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Craig George, Part 1

Craig George was interviewed on June 4, 2017 by Karen Brewster at his home in Utqiaġvik, Alaska (formerly known as Barrow). In this first part of a two part interview, Craig talks about how he got involved with bowhead whale research, establishing whale census camps on the ice, and learning about whales and ice conditions from local Iñupiat experts. He also discusses some of what he has learned about sea ice conditions, including effect of wind and current, the importance of camp location, changes in ice conditions during his years of working out there, effect of rough ice on trail building, and the importance of ice safety and paying attention.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2013-25-43_PT.1

Project: Sea Ice in Northern Alaska
Date of Interview: Jun 4, 2017
Narrator(s): Craig George
Interviewer(s): Karen Brewster
Transcriber: Denali Whiting
Location of Interview:
Funding Partners:
Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Coastal Marine Institute, North Pacific Research Board
Alternate Transcripts
There is no alternate transcript for this interview.
There is no slideshow for this person.

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Personal background

Bowhead whale research and relying on Native knowledge

Setting up whale census camps on the sea ice and learning about ice conditions

Types of ice conditions they faced in 1985

Formation of young ice, and changes in timing of the arrival of bowhead whales

Selecting census camp location, and effect on number of whales counted

Drifting out on the ice

Effect of wind and current on ice conditions

Changing ice conditions in the Arctic, and rough ice in spring of 2017

Varied ice conditions along coast in front of and north of Barrow

Dangerous holes in the ice, ice add-ons, and cracks in the ice during spring 2017

Large ice break-off events

Wind and current that cause big ivu versus lead never opening

Effect of large open lead on whale counting

Effect of thick ice, pressure ridges, and flat pans of ice on trail building

Predicting where the lead will open

Ice safety, and the importance of paying attention and watching the cracks

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KAREN BREWSTER: This is Karen Brewster, today is June 4th, 2017. Here with Doctor Craig George. John Craighead George. CRAIG GEORGE: Mm-hm. KAREN BREWSTER: At his home in Barrow, Alaska. We’re gonna talk about sea ice.

So Craig, why don’t you start -- like, when did you come up to Barrow? CRAIG GEORGE: I came to Barrow in May of 1977 and I worked at the Naval Arctic Research Lab (NARL) at the -- what we called the ARF, the Animal Research Facility.

And there I was an animal caretaker, and we had a whole range of arctic mammals that were being used for various research projects.

Mostly cold adaptation physiology research. KAREN BREWSTER: And -- CRAIG GEORGE: Back in the day.

KAREN BREWSTER: Where are you from originally? CRAIG GEORGE: I’m originally from New York. Born in Poughkeepsie, raised in Chappaqua. Then I moved to Wyoming, and lived with the Craigheads for six or seven years before coming to Barrow.

And it -- I was -- the first five years I was here, most of that time, although I did bounce back and forth between Barrow and New York and Wyoming. And then I got a permanent position again in ’82.

KAREN BREWSTER: And at NARL -- at the ARF or -- CRAIG GEORGE: Well, it was then called the Environmental Protection Office of the North Slope Borough, and now is renamed the Department of Wildlife Management. So, yeah.

KAREN BREWSTER: And so you have a degree in biology? CRAIG GEORGE: I had a deg -- KAREN BREWSTER: Or at that point? CRAIG GEORGE: Well, I had a BS in Wildlife Management from Utah State. And then I went back to graduate school in 1999, I think it was. Wow.

And then finished ten years later. Took a while. KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. CRAIG GEORGE: Yup.

KAREN BREWSTER: And so you've spent a lot of your career working on the bowhead whale and that takes you out on the sea ice, right? CRAIG GEORGE: Right. The initial work we did was focused primarily on two things. One getting good estimates of abundance.

And two, doing a lot of sort of basic descriptive research on the whale itself. On bowheads.

A lot of basic anatomy, gross anatomy, fine structure work. Reproductive -- work on their reproductive system.

All the basic systems: respiratory, digestive, reproductive, integumentary - the skin. All these sorts of things KAREN BREWSTER: Mm-hm.

CRAIG GEORGE: Trying to understand it as my boss, Tom -- Tom Albert is a veterinarian/physiologist, University of Maryland, that moved up here. But he -- he said, in his words, basically, the bowhead fell off the moon in terms of science.

That there was a lot of knowledge in the Native community, kind of sketchy in the scientific commit -- community.

There -- there were -- Well, there were some -- definitely some literature and NMFS (National Marine Fisheries Service) had done a good job of getting started on more intensive research in the '70s. But, anyway, yeah. It -- it was definitely a really, really exciting period.

KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah, well, that idea that the Native people knew things that science didn’t know, you guys kinda were ahead of your time in that regard of -- ? CRAIG GEORGE: You know -- KAREN BREWSTER: -- collaborating?

CRAIG GEORGE: Oddly enough, it was Tom who was ahead of his time. I think I was trained as a classic wildlifer. And, basically, we were taught not to trust the hunters and the range, you know, that -- the cattlemen. That we knew better.

That was kinda the essence of it, that we were trained in science, population biology and all this stuff. We knew how to manage wildlife and the users less so.

Well, that was a paradigm shift here. And it was quickly apparent like -- to do the ice-based counts, we had to be adept on the sea ice. That was number one.

Had to have the logistics down, know how to camp out there, and survive, so to speak, on the ice to get the job done.

I always say that Arctic research is -- it’s ninety percent logistics and ten percent science. And that’s not entirely fair, but I would say ar -- Arctic, you know, not -- not that necessarily the modeling aspect, but the -- the field aspects it -- it really is about getting out there safely and getting people in the position where they can collect the data.

So -- so anyway, getting back to your question. And I’m gonna try not to say "so anyway." Getting back to your question. Tom was trained as a large animal veterinarian first. And then in, you know, heavy duty physiology and all that.

