Kugaaruk’s bowhead hunt: all in a day’s work

Nunavut community celebrates third harvest in six years

By PETER VARGA

Kugaaruk’s bowhead whalers start flensing their catch just outside the community, Sept. 1. (PHOTO COURTESY OF CHILDERIK QAYAQSAAQ)


Kugaaruk’s bowhead whalers start flensing their catch just outside the community, Sept. 1. (PHOTO COURTESY OF CHILDERIK QAYAQSAAQ)

Kugaaruk hunters haul their 31-foot-long bowhead whale catch ashore, just outside the community, Sept. 1. The hunters spent the whole day skinning and butchering the animal, which they caught in the waters of Pelly Bay, 47 kilometres north of the hamlet. (PHOTO BY LAETITIA APSAKTUAN)


Kugaaruk hunters haul their 31-foot-long bowhead whale catch ashore, just outside the community, Sept. 1. The hunters spent the whole day skinning and butchering the animal, which they caught in the waters of Pelly Bay, 47 kilometres north of the hamlet. (PHOTO BY LAETITIA APSAKTUAN)

Experience paid off for bowhead whale hunters in Kugaaruk, who managed to bring home one of the Arctic’s biggest sea mammals Aug. 31 in a one-day trip.

“The whole community is very happy about this hunt,” said Emiliano Qirngnuq of the community’s hunters and trappers’ organization, which helped plan and fund the rare event.

Kugaaruk quickly harvested the Kitikmeot region’s share of Nunavut’s annual quota of three bowheads shortly after Fisheries and Oceans Canada granted the harvest permit.

A fleet of six boats with a crew of 18 set out from home on a clear and calm Sunday morning, around 9 a.m., Aug. 31. They were back again by midnight, with a 31-foot-long (9.5-metre) whale in tow.

“They took the whale right back to town,” Qirngnuq told Nunatsiaq News.

It was all in a day’s work for hunt captain John Kayasark, a lifelong hunter who credited his crew as “the best” he could have asked for.

“We had a young crew,” said Kayasark, 56, who led the hunt with two veterans of previous bowhead whaling expeditions.

Passcasuias Niptayok, the only whaler to take part in all of Kugaaruk’s five past bowhead hunts, helped guide the crew with co-captain Josilino Sigguk.

The group included members as young as 17.

“They all listened, and I’m sure they all got the best experience in their life,” said Kayasark, adding that the crew’s youngest members will help assure the success of future hunts.

The whaling party spotted their first bowheads within a few hours of setting out in Pelly Bay, Aug. 31. Kayasark directed the crew to an area some 29 miles north of the community, close to shore, where he singled out a 31-foot-long male bowhead.

“There was a bunch more we could hear,” he said. “The first thing I had in mind was that as long as it’s a legal bowhead — over 25 feet — that was fine.”

Harpooners closed in and threw traditional hand-held lances at the animal, described as a male juvenile, in the calm waters of a small bay.

The whale dove deep, and kept the hunting party waiting for 53 minutes before it resurfaced.

When it did, Niptayok, who has served as the kill harpooner on all of Kugaaruk’s bowhead hunts, stood ready with a regulation penthrite grenade harpoon. One shot killed the animal.

The crew then lined the carcass with buoys, and towed it back to Kugaaruk “in about six hours and fifteen minutes,” Kayasark said.

The crew brought the whale back to the community after nightfall, and hauled it ashore just outside the community the next morning for flensing.

The butchering operation took the whole day, Sept. 1. Kugaarummiut went to the site, near the community’s gravel pit, to witness the operation and celebrate.

“The ladies put up a tent over there, and they were cooking and eating at the same time,” said Kayasark.

“We had a meal right there where the animal was being flensed and butchered,” said Qirngnuq. “The whole town joined the celebration.”

The hunt was Kugaaruk’s third successful one in six years. The first, concluded Sept. 4, 2008, netted a male animal 35.5 feet (10.5 metres) long, according records from Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

The second, bagged on Aug. 20, 2011, was a female just under 30 feet (nine metres) long.

Hunt crews caught both within six to seven miles closer to the community than this year’s catch, Qirngnuq told Nunatsiaq News.

Even so, quick timing, calm waters and a favourable current allowed them to bring back the catch more quickly than ever before. The catch of 2011 “took about 24 hours” to haul back, Kayasark said.

All animals were caught in Pelly Bay, where hunting seems favourable, said Qirngnuk — but timing is everything. Kugaaruk earned rights to hunt in 2009 and 2010 as well, but drew blanks both years due to icy conditions.

“There was a whole lot of packed ice around the area, and unfortunately we couldn’t get to the whale any longer. So we lost both of them,” said Qirngnuk, who served as co-captain on all previous hunts, 2008 to 2011.

“I can’t really say it’s an ideal place, but we see the animal almost every summer,” Kayasark said of Pelly Bay.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) started granting bowhead hunt permits in Nunavut in 1996. Only Repulse Bay has caught more bowheads than Kugaaruk since then: a total of five to Kugaaruk’s three.

This year’s hunt was budgeted at $13,000, Qirngnuk said. Budgets for other years ranged from $8,000 to $15,000.

Kugaaruk residents shared the wealth of meat and maktaaq from this year’s hunt right after Sept. 1, Qirngnuk said. The rest will be shared with other communities of the Kitikmeot region.

DFO granted Nunavut’s two other bowhead harvests this year to Clyde River in the Baffin region, and Chesterfield Inlet in the Kivalliq.

Clyde River accomplished its harvest on Aug. 3, and Chesterfield Inlet hunters hope to complete theirs by the end of September.

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