It’s been almost a week since volunteers pulled a gray whale’s carcass to shore near Napaskiak, and Delta residents have cut it down to its bones. Local leaders expect the whale to feed hundreds of people, its blubber and meat shared with villages up and down the Kuskokwim River. It was a busy weekend for them: working around the clock to salvage the carcass, and hoping to avert a social media backlash and legal consequences.
Napaskiak Tribal Administrator Sharon Williams says that berry picking always calms her down, so it was probably good that that's what she had just finished doing when she heard about the whale in the river.
“I took a barnacle,” said Sharon, speaking about the whale. “I said, ‘I’m going to take a souvenir for this giving me headache.’ I woke up this morning like nothing happened and I remembered. Ugh, that whale!”
It was a rough weekend. Like others in the village Williams assumed that the whale was a Beluga, more likely to be found out on the coast, but legal for Alaska Natives to hunt. Then she started to see pictures of the whale hunt on Facebook.
“And that was when I was starting to bite my nails,” said Sharon. “I was like, ‘we’re in big trouble.’”
Williams was at a Tribal Council meeting when she saw the bloody posts. She said that the legal implications of the hunt made her nervous. Gray whales are protected under federal law and by international treaties, and are not legal to hunt. Williams also immediately thought about what happened to Chris Apassingok of St. Lawrence Island this year, proud to have taken a legal bowhead whale at the age of sixteen. The social media harassment went so far as death threats.
The Council also learned that the whale’s carcass had sunk to the bottom of the Kuskokwim after it was killed. So Williams, the Tribal Council, and other community members faced a challenge. Step one: fish a 37-foot whale that could weigh up to 30 tons from the bottom of the river. Step two: Deal with a likely federal investigation into the hunt. Step three: try to keep social media posts about the whale from going viral. And do all three in 72 hours - before the whale’s meat went bad.
So the next morning they called in Joseph Evon.
“I’m pretty dumbfounded,” said Evon during the salvage effort last weekend. “It’s pretty new and I have to think outside the box.”
As the head of Napaskiak’s Search and Rescue team, Evon has fished plenty of bodies out of the Kuskokwim, but neither he nor anyone else in the area had ever salvaged something this big. Some said that it couldn't be done.
“That made me more determined to recover this mammal,” Evon said.
And he was not alone. By the time he was asked to lead the retrieval effort, the men in Napaskiak were already at work. “Those guys are very talented, let me tell you,” said Evon.
They welded big, jagged hooks out of scrap metal, about 4 feet long and 2 feet wide. Several of the men involved in the welding had also been involved in the hunt. They remembered where it sank, so Evon said that it wasn’t too hard to find it. Getting the hooks into it wasn’t too hard either. The tricky part was moving the whale. On Friday they spent at least five hours locating the whale’s tail with sonar and trying to get the hooks into it. At some point after midnight they began to move it, but the line snapped.
Meanwhile, Williams and Chris Larson, Napaskiak’s Honorary Chief, were fielding calls from local and state media. Williams encouraged local residents to take down social media posts about the incident. The Council decided to offer gas money to the people salvaging the carcass.
The next morning they found that the whale had floated to the surface. A line of six boats towed it into the Kuskokwim’s shallows, and a loader dragged it to shore.
“I’m not surprised they could pull it in,” said Evon. “I have a lot of faith and trust in the guys who are doing the things that they’re doing.”
Evon didn’t stay to see any of this. When he found out that the whale had floated to the surface, he decided to go home.
Sharon Williams and Chris Larson did stay there, watching the community pull the whale to shore.
“It was amazing,” said Sharon. “Absolutely amazing. The moment we saw that whale coming in, all of us on shore were in awe.”
This isn’t over for Napaskiak. The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration is investigating the killing of the whale and plenty of social media posts are still out there, but for now, Evon, Williams, Larson, and the rest of the people who helped have had a chance to take a steam and get some sleep.