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Harold Itta

Harold Itta was interviewed on July 26, 1978 by Kenneth Toovak in Barrow, Alaska for a project related to potential oil development of the Alaskan continental shelf. The original interview was in Inupiaq. The interview was first translated into English in 1979 by Molly Pederson and appears in the Historical References to Ice Conditions Along the Beaufort Sea Coast of Alaska (Scientific Report, Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks, 1979). The interview was translated again in August 2014 by Ronald Brower, Sr. and appears below synced with the Inupiaq audio.  In the introduction, Kenneth Toovak says this is the second tape of Harold Itta, but it is the only recording of him that we have. This recording matches up part-way through the transcript in the report (see p. A-II-4), but does not start where the written transcript begins. So there must have been a part one that is now missing and all we have is the written part in English in the report. In this part of the interview, Harold talks about sea ice conditions on the northern Beaufort Sea coast and around Barrow, Alaska. He discusses years of a lot of ice, long distance travel to open leads, ice movement, shallow areas, and the ice break up event in Barrow in the 1950s when many whaling crews lost their equipment and had to run to safety.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 97-64-04

Project: Sea Ice in Northern Alaska
Date of Interview: Jul 26, 1978
Narrator(s): Harold Itta
Interviewer(s): Kenneth Toovak
Transcriber: Ronald Brower, Sr.
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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1930 was a big ice year and prevented catching a whale

Distance traveled to open lead

Winter of 1932 when there was large ice movement

Formation of pressure ridges and shallow areas

Ice movement at Cape Halkett, Beechey Point, and Cross Island

Ice breakup event at Barrow in the 1950s when whalers lost equipment and had to run for safety

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


KENNETH TOOVAK: Tavra. This is the second tape of what Harold's talking in his memory. In 1930, when you went to sea boating, were there large ice masses? HAROLD ITTA: Yes.

KENNETH TOOVAK: They never drifted away?

HAROLD ITTA: There were many very large ice masses at that time. You see. KENNETH TOOVAK: Yes.

HAROLD ITTA: The ocean froze them in, you see.


HAROLD ITTA: Over here, they were all over the sea. There was an overabundance of massive ice that year.

KENNETH TOOVAK: I see. Was there water along its edge?

HAROLD ITTA: There was plenty of open water.

KENNETH TOOVAK: Was it 2 miles, maybe 3 miles or more, to the lead?

HAROLD ITTA: It was about 3 miles. Because one could see the bergs floating by. KENNETH TOOVAK: I see.

HAROLD ITTA: But further out the ice bergs that are there are always very large.

KENNETH TOOVAK: Yes. In this area?

HAROLD ITTA: Yes. It is in front of the barrier islands and out, massive ice floes were taken out to the deep sea.

KENNETH TOOVAK: Yes? Uh! Were these the massive ice floes?

HAROLD ITTA: Yes. Some were extremely large, thick, flat ice. Thinking that we might catch a whale. I took the men out to sea, but we never saw any whales. Well, sea was filled with rubble ice, making for difficult conditions.

KENNETH TOOVAK: I see. HAROLD ITTA: So we never caught a whale. KENNETH TOOVAK: Yes.

HAROLD ITTA: Well, after this massive ice movement went by us, we tried to hunt whale again,


HAROLD ITTA: In the inlet the grounded ice never moved throughout the year. After that experience, I never spent much time on the ice. I never ventured too often to hunt on sea ice anymore. However, at opportune times, I will make for the open lead.


HAROLD ITTA: Down there, where the lead opens. I tell you, it is always a great distance from shore.

KENNETH TOOVAK: Yes. So to get there, you must have traveled at least two miles per hour or something like that. HAROLD ITTA: The way is tightly woven to get through, I tell you.

KENNETH TOOVAK: I see. HAROLD ITTA: One might travel fast by dog team. But one must take a lunch break before you make it to the edge of open lead.

KENNETH TOOVAK: During some winters?

HAROLD ITTA: Yes. The ocean ice is relatively smooth and does not require cutting a trail to pass.

KENNETH TOOVAK: I see. HAROLD ITTA: The way weaves around tall pressure ridges on the way there. KENNETH TOOVAK: I see.

HAROLD ITTA: In regard to the wet edge of the ice. The lead opens and closes. It never moves far. It just opens and closes ‘back and forth’. It behaves like that.

KENNETH TOOVAK: I see. So when you set trail early in the morning. You must break for lunch then travel a while before you get to the open water?

