I just had a once in a lifetime experience this evening, and I will never smell the same again. Well, it actually started yesterday afternoon with a family beach combing trip, and I must remind you that I live in the Alaskan Arctic because this kind of thing really couldn’t happen anywhere else.
Hubby and I were up to our routine get-on-each-others-nerves-with-boredom thing when we got this great idea to borrow our neighbors “free” four wheeler to head across town and “comb” the beach on our way back. It didn’t take long to figure out why it was free. The machine is literally held together with industrial staples and there are a few issues with the exhaust, fenders, seat, ignition and tires… Oh, did I mention that it doesn't have four-wheel drive and the brakes don’t work at all? Well, it's all that and more we don't even know about.
So, we bundle up in hats and gloves, coats and sunglasses, find a piece of cardboard to be the make-shift 2nd-man seat and away we go, baby and all. Within 10 feet I, was smelling like 4-stroke exhaust and was speckled in mud (now, you would think this is the stink I couldn’t get rid of, but there is more… so much more). I couldn’t do much about the exhaust stink at the time, but by golly I was going to keep the mud off my pants. So I pull my knees to my shoulders creating a human cage around baby strategically placed between Hubby and me. Yah, like that makes this death trap any better of an idea.
Anyway, away we go to the rock pit and down onto the beach. Within ¼ mile we come across a dead seal rocking gently in the lake-like surf. We poked at it, wondered why the Natives hadn’t relieved it of its pelt and blubber, and moved along. About a mile further down the beach, we come across the fairgrounds where the whaling crews had been celebrating the harvest. Among the slabs of whale fin and other remains, I find 2 huge whale vertebrae, just what I was looking for!
Of course with the sea-mammal protection act, we weren’t sure if we could even take the “scraps” from the Native harvest. So again, we moved along. When I got home, my Native friend Jeanne called and I told her about our exciting little trip. She asked why I didn’t pick up my fabulous finds and I explained the stipulations of the sea-mammal protection act and the fact that we didn't have a vehicle. She then said “Well, let’s go!” to which I replied “Um, go where?” which of course led us on our once in a lifetime experience… mind you it was 10:00 lastnight when we were having this phone conversation.
Immediately following our converstation, Jeanne and her sister piled into their barely-working truck and head over to pick me up. Hubby jumps back on the barely-working for wheeler, the neighbor lady comes over to keep an eye on our sleeping baby, and we all head back to the beach for our treasures. It took us all of 45 minutes to load this 200 lb. seal and the 100 lb vertibrae into the back of her truck and get back to our place.
We weren’t sure if we had good finds as we weren’t sure how long that seal had been there on the beach, and had no idea how to get the remaining whale flesh off the vertibrae, but Jeanne "knew peole." After calling her dad and performing the “freshness test” on the seal, we got the “go-ahead” to skin it and bag the blubber for a tasty treat. I didn’t even know which end to start on, or how long it would take.
I was concerned about the potential stench and was certain it would make a huge mess, but on Jeanne’s orders we hauled this beast up onto her front porch and started hacking away. Surprisingly, I gutted fish that smelled worse so the smell didn't bother me all that much... till later. It was a distinct smell that only a fish-eating predator could emit and Jeanne closed her eyes and breathed it in with meaningful reminiscence. It was so amazing to share this experience with someone who had such a history and love for the sea and all the resources it yields.
The blubber was amazingly soft, thick and so very cold, but I was surprised at how quickly it melted from the heat friction of the knives and our chilly little fingers. There was very little blood and once we got started, I didn’t even think about it being a living thing once upon a time. It took 2 hours of pulling and slashing and about a million questions, but we got that animal skinned! I had no idea how they got seal oil from blubber; now I know. I had no idea how you would skin a roly-poly sea mammal; now I know.
We finally removed the entire pelt, a whole lot of blubber and were left with a puddle of oil and a mangled carcass on Jeanne’s front porch. Now what to do with this mess? Unlike many of our neighbors, we opted NOT to leave it on Jeanne's front lawn (I think she was a little embarrassed by the hack-job we did on it but am pretty sure she wouldn't have displayed it even we did it right). Anyway, we figured we would just bring it out to the beach and return it to its maker near the landfill, but found this dumpster marked “CARCASSES AND BLUBBER ONLY.” What do you make of that!?!
I can’t find a single recycling bin anywhere in this entire town, but they have a bin specifically marked for carcasses and blubber! Whooda thunk it? We responsibly dumped the remains in the designated place and wondered what they do with carcasses and blubber once the bin is filled. Humm, some things I think are best left to mystery.
At any rate, I am convinced that seal harvesting is one of the world’s dirtiest jobs and should be featured on Discovery channel’s “Dirty Jobs.” When we got home, we figured we would just jump in a hot shower and melt the oily stink off ourselves. NO SUCH LUCK! We tried the industrial GoJo used by mechanics to cut the oil and grease of engine work, astringent-type cosmetic soaps, baby wipes, smelly bath and body soaps and really-really hot water. Nothing worked!
I have a whole new “Only in Barrow” list, but I would have done it all over again in a heart beat. Where else could I have the opportunity with such amazing friends to come out so late in the night to scavenge a seal off the beach, share so many traditions and ways of her people and teach me harvest it? If I hadn’t had the guts to go for it, I would have really missed out and regretted it forever. It was a whole family experience and is decidedly going to stay with us for a while... a long, LONG while.
Thanks to all who made this experience so amazing!
P.S. If anyone has any idea as to how to get seal-oil stink out, it would be most helpful.