The movie, Big Miracle, and what I witnessed in real life, part 6: Governor Cowper gets a new pair of seal-skin boots; hoverbarge fails, ice punch dropped; Iñupiat whalers cut holes with chainsaws
As he never did go out to see the whales, I was going to skip over the visit of Governor Steve Cowper, which took place just as the rescue was beginning to ramp up. Yet, his fictional counterpart had a role in the movie, Big Miracle, so I feel I must include him. Oran Caudle's footage of the whales had already been seen worldwide on TV, the photos that I had sent to the Anchorage Daily News had appeared in just about every daily newspaper in the world, from the New York Times on, but the media had not yet descended en masse into Barrow.
Governor Cowper came to visit officials of the North Slope Borough and the North Slope Borough School District. I had been asked to document the visit and had committed myself to do so before we knew any of this would be happening. So, on the morning of the day that Arnold Brower Jr. would go out to make the observations upon which he would base his report to the Barrow Whaling Captains Association, I had followed the governor through the last of his visits. It was hard for me, because I wanted only to be on the ice, but when you commit yourself to the Governor of Alaska, the Mayor of the North Slope Borough and the Superintendent of the North Slope Borough School District, you must follow through.
The State of Alaska's revenues go up and down both with the price and flow of oil, and this was a time of declining revenues. Hence, declining revenues were chief on the mind of Cowper, as well as those he visited. During a meeting with the mayor and Borough officials, the conversation turned to the trapped gray whales. The Governor's response was essentially, Isn't that interesting. Now, about those declining oil revenues...
He was offered a helicopter ride to the whale site, but declined, citing his busy schedule. He had no desire to involve the state in the rescue effort.
At a lunch hosted by the school district in the Barrow High School cafeteria, Rex Okakok presented Governor Cowper with a new pair of seal-skin kammiks, better known to the world as mukluks. Originally of Texas, Governor Cowper removed his cowboy boots, slipped the kammiks onto his feet and then, to applause, shook Rex's hand.
I then dashed off, climbed onto my snowmachine, and raced out to the whale holes. I was fortunate to arrive even before Arnold and the others.
Yet, although under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, all the legal authority and jurisdiction goes to the federal government and not the state, the governor and the State of Alaska would be drawn in militarily. After ARCO volunteered the use of its hoverbarge to break a path from the whales to open water, they needed a big, powerful helicopter to tow it and the only one available was the Sky Crane of the Alaska National Air Guard.
In the movie, Big Miracle, two Sky Cane helicopters towed the hover barge, flying side by side in the most nerve-wracking, horrifying, manner possible. In real life, there were also two helicopters, but only one pulled while the other flew along as backup.
Prior to this time, the barge had never been towed more than 25 miles. As to its potential speed, we kept hearing different reports - from five knots to 30. I could not even begin to believe the 30, given all the pressure ridges and jagged, rough, ice that it would encounter on the ocean.
The sky crane and hoverbarge launched their 210 nautical mile journey from Prudhoe Bay to Plover Point on a Sunday. It encountered so many problems that by the Ron Morris deadline of Tuesday, it had succeed in going no more than a few miles from Prudhoe Bay. None of us in Barrow would ever get to see it. Yet, given the intense interest of the world and President Reagan, there was no way the effort could be scuttled now.
Its initial effort had failed, but the oil industry is proud of its resourcefulness and creativity, and they especially wanted to display their capabilities in the Arctic. Next, ARCO offered up a five-ton ice punch. One Sky Crane returned to base and the other was flown to Barrow in the hope that it might be used in combination with the ice punch to poke a series of holes for the gray whales to follow from their holes to open water and freedom.
Among the whale hunters of Barrow, there had been great skepticism that the hover barge would work. Now they were eqaully skeptical about the ice punch. They did not want to wait any longer, until it had failed, to launch their own operation. Through the NSB Mayor's Office Jobs Program, the Borough hired a crew of mostly Iñupiat whale hunters to chainsaw a series of holes from the whales to the lead.
They would still have to face the problem of the massive pressure ridge that stood at the edge of the ice and was likely anchored on the ocean bottom. Still, they knew they could cut the holes to the pressure ridge and in the meantime hoped to figure out how to deal with it.
Whaling Captain Johnny Leavitt (right) was put in charge of the crew. Malik, left, came on both as a worker and senior advisor. Morris hoped that the hunters would not be needed, save to clean the ice punch holes. He wanted them to hold off until the Sky Crane did its thing, but the hunters were in no mood to wait any longer. They were ready to go. No matter how much a government official and his bosses in Washington, DC, might imagine himself to be in charge of Iñupiat hunters on Arctic ice, he never really will be.
