The Hunt on the Flaw


WHAT the warm earth is to the farmer the sea ice is to the people who dwell on the Arctic coast of Alaska. On the ice they seek their living. In the spring it is their harvest field. And this is the story of one spring harvest.

When the spring storms begin to break and move the ice that during much of the winter has almost completely covered the water, crushing and piling it, and leaving lanes or leads of open water, there remains attached to the shore a strip of solid ice, hard and fast aground. This is the ‘flaw.’ Though a severe storm may break great floes from it to float away and join the moving pack, much will remain until the sun has thawed the surface sufficiently to allow the whole mass to rise clear of the bottom and float away.

As soon as the first whales are seen in the open water, the Eskimos move their canoes from the villages to the edge of the flaw, and the great spring hunt begins.

On the morning of the sixth of May I awoke to find a brisk breeze blowing from the northeast and an Eskimo on every housetop eagerly scanning the sky to seaward, where the rough sheet of ice still extended, unbroken, to the horizon.

For more than a week three whaling crews had been camped eight miles out, but south winds had kept the floe ice packed solidly to the shore, and there was no water in sight. Several whales had been seen, but the run had barely begun.

By afternoon a black streak, sure sign of open water, was clearly visible on the sky to seaward, and an old whaler and I set out to take our places in his canoe. The dogs were eager and excited, as they always are with a good trail and a short run in prospect, and we soon saw the black flag which always marks the road’s end, and near it the three canoes, with the crews camped about them. The first camp had been several miles beyond this, but when the break came the canoes had been hastily loaded on sleds and, with all the camp gear, moved back to the open water.

The men had already lighted a fire, but without waiting to finish their meal they reloaded the canoe and we set out at once to seek a good place for whales. The big sealskin-covered canoe was piled to the gunwales with the camp equipment, and on top of this load we sat, our feet straight out before us, and paddled. The position seemed to inconvenience no one but myself.

Before we headed toward the north the steersman swung the canoe around in a complete circle. This is an old charm, supposed to confuse the whales. It created much amusement both among our men and among those still camped on the ice.

The whales are much more likely to approach points where the ice is of a certain shape and character, and the success of a crew depends largely on the ability to choose such points. So we followed along the edge of the flaw, which for more than a month was to represent the shore to us, searching for a promising location. Every few minutes we had to stop and knock the ice from our paddles. Three miles from the road we chose a position and made our camp. Before the tent was in place the Eskimos of our crew had killed two seals.

That first camp, typical of many we made in the weeks that followed, was built on a stretch of flat ice only a few feet thick. First a smooth slide was cut for the canoe, which was placed with its bow overhanging the water, ready for launching at a moment’s notice. On each side of the canoe rough battlements of ice were built to conceal it from the sea side. Just behind it was the canoe sled, with the sail hung above it, lean-to fashion, for a windbreak. Under this shelter or in the canoe we sat, slept, and ate our meals whenever there was open water. The tent, placed farther back, was only a kitchen where the two girls of our crew cooked on a sheet-iron stove, using seal or whale blubber and driftwood for fuel. A log of wood in front of the sled served as an arsenal, and against it rested each man’s rifle, one or two shotguns, and a heavy whale gun. In the bow of the canoe lay two darting guns, firing powerful bombs, designed to explode in the body of the whale. In addition to its bomb, one of these darting guns carried a harpoon, with line and float very carefully arranged to prevent their becoming entangled with anything else in the canoe. Another shoulder gun like that on the ice was always in the boat. These weapons in appearance are much like an exceedingly heavy brass shotgun.

Almost at midnight that first night we saw a couple of black specks on the horizon. These proved to be a pair of glaucous gulls, the first creatures to make their appearance after the opening of the water, and they were greeted with enthusiasm. ‘First come nowyak [gulls], then shishara [white whales], then ahkalook [bowhead whales],’ said an old man. And sure enough, in the early morning we saw hundreds of white whales blowing in the ‘young’ ice which was beginning to form in the lead.

