Richard Glenn was interviewed on February 23, 2016 by Karen Brewster and Craig George at his home in Barrow, Alaska. In this first part of a two part interview, Richard talks about his knowledge of and experience with sea ice in the Barrow area. He discusses learning to hunt and survive on the ice, the importance of watching the wind and the current, how to be safe on the ice, stories about drifiting out on the ice, and applying what you have learned and making decisions about safety. He also describes the dynamic nature of the sea ice environment, and talks about changes in ice conditions and the timing of freeze-up and break-up.
Digital Asset Information
Project: Sea Ice in Northern Alaska
Date of Interview: Feb 23, 2016
Narrator(s): Richard Glenn
Interviewer(s): Karen Brewster, Craig George
Transcriber: Sue Beck
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Personal and family background, and growing up in California and Barrow
Learning to hunt, and early hunting experiences
Seal hunting, and watching the ice and current to keep from getting trapped or drifting away
Watching the current and making decisions to preserve safety
Effect of wind, current and weather on ice conditions
Ice break-off events, and learning from mistakes
Being on different whaling crews and learning to be a whaling captain
Studying ice from a scientific perspective
Difference in the process of ice formation in fall versus winter
Learning about ice from Iñupiaq experts and first-hand experience
Being safe on thin ice
Rough ice and pressure ridges
Moving whale camp to adjust to conditions as they change in a season
Applying what you have learned, decision making, risk taking, and being safe
Helping each other and communication between whaling crews
Changes in the timing of freeze-up and the effect on subsistence, and effects on ice throughout the season
Stories about drifting out on the ice
Dynamic nature of the sea ice environment
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KAREN BREWSTER: Today is February 23, 2016 and this is Karen Brewster, and I’m here with Richard Glenn at his home in Barrow, Alaska. And we’re going to be talking about sea ice for the Sea Ice Project Jukebox. Thank you, Richard, finally.
RICHARD GLENN: Yeah, sure.
KAREN BREWSTER: I’ve been wanting to talk to you for a long time. So just before we get into sea ice, maybe a little bit of background about yourself. RICHARD GLENN: Okay.
KAREN BREWSTER: And how you got to here from being born.
RICHARD GLENN: Okay. So, I was born in 1963 in Mountain View, California. South Bay Area of San Francisco Bay.
My parents were married here in September of 1960. My dad was a DEW-Line cryptographer. He worked at the DEW-Line stations from Greenland across Arctic Canada and into Alaska.
And in the late ‘50s and up until September of 1960, he worked here at the Barrow station.
And in those days you weren’t allowed to fraternize with the locals. So -- but there were a few Barrow people that worked out at the -- at the DEW-Line station and they liked to say they played Cupid for my mom and my dad.
My mother was working for Wien Airlines as a radio operator. She communicated with the weather stations and the aircraft. And they met over the radio.
KAREN BREWSTER: And she was from here?
RICHARD GLENN: And my mother was born here. My mother’s daughter of Walton Ahmaogak and Cynthia Solomon Ahmaogak. She was born in 1941. My dad was born in ‘33. They were married in 1960.
My brother was born in ‘61 and I was born 1963, second of three kids. I had a sister born -- I have a sister, who was born in 1967.
And we always kept in touch with our family here, even as kids growing up in the Bay Area. There was a handful of Barrow people that were in continuous transit between the North Slope and points south.
And there’s a few people -- maybe a dozen at the most at times, families that relocated from here and lived in the central part of California.
So we had a communications network together. Everyone had Eskimo food in their freezer all the time. Language stayed alive. My mother kept her language, and she stayed in close contact with the traveling groups of folks.
Her house was like a home base for people who were on the road. Whether you were going to college, traveling to Texas or Washington DC, or gettin’ out of Vietnam.
So there was a -- a crossroads, and it was a gift to grow up like that. Because it was already a culturally diverse place, but then we had this additional dimension that my parents brought.
KAREN BREWSTER: And so then would you come up to visit Barrow when you were growing up?
RICHARD GLENN: So, yeah, we came here in 1965. My mother had visions of moving her two sons here at the time, my sister wasn’t born yet, because my dad had signed back on the DEW-Line.
It was hard times for electronics folks in the ‘60s, and he’d jumped from a DEW-Line job into the early Silicon Valley industry.
And basically, I think, in ’65 jumped back onto a stint on the DEW-Line, because the pay was better.
But the first tour for a DEW Line guy, even though you’re returning, is eight months. And so here’s Mom with two little kids and she was gonna to move back here while my dad did his thing.
So, she brought us back. I was two, my brother was four. And the place that they left had a fire. No, the place that she was going to move into had a fire. So she had to basically scrub out a burned-out small house where we were gonna live.
And they had made friends and acquaintance with an elderly couple in the Bay Area. Something to do with watching an apartment building, and they turned over the keys to this apartment building to this elderly couple who basically gave up and said, “No, we can’t do this.”
Mom talked to Dad through letters, and he said, “You go back. I’ll stay on the DEW Line.” So she went back and -- and that was the end of our brief visit here in -- in, like, spring/summer of 1965.
KAREN BREWSTER: So when did you start coming up here more regularly?
RICHARD GLENN: So the next trip after that was 1976.
I think my mother made a trip beforehand. We -- it had to do with deaths in the family, and then we came up as a family in 1976 and, even then, we were carrying tombstones for other family -- family members who had passed away.
And, yeah, we spent a summer here. And that was a great summer. That was the year the circus came to Barrow, you remember?
And so I was what, thirteen years old. They were just building the village of Atqasak. My uncle Savik and Myrna and all of his kids were living in an 8 x 10 canvas tent.
