Friday, May 6, 2011

Spring, When Iñupiat Fancy Turns to…

Long time since I wrote of our adventures. It’s been a busy few weeks. It’s spring here in Barrow, which doesn’t mean spring flowers, or even temperatures above freezing. Nor is the snow off of the ground or the ice completely melted from the Ocean.

It does, however, mean whaling season is in full swing. The preparations are intense as crews go out on the ice to break trails to the leads—the open water. Crew members across the street from our house come and go to fill up snowmachines with gas from the 55 gallon drums in front of the whaling captain’s house.
Spring festival was held over the weekend on a couple of sunny, yet blustery days. The festival includes, among other things, a series of competitions. Being a newcomer, I didn’t at first understand why there was a “field” plowed out of the snow with a road around it. Now I get it, having gone out to watch the various games.

It was a relatively warm 10 , but the wind was pretty brisk all weekend.  That meant parka, plus hat, plus hood, plus snow boots, plus snow pants attire. Because we were taking pictures, we got out of the car to get closer to the action. But, as you’ll see in the pictures, the protocol is to sit in the car (with the engine/heater running) to watch the games. Also, what you won’t get from the pictures is the cacophony of horns honking when a crew wins a competition.

All of the competitions seem to have connections to the skills needed as members of the whaling crews. Some were pretty obvious, like the harpoon throw. These guys were really fun to watch. The techniques were all different. Some were better than others. I really loved the target, but I loved the follow through of the throwers the most. That is a very heavy harpoon, and you wouldn’t want to throw it more than once…plus it’s too cold to go through several “heats” to get to finals. In these competitions, it’s one shot and you either win, or you don’t.

I’m pretty sure this one isn’t a traditional race, nor must it have anything to do with whaling skills. However, as I’ve noted before, the Iñupiaq do have a sense of humor and a playful spirit, so holding a buoy race on the ice doesn’t seem at all out of character! It really looked like fun, but I know it was darned cold out there.

The umiaq race is clearly practice for what lies ahead as crews pull the arctic sleds across the field, lift the umiaq onto the sled, then pull the sled and umiaq to the finish line. These boats are not light, nor are the sleds (which are usually pulled with snow machines, these days). This was really hard work for these guys; also required lots of teamwork and determination.
Check out the competition to boil water from snow. First the team scoops snow into the pot. Then, they run back and light the stove (no easy feat, even with a lighter in the brisk winds that day). Then, they sit and wait for the water to boil...and we all know what they say about a watched pot and boiling water! Some teams came prepared to wait with their fox furs to kneel on. Finally, the payoff is for these three ladies who get to drink the tea brewed by the winning team!