He was really interested in actually in thermoregulation. Which is really fascinating stuff. How animals live in a cold environment. Mammals.

And -- but he said, and I asked him this years later, I said, "Tom, what was it -- ?" You know, he very quickly keyed in to the Native community, especially Harry Brower, as you know. KAREN BREWSTER: Right.

CRAIG GEORGE: Harry Sr., Kenneth Toovak, Burton Rexford. A bunch -- bunch of those guys around the Lab and elsewhere. And he listened to 'em.

And he -- they said we were grossly underestimating. Like we heard yesterday from Wesley (Aiken), you know. KAREN BREWSTER: Right.

CRAIG GEORGE: We’re underestimating the number of whales. And -- and I thought, well, that sounds kinda self-serving. And he didn’t have the -- you know, I’m saying this now, I don’t know -- it -- but he didn’t have the bias of being trained as a wildlifer. KAREN BREWSTER: Ah, right.

CRAIG GEORGE: He was trained as a veterinarian. And he said he learned in his large animal practice that the man that he mentored under, I think his name was Dr. Ramey, he said, "First thing, listen to the farmer. The owner. Ask them what’s going on with their animal. Where has it been feeding? What’s -- you know, what’s it’s history? What’s changed. Have -- you know, whatever. Listen to those guys, they know their animals." And he -- he said he transferred that here.

And then, you know, a light went off in my head. Especially when I was trying to, you know, set up ice camps and figure out how to -- how to properly estimate bowhead abundance.

It’s like, wow, you know, the local people are light-years ahead of us in a deep understanding. I mean, they knew -- You know, they -- it was such a deep knowledge that, you know, when we’d ask questions it’s like, "Well, I don’t even know where to start." They’d say, "You know, you’ve got -- you need Sea Ice 101 and Bowhead 101."

And it -- there’s a great expression a friend once said, a mathematician friend, he said, "You can’ t teach physics to people that don’t know math. That can’t do math." And it was kinda true here, you couldn’t teach bowheads to people that didn’t know the ice and the environment and all this.

So it was kind of a -- it was a really exciting period of learning about ice types, about the weather, about when the migration starts and how whales behave, and all this sort of thing. It’s pretty -- pretty cool. Yeah.

And very exciting, we -- You know, we’d set up for a count just like the whalers do. Used -- it’s a year round preparation. But you start getting ready lining out your equipment, your crew, through the summer and fall. And the winter, you’re making final preparations and you start your ice recon -- KAREN BREWSTER: Mm-hm. CRAIG GEORGE: -- work. Anyway --

KAREN BREWSTER: So this is for the -- CRAIG GEORGE: Yeah. KAREN BREWSTER: -- whale counting, your census? CRAIG GEORGE: Yeah, the whale count.

KAREN BREWSTER: And what year did you start that? When was your first whale count? CRAIG GEORGE: Well, my first year on the ice was 1980. Tom hired me to come up, and I was kind of a logistics -- Well, I was a logistics guy to help them sample whales. It was part of a project Whales or --

Anyway, he had some money. KAREN BREWSTER: That was -- CRAIG GEORGE: What’s that?

KAREN BREWSTER: That was to take samples from harvested, landed whales? CRAIG GEORGE: To take samples, yes. To take sample harvested whales.

And he needed somebody to keep the snowmachine fleet running and, you know, scout trails and work with hunters.

And by that time, I had lived here. I knew a lot of local people. I'd just climbed Denali, so I had some -- that -- you know, there’s mountaineering experience, which I -- you know, which is risk management, really. And I transferred that to sort of learning the ice.

It's a little -- one of the big -- the big -- the biggest risk often in the mountains is avalanche and rock fall. And, you know, there’s -- you learn to -- you learn as much as you can about the conditions that cause those things.

And here the big risks with the ice, aside from bears and cold and all that, but really the big one is breaking off like we heard incredible story yesterday by Wesley Aiken.

But every hunter, including us, everyone who’s been on the ice has broken off. And -- and the other thing, of course, getting smacked by the -- by the pack ice. KAREN BREWSTER: Mm-hm.

CRAIG GEORGE: And both are -- You run a big risk when you have people out there. So, yeah -- so that was -- those are my early years.

1980 was my first year on the ice and we were sampling whales for Tom’s project. And the quota was very small then.

And I think Eugene Brower, Captain Brower, said, you know, a crew share fits in a suitcase. You know, for a family, for a year. KAREN BREWSTER: Mm-hm.

CRAIG GEORGE: You know, they’re very modest hunt. But nonetheless we -- Tom negotiated with them and we -- we took -- we were able to, with their permission, sample whales and get a lot of basic tissues as we could. And the parts that weren’t eaten.

And began a pretty intensive, you know, series of research projects on basic anatomy and fine structure of the various organs and all that. KAREN BREWSTER: Hm-mm. CRAIG GEORGE: Yeah. So --

KAREN BREWSTER: So, can you talk about setting up the census camp and how you find a good place and kinda -- CRAIG GEORGE: Right. KAREN BREWSTER: -- what you’ve learned from the whalers who have to do the same thing?

CRAIG GEORGE: Right. So, yeah, they -- that was an interesting period because -- Well, my good friend, Geoff Carroll, had been out there for a few years. And he -- again he -- he’s a person with some mountaineering background. A lot of -- a lot of wilderness travel.

And he was learning the ropes and he was our camp leader at the time. So I was learning from him, as well. And that was back when, you know, we were young and strong and beginning to learn some humility, I guess.

And -- but -- but was clear that, you know, the go-to people were these older captains, which, of course, were -- are my age now.

And I would go over with maps and questions and they would very patiently, remarkably patiently, kind of walk me through, you know, some of the basics. But yes, we would go out -- I --

I just, for instance, here're some field notes from ’85. So on April 3rd, we did an ice recon flight.

And I said, this is interesting, (reading from field notebook) "Many multi-year ice pans cemented together." You don’t see that anymore. So it was mostly multi-year ice out there.

