Ross Schaeffer was interviewed on March 29, 2016 by Karen Brewster, Andy Mahoney, and Rebecca Rolph at his home in Kotzebue, Alaska. In this first part of a two part interview, Ross talks about growing up as a hunter in Kotzebue and learning about ice conditions. Ross discusses the changing ice conditions around Kotzebue and the effect it has seal and beluga whale hunting and his subsistence hunting activities. He talks about thinning ice, the effect of wind and current, the timing of freeze-up and break-up, dealing with tides and overflow, being safe on the ice, and stories about people drifting out on the ice.
Digital Asset Information
Project: Sea Ice in Northern Alaska
Date of Interview: Mar 29, 2016
Narrator(s): Ross Schaeffer
Interviewer(s): Karen Brewster, Andrew "Andy" Mahoney, Rebecca Rolph
Transcriber: Denali Whiting
After clicking play, click on a section to navigate the audio or video clip.
Personal and family background
Jobs, and hunting and trapping
Learning to seal hunt and travel on the ice from his father
Disappearance of two hunters on the ice
Effect of wind and creation of safe ice
Changes in ice thickness
Beluga whale hunting
Father's first power boat and learning the importance of sharing
Timing of freeze-up
Overflow and tides
Changing winds and seasonal round
Effect of noise on beluga whales
Seal hunting, landfast ice, and leads at Sealing Point
Changing ice thickness in Kotzebue Sound to Cape Espenberg
Paying attention to wind and current when out on the ice
Old tradition of camping on the ice when seal hunting
Changes in the currents and the wind
Stories about people drifting out on the ice
Determining when the ice is safe
Importance of pressure ridges and ice piles, and affect on seal population
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After clicking play, click a section of the transcript to navigate the audio or video clip.
KAREN BREWSTER: Today is March 29, 2016, and this is Karen Brewster and we’re here in Kotzebue, Alaska with Ross Schaeffer for the Northern Alaska Sea Ice Project Jukebox project. And we’re here at Ross’s house in Kotzebue in -- joined also by Andy Mahoney and Becca Rolph, am I saying it correctly? And then sitting in the background is, um, somebody who doesn’t -- who’s not going to say anything. Okay.
So Ross, thank you for letting us come visit you today. So just to kind of get us started so people know a little bit about who you are, can you tell us a little about when/where you were born, your growing up, things like that.
ROSS SCHAEFFER: Ok. Yeah. Well, my mother’s mother was from Barrow. And my grandmother on my dad’s side was from Buckland. And they moved here in 1898 and we've lived here since.
And Dad grew up here as a hunter. Probably one of the most prolific hunters around.
And it was an era of the dog team, they had no other means of transportation except for the dog team. So it was a different kind hunting. You know, they -- they spoke fluent Iñupiaq in all their hunts.
I had a brother, Pete, that came home in his freshman year from Copper Valley when I got there in 1961, and he said he had a chance to go hunt with dad and the rest of the guys.
He kind of really felt left out because they only spoke Iñupiaq. They didn’t speak English. So Pete said he had a tough time.
Unfortunately, our folks didn’t teach us Iñupiaq. But luckily, we learned so much from our folks on our traditional way of living, which was hunting, fishing, processing the foods, storing it, and getting to know the land and the ocean.
My dad spent most of his time out in the ocean. You know, they had to feed their dogs so dad said every half mile out in the lead was a hunter. And that’s the way it was when they were growing up.
And now, as I told you earlier, that I’m the only one that goes out there. And if a guy decides to go hunting, he’s looking for my trail. Because dad taught us very, very well.
KAREN BREWSTER: What -- Before you said something about somebody in your family learning Iñupiaq. That was -- Was that your grandfather? Who came from someplace else?
ROSS SCHAEFFER: Yeah, my -- my -- our grandfather was from somewhere around the Michigan area. And he came up in the gold rush in 1898.
And then married my grandma who was a full-blooded Eskimo. And when we grew up with her, she spoke just few words of English. But she spoke fluent Iñupiaq.
KAREN BREWSTER: And she was from Kotzebue or she was from Buckland?
ROSS SCHAEFFER: She was from Buckland. Yeah, mm-hm. And she was a very traditional Iñupiaq in terms of the Native spirituality. She didn’t go to church, she lived totally the Iñupiaq way.
And my dad learned everything from her in terms of the spiritual way of hunting. And he lived at camp for many years, about 11 years, with his dad and mom and three siblings.
And then they moved here to Kotzebue and he spent all his time hunting out of Kotzebue.
KAREN BREWSTER: And may I ask what year you were born?
ROSS SCHAEFFER: I was born in 1947. Yeah. All of us were born in our folk’s home by midwife.
KAREN BREWSTER: And so you’re from a big family. How many boys and girls?
ROSS SCHAEFFER: Uh, we actually had twelve. And two died very young. And I’m named after my grandpa who was Roswell Schaeffer.
And my Eskimo name is Qalayauq.
KAREN BREWSTER: And then you said you went to school at Copper Valley?
ROSS SCAEFFER: Yeah, we had a BIA education here, and luckily my mom decided to send us to Copper Valley because they sure taught us how to read and write and do math, you know.
When we came out of the BIA education, we didn’t know how to write, we didn’t know how to read, and even simple math was difficult for us.
And the nuns and the priests over there taught us right from the beginning and brought us up where we were able to go to college right after high school and -- and actually do well.
So, we were very, very lucky to have that experience.
And the beautiful thing about Copper Valley was that -- and it’s between Glenallen and Copper Center, was that we hunted for the school. We hunted caribou, we hunted moose. Rabbits. Ptarmigan, you know.
So, we didn’t give up much of our way of life. In fact, I started learning how to trap when I was down there. My dad taught me the basics when I was a little boy. And then I started trapping down there.
KAREN BREWSTER: They must've had a big garden, also, at the school?
ROSS SCHAEFFER: Yeah, my -- my grandfather was a farmer. In fact, there’s stories about his sod roof had huge turnips growing out of it. So, yeah, he was real proud of that.
And the reason I got my Eskimo name Qalayauq was that he traded with a good friend of ours, her name was Lena Sours. Her name was Suuyuk.
She -- she lived to be about 111 years old. And her -- her mother was Qalayauq.
And so, her mother and my grandpa had a relationship in terms of trading. Trading his fresh goods for mukluks, parkies, and stuff like that. And so when I was born, they gave me her name.
