADAMS: Not enough of the east winds that normally opens up the lead

where the currents most of the time were moving north because the winds were coming from the south, southwest, west and northwest and north.

KAREN BREWSTER: So the way the wind comes affects which way the current comes?

JACOB ADAMS: Yeah. If the weather system west of Barrow is saying that the winds are going to be from the south, southwest or west, then all that ice starts moving in and the current --

Generally, the water is getting pushed by the north and bringing that Qaisaġnaq.

KAREN BREWSTER: Hm. Does it ever happen that the wind is going one direction and the current goes the other direction?

JACOB ADAMS: Oh, yes. We've observed that when we're out there.

Sometimes the current moving just maybe half a mile from the -- from the shorefast ice that current --

The ice is moving north while the wind is blowing east.

We observed that quite a bit where the ice is moving against the wind, but the currents are stronger than the force of the winds that makes the ice move northeast.

KAREN BREWSTER: And is it dangerous to be out there when that happens?

JACOB ADAMS: Sometimes it is dangerous, but if we know that the current isn’t coming up right against the shorefast ice that's okay, but once you notice that current moving in and moving against the shorefast ice, that's the time to break camp and leave the whaling spots.

KAREN BREWSTER: Is that where the ice kind of moves along the edge and scrapes the --

JACOB ADAMS: Oh, yeah.

KAREN BREWSTER: What’s that called?

JACOB ADAMS: That's Agiaq.

KAREN BREWSTER: And is that danger -- is that a good thing or a bad thing when that happens?

JACOB ADAMS: That's a bad thing when the ice moving and it starts grinding against the shorefast ice.

There's no -- hardly any open water at all, so we just pull back.

KAREN BREWSTER: Uh-huh. So that's like all the pack comes in and crashes -- JACOB ADAMS: Right.

KAREN BREWSTER: -- against it and moves sideways. JACOB ADAMS: Yeah.

KAREN BREWSTER: Okay. I'm going to ask you about this last spring a little bit.

As I said, I heard that it broke out right close to the beach before whaling like in February.


KAREN BREWSTER: And then it came back in and --

JACOB ADAMS: Never went back out.

KAREN BREWSTER: It never went back out.

JACOB ADAMS: Yeah, the ice never went back out after it broke off.

Started having some constant winds from the west, southwest probably in late March, something like that.

KAREN BREWSTER: Do you remember ever seeing it happen before where in February it goes out that close to the beach?

JACOB ADAMS: Not that I can remember. Several times we've seen it open up maybe a quarter mile or half mile from the -- from the beach.

But that's primarily caused by the late freeze-up.


JACOB ADAMS: Normally the freeze-up starts in October, but here it is mid-November we still have some open water out there.

So when we have late -- and it's been getting later and later for the freeze-up to occur and that makes the ice in December, January and February is still not -- not thick unless we have some really cold weather like 20, 30 below.

And we continue to have some warm weather we'll know that the ice isn’t that thick enough yet in December or January.

A lot of it depends on -- on cold weather occurring in December, January and February.

KAREN BREWSTER: Does the wind direction make a difference during freeze-up?


KAREN BREWSTER: Like during whaling I understand if it's east or west wind it makes a big difference.

This time of year when it's freezing up --

JACOB ADAMS: Oh, generally east winds it -- them colder weather, maybe high pressure.


JACOB ADAMS: And the low pressure is associated with the west and southwest winds, which generally brings in some warm air.

KAREN BREWSTER: So even during freeze-up you want east winds?



JACOB ADAMS: Because it gets pretty cold with that east wind out there.

KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. I didn’t know if -- if it -- how it affects the ocean and the ice.

Like right now, this week, we went from big waves with some slush ice to no ice to some chunks of ice, and now we've got the band of ice forming up on the shore.

And I don’t know, where did it come from? It's still warm.

JACOB ADAMS: Yes, suddenly the -- the new ice has formed out there.


JACOB ADAMS: And it getting crunched up by the wind and the waves up to the beach.


