Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Beluga hunting club a testament to different times

By Clark Fair
Redoubt Reporter

At a time when efforts are afoot to list the Cook Inlet beluga whale under the federal Endangered Species Act, it may seem strange to contemplate that in the early 1960s the Kenai Chamber of Commerce actually sponsored an organization called The Beluga Whale Hunt Club.

The chamber was “looking toward utilization of the beluga whale,” according to James Fisher, a retired Kenai lawyer and president of the chamber from 1962 to 1964. Consequently, beluga hunting and the subsequent consumption of “beluga burgers” became a feature of the annual Kenai Days celebration from 1963 to 1965.

The December 1963 issue of Alaska Sportsman reported that the whale hunt was “a great idea publicity-wise, but didn’t produce a lot of meat.”

According to the magazine, “Blustery weather kept amateur whale hunters pretty much on the beach, but a previous ‘practice’ hunt provided about 300 pounds of meat” for Kenai Days. Kenai pharmacist John Hulien, who had spearheaded the foundation of the club and referred to himself as the “Chief Whale Wrangler,” reported that every pound of the meat (as burgers or in cans) was sold.

The club, ultimately a short-lived attempt to spice up big game hunting opportunities and entice tourists to the Kenai area, was organized in the summer of 1963. Membership in the club cost $3. According to the magazine, new members received a small bottle of whale oil, a chance to participate in the hunt and “the right to have their names burned into a six-by-six-foot whale hide on display at the city center.”

By May 1964, The Cheechako News reported that efforts were well under way to broaden the abilities and opportunities of the club. According to the paper, Al Munson had donated an unused gear shack on the beach below Kenai, area pilot Bud Lofstedt was going to be hired to spot pods of whales from the air, the first crew of Reed Kent and Denny Denbrock were ready to hunt, and “practice with the Norwegian harpoon rifle recently acquired has been continuing with increased accuracy by club members.”

Meanwhile, according to the Cheechako, Helen Fisher, club member and wife of the chamber president, had made some experimental whale oil soap, and the club itself was hoping to supply whale oil for the Alaska exhibit at the World’s Fair in New York City. Five gallons of oil and certificates of membership in the club had already been sent, the paper said.

Nancy Lord, author of the 2004 nonfiction Beluga Days, interviewed former Kenai resident Lance Peterson, who had written an informational booklet for the club. Peterson, a long-time peninsula teacher, remembered that the club had used his family’s winch truck to raise harvested belugas out of the water at Arness Dock and haul them into town.

Peterson still had his club membership certificate and souvenir bottle of oil. He remembered the barbecue fondly and the meat as red and flavorful.

Lord also referred to a 1965 Cook Inlet Courier article, which said that Hulien and whale guide Ken Tapp took a couple of army men out for 10 hours of hunting over two days.

“They fired 250 rounds of ammunition and ended up with zero belugas,” Lord said.

Tapp, whom Lord tracked down to his current home in Oklahoma, said that he had shot maybe 25 to 30 belugas, but he was unconcerned about the numbers.

“There were thousands of those doggone things,” he said.

Tapp’s assessment of the beluga population was in dispute even then, and in 1972 the Marine Mammal Protection Act banned all sport and commercial harvest of such animals. According to a 2000 Marine Fisheries Review article by Barbara A. Mahoney and Kim E.W. Shelden, there were at least 1,300 belugas in Cook Inlet in the 1970s but the numbers have been falling ever since.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries department estimated the 2006 Cook Inlet population at 302 and said that a 50 percent decline occurred from 1994 to 1999.

Ultimately, despite much fanfare from Hulien — described by Fisher as “kind of outgoing and substantially involved in the Kenai community”— the club’s activities and its participation in Kenai Days disappeared after 1965.

Still, Hulien didn’t go down without a fight, as shown by an enthusiastic advertisement for guided beluga hunts published in an outdoor section of the Anchorage Daily Times on July 1, 1965.

The ad, entitled “Beluga Offer Top Big Game,” gushed that, “Several Alaskan guides have said that hunting the beluga whale is by far the most exciting big game hunting ever done.”

The hunt, the ad continued, “begins at sea in an open dory about 20 feet long.” The dory crew would maneuver into a pod of whales and attempt to separate one from the group. Then, “the dory rides herd on it and edges it toward shallow water.”

The actual kill was described this way: “After an hour or more of tracking, with more than 100 rounds of ammunition spent, the whale is usually fatigued enough to allow the dory to come within harpoon-throwing distance. Hardier hunters use the 10.15mm Norwegian harpoon rifle, as it really packs a punch.”

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