This young ice forced us to break camp shortly after. Until the offshore wind died out, the ice crystals had blown away as fast as they formed and so the water kept open, but now the pack began to move in. It shoved the young ice ahead of it, piling and telescoping it with a continual rustling and groaning. In order not to be caught away from our line of retreat with the ice crushing in, we hastily broke camp and started for the road, but we were too late. We were caught in a bight and forced to stop at an old hunting trail.

As there was now no water and the young ice was not strong enough to bear our weight, I decided to go ashore and get some sleep. Our captain, Jim Allen, the last of the old flaw whalers, came with me. But we had slept only a few hours when a native came to report that the young ice was now strong enough for hunting, and that several whales had been heard blowing in small holes, so we immediately returned to our camp.

We found the tent deserted, but we could see the men walking about on the thin ice or seated beside small holes, watching for seals. There was a good deal of shooting going on, and through the glasses we could see clouds of steam where white whales were blowing. While we watched, one of the men raised a flag made by tying his white duck hunting shirt to a pole. He had made a kill and was signaling for assistance, so we loaded the whale guns on a sled and started off over the black ice. Every two or three steps we tested the ice with the steel-shod pole that is always carried when hunting at sea. A hard blow would drive it through the thin ice almost anywhere.

The man with the flag had killed a white whale and had succeeded in getting a harpoon into it before it could sink. As the ice would not support its weight, an ingenious method was adopted to move it to a more solid place. Several of the men went ahead with their steel-shod poles, or ’tokos,’ and cut a line of small holes in the ice. By means of the hooks on the other end of the poles the harpoon line was passed from hole to hole, and the animal was towed under the ice to a place where it could be hauled out and cut up. It proved to be a medium-sized specimen about twelve feet long, of a creamy-white color, the surface of the skin having much the appearance of a white gourd.

While this work was in progress Jim and I, with old Saga van, took one of the sleds and the bomb guns and went on to a hole at the edge of the pack ice, which was now stationary. We sat down to wait at the northern end of the hole, which was only a hundred yards long. We had been watching for an hour, without seeing so much as a seal, when suddenly a smooth black object appeared thirty yards away, shot up a roaring cloud of vapor, then leisurely rolled under and out of sight. While I stood watching in startled amazement, Jim and Sagavan snatched up the cumbersome guns and set off at a run over the rough jumble of broken ice. The whale blew five more times at intervals of a few seconds, and then disappeared before the men could get near enough for a shot. Then only did I begin to understand what had happened. The whale, traveling south, instead of north as we had expected, had passed us before ‘breaking water’ and had been farther away at every blow.

There was nothing to do but sit down again to wait and hope for another, but we moved the sled to the place where the first one had appeared. A quarter of an hour later I was standing at the northern end of the hole when a second whale broke water within fifteen feet of me. This time I had an opportunity to observe him closely. There was nothing in his appearance to suggest an animal. He was like nothing so much as a great machine of smooth, hard rubber.

As the whale rolled under again I glanced toward the sled and saw Jim and Sagavan crouched low at the edge of the ice, guns in hand, wniting. About halfway between us the whale blew’ again, and as he went down the men rose and raised the guns. An instant later, with a swirl of water, the whale came up directly in front of them. I heard a sharp word and one ‘bang’ as they fired together. The whale flung his great tail high out of the water, half turned to one side, and plunged from sight. Then came the double roar as the bombs exploded, sounding astonishingly loud under the water — and that was all. The great beast, probably mortally wounded, had gone under the ice. As soon as we were sure that he was gone, Sagavan set off at a run for more bombs. While he was gone a third whale blew in the hole, and we had to sit helplessly and watch him go.

For several more hours we watched, but the ice was slowly crowding in, gradually closing the hole, and no more whales appeared. One seal came to interrupt the monotony and was killed, but by the time two men came to relieve us the hole was almost closed.


The two men stayed on watch all night at smaller holes and saw eleven whales, one of which they wounded. In the morning the ice was stronger, and we went out with the canoe on its sled and the rest of the whaling gear. Then began one of the most remarkable vigils imaginable. For a day and a half we watched there like so many cats at a mousehole, no man sleeping more than a few moments at a time. These naps we took stretched out on the sled.