JACOB ADAMS: That's the what we call Qinu -- that new -- new really young ice.


JACOB ADAMS: Getting pushed up against the beach by the winds and the waves.

And when it does that and then it forms kind of a barrier on the beach.

KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah, I saw that. There's a big drop off.



JACOB ADAMS: That's what they call Qaimġuq. Frozen slush ice or frozen Qinu that's piled up.

And it was a good thing for us this fall because it protected --

KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. JACOB ADAMS: -- a lot of our beach.

KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. But now there's ice out there again.


KAREN BREWSTER: Is that ice -- but it doesn’t seem cold enough for the water to start freezing. Is it?

JACOB ADAMS: That's -- If the winds calm down it'll start freezing. The temperatures in the -- during the night are in the teens.

KAREN BREWSTER: Uh-huh. Because I'm trying to figure out the way the ice that's there now, how it got there.

JACOB ADAMS: That's just that young ice that just keep --

KAREN BREWSTER: It just freezes.

JACOB ADAMS: -- piling up on top of each other and freezing.

KAREN BREWSTER: Hm. Okay. So last spring I know nobody got any whales cause it was so bad, but I've heard that you --

you and your crew got a whale in what I would call summer, but late spring.

JACOB ADAMS: Yeah, that was really late.

KAREN BREWSTER: So tell me about what happened?

JACOB ADAMS: The ice kind of broke -- started breaking up in maybe mid-June and there was enough water -- enough open water towards the end of the month where boats could get out there.

So when my son-in-laws and some of my grandsons went out there one day, and they just on a hunch brought their whaling gear along see if they might run into some whales.

And sure enough they did. They ran into pair of whales, but they also knew that some of the stragglers come through in late June or early July.

So they ran into and saw several whales that day, and they managed to harpoon one of them.

KAREN BREWSTER: And what day did they catch it?


KAREN BREWSTER: What was the date, do you remember?

JACOB ADAMS: June 26th was the day they caught that whale.

KAREN BREWSTER: Wow! Do you remember a whale ever being caught that late in the spring?

JACOB ADAMS: Not really. Sometimes have known them to have taken whales in mid-June.


JACOB ADAMS: Maybe the third week in June.

But as far as I can tell this whale they got last spring was one of the latest.

KAREN BREWSTER: Well, those ones that, you know, mid-June when that happened was there still ice to be on and using an umiaq or did they do open wa -- more like what you guys --

JACOB ADAMS: There's open enough to take outboard boats out there like they did.

KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah, that's what you guys did.

JACOB ADAMS: They didn’t use umiaq because there wasn’t enough solid ice to set up camp out there.


JACOB ADAMS: So they were out there with an outboard.


JACOB ADAMS: And moving around.

KAREN BREWSTER: I was wondering about that long time ago when they caught one in mid-June.

Would they have been out camped on the ice or they would have been --

JACOB ADAMS: Yeah, sometimes, yeah. A long time ago when the ice used to be much thicker.

But in the last several years the ice has started breaking up earlier because it isn’t that thick any more, maybe.


JACOB ADAMS: Three or four feet thick.

An easy chore for the currents to whittle away from the bottom and you start seeing open spots of water and pretty soon there's just -- just kind of breaks up.

KAREN BREWSTER: So that means you guys have to leave whale camp earlier than you used to?

JACOB ADAMS: Well, generally the period in which we set up camps are pretty much still the same.

The majority of the runs of the whales in Barrow it starts in maybe mid-April through the second week of May.


JACOB ADAMS: And the ice hasn’t caused us to pull back much earlier than that.

KAREN BREWSTER: Okay. But end of June I didn’t know there'd still be whales out there.

JACOB ADAMS: That's just that the whale population has been very strong. And there're still whales that are moving out there.

Especially what they call the large whales and maybe some cows and calves.


JACOB ADAMS: This whale we got last spring had a fetus in it and maybe 18 to 24 inches long.


JACOB ADAMS: I think that's a very strong population of the whales that they're migrating --.

Sometimes we see early migration of a few whales happening in March.

