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Photo by Aren Gunderson

University of Alaska Museum of the North, Fairbanks, Alaska

Bowhead Whale Skeleton Project

The Articulation of a Bowhead Whale Skeleton - The Boneman in Fairbanks, AK, During COVID Times 

The following is a weekly journal I sent to people as I worked on the bowhead whale skeleton. It is ridiculously wordy----blame that on having way too much free time, being home alone in my apartment, not tired enough to go to bed, COVID concerns, no place to go out to eat, or to socialize with anyone.

Week 1

Hello Everybody - It's me up here right beside North Pole. Doing the, "Hey, I'm on campus trying to figure it out" thing.  The drive to here was beautiful. Deep snow in the Willow area. Cabins with quite the snow loads on their roofs. Sunny skies. Animal tracks everywhere. The top half of Denali sticking out of the clouds at a seemingly impossible height, like it broke off and was floating on top of some clouds. Got to Fairbanks and made my way to the Museum of the North, and I called to to let them know I was there. Aren, the curator, preparator who cleaned the 50 year old Bowhead Whale bones, came out and found me, and took me into the auditorium where I would be working on the bones till they were done and hanging. He had tables set up and bones in neat rows on the floor, and boxes of tools and materials. I unloaded what I brought in the way of tools and materials. I gave a quick look over the bones, then Aren led me to my apartment. (I still haven't figured out who those apartments on campus were for. I heard little kids running around. There was a playground outside. I saw dogs being walked, and other people coming and going who looked like they might have been college students.) It is a one bedroom unit with a lot of living room and open space for a couple students. I looked around the apartment and realized it looked as though someone told someone else (probably both guys who had never done this before), to go out and get whatever they thought I might need. The microwave was still in a box on the kitchen table. A new coffeemaker still in the box was beside it. There were  three unopened packages of bedding stuff. I think I got 6 pillowcases but nothing to stuff inside them. The heat had been turned up to 72 degrees. The apartment came with one cooking pot, one frying pan, 3 spoons, 2 forks, a couple little knives, a pizza cutter, and an assortment of bottle and wine openers. There was a new-looking set of tiny-little coffee cups in a cupboard with another coffee maker, and a toaster. "Maclean," in red sharpie, was written on the toaster. There was nothing in the way of anything to eat or drink.


In the rest of the apartment, there was one padded chair, one old couch, one new-looking wooden kitchen table with a set of matching wooden chairs, and a desk with a chair that I had requested.

SO - first project was to drive around till I found a store, then stock up on food and something fun to drink. That I did. Then it really looked like a bachelor pad. Fridge full of drinks and deserts and yummy looking things that sounded good at the time, but weren't really going to satisfy my desire the first time I wanted a meal. I fixed that issue the next day with a family-sized frozen lasagna. Besides that, I had enough breakfast cereals to last me a month.

Fairbanks was a confusing town for me to get my directions and bearings. There is a meandering river somewhere. A railroad track. A campus on a hill and roads that seem to go in all directions. I have yet to figure out the food scene. I tried the campus cafeteria. THOSE POOR STUDENTS!! I ordered a pulled pork sandwich. It took quite a while to make and it came to me in a Styrofoam clamshell container. By the weight, I knew it wasn't going to be much of a meal. The pork was dry and a bit burned. It sat on one of those little hamburger buns like McDonalds uses for a little burger. No sauce. A handful of fries with no ketchup, and a bill that would have horrified some poor student from the Midwest. I overheard a heavyset student (that looked like a young Michael Moore), exclaim as he opened his meal, "FIFTEEN DOLLARS FOR THIS?! YOU GOT TO BE KIDDING!"

I asked a couple young people working the counter at the museum, "If someone you knew, was going to take you out for dinner, in Fairbanks, considering Covid and all, where would you hope they might take you?" They, a guy and a gal, concurred on a couple places. I found those places on the map and that night I was going to try eating at one of those locations and have them make a couple sandwiches for me, for later in the week. Alas, they were both closed and deserted looking. Snow hadn't been shoveled from the entryways. Plus, it was a Sunday. I decided to try again midweek. I went by another place the fella at the museum liked. Pumphouse. It looked like a big popular restaurant/bar. The parking lot was packed with pickup trucks. Something told me that might be where Fairbanks goes to keep it's COVID numbers active. (Fairbanks has had fairly high COVID counts.)