Well, not -- with an adjacent 8 x 10 tent for a bathroom. And that was the workers’ quarters for the plumbers.
They had a little five-gallon drum burning excess whale oil for their heat, basically, in the early spring -- early summer, I mean.
And I got to know, you know -- I got to see open tundra at an age that I could remember it, and I made a promise to myself that I’d go back even if my family didn’t.
And so every summer I did, from the day that school was over until the day school started. From seventh grade on, I was here on my own. It was a great upbringing.
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. And so, how old were you when you first started going out hunting?
RICHARD GLENN: Almost immediately, I guess. I mean, my older -- mother’s older brother -- was -- was where I stayed. It was a house full of boys.
The oldest son was two or three years older than me. He was hunting with my grandfather at the time, so I palled around with him.
And it was always about hunting for your grandfather, and so -- and then it became taking your grandfather out hunting. So Roy and -- my cousin Roy and I -- were frequently hunting partners. (Sorry, I got a sinus thing going on).
We were frequently hunting partners for my grandfather, and that was a great joy, and -- Well, for a young kid who didn’t know much, it was often a source for great embarrassment, because I made a lot of mistakes hunting with those guys.
And they were the pros. My grandfather was the oldest of many brothers and he taught his younger brothers how to hunt. So I was thrust into this world of high expectations and kinda learned as I went along.
KAREN BREWSTER: And they were patient and understanding when you made those mistakes?
RICHARD GLENN: My cousin Roy was. We’ve learned a lot together, but he also taught me a lot, and my --
I’ll tell you on camera, my grandfather wasn’t that patient with my mistakes, but that’s okay.
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. You still learned from him obviously.
RICHARD GLENN: Learned from him, then learned from his son, Savik. He -- sometimes he’d take the time -- he was working hard at the time, he’d take the time to come out hunting with us.
And then we had this whole cadre of hunters in between us in age that we were often hunting with.
KAREN BREWSTER: And so when did you -- that was summertime hunting, and -- RICHARD GLENN: Yeah.
KAREN BREWSTER: What about when you came up and did winter activities?
RICHARD GLENN: So it-- it -- Yeah, so it was a progression of gradually expanding experiences, both in the calendar and -- and what you do during that time.
And -- (Yeah, I’ll have -- Can I have a drink of juice? All of a sudden, I can’t swallow. Probably because I’m telling the truth).
KAREN BREWSTER: I’m gonna pause it for a second.
Okay, we’re back. So, it was a gradual progression of -- ?
RICHARD GLENN: Yeah, so we were seal hunters. In those days, you start with ring seal hunting. Bearded seal hunting.
Then as the ice pulls away, you’re going caribou hunting up and down the coast, around the corner.
And so you’re always flirting with the ice edge as the season allows. And so you learn -- we learned -- that’s where you learn some -- some key things.
You learn about currents. You learn about watching your back door. Making sure you’re not pinched off or in between layers that somehow eventually make -- take away a corridor that goes to the land.
And -- then you learn how to follow animals. And I think to me that was the springboard to this future that became more advanced in the other -- other seasons.
KAREN BREWSTER: So, your summertime seal hunting was through broken ice, and so that’s when you -- you had to be really paying attention to what the ice was doing?
RICHARD GLENN: Yep. And then you know, you’ve seen it. Also, as the ice pulls away, and it was more common back then, then you think you’ve got ultimate freedom.
Then while you’re gone something changes at home and now you can’t get back, you know, and this is -- Before GPS we had compasses and automatic direction finders, CB radios, and then VHF radios.
And this communication of people in between each other. And then our own eyes on the changing landscape, you know, the oceanscape.
KAREN BREWSTER: So did it happen that you got stuck on the other side and couldn’t get back?
RICHARD GLENN: We had close calls, but never -- never where we ended up floating away or getting isolated from some mainland somewhere. And -- so that was -- that is a risk, was a risk.
And then we used -- and then we learned compass directions. We learned, you know, keep this heading and just hold it until you hit this landmark, then you keep another heading for your turning points.
And so, you know, if you -- so if you’ve switched to the lagoon side, you've -- you leave Piġniq and you keep a magnetic heading of ninety degrees, you’re going to run into the little nook between Tapqaaluk and Avak.
And then you keep -- stay on that heading with -- almost without turning or paying attention to what you run into, you’re gonna run into Christie Point.
Avak is halfway to Christie Point. That’s how Avak gets its name, right -- halfway?
And then you’re gonna turn and you’re gonna make that angled turn that gets you right to either Pittalugruaq or some other place.
And so you keep this running inventory of legs and directions so that you -- that it’s like helps keep you remember where you are.
KAREN BREWSTER: But what if you’re going out seal hunting on the Chukchi (Sea) side?
RICHARD GLENN: So you flip -- you flip that, so you -- you don’t have this hallway of openness. You have this -- almost small wedges of the right way to go home.
And if you go to Point Barrow, for example, there’s this huge compass, rows of wrong ways to go home, and there’s very few rules of thumb that says --
If you go out, you know, and you’re out in the Wild West, which is the open ocean north of -- northwest of Point Barrow, let’s say, and all of a sudden you get spun around or you drift away or you don’t know where you are, what are the rules of thumb for going -- for finding safety?
And one of them that burned its hole in my head was -- Savik told me, was when in doubt, go southeast. So that’ll run you at an angle into the Barrier Islands if you’re over there, and it’ll bring you right smack into the coast if you’re over on this side.
You know, that’s kinda the ultimate failsafe, but it was not necessarily a failsafe.
And, yeah, so you always had to remember where you were, and when we went out this way on all the Chukchi side, we had to be careful of current directions.
When we’d go out -- if we go out and stop for a long time and we’ve drifted by butchering an animal or whatever -- you gotta accommodate for that drift when we’re going home.