KAREN BREWSTER: Hm. That’s early.

JACOB ADAMS: Yeah. And sometimes occasionally we see a whale out there in July while we're hunting for ugruks out there.



KAREN BREWSTER: So you knew to look for -- or you -- they knew to look for whales in June?

JACOB ADAMS: We prefer not to look for whales in June. We'd rather catch them while there's solid ice in April and May.

That's just the heart of the run we're looking for the much smaller whales.


JACOB ADAMS: Then the one we got last spring or last June that was a 54 foot --


JACOB ADAMS: -- whale. We' rather be out there looking for 25 to maybe 40 foot whales.

KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. So why did you decide to go whale in June then?

JACOB ADAMS: Well, it was just kind of a, you know, people are thinking we're not going to be celebrating our whaling festival because nobody's gotten a whale.

And we decided it might be worthwhile to take some whaling gear along while we're hunting for bearded seals.

Then they run into a whale and took it.

KAREN BREWSTER: So what was the ice like? You could -- was it big pieces of ice or you had to get your boats --

JACOB ADAMS: Some of the ice was still grounded out here.

There was enough maneuvering room to get out to the open water.


JACOB ADAMS: So we were able to -- so they were able to take that whale and bring it into the beach.

KAREN BREWSTER: Oh! Yeah, it must have been enough open water. I think if it was too -- too much ice, you couldn’t get through, huh?

JACOB ADAMS: Right. If there had been too much ice, they'd never been able to get out to the open water, but there's enough thaw and breakup that they were able to get out there.

KAREN BREWSTER: Well, it must have made everybody very happy?

JACOB ADAMS: Oh, yes. Everybody was happy that they would be able to have that Nalukataq.


JACOB ADAMS: Because it's so central to the Inupiaq culture that going without Nalukataq means --

KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah, I was wondering if because it was an unusual thing to do if people thought maybe that wasn’t the right thing to do, it was too late.

Did people say anything?

JACOB ADAMS: No, they didn’t say anything about it. They were just happy that we were able to catch a whale in the spring even though it was late.

But they still had to take some fresh Unaaliq and --


JACOB ADAMS: -- meat and all that good stuff about the whales.

KAREN BREWSTER: So when did you have your Nalukataq?

JACOB ADAMS: On July 14th.

KAREN BREWSTER: Oh, you didn’t have much time.

JACOB ADAMS: No. Right after they got the whale we started preparing for the --


JACOB ADAMS: -- Nalukataq.

KAREN BREWSTER: I was thinking about, you know, how do you butcher a whale when the temperature is so warm?

JACOB ADAMS: Well, it took several hours to butcher it, but it'll butcher it fast enough where we can put the maktak away in ice cellars, and we used some walk-in freezers to put the meat in there so it would freeze faster.


JACOB ADAMS: And started making the mikiaq a couple of days after the whale was taken.

KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. Yeah, I was thinking working in those warmer temperatures you got to work fast before it starts to rot.


KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. A lot of work.

JACOB ADAMS: It's a lot of work, but it was worth it.

KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. So last spring where did you put your whale camp?

JACOB ADAMS: We -- last spring?




JACOB ADAMS: We were down the coast a little ways.

But most of the time we weren’t out in the open water. We was just kind of pulled back and waited for the leads to open up, which basically never happened.

Maybe one or two times the crew was able to get to the edge of the ice, but the whales weren’t running.

KAREN BREWSTER: Uh-huh. So you had put your trail down off of Monument or gravel pit or something?

JACOB ADAMS: Yeah, down by, oh, probably about six or seven miles down the coast on the north side of Monument.

KAREN BREWSTER: Okay. Why did you decide to go down there?

JACOB ADAMS: Well, that's generally the way we look at where we want to be as -- see where we think it might be safe is go scouting in March, see where best area might be for breaking trail or see if there's a points of ice that we can go to.

But, we're looking to see where the whales might come in close -- KAREN BREWSTER: Uh-huh. JACOB ADAMS: -- to the ice.