"No large riving -- ridging anywhere except near Nuvuk and on the shoal possibly." The shoal is that shallow area north of Nuvuk. And that’s typically where we counted.

"A nice flat pan north of the Point for pulling up whales and others." And it’s interesting. That set up every year just like we -- we heard from Rossman (Peetok) the other day. That’s pretty interesting. And David Leavitt.

"The lead was partially frozen over. The wind was slightly -- sliding the young ice off it." So there was an offshore wind, clearly, and it was peeling -- peeling the young ice off.

KAREN BREWSTER: Off of what? Off the edges of the lead? CRAIG GEORGE: Off the lead, yeah. KAREN BREWSTER: Okay.

CRAIG GEORGE: As John Burns would say, "Making ice." So offshore wind pulling off the -- the young ice.

"There were two good ice trails, one going to the west of Nuvuk and another going four miles northwest of Nuvuk." So. I guess those were seal hunter trails that were already established ‘cause by that time --

KAREN BREWSTER: What was the date of that recon? CRAIG GEORGE: That was April 3rd. And -- KAREN BREWSTER: 1985?

CRAIG GEORGE: 1985, yes. And that’s typically when we would, yeah, get going. Now maybe we’ll talk about this later, but the whales come so much earlier.

You have to be -- you have to have a perch set up by the 3rd. KAREN BREWSTER: Of April? CRAIG GEORGE: Yeah. KAREN BREWSTER: Really, they’re coming that much earlier? CRAIG GEORGE: Oh, we’ve seen them in late March. KAREN BREWSTER: Wow.

CRAIG GEORGE: Like large numbers of whales. I’m not -- I’m not sure -- I can look and see what our first whale sighting was, but probably around the 20th that year. KAREN BREWSTER: Of April? CRAIG GEORGE: Yeah. That’s pretty typical. Anyway.

So, yeah, so what we -- we’d do our -- usually get a light plane and a Cessna 206 or 185, and we’d fly the lead edge and we would look for a big pressure ridge and then kinda look towards land. And say okay, there’s a nice big pressure ridge, how do we get there?

And what we want is the biggest pressure ridge we can find near the water that we can count from. And then you want a nice pan behind it where you set up camp and all this.

And we were -- the ice was very consistent then. We could -- we could always find those conditions pretty readily. Yeah, so --

KAREN BREWSTER: And you needed to be up high on the pressure ridge to see out onto the lead versus a whale camp, they want to be on a flat piece? CRAIG GEORGE: Right, yeah. So that was -- That -- that’s a good point.

And we didn’t want to interfere with whale hunting, and we were instructed at times. Iñupiaq term suak, suakpak. They’d -- they’d -- KAREN BREWSTER: Scold you. CRAIG GEORGE: Scold us a little.

So we -- we tended to go further north. On that shoal, the big pressure ridges up there. But it was interesting. Finally, Burton Rexford said, "You know, you guys are too far north."

And the counting is better if the whales are closer -- KAREN BREWSTER: Mm-hm. CRAIG GEORGE: -- off -- off down of Narl and all that. He was right, of course.

And we could see it in some of the acoustic data we had, that when we were far north, the whales were further offshore.

And our best count was actually, still is believe it or not, in terms of numbers of whales seen directly, 1993, we saw almost thirty five hundred whales.

And they were all -- the acoustics told us that something like ninety-five percent were within view. KAREN BREWSTER: Wow. CRAIG GEORGE: It’s never happened before or since. And we were -- we were right off like where Harry Brower Sr. used to set up right off the incinerator. KAREN BREWSTER: Mm-hm. CRAIG GEORGE: In that area.

And it was an extraordinary year. The wind blew from the east every day and we --

It was skin boat hunting only. It was a huge difference then. And so the whales weren’t disturbed, and phew, right along the lead edge.

And we had a -- had a very, very successful year. Although, we were out there --

The other interesting thing, back then the quota was small enough that they would -- the hunters would reach their quota very quickly. And so we were often alone on the ice. After the tenth of -- the tenth of May. Sometimes early -- earlier than that.

1982, in mid-April or -- I think that’s the year that the quota of four, four struck and lost in half an hour. I think Eugene (Brower) calls it the -- the thirty minute whaling season.

And they -- the -- he had to tell everybody they were done. I can’t imagine. And they came off the ice.

But, anyway, so we were out there in -- having this record count. And I remember this day, the wind speed was low, and it -- I was on watch at six in the morning. And Perry Anashugak came running up to the perch saying that the ice was breaking off just north of us, and that "hydrophone number four was drifting away."

He said (reading from field notebook), "Sure enough, it -- it had broken back to the seventy-foot line. Which is behind us. The whole way down the coast and everything north of there was adrift. We pulled back very quickly, but I’m fairly certain we wouldn’t have been fast enough if it had broken behind us. The crack, for some reason, did not run -- did not open behind the perch and left a peninsula on the -- on the shorefast ice. Kind of a miracle. We then pulled back and moved to a new perch north of Nuvuk. And had a watch going by eight o’clock that evening."

And then I go into some details about that. But, yeah, it was pretty -- pretty crazy.

What happened, the crack developed all the way down the coast, you know, and everything north of us broke off. And we watched it drift to the southwest.

This gigantic -- You know, like a ten-mile long by two-mile wide piece of ice. KAREN BREWSTER: Mm-hm. CRAIG GEORGE: And our hydrophone was on it. And we could hear it fading away.

But we were kind of on this peninsula and it opened up behind us about -- about that much. About four inches.

And we pulled back and I remember watching it, it was kind of, you know, going like this (showing moving back and forth). And it didn’t -- it -- it was -- it hadn’t quite settled down, but it stopped. It -- it wasn’t moving.

But it kinda gave me the willies, and we -- I didn’t wanna move back off across it.

