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Whaling With Savik Crew in Spring and Fall
Excerpts from The Whale and the Supercomputer. I took these photographs at the same time as the events described (the photos do not appear in the book).

Ultimately, Richard Glenn (at right) abandoned the degree with only the writing of the dissertation left to do. Partly, life became too busy with ’Berta’s arrival and the gas field project to finish. But he also became uncomfortable with the idea of having the degree at all. He saw a lack of Iñupiaq humility in the basic assumption of his project, the idea that he could take traditional knowledge to a higher, scientific level. Through two years of study, he had discovered how little he really knew. What he had learned instead was that traditional knowledge existed as an organic part of a person living in the environment, a whole world constructed from experience, and couldn’t be extracted and rationalized into datapoints. “I didn’t want to become the ice man, the expert in a town full of experts, some kid from California that thinks he knows everything,” he said. “To me, it’s not so much about finishing a degree as continuing to learn about this life.”

As he made that statement, Richard stood on white ice in pale sunlight, gazing over the sea from inside the hood of his white hunter’s parka. We snacked on a frozen caribou haunch. The waves were up a bit, so Savik Crew was not boating, instead just waiting for a whale to surface nearby, the harpoon and shoulder gun laid out with care at a high point on the ice edge. Waves boomed and reverberated underneath, so Richard had moved the snowmachines back a little; the camp with the tent was well back among the multi-year ice. My questions were a distraction from his quiet watching until I asked one that really interested him, made him think: which way did he know more about ice, as a scientist or as an Iñupiaq? He debated with himself a bit before he answered: He knew more as an Eskimo. Scientists, he observed, know a collection of facts about ice; Eskimos know ice itself. “The best ice scientist is almost an Iñupiaq,” he said. “If he’s a good ice scientist, then he’s thinking the way these people here do.”

Richard Glenn
Charles in Savik Camp
Looking out at Savik Camp

Eben with the harpoon
Roy Ahmaogak
Savik Ahmaogak

First light showed an ocean perfect for whaling. A rich rim of gold emanating from the eastern horizon held up a sky dome of velvety blue. Roy and his crew climbed the high gunwales of Savik Crew’s fall whaling boat while it still sat on the trailer and Richard took the wheel of the pickup truck to back it down the ramp on the beach near NAPA. Then he unhitched and left for work. Lots of boats and crews were launching and floating just offshore. The air was sharp with the fall chill and the excitement of the moment amid the scent of the sea and fuel. Roy opened the bomb box and prepared the weapons, heavy gear thumping on the fiberglass deck, sounds flattened by the surrounding sea. Eben took his place with the harpoon ready on the foredeck. In the aft, the grub box yielded metal Thermoses of hot coffee and store-bought cinnamon rolls. Roy pushed the throttle lever forward and we flew out into the Arctic Ocean, directly away from Barrow. A long swell from the north lifted us in slow rhythm

These waves came from far away, built over hundreds of miles of open water where the pack ice had retreated. A few months later, scientists from Boulder confirmed its unprecedented distance when they announced that the ice had shrunk farther than ever before measured with passive microwave satellites first launched in the 1970s, the result of a warm, stormy summer that broke and melted the pack. Arctic sea ice was smaller than the long-term average by a million square kilometers, or 14 percent, and much of the retreat was on the Alaska and Siberia side. The ice also was thinner and less compact, even at its center. Jim Maslanik, a co-author of the study, said the ice extent was probably the lowest in fifty years. It was as if a continent were disappearing.

(Eben at top, Roy center, Savik at bottom.)

Aboard Savik Boat