To ride the surf among bowheads and hunters: will my reoccurring dream come true? Momma, where will your babies go?
I have written at least twice before about a certain reccuring dream that has come to me many times over the past many years. The particulars vary from dream to dream, but always contain certain elements. Sometimes, the dreams begin on the ice, in whale camp; sometimes, they begin onshore, looking out a scene much like this, except that the waves are farther out, and much larger.
They are beautiful waves, shaped just right to surf on. They are long and tall. As a wave begins to break in the middle, a breeze blowing from offshore riffles along the top edge, tears spray from the lip of the wave and whips it into the air to fly above and behind the wave. The wave then peels off in a long, magnificent, curl.
Even though I have had the dream many times, each time I can hardly believe what I am seeing - these are perfect surfing waves, just like at certain beaches I knew as a youth in California, and like those I have seen in the surfing magazines and on TV and movies from Hawaii and elsewhere, but right here, in Barrow, Alaska.
Then, to my even greater surprise, I see surfers riding these Chukchi Sea/Arctic Ocean waves. I stare. I study. Then beyond the waves I see the "V" shaped blow of a bowhead whale. I see men clad in white parkas in skin-covered umiaks, paddling after the bowhead.
Then, somehow, I find myself out in the ocean, in the midst of it all - on one side of me surfers ride waves. On the other, Iñupiat whalers paddle to a bowhead.
I have always attributed these dreams to an inner longing to somehow be able to know and hang onto the ocean I knew as a youth at the same time as I do the ocean I have sometimes known as an adult. I have always recognized the impossibility of the dream being any kind of representation of reality.
But late yesterday afternoon, as I stood atop the bluff at the southwest edge of Barrow, looking at this scene in the Chukchi Sea, even as I knew the whale hunters of Barrow were readying their boats for the fall hunt, I wondered if there might not inadvertantly be more to it?
What does it take to make a good, surfable, wave? Long, long, stretches of open ocean. This is not something that has tended to happen around here, because, even when the ice is too far from shore for the eye to see, as it often is this time of year, it is out there, floating, drifting, circulating around the pole. Its presence limits the ability of the ocean to produce good surfing waves. Yes, there has been a number of years when the ice was far out and violent, fall storms packing hurricane-force winds have kicked up 20 to 30 foot waves to pound the shore and wreak havoc, but these were not surfing waves. After the wind calmed they soon settled and disappeared.
When I began this trip, I mentioned some jarring scientific predictions about how the summer ice could disappear entirely in the Arctic Ocean as soon as 2020. Yesterday, I heard a report that, given the exceptional, record-breaking retreat of sea ice this past summer, this could happen as early as 2016.
This is a horrible thing to think of and I find it most difficult to believe. I guess I do not believe it - not because I do not believe in science, but because it just does not seem right or natural. I desperately want the trend to stop, reverse itself and the ocean to go completely back to the way we think of it as always having been: the ice, having always been there - the ice, forever there. It seems to me like somehow, this is what ought to happen, what somehow will happen.
The ice will be there, along with all the sea mammals and other creatures that depend on it. The whales will travel in their normal migration routes, the hunters will wait to greet them and life will go on as it always has.
But if it doesn't reverse and the ocean goes ice free, then waves coming will be able to travel much farther than this one did and, on occassion, when conditions would be just right, why would they not come in as big, beautiful, surfing breakers?
And if this were to happen, this ocean would still be the only place left for the bowheads. The hunters would still need to feed their families.
So maybe you could have surfers and whalers out in the same ocean. Seems implausible, but maybe.
Can you picture a surfer riding this wave? I can.
And if that day should happen, then, Momma, where will your babies go?*
*Barter Island, September 27.