And the whales came. Scarcely an hour after we had carefully placed the canoe with its barricade of ice, a whale blew at the other end of the hole. He was coming in our direction. We put the canoe in the water to meet him, but before we could get close enough to strike he took fright and went down to stay. Another came from the opposite direction, but again we failed to reach him in time. Seeing the direction in which they were crossing the open water, we moved the canoe a hundred yards to the other end of the hole and settled ourselves once more.

Several hours later a whale appeared in a very small hole a few rods from the one we were watching. He might blow again as he passed us, so we took our places according to the prearranged plan, and waited. The boat steerer or harpooner, an Eskimo named Charlie, was already in the bow of the boat. At one side stood two men with the shoulder guns. The rest of us lined up in our regular places at the two sides of the canoe, ready to shove it out at the right instant. For a quarter of an hour we stood there, no one speaking a word or moving a muscle. Then, as the men had begun to relax and talk once more, there came a roar as the whale broke water close to our station. He was moving leisurely toward us, and when he blew the second time he was directly in front of the men with the shoulder guns. One, ambitious to kill a whale, fired without waiting for orders or for the killing thrust of the darting guns. Instantly the other followed, and the whale went down. As he passed under the canoe, which we pushed out to meet, him, he was a good three feet under the surface. Though unable to take aim, the harpooner drove the iron through the water and deep into the animal’s back, so that the heavy shaft stood solidly upright an instant before it was flung upward by the recoil as the bomb was fired. Turning instantly, Charlie flung the harpoon line, with its sealskin ‘ poke,’ or floater, attached, out on the ice. Then came the boom, boom, boom of the bursting bombs directly beneath us.

A scramble followed as we seized t he line and endeavored to check the momentum of the plunging whale. We thought him dead, and for a moment the line did seem to give as we flung our weight against it. Then, with a steady, resistless motion, it began to run out, spinning us along with it across the ice. A loop in the rope caught a paddle thrust beneath the lashings of the canoe, and as the line came taut the canoe rose up on edge, the ice beneath it broke under the strain, and water began to pour in over the side. Then the paddle snapped off short and the canoe righted once more. As I dropped the line and leaped clear, I was at the edge of the water, with the ice sinking under my feet. The poke at the end of the line shot past me, whipped out of sight, and the whale was gone. We climbed high cakes of ice and watched the holes through our glasses, but we did not see him again.

When we were certain that our game was gone, we set to work to repair damages, in order to be ready for the next opportunity. We moved the canoe a little to one side, to unbroken ice; a new harpoon was attached to the darting gun, with a makeshift line and float. Guns were cleaned and reloaded, empty cartridges refilled, and we were again ready for anything that might happen. A boy ran the entire distance — six or seven miles — to the village for a new line, which we needed badly, and brought it back on a dog sled.

What the loss of a whale means to a village of meat-hungry Eskimos, no white man, in all probability, can understand. Yet it was accepted with a few laughing words of regret, and there was not a word of reproach to the man whose impetuosity was to blame.

For a long time no more bowheads appeared, either in the hole we were watching or in any of those within sight and hearing. Hour after hour we tramped restlessly back and forth, back and forth, varying the monotony occasionally by boiling great pots of coffee on the oil stove to wash down our dry pilot bread or doughnuts fried in seal oil.

Late in the afternoon a school of white whales appeared, and the men scattered with their rifles to the small holes near by, in the hope of securing fresh meat. For some time no whale came near the canoe, though the men at other holes were getting a few shots. Then there came a sudden commotion as three animals broke water in line, blew with an explosive sound, and were gone. When they appeared the third time three of us fired together, wounding the largest of them. In a few minutes they came again, and once more we fired. Several times they came within thirty feet of us, but so quickly did they come and go that it was difficult to get a shot at them. One was killed, but sank so rapidly that it was impossible to secure it, though we could see it for several minutes, a white spot through the clear water, as the current carried it away.