I drove to work the first few days, mostly because I was still chasing down Fred Meyers so I could finish stocking my cute apartment. I wanted to find a thermometer to put outside. It was supposed to get to 29 or 30 degrees below that night. It was to be the coldest night yet. It was 20 degrees below the next morning when I went to work, and I hadn't even switched to my arctic gear yet. I was still doing the "Hell, when I was a young senior, I walked a half mile at 25 below to get to school" thing. At -20 I could feel my nose hairs freezing with each breath. At those temperatures, COVID masks are a joke. 15 steps and my glasses fogged up too thick to see through. That snow sure gets squeaky. Car starts nice when it's been plugged in all night. The seat is sure hard, however, and the tire meter says "low." No surprise there. 

The Whale. The plastic fabricated replacement bones hadn't shown up yet. Unless something showed up via mail soon, I'd probably have a hard time keeping busy for many more days. My list of what we could do without having the plastic fabricated bones or the tool to bend the 2-inch pipe that the vertebrae will fit on, was getting smaller every day. This whale was collected (a few years after it had been butchered) by a bowhead whale researcher from Los Angeles, who, for some reason. left most of the bones in Fairbanks and never came back for them. The skull was later collected but many of the bones of the skeleton were missing or badly damaged. Fairbanks wanted to display the skeleton with all its damaged bones, axe marks, animal chew marks, weathering evidence, missing sections, and blown apart bones from the bomb lance that killed it. Looking at all the damaged bones that needed to be fixed, I started griping that the powers that be weren't letting me work longer. Then, after I realized they didn't want all of them fixed, I then began to worry that I'd be done in a few days with what I could do until the rest of the pieces and tools arrived. I could get into the building at 8:00 a.m., when they remembered to leave the room door open, but they made me leave at 5:00 or 6:00 p.m. Given how cold it was, and how unexciting my apartment was, I would have been there 12 hours a day (maybe more) had I been allowed to do that.

So, for the time being, we decided to bore the holes in the vertebrae. First, Aren (my co-articulator), had to pass an on-line test about how to safely use a drill press before we could touch the tool. I stayed away from that room. I could imagine how many layers of training one would need just to use something like a saw.

That was it for the first week in the frozen North.

Photos by Roger Topp

Aren Gunderson, Curator of the 50-year-old bowhead whale bones.

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The Work Room

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Marissa, Lee, and Aren

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Damaged Bones

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Vertebrae Drilled

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Photos by Roger Topp
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The Skull

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Marissa Applying

Consolidant to the Skull

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Aren and Lee Repairing the Rostrum

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Skull Cradles

Week 2

For all those so locked down in Covid times that desperation would have you reading week two of the Fairbanks follies on the Bowhead Build, here it is.

Last week I left off when the following morning was to be thirty below zero. It probably was. I heard it was 30 or 31 below. At the airport that morning it officially broke 40 below but it is warmer up on the hill where they have me parked. I walked to work that morning and anybody that says 20 below isn't much different than 30 below hasn't tried walking to work in those temperatures in Homer winter-weight clothing. My face was cold enough that I was feeling my nose frequently to make sure it hadn't gotten frost bit yet, and my thumbs and pinkies were starting to get tingly cold through my double gloves. By comparison it had warmed up to 18 below when I walked home and my face and fingers felt just fine.

It warmed up a couple days later to somewhere above zero most days of this week with some light snow or maybe it is just frozen fog falling. I have yet to find a thermometer either to buy or to look at around here. I think Fairbanks people just live in a perpetual state of denial. They seem to say it's cold when it got below -30 but they don't seem to want to know how cold. It appears to be true that one gets used to the cold pretty fast. I saw fresh snow and opened the door and noticed it felt warm so I  walked  to work with just my vest, hat, and gloves. It wasn't bad. I looked up the temperature when I got home and it was 10 degrees that morning. If I would have had a thermometer, I might have dressed warmer.

This was a second week of not having the tools, materials, and bones to be able to zoom ahead on the project. Had a meeting with the welding-engineering peoples and they are ready to start. It was a week of working on the skull; consolidating the bones so they feel more secure, attaching some broken off bones to the nose end (rostrum), and fastening the four long, arched bones together, that make up most of the length of the skull. It now has 3 gold studs on each side of its nose - okay, brass nose studs on its rostrum. Leader of the pack in modern whale facial piercings at the moment.

