Nunatsiaq Online
NEWS: Nunavut August 08, 2014 - 2:25 pm

Baker Lake catches a rare freshwater beluga

“There was lots of hollering, excitement and high-fiving"

SARAH ROGERS
A beluga whale splashes its tail after being harpooned by Peter Owingayak on Baker Lake Aug. 7. (PHOTO BY VALTER BOTELHO)
A beluga whale splashes its tail after being harpooned by Peter Owingayak on Baker Lake Aug. 7. (PHOTO BY VALTER BOTELHO)
Hunter Peter Owingayak cuts slabs of maktaaq off the beluga whale he harpooned in Baker Lake Aug. 7, which was then distributed to people in the community. (PHOTO BY VALTER BOTELHO)
Hunter Peter Owingayak cuts slabs of maktaaq off the beluga whale he harpooned in Baker Lake Aug. 7, which was then distributed to people in the community. (PHOTO BY VALTER BOTELHO)

Peter Tapatai’s cousin only comes to see him when something important has happened.

So when Peter Owingayak walked into Tapatai’s Baker Lake office Aug. 7, Tapatai was prepared for big news.

“[Owingayak] had this serious look on his face, and he told me his mom had seen a beluga whale down at the Agnico loading dock,” Tapatai said.

In any other Nunavut community, that news would be met with mild interest, but in Baker Lake – the territory’s only inland community, a beluga whale is almost unheard of.

Moments later, Tapatai and Owingayak had assembled a hunting crew at the shore, while they scrambled to find the right tools.

“Bear in mind, we’re a bunch of inlanders,” Tapatai laughed. “We don’t know what we’re doing.”

But the crew wanted to do right by their fellow coastal Inuit, for whom beluga hunting is a daily event. One of the crew members had been given a sakku (harpoon point) that the hunters attached to a pole and rope, which they then attached to an empty jerry can and set off.

There were already a number of boats dotting the lake at that point, Tapatai said, with hunters anxious to catch what could be the first beluga whale caught in freshwater in Nunavut.

Tapatai, the boat’s driver, had just passed the Anglican church when the crew spotted the other boats coming towards them.

“Suddenly I turned around and saw the whale, right there,” Tapatai said. “I didn’t really believe it at the time.”

Owingayak, the appointed harpooner, threw the spear into the whale as it approached, just inches from its blow whole.

Before the whale could swim out into deeper water, another crew harpooned the animal a second time, ending its struggle.

“There was lots of hollering, excitement and high-fiving,” Tapatai said, as the crew towed the female whale back to the shoreline, where dozens of Baker Lakemiut waited to get a look.

“It was an awesome feeling.”

A visitor from Arviat showed the hunters how to butcher the whale, starting by slicing the animal up its belly. The hunters then distributed six inch slabs of maktaaq to the crowd, saving pieces to take to the community’s elders.

Although the beluga was a rare catch in Baker Lake, the whale isn’t completely foreign to the community.

Local hunters often travel out to the Hudson Bay coast to harvest beluga, while hunters from coastal communities regularly sell maktaaq to people in Baker Lake.

But eating a locally-caught whale was cause for a community celebration, Tapatai said, which carried on at the community hall the evening of Aug. 7.

“I know people are going to enjoy that maktaaq for a long time,” Tapatai said. “We hope it’s going to be a yearly things now, people are going to expect it.”

In fact, Tapatai has already requested a friend in another community send him some harpoons heads, just in case.

Some residents say the beluga whales likely followed a tanker into the lake earlier this week; four other belugas have been spotted around the community since the first one was caught.

But Tapatai said the lake was quiet Aug. 8.

“It’s just another day in Baker Lake,” he said. “But as soon as we see something, we’ll be out there.”

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