REBECCA ROLPH: Nice ROSS SCHAEFFER: Yeah
KAREN BREWSTER: And then you said you went to school in Fairbanks?
ROSS SCHAEFFER: Yeah, you know, after high school I had a choice of going into the Vietnam War or going to college, and the nuns convinced me to go to college.
So, I went to college and luckily I never did get drafted. I finished college in 1972. Got a B.A. degree in sociology and social work emphasis.
Moved back home that winter in December of ’72 and there were no jobs. It was a real eye-opener.
We had about 1,100 people living in Kotzebue at the time. And by the spring of ’73, I landed a magistrate job and worked that job for eight years. Yeah.
KAREN BREWSTER: And then what else? Did you do other things after that?
ROSS SCHAEFFER: Yeah, I did a lot of things. You know, I -- I trapped full time. I hunted sea mammals full time. I commercial fished full time. And I worked full time.
I trapped at night, and I did a lot of my hunting at night and weekends.
And any free time that I had, like annual leave, would be hunting sea mammals and also commercial fishing. So, I traveled this country, all this whole country at night. Just with a -- carry a .22 mag and trapping almost full time.
KAREN BREWSTER: And, was that -- that -- by then you were using a snowmachine, right?
ROSS SCHAEFFER: Yeah, you know we -- my dad switched his dog team in 1966. Winter of ’65.
KAREN BREWSTER: Wow, that’s early.
ROSS SCHAEFFER: Yeah. He was one of the later ones. KAREN BREWSTER: Oh, really?
ROSS SCHAEFFER: Yeah. And, in fact, when I came home in December of ’66, that was when I -- my first semester of college. I took his dog team out and they were really out of shape. And I traveled ten miles across and it was about 38 below.
And that was the last time I ever used his dogs. And I don’t think anybody ever used them after that. Yeah, so --
KAREN BREWSTER: And so, besides the magistrate, what other kind of jobs -- ROSS SCHAEFFER: Well, you know, I --
KAREN BREWSTER: Did you use your social work?
ROSS SCHAEFFER: You know, I -- I learned a lot on how to deal with people. So I became more of a manager of people and programs.
I worked for the school district as a student advisor, it’s a counseling job. And my job at the time was to get the juniors and seniors ready for college or vocational schools.
And then once they went to the schools, then I followed them to the schools periodically to bring Native foods and have a gathering and get them to support each other.
And I did that for five years, and then I became the NANA president. And I didn’t last long in that job. I had some real serious health problems and -- and once I quit the job and got my health problems fixed, I recovered very well. So.
And then I trapped full time 'til ’85 and I -- after my magistrate job in ’83, I trapped for two full years.
And then I hurt myself and then I kinda got away from that. Went back to managing again.
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah, you said you -- is that when you fell off that cliff?
ROSS SCHAEFFER: Mm-hm, yeah. I fell off a cliff in -- in a ground storm, and I had six caribou hit me in the top of the head. Didn’t kill me, but it sure hurt my back. Yeah, so --
After that, I had different jobs but I was looking for the right job and I finally -- I worked in different programs with the State just to build up my retirement.
And then finally landed a -- a borough mayor job and held that for two terms, six years. Then I retired after that. Yeah.
And so, now that I’m retired, I hunt and I was trapping but my grandson does all the trapping. I just go along with him and help him.
KAREN BREWSTER: And how many children have you raised?
ROSS SCHAEFFER: Just three. Yeah. Mm-hm. And twin grandkids. A boy and a girl, yeah.
KAREN BREWSTER: I need to interrupt for a second, I know you probably don’t even -- but you’re tapping on the table. ROSS SCHAEFFER: Oh. Okay.
KAREN BREWSTER: If you could you try not to do that? It’s probably -- you don’t even realize you’re doing it, but the microphone -- so, sorry. I don’t want to constrain you.
ROSS SCHAEFFER: Yeah, that's alright.
KAREN BREWSTER: Anyway, so let’s talk about your hunting and out on the ice and all those kinds of things. ROSS SCHAEFFER: Yeah, okay.
KAREN BREWSTER: So when do you remember first going out hunting on the ice? ROSS SCHAEFFER: On the ice --
KAREN BREWSTER: How old were you?
ROSS SCHAEFFER: We couldn’t do it when we were in high school because we were in Copper Valley during the winter. But we -- we came home every spring and we went out on the ice hunting ugruk with my dad.
And he was a really good teacher. And he knew the ice better than anybody around here.
And he drilled it in our minds never to hunt in a lead after a west wind. You always hunt after a east wind.
And you could hunt after a north wind along the Sisualik coast, which is a coast toward Kivalina, because then you have an offshore wind and all the broken ice is gone.
The west wind brings in the ice and then it covers up everything and you get fooled that it’s safe. So that -- that he drilled into us all the time.
And we lost two other guys that were older but they didn’t get that knowledge. A couple guys disappeared about ten years ago or so --
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah, I've read about those. Like 1999, I think. ROSS SCHAEFFER: Hm-mm, yeah, yeah
KAREN BREWSTER: And they were pretty experienced
ROSS SCHAEFFER: They were experienced but they -- they made the mistake of going out after a west wind.
And a mistake -- the other mistake they made was they traveled together.
When I have -- out on the ice I say, “You travel 50 feet behind me. You might have to save my life,” you know.
So you never can know what’s gonna happen. Because snow can cover up danger places and especially now where you have extreme thin ice out there it’s, it’s -- you have to be very, very careful.
KAREN BREWSTER: I find it interesting about the east, west wind. I would think east wind would push the ice out, so you wouldn’t want to be out there ‘cause it’d get pushed out.
ROSS SCHAEFFER: No, no, it pushes the ice out so you have a clear lead. There’s no broken ice, it’s all gone.
ANDY MAHONEY: So-- so the loose ice is gone but the safe ice stays? So, you know where the safe ice is?
ROSS SCHAEFFER: Yeah, the safe ice is right there. So you can drive right up to it. Yeah.
And we thought we had that last year. We had an east wind. I didn’t go out in December because it was too warm, but I want out in January.
When we went out there, after a east wind, the sikuliaq or the young ice didn’t even move out. It was still there.
And so I stopped and pulled out my stick and my second hit I went through. So that meant that the ice was about a inch thick.
