Since before the birth of Christ, perhaps before even the birth of the Roman empire that crucified Christ, the Makah have been hunting gray whales off the pitch of Cape Flattery. They hunted in open boats carved from cedar trees, with floats made from seal guts and lines made from kelp and harpoons tipped with muscle shells. They hunted whales weighing 40 tons with flukes that spanned 10 feet on a coast that even now invites shipwreck. The hunting of whales defined the Makah as a people, as a culture, and as the finest small boat seaman on this continent.
I imagine the Makah whalers in their canoes riding the swell off Cape Flattery, keeping cadence with their sacred songs as spindrift wets their faces and the westerly wind, bending toward the Strait of Juan de Fuca, blows the crests off the waves.
The paddlers feather their paddles with each forward stroke, never lifting the sharp blades from the water, never making a sound audible to their prey. The sinew in their arms and shoulders is dense and corded as vine maple. They brace their bodies against the continually changing dynamics of gravity and the weight of water. Their hearts are driven by adrenalin. The hunt is sacred but the hunters may quickly become the hunted. Of all the great whales, the gray whales are most deadly.
The harpooner crouches close to the whale, close enough to be wetted by the whales’ humid breath as it spouts, close enough to see in detailed relief the barnacles attached to its back and the scars that seam its flukes. The harpooner’s body is taut as a strung bow, his mouth dry, his heart racing, his intent sharp as chipped flint and focused on the harpoon held aloft. He can feel the body heat and the breath of the next man aft, starboard side, bent forward. It is this man’s responsibility to call the moment when the harpoon’s thrust will be most deadly.
The harpooner waits, praying to the spirit of the whale, enticing the whale with an honored place among the Makah. A school of small fish churning the surface is the precursor and then the whale rises, its back breaking the surface, then diving again. It’s a shallow dive. The men in the canoe know the whale will rise again shortly and spout, clearing its lungs of stale air that smells of shell fish and seaweed.
"Row now!" shouts the steersmen, and the whalers row, bending their backs to the work, pulling with all the strength in their bodies. If they fail to position the canoe close alongside the whale, well forward, the whale's flukes could strike the canoe when sounding. Canoes have been capsized, swamped, or split in two, stem to stern, when struck by an enraged whale. The seal skin floats then become life buoys until the canoe can be righted, bailed, or lashed together with lengths of line and the seal skins used to keep it afloat.
"Row now!" shouts the steersman and the men pull. The harpooner braces himself, left foot forward in the stem of the canoe, right foot aft of the first thwart, the harpoon’s shaft held in both hands, palms turned outboard. From this seemingly awkward posture he can thrust downward with the strength of both arms, sinking the harpoon deep and recovering his balance quickly. If he should stumble and step on a coil of harpoon line, he could easily be pulled from the boat and into the sea. A stricken whale might sound for 15 minutes, dragging the fouled line and the harpooner with it deep into the darkness.
Old Anderson of Neah Bay once stepped into a coil of line after setting the harpoon and got his foot entangled. Before he could take a breath the whale snatched him from the boat and sounded. No one thought they would see him alive again but Old Anderson was strong. He pulled himself along the harpoon line and blindly freed himself from the bight around his ankle. He breached the surface like a whale spouting and the crew brought him back onboard, slapping his back like a man returned from a long journey, laughing at his misadventure.
"Row now!" shouts the steersman and the whale rises close alongside, spouting. It’s humid breath settles on the crew like a mist. The harpooner waits, holding his breath. The first man starboard waits also for the moment when the whale rolls prior to sounding, when the flukes are on the upstroke. Strike too early, when the flukes are raised, and they could easily descend upon the canoe, reducing wood and bone to bloody splinters.
"Now throw!" shouts the first man starboard with the whale’s huge bulk not six feet away. The harpooners body springs downward and the harpoon is set just aft of the whales’ pectoral fin. The whale explodes in agony, it’s flukes lashing the water. From the shore the canoe seems to vanish in a cloud of spray. Half awash, the crew desperately back water, trying to put distance between themselves and the enraged whale, while the first man starboard heaves a float overboard, then bends the float to the harpoons’ tether before the slack runs out. Additional floats and lengths of line are added as the whale sounds. The last lines are lighter since they carry less load and when the final float, the last of as many as 13, is bent on, the line is cast free of the canoe. The marker will rise to the surface long before the whale breeches and the hunters will pull hard to position themselves for another thrust.
It is a slow death, a death of attrition. The whale exhausts itself pulling against the drag of the seal skin floats. A wounded whale may eventually be buoyed by so many floats it cannot sound and is unable to dive more than a few feet below the surface. The battle often lasts for hours, the whale clinging tenaciously to life, the whalers pursuing until their muscles burn and shafts of their paddles are stained with their own blood. Sometimes a whaler will haul himself onto the back of a stubborn whale and repeatedly hack at it with his knife, clinging to it while the whale sounds and rises repeatedly, like Ahab clinging to the back of Moby Dick. Makah whalers are practiced at holding their breath in cold water until blood seeps from their nose and ears.
When the whale dies, its last breath stained with blood, water fills its lungs. The drowned whale would sink if one of the crew didn’t dive into the water with a knife held between his teeth and sew the whale’s mouth shut.
Once the kill is complete, the Makah whalers must tow the dead weight back to a landing near the village. Depending upon how far offshore the chase has led them, they may be 20 miles at sea, alone in the immensity of the Pacific, with nothing visible on the horizon. As they descend into the trough of each swell the horizon contracts to the distance a man can throw a stone.
The men sing towing songs in celebration. The songs help push back the immensity that threatens to overwhelm them. They drink freshwater from gourds made from the bulbs of bull kelp and kindle a fire in a sandbox sheltered in the bilge.
Unless help finds them, they may be towing the dead whale for a day and a night before they can make landfall. A day and a night of back-breaking labor exposed to the weather. And if the weather turns against them and the wind freshens from the south, they may have to cast off their tow, abandon the whale, and pull for the shore and their lives.