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Jacob Adams, Sr., Interview 2, Part 2

This is the continuation of an interview with Jacob Adams, Sr. on November 15, 2013 by Karen Brewster in the North Slope Borough Assembly's conference room in the Borough's central office building in Barrow, Alaska. In this second part of a two part interview, Jacob talks about crews working together to build trails across the ice to whale camps at the open lead, advice for understanding ice safety, changing ice conditions and having to move whale camp sites, and adaptations for the future as ice conditions continue to change.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2013-25-07_PT.2

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.

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Trail building

Advice to newcomers about ice safety

Changes in the ice thickness

Seal hunters and drifting ice

Crews working together to build trails

Having to switch camp locations and break new trail

Conditions that might cause one to move whale camp location

Adapting to future change

Click play, then use Sections or Transcript to navigate the interview.

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


KAREN BREWSTER: I have a couple questions about trail building.

You said you went out and scouted and looked at a good spot to make your trail.

JACOB ADAMS: Usually it's not me any more. It's the younger guys I always send out --


JACOB ADAMS: -- As the whaling captain. But uhm --

KAREN BREWSTER: So what is it that you've taught them to look for?

What’s a good place to make your trail?

JACOB ADAMS: That's generally where you want to go as you look at the shorefast ice, the shore is stronger where there's some favorable spots where the whales might come in close.

And then start scouting all along the coast anywhere from here or maybe five or six miles down the coast down to about five miles up north.

The general preparations where we might find the whales coming in close.

KAREN BREWSTER: So once you find a spot on the edge where the whales will come, how do you decide from there back to the beach how your trail will go if it --

does it go this way, you know, windy or straight or --

JACOB ADAMS: Oh, we generally try to make a straight shot to where we want to be.

But we also take into consideration the pressure ridges that are formed and then if we have to work around some of the areas.

It's not always a smooth -- it's not always smooth all the way out.

KAREN BREWSTER: Uh-huh. JACOB ADAMS: So we generally have to go and see which areas might be better to cross a pressure ridge.

In general, we just kind of move along as we head out there, but we have a general idea of where we want to go at the end of the trail.

So we just kind of work on the trail. It may take a week or two to get a good trail out there, but that’s the way we look at it from a standpoint of getting to a good spot and making sure the trail is as straight as possible from point A to point B.

But we know it -- that's not always the case of trail building.

KAREN BREWSTER: Uh-huh. So if you’re building a trail and you hit a pressure ridge, do you go around the pressure ridge or you cut through it?

JACOB ADAMS: We find a low enough spot to cut through the pressure ridge we’ll do that.

Otherwise, if we don’t find a low enough spot in the pressure ridge we will kind of go around it,

but get back to the general direction that we're going at.

KAREN BREWSTER: Have you noticed is there more or less flat ice than there used to be -- I know it's different every year?

JACOB ADAMS: It's generally about the same, but some of the pressure ridges are not high as they used to be because the ice is a little thinner than what normal used to be in the 70’s and early 80’s.

You'd be looking at eight to ten foot thick ice, but today we're looking at four to six feet, maybe.

KAREN BREWSTER: When did you start your own whaling crew?

JACOB ADAMS: In 1977 when my dad and uncle decided it was time for somebody else to take over the whaling crew.

KAREN BREWSTER: So you've been out there a long time?

JACOB ADAMS: Yeah, I’ve been a whaling captain now for 36 years.

KAREN BREWSTER: So if somebody who's never been out on the ice before wants to go out there, what kind of things do you tell them that they need to know to be safe?

JACOB ADAMS: Generally, if they want to go out by themselves, is I advise them to have somebody that knows what they're doing to go out there with them.

I guess that's just not the right thing to do is to get out there by yourself.

KAREN BREWSTER: Are there things they need to be -- People who are learning, what do they need to look for -- certain types of ice or colors or --

JACOB ADAMS: Well, if it's somebody that doesn’t know what they're doing or never been out on the ice,

when they want advice I just say look for flat areas and lower pressure ridges that they if they have to cross you can cross, but --

KAREN BREWSTER: You've said that the ice is thinner now.

What else has changed since you started whaling?

With the change, with the ice?

JACOB ADAMS: That's about the only thing that we've noticed. Generally, is the thickness of the ice.

Like I said earlier it hasn’t really affected how we hunt whales, but if it gets any thinner than it may change.


JACOB ADAMS: It might be more pressure ridges or less pressure ridges, but we can’t really predict what the thinner ice is going to bring, but it certainly will bring some dangers to the --

In other words, we'll probably have to learn how to deal with thinner ice.


JACOB ADAMS: Like our ancestors did dealing with thicker ice, about how to get around big pressure ridges.

KAREN BREWSTER: Have you ever been out on the ice when it started drifting out?

JACOB ADAMS: I haven’t experienced that.

But a couple of times you notice the ice starting to -- from a crack start moving to where we notified the whalers that the crack is starting to move.