But it had about four inches of snow that kept me afloat. And then I checked my grandson’s snowmachine behind it and he was on good ice and I was on the thin ice.
KAREN BREWSTER: And that’s what you said, that it was starting to get wet around your snowmachine?
ROSS SCHAEFFER: Yeah, mm-hm. The ice was only 3 inches thick. We went the whole coast out in the ocean where the channel is and the sand bars. And the ice was only 3 inches thick out there.
In fact, when we got to the southern part there was no snow on it and we could tell it was green ice. It was very, very thin ice.
And when we went from there right to the beach, about two miles from my camp, which is about nine miles from Kotzebue, the lead was right to the beach. Right there. And that was in January.
KAREN BREWSTER: That’s down the coast. Towards Cape Blossom?
ROSS SCHAEFFER: Yeah, Cape Blossom way. Yeah. So, each year, I -- I check the ice. Because I hunt seals in the late spring in April. We call them qakiruaq, seals that go on top the ice.
And I always look at the thickness of the ice. And the last ten years the ice -- the maximum depth was about four -- three feet. There was nothing more thicker than that.
In the area, we used to get four or five feet, six feet of ice, you know. And this year we have eight inches of ice out there.
And it froze since March, and right where Bob and I were putting the crab pots it was about a foot thick. So, since three weeks ago, it only gained four inches.
KAREN BREWSTER: So, where you were putting your crab pot, three weeks ago, a month ago, it was open water? ROSS SCHAEFFER: Yeah, hm-mm. KAREN BREWSTER: And now it’s ice? ROSS SCHAEFFER: Yeah. It’s ice and it’s only a foot thick.
KAREN BREWSTER: And how far out was that?
ROSS SCHAEFFER: That’s 25 miles from here and about a mile out from the shore. Yeah. Yup.
KAREN BREWSTER: So that’s pretty far down into the -- so 25 miles -- ROSS SCHAEFFER: Hm-mm, yeah. On the coast.
KAREN BREWSTER: -- on the coast, that’s pretty far down to still be open -- to have been open water.
ROSS SCHAEFFER: Yeah, normally you get a real strong east wind, we have a lead out here straight out from Kotzebue. Anywhere from 8 to 15 miles out. In a normal good, solid year.
And nowadays, it’s right up to the sand bar, which is only eight miles out. Yeah, so -- Much, much different.
KAREN BREWSTER: When was the last time you had a normal year?
ROSS SCHAEFFER: Mm -- it’s hard to -- you know. When I’m looking at four foot ice it’s a long, long time ago. I would assume maybe eight to ten years ago.
Just for an example, one time I went out in first of March. And I traveled 65 miles out. From Kotzebue straight out on the lead. Followed the edge of the lead.
And now, you can only travel eight miles out without hitting bum ice. Thin ice.
So that’s how much difference there was in -- probably in 1990s the year that I traveled out there. 65 miles straight out from Kotzebue.
KAREN BREWSTER: Wow. ROSS SCHAEFFER: Yeah. So --
KAREN BREWSTER: So you -- when you were a little boy, did you go out -- your dad taught you in like high school. But did you go out when you were younger than that?
ROSS SCHAEFFER: We went out hunting but it was mostly sea mammal hunting, beluga hunting. We followed --
You know, the -- the way you learn is you do all the chores, and you do the driving. And that’s how you learn how to hunt.
And then once you get a certain age and you can handle the 30.6, then you’re advanced to a gunner.
And so we spent a lot of our time driving the boat.
KAREN BREWSTER: And so, yeah, beluga hunting's in --
ROSS SCHAEFFER: In June. Yeah. Usually June 15th. Normal break-up time.
And the difference now compared to the old days -- in the old days, what happens -- the reason why the belugas come here is that the Noatak River break -- break a channel.
And once it comes down, the ice is going underneath and it’s breaking the ice. All the way out and it goes straight out into the ocean.
And as soon as we get a -- that little -- it’s like a funnel. It breaks a little, then it goes out to the ocean.
Then the belugas are waiting out there and they come right in, 'cause they know they’re gonna have lot of fish.
We have lot of tom cod migrating out. We have lots of herring migrating in. We have whitefish migrating in. And trout migrating out.
So, once they get into our bay, then the ice starts to move and closes up, they stay in our bay for three weeks.
Nowadays, like last winter, you saw the ocean right from town. And so, the belugas don’t have that funnel into our bay anymore. So they go wherever they want to go, they don’t come into our bay when it’s like that.
Some of them come in and they just head right straight up the Kobuk Lake, Selawik Lake. And fish there all summer long.
KAREN BREWSTER: So they -- so you -- they sort of have a wider area, open area. They’re not funneled.
ROSS SCHAEFFER: Yeah, they -- they go wherever they want to go.
One of the interesting things that I -- that I observed when I was on the Beluga Whale Committee was that we did some interviews with people from Elim, Koyuk, and Shaktoolik.
And in the interview, the interviewer was confused. The people there were talking about belugas and all of the sudden they’re talking about beavers.
They said, "Wait a minute, wait a minute, you guys are talking about beavers." "What do they got to do with the belugas?" he says.
The Eskimos told him that what’s happening with the beavers, once they get populated, they dam all the lakes. So the whitefish have to move someplace else. And so they displace that food source.
So the belugas move somewhere else. And that was their connection.
And now when you look at Kotzebue and Buckland Bay and Deering, all our areas are contaminated. There’s no safe water because the beavers are everywhere. And so they’ve made a huge impact on where the whitefish go.
KAREN BREWSTER: Even up all the way up here, huh? ROSS SCHAEFFER: Mm-hm, yeah. Yup.
KAREN BREWSTER: Wow. Yeah, well, I've heard that the belugas aren’t coming around Kotzebue Sound -- ROSS SCHAEFFER: As much. KAREN BREWSTER: -- as much, but I didn't -- ROSS SCHAEFFER: Yeah. KAREN BREWSTER: What you said about --
ROSS SCHAEFFER: That’s -- that's part of it and the other part is the -- is the openness of the ice.
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah, that funnel. Yeah, that’s really interesting. ROSS SCHAEFFER: Yeah, yeah.
KAREN BREWSTER: But so, when you were younger, beluga hunting in June is amongst kinda broken ice? You’re in a boat, but you’re in amongst --
ROSS SCHAEFFER: Yeah, in fact, you know, these last few years that people wondered why Ross Schaeffer got beluga all the time. And the only reason was that I hunted the way our dad taught us, and that was to go out there and wait for them. And so we’d wait and wait in shallow water and when they finally came, we got them.