Part of the skull project was to design and make templates for steel cradles that will go under the skull such that it can be hoisted up and securely hung from these cradles. The bass-ackwards method we are doing this skeleton is to have us show them where on the theoretical skeleton we propose to have cables attached. They tore apart the incredibly complicated ceiling and put some metal pieces up there from where the cables will come straight down, following Mr. Newton's laws about where exactly each cable will come to. We now we have to build the skeleton such that each of those cables attaches to the skeleton at exact pre-determined locations along the length. This part would be reasonably easy except the skeleton will have a slight  curve to it and it will be in about a 10-foot dive. So, the skull is essentially a 14-foot-long curved banana shape in a dive. It has 3 cables attached to it. The first cable and cradle is to be 3 feet back from the tip of the nose and the second cable and cradle is to be 63 inches beyond that one, and the third is to be 45 inches past the second. All three cables are to remain parallel to each other. The skull will be sitting on a wood platform as if the whale is swimming relatively level. The assignment is to figure out where each point is on the skull in its  final dive position, and make a template that fits under the bones at those points so the fabricated metal cradles can go there.

For me, who never got to calculus or trig in my schooling, I had to dig deep into my high school  geometry memory banks to figure out how to get those problems solved. It would have been easier had this been a banana. It is an 870-pound piece of bone however, and just me  trying to solve the puzzle with the aid of a plastic protractor and some lengths of metal, a level, and some string. I think we got there. And got there again with Aren's help.

The food issue has gotten a bit better, I was told about a building on campus that had a subway shop and some groceries in it. It turned out that building was on my way home each day. I went in, planning on getting something yummier than the cold Fred Meyers sandwiches I had been eating. It turns out the building is like a dorm-recreation building for students. You need a swipe card to get through the second set of glass doors to the lobby and the Subway Shop. I have a swipe card but it did nothing to get me in. No surprise there. I was plotting how I would stop a student going in and offer to buy them a sandwich if they would bring one out to me. Before the right student came along, a student employee from the Subway shop came out to ask if she could help me. I told her I was staying on campus and was chasing a Sub Sandwich. She said, "Just follow me." I'll bet that was her biggest tip of the week. My second time going there, I just told an entering student, "I'm sneaking in behind you." But since then, I figured out when and where a breakfast cafe is open and they make way pretty good  sandwiches to go, so I think my lunch problems may be solved now.

I found out, Karl, who is probably the one who hired me, is documenting this project with informal photos and non-technical writing. He sent his first round of pictures to me.


Tomorrow I hope to bore the holes in the vertebrae we have. Tuesday is a meeting and if nothing arrives by then, I'll be struggling to figure out what to do next .

Till next week.

Photos by Roger Topp

Week 3

To those who were curious as to what happened on the bowhead whale project last week, the short answer is - nothing happened. I ran out of forward motion projects I could do. Not having the pipe bender, the rest of the bones, any consolident material (PVA glue) to work with, I went home. I headed back to Homer at 7:00 in the morning on a Wednesday. Watched it get light out and found a place to drug up for the drive - a bottle of Classic Coke. It was crystal clear outdoors, a few degrees below zero, blue skies and not a cloud in sight. The snow was sparkling white, the mountains (including Denali) were out in all their full glory. Frozen waterfalls. Caribou tracks. No traffic and dry pavement. This was Alaskan winter scenery - as good as it gets. Parts of the drive I just ogled at how beautiful it was. Stopped at my favorite burger joint in Anchorage (Arctic Roadrunner), for a burger and a shake, and parked a couple miles out of town at a pull-off where the view was a series of frozen waterfalls on one side, and Turnagain Arm on the other side. The water was so calm, it reflected the blue of the sky in the normally mud colored water. Oh yeah, that was my lunch spot. I ate it too while admiring the view. 


Back in Homer, I relaxed a day and then tried to do what I could to give the overworked  Bookstore (my day job) crew some kind of break over the following week or so, which just happened to be Spring Break. The Bookstore was quite busy that week. Near midweek I got an E-mail from Fairbanks, letting me know that the pipe bender had arrived. I told them I'd be back Monday morning. They said to stay another week because they wanted to make sure they had everything else I needed - then changed their mind the next day and asked if I could be back Monday morning. That was a "Yes I can!"


Sunday morning I was off to Fairbanks again at 7:00 AM which was now called 8:00 AM because we all changed our clocks by an hour the night before (Daylight Savings Time). As usual, I took the short-cut to Fairbanks. This time with a Kristin Hannah digital book (Firefly Hill), and I was back in Fairbanks before the book was half over. At Denali, I took a detour to see how far one could drive into the park (12 miles). Still got to Fairbanks before dark.