HAROLD ITTA: Yes. It was one winter that Isuġaaq and I were by the lead. Whenever I see him, I recall that winter, the year. It was in the winter of 1932 that Isuġaaq and I were by the lead. While Kunak was still alive. KENNETH TOOVAK: I see. HAROLD ITTA: It was an extra-long distance to get there. KENNETH TOOVAK: I agree. HAROLD ITTA: One had to eat a midday meal before getting there.

KENNETH TOOVAK: It must be 20 miles, maybe 25 miles out? HAROLD ITTA: I believe it is closer to 25 miles. Somewhere around there. KENNETH TOOVAK: I see. 25 miles.

HAROLD ITTA: We were traveling at a goodly speed. Even then, the island was still a long distance off shore.

KENNETH TOOVAK: Agreed, 20-25 miles.

HAROLD ITTA: Even If you just make it 20 miles, I consider that correct. But that will be close enough! He always come over. That son-in-law of mine. Always bring meat. KENNETH TOOVAK: I see. HAROLD ITTA: Yes.

That is the I had experienced hunting out on the sea ice. I must say that I was not on the sea ice very often. KENNETH TOOVAK: Yes? HAROLD ITTA: The power of the sea which unfolded before my eyes.

KENNETH TOOVAK: This is very good! This is the kind of information the researchers wanted to know.

HAROLD ITTA: Perhaps it happened in the winter of 1932, or was it 30? Anyways, it was before Christmas, that the whole ocean ice moved westward en mass sliding over the barrier islands then on to the forming large pressure ridges sliding along the mainland, going over the coast where people were not living. Now the west winds pushing this ice mass opened a lead a great distance from shore. As soon as we hit the coast, expecting to see open water nearby, spent a half a day of rough traveling toward it, but I never reached it. KENNETH TOOVAK: I see. HAROLD ITTA: That open lead caused by the west wind. So there I was.

KENNETH TOOVAK: I see. Was that in winter at Christmas time? HAROLD ITTA: When we went to the Christmas gathering. There were several of us men that attempted to reach the lead. That was before Quvana had a spouse. KENNETH TOOVAK: Who? HAROLD ITTA: I said before Quvana found a spouse.

KENNETH TOOVAK: Oh, that man out there. Okay.

HAROLD ITTA: Yes. When we reached Isuk, I chanced to walk that ice out toward the lead. After walking four hours, I did not see anything. So I decided to return to the mainland. KENNETH TOOVAK: I see. HAROLD ITTA: I thought the open water might be closer, because polar bears are often near. KENNETH TOOVAK: I see. HAROLD ITTA: The lead is always such a long distance out to sea. It is especially difficult to get to the lead in the spring because it is way out there. KENNETH TOOVAK: I agree. HAROLD ITTA: The lead is a very long distance from shore.

KENNETH TOOVAK: When you consider it, the sea edge from Point Barrow eastward, lies in a fairly straight line as far as Mitituaq. HAROLD ITTA: To Mitituaq, I agree. KENNETH TOOVAK: It runs almost in a straight line. HAROLD ITTA: All the way in front of Mitituaq.

KENNETH TOOVAK: I agree. In the fall, when the sea freezes when there are no grounded ice. Do pressure ridges form along this coast?

HAROLD ITTA: Yes, it does, but it does not move far inland. The pressure ridges form only on the coastline. Since the time the large ice floes that were blown into the inlets, I quit trapping out there. The land side never have pressure ridges. Just some small ones in the inlet. You have to realize this is a large inlet. KENNETH TOOVAK: It has been found that there is a long shallow close to the shore. HAROLD ITTA: I agree.

KENNETH TOOVAK: It is about 3 feet deep along this shoal. HAROLD ITTA: It is noticeable in the summer when it is windy. Waves break over it as white water.

KENNETH TOOVAK: I agree. When we were traveling west by boat oaring.

HAROLD ITTA: That shoal is an extension of the Point.

KENNETH TOOVAK: I agree. I almost bottomed out the boat there. So by oaring further out we were able to pass through deeper waters. We almost bottomed out but we made it to the islands. HAROLD ITTA: West of the bay? KENNETH TOOVAK: On the islands on the eastside point Atigaru.

HAROLD ITTA: When one is traveling west. And the winds are blowing from the east, once you go around that shoal, one can travel rapidly westward. KENNETH TOOVAK: I agree: HAROLD ITTA: In shallow waters.

KENNETH TOOVAK: Yes, while it is shallow on that side. In its calm water, when Iqsraq was talking about it. Is safer for boating west.

HAROLD ITTA: I agree that the other side is much calmer. Nevertheless we were almost tipped over by the boat we were delivering as we were rounding the bend from the east. That was when we were about to go around the Point. KENNETH TOOVAK: I see. HAROLD ITTA: So once we made it around the Point and went around the bend, we were in calm waters. KENNETH TOOVAK: Yes.