But when you have a year like last year, we waited twelve days out there. Never saw a single beluga. Yeah.
And they tell me they were out there by the hundreds, they see them. But they never come in.
And so the other problem we have, too, is there’s a lot of killer whale activity in the deeper water.
And, in fact, last year my friend, Harry Clark, saw a killer whale right at the mouth of our channel, which is eight miles out. And they’re -- and they -- they were after a walrus and the walrus climbed up on the shallow water and just stayed there for the whole day. And the killer whales left.
So, you know, we have all these things that are happening that allow the killer whales to come right into our Sound and stay here and hunt.
And so the belugas are deathly afraid -- they’re more afraid of the killer whale than they are of the human with the gun. They’ll come right to us to get killed. They’d rather get killed by us with a gun than being chewed up -- chewed up by a killer whale. Real interesting.
Yeah, and they -- they chase them right into our shallow waters. In fact, the last two belugas we got, my grandson and I and James McClellen went out. There were six boats ahead of us.
And I was trying to find somebody to -- my truck was broke down so I was trying to find somebody to take my boat out. Finally, my buddy came by and we were about an hour late. We were the last boat out.
But we went by every boat. And went right straight out the channel and we headed over to the shallow water on the right side of Kotzebue Sound. And looked up and said “What the heck’s that over there, James?” He looked at me and said, “Those are belugas!” I said, “What’s wrong with them?”
And all of a sudden our motor started coming up, it was shallow water. They were in water half way on their bodies.
So I -- I was able to get rubber boots after I killed them to walk right up to them and put lines on them. But they were chased by killer whales.
And as we looked for more belugas further over -- we put buoys on those and went over and my buddy saw some further over. We didn’t see them.
But on our way back, we saw one beluga way inside. And we thought we saw one.
So when we got to our belugas to tie up to them, a friend of ours came from way out in the ocean and he -- I said, “Hey, you better go around this island. You can go this way. Go real slow. We see something in there. It look like it might have been a beluga.”
That beluga was on so shallow of a water that more than half it’s body was up. And the guys thought it was an island until it moved.
And then they walked up to it. And they had to walk a mile on that island, shoot it, tie a rope to it, and drag it back to their boat. Yeah, so --
Just to show you how frighten -- frightened these belugas are of killer whales. They just -- we call it qakisaaq, they just go right up on the shallow water.
KAREN BREWSTER: Beach -- beach themselves. ROSS SCHAEFFER: Beach 'em, yeah. Hm-mm. Yeah.
KAREN BREWSTER: So, you had mentioned learning from your father and I forgot to ask you what your father's name was.
ROSS SCHAEFFER: Oh, his name was John Schaeffer Sr. Yeah, hm-mm.
And he was the first beluga hunter with a outboard. Twenty-two horse. The old one with the gas tank on top. And he built a 19-foot speed boat. So he was the first one to learn how to hunt belugas with a -- with a -- a speedboat.
KAREN BREWSTER: What year would that have been? ROSS SCHAEFFER: Oh boy, that’s about -- KAREN BREWSTER: Mid-’60s?
ROSS SCHAEFFER: No, no, no. That’s way before that. That would have been probably the beginning of the ‘50s. Because his cousin’s husband gave him that motor. And they left for Seattle, I think, at that time.
And so dad, with that boat, fed the whole community. Every man would come to dad and say Dad -- “John, get you a drum of gas if you take me out.”
When you look at the beach, I -- I didn’t know it was happening that way. But I knew he took other guys out.
But, my oldest brother, John, told Bob that every hunter along the beach was all white with maktak hanging. Because dad took all these guys out.
And so we -- we learned very young that you have to share your food. Especially with elders. And -- and so now, as I’m getting older, I spend all my time hunting for elders.
And I hunt what I need and then the rest I -- I send to villages and people around this area. Feed a lot of people. Yeah.
KAREN BREWSTER: So, talking about ice and so, that kinda of, you know, you’re a big seal hunter. And so that’s natchiq and ugruk?
ROSS SCHAEFFER: Yeah. We hunt natchiq in the wintertime. All the spotted seals and ugruk migrate out.
There are ugruks out here in -- in the ocean. You could go down like Rabbit Creek between here and Kivalina about half way and get ugruk. I’ve done that before.
But we hunt natchiq all winter long. In fact, the natchiqs were so fat this year that we could barely lift them onto the sled. Normally, they’d be 150 pounds, this year they were probably 175 pounds. Yeah.
KAREN BREWSTER: And so, when is the -- when is freeze-up?
ROSS SCHAEFFER: You know, in the old days freeze-up was between the first and second week of September. To the first of October.
Nowadays, freeze-up is in November. And when the ice starts to melt -- first week of April is when we start having our first thaw.
Last year, it was first week of April. I got a bearded seal mar -- May 25th last year.
KAREN BREWSTER: From -- from shorefast ice?
ROSS SCHAEFFER: Mm-hm, yeah. In fact, three, four years ago I got one May 22. And a friend of mine got me one May 20th. Normally, we hunt ugruk the second week of June.
So our springs and our falls are super extended, and we have about a six-month winter.
In fact, now, when we look at trapping. You can’t go through these creeks anymore, they’re all flowing. And so we -- we have an area that we really want to trap, but it’s so dangerous we fell through how many times and we just kind of avoid it now. Yeah, yeah.
KAREN BREWSTER: So when we talk about freeze-up, what -- what does that mean to you? What does the ice do? What counts as freeze-up?
ROSS SCHAEFFER: Where you can drive your snowmachine on it. And we have a big bay here. And once it’s six inches to eight inches thick. You know, most of us Native folks know where all the thin parts are.
So we’re -- we're able to travel with snowmachine at that time. When it’s about that thick. That’s freeze-up for us.
So, the ocean is just open about four miles down. But the rest of this bay is kind of fresh water, brackish water. So it freezes very early.
ANDY MAHONEY: And the -- where the ice is safe and where it’s thin, is that related to where the water is deep and where it’s shallow?
ROSS SCHAEFFER: No, it -- it’s related to where the creeks are. ANDY MAHONEY: Okay.