But that was kind of -- You know, the wind was down and there was this swirling current. I remember the water almost looked like it was boiling in the lead. KAREN BREWSTER: Hm.

CRAIG GEORGE: And that’s when the light really went off in my head that it’s much less about wind and it’s more about current like the locals were saying. KAREN BREWSTER: Mm-hm.

CRAIG GEORGE: Intuitively, every -- every greenhorn thinks offshore wind, that’s dangerous ‘cause that’s gonna push the ice out.

Well, if it’s cracked off or adrift, sure. The pack ice moves with it.

Shorefast ice doesn’t, unless it’s broken. And the -- the forces that break it are extremely complicated.

That’s one thing that's sort of a revelation -- revelation, yeah. That I met -- I remember reading -- meeting various sea ice experts like Lou Shapiro and others. Ron Metzner, and several others, but especially Lou.

And, you know, being a greenhorn coming up here I couldn’t understand what -- how -- how somebody could spend their career studying sea ice. I mean, what -- But the complexity of it, you know, the mo -- the more I know, the less I know sort of thing.

And it’s very, very complicated. Sea ice is complicated. And there’s a lot of -- somebody said it’s plate tectonics in real time but there’s a lot going on out there that --

The forces and the physics and the ice types and the currents and the effect of solar radiation and wind and temperature and salinity and, oh my gosh, it’s -- it’s -- And it’s highly variable, too.

That’s the other thing that became so apparent was the Arctic is all about variability. And last year, we had the warmest spring on record, earliest snow -- snow melt. Etcetera, etcetera. This year, I just drove the coast this morning, it looks like April out there. I mean, it’s just unbelievable.

KAREN BREWSTER: Due to the ice is still pretty solid? CRAIG GEORGE: Yeah. It was twenty-six degrees this morning. Whatever that -- minus three centigrade.

And it’s -- the ice is drained. I mean, it looks almost inviting. It’s so different than last year.

And that -- that is -- is just the earmark of the Arctic is variability. And all the animals have -- and people, you have to adapt to that. You have to go with the punches, so --

KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah, but a lot of the common phrasing now is, you know, is thinning ice, global warming, things are breaking up earlier, freezing later. CRAIG GEORGE: Right if --

KAREN BREWSTER: I mean, is that a long-term pattern or is it still that -- CRAIG GEORGE: Well. KAREN BREWSTER: -- very variability? CRAIG GEORGE: The big thing, like I -- you know, I read from this ice recon ’85, is it was all multi-year pans that were kind of cemented together as I said. KAREN BREWSTER: Right.

CRAIG GEORGE: So you have these beautiful pans and a ridge and -- and actually trail building, even though the ice was heavier, in some respects it was easier -- and breaking multi-year ice.

When you hit it with a pick it actually shatters, whereas this kind of crumbly first-year stuff, you know, you swing your pick and “ee” it sticks in it like a punky piece of wood. KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. CRAIG GEORGE: Terrible.

And, you know, the trail building this year was just -- Well, it was arguably one of the roughest trail building years in my time.

KAREN BREWSTER: Why was it so rough? CRAIG GEORGE: Well, the way it developed and --

It’s really interesting because it looked like it was gonna set up like last year where there was some shorefast here and then broke to the coast. KAREN BREWSTER: Mm-hm. CRAIG GEORGE: Last year. All the way down to Point Hope. Boom, right to the -- right to the coast. KAREN BREWSTER: Wow. CRAIG GEORGE: Yeah.

KAREN BREWSTER: In -- in April it did that? Or -- CRAIG GEORGE: Phew, it was -- KAREN BREWSTER: Earlier?

CRAIG GEORGE: March, I think. KAREN BREWSTER: Okay. CRAIG GEORGE: I have to check.

This year it started setting up like that. Like -- Wesley reminded us yesterday that, yeah, it was open early. And then it --

We had west winds for like two months. And so this kind of immature first-year ice would come in and it would crumble.

And then get another westerly, you know, good blow. And we had some that were pretty strong.

And it just kinda built this continuous rubble out off town. It’s almost twelve miles. Yeah.

So the best access was up north, but they -- Arey crew started punching a trail. They finally had to give up, it was like --

They joked a few years ago that they had to break through the Brooks Range to get to the ice, and that was a couple years ago. It was rough.

This year they said, "No, it’s the Himalayas." And it was. It was just amazing.

KAREN BREWSTER: Now all those piles, though, were they also tall? Or were they just -- it was just constant roughness, it didn’t matter how high it was? CRAIG GEORGE: They were also tall.

KAREN BREWSTER: They were also tall? CRAIG GEORGE: Yeah. And up there there was like some second-year ice or something. I remember chipping on it and I tasted it. It had a little salt, but it was mostly fresh.

And there’s some pretty good sized, maybe six to eight foot pans, that were busted up in there. And they were really impressive. There were some tall ridges. KAREN BREWSTER: Okay. CRAIG GEORGE: You know, in the --

You know, it’s real easy to over-estimate the height. I mean, they looked like they’re a hundred feet tall and when you measure them, they’re forty feet high. KAREN BREWSTER: Right. CRAIG GEORGE: But that -- that’s --

KAREN BREWSTER: Still pretty tall. CRAIG GEORGE: That’s tall.

KAREN BREWSTER: But I was thinking that if it was that young ice that just kept breaking from the west wind. Kept breaking, breaking. That it wouldn’t actually pile up. That it was just sort of breaking in place. CRAIG GEORGE: It would crumble. Yeah. KAREN BREWSTER: It would crumble. CRAIG GEORGE: It would just crumble up like you crumble up paper. KAREN BREWSTER: Right.

CRAIG GEORGE: And that’s what it’s like. It’s just this continuous, well, off town, low rubble. Up north on that -- again, on that Nuvuk or Point Barrow shoal, it was some of that. But also there was some heavier ice up there. KAREN BREWSTER: Okay.

