Eating Beluga in Alaska

Monday Magazine | October 20, 2004
When young Murphy Kamaroff of Emmonak, a dusty Yup’ik town in the mouth of the Yukon River in Alaska, offered me two prime cutlets of beluga whale, I hesitated briefly before firing up a camp stove.

A cetacean cousin of the orca, the white-skinned beluga is famed for its inquisitive mind, gentle demeanor and musical abilities. I normally eat the lesser intellects of the animal world: wild fish, poultry and livestock, not prodigiously sentient beings with a brain outsizing my own. But this was an unusual situation, and besides, it was well past lunchtime.

Within minutes two small slabs of tallowy blubber and half-inch white skin were curling in the heat of silty riverwater at a rolling boil. It was fresh meat, harpooned on the Bering Sea the previous night. On a moonlight hunting trip with his father, 11-year-old Murphy had hurled the harpoon himself. It was the first time he had killed a beluga, a rite of passage for any Yup’ik youth. He was visibly proud.

The Yup’ik call themselves Eskimo, the word derived from French (esquimeaux) and Algonquin (eskimot) that means “eaters of raw meat,” unlike the Inuit who prefer not to use the term. To Yup’iks, being Eskimo signifies a bond with other Arctic Nations. Their name, Yup’ik, carries special meaning: “the real people.”

The Yup’ik live along Alaska’s Bering Sea coast, namely within North America’s most significant wetland (for waterfowl and mosquitoes alike), the shared delta of the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers.

The Yup’ik diet relies on protein from the moose, waterfowl, seal, fish and beluga that abound in their homeland. A scrub boreal forest meets arctic tundra in the delta, so despite being Eskimo the Yup’ik have wood for fuel, so they always cook or smoke their meat.

“It’s gotta boil about 10 minutes,” Murphy told as the blubber boiled. My interest went beyond hunger; I wanted a taste of the Yup’ik subsistence lifestyle.

Emmonak was my final North American stop on a grueling human-powered expedition by bicycle, canoe, rowboat and skis from Vancouver to Moscow, Russia. After leaving Vancouver on June 1, Victoria-born Colin Angus and I cycled to Whitehorse, then purchased a leaky canoe to avoid land routes closed by forest fires. We followed the Yukon River through thick smoke until reaching the Alaska Pipeline crossing near Fairbanks, where our offshore-ready rowboat, the Bering Charger, awaited us.

By oar we navigated the lower river through Alaska’s most remote sub-arctic wilderness. The weather swung from windstorms to heatwaves that roasted the tundra like a dry day in the tropics. In shifts, we rowed day and night to reach Emmonak at the Yukon Delta before seasonal storms would make an impassable tumult of the Bering Sea.

We had just arrived in town when Murphy Kamaroff climbed aboard the Bering Charger. A slim kid with a crew cut, there was no trace of Russian ancestry in his Yup’ik eyes. Names like Kamaroff and a few Russian Orthodox churches along the river remain from the bygone era when Alaska was a political extension of Siberia.

“You wanna come seal hunting?” Murphy asked Colin and me. He showed off his set of four seal harpoons with metal barbs on lightweight wooden shafts. His beluga harpoon was a heftier tool, a shaft like a broomstick fit with a four-bladed arrowhead, flotation buoy and a self-releasing coil of rope. This system has been used for centuries, though materials have changed. Plastic has replaced sealskin flotation, metal is used instead of a bone arrowhead, and skiffs with high-horsepower engines replaced walrus-skin umiaks—open wood frame paddleboats—decades ago.

Today, however, fewer belugas fight free of the harpoon, because high-gauge rifles make whaling more efficient than ever. The same goes for hunting seal, moose and waterfowl. Murphy goes after them all with his father, his teacher in the art of Yup’ik subsistence.

“Maybe tomorrow,” I told him, as our priority was making unbreakable oars. Our carbon fibre oar handles were snapping in rough winds. We were lucky this happened on the Yukon River, not out in the Bering Sea. We hoped that wooden cores would keep our oars from breaking again.

Murphy motored off to hunt as word of our arrival spread through Emmonak. A steady stream of curious villagers approached to ask about our boat and travel plans. Our rowboat—a small sailboat hull stripped of its mast, made watertight, and fit with a sliding seat and oarlocks—and our destination came as a surprise.

“I wish you luck,” said a town elder named Bart Agathlak. “But don’t forget that danger is everywhere. When whalers venture too far from shore, they are never seen again.”

There was concern in Agathlak’s eyes, and wisdom in his fissured face. His father, the town’s aged chief, is a grandson of the first Yup’ik to settle what became Emmonak. Before a dogsled crash left him nearly dead 20 years ago, Agathlak hunted whales, but never far from shore. He didn’t have to.

“In the old days, Belukha swam up the river, right here beside our village. Today you never see them here. There are fewer now, and the river here is dirtier than before. Belukhas are smart enough to stay clear.”

Agathlak’s name means “he who has rolled over and over,” suggesting the resilience that brought him back from the brink of death when his dogsled flipped over the ruts of a snowmobile. As for the resilient beluga, faced with harpoon-hurling hunters, Agathlak reports a downward spiral.

“The problem is, this town grows too fast. In my youth a few hundred lived here, and today we have a thousand people. In two years, we’ll have 200 more. Every one person in town, on average, takes one beluga each year. And we see the whales are in decline.”

Agathlak said that unlike the beluga hunt near Anchorage, the Emmonak hunt is unregulated, without a system of quotas.

“I know the time will come when Alaska Fish and Game regulates our hunt.”

For now, as always, the Emmonak Yup’ik hunt freely to fulfil their subsistence needs. Beluga is a survival staple in the rugged, fragile North. One bite, and I find out why.

It has a deep, pungent flavour I would have enjoyed without the overwhelming oiliness of the blubber. It became a strong liquid grease in my mouth, more than a southern palate can bear. I knew that in the far North this was a delicacy that meant surviving winter, and with Siberia ahead, I needed all the fat I could muster. But belugas are best left to their stewards, because I can travel on, but the survival of the white whale and Yup’ik culture go hand in hand. M

Find out more about Tim Harvey's travels at

Monday Magazine

Founded in 1975 to provide a critical voice in Victoria's political and cultural communities, Monday Magazine continues to shake British Columbia's conservative capital city with tell-it- like-it-is features and reviews. Targeting educated, active adults and Victoria's growing youth market, Monday...
More »
Contact for Reprint Rights
  • Market Served: Metropolitan Area
  • Address: 818 Broughton St., Victoria, BC V8W 1E4
  • Phone: (250) 382-6188