ROSS SCHAEFFER: Yeah, mouths of creeks, and when -- when you look at a big lake like Sela -- Kot -- Kobuk Lake, you’re looking at the middle. Where usually the middle is always thinner, you know. ANDY MAHONEY: Right. ROSS SCHAEFFER: Yeah, yeah.
And there are places where in that time of year when the surge of water comes in with the tide, with either a south or a southwest wind, all the areas where the sandbars are overflow. So that’s the dangerous part.
ANDY MAHONEY: Oh, okay. ROSS SCHAEFFER: Yeah. Because the sandbar freezes, but all around it breaks. And then it over flows.
ANDY MAHONEY: So there's a crack and water comes up the crack?
ROSS SCHAEFFER: Yeah. In a normal year, in the older days, after January you had no more overflow. ‘Cause all the ice is solid to the beach. It’s not that way anymore, you got overflow all the time.
ANDY MAHONEY: Oh, interesting ROSS SCHAEFFER: Yeah. Because the ice is too thin.
ANDY MAHONEY: Right. 'Cause it’s not freezing to the bottom. Which means it can lift up with the tide and -- ROSS SCHAEFFER: Yeah. Yup.
KAREN BREWSTER: I’ve heard the word supi. Supi, like the flooding. Is that what happens in the spring when the creeks -- Is that what -- ? Maybe it’s not the right Iñupiaq word.
ROSS SCHAEFFER: Yeah, yeah. It might be different for us than it is from Barrow's.
KAREN BREWSTER: No, it's -- it's actually was from Bob Uhl.
ROSS SCHAEFFER: Oh, Bob Uhl. Uh huh. Yeah, I -- I, you know, I haven’t heard that.
KAREN BREWSTER: Okay. But yeah, so is there an effect of the tide? With the ice floating up?
ROSS SCHAEFFER: Mm-hm, absolutely. The southwest and south wind, and sometimes the west wind, brings in the good tide. But it’s mostly southwest and south. And southeast.
In fact, when -- when you’re looking at the effects upon our community, our region, our prevailing winds in the summer used to be west wind. When you have west wind, all the gravel is deposited on our shores.
Now our prevailing winds are south and southeast. So it’s taking back all the gravel and we’re losing all our coastline. So that -- that’s the real difference.
Right now, when it gets towards spring, we had no west wind all winter. All of a sudden we got this cold west wind. Soon as it warms up in the Interior, we end up with a west wind. Until finally there’s a big low that hits us from the -- from Anchorage.
And then, when we were growing up, on -- we'd come home May 20th from Copper Valley. We already had trees that are green, water's all melted, come home, ice and snow. Absolutely no melt.
Get our cross-country skis, go hunt ptarmigan. About a week later, we’d have a big wind from the east. Everything would melt all at once. Within a week. Noatak River would come down, maybe a little bit longer than that.
So by May 29th through June 4, to the 10th at the latest, Noatak River would come out. And then we’d have our -- then we start breaking the ice out in the ocean.
By the 15th of June, we were already bearded seal hunting or waiting for belugas.
In the older days, we hunted beluga first because they were -- they were right there in the channel. And wait ‘til the ice completely break up where it’s in smaller pieces and then we’d hunt bearded seals.
But nowadays, the young guys want to hunt bearded seals first. And that’s why a lot of guys don’t get beluga. And so I -- I kind of wait out there.
And there’s a real difference. The belugas have learned this.
In the older days, all the exhaust and the noise from the outboard was on the surface. Now everything goes in the prop.
So they could hear that prop long ways and they adjust their behavior based on that noise.
The other huge problem is the jet. No sooner that the jet came in here in 1982, the belugas got scared. They -- they -- it must have took the belugas years and years to get used to all the noise in Anchorage.
Because when you look at -- when you look at the jets flying by and the belugas are swimming normally, that doesn’t happen here.
In fact, a few years ago a friend of mine from Sisualik, he lives there in the spring, he said -- he was watching a big pod of belugas coming in. The jet took off in Kotzebue “pshew” they went back out. They’re still sensitive to the noise.
You know, after all these years of having the jet in here since 1982. Huge impact.
And once that happened in ’84-’85, we also had a huge pod of belugas that got caught in Serenity -- Serenity Strait over across from Nome. And there were about 6,000 belugas.
Of the 6,000 belugas, the Russians killed 1,000 for their fox farms in ’84, ’85. And then they had to bring in the ice breaker to -- the surviving belugas were about 350 to 1,000. So there were a lot of belugas that died that year.
And since then, our beluga numbers have been down up here. So our pod must have got pretty much devastated. In --
five years ago, six years ago, we got lot of belugas. And my son and I shot and killed six. The belugas were so skinny that it was like getting two belugas. They -- they were caught in the ice somewhere.
And I was told by one friend of mine that caught a beluga, it was so skinny it was like a skeleton. And there was just no maktak on them. When you have a healthy beluga, they have about six inches of fat. And their -- their volume stretches so they got lots of maktak.
One year we got three belugas, huge belugas. And they were all fat. We had more maktak then than we had with those six belugas that we caught that one year. Yeah.
KAREN BREWSTER: I’m wondering about Sealing Point. We talked about how going out there for seal hunting has changed. What -- How you do that and how that might have changed?
ROSS SCHAEFFER: Well, you know, you can’t go far out right now. Because at Sealing Point, the -- the lead is about a mile out. Maybe. If that much.
KAREN BREWSTER: So there’s no shorefast ice?
ROSS SCHAEFFER: There is just a little bit. KAREN BREWSTER: Just a little bit.
ROSS SCHAEFFER: Yeah. Because what happens is that -- we had a southwest wind about three weeks ago. And so it finally piled up the ice. And once it piles it up, then you have shorefast ice.
And it has to be -2 below or colder for that salt water to freeze. If you have temperatures that are above that, that salt water isn’t going to freeze. That’s why it’s so thin out there.
At 32 degrees our fresh water is still freezing. But you get out on the ocean, it’s not freezing.
KAREN BREWSTER: So other years has it, been more shorefast at Sealing Point? It's been a wider --
ROSS SCHAEFFER: In the old days. Like I told you, I -- I traveled 65 miles out. What I did was I traveled from here to Sealing Point. I was nine miles out from Sealing Point. And I followed the lead and I went all the way out -- it’s about 30 miles straight out from Kotzebue to nine miles out from Sealing Point.
