An Alaska village recently struggling through a food shortage after a miserable walrus-hunting season is now donating tons of meat to other communities. A drastic change in fortunes for the village of Savoonga came about in recent days, after subsistence hunters from the community on remote St. Lawrence Island landed what may be the two biggest whales caught in Alaska this year.
Now, with freezers filling up in the village of 700, tons of blubbery muktuk and other cuts of whale meat are flying out of the community as residents share the food with friends and try to help the needy in places like Gambell, another village hit hard by this spring's walrus drought.
“The best part is distributing it and sharing it to Savoonga and Gambell and people even farther,” said 38-year-old David Akeya of Savoonga. That includes shipping some to elders at Nome's senior center, he said.
Akeya, who just recently became a whaling captain, said he and his crew landed his first-ever whale on Friday, a 57-footer that may turn out to be the largest whale caught in the state this year.
“It's beyond exciting, it's beyond infinity. It's thrilling,” Akeya said of bringing home his first bowhead.
Just weeks ago Savoonga residents reported that shelves and freezers were going empty because rough weather conditions this spring prevented subsistence hunters from killing enough walrus. Gambell and Savoonga, two neighboring villages on the island in the Bering Sea, typically harvest 1,200 walrus. But just a few hundred were taken this year.
Gov. Sean Parnell declared a disaster, but assistance wasn't available immediately. So organizations donated fish and raised cash to help the villages. Those lucky enough to have a job and money shared store-bought food with others.
The worries began giving away to elation last week, when whaling crews in Savoonga brought home a 55-foot whale. Of 44 whales landed by several villages this year, it appears to be the largest, according to records from the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission. The length of one of those whales was not recorded by the commission. The next largest whale recorded was landed by Jacob Adams Sr. of Barrow, a 54-footer caught this summer.
Then, on the morning of Dec. 6., Akeya posted on Facebook that it was going to be a black Friday. He meant "black" as in the color of bowhead whale skin. He turned out to be right.
Akeya said his crew found the whale about 14 miles from the village, as some 20 other crews looked elsewhere.
“It was perfect timing. The whale popped up right in front of us,” he said.
Akeya gunned his motor. As the skiff got closer to the whale, his crew stood in front of him, obscuring his view. “I had to drive blind for a minute and follow its fluke trail on top of the water. The next thing I knew they had harpooned it already,” he said.
The news exploded around the village by short-wave radio. “After I announced I struck a whale, everyone's on the VHF yelling, screaming, congratulating me,” he said.
People are grateful for the blessings because the meat will go a long way, said Mitchell Kiyuklook, president of the Savoonga tribal government. The village is still hoping to land one more whale this year. It's asking the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission if it can be granted one of the year's unused strikes, so it can have a final shot at landing another whale.
While the whale meat will help supplement store-bought food, people continue to suffer from the walrus disaster, he said. Artists lost money because of the shortage in tusks needed for carving. As a result, some people are struggling to buy hunting essentials like bullets, as well as gas and oil for boats and snowmachines.
As for Akeya, he said he made sure elders and those most in need of food got the meat from his whale first. Butchering and distributing the whale kept him so busy he didn't have time to eat any of it for two days.
He likes it frozen and raw. But it's especially awesome when dunked in Shake 'N Bake spices and tossed in the oven.
“Man, it's the bomb I tell you,” he said.
Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com