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Know the West

Where the first spring harvest relies on a still-frozen ocean

In coastal Western Alaska, wildlife and humans alike rely on good, thick ice.

Dad, always the captain in his boat, inched it toward the football-field-sized ice pan in front of us. All around, ice pans, flat and frozen, floated in the Norton Sound, separated by avenues of ocean water. The white of the snow and ice reflecting the sun’s rays was aggressive and welcome after a long winter. My 24-year-old nephew, Arctic, crouched to my left, so close I could feel him breathing. Between the warmth of the spring sun on our cheeks and the wish to move freely, we had taken off our winter jackets. Our arms rested on the cold bow of the aluminum boat, our rifles ready to fire. 

“You ready, Arctic?” I whispered.

“Yeah,” he whispered back.

“OK,” I said. “One … two … three.”


We both fired at the ugruk sleeping on the ice 100 yards ahead, but the bullets missed their mark. We watched the long gray mammal, heavier than the three of us put together, quickly slip into the hole it had scratched through the ice.

“How’d we miss?” I said as I pulled the gun’s lever to eject the bullet casing, the metal against metal smooth. Arctic did the same without answering my question, knowing I wasn’t looking for an answer.

Arctic is the kind of person you want to have next to you, whatever you’re doing. When he was in high school, he was captain of the Wolfpack — the Unalakleet basketball team — and he led with quiet, assured dignity. Whether the task is to build a chicken coop, butcher a moose or cut salmon for drying, Arctic works from start to finish, cracking subtle jokes along the way. Your stomach relaxes and you breathe deeper when he’s around.

As we put the guns on safety, the ocean water lapped against the sides of the boat, and the cool spring breeze brushed the backs of our bare necks. Dad slowly backed the boat away from the ice pan in case the ugruk popped up close by to breathe after diving. The scent of rotten fish and shrimp filled the air, and Arctic and I looked at one another, smiling. Accusatorily.

“Did you fart?” I asked Arctic.

“Nope,” he said as we got a stronger whiff.

I started laughing, hard. “That ugruk farted on us.”

SOMETIMES OUR SPRING bearded seal hunt happens in April. Usually in May. One year, the ocean ice broke up early and we were boating around ice pans in late March. Each year we wonder if the warming northern oceans will allow us adequate time to hunt for the largest of the seal species that live in the Norton Sound. Ugruk are 7 to 8 feet long and weigh several hundred pounds, and only good thick ice will support them. Some years, the ice melts too quickly, or the currents and winds do not bring thick pans that formed in the outer Bering Sea into the sound, and we have just days to hunt. Each spring, our family works to harvest at least three adult ugruk; the meat we dry and the oil we render feeds us all year long.

Bearded seal meat drying in the Inupiat village of Point Hope, Alaska.

LATER THAT DAY on the boat last spring, Arctic pointed to the big dark head of an ugruk as the animal swam in blue water, each ripple reflecting sunlight, crisp and cheery. Unlike the smaller, curious ringed seals that duck back beneath the surface with hardly a splash, ugruk will dive in, showing their backs and rear flippers. The large seal dove, its curved spine seeming to go on for miles.

“That’s a big ugruk,” Dad said, in awe.

He piloted the boat slowly to where we’d seen the ugruk and pulled the throttle back. The motor idled; the glass-calm water reflected the clouds and bright blue sky, as if to let the earth adore itself after the dark winter. We waited. The rippling ocean waves sparkled and the water lapped against the ice pans. Our rifles in hand, we scanned the water all around us, calm and ready.

Arctic and I looked at one another, this time with wide eyes. We heard it.

The ugruk, beneath us.


Hearing an ugruk sing is like hearing the ghost of a beautiful woman wailing, undulating between loud and soft. The song captures the attention of every cell in your body. It sounds haunting, but is nothing like a haunting. Instead of sadness or fear, the song evokes wonder and awe. And thankfulness, for getting a glimpse of the everyday for some beings, something that’s unimaginable, momentous and rare for us, the visitors.

The ocean fell silent. We heard Dad’s motor idling, again the lapping of water against ice and our own slow breathing as we waited. Seconds later, the melody from below, from the water, began again. 

Tears in my eyes, trying not to move or make a sound that would startle the seal, I looked at Arctic and smiled. He didn’t smile back, but I knew he was also delighted. Anyone with a pulse would be.

The song captures the attention of every cell in your body. 

EACH YEAR AFTER THE COLD, dark winter, we celebrate our first successful spring harvest with a quintessential coastal Alaska feast, akin to a Christmas dinner, at my Dad’s house. As he pulls ugruk ribs from his big stainless steel pot at the stove, steaming, and places them on a pan covered with boiled liver, qiaq (intestines), and blubber, the energy is there. I don’t want to sound too much like a modern Native trying to be ultra-traditional, but it really is as if the ugruk’s energy is feeding us. Our souls. Our bodies. Our connection with the animal, the earth and one another. It’s evident when our shoulders relax and we breathe fully after taking that first greasy, nutrient-rich bite.

DAD SPOTTED the ugruk’s head pop up 80 feet to the right of us. My shot. Its body in the water and its orange face in my gun’s sights, I steadied myself and fired.


The ugruk dove beneath the surface. When ugruk know they’re being hunted, they no longer sing. We stood in the boat, again waiting for it to resurface.

After a minute or two, we spotted the ugruk swimming. Further out, to the left. Arctic’s shot. He lifted his gun, aimed, took his time, and he fired.

A hunter often knows they’ve shot a seal when they hear the bullet’s thud against fur and fat. Arctic’s bullet splashed in the water an inch in front of the ugruk’s head, and it dove back under the water.

FORTY YEARS AGO, when I was a little kid, ocean ice formed in October and didn’t melt until May, or sometimes June. This February, the ice that had looked promising for our spring hunts blew out with the strong east wind of a winter storm. The ocean, too warm, raged with big, loud waves. This spring, I wonder: If I one day have grandchildren, will they ever get to hear an ugruk sing?   

Laureli Ivanoff is an Inupiaq writer and journalist based in Uŋalaqłiq (Unalakleet), on the west coast of what’s now called Alaska. Her column “The Seasons of Uŋalaqłiq” explores the seasonality of living in direct relationship with the land, water, plants and animals in and around Uŋalaqłiq. 

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