CRAIG GEORGE: And that’s -- I don’t know if that’s more common than not to have some -- more of the old ice up there. Seems like it, maybe not.

KAREN BREWSTER: But I was wondering what the different -- if there’s differences between up by Nuvuk versus out of town? Like you said the trails out towards Nuvuk it was easier to get out there than out from town. CRAIG GEORGE: Just ‘cause, well --

KAREN BREWSTER: And why was that? CRAIG GEORGE: Only because the currents are faster. And that’s right on the edge of the canyon (underwater Barrow Canyon). KAREN BREWSTER: Mm-hm.

CRAIG GEORGE: So it’s -- I think you had a map. KAREN BREWSTER: I do have a map. CRAIG GEORGE: Yeah. KAREN BREWSTER: Of the trails? That one? CRAIG GEORGE: Yeah. KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah, that’s this --

CRAIG GEORGE: So I was gonna -- I was gonna grab this (walks off camera) and actually I was going to grab something else. Is this legal, to go off camera?

KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah, yeah, yeah. CRAIG GEORGE: Yeah. Okay. So up here off the Point, the Barrow Canyon gets very close to the Point. It’s only a few miles -- KAREN BREWSTER: Uh-huh. CRAIG GEORGE: Off and --

And it’s a very steep gradient. So you just simply can’t get grounded ice beyond this, it’s just -- KAREN BREWSTER: It's too deep? CRAIG GEORGE: It’s too deep and drops quickly. And the current accelerates up here. KAREN BREWSTER: Hm.

CRAIG GEORGE: Oddly enough, this shoal though is very stable. ‘Cause it’s only about thirty, forty feet deep often. KAREN BREWSTER: Hm. CRAIG GEORGE: On the shoal. And then phew.

So we used to count up here, but again, what -- what they would say is the whales are closest here and then they kind of -- You know, the gap between --

KAREN BREWSTER: Is that because they’re going out towards deeper water? CRAIG GEORGE: Well, yeah, they’re probably -- they’re not making the turn to the east quite yet. KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah.

CRAIG GEORGE: So anyway, what I -- I wasn't going to say that. KAREN BREWSTER: Sorry to interrupt. CRAIG GEORGE: No, no. No, that’s fine.

But this dark -- dark is flat. And what they did is, they found some flat pans and, in fact, this trail follows a re-frozen lead. KAREN BREWSTER: Oh.

CRAIG GEORGE: The west wind broke a lot of this off and then it re-froze. And it was kind of low crumbly stuff, but they followed -- it was -- I must say, it was -- KAREN BREWSTER: So that -- CRAIG GEORGE: -- one of the coolest trails ever. KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah.

CRAIG GEORGE: This kind of frozen river through the mountains. And then they -- but then they had to really lean into it and break that last, oh, I don’t know. This -- you can see -- you can see this is all red. KAREN BREWSTER: Right. CRAIG GEORGE: Meaning thin ice.

And that last mile or so was pretty rough. I went out to help on the last day and it was kind of fun, though. We got to bust up to the lead and we saw some whales and -- KAREN BREWSTER: Cool. CRAIG GEORGE: You know that was --

But it was really late and the trails out here, they didn’t get to the water until late in April. Whereas the year before, there was no trail building. Just, you know, knock down a couple things and you’re --

KAREN BREWSTER: The ice was that flat, you could just go? CRAIG GEORGE: It was that flat and that close and -- just -- and they were out on young ice. It was --

Where Harry’s camp (Harry Brower, Jr.) was it was -- It wasn't there very long. KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. CRAIG GEORGE: You know, they got their whales and pulled out.

But there were big keeper holes in what I call -- KAREN BREWSTER: What are keeper holes? CRAIG GEORGE: Keeper hole that -- that’s a -- a white water term from white water kayaking and rafting, I guess.

But a keeper hole is one, you know, if you go in it you’re not coming out. KAREN BREWSTER: Right. CRAIG GEORGE: You tumble. What I mean here is bottomless. KAREN BREWSTER: Right.

CRAIG GEORGE: And you’re going along and you’re going through puddles and then it’s like, "Hm, that one?" And sure enough it’s dark and it’s black.

And you can see a little swirling on the surface. KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. CRAIG GEORGE: And that -- it’s like "Oh, yeah."

And every year someone goes -- KAREN BREWSTER: Really? CRAIG GEORGE: Puts a new snowmachine in -- When those are on the trail, you know, somebody -- It seems like somebody loses --

KAREN BREWSTER: And what causes those? Is that the eroding from the bottom? CRAIG GEORGE: Well, you know, it turns out, yeah, again the Iñupiaq were right about that. That --

I think, yes, that there’s surface melting and bottom melting from the upwelling. I think it was thought not to occur back in the day when I got started. Of course, it was kind of a different world then. KAREN BREWSTER: Mm-hm.

CRAIG GEORGE: But they talked about it here. But what it requires is a slosh of warmer water that coming up and -- Hajo Eicken and Andy Mahoney and others have seen that. KAREN BREWSTER: Hm.

CRAIG GEORGE: Matter of fact. And Josh and others. It’s -- it’s happening actually more often. It’s kind of worrisome.

But, yeah, it -- it -- it melts the ice from underneath. And it’s kind of insidious 'cause it’s not as apparent.

KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah, well, and that was my ques -- CRAIG GEORGE: Yeah. KAREN BREWSTER: They say nowadays the water’s warmer. And a lot of people will say that.

But so I’m wondering, like yeah, in the earlier days, would like a south, southwest wind, south current bring warmer water in and -- ? CRAIG GEORGE: I -- I guess so. KAREN BREWSTER: -- contribute to that and -- ?

CRAIG GEORGE: I don’t know what -- I should know. I don’t know what specific wind direction sloshes it up. But --

But really, we’re not talking about the heavy, thick ice. KAREN BREWSTER: Right. CRAIG GEORGE: It’s -- it’s the -- like I talked about, cemented, which is often it -- it, you know -- it’s a complex mix of -- of ice.

