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Otis Ahkivgak, Part 4
Otis Ahkivgak

This is a continuation of the recording of Kenneth Toovak providing a verbal English summary translation of an interview he conducted in Iñupiaq with Otis Ahkivgak on December 8, 1979 in Barrow, Alaska. The interview was for UAF researchers Dr. Lewis Shapiro and Ron Metzner on the project Historical References to Ice Conditions Along the Beaufort Sea Coast of Alaska (Scientific Report, Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks, 1979). Kenneth summarizes each of the four original tapes made with Otis on separate new tapes. Ron Metzner is with Kenneth, asking clarifying questions. Unfortunately, the location of the original Iñupiaq tapes is unknown; the UAF Oral History Collection only has these English audio translations and their transcripts. In this fourth part of a four part interview recorded on June 3, 1981, Kenneth talks about Otis talking about learning about ice, wind and current and a big ice pileup in front of Barrow. Otis also told a story about a man who behaved badly and drifted out on the ice but returned home only to be crushed by ice piling up and collapsing on his sod house.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 97-64-05_PT.4

Project: Sea Ice in Northern Alaska
Date of Interview: Jun 3, 1981
Narrator(s): Otis Ahkivgak, Kenneth Toovak
Interviewer(s): Kenneth Toovak, Ronald Metzner
Transcriber: Lisa Krynicki
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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Learning about ice, wind and current

Effect of current on whales

Story about a man who drifted out on the ice and an ice pile up collapsing on a sod house

Spring flooding in Barrow due to ice blockage

Big ice pile up on the beach in front of Barrow

Inland hunting and camping

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


KEN TOOVAK: Yeah -- we're speaking about Barrow area. And Otis have been listening to these old-timers and -- and learn quite a -- quite a lot of stuff about the ice.

The movements and -- and the currents and what all a person that -- when he's supposed to be a hunter that's supposed to be in the back of his head, too.

As a reminder when something happen. And Otis usually just listen carefully when old-timers are talkin' and -- and then -- and then he's -- he -- he was pretty well graduated of what the ice condition can do around the Barrow area by just listening.

And -- and he just have to watch when he went out hunting that the -- the current which way the current movement. That just about the first -- first thing that he have to do when the -- when there's no open lead.

First thing that he have to do is just lower his drifting line, got a weight on the end and then they put a line and then that way he can tell which way the current. So, in other words if the current is running kinda bit offshore and that means he -- he don't have to go any further -- any further.

Otherwise the -- the -- the ice can open up and then they'll be on the other side before you know it. So he -- he said he never -- he never happened to him before. He never been -- he never have seen that -- or happened to be drifted away due to the -- due to the -- the listening of what the people say.

The -- when there's polar ice -- kinda heavy ice this and there, and -- and further out that never been grounded, in the deep water when there's no open lead.

And lots of this polar ice, heavy and then thicker down below. Otis say even though there's no wind, due to the current the ice can start moving just because these pieces that heavy ice they got more tendency to drift.

RON METZNER: Because of all the part of them sticking under water?

KEN TOOVAK: Yeah, right. Yeah, yeah. So -- he mention that with the wind and the current it will move the ice out kinda fast by using these -- the -- the thick ice for like a propeller type, you know?

RON METZNER: Uh - huh.

KEN TOOVAK: After you listen to the -- to the old time you have to keep that in mind. Never, never feel to -- to -- to try and turn it -- turn it down of what you have learned from the -- from the person that have lived and -- and hunt on the ice.

When the person tells you that the ice can do anything, believe it. Don't ever turn it down of what Otis say.

And then speaking about the current, the -- there sometime the current will be moving in kinda bit inshore wind -- inshore like a -- like a wind.


KEN TOOVAK: That's a time -- that's a time when you -- you don't have to feel to -- to walk further. Heck, you don't have no -- no danger of drifting out -- due to the -- due to the direction of the current.


KEN TOOVAK: And then he mentioned on --on whales when the -- when the -- when the current is moving kinda bit inshore wind, I mean inshore current, when the whales are running he said the animals will be kinda going toward in -- into the current when -- like when the current moving from northeast -- north from -- running north.


