Detours: high jinks

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 April, 2008, 12:00am

Whaling might be a sensitive topic of international concern subject to much debate, but to the Inupiat Eskimo community, the end of the spring whaling season is a time to celebrate. In the remote Arctic outpost of Barrow, Alaska, the Nalukataq (or blanket toss) Festival is held around June each year.

Feasting, blanket tossing and dancing take place as the community celebrates another year of successful hunting. Caribou, duck, goose soup and whale are served on the menu alongside fish, fruit and cake.

Centuries ago, Inupiat hunters invented the blanket toss as a means of spotting wild game in the distance. Today, every true Eskimo festival includes the blanket toss in their lineup of events. Depending on the skill of the person being tossed and the number of people doing the tossing, a medium-weight person could soar as high as 7 metres above the ground.

Villagers make the blanket out of walrus or seal skins sewn into a big circle with a heavy rope threaded around its rim. The blanket operates like a trampoline and requires more than 30 people to hold on to the rope in order to manoeuvre the blanket up and down. A jumper is lifted onto the blanket and bounces to the beat for a few seconds. One of the lifters counts to three and on the fourth beat the lifters toss the jumper into the air. The aim of the game is for the jumper to continue to jump until he loses balance. While the jumpers are the centre of attraction, it's the team operating the blanket who are the true champions of the sport. If the jumper strays while soaring in the air, it is the team's job to move the blanket to catch the jumper.

In Barrow the blanket toss is performed as a crowd-pleasing cultural event and a practice session for local jumpers gunning for the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics in Fairbanks, Alaska. At that competitive event, the blanket toss has evolved into an extreme snowboarding-like sport with daring tricks, trendy presentation and colourful costumes.

Barrow was named after Sir John Barrow, a British naval officer who explored the area in 1825, but archaeological sites in the area indicate the Inupiat lived around Barrow as far back as AD500. In the Inupiat language, Barrow was once known as Utqiagvik (or place to hunt snowy owls). More than 8,000 tourists visit Barrow each year to hike, spot wildlife and to fish. One of the more popular hiking treks leads to the site where humourist Will Rogers and pilot Wiley Post died in a plane crash in 1935.

Although Barrow is remote, audio and video conferencing, as well as cable television via satellite, connects the town to the outside world. Most of the residents work for the county, which gets tax revenues from the oil and gas industry at Prudhoe Bay (the starting point for the 1,290km trans-Alaska oil pipeline).

If you can't make it to the festival, the best time to visit is between May and August, when 24-hour daylight offers the chance to pack in many hours of polar-bear watching and snowy owl-spotting.