Of course, it used to be multi-year pans that were -- would come in and ground, and it would freeze around them. KAREN BREWSTER: Okay.

CRAIG GEORGE: But if you get a crack and refrozen lead, those -- you know, that, maybe only freezes let’s say in March or April. You get some ice activity and an iiguaq will come in and attach. And there’s always these thin spots in the weld.

But last year, oh boy, it was -- it was all formed late and there just simply wasn’t any thick ice. And then there was some really thin sections.

Yeah, we were traveling out, had this big wonderful just flat refrozen pan out there on the other side of the first ridge. You could whiz along and all the camps were --

Most all of them were set up off Narl on some pretty, pretty young ice, you know. It might have been, I don’t know, a meter thick or so. KAREN BREWSTER: Three feet? CRAIG GEORGE: Or a little over a meter. KAREN BREWSTER: Three feet or four feet or something like that? CRAIG GEORGE: Yeah. Three, four feet. And -- but --

But in between these broken areas, it was -- it was a pretty -- you had to be -- be on your toes using that trail. Yeah.

And so they got their whales and they got out of there. And then the last whales were caught down off towards Nunavak and Naparaq, I think. KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. CRAIG GEORGE: That area. KAREN BREWSTER: Down south?

CRAIG GEORGE: Down south where like I said, the ice broke and it was -- it was only a mile wide down there if that. Yeah.

And -- but it was pretty good stuff. It held some really, really big whales. Like fifty-five footers. KAREN BREWSTER: Wow. CRAIG GEORGE: They yanked the -- The last whale was Hopson crew and they got it up on the ice. It held.

KAREN BREWSTER: Well, I know a few years ago there was same thing. I don’t know if it was during whaling or just before, a big area like right in front of town broke off. And it was almost open water to the beach, right? CRAIG GEORGE: Yeah, yeah, that -- you know, but that can happen.

Especially during, you know, development through the fall and into December.

You know, I -- I guess I said very emphatically that it’s more about wind -- current than wind. But when -- when it’s not grounded and you have young ice coming in if you get a good easterly, it’s not gonna go out.

So it -- it does that for a while ‘til finally you get, you know, those grounded -- KAREN BREWSTER: But it seems -- CRAIG GEORGE: -- grounded ivuniqs.

KAREN BREWSTER: It seemed like that one that was so close to Barrow the last -- I don’t remember, it was four years ago, maybe. CRAIG GEORGE: Yeah.

KAREN BREWSTER: And -- that it wasn’t grounded, it was just big pans of sikuliaq? CRAIG GEORGE: Yeah. Well --

KAREN BREWSTER: Is that why it went out or -- and then somebody told me, well, that's ---

CRAIG GEORGE: Well, that one when Clifford Okpeaha’s crew went out. KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah, I think that’s it. CRAIG GEORGE: Yeah, yeah, that was -- Yes, that was not very mature ice and it -- but it blew fifty something miles an hour. God, that was terrifying.

I really -- I was really worried about 'em ‘cause the piece of ice they went out on was not very substantial.

And, yeah, it -- they couldn’t fly the helicopters. KAREN BREWSTER: It was just too windy? CRAIG GEORGE: It was -- Well, it was bad visibility.

We didn’t have this new helicopter that can fly in, you know, really poor weather. So they were on their own and they essentially self-rescued.

It was amazing that -- the response of the other hunters. Harry (Brower, Jr.) and Billy (Adams). They -- they put a boat out in the --

I was almost more worried about the people doing the rescuing. I think they realized that it was just -- it was blowing way too hard. They -- they would not have made it.

I can’t remember the details. That would be worth getting that one straightened out.

But then -- then it -- the weather laid down and actually the ice -- it’s all in the radar animation. KAREN BREWSTER: Mm-hm. CRAIG GEORGE: And then the ice started coming back north again.

And -- but -- they made it. They did some self-rescue, and I think the helicopter got some gear. They might’ve lost some, but -- Yeah.

But here, you can see, actually, in this -- here’s the -- the ice edge in maybe January. KAREN BREWSTER: Hm. CRAIG GEORGE: Early February. Before all this kinda junky ice came in.

See that? KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. CRAIG GEORGE: That was there. And that was, I thought -- KAREN BREWSTER: That’s pretty smooth.

CRAIG GEORGE: Well, this here it -- it -- it’s kinda rough. KAREN BREWSTER: Oh. CRAIG GEORGE: But it’s -- it’s fairly substantial stuff.


CRAIG GEORGE: And then all this is kinda this -- that kinda shattered junky stuff -- KAREN BREWSTER: Right. CRAIG GEORGE: -- that you saw when you flew in.

KAREN BREWSTER: So before all that ja -- that -- that -- part that you just showed right close to the coast in January, that -- was the lead just off of there or -- It was that close? CRAIG GEORGE: Yeah, oh yeah. The water was close and I thought, wow, it’s setting up like last year. KAREN BREWSTER: Wow.

CRAIG GEORGE: And then we had just west wind for seemed almost continuous. KAREN BREWSTER: Right.

But then there was that one year, again maybe four or five years ago, where during whaling, it was like constant west wind. The lead didn’t open. Right? CRAIG GEORGE: 2013. KAREN BREWSTER: 2013. CRAIG GEORGE: Yeah, they didn’t catch a single whale.

KAREN BREWSTER: And it didn’t cause that same kind of rough piling up. CRAIG GEORGE: Well. KAREN BREWSTER: What’s the difference? CRAIG GEORGE: Well, yeah, the difference is when it happens. KAREN BREWSTER: Okay.

CRAIG GEORGE: So if you get into April and you have your shorefast set up, and then it turns west it’s just gonna close the lead.

Unless, of course, you get a 1957 situation where a big piece of multi-year ice or heavy, heavy ice just -- KAREN BREWSTER: Right. CRAIG GEORGE: -- knocked -- knocked out the shorefast.