KEN TOOVAK: And he said the animal will be facing into the current.

RON METZNER: They'll face into the current?

KEN TOOVAK: Yeah. When they're running.

RON METZNER: So -- so they swim into the current?


RON METZNER: In -- in a lead.

KEN TOOVAK: In a -- yeah, in a lead, yeah.

RON METZNER: So -- so if you see the current in the lead the animals -- the animals will be sort of heading into the current.


RON METZNER: As they work through the lead.

KEN TOOVAK: Yes. So, well these animals got -- they got pretty -- pretty smart navigation, you know?


KEN TOOVAK: I don't know how they do it but that's what for one thing Otis mentioned -- that the animals go along with the current so I don't know --

RON METZNER: Does that mean -- wait a minute --

KEN TOOVAK: At one time there was a man named Ataŋana here at Barrow living. And then this man killed a person using a -- the --the pick with a long handle. What they used for making a hole through ice.

So they -- so he killed this person -- a man using that tool. And -- and then start to run -- ran away from -- from village at one time.

So the one time it -- the -- the man killed a person and then -- and -- and then I start to make a -- a bit of a story about he ran away from village but there's a correct -- correction on it.

This man had a family and he -- he had a -- a sod house down -- down in the gully there at Barrow village.

He -- right next to the -- that high bluff on the west side of that gully on that high bluff. And the south wind, kinda calm one day and -- and warm, that -- that was around month of February at the time when -- when the daylight gets longer, so Otis mention that could be somewhere in that month of February.

And the wind shifted from south to west. Gets strong and -- and unstandable for a westerly wind. Gets strong and when it swing over to west and the ice start to piled up -- the ice start to pile up and then get way higher than the -- then that bluff.

Just on -- on the west side of the -- the -- this main village area. And even though it gets much higher.

They are telling a story -- Otis start to thinking and getting a remind -- memory -- reminded his memory was kinda bit lost there for a while in the -- in the -- in the recording here.

First, that man that killed the person went out on the ice and then got drifted away.

The ice broke behind after he gets out there and then he was out there for quite some times.

And then the ice closed in I don't know -- he didn't mention how many -- how many days, but anyway the ice closed in again and then got back home to Barrow --

the person that have killed this person. This Ataŋana.

And so when -- on the return he gave some bit of a tobacco given away to his friends in order to bit of a celebrate of after spent few days on the other side of the lead.

He gave some tobacco to some of the friends. And after that the wind came and start blowing from west -- westerly hard and blowing and he was in that sod house with his family and -- and then the ice got so high piled up that they had a -- a kind of a bit of a window type thing on the -- on -- on the ceiling of the -- the sod house.

Even the -- the salt water start to drip in from the winds that have the weathered ice piled up on top of the ice each of them, and then the wind is swirling and then the -- the salt water start to drip in -- into the sod house and then that's the time when he told his family to go -- get out of the sod house and then start to go back to some of the relatives or whatever.

And then he was the last guy to get out of the house -- this Ataŋana -- Ataŋana -- he was the last guy to get out of the house and eventually he didn't quite left soon enough and then big piece of ice fell and through this sod house and then it killed him.

By being a few minutes late.

Okay, this -- this the time when the ice was piling up to the top of the -- the high cliff west of village, we calibrate a bit on the years and then Otis -- the closest that he could say was it happened in -- somewhere in neighbor of 1890. That's about ninety -- ninety years ago --

RON METZNER: Ninety-nine.

KEN TOOVAK: Oh, ninety-nine years ago as of year of '79. The time when it happened was in the middle of the night when this man was killed in the -- in the sod house.

And then after the daylight break the -- the village people dig into the sod house and -- and found this per -- this man and dig him out and then remove him from the -- from the house.

And -- and then here comes the spring with all that ice jammed up -- piled up -- and then in that gully where Otis house is at the present time, he mentioned at the -- in the -- in that year, that the -- the snow melted and -- and no one -- there was nowhere water to escape due to the pile of snow, I mean ice.

And the water gets high and flooding. So it has happened at one time. I wanted to explain up where exactly where this Ataŋana's house was located.