Back to work on the whale skeleton project. By lunch time, with the help of Aren and his assistant Marissa, we had the 21-foot pipe bent to a beautifully smooth curve to follow a planned curve they wanted for the spine of the whale. Then, with a sharper carbide hole saw-bit, we finished drilling holes through the centrum of the last several vertebrae. We then had to cut the steel cart (that held the curved pipe that the vertebrae were threaded on) down a bit when we realized it wouldn't go through the door with those tall vertebrae on top of the bend. Just so it looked like we did something bone related, we place a few vertebrae on the curved pipe before quitting for the day.


Over the week we sort of rebuilt the bomb blasted vertebrae from when the whale was killed. The museum wanted the pieces securely  back in place but not hidden or have the gaps from missing pieces filled. We got all the vertebrae threaded onto the pipe and got them spaced according to spacing notes from a bowhead of this size that was measured and described by Danish scientists 160 years ago. This was from the report in which it was officially published that the species called the Greenland Right Whale, was definitely a different species than the regular Right Whale (as opposed to the wrong whale for the early whalers to take). The whales were big fat, slow, had lots of oil, had the longest baleen of any whale, and best of all, it didn't attack their whaling dories when they were harpooned, or sink to the bottom of the ocean when it died. It was the Right whale to get.

The vertebrae went on and came off from the curved pipe a couple times as we fussed with placement of how the pipe and vertebrae would fit on the cart, then realized later we could easily get accurate placements of the bones and hanging cables if we marked the naked pipe from marks already made on the paper on the floor and from a life-sized photo of the proposed backbone bend. So, all the vertebrae came off yet again and then back on. Foam was cut to fit between the vertebrae using an adjustable bread cutter-like device I made out of an antique  handsaw that someone modified into a whale butchering tool. They made a knife edge where the saw teeth used to be. Once the vertebrae were spaced and lined up, it morphed from a bunch of big bones on a pipe, to a beautiful sinuous curved sculptural form. More and more people started coming in to see our progress. Lots of "oohs" and "aahs" and remarks about how beautiful it looked - bone builder's gold.

I had my first dinner out in most of a year in a restaurant one night when I was out of anything else I wanted to eat. Later in the week a photographer, using an old 8x10-inch film, bellows camera, handed me a note with a phone number on it and said someone named Martha wanted me to call her. It was Martha who lived in Fairbanks and who was an early girlfriend of my buddy, Mike. She saw some photos of the project online, taken by the bellows camera photographer. Martha took me to an eating place she and her partner liked to go for my first restaurant meal with anybody in over a year. 


It's been sunny and was 11 degrees below zero this morning. Might go skiing this afternoon. Took a break today from the whale and tomorrow maybe we'll get some silicone in place. That has to happen before we can do anything with the ribs. The ribs are weird and will likely be the biggest challenge of this project. 





Bending the Pipe that

will "String" Through

the Vertebrae

Vertebra on the Pipe for the Spine

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Photos by Lee Post

Applying and Smoothing the Silicone


Stringing the Finger Bones

Photo by Roger Topp
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Lining up the Finger Bones with the Arm Bones

Week 4

Hello to those who are still following the progress of the building of the bowhead whale. I'm in Fairbanks, working in the auditorium of the museum building. It is the first week that the outdoor temperatures have been mostly above zero. White stuff, that looks like frozen fog dust, falls every few days - an inch or less a day. I walk from my little apartment to the museum (1/2-mile plus). This week got me through the 4th week of working on the whale. Twenty-six days of bone-work and 4 days of driving, but who's counting. Last Sunday when I left you, on a cool sunny Sunday morning, I looked out a bit later and saw something that I had not yet seen in this part of the world. I saw a drip come off the roof. Since I have yet to find a thermometer, that was a good clue that maybe it was warm enough that I should go outside and play. I got into my ski boots, grabbed my skis and put them on and went across the parking lot to the road. The ski trails were on the other side of the road. There were big snow piles around the parking lot. Do you know how hard it is to climb up the piled berms of frozen snow to get to the other side?  But I summited in awkward style and made it down just as ungracefully to cross the undisturbed snow. I don't know what that white stuff was, but it wasn't snow as I know it. It was some kind of white fluff several feet deep and not conducive to holding up skis or ski poles. I sank to my knees and my poles acted like they were melting even farther beneath that white fluff, each time I tried to lean on one. A lot of help they were (NOT). I only had 30 feet to struggle before reaching the next berm. That was  already too much work. I crossed the road and found the trail and since my sense of direction sucks I took the Republican Route (all right turns). This got me to a trail head and parking area and better yet, a map! But it was a map of the summer trails. I kept going and found another map, and a thermometer! It said 10 degrees above zero. I was on a 6-mile loop. Every major intersection had a map - and a thermometer! I finally found where they put thermometers in this town! I found a lake and went around the lake - it was a small lake. By time I made that circle I was too hot. Hat and gloves off, and I kept going. Found something called the Potato Patch; found a Frisbee golf course; found a baseline trail; found a spot that looked very familiar. It was! I had  made a circle and was going the wrong way. U-turn - back to the fenced in area with just inches of fence poking out of the snow. Took a little path through the trees beyond the fence and found a bigger trail and eventually made it back to where I started. Whew!