KAREN BREWSTER: Right, but that -- that -- the lead was open and it moved in and hit the edge. Whereas what you’re saying in 2013 the ice was closed. CRAIG GEORGE: Well.

KAREN BREWSTER: And it didn’t even open. CRAIG GEORGE: Well, yeah, remember in the absence of east wind often the lead will shut. And, of course, with west wind it almost always does, at least in the old days. KAREN BREWSTER: Right. Now it’s not so --

CRAIG GEORGE: Because the leads weren’t that wide, and the pack ice was right there, a little west wind, it was shut. KAREN BREWSTER: Okay.

CRAIG GEORGE: But now, oh my gosh, it was open forty miles in -- KAREN BREWSTER: Really?

CRAIG GEORGE: Yeah, you look at the imagery from, you know, in late April and -- you know, it -- not so much up north, but out here, there was a huge lead. KAREN BREWSTER: Wow. CRAIG GEORGE: And, of course, that --

Like I said, it’s very complicated. It changes a lot. But there was a big, wide lead early on. KAREN BREWSTER: Huh.

CRAIG GEORGE: And I was thinking boy, if we were counting, what do you actually -- you know, with the lead that wide. You know --

KAREN BREWSTER: You’re only counting what’s coming close to the -- your side. CRAIG GEORGE: Well, yeah. They tend to follow the -- the lead edge. But boy, you know, if you have that much open water.

KAREN BREWSTER: Well, and I didn’t realize that the lead got that big. ‘Cause again, you know, my time here, you’d go out there and you’d see the pack (ice).

But now, what you’re saying is you don’t even see the pack on the other side? CRAIG GEORGE: Often, yeah. KAREN BREWSTER: Oh.

CRAIG GEORGE: That -- there are certainly conditions where you don’t see the pack. Now up north, you know, it was closer. And that’s -- KAREN BREWSTER: Right. CRAIG GEORGE: Fairly typical.

You know, that the -- the lead actually can be shut and then open down here. KAREN BREWSTER: Right. CRAIG GEORGE: As the ice is sliding along.

But, yeah, if you look at the imagery from -- oh boy, yeah, I think it was like mid to late April. There was a big lead and then, you know, I left for the IWC (International Whaling Commission) meetings, so I didn’t track things quite as well. But it was an odd season though.

Of course, every year, you know, I've probably been saying that for a thousand years, but, you know, just all this crumbled up first-year, you know -- I think a lot of people said some of the toughest ice -- trail building they'd ever encountered.

KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. And I’ve heard people say that and I’ve been trying to figure out, well, you know, back in the old times there were, you know, these super, super huge pressure ridges.

That seems pretty hard to break through for me, but -- but what -- in that -- but, there were -- CRAIG GEORGE: Yeah. KAREN BREWSTER: Flat pans in between. CRAIG GEORGE: Yeah.

KAREN BREWSTER: What you’re saying too is those big ridges of thick ice was a different kind of ice. CRAIG GEORGE: It was a different kind of ice and, yeah, it was kind of do-able, you know.

KAREN BREWSTER: ‘Cause they broke through some pretty big ridges I remember on some of those trails. CRAIG GEORGE: Oh, yeah. Yeah. And it was -- you’re right, you know, trail building has always been hard.

I remember 1984, we had a very, very tough, tough year out there. But I did a sketch --

It’s interesting, I thought I’d show this. But I did a sketch of what the ice was like.

I don’t know if the camera can see this. KAREN BREWSTER: If you hold the book up I can zoom in on it. CRAIG GEORGE: Okay.

And it shows -- it kinda shows exactly what I’m talking about. This is up by Narl. Let me hold it steady. KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah.

CRAIG GEORGE: And I -- I mean up by Nuvuk and all that. And you have these pans and then ridges, but, you know, you bust your way over and then you have a nice pan. KAREN BREWSTER: Right.

CRAIG GEORGE: And then you bust through it and another pan. And this was kinda status quo in the '80s. KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah.

CRAIG GEORGE: And this -- there’s a lot of multi-year ice. We could always get drinking water ice. There was never -- KAREN BREWSTER: Right. CRAIG GEORGE: Never much of a problem. So --

KAREN BREWSTER: But, yeah, so that’s the difference is you’d -- you’d bust through a big ridge, but then you had a break of flat ice you didn’t have to really make trail on. And then you’d -- CRAIG GEORGE: Right. KAREN BREWSTER: -- bust through.

While this year, they had to just constantly -- CRAIG GEORGE: It was just -- KAREN BREWSTER: -- be busting through? CRAIG GEORGE: Yeah, and again it was that stuff it’s like hitting Styrofoam.

But you can see Leavitt Crew here? KAREN BREWSTER: Right. CRAIG GEORGE: They never made it. KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah.

CRAIG GEORGE: I don’t think they ever -- I’m pretty sure -- And I may be wrong about this, I -- Well, that trail, it never got to the water. But I don’t think they --

I don’t think they ever put a boat at the lead edge this year.

KAREN BREWSTER: They didn’t go up north to the other trail? CRAIG GEORGE: They didn’t. Yeah.

KAREN BREWSTER: Well, this is from another map from Matt. It’s -- CRAIG GEORGE: Yeah. KAREN BREWSTER: That dotted line there being where I think people thought the lead was gonna be. Is that what it was? CRAIG GEORGE: Yeah. Yeah, there was a couple of those.

And, in fact even closer, people -- I remember one of the crews off Narl said, "Well, we’re just gonna bust up to this big agiukpak." Big rubbed wall (area of sheared ice). And that -- it’s gonna open here.

I'm like -- and they asked me. It’s funny. Some of them, you know, I’m kind of an elder now. KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. CRAIG GEORGE: And I -- he’s a scientist, he would know. But, you know, he’s been on the ice. KAREN BREWSTER: So yeah --

CRAIG GEORGE: They said -- I remember there were some young guys out there and that was Price Leavitt and some others were on that one, and they said, "Is it gonna open here?"

