Monday, May 10-- Opening Day of The Huffington Post:
We arrive in Barrow, Alaska at 8pm, but it is still broad daylight, because Barrow is in the Arctic Circle. In fact, its the northernmost city in the US and for 82 days in May though July the sun never sets below the horizon. Andrew, our guide for our 3 day location scout, greets us at the airport with very good news-- one of his uncle's whaling teams has just hours ago harpooned a 29 foot Bowhead Whale. Andrew is 1/2 Inupiac (the Eskimos native to Alaska) and the Inupiacs (aka "The People") still hunt whales twice a year-- purely for sustenance. This spring, the people hope to catch 21 whales (the legal limit set for them by the International Whaling Commision). None of the meat, or any other parts, of these whales will be sold or shipped-- they will instead feed the entire town until the next whale hunt in the fall.
We are in Barrow, staying at the Top of the World Hotel, on the shore of the vast, grey-blue Arctic Ocean to look for locations for REARRANGED, a Disney Studios film we are hoping to shoot this fall or next spring. With me are Audrey Wells, the writer and director of this beautiful script, Whitney Green, our fantastic Disney Production executive, and now Andew Maclean, a friend of Audrey's, who was born in Barrow, raised in Fairbanks and Denmark, and currently a very talented film student at NYU.
It is 11 pm and after our late dinner, outfitted in handmade arctic fur garments from head to toe, which keep us all toasty warm, we jump on Andrew's friend Ives' 2 snowmobiles and head out towards the whale. The snowmobiles only fit 2 people each, and with Ives we are now 5, so I am towed behind one of the snowmobiles in a long sled. I am warned that the ride may be bumpy, but the polar bear fur cushion keeps me very comfortable. Once I get the hang of it, sitting up on my knees, holding the provided ropes as reins, the ride through the midnight arctic tundra is exhilirating-- like a cross between horse back riding and downhill skiing, but you dont have to move your legs. After a short ride across the hardpack snow from Ives' house, we reach the shore of the Arctic Ocean and head out onto the shore ice. In the winter, the Arctic feezes almost completely and the shore ice extends the 1000 miles plus to the North Pole, in the summer the ice melts completely all the way back to the shoreline, but on this night in May it is a half hour snowmobile ride across the shore ice to the water. The terrain is as stange as it is spectacular-- it feels to me like we are on the moon, only it is crystal white and more beautiful. Huge chunks of ice form mini mountains and valleys and the landscape of white is highlighted by assorted pieces of lumenescent blue ice cropping up in all directions. I ask Andrew what causes this eerily gorgeous phenomenon, but am too lost in the moment to hear his answer. We stop on a high ridge with a breathtaking view to the sea, only to discover that we do not see what we are looking for, our whale's caracass on the ice, which would be surrounded by townspeople chopping it up for food. A lone figure walking towards us turns out to be another one of Andrew's uncles (in a town of 5,000 people reachable only by plane, almost everyone is related somehow and Andrew's great grandfather was one of the first caucasians to come and stay, so his family, the Browards, is one of the largest and best known families in town). While this uncle is on a different whaling crew and they have not gotten their whale yet, he knows where the one is we are looking for and re-directs us on our way.
The passing of a staging tent 15 minutes later tells Andrew and Ives we are getting close, as does the flag on a high pole signifying that this team has caught its whale and that this is where it has been hoisted to shore with two huge block and tackles. Emboldened now by our having found this nights holy whale, I straighten up even higher on my knees and ride up to the animal like Ben Hur in head to toe fur, except that my reins dont actually connect to anything but my own sled and I have nothing to do at all with the driving or steering of the snowmobile I'm being pulled behind.
We dismount and walk slowly towards the creature, with Andrew and Ives in front greeting their friends and relatives on the whale crew and Audrey, Whitney and I lagging a bit behind, waiting for an unspoken permission to approach and a spoken one to videotape, both of which we generously receive from a few of the elders perched on their snowmobiles at the perimeter of the site. And then, there before us is the remains of this massive Bowhead whale. Just hours before it was harpooned in the sea, but now it is well on the way to being completely dismantled. Huge strips of the meat of the whale, literally tons of MukTuk, the skin of the whale with large amounts of fat attached, have been sliced off and hauled away on the ice. It will be divided up among the 40-50 people out helping, with larger shares having already gone to the men who were actually on the hunting crew. What is left is the massive rib cage, sticking striaght up in the snow-- straight out of the set decoration for a scene from Moby Dick-- a huge section of organs, including the heart, liver and intestines, the size of a minicooper which the helpers are in the process of tearing apart, carefully, with metal claws, and the head. Over by the heart, two men are carefully peeling off the membrane covering the organs which will become the skin for a drum. Over by the head, a friendly young man in his 20's, intrigued by this ridiculous looking fur covered trio of stange white people arriving at their dead whale at 12:30 in the morning and rumored to be from Hollywood, shows me the whale's brain and the two ear drums. These are the size and approximate shape of large conch shells and are to be given as souveniers of honor, one to the crew captain, Andrew's uncle, and one to the harpoonist.
The ice is drenched in the brightest, purest, most vivid red I have ever seen-- clearly and obviously where the primary color or red came from in the first place-- accented by thicker pools of blood which are the darker shade we think of as blood red. The entire area is warm from the heat of the animal's insides and it smells of blood and fish and salt and sea and ice. The overall effect of the look and smell of the site and all the teamwork being done at it is one of tremendous power and primal beauty. Man and Nature, Day and Night, Death and Life, Ancient and Modern, Hunters and Hunted all as one.
And then I am offered a large peice of Muktuk-- skin and fat, lightly boiled and having just been cut from the 29 foot whale, still hot. We stand together with the Inupiaks, who have survived on the good fortune of sucessfully hunting whales for untold centuries, and celebrate the sea having provided again. We bite into the steaming Muktuk, part gourmet treat, part dietary staple, part spiritual communion. The fat tastes like a thicker, fishier fois gras and the skin tastes like a most exsquisite kind of exotic, heretofore untasted sushi.
It is 2 am. The sky is light. We are eating whale in the Arctic Circle. And we get it.