So then -- then I was able to get 65 miles out and finally land some polar bears. Yeah. And that’s -- I had seen polar bears -- I had gotten three seals the week before. The weekend before.
And so I went back out to see if I can find one and I end up getting some.
But, Sealing Point is right here. And so, about nine miles out would be like this. And then I went straight out this way.
ANDY MAHONEY: Oh, wow.
ROSS SCHAEFFER: Probably way out, 65 miles out. ANDY MAHONEY: Really? Wow.
ROSS SCHAEFFER: Yeah. And that -- that was in 1990.
ANDY MAHONEY: Hm-mm. And -- and this was all landfast or was it -- ?
ROSS SCHAEFFER: All frozen. We had a -- we had a lead right on this edge like this.
ANDY MAHONEY: Oh, so you crossed the lead?
ROSS SCHAEFFER: Yeah, but -- and I just followed the edge of the lead. And this lead went this way and it was all ice, thin ice. We call it sikuliaq. ANDY MAHONEY: Yeah, yeah.
ROSS SCHAEFFER: So out here, when I got the polar bears, I -- I cut open the thin ice and put a crab pot. Because I knew I’d have to skin three polar bears.
So I skinned the -- the female completely and then I gutted the two smaller ones, and then loaded up and came home. Yeah.
REBECCA ROLPH: So we were out, like, here?
ROSS SCHAEFFER: Yeah, you guys -- you -- you -- Sisualik is right --
REBECCA ROLPH: And that’s where the ice edge is or not the ice -- ? ROSS SCHAEFFER: Yeah, right around here REBECCA ROLPH: -- but the thin ice was.
ROSS SCHAEFFER: Yeah, it’s right there. Yeah, it's -- This year, the -- the channel is right about here somewhere. And the ice -- in March -- or February, there’s just a little bit of ice right up to here. And that’s it.
And then this one went straight over here toward Espenberg. Wait, excuse me. It went this way. It probably -- I think this whole section --
In fact, Rex Rock told me that this is the first time he’s ever seen that the lead was from Kotzebue, Shishmaref, all the way to Barrow. ANDY MAHONEY: Yeah. ROSS SCHAEFFER: Yeah. It's the first time.
So now that we have some colder weather, you know, we probably got some sikuliaq, young ice, most everywhere.
ANDY MAHONEY: And so the west wind, that might add on?
ROSS SCHAEFFER: Mm-hm, yeah, the west wind pushes it in and keeps it in.
And soon as we get a strong east wind, you’ll have a big lead out here again. Yeah. And when we’re looking at thaw, it’s going to be wide open again.
And what happens is so thin that from Kotzebue probably from -- we call it -- Cape Blossom straight over is all clear. Or even -- sometimes it’s even further like this. ANDY MAHONEY: Right, right ROSS SCHAEFFER: Yeah. And then -- and it --
REBECCA ROLPH: When was this? The -- ROSS SCHAEFFER: 1990. REBECCA ROLPH: Okay. ROSS SCHAEFFER: Hm-mm. Yeah.
KAREN BREWSTER: But then like across to Sisualik, does that stay frozen longer?
ROSS SCHAEFFER: Um, yeah. Right, you know, our -- right from these sandbars, to about eight miles out to Sisualik. Right near Sisualik there're sandbars, too. And that’s what makes the ice. It’s the sandbars right there.
And so it freezes following that and sometimes it just goes way inside here.
When we first started crabbing in Shishmaref, we'd go from Kotzebue straight to Espenberg. ANDY MAHONEY: Right
ROSS SCHAEFFER: Last time we went crabbing over there, we had to go home through Deering. ANDY MAHONEY: All the way around. Wow. Yeah.
ROSS SCHAEFFER: And we had to go get gas from Deering because we ran out of gas. Normally, we can just go straight across. It’s 40 -- 40 miles straight across.
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah, I was going to ask if people ever went straight across to Espenberg.
ROSS SCHAEFFER: We used to all the time. And that’s why I said if you want to interview somebody in Shishmaref, interview Fred Goodhope. Because he --
KAREN BREWSTER: He used to do that straight across?
ROSS SCHAEFFER: He used to do that all the time. Yeah, yeah. Yup. And now he don’t even come to Kotzebue anymore and that’s probably the reason because there’s no ice out there. Yeah, yup.
KAREN BREWSTER: But so, when the shorefast ice used to be wider at Sealing Point, did people go camp out on that ice? ROSS SCHAEFFER: Not, not anymore. Not in my -- KAREN BREWSTER: No, in the old days.
ROSS SCHAEFFER: In the old days. In fact, my dad said that they’ve gone out -- he and Fletcher Gregg went out -- And we’re talking about same place way out here somewhere in the middle of the ocean. Looking for a lead. And camping out and not finding one. Yeah.
ANDY MAHONEY: So when you were that far out, were you worried that the wind could change and the lead would open up behind you?
ROSS SCHAEFFER: No, you know, I -- you -- you can kinda tell the weather. And I figured it wasn’t gonna move. Yeah. So I wasn’t worried about it. And soon as it starts to pick up I'd scoot out of there real quick, you know.
KAREN BREWSTER: So you’re -- when you were out there, you’re -- you're paying attention to the wind?
ROSS SCHAEFFER: All the time, all the time. Yeah. You have to.
And -- there are times when I went out there in recent years where I’d have to watch the ice where it layered. So that I can get to the lead to hunt seals. Because it’s so thin, you know.
And -- but I’d be watching Kotzebue all along to see if I see any vapor coming up. And then as soon as --
And there were times when I’d get up and take off, like Sarah Belcher. We were out there and I thought the lead moved so we went back and no, it was okay, so we went back out and said, "Got four seals, that’s enough. Let’s get out of here." So, yeah.
KAREN BREWSTER: Do you check the current also?
ROSS SCHAEFFER: Well, the current is real strong where I normally hunt. And when you look at Sealing Point, towards Sealing Point, Anigaaq area, which is 25 -- Anigaaq is 25 miles from here. Sealing Point is more like 35.
That area has very little current. When we shoot seals, they just stay there. Whereas the current out here straight out from Kotzebue, straight west, about eight, nine miles out, ten miles out the current is super strong.
In fact, I’ve gone out to get seals and they just go “phew.” They go right, four feet under the -- the current's so strong it takes them right down there. Scares the heck outta you. Yeah. Especially when you’re just with a kayak, you know. It could easily just grab you and “phew.” You wouldn’t know.
