Hunting the whale; observing the supercomputer

Anchorage freelance writer will lead a slideshow and sign copies of his book on global warming

Posted: Thursday, April 29, 2004

Near his home in Anchorage, at his beloved cross-country ski trails in Kincaid Park, freelance writer Charles Wohlforth notices climate change in those winters when the snow is soggy, more suitable for jogging.

Hundreds of miles north in 2002, during the year he spent with traditional Eskimo whaling crews outside of Barrow, he knew the ice was moving when he heard nervous Iñupiaq chatter on the VHF radio.

"And on March 18, something strange and unsettling had happened," Wohlforth writes in his new book, "The Whale and The Supercomputer." "The ice went out, leaving open water right up to the beach in front of Oliver Leavitt's house. ... No one could ever remember the ice going out that early. Normally, it goes out in July. ... Some didn't know they were drifting away into the Arctic Ocean until the helicopter showed up for the rescue. You can't tell you're moving when your whole world starts to drift away."

"The Whale" is Wohlforth's account of the ways in which two groups in Barrow - Natives and scientists - study and understand climate change. He wrote the book during the winter of 2002-2003 and it was released in mid-April. Wohlforth will sign copies of the book and lead a slideshow and discussion from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday, April 29, at Hearthside's Nugget Mall location.

"In Western culture, we think of science as being the only way," Wohlforth said. "In Eskimo culture, it's recognized that science may not be the best way.

"A response to climate change is going to require a large international social movement on a personal level," he said. "People are going to have to make enormous changes, and the whole species is going to have to make changes. One of the challenges is that a large percentage of man is in urban areas and very isolated from the issues. One of the lessons that we can take from the Iñupiaq is to be a part of nature and learn to perceive these changes so we can deal with them."

Barrow seemed like a logical place for Wohlforth to research because of its relationship with science. The first scientific expedition to Barrow was in 1881 and the Natives have been traditionally involved with a lot of the fieldwork, he said.

The "supercomputer" refers to a part of the community that outsiders never crack - the traditional process of observing and communicating, not just in the village but over a large area.

"To have that ability of observation and that level of knowledge, you need to contribute to that community when things are changing," he said. "That would be something that would take a lifetime to develop. I didn't even understand the language. I could see people talking on their radios back and forth and see what they were observing. And I even learned a little about different kinds of ice. But I was really a tourist compared to the whalers."

Wohlforth has been an Alaska resident since 1966. He graduated from Princeton University with a bachelor's degree in English in 1986 and was hired as a general assignment reporter for the Homer News. In 1988, he moved to the Anchorage Daily News, where he was the lead reporter on the Exxon Valdez spill for a year. He left the Daily News in 1992 and spent two three-year terms, 1993-1999, as a member of the Anchorage Municipal Assembly. A freelance writer since 1989, he's currently a consultant and speech writer for Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich.

Wohlforth began researching climate change in 2001 after noticing more articles on the scientific research throughout the country and Alaska.

"I found out that some of the most interesting research was with scientists who were trying to gain reference into the Native perspective and the traditional knowledge - trying to gain a more holistic sense of what was going on," Wohlforth said. "That fascinated me, and I started approaching different Native communities. Barrow seemed like the perfect one, because of the great amount of science alongside the Native community that was involved in subsistence and out on the ice."

Some Barrow residents knew of Wolhlforth from his work with the Anchorage Assembly. So in the fall of 2001, he was able to gain limited access into the Native community and write a feature story for the Anchorage Press on whaling and traditional knowledge.

"They were happy with what I wrote and thought I'd been fair and accurate, and I used the article as a calling card to show that I could be trusted," Wohlforth said.

In the spring of 2002, the whaling captain association voted that it was appropriate to host Wohlforth out in the whaling camps. Once he had their welcome, he said he was treated like a family member.

"Journalism and Native culture are anathema," Wohlforth said. "The values of each are different. They don't mix at all. To be invited, I felt I needed to adapt mine to theirs a bit.

"These people have been burned by the media in the past, and because of that they were naturally reticent," he said. "They're doing something, whaling, that's considered controversial. I wanted to be as ethical as possible. I didn't want to be a researcher who dropped in and asked a lot of questions and left. I wanted to make sure I treated people with respect and that I would return with the information I gathered."

The Daily News started printing excerpts from "The Whale" on Sunday, April 25, and will continue through Saturday, May 1.

"I was really honored that they'd do that with my book," Wohlforth said. "It was pretty unusual for them to do. I've been getting these e-mails from the Bush, and that's something I didn't expect. I didn't realize that people out in these villages were reading the Daily News."

• Korry Keeker can be reached at

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