Hannah Foss, UAMN Production modeler and animator is in Barrow this week sharing our film clips with scientists and artists and whalers in Barrow, and working with them to figure out what we’ve not yet captured in the film.
VHF radios can be heard all over Barrow. They are kept on all day and night, and the intermittent broadcasts of folks up and down the coast gives a comforting sense of community and togetherness. Their friendly voices greet the morning, afternoon, evening and night, always twinned. Sometimes people broadcast Eskimo donuts for sale. Sometimes a son will radio his dad on the ice to say ‘I love you’ and ‘goodnight’. Sometimes the messages are a puzzling combination of Inupiaq and English.
Usually the transmissions involve rescue bases checking in with whaling camps, or whaling-crew contacting families for supplies or information. It is really awesome to be tuned in to the lives and goings-on of people around you, though they may be sight unseen. It makes the howling winds and cold temperatures seem much more acceptable.
Snow machining out to the open water of the lead is an adventure in itself. Once you’ve skirted the shore-side road, you dive down into a deeply-grooved trail that runs the perimeter of the coastal land. From this snow machine ring-road, trails branch off straight down onto the ice itself, with tracks spidering off into the distance. Following your trusty guide, you traverse the sometimes flat, sometimes bumpy, more often dramatically ridged sea ice trails, eyes always on the lookout for returning whaling crews, ice cracks and hungry polar bears.
Once you have been driving for a good few minutes out on the sea ice, the landscape transforms into a mixture of the baffling and the awe-inspiring. To describe it as ‘alien’ seems trivial- the sheer scope and breadth of the horizon is incredible… a white expanse pocked with crumpled ridges, shelves, and jumble ice. The exposed belly of the ice formations glows a deep rich blue against the brilliant white.
After a timeless period of rodeo on sea ice, bouncing and ducking and gliding and roaring across, you reach a clearing of snow, trampled flat. Here we meet with our Whaling Captain-friend Billy and his crew, stationed behind a windbreak of caribou and seal furs, drinking coffee in ponderous silence. The threshold between sea ice and open ocean feels like a portal to another dimension, where the white snow-ice crumbles into stone-grey ice, lapped by the bitter cold water.
The otherworldly quality of the lead’s edge is accentuated by a phenomena called qisuk, or water-sky. The white fog-cloud that hangs low over the ocean reflects the dark Arctic waters, hueing its underside a dark purple-blue.
As we talk with the crew I notice a ringed seal silently pop its head out of the water. It bobs on the waves for half a minute, heavily blinking dewy-wet eyes, before quietly slipping back into the water without a trace. Curious little guy. I am about to turn around, when there he was again. This time he kicks his way upward so that his entire upper torso sticks out of the water, watching us. As I turn to view him better, he pops down again out of sight.
This morning Kate, Bobby and I headed into town early, braving the blisteringly cold howling winds and stinging snow. Visibility was whittled down to pitiful distances by the driving snow that leapt across the coastal road. Cars and trucks flashed out of the white haze, and the road was lost underneath aggressive drifts of snow and sand. I stopped off at the Inupiat Heritage Centre, eager to speak to Inupiaq artists and see the huge hanging bowhead model.
Shortly after paying for my ticket and hanging up my coat, several women came hurrying from a honey-wooded corridor to speak to the front-desk lady. ‘The ice is breaking!’ ‘Nunavuq!’ ‘Big water right in front!’ were several phrases I manage to snatch from the worried discussion, followed by, ‘We’re going to go make sure the crew is ok.’ I realized with horror that the rumors of coastal ice-cracks widening over the past few days have been true. At this stage however, I didn’t realise how dramatic the break had been. This sort of ice-shelf break is abnormal and rare.
I learned later that the dramatic storms during the night had caused the entire ice shelf to break off from land at 10:30 am, carrying one of the whaling crews with it. Over the next nine tense hours, rescue crews and locals kept in radio contact with the stranded members, updating coordinates every half hour, waiting for the howling winds and fierce, driving snow to die down. It is thought that the crew floated seven miles out to sea, travelling South-West at about 1.1 miles per hour.
(A rare sight in Winter- a view of the ocean from land)
Between well-coordinated helicopter and boat support, the crew and their equipment were rescued and returned to land safely by 8:30 pm. What I found most endearing was the huge community support, joking around, offering help, and checking in.
‘Don’t worry, when we work together everything works out for every one of us.’
“You’ll be ok, we always help each other out.”
‘God-bless the winds for dying down.’
‘Good luck and safe return to the crew.’
The radio thrummed with comforting voices.
Listening to the Whaling Station strained your heart, worrying for the endangered crew, but warming it with the welling of community support and mass rescue efforts.
A close community is a powerful thing.