Gambell whalers take first bowhead of spring

Posted: Tuesday, April 20, 2010

ANCHORAGE - A Gambell crew apparently took the first bowhead whale of the spring season.

A 29-year-old captain, Lloyd Apatiki, told The Anchorage Daily News they struck it on Easter Sunday, and boats captained by brothers John and Merle Apassingok arrived to help, with each crew delivering another harpoon.

The 28-foot female bowhead was Apatiki's first. The crew ate some of the blubber and skin raw that night in the two hours it took to tow the whale to shore.

Gambell is allowed to take up to eight whales a year.

Other crews have begun preparing for the hunt or have already hit the water along the North Slope and St. Lawrence Island, less than 40 miles from Siberia in the Bering Sea.

In Barrow, some of the 40 registered whaling captains have put their crews to work breaking trail, clearing a path to an open lead in the sea ice, said Eugene Brower, president of the city's whaling captain association. As of Sunday, two crews were out looking for whales, he said.

This is the first of two whaling seasons in Alaska. In the fall, whales head toward their winter grounds in the south. In the spring, as ice breaks up, they return north.

"When somebody catches a whale, the whole village gets happy and there's a lot of people who go down to the beach, no matter how late it is," Apatiki said.

Portions of the whale are divided among village boat captains, said Deborah Apatiki, the captain's mother. Everyone is welcome to whatever is left.

"We look forward to it. It brings the community together like nothing else," she said.

She sometimes fries the meat and skin with bacon and onions.

"You cover it with flour and then whatever seasoning you want to use, and then you can chop it up and make meatloaf," she said.

Preparations for the spring bowhead season begin as early as a year in advance, said Merle Apassingok. Under the tutelage of his father, he oversaw the effort to re-canvas his boat with 20 walrus skins last July.

"Gambell is probably the only site in the world where we still sail for whales in a walrus-skin boat. There's other communities that have a skin boat, but they don't sail. They paddle out to the (whales) and then strike them," said Merle Apassingok, who started whaling at 8 years old.

He learned how to build skin boats in high school shop class, and with advice from elders he and his brothers built the vessel that John Apassingok now uses, he said.

A tip: Use only female walrus skins, he said. The male hides are too lumpy.

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