On the Hunt for Seals Near the Arctic Circle

After shooting a seal through the ice, Alukie Metuq, an Inuit, gigs her prey to pull it from the icepack. Seal meat is a staple in her family's diet.
After shooting a seal through the ice, Alukie Metuq, an Inuit, gigs her prey to pull it from the icepack. Seal meat is a staple in her family's diet. (Photos By Doug Struck -- The Washington Post)
By Doug Struck
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, April 13, 2006


The hunters meet on the icepack at 8 a.m. Noah Metuq and his wife, Alukie, ride up on the snowmobile with the ripped seat. A polar bear tore it up one day when Noah wasn't riding. The temperature is minus 13 degrees and the wind is made of razors.

"A warm day," Noah says with a grin. He is not joking.

The hunters roar off together on their machines, racing from the embrace of Pangnirtung Fjord near their village out onto Cumberland Sound, about 30 miles from the Arctic Circle. Each tows a sled -- a qomatiq -- with needed gear: tools in case the snowmobile breaks down, rifles to shoot the seals, gigs to haul them from the icy water. Lunch. Cigarettes. A sleeping bag, just in case.

Noah, 40, is a short, solid man with few words and a lifetime's experience hunting. His wife is more voluble. Alukie, 33, a woman of many smiles, takes in foster children and has three of her own. She comes on the hunt because "I love it out here," she says. The Inuit couple wear store-bought boots, but she made their other clothing from sealskins and caribou hide, with gloves made of wolf hide -- "the warmest thing you can wear," Alukie says.

As they race, the male hunters stand in the stirrups of the snowmobiles, scanning the ice. They are looking for a small ice dome with a little hole on the surface. It is a seal's breathing hole. When the men find a patch with many holes, recently formed, they have found the seals. The hunters fan out and each stakes out a hole.

Alukie is a good shot, having picked off dozens of seals in the summer from a bobbing boat. But she has never gotten one in the winter. She takes her spot by a breathing hole, holding an old World War II-era, Yugoslav-made rifle. Broad tracks in the snow show a polar bear has been here recently. The bears use the same hunting strategy; still and quiet, they wait by a breathing hole to deliver the fatal moment.

Noah gives Alukie some advice, then races away on the snowmobile. He and a few others will run wide circles around the spread-out group of hunters, hoping to herd the seals under the ice toward the manned breathing holes.

One of the men, Noah's cousin, fires first, and drags a ring seal from the water. Alukie waits. And waits. In the silence. Then, she hears the gentle swish of air escaping from the breathing hole, no bigger than a silver dollar. In a moment, the seal will stick its nose through the thin ice and inhale. At that moment Alukie must fire, through the ice, to strike the animal.

Noah hears the gunshot, and races back to Alukie. She is laughing, wiping her face.

"He squirted me right in the eye and I missed," she says. Noah is amused.

The hunt resumes. Another miss. This time, Alukie is not laughing. They take a break for lunch, gathering with the other hunters on the ice to share dried caribou, tea from Thermoses, and raw seal meat freshly sliced from one of the hunter's kill. It is still warm, a little chewy, and bland. "If you are cold, it gives you heat like another coat," Alukie insists.

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