It was located -- there's a gully -- there's a gully -- gully west of village right in the highest part on the west side of that drainage -- on the west side he got a sod house in the highest spot there.

RON METZNER: On top of the cliff.

KEN TOOVAK. On top of the cliff.


KEN TOOVAK: So that's - that's -- that's where he was killed.

RON METZNER: But the house wasn't in the gully.

KEN TOOVAK: So the house wasn't in the gully.


KEN TOOVAK: It was way up on the high -- highest part of the cliff.

RON METZNER: Okay. Now where is Otis's house now?

KEN TOOVAK: Otis's house is way back in from where this man's house was.

RON METZNER: Okay. Now where did the flooding start?

KEN TOOVAK: Well, it floods right -- there -- there -- that drainage --

RON METZNER: The gully?

KEN TOOVAK: -- the gully is short.


KEN TOOVAK: It's short. Just right -- right behind of where Otis Ahkivgak's house --


KEN TOOVAK: It don't have no long --


KEN TOOVAK: Place where to drain. But anyway, that's where most all the snow melted and then it drained into.


KEN TOOVAK: And into the ocean.

RON METZNER: And it was blocked by ice?

KEN TOOVAK: Yeah. It was blocked by ice.

RON METZNER: So, that gully was full of water?

KEN TOOVAK: Yeah, yeah. That gully was full of water.




KEN TOOVAK: So they have to -- so they have to open the -- open a hole on the other side from the -- from the ocean side --


KEN TOOVAK: Dig a hole.


KEN TOOVAK: And make a drainage. For the water to escape one year.

I told Otis of what I have seen but -- myself personally. One time the -- the -- my parents and the rest of the family, we were spending the year at Payugvik what we -- what we -- what was called. It's part of the Meade River.

We were spending time in that Meade River in the part of the Meade River what was called Payugvik and then fishing and hunting and what all.

And -- and later part of the year, somewhere in -- somewhere in the month of either late part of March, I mean late part of February or first part of March but I couldn't recall what exactly month.

But anyway, that's a time when the -- the sun is kinda bit high in the -- in the sky which would be somewhere in that neighborhood towards end of February or first part of March.

But anyway, I was coming into village at the time when I get to be getting kinda grown-up. My dog team -- I approach village and then here I see the pieces of ice on just the west side of the village before I even start to see any houses. Here I see pieces of ice on top of the -- the bluff. Way up on top.


KEN TOOVAK: I know there was a good lot of westerly wind blowing while I was -- while we were -- when I was with the family.


KEN TOOVAK: And then when I got to village, used to be a trading -- trading post belongs to old Charles D. Brower.


KEN TOOVAK: In the Browerville. Before the -- the sand ever been removed that trading post used to be way up quite a long way from the shore ice along the edge of the ocean, which would be at least -- oh, I think a good I would say good thousand feet or -- or twelve-hundred feet away from the edge. Maybe -- I dunno, maybe I'm wrong.


KEN TOOVAK: Can't be a thousand feet, no -- no I'm talking about maybe I'm talking about maybe six, seven hundred feet maybe. Maybe that's -- that's a better figure maybe.


KEN TOOVAK: Closer that I could guess.


KEN TOOVAK: And the ice piled up and piled up, I don't know how many feet high but it was high enough, plenty high enough and then it just about got to the -- got to this trading post.

Got near to it. And then -- and then finally the wind died down and stopped.

RON METZNER: How far away do you think you were from the village when you saw the ice?


RON METZNER: By dog team. How far away were you from the village when you saw the ice first?

KEN TOOVAK: When I start seeing this ice? Oh heck, I was about maybe a mile or a mile and a half away from -- from where I first start noticing this -- this ice.

RON METZNER: Which way were you coming? Were you coming straight up from Atqasuk --


RON METZNER: -- along the river? Or were you coming along the coast?

KEN TOOVAK: Well, I was coming straight south of village.

RON METZNER: Coming -- you were coming up from the south, straight up --

KEN TOOVAK: Yeah, yeah.

RON METZNER: And about a mile away? When you started --


RON METZNER: -- seeing it.