That evening I looked out and it was clear and 9 above zero, so I went off to find the lights. I took a little road called Summit Drive, and found the city lights. Wrong lights. A bit further I found another side road called Skyline Drive. That one had a little road cutting down off from it with a plowed parking area at a switchback that overlooked a valley, looking away from the city of Fairbanks. There was a curtain of green down low from end-to-end above this valley. I got out to see if those were the Aurora - then looked up. Straight up. Big chunks of whiter auroras were dancing right above my head - what a concept. Eventually those did  their thing and faded out as the green shimmering curtain came closer and closer, then did their dance up high and then faded into nothing. Many cars came by and left while I was watching the show. It must be a known Aurora watching spot. I had to wonder how well those flash photos come out that the  Asian carload of people were taking of each other in front of the aurora.

Back to Work. To prevent us from needing 300 tubes of silicone (an excellent cartilage replacement), we were cutting slices from an 8-inch diameter cylinder of ethyl foam to fit between the vertebrae. These were added to, or subtracted from, to give us a remaining space of  just less than an inch thick to fill with silicone. The first round was to put a bead of silicone on the bone around the foam circle on each side to hold the foam in place. The next day we took care of the first 50 or so tubes with the first coat of silicone cartilage replacement between the vertebrae. I was lent a gal from the university staff to help do this. Marissa - a mammologist. She was a god-send. Smart, quiet, talented, and caught on right away what was to be done, and was happy to have some extra hours. She has been coming every day now and the first thing we do is to build up and smooth and finish the  previous day's  silicone between the vertebrae.


About the time most of that job was finished, and I was wondering what I could do next, a few more metal parts came back from the welders. We could now add on the first 4 front vertebrae and the cervical block of 7 fused neck vertebrae to the backbone pipe. Now we have the first 35 vertebrae on and done except for the places the hanging hardware goes, either up toward the ceiling or down to hang a rib support. Then there are 2 more places where the spine sits on the 12-foot-long cart we had made to build the skeleton on. We also got the tail rod bent, and the skull-hanging-eye-bolts were installed. The skull to  body connecting pins done, and a start on the first thing I usually build - the flippers.


The flippers are about 7-foot long. Most of the parts of them have been fabricated by a plastic printing process in Victoria British Columbia, that made bright white, foam-filled, bones that weigh almost nothing. The original bones went away in various native allotments of gourmet eating for those that helped kill or butcher the whale. The plastic bones are being printed from laser scans of the bones from another bowhead whale, and   painted by a couple talented artists, associated with the university. The printed bones are more realistic looking than some of the real bones we have for comparison purposes.

As soon as the painters are finished; and as soon as the other plastic printed bones show up; and as soon as the welders get done - I can make forward motion again. It is kind of like doing a crossword puzzle - almost stuck - almost to a stand-still - then something breaks loose by showing up, and with it in place, a bunch of other options open up for making forward progress again. Now I'm waiting for the clear UV coat to be added to the painted flipper bones. And waiting for the plastic tail-end bones to arrive through mail delivery, and the metal hanging cradles from the welders. Meanwhile, we can start to figure out and place the ribs in preparation for building a metal rib cage inside the bone rib cage. The ribs on this species of whale, are weird. I'll know more about how weird by next time, but it appears that many of them do not attach to the vertebrae directly, or to any other bones. 

By my number crunching, it looks like I would have 14 days of work left to do if I didn't have to wait for anything. We'll see how that works out in reality. Stay tuned. Same time, same channel.

Week 5

How come I don't hear anyone talking about the weather around here? Maybe it's like never seeing New Yorkers stop and look up at the Empire State Building. I was beginning to think they were immune to the weather. I tried to go to work today - 8 inches of fluffy wet snow and falling fast and 34 degrees. I was following one other set of tire tracks to the museum. Nothing plowed. No footsteps going into the building. I was thinking, "WHAT?" They handle 40 below without blinking, but a little bit of snow paralyzes the town? Then I saw a picture of cute painted faces on colored eggs all wearing painted masks.  OH. DUH!

