When the sea ice around Tuktoyaktuk in the Northwest Territories of Canada melts in early July, hunters in the Inuvialuit community on the shore of the Beaufort Sea head out in aluminum boats packed sparsely to make room for their prey: beluga whale.
Emmanuel Adam, a 64-year-old hunter, trapper, and native of Tuktoyaktuk, says calm weather helps the hunt. His community of 850 people can bring in as many as 70 beluga in a season. However, he says, “Numbers were kind of low last year because of weather.” Among the effects of the warming climate are melting sea ice and permafrost, along with more storms.
Whale harvesting has been critical to survival in the northernmost stretches of North America since around the year 1100. Today, country food — whale, seal, caribou, muskox, and fish — offsets exorbitant prices in remote communities. In the late 1800s, U.S. whalers pushed bowhead whales in the Beaufort Sea to near-extinction, critically altering traditional hunting practices and the culture of the Inuvialuit. One bowhead whale a year can be harvested legally around Tuktoyaktuk. There’s no such limit for the more plentiful beluga population, but hunting is kept to what’s needed for subsistence.
Boys join expeditions when they’re 12 or 13. They learn to throw a harpoon before they fire their weapons so that, once shot, the whale doesn’t sink before it’s pulled in. Adam hesitates to call the hunt a rite of passage. “It’s just in the nature of the people to teach the younger generation how to do things the right way,” he says.
A version of this article originally appeared in the May/June 2017 issue of FP magazine. Subscribe to FP Premium to receive the print edition.
Knives — Every knife has a different purpose. One is for skinning, one is for caribou, and the two commercial knives are for cutting the oil and muktuk (strips of blubber and skin) from the whale.
Thermos — You bring a little extra grub, a little thermos. I bring hot water. You can bring tea or coffee. But hot water — you can make anything with hot water.
Scabbard — Every traveler will have a scabbard or another kind of case. This one’s nothing fancy. Normally you just go for the day, and you have all of your travel equipment.
Gun — I’ve had this for quite a while. It was given to me by my brother. A regular 30-30. (Shooters learn to aim for a certain part of the whale’s head, the most humane kill.)
Harpoon — We make harpoons from regular hardwood. You throw the harpoon before you shoot. Everyone practices that, so you won’t lose
a whale. We ensure that we get the whale first.
Fire-starter kit — We bring a lot of kids out, so we try to keep the natural things but also the emergency things. (To build a fire using a traditional kit, rub the bow against the wooden post to create friction.)
Snow knife — The snow knife is for cutting blocks and slicing through hard-packed snow. And the case — you can find anything online.
Backpack — Living near the ocean, we have to go out for only the day to hunt whales — not like in Inuvik or Aklavik, where they’ll camp out. You don’t want your camping gear to get covered in blood or oil.
Ammunition — We bring enough ammunition to harvest the whale. You’re traveling light with just enough gas to get there and back. A whole whale has to fit in your boat. You don’t want to bring too much junk.
Radio — This is an AM radio. We also have a marine radio so we can keep in contact with people. But we always want up-to-date news.