KAREN BREWSTER: And what direction is the current going?
ROSS SCHAEFFER: It’s going out, usually. KAREN BREWSTER: It's usually going out? ROSS SCHAEFFER: Yeah, hm-mm, straight out.
ANDY MAHONEY: So that’s -- so that's the current that’s really -- the ripple flowing out?
ROSS SCHAEFFER: So when you're look at Sealing Point, the current is going this way. Or this way. Right here, right in front of town, it’s going straight out.
ANDY MAHONEY: So here it goes backwards and forwards? ROSS SCHAEFFER: Yeah, hm-mm. ANDY MAHONEY: But here it just goes out? ROSS SCHAEFFER: Yeah. Hm-mm. Yeah, that’s the way it -- because we have that channel that’s right out here.
ANDY MAHONEY: The -- the channel that’s marked on this map? ROSS SCHAEFFER: Yeah, hm-mm. Yeah, yeah.
KAREN BREWSTER: So does that current affect the ice movement?
ROSS SCHAEFFER: Mm-hm, yeah. Absolutely. But the ice is -- changes so much with the wind, you know? Yeah, yeah. It could break at any time.
In fact, Bob, when he first put out his crab pots there were no crack, so he finally had to move his crab pot and make a little hole inside the crack. It was wide enough to put a crab pot in.
But we made a hole on this side, so in case it closes then we could open it back up.
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah, so I heard that -- that a long time ago at Sealing Point, they’d go camp out there for a couple months.
ROSS SCHAEFFER: Yeah, that’s in the spring. In -- in June. Yeah.
In fact, the Noatak people camped out at Qiḷiqmiaq, which is a major camping place for Noatak people. And also Sisualik and Sealing Point.
That’s why they call it Sealing Point. ‘Cause they’re -- when you go there in the spring there’s hundreds of seals basking in the sun right there. And that’s why they hunt there quite often.
It’s -- lot of our people hunt seals in the fall. And then after that, they don’t hunt seals. I guess that I’m one of the few that still goes out and hunts.
I try to get anywhere from eight to ten seals in the wintertime. Sometimes 16. Because I share with all the village folks, the elder folks.
And all those people are dying off. They're just -- This year we’ve lost so many. So it’s --
I think a lot of our folks in the villages don’t eat seal me -- seal oil anymore. ‘Cause they don’t have it. In fact, last fall, when we were hunting caribou we had a couple guys from Noorvik. I said, “Hey, man, this caribou soup is really delicious with fresh seal oil, you guys gonna have some?” “No.” They -- they refused to have it.
Older folks, man, they’d jump right at the chance and, you know -- Because when you’re battling the cold, you need that oil in your system to -- to adjust to the cold.
REBECCA ROLPH: So the currents, have you noticed changes in the currents at all?
ROSS SCHAEFFER: No, not -- not the currents. It’s just changes in the wind that causes so much affect.
When you look at west wind in the summer, you have a real normal tide, which is about two to three feet. When you look at the southwest and south wind, we have a surge of tide.
And the way it works is that all the animals that are dead out in the ocean float into Kotzebue Sound. The people who hunt them in Wales and Shishmaref and Point Hope, everything comes right into Kotzebue Sound. And then they blame us for dead walruses all the time. Which --
REBECCA ROLPH: Because, they just came in?
ROSS SCHAEFFER: They just come in. They come in with the --
REBECCA ROLPH: They died somewhere else and then --
ROSS SCHAEFFER: Yeah. And -- and uh -- The last few years we had -- like last year we had no walruses on the beach. So the bears have a tough time. The grizzly bears.
We had a big grizzly bear down at Sadie Creek. He left Sadie Creek, he went up river to get food. And we monitored his trail by what houses he broke in to, you know.
And he was a big bugger. He was about 8 foot. He ate up two seals by Sadie Creek, went over to Lavonne’s, which is about a mile from my camp. Ate up a whole walrus in two weeks.
Then he broke into the cabins over here and they saw him swimming across, so we kinda know where he’s at. And uh --
REBECCA ROLPH: So the -- Yeah. For -- for the wind, you said they used to be more prevailing west winds and now it’s definitely south and southeast. Do you notice more, like, changes in the wind now? Or is it just mostly now it's prevailing south, southeast?
ROSS SCHAEFFER: You know, it’s mostly prevailing south to southeast, but uh -- It’s really impacted the -- like Sisualik, most of the towers that were there in the ‘90s, they’re all gone. Because it ate up the shore. And these towers were 100 yards from the beach, you know.
KAREN BREWSTER: Like radio towers?
ROSS SCHAEFFER: No, no. Hunting -- hunting -- hunting towers. Yeah, yeah, yeah. They’re all gone.
REBECCA ROLPH: Because they just got washed away? ROSS SCHAEFFER: Yeah. Mm-hm. Yup.
REBECCA ROLPH: And that’s because of the wind?
ROSS SCHAEFFER: Yeah. Because of the change of how the wind affects the beaches, you know.
And when you look at Kivalina, they had a big -- it's like a sandbar in front of their village. From all the west wind that deposited that sand. And so the waves would break way out there.
Well, what happened with the southeast and the south wind, that whole gravel thing is gone. So it’s hitting right into their village.
So that’s -- that's the difference. That's what I’m talking about is that -- the difference of wind that really impacts the coast line.
KAREN BREWSTER: You had mentioned those two guys who disappeared. Are there historically stories about people drifting out?
ROSS SCHAEFFER: Yeah, the last one was Robert Todd Hunter who was my dad’s cousin. He was a superb hunter. He was also a real athlete, they tell me. And very strong.
And this one other guy, John Nelson, he was a really good friend of mine. He -- he was really old, old guy. He was a half Swede and half Eskimo.
And he told Robert that if you don’t fix your kayak, his rim was fraying, that you’re gonna tip over yet. And Robert didn’t fix it and he went out seal hunting and he was going out to get a seal and he flipped over.
His partner was kind of a -- a man that had -- he was, he never aged after 12 years old. That’s how he's thinking.
And half a mile away was another hunter. He panic, instead of waiting for Robert. Robert was so strong that he made it to the shore, but nobody was there to help him.
This guy panicked, went over to get the other guy. Came back, found his hat right on the edge.