HAROLD ITTA: However the coastline is shallow. But one can see, it is a large bay. KENNETH TOOVAK: I agree. HAROLD ITTA: There were large icebergs scattered about. KENNETH TOOVAK: I can imagine. Around here? HAROLD ITTA: That is the shallow area. KENNETH TOOVAK: And this area? HAROLD ITTA: That is also shallow water.

KENNETH TOOVAK: So this is all shallow water, okay. In the winter, in the deep winter, does this ice ever move? HAROLD ITTA: It hardly ever moves if at all. KENNETH TOOVAK: I see. HAROLD ITTA: Unless it starts breaking off in sheets from the seaward side. KENNETH TOOVAK: Alright. HAROLD ITTA: There was one winter that the sea ice moved up en mass up the shores way down the coast. Going up about one mile inland in some places before it stopped. In the late fall. KENNETH TOOVAK: Yes. HAROLD ITTA: It was thickened new ice that was shoved forward as the pack ice sheared creating a massive lead in the process. Pack ice starts to move as winter approaches. That was when we lived with them hunting and trapping on the sea ice. KENNETH TOOVAK: Where at? HAROLD ITTA: At the point of Isuk . KENNETH TOOVAK: I see. HAROLD ITTA: The pack ice jarred loose en mass as spring approached. KENNETH TOOVAK: I see. HAROLD ITTA: When the opening lead sheared off, it swept out massive ice masses with pressure ridges and shear along its edges. KENNETH TOOVAK: Would you say one mile wide or what? HAROLD ITTA: The lead was about one mile wide, in some places more.

KENNETH TOOVAK: This happened in the winter? HAROLD ITTA: Yes. It was a winter lead. It was when --

KENNETH TOOVAK: 19 --? HAROLD ITTA: -- I believe it was around 1930 or in 1926 that it happened. KENNETH TOOVAK: This event?

HAROLD ITTA: Let us see. It was when they first joined us here.

KENNETH TOOVAK: Was that before Thelma was born? HAROLD ITTA: Yes. Let’s see. No, It was after she was born around 28. KENNETH TOOVAK: So it was after Thelma was born? HAROLD ITTA: Yes. It was after she was born. KENNETH TOOVAK: So it was after she was born. Thelma was born in 1928. HAROLD ITTA: So that was the condition of the sea ice that winter. KENNETH TOOVAK: Yes? HAROLD ITTA: I was trapping foxes over to Sikulik Island.

KENNETH TOOVAK: Was that in 1928 or 29?

HAROLD ITTA: It occurred in 1928.

KENNETH TOOVAK: So it happened in 1928? Oh. '28.

HAROLD ITTA: It melted the ice, rapidly, as soon as it first warmed up. Because it was not thick ice. KENNETH TOOVAK: Yes? HAROLD ITTA: It was newly formed ice that went over the land.

KENNETH TOOVAK: When, January? February?

HAROLD ITTA: It happened in February.

KENNETH TOOVAK: I wonder if the open lead came close to Amauliktuuq? HAROLD ITTA: I do not know sea ice conditions there. So I cannot say how it is over there. KENNETH TOOVAK: I understand. HAROLD ITTA: I do not know how far out the lead forms from there.

KENNETH TOOVAK: This island is bent in the direction as compared to others, see?. HAROLD ITTA: I see.

KENNETH TOOVAK: It is turned outward from Beechey Point. Whereas this island is leaning toward Beechey Point. So if a west wind blows, it causes a lead to open. Perhaps the lead opens in a northeast direction? HAROLD ITTA: I agree. KENNETH TOOVAK: It seems because shelf edge goes in a northeast direction. HAROLD ITTA: It would be in a northeast direction so I agree. KENNETH TOOVAK: I think I am pretty close in identifying the ice movement forming that particular lead to that point. HAROLD ITTA: I agree.

I believe it was Aligiyaq who fell into the water and got wet that time.

I did not mean to waste your time.

KENNETH TOOVAK: I say we have done very well. As you were talking, I was able to mark them on to this map so that is very helpful. HAROLD ITTA: So I would end that discussion here. KENNETH TOOVAK: Alright. HAROLD ITTA: So in that way, with regard to our journey from the east, this was our experience, living off the land, as we came west to Barrow.

KENNETH TOOVAK: Thank you very much!

HAROLD ITTA: Thank you for coming.

KENNETH TOOVAK: After discussing his life experiences living along the coasts east of Barrow. Harold will be talking about the leads off the coast of Point Barrow. And of the whaling ships and men who lost everything to escape the sudden closing of the lead.