I was sitting, Eskimo fashion, on a piece of bearskin at the edge of the water, waiting for another shot, when I heard Jim behind me shouting excitedly, ‘Kippie gah, kippie gah!’ I saw the men making a dash for the canoe, and, without in the least understanding what was afoot, I dropped my rifle and leaped into my place in the umiak as it slid into the water. Then, as we paddled swiftly toward the other end of the hole, I saw a large white whale, severely wounded, blowing just ahead. As the boat steerer raised the harpoon, the animal disappeared, and we passed over it before we could check our headway. We turned and paddled slowly back, and a few moments later it came up just under our bow. Quickly though it rose and dived again, the waiting harpooner was ready. Darting the light walrus harpoon into the whale’s head, he took a turn of the line around a cleat in the bow. Then the canoe spun round and round like a top as the frantic creature tried to escape, as it surely would have done if it had not been badly wounded, for there was no chance to shoot. First on one side and then on the other it went under the ice, the man with the line playing it like a great fish until it was hauled to the surface at last and killed by a quick shot.

We slipped a noose over the tail and managed to haul the whale out. Just as we got it safely placed where the ice was strong enough to bear its weight, a fourteen-year-old boy attached to outcrew came running to tell us that he had killed another in a small hole near the tent. We left two men with the whaling guns while we went at once to save his kill. It proved to be a young animal of slate-gray color, whereas the adults are nearly white. The cutting up of these two white whales occupied us for several hours. The first one proved to be a good-sized specimen about thirteen feet long.


Early the next morning a light breeze came out of the southeast, and young ice began to form under the bow of the umiak, so that we were forced to move to the opposite side of the hole, where the water was clear. Whales were blowing in a large hole about a mile south, but none came near us. The ice along the edge of the flaw was beginning to break loose under the pressure of the wind. Little was said, but all knew that unless we made a kill very soon our chance at this hole would be over, for we should have to move back to the camp on the solid ice or be carried away with the moving pack.

Two of us put up the shelter while we were waiting, and had begun to make a pot of coffee when a whale was seen to blow a few hundred yards to the southward. We dropped everything and took our places beside the canoe, as before, tense and silent.

It was almost half an hour before the whale rose, now fifty yards away and coming toward us very rapidly. There was hardly a sound or a movement to tell that anyone had seen him, only the harpooner in the bow crouched a little lower, and here and there a man silently tested his footing to make sure that no slip at the last moment should spoil our chance of success.

The whale was down so long that none of us expected to see him again, but suddenly he rose, with a rush of water, directly in front of us and only fifteen feet from the bow of the canoe.

With a sudden straightening of bent backs we flung the boat bodily across his head. Charlie, coming to his feet as the canoe struck, hurled the darting gun into the rounded neck just behind the blowhole. At the same moment Jim fired from the ice. Without a lost motion Charlie seized the second darting gun and struck the whale again in the back, as it rounded to go down. Then he turned and threw the line and poke to us on the ice. As we braced our feet and hauled on the line there came the triple roar of the bombs, set to explode from ten to fifteen seconds after firing.

As before, we were dragged along by the impetus of the whale’s plunge, but this time there was a difference. As we scrambled madly for a foothold the movement stopped, and very gradually the line began to give. Then such a shout as went up! Though the whale did not float, he was stone-dead, and by the combined strength of the crew we raised him near enough to the surface to enable one of the men to put two more irons into his lips, with lines attached by which to tow him.

When we had the whale safely fastened to the ice, we raised the mast in the canoe and ran up a flag. It was a signal sure to bring the other crews to our aid, miles away though one of them was, and in less than a half hour we saw a sail bearing down on us from the north, following the lead of water that had already opened along the edge of the flaw.

And we were badly in need of help if we were to save our kill. With the whale a dead weight at the end of the lines, we had more than a quarter of a mile to go to reach the open water, which was rapidly becoming broader.

With axes, tokes, and the sharp, chisel-like whale spades, we set to work cutting holes in the ice, which was three feet thick in places, to allow the line to be passed along to the water’s edge. As the other canoes arrived, their crews also set to work with a will, yet it was hours before we had the whale safely at the edge of the ice. And when at last we had raised the carcass nearly to the surface and suspended it from a mast lashed across two of the canoes, we found that we had a quarter of a mile of open water to cross before we could reach solid ice where it could be hauled out and cut up.