KAREN BREWSTER: Because I 've heard a long time ago it sometimes happened with seal hunters.

JACOB ADAMS: Yeah. And the thing with the seal hunters was that in the wintertime some of that young ice is always forming when it's cold.

And then they get under that young ice they -- they're looking for seals in the open spots further away from the shorefast ice that's sometimes how they get taken out or if the lead is so far out that maybe even the winds

or the current is moving the ice somewhere else and getting taken out on the ice.

KAREN BREWSTER: So they go past the edge of the shorefast?

JACOB ADAMS: Yeah. KAREN BREWSTER: Those seal hunters.

JACOB ADAMS: They'll go past the edge of the shorefast ice onto the younger ice that's not really all that stable.

Cause they got to get out to the open water or open water spots on the younger ice.

KAREN BREWSTER: Okay. That explains why they --


KAREN BREWSTER: -- that happens to them. Uhm -- On --

I forgot to ask you with trail building, you said it can take a week or two.

How many people are out there working?

JACOB ADAMS: Breaking trail? KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah.

JACOB ADAMS: Sometimes we get three or four crews together.

And you have maybe a couple of dozen people working on the trail breaking.


JACOB ADAMS: Whatever you got a couple of crews and you might have half a dozen or a dozen people working on the trail.

Generally, we try to get several crews together to break a main trail then start branching off as it gets close enough to the shorefast --

I mean the open leads that we start branching out to individual whaling crew trails.

KAREN BREWSTER: Does it ever happen that you build a trail and then you have to switch your camp spot and go build another trail?

JACOB ADAMS: Oh, yeah. That's happened a few times where just some unusual thing happened to the area that you went to and the whales are not coming by there.

So we have to move and break another trail or ask the people that break the trails if we can use that trail.

Or generally you'll say, we'll fix that trail up, make it a little better than what it is now.

Anyway, that's sort of a unwritten rule that if you want to use somebody else’s trail, you have to work on it too to make it better.

KAREN BREWSTER: Uh-huh. So what -- JACOB ADAMS: Or ask -- KAREN BREWSTER: Or ask.

JACOB ADAMS: -- one of the captains to see if you can use that trail.

KAREN BREWSTER: You said there were some unusual things that happened that would make you move.

Can you give some examples of -- ?

JACOB ADAMS: Like maybe young ice never forms where you originally set camp or the ice has moved in and when the lead opens again, it's just not possible to stay at that camp where jumbled up ice might have remained after closing and open back up -- opening back up again.

Or the whales are generally not coming close by there because maybe a point of ice down the coast is causing the whales to move further out,

and they're not traveling close to the shorefast ice anymore at where the -- where your camp was.

KAREN BREWSTER: Hm. That must be frustrating?

JACOB ADAMS: Oh, yeah. It's kind of frustrating. You get out there, you work a few days on that trail and see some whales coming by that shorefast ice,

but then a few days later something happens down the coast that won’t allow the whales to travel close to the shorefast ice where you're at is just --

gets a little frustrating, but --

KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. So it's not unusual to have to pick up and move a couple of times?

JACOB ADAMS: Oh, yes. Yeah, because of the ice conditions at the edge of the shorefast ice.

KAREN BREWSTER: Can you tell me about -- what is it called an Iiguaq?

JACOB ADAMS: Yeah, Iiguaq. That's generally why we move sometimes is that the ice moved in, but when it broke off again, it broke off a little further out where the conditions are not ideal.

Or you have to get out there to the edge of the Iiguaq to see if there're some good spots there, otherwise you have to move on to somewhere else where --

KAREN BREWSTER: So sometimes an Iiguaq can add on and it's a good place and then you just extend your trail?

JACOB ADAMS: Yeah. KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah, okay and go out to the lead?


KAREN BREWSTER: So sometimes you can get there and sometimes you can’t?



I say, you hear people talking about how things are changing so much up here, is there anything else that I haven’t asked about?

JACOB ADAMS: Uhm. KAREN BREWSTER: What's happening or what you know about the ice that I should know?

JACOB ADAMS: Not -- I can’t think of anything else, except it may change again a few years from now if the warming continues.

I know we'll be facing some -- or some of the whalers in the future years are going to be facing different challenges.

KAREN BREWSTER: Have you thought about -- yeah, if this thin ice and warm weather is the new normal, what does that mean for whaling?

JACOB ADAMS: If it gets to that point, we'll just have to figure out ways to deal with that issue.

That's always -- our culture has always been faced with challenges, so how do we get the animals that we use for subsistence.

That's how our culture has survived is facing challenges and finding ways to overcome those challenges.


JACOB ADAMS: Our ancestors didn’t survive by saying what do we do now.

We just have to look for ways to solve those challenges and work around them.

KAREN BREWSTER: You're right. You have a long history to rely on.


KAREN BREWSTER: Arigaa. Quyanaqpak. JACOB ADAMS: Okay.