And it’s -- you know, in those days it was always -- it’s kind of like the onshore version of coming home in the blind and finding Barrow, you know, in the middle of a snowscape.
When you -- when you come back out of the blue or out of the fog and you kind of start to get an idea of where you are, it’s a great feeling. As long as you’re somewhere near the target where you were headed, you know.
And, yeah, so keeping track of current, keeping track of directions, watching your back door, those became always tasks that you never -- you never walked away from.
And at times, you know, when rough things happen, sometimes there’s calm water farther offshore, there’s rough water between you and home, and then you make these kind of gut calls on --
Do I hang in the shelter of the ice? Do I cross this what has become a rough patch of water between me and home?
Do I head straight home? Do I -- There’s a bunch of decisions like that you have to make, too.
KAREN BREWSTER: What influences your decision on which way to do it?
RICHARD GLENN: Well, where you think you’ve drifted, what kind of ice lies between -- or lied --
What kind of ice environment you went through to get from where you are to -- to where home is, and how far away you think you are.
KAREN BREWSTER: Well, yeah, how do you account for that drift? If you’re butchering a walrus on a floe of ice, is somebody monitoring how far you’re drifting and where you’re drifting?
RICHARD GLENN: We -- we -- What happens is we -- we have what we think is an idea of the current velocity and direction when we leave, and we check it.
Because there’s these bands of current boundaries that are parallel to each other, sometimes where one is moving faster than the other and it looks like -- it’s like a shear boundary.
And we cross those as we’re going and we try to -- we try to guesstimate how fast we think we’re drifting, yeah.
And if the weather is good you can see how fast you’re drifting. Not just by you to the band of ice that you crossed through, but if you’re lucky enough, you’ve seen the -- the landscape change while -- while you’ve been parked on the ice floe.
KAREN BREWSTER: Do you ever put in -- I know during whaling and whale camp, they’ll drop something in the water to see how it flows. Did you do that when you’re seal and walrus hunting?
RICHARD GLENN: Yeah. We’ve done that and we do that. And the -- and the can on the end or some kind of weighted thing on the end of a string -- we’ve done that, too.
You can see the difference in speed between different sizes of ice floes, too. Something that’s grabbing more of the bottom will travel a little bit faster than something that’s thinner and not -- doesn’t have as much of a keel.
So it’s -- yeah -- and, you know, it’s a live-and-learn kind of thing.
KAREN BREWSTER: Are there certain things you can describe that you’re looking for in terms of that ice environment and -- ?
RICHARD GLENN: Yeah, so you -- you look for -- I mean, ideally, you want to go out during a time when the ice is loosening in cover. In calm, gentle water, right?
And so that every day, every -- every -- every minute, every hour that goes by, your environment gets more pleasant and more safe.
And if it’s not, then -- like, which direction was the current when you left? There was a old rule of thumb that said if it’s a west current, qaisaġniq current, you don’t go out, period, if it’s early in the summer season.
Because even as good or as idyllic as it looks, you’re going to get sucked into beautiful ice and animal hunting places out there, and while you’re doing that the ice is packing into the shore while you’re gone.
KAREN BREWSTER: Behind you?
RICHARD GLENN: So -- so rule number one was you’re making a mistake if you -- or you’re taking a risk if you go out during a westbound current.
Wait till that stale current of hardly any movement or eastbound. Or where the wind, the east wind, is stronger than the westbound current and so it’s -- things are still loosening when you leave.
KAREN BREWSTER: I always wondered when people say the qaisaġniq and a west current -- it’s -- the current is flowing towards the west or from the west?
RICHARD GLENN: From the southwest to the northeast. KAREN BREWSTER: Okay, so it’s from.
RICHARD GLENN: Yeah. So you say west wind. That’s a wind -- KAREN BREWSTER: Coming from the west. RICHARD GLENN: -- that comes from the west. And if you said -- that’s what we call qaisaġniq current.
But if you say westbound current, that’s what happens frequently in English. Translating to English sometimes, people will get a mirror image of the current system.
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. That’s why I asked for the clarification. What does it mean when one says “a west current.”
RICHARD GLENN: So the Iñupiaq way -- that’s why the Iñupiaq translations are more useful than -- than English. Qaisaġniq is a current that brings things. That lets things come -- come in.
And -- and it was Shapiro and Weeks at UAF that told me that the -- that there’s something to do with coriolis forces and the movement of wind across a large ice mass that whatever the direction the wind is, that the current kinda moves, like a 30° to the right of -- of the wind.
And I said, “Well, that’s weird, because when the current is southwest to northeast the ice wants to come in, you know, and then --
And then the opposite -- or the current that goes northeast/ southwest is piruġaġniq or pituġaġanaq and then in those terms it means --
That means it’s safe to bring your stuff to the edge of the ice and go hunting. So, the -- the -- the words themselves give -- give clues about what’s good, what works.
KAREN BREWSTER: Un-huh. But I didn’t know, yeah, there’s a difference -- Is there a difference with those winds and currents when you’re talking about whaling on the -- at the lead on the ice edge versus broken-up ice when you’re seal hunting?
RICHARD GLENN: Summer? Not -- in general no. And it’s basically all current -- current winds.
There’s a old rule of thumb that I -- I don’t know, I use myself. The current is not in response to the wind, it’s in response to the regional weather system.
So if there's a huge low pressure system churning already around the Horn from -- either through the Bering Straits or across from the Chukotka side, and it’s pushing and it’s counterclockwise spin, it’s pushing water against the Chukchi Sea coast on our side.
That pushes the current even though we might have an east wind over here. So our current is going to listen to the weather system, and not to the immediate wind conditions.
