Western Nunavut whalers celebrate their first bowhead
Crew of “young guns” from Gjoa Haven portage boats to hunting site
Rough travel by sea, land, lake and river did not wear down a team of first-time bowhead whalers from Gjoa Haven, who found their prize animal just five days after they sailed out of the community.
Gjoa Haven celebrated their return on Sept. 23, after all hunters had returned safely with maktaaq and whale meat from a 32-foot-long (10-metre) bowhead they had captured on Sept. 14.
“The whole experience was very difficult from the start, right to the bitter end,” said James Qitsualik, captain of the hunt. “But words cannot describe what we went through.”
The hunt was Gjoa Haven’s first in recent memory, and exceptional in many ways. For starters, many of the 18-member crew had never seen a bowhead whale before, said Qitsualik.
Unlike other bowhead hunts permitted in Nunavut communities since 1996, Qitsualik’s crew went without elders or experienced hunters.
“They know us as the ‘young guns,’” said Qitsualik, “because technically, we didn’t have an elder with us.”
The oldest two members of the party, including Qitsualik, were 46.
“All the rest are young men and teenagers,” he said.
Also exceptional was the short time it took for the party to find and kill their whale — just five days after sailing out of Gjoa Haven, and less than 40 hours after reaching their hunting area.
“According to the hunters, we set a new record,” said Willy Aglukkaq, manager of the Gjoa Haven Hunters and Trappers organization, which Qitsualik leads as chairman. “The quickest kill in Nunavut, they say.”
The hunting party’s route was also unusual, involving travel across the open waters of James Ross Straight to Taloyoak, then east, overland across a narrow section of the Boothia peninsula to Lord Mayor Bay in the vast Gulf of Boothia.
The overland portage involved some boating across sections of rivers and lakes, and towing with all-terrain vehicles.
“That’s 27 miles,” said Qitsualik. “But it felt like 100.”
Fortunately, the hunting party didn’t have to look very far to find their bowhead once they reached Lord Mayor Bay. After their arrival late on Sept. 12, the group found “between 25 and 30” bowheads in the bay, said Qitsualik.
“There were a lot of whales, but most of them were huge. They were too big,” he said. “But I was able to select the one I wanted.”
The group singled out a 32-footer on Sept. 14, and killed the animal at 12:15 p.m. with a penthrite grenade harpoon, provided by Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., as regulated by the hunting permit.
“It was right beside our camp, right by the shore,” said Qitusalik — less than 500 yards away. “I was amazed at how quick and fast everything turned out.”
The heavy work of butchering and transporting the whale back to Taloyoak followed took four days. “It was very labour-intensive, very stressful,” said Qitsualik. Polar bears in the area threatened the camp, and two bears were shot in self-defence.
Once in Taloyoak, the party was greeted by celebration and three nights of fireworks. “There was constant celebration,” said Qitsualik. “They didn’t stop the fireworks until we left.”
The group divided the maktaaq for the five largest communities of the Kitikmeot region before they set sail back for Gjoa Haven.
Celebrations at home were held up by one complication: one of the boats stalled in stormy weather while the party travelled back Sept. 20.
The vessel’s two hunters found their way to safety at a cabin, where they spent the night. A search and rescue crew picked them up Sept. 22, after Qitsualik directed them to the location.
“I feel the power of prayer really made us accomplish what we set out to do,” Qitsualik said. “But together, through preparation, through cooperation, and through God, that’s how I believe we were able to accomplish what we did in that short amount of time.”
Most of the crew ranged in age from about 20 to their early-40s. The experience was completely new to the youngest.
“Things like this were only stories to them,” said Qitsualik. “Now, they’ve seen it for themselves. To see these young guys with their glowing eyes and faces, and the confidence they have now, after going through that — it’s like they can go through anything now.”
With whole crew safely back on Sunday, Sept. 22, Gjoa Haven celebrated the whalers’ success the next evening, with a feast and dance at the packed community hall.