So here I am at the apartment again. Trying to figure out how to work the washing machine. Finally got it to start but it appears locked into delicates/hand-washables. I can't tell it did any more than turn very slowly in alternating directions about 10 times. Oh well, nothing was very dirty anyways. Thought I would do a load of everything I brought as long as I was stuck in the apartment today. It had been a week of cloudy overcast with that frozen fog falling almost every day in minute amounts. No chance of seeing the sky-lights all week.

Monday took off as a notorious classic Monday. My main helper didn't get in till late. My other helper was already there at 8:00 AM working on painting consolidant on one last complicated bone that hadn't been coated yet, the cervical vertebral block, which is the 7 neck bones fused into one heavy (39.4 pounds), interesting chunk of bone. It looks as if those 7 bones got too hot and sort of melted into one another and stuck. 


When Aren got in and settled, we started building the rib cage jig out of 2 x lumber. This is essentially a stiff centerpiece that is suspended down the middle of the skeleton building cart, below the vertebrae. One crosspiece board is fastened to the cart for each pair of ribs. Kind of like a giant flattened 26-legged centipede. The first pair of ribs is big and heavy, and they attach to a weird looking bone that serves as the sternum. Nothing obvious that tells us exactly where that first pair of ribs attaches to the sternum, or at what angle, or where that whole assembly would attach to the vertebrae. The first set of vertebrae the assembly should attach to, has a long thin finger of bone that wraps around almost to the front of the cervical block. The first pair of ribs has a big curved flattened articular surface with a banana sized and shaped articular end. How a golf ball-sized end of the first rib vertebrae would match up to the side of a curved banana shape, defied normal bone building logic. We spent a couple hours on that puzzle and finally decided to just tie it all together with some internal pins and suspend it with zip ties till we had a few more ribs on and hope for some  better clues. The zip ties kept breaking or slipping apart (I thought these were the things they use for handcuffs). We switched to baling wire. Went to the second pair of ribs and it was the reverse. The rib had a long reaching finger of bone and the articular surface on the second vertebrae also had a long finger of bone reaching around the cervical block But they didn't look like they could touch. By the end of the day when Aren left, we had a total of 4 ribs tied in place and suspended in the approximate location they might go, but nothing made sense about how or where they connected.

Marissa had been sorting and laying out finger bones. The finger bones connect to the wrist bones - except in some whales like this one. The wrist bones connect to the arm bones (except in some whales like this one). In this whale, the ends of the arm-bones (radius and ulna) had been sawed off and went with the flippers as some kind of gourmet gift to the whaling captains. We decided to rebuild the ends of those two bones. I had fashioned a mold that worked well; a layer of thin ethyl foam wrapped tightly around the perimeter of the bone ends (that extended up far enough to cover some all-thread I used as rebar), then poured in the water putty mix that I use as concrete to replace the missing 3 or 4 inches of bone. 


The second set of those arm bones had been 3-D printed as mirror images in plastic with some foam inside to stiffen it some. The super artists (Gail and Marika) had painted these such that they were realistic enough that I had to tap them or move them each time to see if they were the real bones or the fake ones. The fake ones are as light as the real ones are heavy. More than once I almost lost a fake one when I picked it up expecting it to be almost concrete heavy, but it was Styrofoam light instead.


The 3-D printed bones came from the printing company as white, feather-weight plastic bones. The seams where the two halves had been glued together needed to be sanded first, then wiped in solvent to remove the plastic residue, painted with a primer paint of acrylic house paint, then painted with artists acrylic paint using natural sea sponges, then covered with a clear UV protective layer of paint, then another layer of clear to dull the shine. A lot of work and talent went into getting them to that point.


Since the 3-D printed plastic bones were also missing their tops, they were going to receive the same treatment used on the real bones. I put my bone textured ethyl-foam mold around the radius bone and tightened it in place with a couple zip-ties, real tight. Stood it up in my box and mixed an entire 4 pound can of water putty to a barely flowing consistency, poured and scraped the gloop into my mold and bumped the box and  bone, lightly on the floor several times to compact the gloop. HORRORS!! The mold and zip-tie slipped down the smooth painted plastic bone! Not a problem except the bone gets smaller in diameter further down, so the gloop managed to flow under the zip-tie and was now halfway down the sides of the plastic bone. This water-putty appears to stick real well to those plastic bones and gets much harder than normal plaster. So into the bathroom to pour it all into the trashcan and wash the wet gloop off the bone. It came off fine (whew!) ... along with some of fresh water-based paint products that were barely dry, leaving some of the painted bone looking like it had been bleached in the sun longer than any of the other bones. That was my  Monday. 