So -- so when we talk about these words -- qaisaġnaq, piruġaġnaq, it's current only. And -- and yet if you could pull your eyes up to satellite level, you can see it’s responding to weather systems, not necessarily the immediate wind.
KAREN BREWSTER: Hm-mm. Yeah, I do wonder when you’re deciding about ice travel and safety, yeah, which is more dominant, wind or current?
RICHARD GLENN: Mm-hm. So I say weather wins. And it’s current. It’s gotta be current.
I mean, you -- there’s always a case where a -- a hurricane force wind or whatever is gonna beat a current, but it’s only this understanding of the weather system and the current together that -- that lets you have some kind of chance of predictability.
And then -- so try to think of what happens to the wind pattern as you stand in one place as a low pressure system comes by you, right?
You’re going to feel -- you’re gonna feel east winds at a distance. Then you’re going to -- you might -- you might feel southeast winds, south winds changing to southwest winds, until the low-pressure symbol is on the east side of you.
Then you’re going to feel west winds becoming north winds, and eventually, you know, northeast winds or some kind of dead wind system.
And if you think of it that way, what happens in a fixed place as a weather system moves by, it changes your whole paradigm on how to evaluate wind or weather.
And I never -- I never thought about this much, but Kenneth Toovak and I used to talk about this a lot, and he said the wind direction that scared him the most was southeast wind.
KAREN BREWSTER: Which is tough coming off the land?
RICHARD GLENN: Right. And picture -- picture a late springtime southeast wind. That’s the wind that brings the snowbirds here and it gets sunny, broken clouds, and temperatures are warmer because it’s basically -- you know, a -- a wind that goes from onshore to offshore and what a beautiful, warm breeze that must be, you know.
But if -- a few months later or -- or in a different environment in the moving ice environment, it to him chances are it spelled for a change in the weather system that would go from something that was feeling good but something that -- that becomes dangerous.
And I -- You know, I’ve tried to make an exercise out of -- how many times does the southeast wind get us in trouble?
KAREN BREWSTER: And even during springtime whaling when it’s shorefast ice, the southeast wind is a problem?
RICHARD GLENN: Well, see that -- that question I’m learning myself. So, what’s a problem for us is when ice moves and you’re not ready for it, whether it breaks off or whether it rumbles in.
And so, as long as -- To me, as long as you have this running inventory of changing ice, current, and wind conditions, you’ve got a chance to respond.
And the only trick is whether you’ve given yourself enough time to respond.
KAREN BREWSTER: And so -- so the recent years where they’ve had these big ice breakoffs, has that been a southeast wind?
RICHARD GLENN: In my -- my mind, I haven’t done all the -- look at the wind rose and the anticipation of it, but by the time it --
The one that affected me the most, the one that put me floating, it -- it was already -- had gone from whatever it was to a southwest wind, southwest current, strong storm tide, water on top of the tide crack, ice tumbling out from under the lead edge.
And whether or not that started with a southeast wind, I can’t tell you.
KAREN BREWSTER: But all those things you just said. Southwest wind, the tide coming up, the ice tumbling, those things you’re paying attention to and looking for in advance as signs -- ? RICHARD GLENN: Yeah. KAREN BREWSTER: -- and what happened?
RICHARD GLENN: Yeah. In fact, I -- I -- I use my cousin and my grandfather as the story, because in that moment, at that instant, the big breakoff -- I can’t remember what year it was now. KAREN BREWSTER: 2009? RICHARD GLENN: The first one. KAREN BREWSTER: That one? CRAIG GEORGE: '97. KAREN BREWSTER: '97?
RICHARD GLENN: Yeah, ’97. I was a young executive whaling captain. I was in charge on the ice. There was two or three senior whaling captains to my right and to my left.
My uncle, who put me in charge, had just crossed all the tide cracks that we had been checking many times a day to meet me. And he was on the ice. I had this harpooner who wanted nothing more but to catch a whale.
The ice edge was so active that everything was still kind of moving like this. There was ice tumbling out, and Roy took a look at that and he looked at me and he said, “Our aapa told us you never be at the ice edge when the current is so strong that there’s ice tumbling out from underneath."
Someone -- a crew had just caught a whale. They had needed a place to pull it up. They were -- they couldn’t fight the current, were trying to head southwest.
The current was so strong it was pulling the whale backwards, so he needed to turn left and head toward landfast ice.
I offered our area, where we had built a ramp. This was Po Brower’s crew.
So I asked the harpooner. He said, “We’re good.” I looked to my right and my left. Those guys weren’t moving. I asked Savik if he’s checked the tide cracks as he came this way. Admittedly, he had spent no time on the ice that spring.
He said he didn’t see anything unusual, even though to the south we already heard reports of flooding tide crack, moving ice, and --
And I used that whole net opinion and my own youth and inexperience, and probably desire to help this one crew that hasn’t even landed their whale yet, and to -- to ride this one out.
I disputed or disagreed with my cousin. He took his son home, and he was one of the last guys on our trail to cross the trail before it broke off and started moving.
And before you know it, we’re all floating. The whale came to our place. The water on the ocean side grew instantly calm because we’re moving with it.
And we found ourselves in need of finding a safe place on this moving piece to -- to gather everybody.
Briefly toyed with the idea of dragging everything we have landward to the place where we broke off and then shuttling us basically landward and southwest to zigzag around whatever’s moving until you find something that’s not moving.
Except that I had several other crews we had to take care of, and we were told that we should group ourselves in one safe spot on stable ice and wait for help.
And so, yeah, so the lessons that we learned as kids, I immediately disregarded or whatever, because I looked at -- I looked at people around me and allowed myself to be swayed by them.
