A group of Baker Lake hunters made history on Aug. 15 by harvesting the community’s first-ever bowhead whale. The hunters set out from the inland community on July 27, making stops in Chesterfield Inlet and Naujaat along the way. After more than three weeks on the land and on sea, the community’s mayor Richard Aksawnee made a Facebook post on August 16 announcing the hunters had successfully harvested a 46-foot bowhead.
“A historic day for Baker Lake,” Aksawnee wrote. “A group of hunters left Baker Lake on the 27th of July in hopes of harvesting something that inlanders aren’t familiar harvesting. A bowhead whale. Today is that day.”
According to Philip Putumiraqtuq, the hunt’s captain, the hunters had been stuck camping out on the land near Naujaat for nearly three weeks due to bad weather when they started to think about giving up and heading home. The conditions were so bad that they had hardly been able to get out on the water.
“It was getting pretty frustrating with weather, not being able to get out. A lot of the crew was getting home-sick,” Putumiraqtuq said.
Then on the morning of Aug. 15 the waters calmed down. Three crew members had narwhal tags so the hunters decided to try and hunt some to take their mind off the bowhead.
“At the same time we said we’d keep an eye and ear out for a bowhead. Later on that day, a few hours later, we were spread out. Then we got the call that a bowhead was spotted so we got together and started to harvest,” Putumiraqtuq said.
Putumiraqtuq said he was amazed by how big the whale was when they finally came head to head with it.
“When we started going after it, boy that fish was ever fast. I was wondering how are we going to keep up with it,” he said.
By the time they finally got the first harpoon in the seas had started to pick up again. The crew stayed focused on the hunt and eventually Putumiraqtuq was able to hit it with the grenade gun.
Although that slowed the whale down, the seas were getting dangerous so Putumiraqtuq called off the hunt and suggested they come back in the morning to try and find the carcass. When they finally located the whale the next day it was about 30 kilometres from Harbour Island.
“The co-captain saw the buoys floating. On arrival we knew it was dead and floating. That’s when we announced that we had harvested it,” Putumiraqtuq said.
By the time they got back to shore, news had spread to Naujaat and the hunters were greated with a hero’s celebration by Naujaatmiut who came on land and on boats to celebrate with them.
“It was as if the ocean went alive with cheers that day,” Putumiraqtuq said.
It took a few days to butcher the meat of the whale. Some of it was given out to Naujaatmiut, some to the hunters. A large portion was packed up to be shipped to Baker Lake by plane.
When they finally arrived back to Baker late at night Aug. 20, the hunters were greeted by a fireworks display and a procession of trucks flashing their headlights toward the water. A parade around town ensued and didn’t end until shortly before midnight.
“It was a warm welcoming arrival. I thank that the lord to have made it back safely with all the crew.”
Bake Lake is now awaiting the delivery of the maktak from Naujaat so they can have a community feast. After having several days to rest at home, Putumiraqtuq extended his thanks to all the people and communities that helped make the hunt possible.
“We will never forget them, everyone who followed us since that day we left Baker.”