Tuesday, I confessed to Aren and to the artists that I ruined their bone. They looked at it and said it's fine. We'll touch that up with our next round of bone painting.

After pondering the quandary of the weird ribs in the middle of the night (hey, that's when some of us bone builders have our best ideas), I came up with a couple ideas. One was to start at the back, where the ribs seemed more normal and familiar and work forward. The other idea was to use wire to hold the end of each rib up. Moving forward, one pair of ribs at a time, allowed us to see the progression from almost normal (in the formation of the rib cage) to radically weird, one step at a time. Like reverse engineering for dummies. We wired the tops in place and rubber-banded the bottom to the jig but the ribs, not being pinned to the vertebrae, wanted to fall to one side or the other, creating a domino effect of twisting ribs. By the end of the day we had 2/3 of the ribs sort of in place, tied, wired, rubber-banded, blocked with wood shims, whatever it took to hold it there. It looked like Rube Goldberg had been helping, or maybe we were making an advanced ropes course for mice. Another night of pondering led to an epiphany of tying wood lathe or flexible  thin  plastic water pipe pieces along the outside of the rib-cage in two separated  rows and binding each rib to these in 2 places with surveyor's string and a special rib-builders knot. Now these independent, uncooperative bad boys, have been conscripted into a choreographed team of well behaved ribs. They can do what they need to as long as they do it all  together and stay in a line. All the ropes, guidelines, rubber-bands, and wedges have been removed and the ribs have been happy and cooperative ever since.


The ribs are looking good and we are waiting for the metal workers to bring us some metal pieces. The flippers now have finger bones all lined up, assembled and ready to attach, thanks to Marissa. The finger bones all have a hole drilled to move rod into them as soon as the painting of the big bones gets finished. Hoping to get some welding delivered next week.

Karl, the overseer, manager, number cruncher, timeline maker, budget guy, contractor organizer  of this project, has been losing sleep over the stainless steel metal pieces that are being fabricated. The desire was to have all the metal a dull gray color. Some of it is now shiny, some dull, some half and half. A lot of it has gray  writing all down the length of one side or the other. The welders and engineers and machinists kind of shrug and didn't have any good ideas of how to get it all looking the same. I asked, "Doesn't anybody do sandblasting in town?" The collective they didn't know but suggested one place. Karl  was  going to check that out. He said something like, "You'd think some kind of acetone or paint remover would take off that lettering. Turns out we have some acetone in here. While they were still debating where to go to get an even, dull finish, I wiped a piece of steel with an acetone dampened cloth and was shocked. It was like erasing words off a whiteboard. They still needed to find a place to sandblast the shiny and welded pieces when they get done.

That evening I ventured into a bar-type eatery, The Red Fox. It looks like one of those places that in it's day, one had to feel your way through the smoke to find a place to sit. Now it has a dining room at one end and a bar in the middle and probably pool tables at the other end. But it had a pizza menu and lots of hamburger,/sandwich/bar-food options. The waitresses wore masks, the dining area was almost empty, the food was good and Margarita was my dinner date. Life is better.

The project is making noises like mid-May or June for lifting and unveiling the whale skeleton. It is now early April. I'm making noises like I will be done bone building in 2 weeks with everything I can do here. Karl is talking about how nice springtime in Fairbanks is, when the switch is flipped to melt mode. The forecast is saying -11  to -16 most nights this week. And I'm saying as soon as I am done bone building I'm heading back to Homer and will return a day or two before the skeleton is hung, to help with the move and lift. They are still waiting for a few plastic bones and most of the welding for the bone cradles hasn't even been started yet. 

Photos by Roger Topp
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Rib Cage Work

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Aren Attaching Ribs to Vertebrae

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The Aren Gunderson Method

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Artists at Work

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Perfectly Aligned Ribs



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Photos by Roger Topp
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Roger Topp