And I made a mistake, and for many years afterwards credited my cousin for not making a mistake.
And, you know, it’s that kind of upbringing that -- that’s of value to stay in touch with.
So your earlier question was how did you make the switch. So, my cousin was gone for years for a while and I became kind of the older of the young men in the family.
My -- my uncle was a whaling captain. Both my uncles, my mom’s two brothers, were captains. They both made crews.
I stuck with the guy who I kind of grew up with, even though I spent many springs with my mom’s younger brother as a crewman and learned a lot of the -- my own. Instead of being told something, I learned a lot of things with him by doing it, right?
And so I had this kind of school of education in these two different whaling crews. Two totally different personalities, two totally different ways of teaching.
And then my older cousin’s gone for -- not ten years, but more than five years. I’m in charge.
And during the time that I had learned to follow animals in summertime, I became the driver for the crew. I -- I kind of had a knack for figuring out where the animals were going to come up, if they were seals or walrus or whatever.
And we were very successful hunters when I was driving. I think it means I was a better driver than I was a shot, let’s say.
But every now and then I was a pretty good shot and harpooner for smaller animals.
And so I became the driver for our crew and the co-captain in our crew and the guy in charge for springtime, with only these rules of thumb that I had learned from people and not a lot of -- a few years, let’s say --
I don’t know, you asked when did I start going spring whaling. It wasn't the ‘70s. It was the ‘80s. And it was probably the mid -- early to mid-‘80s.
KAREN BREWSTER: So you were in your twenties?
RICHARD GLENN: Yeah. Where most of the kids grow up with this every spring, I dabbled in it until I was in it.
And then I had to rely on -- I didn’t know enough at times to be nervous about things that -- I knew -- I knew how to approach a whale, for example, because someone told me how.
If you approach a whale from the right direction with the right crew with the right attitude at the right speed, you can park the front of the boat on its neck. You don’t need to be nervous about -- don’t ever be nervous about how close you’re getting to a whale.
So the -- we started whaling in falltime before we started whaling in springtime. We parked the front of the boat right on the whale’s neck, and we had a lot of success that way.
And it wasn’t until -- I’ve seen since then a few times where a whale struggles in the water when it’s wounded or whatever.
Well, just because you can park it there doesn’t mean you can reside there. Right? So, you know, there’s things you gotta watch out for.
But I think that’s an anecdote of saying there’s just some things I didn’t know enough about with my own experience, but I had to rely on other people’s words.
And I’m thankful that I had this kind of different spectrum of teachers that I had, because you gotta synthesize in -- in a pretty short time frame what -- which of their words are you gonna -- you gotta risk your lives or at least, you know, your efforts. And which of the words are you going to take.
So, I’m thankful for this backdrop of folks who were trying to teach me.
KAREN BREWSTER: Well, I think for anybody, whether you’re twenty learning or eight learning, you learn by somebody telling you and teaching you, you know, and making those --
It sounds maybe a little trial and error if you had both those teachers’ lessons in your head and you decided which one to try this day and which one the next day.
RICHARD GLENN: It would be tough. And then I had -- and then I -- well, I was infatuated with ice in general, not just -- I got to learn about it in school. I got to hit it with a pick and break it with a saw, drill through it, core through it, watch it move, watch it come back together, watch it get born and die throughout a season.
And so that triggered in me a deeper respect for ice itself, but also the difference in these worlds of learning about it.
Like, not learning about it as a medium, but how to use it, how to launch from it, how to come back on it, how to put a whale up on it, how to camp by it -- you know -- and all this other stuff.
And so I got -- I double-dipped into ice education. And that for me was -- had I not done that, I wouldn’t have been able to be put in charge of everything, from this trail building to where you put your camp, to where you pull the ice -- a whale up. When to pull back.
KAREN BREWSTER: You mean, you double -- In terms of double-dipping, you mean with science understanding? Or just your two perspectives?
RICHARD GLENN: Yeah. I got -- KAREN BREWSTER: The science side?
RICHARD GLENN: Well, check -- check this out. I mean, I got to have a science field-experiment on the ice. And what did that do -- everything I did, I tried to figure out.
I mean, I was -- I was going to sleep, waking up, going to sleep, thinking about ice all the time. And not just how many -- what the salinity profile was or how much it grew in a week or anything like that.
But also it gave me a respect for the family’s side of knowledge of ice, which is like -- they worked and learned off of this changing environment through the season or through an event and --
And, yeah, so it just -- it’s an echo I think of how deep a body of knowledge about ice can be. Yeah.
‘Cause, check this out. So a midwinter lead in February begins with open water, goes to slush, and growing thin ice and active moving thin ice, and then, eventually, something kind of that looks like, you know, that looks like it’s typical ice.
But it happens a lot faster and it happens in a lot different conditions than something that started in October and kinda grew slow. Or -- or something that happens and grows a lot slower later in the springtime.
So there’s different -- so there’s a different personality. Ice -- ice has a kind of a life of its own at many different scales.
Youth, strength -- kind of, it goes through a change and it starts decaying and then it dies and goes away. And it -- it’s so different to learn about it in different times of the year.
Wintertime seal hunting is different than springtime trail making. It’s different than the late, late springtime, you know, going around on -- on rotting ice.
KAREN BREWSTER: That’s why I was asking you about seal hunting in the summer and how that ice -- ‘cause I was thinking that what’s happening during the different seasons of the ice is probably teaching you something for what’s happening later.
RICHARD GLENN: So, I think the -- My education begins with animals, currents, ice movement in broken-ice conditions.
And then it changes over to typical whaling crew members’ experience of trailmaking, route selection, ice-edge safety, picking the points that are favorable for whales to favor along the edge to then it becomes -- then I cheat and I go into a bunch of falltime whaling. Then I go up into whale following rather than seal following.