And his body was found over on the Shishmaref side. In fact, my son last summer found a skull at Shismaref side and Cape Espenberg side that belonged to one of these two guys that disappeared.
KAREN BREWSTER: Did people drift out and kind of go out and come back around? Did that ever happen?
ROSS SCHAEFFER: Well, um, no. If you’re drowning out here, you’d probably go straight out and then end up on Shishmaref side.
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah, did people -- I mean, I’ve heard stories, like up in Barrow that seal hunters. The ice would break up, you stay and you float around, and you -- you find a way to get back -- to walk back. Did that happen around here?
ROSS SCHAEFFER: Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard of guys from Selawik going out, trying to go hunt seal. Try to get their own seal. Cross a crack, end up on Kivalina's shore. You know, never go hunt seal again.
These are old guys telling me the story with dog teams, you know. Yeah, and when you pass a crack, you’re asking for trouble. Because that east wind comes up and that crack becomes miles wide.
If they were lucky, they ended up in -- right between Kivalina and Point Hope.
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. So it did happen?
ROSS SCHAEFFER: Yeah, oh yeah. It happened, yeah. In fact, my dad done that before.
And then in modern history, I know of Noatak guys going to Rabbit Creek and going out and seeing a crack and go out and hunt. Come back and the crack is 100 yards wide. And wait until it closes up again. They’re lucky it closed up again, you know. Yeah.
And I -- I watch real carefully on that, you know. I'm --
Only once I almost made a fatal mistake. I went toward Cape Blossom, it was real thin. I went out, shot a seal, and put it in. I went back and the ice was already separated. I was lucky I made it across. Yeah.
KAREN BREWSTER: And what caused the change? The wind?
ROSS SCHAEFFER: Just the current and a little bit of breeze. Yeah, yeah. It was thin enough ice where it cracked real quick.
KAREN BREWSTER: So what are the things do you look for when you’re going out in terms of to make sure you’re safe?
ROSS SCHAEFFER: Well, you have to look at the color of the ice, you know. And you have to test the ice all the time.
As soon as I get out to where I know it’s gonna be a little bit touchy I -- and it’s fresh snow, I get out my stick.
And uh -- last year I made the mistake of getting right up to the edge of the ice about 20 feet. And then testing it, it turned out to be really thin.
ANDY MAHONEY: You -- you should have tested it sooner?
ROSS SCHAEFFER: Yeah, I should have -- sooner than that. And I normally do.
But I figured, well, it blew so hard that it should be safe. But it wasn’t. It was different.
KAREN BREWSTER: So you decide where to start testing based on the color and how rough it is, does the roughness of the ice make a difference?
ROSS SCHAEFFER: Mm-hm, yeah it does. Where it’s rough, it’s real thick.
So when we look at going out to the lead, we kind of stay close to the rough ice to get to the lead because it’s thick. It’s layered.
KAREN BREWSTER: It’s usually grounded?
ROSS SCHAEFFER: No, not necessarily. There’s a lot of ice out there that’s -- like when you went down to Sisualik, you see all the jumbled ice. Yeah, it was all flat ice when I left for -- I left for Anchorage, March 7th for surgery and it was all water.
And some places, real flat ice. Now it’s all jumbled. We had a southwest storm. So it comes -- the ice moved in from the other side and piled up all the way. It’s really rough, this time. You have to really look how to get out there. Yeah. Much different than a month ago.
KAREN BREWSTER: And -- and when you were younger, that -- when we went out yesterday and, to me that ice seemed so flat and smooth. Is it always like that? Or this is unusual?
ROSS SCHAEFFER: You’re probably looking at the ice between here and Sisualik is flat. Yeah. It’s always flat.
When you start getting toward a channel, which is about eight miles out, there’s usually some huge ice piles out there. ‘Cause we have sandbars there, and so when the west wind blows, it piles up there.
Well, this year, the southwest wind blew so it piled up on Sealing Point and that side. Anigaaq. Yeah.
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. Ivuniq, is that the term you guys use?
ROSS SCHAEFFER: Yeah. And I’m glad to see it, because the baby seals have to be born within those protected areas. And they -- they drill holes in there and they make a little den in there.
Last year, we didn’t have that. And so, when you look at the impacts on babies, we had many bearded, young bearded seals. More than I’ve ever seen in my life in the fall.
But we had very few young spotted seals or young natchiq.
But the ugruks are a lot larger animal, so the foxes don’t kill them. They kill all the other baby seals.
When you get out the ocean in the spring, when we used to travel between here and Espenberg, you’d see red fox tracks everywhere out there.
In fact, one day we were coming home from Shishmaref and I saw a fox dragging something and I caught up with it and stole this young seal he caught.
KAREN BREWSTER: So the natchiq are denning and pupping in those ice piles? ROSS SCHAEFFER: Yeah, yeah.
KAREN BREWSTER: What about the ugruk?
ROSS SCHAEFFER: They’re -- they migrate more further out. So most of the ugruk are between -- probably between Nome and -- and that’s the Yupik country.
KAREN BREWSTER: So they den out farther?
ROSS SCHAEFFER: Yeah. Mm-hm. Yeah, yeah. But they --
A young bearded seal goes into all the sloughs in the spring. After break-up. And that’s where they spend the whole summer.
When they come out, they’re about two to three hundred pounds. And they’re about four to five feet long.
The males are usually a lot larger and the females a lot smaller. But they’re very fat, and this year almost every load we got of seals, half of them were bearded seals. Young bearded seals. So we had an exceptional crop.
KAREN BREWSTER: So how does the thinning ice affect the seal population and you being able to go hunting?
ROSS SCHAEFFER: Yeah, because -- because they got -- last year we didn’t have much wind. We had very few storms. And so you had no ice piles. Very little snow.
This year we have lots of snow, blowing snow. And it really impacts the ability for the young seals to have their protected dens. So they have to stay up on the ice and the -- the foxes find them very quickly.
And they'd probably die from cold when you get wind like what we have now, you know. Yeah. No protection.
Because when they’re in their den, that sun penetrates right through that snow. And so they’re -- even though their skin on the outside is creamy colored, their hair -- I mean, their hair is creamy colored, but their skin is black.
You know, whenever you get a seal and you scrape out the top skin, everything is black. Same with the polar bear. That’s how they keep warm. KAREN BREWSTER: Right. ROSS SCHAEFFER: Yeah, yeah.