A light breeze was blowing, so that with two of the sails set, and nearly forty men paddling, we had soon brought the whale to the edge of the flaw. At this place a wall of ice fifteen feet high rose sheer above the water, so that we had to follow along under the edge until we reached the road, where the whale could be ‘cut in.’ When we arrived, towing the two canoes which served to float the whale, we found the whole village, men, women, and children, waiting to congratulate us.

Many of our men had not slept for almost two days, but there was little opportunity to rest now. Tunnels were cut in the ice through which to pass the ropes attached to the blocks; tackles were got ready, arranged in two separate series; a slide was cut for the body of the whale; and finally, with much difficulty, the great carcass was raised to the surface, a rope made fast to the jaw, and then, with much shouting and laughter, we set about hauling the animal out on the ice.

By the combined strength of the entire village pulling on the tackles, the enormous head was dragged out of the water. When the head had been cut off, the body was turned around, a rope was passed about the tail, and the carcass again raised. As fast as it appeared above the surface, the heavy coating of meat and blubber was cut from the bones with the sharp whale spades, in order to lighten the load.

This work took almost two days, but it was not until it was nearly completed that anyone thought of sleeping for more than a few minutes at a time. The work stopped only to allow the men to snatch a few mouthfuls of the cooked muk-tuk, or ‘black-skin,’ of the whale, one of the greatest of delicacies to the Eskimos.

But as soon as the heavy work was completed, the men of the crew disappeared, leaving the last of the cutting to the men from the village and to the women; and in the tents on the ice, or in the igloos on shore, they slept the clock around. Many of them were partially snow-blind from the long hours of work in the brilliant sunlight without sleep, and our harpooner was confined to a darkened house for three days.


I had slept more than the clock around myself when I was wakened with the news that more whales were being seen in the half mile of open water that now lay between the flaw and the pack, which was now drifting south.

When Jim and I reached the camp once more, the meat had been divided. Shares went to every family in the village, but the valuable whalebone became the property of the crew which killed the whale. The women and boys were left to haul it all ashore by dog sled, and the crews set off once more to the hunt.

We saw twenty-eight whales pass us offshore in the next twenty-four hours. Several times we put the canoe in the water and gave chase. We dodged about among the floating ice cakes, sometimes close behind our game, but we never came within striking distance.

Two days later we moved camp, and again we saw many whales, but all far away. The next day we moved again. While we were settling ourselves the generator of our oil stove burst. We did not wish to use the blubber stove because the smoke might alarm our game, so it was decided that I should walk ashore and repair the damage, the men agreeing to pick me up at the end of the road next day.

They met me with an exciting story. They had sighted a large whale near the camp and had started in pursuit, leaving as camp guard an old fellow who was useless in the canoe. They had been gone for several hours and had lost sight of the whale they were following, when they heard the sound of an exploding bomb from the direction of the camp. They returned and found that three whales had come up near the tent. The guard allowed the first two to escape, but the third one he had wounded so badly that, late as it was when the crew returned, they very nearly caught it.

While the details of this story were being told, we reached the camp and found the guard the hero of another adventure. While he was again alone a polar bear came within a hundred feet of him and stood looking at him. His story was that he had not fired because he hoped the bear would come even closer, but the tracks that the men unraveled told a different story. He and the bear had taken alarm at about the same time and at once set off in opposite directions, one for the rough ice to the north, the other for the safety of the tent.

In the morning we saw a large number of white whales pass and knew that bowheads were likely to follow them, so we were all on the alert. The other canoes were about a half mile away, one on either side. Shortly after the last of the white whales had passed, we saw Atoyuk’s canoe coming toward us from the south, the men working hard at the paddles. As they passed they shouted that a large whale had gone under the ice a few yards below their camp, and they were hoping to get ahead of him.

A half hour later, as I was standing at the side of the canoe, Sagavan seized my arm and pointed downward. Directly beneath our feet, and under the projecting bow of the canoe, a great black shape was coming from under the ice. Before we could give the alarm the whale rose and blew loudly just in front of us. Almost noiselessly we shoved out, but he heard us, and we saw his body stiffen, ready to plunge at the slightest alarm. We were almost within striking distance when, with a furious lashing of his broad tail, he went down. At the first sign of motion the two men holding the darting guns fired, one from the bow of the canoe and the other from the ice, so close together that it was only when the bombs burst that we realized that two shots had been discharged.

