In Unalakleet, sea ice is a hunter’s best friend
Sea ice helps to put dinner on the table for hunters in the Bering Sea, and it’s sorely missed by Norton Sound communities like Unalakleet.
Alaska had one of the warmest winters of the century. The statewide average temperature was about 10 degrees above historic norms – and weather experts say the trend seems to be continuing, putting 2016 on track to be the warmest year on record.
Normally Unalakleet is locked in by solid ice through the winter and early spring, but this year, waves lapped at its shores and the ice drifted away.
Hunters usually go after their “oogruk” — Inupiat for bearded seal — during the first few weeks of May. But this year, the only window they had was during a cold snap in early April.
Jacob Ivanoff caught a few seals during that period, but soon the ice turned into what he calls “junk” ice.
“It’s not good for us,” Ivanoff said. “If you look at the ice, you can see how thin it is and all smashed up.”
On a hunt last week, there were plenty of seals lounging on the ice within range of Ivanoff’s rifle.
“I’d be able to knock him down easy,” Ivanoff said. But the honeycomb ice just wasn’t strong enough to walk on to retrieve and butcher the catch.
“I’d have no way to get him, and I wouldn’t want to shoot and waste him. If I want to go swimming to get him, I can,” Ivanoff said with a laugh. “I can’t even ice hop. Not right now. I jump on one piece of ice and I’m falling through.”
The ice also needs to be thick enough to support the weight of a skiff. Ivanoff navigated through an ice floe outside of Unalakleet for more than one hour to find a trustworthy slab of ice.
Ivanoff had hoped to catch a seal and share it with an elder and a single mom.
Seals bobbed their heads out of the water occasionally to check out Ivanoff, who was scratching the ice with a tool to arouse their curiosity. But they seemed to sense Ivanoff was a hunter, and they were the hunted.
It was also a bad year for caribou. There were no snow-covered hills to give snowmachiners access to the herd.
“This is the first year in many years that I only got six caribou,” said Ivanoff, who hunts not just for his immediate family, but his parents and others.
Ivanoff said elders noticed changes in the weather 30 years ago and said then that it was too late to stop it – that the only solution was to adapt.
“We’ve got to be grateful for what we have now,” Ivanoff said. “Knowing we are going to have to find alternative sources of food.”
Unalakleet is the focus of this Sunday’s Frontiers, in which scientists explain why Alaska may have reached a tipping point when it comes to climate change. This Sunday’s episode of Frontiers, “Life Without Ice: The New Norm?” airs on KTVA-Channel 11 and ARCS-TV at 4:30 and 10:30 p.m.