KEN TOOVAK: About a mile, mile and a half away and that -- that's the first time that I noticed that there was some pieces of ice on top of the high -- the -- the -- the cliff.


KEN TOOVAK: So. We were just chatting about -- about the -- the -- the time when the ice was piling up around -- around Charles D. Brower's --


KEN TOOVAK: -- trading post, and --


KEN TOOVAK: -- and odds and ends of what we've already --

RON METZNER: Discussed --

KEN TOOVAK: Recorded.


KEN TOOVAK: And I just ask him another question -- what we missed, you know. So I dunno what he's gonna say.

Yeah, I ask him what we missed just while ago and then Otis is telling a story about how he hunt back inland -- inland for hunting caribou and foxes and what all. But any rate, when he's out hunting he just -- he just keep on going.

Keep himself moving. Just keep hunting day after day, day after day you know. And so Taaqpak's wife made him a sled cover out of -- out of caribou bull hides -- skins, you know.

When the fur is removed thin, short and like --


KEN TOOVAK: Early, summer-caught caribou. So he got -- she made sled cover out of four caribou hides for sled cover.

And then -- and then he got another -- what they call -- Qalugvik. It's more like kinda bit of a shape like sod house but --


KEN TOOVAK: -- but out of caribou skins.


KEN TOOVAK: Using those long willow kinda bow and then they -- all they do is take a few sticks of those, kinda bowed pieces and stick the ends in the -- in the snow and then made him a little -- little shelter for the -- for overnight.




KEN TOOVAK: -- save a lot of time trying to make a bit of a shelter.

When the -- where I notic -- I mean Otis went out hunt in those mounds -- those mounds are, oh -- oh I dunno how far away from Beechey Point but anyway, roughly around seventy miles maybe. You know those high --

RON METZNER: Mountains?

KEN TOOVAK: Mounds. They're not mountains but they're mounds --

RON METZNER: Mounds --

KEN TOOVAK: Round mounds, you know?

RON METZNER: Okay, I understand.

KEN TOOVAK: Kinda white -- white rocks on top --


KEN TOOVAK: Kinda light, you know. They call them Kaguktuq .

RON METZNER: Kaguktuq?

KEN TOOVAK: Kaguktuq. That means there's some kinda white color rocks --


KEN TOOVAK: -- on top. So, one time old Taaqpak and his wife went up by dog team and then -- in winter months camp in the -- one of those high mounds to get to the -- they use that for lookout for any -- any -- any animal games and --


KEN TOOVAK: -- caribou and what all. They camped there for overnight and then that south wind picked up --


KEN TOOVAK: The wind picked up while they were on top and boy he -- he said that's an awful lot of wind, you know.

RON METZNER: Uh-huh. Yeah.

KEN TOOVAK: Having a cabin up on top.


KEN TOOVAK: So he said that was a wrong thing that old Taaqpak made the mistake to camp way up on top.

So on those trips the weather gets cold, no wind -- no wind weather gets cold -- real cold, clear sky and even the caribou gets like a jelly. Gets thick it was so cold -- uh, kerosene.

RON METZNER: The kerosene gets thick?



KEN TOOVAK: Gets kinda milky, kinda white. I mean, kinda bit whitish but --


KEN TOOVAK: -- gets thick. It' so cold.


KEN TOOVAK: So that means it must be cold --


KEN TOOVAK: The last part of the -- that tape was telling a story of -- of -- of kerosene gets cold and thick and then -- and then Otis Ahkivgak was out hunting again with -- by dog team and -- and then one day kinda shortage of -- of animals around so he finally saw this owl -- snowy owl and shot at 'em and missed 'em and shot at 'em and missed 'em and so finally he -- he hit him and caught this owl.

And he was getting kinda hungry for owl he just made himself a -- set up his tent even though the weather, I mean the day was 'bout -- middle of the day he just set his tent -- camp for the day and make him an owl food.



RON METZNER: And that's it? That's the end --

KEN TOOVAK: So that's the end of the --

RON METZNER: End of the --

KEN TOOVAK: -- interview.

RON METZNER: Okay. That takes care of the interview.