We took aboard the men still on the ice and headed for the pack. When the badly wounded whale rose at its edge, we were only a few hundred yards away. Under a great floe he went before we could strike him, and we were forced to go around. In our excitement we put every ounce of our strength into each paddle stroke, but the animal passed under us and came up again out of reach. By this time Atoyuk’s canoe was near by, and for an hour or more we hunted the great creature back and forth in a large bay in the ice, seeing him sometimes very near, and sometimes far away. We alternately rested on our paddles and worked furiously as he circled, until, recovered at last from the shock, he plunged under the solid pack and was gone.

For several days ducks had been flying in increasing numbers, and, as no more whales appeared for some hours, I took a shotgun and walked out to a point on the young ice over which the ducks were passing, to shoot a few while the men were sleeping. I had killed about a dozen when the lookout signaled that he had seen a whale, and I returned to camp.

A number of white whales appeared close to camp and then two small bowheads passed a quarter of a mile away. The first one was traveling very fast, so we paid no further attention to it, but the second was moving slowly and rising often, so we set out to follow. The crew to the northward saw us coming and paddled out in the hope of heading off the whale. We came opposite their camp without sighting him, so we thought we had lost him, and lay quietly resting before beginning the long pull back to camp.

Then the unexpected happened. A few hundred yards to seaward the whale rose very softly to the surface and lay almost motionless, rising and sinking slowly as he breathed, asleep.

Noiselessly, but swiftly, we paddled toward him. As the men in the bow put down their paddles there came a startling change. Right over the bow rose the great head as the whale turned vertically in the water. As the boat steerer drove in the harpoon gun the canoe almost touched the great creature’s back. At the same instant the second man fired the shoulder gun. As our momentum carried us swiftly past I could have touched the whale’s head with my paddle.

Tail first, he went down, the line running out rather slowly. At first the inflated sealskin moved aimlessly about on the surface. Then it went under as the whale started for the distant pack. Twenty minutes later it came up, but the whale did not rise, and before we could reach it, it went down again, this time headed for the flaw. When we saw the poke again it was at the edge of the young ice near our camp, and a moment later the whale rose and lay close beside the ice, breathing loudly.

By this time the other canoes had come up, and the race that followed was a sight to be remembered. Though it was late at night, the sun was shining brilliantly, and the water was so calm that as I paddled I could see the long lines of spreading ripples left by the other canoes as we converged swiftly toward the black spot at the edge of the ice. Atoyuk’s canoe was ahead of us, and as it came within range I could see the boat steerer come to his feet and fire the darting gun. Only a sharp crack followed as the powder charge exploded. The bomb had failed to burst.

There followed a long period of watching. When the whale finally rose again it was exactly beside the boat landing at our camp. Again Atoyuk was first, and though the animal lashed the water on all sides with its tail, flinging showers over the men in the canoe and on the ice, a couple of shots quieted it, and we arrived only in time to secure the doubtful honor of a last, almost unnecessary, shot. The whale, which was a small one, had been so badly wounded by our first shots that, impeded by the drag of the floats and held by the entangling of the strong lines in the rough lower surface of the ice, it had barely been able to reach the water, so we had nearly lost this one, too, under the ice. It was only by the combined strength of all the men that we dragged the pokes to the surface.

As quickly as possible we gathered our separate ‘camps’ into the canoes, raised the sails, and set off for the road, the three canoes in line towing the whale. The breeze was light, so everyone took a paddle, even the girls who cooked for the crews working with a wall. As we approached the end of the pull I fell asleep between two strokes, dropping my paddle across the gunwale, and only awoke when the canoe was fast at the edge of the ice and the men began unloading it.

We hauled the carcass out on the ice this time without finding it necessary to cut off the head. Once when it was nearly clear of the water a rope broke, and as it settled back, throwing the whole weight on the series of tackles, another rope snapped, and amid much laughter and cheering the whale shot into the water with a rush, and all our work had to be done over again.