And -- and then what that teaches you of the whole whale story. Whale following means whale striking, whale anatomy, whale butchering, whale towing and butchering 101.
And then flip it back over to spring and you kinda transplant all of that into the, you know, the skin boat kind of aluminum backup boat story, and the ice edge, the active ice edge.
KAREN BREWSTER: I’m curious about what you just said about the -- the February ice forming and how it has a different personality than if it had formed in October. RICHARD GLENN: Yeah.
KAREN BREWSTER: Can you talk about those differences?
RICHARD GLENN: Yeah, it grows hard and cold faster. And then it changes. It changes a lot faster.
And it becomes -- it's stronger earlier. It’s more rigid earlier, and it’s impressive how -- how ice -- thin ice behaves in real cold temperatures.
And then you learn some little tricks about it. And then -- and I’m only on the beginning edge of learning that.
And again, I reflect it back to family lore, because there’s not a lot of wintertime seal hunting going on in this extended family that I just described to you.
But you stretch out to -- to Wainwright and to some of our friends and colleagues here in town, and they’re always wintertime hunting for seals.
So I start palling around with those guys or learning from folks like Ben Ahmaogak, who is a master of thin ice travel and safety in a really dynamic environment.
And you start picking up either directly with your own experience or second- and third-hand by story, what it means to stay alive in that kind of environment.
Yeah, so then -- so then, I become about learning about young ice in the winter, you know. And so that’s when I was palling around with Carl Kippi or whoever, learning how to hunt seals in the dark.
It’s a different school, a different set of -- a different set of things you gotta watch out for, but it’s -- it’s all part of the same -- same system.
The coolest thing about thin ice in -- and currents is how much more dynamic it is. And moving ice, moving thin ice in a -- in a cold, darkish environment, you know, sounds like the radio station on FM when you got no station turned in. You just hear ssshhhh. You know, it’s constant.
And it’s like -- so that triggers you into learning to watch that kind of movement. What does it mean? How does it change? When does it go from just shooshing by to kind of grinding and compacting?
And I watch it -- you watch it behind a boat when you’re going through thin ice in falltime in a compressive regime. You make a trail through thin ice. You break it with the keel of your boat and its closing right behind you. And it’s doubling instantly.
And you can watch the interfingering of thin ice. It’s like watching lava in Hawaii, basically, the way it folds and congeals upon itself.
And that’s when you realize, you know, you -- thank God for rules of thumb as simple as they are, but in addition to rules of thumb you gotta be watchful for changes that are going on around you.
KAREN BREWSTER: Well, in this day and age of thinning ice out there, how do you decide when to go out? The idea of being out on thin ice sounds pretty scary to somebody like me who’s inexperienced.
RICHARD GLENN: Yeah. To me, it means the same rules. The same -- I mean, the same practices just need more frequent check.
Check the current more often. Check the wind more often. Check the ice more often.
If -- we learn the tools for staying safe. Just apply them with a lot more frequency than we used to have to in the past. If you’re talking about, like, a springtime setting.
KAREN BREWSTER: What about this winter, seal hunting. Thin ice?
RICHARD GLENN: You’ll still find your way to the ice edge where the seals are, and you’re still gonna use all --
The -- the cool thing about that is winter seal hunting for -- on thin ice is hunting on thin ice. And so, you know, those kind of rules always apply. You just have to be that much more vigilant in monitoring your conditions.
And so, yeah. So what does that mean? In general, the ice environment over the past thirty or whatever years I’ve been having to deal with it is more dynamic.
But it doesn’t mean -- it doesn’t mean it’s -- it doesn’t mean we can’t use the same tools we learned with to keep ourselves safe.
I think some people want to generate an environment of danger. The image of, you know, the ice is not as thick as it used to be immediately asks you to conjure the image of falling through. When we were all taught how to check ice to prevent from falling through, right?
So that’s -- that's the first cartoonish stereotype that’s gotta leave right now. But it does mean that thinning ice, thin ice might be less -- mean less congealed pressure ridges, and it might mean more dynamic ice.
When it does come time to move, it’s gonna move potentially easier than it would’ve in an environment of thicker ice. And that just demands, I think, you be more watchful.
It might mean we don’t have to build a trail fifteen miles from the shore’s edge anymore either, right? I mean, we used to go pretty far offshore for the lead edge.
And now I’m looking forward to the day when we have a stormy west -- western storm-driven winter season so that we can have a really rigid, piled-up, good old-fashioned, mountains-to-cross ice environment. And we’ve had a couple of near instances like that, but --
Because, you know, the ice is thinning in general. It’s more dynamic. It’s moving. But that doesn’t mean it’s not more ridged, right?
There’s a difference between the storm systems of a given year and the temperature that drove whatever the general ice thickness is gonna to be.
And it’ll be interesting to see how all that plays out. We haven’t become a stormier Arctic in terms of ice-covered ocean, I don’t think. Although we’ve had some bad storms.
KAREN BREWSTER: But some of those times, like when those -- have those big break-offs, isn’t that because those areas aren’t grounded? They’re -- they aren’t attached by pressure ridges. They’re on the outer -- the aayugaq. Is that what they’re called?
RICHARD GLENN: We -- or iiguaq, you mean? KAREN BREWSTER: Iiguaq.
RICHARD GLENN: We -- Yeah, so when ice breaks up and moves, by definition it’s not on the stable side of -- but you can break pretty darn close to shore through some pretty respectable pressure ridges.
So, that kind of, you know, by definition -- There is no “by definition,” I guess, you know that.