"They should have just let us do this from the start and not even fooled with the hover barge," Leavitt told me as his crew fired up their chain saws. "They get all these professors. We are the PhD's out here."
Even as the Sky Crane - ice punch rig was being readied to begin its work, the whale hunters began theirs. I now had a hard decision to make - to follow the whale hunters or the ice punch - which would start near the pressure ridges and then work backwards toward the whales.
To me, it was more important to capture the whalers at work than the ice punch. If I followed it and it succeeded, then the major work of the whalers would essentially be over. I would have no pictures of them cutting holes. If I stayed with the whalers, I would not be able to photograph the ice punch at work out near the pressure ridges, but I would be able to catch it as it drew near the whalers and the whales.
However, if the ice punch failed, it would never draw near to the whalers and the whales and I would get no pictures of it at all. I hate to sound cynical, but I figured ARCO and the National Guard would take the ice punch out, try to punch out a few holes, would not succeed in creating anything practical and the effort would be called off. The whalers, meanwhile, would keep cutting holes, probably for days.
So, believing that it would be my only chance to photograph the Sky Crane - ice punch at work, but I would have many chances to photograph the whalers, I secured a seat on the NSB Search and Rescue Long Ranger helicopter and followed along as the Sky Crane went to work.
I had imagined that that the Sky Crane would have some kind of cable release that would allow it to drop the punch onto the ice. Then it would reel it back up and drop again, until finally it broke through the ice. I had imagined wrong. Instead, the helicopter would hover its mark and then suddenly the whole contraption - helicopter and sky punch, would plunge downward until the spiked punch struck the ice. Immediately afterward, the pilot would arrest the fall of his aircraft with his rotors.
Even though I felt the effort futile, I felt nothing but respect for the flying skills of the pilot.
This was challenging and dangerous work.
The crane would punch and punch away, often times making only a barely discernable dent. Then, finally, it would punch a hole through - but it was a rubble filled hole, of no use to whales or man. The effort failed.
The whalers had about four miles of holes to cut to reach the ice. When I returned, I was surprised to find that they had already cut about half-a-mile. Twenty chainsaws had been donated from someone in Oregon and some more from Prudhoe Bay. It was a bit of a challenge to keep the chainsaws going in the cold weather, especially as they were cutting into salt water - the whalers, however, are superbly skilled at keeping machines going no matter the weather, no matter the conditions.
It helps if they have the right tools, but even if they don't, they figure it out.
Whalers fire up a chain saw.
They cut a small test hole.
In the system quickly worked out, the outline of a large hole would be drawn in the snow and within it the slabs that would be cut out to from it. Then whalers wielding chain saws would cut along the lines. Jimmie Ningeok makes a cut.
Jimmie Ningeok progresses along the hole.
When they had first enlarged the whales original holes, the hunters had dragged the chunks of ice out of the water by pulling on ropes. Given the size of the slabs, this was no longer feasible, so they quickly devised a new method. Once a slab was cut, whalers would push one end of the slab down below the bottom level of the ice. As that end went down, the other end would rise. Other whalers would then shove their push-poles into it.
"Kiita!"* they would shout. Then, pushing and laughing, they would shove the slab entirely beneath the ice.
And so a series of new breathing holes began to reach farther and farther across the ice, towards the pressure ridges... towards the open lead... towards freedom... if freedom were to come...
...but the whales refused to use the new holes. Except for one, quick, brief foray by one into the nearest hole, they stayed put. As trapped as they must have felt, it seemed that they were more frightened to venture away from the security of the breathing hole that had so far kept them alive.
The ice punch, at rest on the beach, near the whales its use had failed to rescue. The helicopter had suffered a damaged rotor and would be down for awhile.
At first, with some limited exceptions, the national media had paid little serious attention to the Iñupiat whalers, but had treated them mostly as a curiosity of the north. It was the oil companies, the National Guard, various of the many biologists, including two NOAA who joined in, and the federal government, as represented by Ron Morris, that they paid serious attention to.
Yet, it was beginning to grow ever more clear that, whatever technological wonders might yet be thrown into this absurd, terrible, horrible yet gallant, wonderful, determined and compassionate mission, if it were to succeed, it would be because of a few Eskimo whale hunters, wielding chainsaws...
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