Frozen Into The Ice

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In the 1880s, a fleet of American whaling ships was regularly working up through the Bering Strait up toward the edge of the summer ice in the Chukchi Sea. The whaling could be good, but there were rumors of big schools of whales 700 miles further east, all the way across the top of Alaska in Canada’s Mackenzie River delta. However whalers knew that to venture east and north of Icy Cape and Point Barrow put them between the hammer of the pack ice and the anvil of the Alaska coast. Sometimes the lane of open water was only a half mile or less wide and a strong north wind would push the ice south and trap the whalers far from any help and possibly crush the ship.Alexander in ice

So in the summer of 1888, harpooner Little Joe Tuckfield set out in an umiak similar to the top photo, with several Eskimo companions to explore as far east as he could, spend the winter somewhere in the Mackenzie River delta and report back the following summer.

He returned in early August of 1889 with a report that electrified the American North Pacific whalers: lots of whales, but most importantly a good harbor where the fleet could winter in, protected from the crush of the ice pack, and with the bonus of lots of driftwood for firewood and good hunting close at hand. Plus he had seen large schools of whales!

So began a new era in Alaska whaling: instead of retreating south for the winter, ships began traveling east to Herschel Island in the summer, whaling there, and then when fall came, letting themselves get frozen in for the winter. Then, in the spring, they would ready to hunt whales again as soon as the ice melted.

Top photo: Eskimo umiak: walrus or seal skin over driftwood or whalebone frame, similar to that used by Little Joe and Eskimos. UW NA2042. Ship in ice photo: Whaler Alexander at Cape Prince of Wales, 1903, UW Nowell 31. Painting: Herschel Island, 1893-94, by John Bertonccini, Old Dartmouth Historical Society. Note the hulls of the ships banked with snow for insulation, skiers on the right and soccer field bottom left. 

Herschel Is C