I don’t know if there was in the old days. We had ivu and break-off events in the old days with a healthy ice cover, too, so it just demands --
I think it demands watching everywhere all the time.
KAREN BREWSTER: Wasn’t last spring a pretty rough ice year? RICHARD GLENN: Yeeaah.
KAREN BREWSTER: For building trail?
RICHARD GLENN: Yeah, but I don’t think in terms of building trail with -- if you’re talking about with -- in comparison to the previous five years before that, maybe.
But, you know, pull your time horizon back, it wasn’t any harder than -- it’s been a lot harder a lot longer ago.
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah, well, I meant in -- yeah, harder compared to -- yeah, within the last five years, where it seems in the last five years there’s been more, smoother ice.
CRAIG GEORGE: Right off town there were some heavy ridges, but up where you were whaling wasn’t that different?
RICHARD GLENN: Yeah. So we move, too. We adjust. And then sometimes -- and then we adjust.
Sometimes you just grin and bear it and just power right through some mountain ranges, and sometimes you pick an easy way to the edge.
And sometimes you just give up on all this and go someplace where the ice edge comes close. Like, for example, twenty-five miles south of here or whatever, right?
So there’s -- if you asked me to compare year-to-year, I’m thinking place to place. So --
KAREN BREWSTER: Because you don’t always put your camp in the same place?
RICHARD GLENN: No, I don’t always put my camp in the same place.
And I wonder privately if a more dynamic -- a more dynamic ice edge in springtime means we’ll be more prone to moving, not just keeping your camp in the same place and just progressively building out, no matter what comes your way.
And there’s -- there’s two different ways to respond to a changing ice edge.
KAREN BREWSTER: But what about all that work to build a trail and then you’re gonna move. Do you have time to build a whole ‘nother trail?
RICHARD GLENN: Depends. It all -- it depends. It depends on the conditions where you’re moving to. Sometimes people will leave an easy-built trail for a pretty darn hard-fought one, too.
And then we have personalities within our crew. And again, got the guy older than me, who I’ve been hunting with for thirty-something years, and he’s got his opinion and I got mine, and sometimes we’re ninety degrees off from each other.
And I would rather let the family learn the lesson as a crew now, in hindsight, than to stick to a way that I think necessarily is the best way, until we’re talking about jeopardizing safety of our crewmembers.
So I’m open to trying all kinds of things and that we learn together as a family.
And that to me -- sometimes the education together as a family is a better success than catching a whale. Just -- that’s my personal opinion.
KAREN BREWSTER: Well, I was wondering, that experience in ‘97 of floating out, how that has resonated with you in future years?
RICHARD GLENN: So we’ve had future break-offs and in future break-offs I monitored carefully what was going on for my crew, my family, because I’m not in charge of everyone who’s on the other side of the danger front.
So we’ve had our kids, our crew members, some of my own children at times in this risk zone during future break -- I call them back in, you know.
I learned -- I thought I learned my lesson and -- but it doesn’t mean I’m perfect because I got burned once.
It means -- but, you know, it has changed the way I behave. Once bitten, twice shy, baby.
KAREN BREWSTER: Well, and also part of I'm getting at, too, is decision making and risk taking and when you decide it’s safe to be out.
You say there’s this danger zone, maybe, but you make the choice to be out there anyway.
RICHARD GLENN: Right. And every -- every part of this northeast/southwest trending coastline of ice, it has its own different kind of danger, right?
If you go far enough up north, you can close off from the east side and from the west side, and I’ve seen that happen up there.
But then I learned that there’s also this little perch of safety out there that the, you know, biology guys have known about. I suppose a bunch of our whalers, too. That there’s some pretty darn shallow water that’s -- historically gets you kinda close to the ice edge pretty far north.
As you go further south, I was taught that as you go very far south the currents are stronger closer to shore, so break-offs -- at times you might have miles of flat ice, but a break-off can happen closer to shore than you would expect as you go further south.
And yet I’ve caught -- our crew has caught whales and we’ve had great success further south.
And then you mentioned earlier, you know, if you muscle through right off this kind of blunt section of the, like NARL to Nunivak part of the world, and we’ve been there before, too, then you have the close-and-open, close-and-open environment grinding by all the time. And the iiguaq, the accreted ice edge.
Well -- or sometimes a refrozen lead and then some compression on the outside. Well, are you gonna sit and wait at that crack? When do you make the decision to cross this brand newly accreted piece of real estate?
And we’ve -- it’s different for different captains. It’s different for different environments, different for different years. And that’s a constant learning game.
KAREN BREWSTER: So have you been in that position, where you’ve had to decide?
RICHARD GLENN: Yeah. I’ve done everything. I’ve waited at times when other crews have crossed. I’ve crossed when other crews waited.
And I’ve picked up and moved so that I go to the tapered edge of one of these accreted places and pick something that’s more safe.
KAREN BREWSTER: So when you made that decision to cross, what happened?
RICHARD GLENN: I checked the heck out of the crack that I crossed. I keep a guy behind me checking. Checking, checking, checking for movement, checking for current, current strength, whatever.
When I cross one of these new places that I’ve -- that’s only just come into our world, I -- Maybe more than most, and maybe more than I should, I check the heck out of that -- that crack.
And I’ve watched people cross it. I’ve watched people cross through junk ice that’s kind of popcorn-looking stuff onto a fairly flat platform that’s safe to pull up a whale on the lead edge, and knowing that there’s this zone of kind of weakened ice between them and -- and safety.
And I waited and watched them and, you know, God bless ‘em, they caught a whale and they got a whale back safely, you know.
And so people respond differently and the outcomes are different. It’s -- and yet, we -- I think another gift that we have is -- in addition to this everyone’s different, everyone responds differently, we have this network with each other, and we’re honest enough to tell each other when we think something is different and why.