HAROLD ITTA: Well, I was out there for a while, but came ashore. KENNETH TOOVAK: I see. HAROLD ITTA: I needed to replenish my rations. So I came ashore just as the ocean currents shifted to the southwest currents.


HAROLD ITTA: However, there was a great span of water.

KENNETH TOOVAK: When the currents shifted to southwest currents?

HAROLD ITTA: Yes. Well, that time, Sam and I went out toward the open lead. KENNETH TOOVAK: I see. HAROLD ITTA: I told Sam alright. To grab that brand new shot gun so we could shoot ducks as well. He wanted to wait a while. KENNETH TOOVAK: Oh. HAROLD ITTA: So when I fell asleep -- We fell asleep. The next day, when we woke up the ice was already forming huge pressure ridges when we finally became aware of what was happening. KENNETH TOOVAK: Oh.

HAROLD ITTA: There were Sam, Uula, Kuutchiuraq, Aaġuraq, and our young man David Nukapigak.


HAROLD ITTA: So when the boats started heading out to the lead, I wanted to follow, but I had no dogs. Because the whalers had taken my dogs as well.


HAROLD ITTA: It happened suddenly. The ice, broke into large floes and moved rapidly out to sea. Traveling very fast. KENNETH TOOVAK: So the west wind were the cause? HAROLD ITTA: It was not the west winds I believe. It was strong ocean currents from the southwest. KENNETH TOOVAK: Oh. It was the southwesterly currents. HAROLD ITTA: Wind was not so much the problem.


HAROLD ITTA: So after we had something hot to drink we got started again. We saw them cast aside their boats. When I was asked to cast my boat, I held on to our boat, saying we need at least one boat to cross with. We happened to be on the same ice floe with them.

KENNETH TOOVAK: So they wanted to leave their boat and follow you ashore? HAROLD ITTA: They were sure they lost their dogs to the moving ice. But surprisingly, most of them made it to shore. Sam and James had taken the darting guns and broke the handles so they could carry them to safety.

KENNETH TOOVAK: Just broke their handles off?

HAROLD ITTA: Yes. So they just broke off the handles carry that part with their hands. I sure was concerned for Ikiun. But there is no communications and yelling is of no use. There were no radio then. KENNETH TOOVAK: No radio for sure. HAROLD ITTA: So as we were nearing darkness, people barely saw me from a large pressure ridge. When I looked with the binoculars, I was surprised to see so many men. KENNETH TOOVAK: Yes. HAROLD ITTA: While they were reluctant to let their boat go, they joined us instead. To the best of the boats that were cast aside. KENNETH TOOVAK: Yes. That is so. HAROLD ITTA: Tukle took possession of one of the cast away boats and used it for rescuing men off the ice. KENNETH TOOVAK: Oh I see. HAROLD ITTA: So we used the large boats to ferry people to shore from the drifting ice. And so everyone was able to make the shore. KENNETH TOOVAK: I see. HAROLD ITTA: Sam came to us and told us all of his whaling equipment was lost including his dogs. KENNETH TOOVAK: Yes? HAROLD ITTA: I asked him, "How is Kuutchiuraq?" He replied, "They are taking him to shore." I turned to him and told him, “Before me is the most precious thing. I do not care about the equipment. As long as you are alive.” KENNETH TOOVAK: That‘s right. HAROLD ITTA: Our equipment was lost, but our boat was not damaged. KENNETH TOOVAK: I see. HAROLD ITTA: Our sled was found but there was no runner on one side. KENNETH TOOVAK: Yes? HAROLD ITTA: That was the sled for the boat. KENNETH TOOVAK: So they found the boat? HAROLD ITTA: Yes. It was surprisingly not damaged by the massive piling of pressure ridges. KENNETH TOOVAK: So they found it? HAROLD ITTA: Yes, they found it in front of Tapqaaluk Islands on top of the pressure ridge. HAROLD ITTA: After he went scouting, Reverend Wartes came to our house and told me he found our boat: saying,“I found your boat I think it must be pretty close to the North Pole! KENNETH TOOVAK: Was this in 1952? 51? 52? Somewhere around that time. HAROLD ITTA: Yes. KENNETH TOOVAK: It was in April, during the spring, when this happened? HAROLD ITTA: Yes. Because we were hunting in earnest. KENNETH TOOVAK: I see. HAROLD ITTA: Men went in search of their hunting equipment and were able to save some whaling equipment and found stove in boats. They lost their dog team as well. But two dogs returned after some time but the rest were lost. So this concludes that event which I was involved in. And I will stop here. KENNETH TOOVAK: Yes. We will end here. HAROLD ITTA: Okay.

KENNETH TOOVAK: Thank you very much!