June 2, 1975
Ten walruses were dead. The men pulled the umiak onto the floe, patched the hole, and with amazing speed and precision cut up the 2-ton carcasses. Blood flowed everywhere; piles of steaming guts lay on the ice; men with axes cut heavy-boned skulls to remove the precious ivory tusks. Ivory and a sea of blood; it seemed the essence of the hunt. We loaded the boat to the gunwales with meat, fat, and ivory, and headed for Diomede.
Arctic Memories - Island Between Two Worlds
The Diomeders are known for belligerence and reckless daring and have been called "the Vikings of the Arctic Sea," " a reputation they rather cherish. One day, two boat crews were in the Alaskan mainland village of Wales and saw a film about Genghis Khan and the Golden Horde, with violence and pillage aplenty. Back on Little Diomede, they were asked by a visiting biologist how they had liked the film. One man grinned and said: "Nothing special. Just a bunch of Diomeders on horseback!"
The walrus hunters in my boat slept soundly, oblivious to the storm. Slowly the wind abated, the sky cleared, the pack spread out, the morning was pure magic. We launched the boat and purred smoothly along dark lanes among the floes, through a fantasy-land of shimmering, wind-and-wave sculptured ice. The ice glowed in the soft opalescence of morning, in delicate lilac, rose, and cool green, and bone-white icicles hung in grottoes of the deepest blue. Thousands of murres and auklets, like dark toy birds, lay scattered upon the satin sea.
Far in the pack we heard the walruses, drifting north upon the Aloes from the Bering to the Chukchi Sea, all 200,000 funneling through Bering Strait on their annual spring migration. We approached them slowly, cautiously. Masses of madder-brown walruses lay sound asleep in chummy heaps upon brown, dung- smeared floes.
Tom throttled the motor back, the men readied rifles and harpoons. They spoke in whispers; excitement and tension filled the boat. We drifted close to a pan loaded with sleeping animals, and suddenly, upon a low command from Tom, the eleven hunters fired, and fired again and again, a rapid, deadly fusillade. One moment it had been very quiet and then came carnage and chaos.
Dead walruses lay on the floe, fountains of blood spurting and bubbling from the wounds. Others, in fear and fury, poured off the floe like a brown avalanche, rallied and attacked the boat, bellowing with rage, their eyes bloodshot. The men shot onto the water, into the walruses at top speed; most walruses turned and fled. A huge bull, bleeding from many wounds, dived, then shot up and hacked into the boat, and water rushed in through the gash. The hunters were prepared. They stuffed a large piece of blubber into the hole to staunch the leak. Ice and water were red with blood. They shot and killed the wounded walruses and tried to harpoon them before they sank.
Ten walruses were dead. The men pulled the umiak onto the floe, patched the hole, and with amazing speed and precision cut up the 2-ton (1.8-tonne) carcasses. Blood flowed everywhere; piles of steaming guts lay on the ice; men with axes cut heavy-boned skulls to remove the precious ivory tusks. Ivory and a sea of blood; it seemed the essence of the hunt. We loaded the boat to the gunwales with meat, fat, and ivory, and headed for Diomede. The weather was changing fast. Ragged storm clouds raced across the sky. Gray fog oozed over sea and ice and enwrapped us like a clammy shroud. The wind increased; the heavily laden boat pitched and lurched in the rising waves. They raised the yard-broad waistcloth, furled against the gunwales in calm seas, on paddles and poles around the boat and lashed it securely as a guard against the wind-whipped spray.
The day dragged on toward a dark and evil night. One man stood in the bow to watch for the ice floes that surged suddenly out of the murk and spume and vanished again into the dark-gray void that surrounded us. Tommy and I sat on the food box, lolling against each other with the wildly yawing motion of the boat, shivering and chilled to the core. Toward midnight, when the storm was at its peak, flinging sheets of spray across the waistcloth, and icy water soaked us to the skin, one of the men crept toward us, from thwart to thwart like a huge dark crab, took off his great parka, wrapped it tightly around the boy, gave us an encouraging grin, and crawled back to his seat, now dressed only in shirt and pullover.
We reached Diomede in the morning and unloaded the boat. I walked slowly up to my shack, made tea and drank it very hot, and fell exhausted on my cot, blood-spattered and reeking of blood and blubber. Two hours later, Tom banged on my shack, I put on my sea-soaked parka, and we were off again.
Days and nights merged. We hunted in fair weather and in foul (mostly foul, Bering Strait is notorious for its storms and fogs). The great racks on Diomede were loaded with drying meat; the ancient meat holes, the deep freezers of Diomede, were crammed with walrus meat and fat. The women worked nearly as hard as the men. Mary, Tom's wife, split walrus skins to be used as umiak covers with her razor-sharp ulu. Their daughter, Eva, eighteen years old and just back from a mainland high school, cut blubber off the walrus skins, and sliced meat and hauled it to the meat holes. Her sister, Etta, a charming, round-faced three-year-old, sat on a rock and copied her mother, Mary, pretending to split a piece of walrus skin with a can lid in lieu of an ulu.
Suddenly, near the end of June, the hunt was over. The last walruses had passed to the north. The four Diomede umiaks had brought back much of the meat and all the ivory of 700 walruses ample food and relative prosperity, though much of that would be spent on liquor. The men caught auklets with long-handled nets, just as the Polar Inuit catch dovekies. I went with Albert Iyahuk to collect greens on the mountainside; he showed me the many roots, corms, and leaves Diomeders preserve in seal oil and eat with meat.
Tom left to work on the pipeline in northern Alaska. Other men followed, some to the pipeline, some to Anchorage or to "the lower forty-eight." Most went to jobs, some went to jails, usually for brawling in bars. "I spend so much time in the Nome jail, I use it as my home address," one man joked. The Diomeders love to travel, but in fall all flock back to their lonely rock set in an icy sea.
John lyapana was going with his umiak to the mainland and offered to take me along. Once, in a drunken rage at "whites," he had threatened to kill me. Two days later, sober, he asked me over for supper and was a delightful host, generous, amiable, with an enormous fund of stories about olden times on Diomede. Many villagers were on the beach when we pushed off. "Come back," they called, "come back and bring your family."