Blanket Toss Redux

Last night was an incredible experience.

I’d heard about the Eskimo Blanket Toss in history class throughout my grammar and high school years. I never retained the origin of it, though I’m sure the teacher told us all why it was done at the time.

According to the former mayor of Nuiqsut, the origin of the blanket toss is as follows:
Hundreds of years ago, when the Natives set out for a whale, because of the breakup (whaling is done at Spring breakup and the Fall right before the big freeze), there would be huge ice floes that would block the view for the people on the land and in the boat. So before they set out on their journey, they would all gather around a blanket and toss someone up in the air so they could see out over the ocean and find the water spout of the whale and then determine the direction in which the boat should go. Now every year, they do the blanket toss and give thanks to the whale for sacrificing itself to the community. Whaling is still done, though there is a limit because obviously it isn’t something done out of necessity anymore.

We have two whaling captains in our village and they each have their own blanket toss and they still share their capture with every family. You all read about the last fiasco with the four of us, but this week, the Nukapigak family made sure we would be there and things would go as scheduled by simply starting earlier in the day. Lucy and Isaac, (the host family, Isaac is the captain)asked Kristen and I to help serve the Muktuk and we felt honored! We weren’t so sure until we got there, what, exactly we would be doing but we knew it involved handling the whale meat and giving it out to families. We were very nervous, and tired, Kristen just got her new puppy flown in, (for another blog, but he is adorable!)and well, we just had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.

We arrived (at the softball field, I know, we do have one) to find the Nukapigak’s waiting for us and found buckets of blocks of dark frozen meat. Along with a big chunk of whale sitting on a wooden block. We found out later the big chunk was the tail, and the fins were cut off and chopped up to be given out later. We were given rubber gloves and were assigned to an “experienced” partner. Grabbing one handle of the bucket and the “partner” grabbing the other, they led the way over to the bleachers where all the families were waiting. It wasn’t too terrible and the people seemed flattered that Kristen and I were willing to do such a thing. There were lots of “thank you’s.” and lots of “Chris, Kristen, are you having fun?” We actually were, though the meat had a less than pleasant odor and I couldn’t keep my hair out of my face due to the wind, the sun was shining and the people were happy and when in the world would I ever get to experience this or do this again in my lifetime? When our buckets were empty we would return to the serving table and wait for the next portion of whale to be doled out again. They gave out different sections of the whale and before each one, a member of the host family would get on the loud speaker and explain in Inupiat which portion would be given out next. Howard was assigned to camera duty and Ben was assigned to watch the puppy. By the time we the meat was given out, our gloves were covered with the oily consistency that comes from the whale, and dirty but we were in awe of the whole thing. We then switched gloves and gave out fruit and desserts also prepared by the host family. I gave out rice pudding with raisins, needless to say, I didn’t get very far before it was gone. Kristen gave out a “fruit stew” that was also gone in a short time. After everything was given out, the elders began cutting into the tail (sitting on the block). According to everyone there, the tail is, by far, the best part, and Tommy, the current mayor cut up a piece for all of us to try and well, whale is an acquired taste but we got through it, and I have to say out of the few times I’ve had Muktuk, it really was the best I’d eaten. We were then told that the families would break for an hour for dinner and to meet back at the field for the actual blanket toss.

Howard was suddenly bitten by the “oh my God, the fish are biting” bug and Ben of course, would NOT let Howard go without him, so Kristen and I decided to go back to my house and grab a bite to eat, and possibly wash the stench of Muktuk and dust out of our hair and hands. We all agreed to meet back at the house between 7:30 and 8:00. Upon entering the house, Kristen and I discovered that we REEKED of Muktuk. It’s hard to describe. It doesn’t really smell “fishy”, like one would think, even though whales are in fact mammals. It smelled more like burning rubber. Kristen left the puppy in my care and went back to her house to change clothes and I did the same at my house. She and the boys came back, (minus any fish), we all woofed down some pizza, then we all drove back over to the softball field.

Lucy and Isaac had been teasing Kristen about getting on the blanket, and she wasn’t sure she was actually going to do it, but once Lucy beckoned her over with a bag of candy to throw out to the kids (while being tossed on the blanket), she knew she couldn’t say “no.” She did a great job, for a first timer, but it looked scary as hell. People were bugging me to get on it but I stuck to my guns and avoided Lucy….I actually lied about having a bad knee. (Yes I realize I will now be cursed with such an affliction) Now, it’s not like me to turn down something as crazy as that, but Kristen assured me it was NOTHING like a trampoline and the landing is very hard, so I erred on the side of caution and stayed the hell off the thing. Of course, in hindsight, I wish I had, but Kristen did and we got video and pictures and that’s good enough for me. The technique is to look straight ahead and not look down, the blanket, (made out of walrus skin) is actually tethered by four ropes attached to cross bars firmly planted into the ground, the blanket itself is lined with rope handles for the people to hold onto and actually bounce the blanket. I was amazed at the agility of some of the jumpers but noticed that people that did actually look straight ahead, stayed on longer and jumped higher without incident. We eventually said our goodbyes and went home but took with us some incredible memories from the day, and Howard and I talked about how even though we complain about living in the artic and about my depression and his health problems, we should never forget why we got ourselves into this crazy adventure. It was for moments like yesterday, the things that very few people will ever see, or experience. The “Alaska” that no one hears about on the Discovery Channel, no one ever sees on a cruise, and even the people on the road system of Alaska know nothing about.

It takes days like yesterday to make us forget our problems, and remember just how lucky we are.

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