And so in addition to everyone’s kind of backdrop of their own books of knowledge, either internal or within their crew, we’re in touch with each other.
And most of the time, although I got burned myself once, most of the time that works. And we’ve pulled crews back by our own comments.
We think that this is wrong, we’re pulling back, and you can say it politely. We’re gonna move our crew back to the -- and by the distance of how far back we tell ‘em we’re moving, they know how deep we gauge the trouble to be.
And they’ll listen to that. It affects their -- their decision. And the same has happened to us.
And so this kind of network of -- we’re a fishnet of listening stations out there. And we’re in touch with each other and when one part of us does something, it affects the ones next to ‘em.
KAREN BREWSTER: It sounds like a lot of trust.
RICHARD GLENN: Sounds like finite element modeling in real time.
KAREN BREWSTER: No, but it sounds like you trust --
RICHARD GLENN: Oh, I pick my favorites, too. Yeah. So we -- there are people that we talk to, and everyone does this, right? They talk to their own people up and down the coast.
KAREN BREWSTER: But, so, is there anything in falltime during the ice formation and early winter that’s telling you things for the rest of the season or it’s just so dynamic?
RICHARD GLENN: No, I think it’s so dynamic. In the old days, in falltime you’d be coming home in slush, the beach is already frozen, and I’m talking about the olden -- we're talking about the 1980s being the old days? KAREN BREWSTER: Right.
RICHARD GLENN: And coming home in slush and you’re dodging already formed puktaaqs, floating big pieces of ice, and you gotta go around ‘cause you can’t drive through ‘em. Or pieces of "the pack," multi-year ice that’s making its way back around.
It’s about to be frozen to what becomes our new world in the winter. And those days are gone.
So -- so you don’t -- we -- we -- we won’t learn anything other than the rule of thumb is, for us here, we wait until the beach is frozen before we start going whaling.
That’s more about preservation of the food and -- and timing of the migration than anything else. The whales are here already at the end of August or whatever, and --
CRAIG GEORGE: But they’re big.
RICHARD GLENN: Yeah. The small ones aren't here yet. And then -- and then watching the beach freeze, watching the ice form, watching that whole kind of falltime turn to the first beginnings of winter, the formation of the ice for the first accretion of an edge, then the break-off eventually.
That’s -- that's an enlightening process about ice itself. But it’s not gonna tell you what it’s gonna be like this spring.
You know, the next storm’s gonna tell you what it’s gonna be like this spring or the next storm after that, right?
So it pays to stay in touch, but it’s -- you’re not gonna learn great -- you’re not gonna learn exactly how it’s gonna be until you’ve endured everything that gets you to the spring season.
KAREN BREWSTER: But what about in the old days? Did it freeze in the fall and stay frozen and you could learn things, or was it always --?
RICHARD GLENN: You know, there -- there’s always been a wind-driven lead in the presence of a strong east wind, and there’s always been a strong east wind.
And so there’s -- that’s always happened here. And the question is how far offshore it is.
And I’m not old enough to tell you that -- that in the old days it didn’t break close to shore. So -- so I can’t -- I can't give you anything on that.
KAREN BREWSTER: Well, I certainly -- You know, you’ve probably heard the stories in the old days guys floated out on drifting ice.
RICHARD GLENN: Um-hm. It’s always happened. I mean, I think that’s why we have common lifestyle on both sides of the Bering Strait. Some of the same Eskimo dances. Some of the same family names.
I mean, you know the story of Whitlam Adams or Whitlam Adams’ dad or one of those guys that drifted across to Wrangell Island.
I mean -- and then some people had to come home the long ways. And some people drifted north from Wales to Point Hope.
Some people drifted from Point Hope and Wales off to the Russian side. And they give ‘em up for dead, and they’ve started other families in the other world that they’ve gone to.
KAREN BREWSTER: But I guess in the time you’ve been out, have you seen the ice be more dynamic or changing? Less predictable, maybe?
RICHARD GLENN: I don’t know if it’s less predictable. I think it’s more dynamic. It’s still predictable upon the same rules that we learned it to be on.
There's less piqaluyak, less multi-year ice, and -- which itself was a mixed blessing. I mean, multi-year ice is great for fresh water. It gives these kind of molars of stability to -- to that band of first-year ice.
But then we were taught that -- never make a camp on first-year -- on piqaluyak, ’cause it’ll -- it won’t bend, it’ll shatter, right? So -- so, yeah, so --
KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah, I’ve heard both those things and it never made sense that you had -- it was good and bad at the same time.
RICHARD GLENN: It does make sense. I mean, it’s just the different conditions that you demand of it drives those different outcomes.
I think -- you know, it’s great for fresh water always, it gives stability to this band of accreted ice, but if you’re in a compressive regime, I mean real tight compression, and it’s breakin’, it’s gonna break -- that one will break by shattering rather than by bending, and we have seen that.
And well, which -- which brings to mind my most recent mistake, which is I think -- I think it was a mistake. In hindsight it had -- it's obviously a mistake because we caught and killed a whale and didn’t bring it home.
But we -- we saw a gradually opening ice edge up north and yet off to our northeast it was still closed or closing, so it was hinging open. Whales everywhere.
And it looked like we were headed for Nirvana as far as whale-hunting environment.
And rather than a hinge open and pull away like we’ve often seen it do, it hinged open and stopped and immediately started grinding from left to right, which closed -- and then eventually closed completely.
And dragged our whale underneath that seam of moving ice and landfast ice.
And I learned a lot of new things there, most of are not fit for telling on camera. But it was a great learning experience.
KAREN BREWSTER: Well, I'm going to change tape.