I said, "Man, I’ll tell you what. It -- it will eventually, but this looks like it's pretty well -- pretty well glued on." The iiguaq (ice add-on) was pretty well glued on. And I said, "I wouldn’t. I would not count on it."

You know, they -- they went out to -- it was really clear where the -- where the new ice had attached.

And yeah, there was several cracks like that that really made people nervous, but, yeah, they never -- KAREN BREWSTER: Well, and that’s the -- CRAIG GEORGE: It still hasn’t -- still hasn’t moved.

KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. And that’s why I think that map is interesting that there’s -- that how do they know where it might break? I mean, if there’s no -- CRAIG GEORGE: Yeah.

KAREN BREWSTER: -- lead out there when you start building, how do you decide where -- ? CRAIG GEORGE: Well -- Well, when you st -- yeah, but that’s -- that’s it.

You know that the sea ice is an amalgamation of landfast or shorefast of these different iiguaqs that at times -- at different times under different conditions.

And Kenneth Toovak said, you know, you got to think about what direction the ice was coming when it did attach and all this, ‘cause that’s the way it’s gonna -- kinda like a lock and key sort of thing. KAREN BREWSTER: Right.

CRAIG GEORGE: But, you know, it’s so complicated that I remember taking these notes and sketches and maps to Harry Sr. and Eugene. I said --

I remember one time -- well, about -- specifically about breaking off. I said, "You know, geez, Harry what -- what do you think? When -- when should we -- what are the factors? When -- when do we know it’s time to pull out of here?"

And, you know, we went through all this big discussion. He said, "The best thing you can do? Check your trail."

In other words, it’s kinda like avalanche. You know, you -- you just can't -- you can see, well, the conditions are right. Actually, avalanche is probably more predictable to be honest.

KAREN BREWSTER: You have fewer factors?

CRAIG GEORGE: But, you know, conditions are right, but you never quite know when it’s gonna go. You know, you can dig a profile and all that.

But he said, bottom line, if you really wanna be safe, of course, don’t go out. That's what they used to tell us in the mountains. Wanna really be safe, you know, stay home.

KAREN BREWSTER: But, so -- so watching your trail is -- CRAIG GEORGE: But -- but, yeah, check -- check for fresh cracks. And you got to train your crew. KAREN BREWSTER: Mm-hm. CRAIG GEORGE: That's one of the first things is you show 'em, you know --

What I usually do is take them to the tide crack and that’s a nice clear, well-defined, sharp crack and it’s dark, you know.

And it’s -- it’s -- it has -- a fresh crack has -- looks like a fresh crack, you know it’s -- and it’s dark down there. And so those -- those occur right off the beach where there’s a little bit of tide.

And then, you know, there’s cracks all the way out of various sorts to the lead edge. There’s miles of them. But they’re healed up and, you know, and so you train your crew, if you see that. KAREN BREWSTER: Mm-hm.

CRAIG GEORGE: If you see a fresh, you know, crack with jagged edges through the snow and it’s dark, wake me up. That’s the one -- don’t bother me with this other stuff.

I’ve -- I have people wake me up and ah, look at this, you know, and it was like under a foot of old snow and clearly an old refrozen crack, and I --

I remember I really pissed off one of the whale counters. I said, "Oh." I said, "Not an issue." And kinda blew him off, and went back to bed, went back to sleep.

And apparently I heard second-hand that he thought I was very dismissive, but -- maybe I was, but anyway, yeah.

Anyway, Harry said, you know, everything can be right and -- But like this year, there’s a lot of times really people thought it was gonna go -- KAREN BREWSTER: Really?

CRAIG GEORGE: And the problem, you know, if you’re hunting and -- and leads aren’t, you know, the conditions aren’t good you -- there’s no point in being there. You pull back to grounded ice. KAREN BREWSTER: Right.

CRAIG GEORGE: Chill out, play cards or whatever. You know, work on your equipment.

We had to stay out there if we wanted to count. And I know -- I was criticized for that. You know, I just kind of hold my breath.

But if you want a good count. If you -- if every time there’s a change in the wind or something, or, you know, current change. If you pulled back, you’d never get a decent estimate.

And we were under a lot of pressure to -- to do it right. From the community.

That was interesting. That was one thing that Tom insisted on. He goes, "You want to work in bowheads? Gotta live here. Wanna do this stuff? Gotta live here."

None of this -- he called -- none of this "remote control science," he called it. KAREN BREWSTER: He called it. CRAIG GEORGE: None of that stuff.

Anyway, he’s a kind of a plain language guy. As sophisticated as he was, he had a very clear and pointed way of speaking. Plain terms.

I think that's one reason he was so well liked here. KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. CRAIG GEORGE: He was very very clear.

He’d phew. He’d not -- he’d get right to the point. But anyway --

KAREN BREWSTER: Your thing about watching the trail is -- CRAIG GEORGE: Yeah. KAREN BREWSTER: Sort of what Wesley was saying yesterday.

You know, he told us about drifting out because he saw this new crack. CRAIG GEORGE: Yeah.

KAREN BREWSTER: And -- and he -- which was why I asked him. So paying attention. He knew it was a new crack. It hadn’t been there. CRAIG GEORGE: Yeah.

KAREN BREWSTER: Before. And it’s like you’re going back and forth and you’re watching. Or you send somebody back every, you know, so many hours or whatever. CRAIG GEORGE: Yeah.

KAREN BREWSTER: And so you guys were doing the same thing. CRAIG GEORGE: You know, it’s interesting I -- just reading in my notes from ’93 when that big chunk of ice, you know, nearly took us off. Just lucky.

’87 our camp did go adrift. Just set it up and -- KAREN BREWSTER: Okay. CRAIG GEORGE: Yeah.