Here hundreds of gulls gathered to feast on the scraps of blubber that fell into the water. The eider ducks were also flying in flocks of hundreds, coming over the horizon in great shimmering clouds.

While we were at work the pack moved in once more, and it was several days before we were able to return to our camp. No whales were seen for a time, so we occupied ourselves in shooting ducks, which were still flying in great numbers. Sometimes a man with a shotgun would be placed on a floating cake of ice in the path of the flocks, while others hunted from the canoe and from the camp. The weather those few days was what spring weather is everywhere — perfect. The sun shone brightly all night long, and the wavering line of birds, passing in endless procession, made a sight never to be forgotten.

On the first of June we moved our camp to the end of the road, and went out to the pack with the canoe, thinking the whales might be passing far out from the flaw. With the greatest care, as always, a position was chosen for the boat, and for several hours we waited. Two enormous whales broke water a few yards to the north, heading away from us. We were after them instantly, and got almost within striking distance before they went under the ice, but it was a hopeless pursuit, as a stem chase nearly always is in this kind of hunting.

We spent the next day also on the pack. We saw several whales and gave chase to one— for the last time, as it proved, for the pack came grinding in that night, closing the lead except for small holes here and there. Two weeks more the crews stayed on the ice, watching these holes and shooting ducks, but the ‘run’ of whales was over for that year.


The great event, in the eyes of the Eskimo children, was still to follow. The nell-i-ku-tuk, the harvest festival which follows a successful whaling season, is anticipated even more eagerly by the Eskimo than is the glorious Fourth of July by the American boy. For weeks the children had been practising, by jumping on the opposite ends of a plank arranged seesaw fashion, for the blanket tossing which is the great feature of the celebration.

When the canoes finally came in, water was standing everywhere on the ice. The men toiled wearily into the village, soaked to the skin with the icecold water, yet all were in the best of spirits. There was even something of a holiday air. From the raised mast of our canoe hung two flags, one for each whale killed. The right to fly these flags is valued as highly as any of the honors or medals of civilization farther south.

The first bright day after the close of the whaling season was chosen for the nell-i-ku-tuk. On a dry spot of level ground near the village, the successful canoe was propped on edge to make a windbreak for the drummers. At one end, under a tripod of paddles, lay all our whaling gear, guns, harpoons, bombs, and lines. In front of our canoe was hung a large walrus skin suspended from posts, for safety’s sake, by long ropes from the corners, and looped all around like a fireman’s life net.

Several of the men had composed new songs for the occasion, and these were sung to the rhythmic beating of the drums. Dancing followed, the first dance given by the lucky crew. But the real feature of the day, from which it takes its name, was the nell-i-ku-tuk itself, the ‘dancing in the air,’ or blanket tossing.

As many as could find room about the suspended walrus skin did the tossing, and one after another men, women, and children climbed on to the leather blanket. It was all done to the rhythm of the drums and singing, and the game was to remain upright, no matter how high you might be thrown. Some of the children and lighter women were tossed to an astonishing height, only to come down on their feet on the unsteady surface and be flung up again and again. Now and then some inexpert dancer would lose his balance and come down, perhaps headfirst, in the midst of the laughing crowd around the blanket, but no one appeared to be seriously hurt and mishaps were taken in a spirit of fun. Nothing created so much merriment as the sight of some gray-haired patriarch writhing and twisting in the air, and coming down headfirst on the tough hide, only to rise to his feet once more and try again. From children barely able to stand to old women hobbling around the village with canes, no one could resist the excitement of the game.

All day long the dancing lasted, interrupted only when great kettles of muk-tuk from the flippers and tail of the smaller whale were brought out. Some of it was boiled, but much of it was eaten raw and frozen, a delicacy which had much the appearance of an old rubber boot, and which tasted, to the uninitiated, much like laundry soap.

When the day was over, the whaling gear was carefully gathered up and stored away until another year, and one more whaling season was at an end; only one of many to the old men who, as boys, had hunted the great beasts when they were killed with spears of flint instead of explosives, and when failure meant famine. But now, as then, the hunting of the bowhead was the great event of the year to the coast people, and through the next long winter the story would be repeated again and again in all its details, until it yielded in turn to the tales of succeeding years.