For New Year’s the BIA flew all their teachers to Anchorage for a conference. We stayed in a hotel for a week, had seminars; it was a great break from the isolation of village life.
At the desk in the hotel was a sign for a “Christian Banquet” and I decided to go. Only two others turned up for it, but it was a success in my eyes. The fellowship, the encouragement and the biblical input were what I needed. The organizer, Leo Powell, became a life-long friend and supporter. The Lord was building things for the future.
My trip back to Savoonga was hampered by the aftermath of a huge blizzard that had dumped five feet of snow on Savoonga. The airstrip there was unusable, so I had to wait in Nome for a few days until the Eskimos could clear it off with their old bulldozer.
This delay was actually good because I had gotten sick in Anchorage and by the time I got to Nome I had pneumonia. There I was able to get some antibiotics and was on the way to recovery by the time I arrived back on the Island.
When my plane touched down in Savoonga, it was like landing in a tunnel with great piles of snow on either side of the strip. I found that my students had dug out my home for me. The drifts were up over the eaves.
We later had another blizzard which added an additional three feet of snow. The next morning after I dug my way of my house, I had to dig down to find the Quonset hut school!
During a later storm, when it was time to go from our Quonset hut to the school building for lunch, I had to have all the students hold onto a rope as I led the way through a virtual whiteout. It was a real Alaskan winter, and it lasted a long time, with snow on the ground up to the end of June.
So much snow gave opportunity for snowshoe hikes on the weekend up in the small volcanic mountains. A great change from teaching.
As we slogged through classes for the rest of the winter and into spring, I was looking forward to the end of school. One thing that helped bring some excitement into the grind was walrus hunting on the weekend.
“Stop lifting up on the boat and you won’t keep falling through the ice,” said the Eskimo next to me. “Just push it gently forward.”
Ten of us, along with four dogs, were pushing and pulling a fifteen foot skin boat across a patch of new ice to the next open water, looking for walrus (or is it walri?).
Walrus live on clams, and after filling their stomachs on the ocean bottom, they climb onto an ice floe and sleep. We hoped to find such a resting herd.
An hour later the boat captain shut off the outboard motor and pointed. There on an ice floe were about twenty walrus, all laying in a row. The big bull on the end of the line was the only one looking around; the rest seemed to be sleeping.
The watchman bull nudged the one next to him, who looked up at us, then nudged the next, until all of them were staring at us.
The Eskimos were getting their guns out of the skin scabbards while the boat captain was looking over the herd. When all were ready, he pointed out the two he wanted killed.
The skull of a walrus is so thick that the only vulnerable spot is the temple, a very small place to hit, especially when we were in a boat bobbing up and down on the waves, while the walrus were constantly moving their heads from side to side on their ice flow, which was also bobbing up and down in the swells. And yet, when the shots rang out, the two chosen walrus slumped down, dead on the spot. The others all scooted off the ice and disappeared with great splashes in the waves.
The captain started the engine and brought the boat alongside the floe and held it so we could get out. The Eskimos immediately fell to cutting up the dead walrus.
I was amazed at how big they were: two to three tons each the Eskimos said. I was busy taking pictures, and backed up towards the edge of the ice to get a better shot.
Suddenly behind me I heard a loud blowing sound, then a snort and I was enveloped in a cloud of mist. I jumped and turned around just in time to see a big bull walrus pull his head below the surface. I don’t know which of us was more startled!
The Eskimos worked quickly, as the weather situation could change suddenly. But when they got down to the stomach of the walrus, they took time to eat some of the clams they found there: pre-chewed and marinated. I declined the ones offered.
After packing the meat into large strips of skin and tying them into packets, they pushed the bones off into the sea, loaded everything into the boat and shoved off.
We were sitting really low in the water now and it was obvious why they didn’t want to be caught in a spring squall.
When we reached the shore ice, the boat was unloaded and pulled up on the ice. The dogs were hitched to it, and the rest of us each got a packet of meat, over 50 pounds, to pull behind us on the two mile trek to land.
I was exhausted by the time we got there, and the others weren’t much better. The cold, the excitement, the exertion all took it out of us.
As I was about to go home, the boat captain gave me a big chunk of walrus liver. I’d heard that it was some of the best, most tender liver there is, and this proved to be true. Good thing the average walrus liver weighs about a hundred pounds; that made plenty to go around. I also got a strip of walrus hide with meat. Now I had to learn to cook it!
Picture: Eskimos cutting up the walrus