Week 6

Karl is the project manager for this project. It is his last project, and then he is  retiring and going back home to mid-west farm country. I'm not sure if he feels this is his best or his worst project. He is the person who tracks down and hires sub-contractors. He makes spread sheets and timelines and budgets. He navigates the paper mazes of the bureaucracy. Sometimes he is in a good mood, trying to think up bad puns and relaying long jokes. Apparently it is just him and his dog at home. He has been doing big University of Alaska, Fairbanks, projects for 30 years or so. Other times it is clear that he isn't getting much sleep and the pressures of this project are wearing him out. Not the whale construction. I think he has finally decided that it will stay together, is under budget, and on time. It is the huge amount of money-time-materials, and specialized work crews that has gone into modifying the roof structure of the area above where the skeleton is to hang in the museum that has been keeping him up. Some 900,000 dollars went that direction. Anyway, Karl, (who I sometimes catch slumped in a chair in the skeleton building room before anybody else is even in the building, just looking at the skeleton - who knows what he is thinking), has been telling me about this switch. The one that gets flipped to go from winter to warmer overnight and how fast the snow goes away when it is clicked over to spring mode. He thinks I should stay and experience that. The switch was supposed to have been flipped today. You wouldn't have known that this morning as it was -11 degrees. But by time I came home it was 18 above and scheduled to be well above freezing next week. I just thought these were normal Fairbanks temperatures. (My two helpers had -20 degrees where they lived several mornings this week.) But an article was sent to me (thanks Anne-Marie) that said this was a record breaking cold spell for this time of year in many parts of Alaska. Made it easier to want to stay inside anyways.

The whale made major progress this week. Some welded pieces we had been waiting for since the previous week, arrived on Wednesday. We had them in place and our 4 big pieces of 3/4-inch round stock we custom bent to follow 4 ribs, were clamped in place for the welder to tack them to the delivered pieces. We carefully took these out of the rib cage and he finished welding them. We put them back in the rib cage and clamped 4 other long, flat pieces of stainless steel (we had also custom bent this week) so the welder (David) could weld those inside the rib cage as well. That being done, we could now start drilling 1/4-inch holes through the ribs and the 1/4-inch thick flat-stock stainless steel. By Saturday at closing we had most of the ribs beautifully lined up and locked in place. The graceful curves, as one walks around the body of the skeleton, is what a bone builder strives to recreate. This skeleton is still missing two ribs. One is being printed, and one badly broken rib is waiting for the metal shop to give us a steel plate that will repair it - (Native butchering results). Right now, the rib cage is like that perfect smile with a couple missing teeth. Even so, the smooth flow of the curves and the symmetry of the ribs and vertebrae are beautiful enough to elicit comments of delighted fascination by most of the visitors who have seen this part of the skeleton. And this was even after we put the whale on an instant diet. It measured  too fat to get through the door. Monday we'll measure again and make sure it will fit.


Marissa, my super helper, has been building the flippers and adding silicone to the finger, one at a time, for a big chunk of the week. She was also the person of choice, originally, to work the pipe bending machine (since Aren and I carried and held up the big pipe on each end) while Marissa controlled the bending of the pipe in the middle, with how many and how hard it was to do the pumps on the 18-ton hydraulic jack built into the pipe bender. Now she is the chosen one because she is more patient and pays closer attention to what we are wanting to bend, to guarantee that we get the results we want without having to undo bends.


Aren has been the master of creating templates and mock-ups of the metal work we need  out of wood, cardboard and foam core, to give to the metal workers as a pattern. Then they have to get thicknesses of everything from the engineer, and order the stainless steel materials, and so we wait. But seeing the results of all our work starting to come together as finished looking sections of the skeleton, has created a lot of enthusiasm to not want to stop now. It is looking like, unless something horrible happens, the painters will be done with the tail bones by Monday, and all the remaining bones they have this week. I'm expecting to be done with everything I can do by this weekend and may be heading south by Sunday.

The engineer came in this week to go through the hanging points and what hardware was being made for each of those points. He hadn't seen the whale in quite a while and his first comment was where did the steel pipe go - it was covered in vertebrae and silicone and not visible any more. Karl told him it was still there behind that smooth silicone. The engineer made a comment about how amazing the silicone looked. I told him it was holding the vertebrae together and we're almost ready to pull the steel pipe out now. The shocked look on Karl's face before he figured out I had to be kidding was priceless. He had just gotten results back from a machine shop in which they did pull tests of steel pins glued into pieces of whale bone to be able to quantify that the bone and steel and epoxy were strong enough to certify as safe to hang over peoples heads. But not without having that 20-foot-long pipe in place. One of his nightmare scenarios was always -how did we know it was strong enough to hang, and who is going to sign off on it as being safe. Now he is sleeping better on that regard.


Roger the  photo documentary person has been releasing occasional clips on You-Tube about this project. I think typing into Google Bowhead Whale Skeleton, University of Alaska, will get someone right to them. Some interesting footage.

Week 7

This will hopefully be the last week of my Bowhead Whale building blitz. The timing was good as it was also the week the switch was turned to non-winter. Saturday of last week it was -29 degrees at the airport and by Monday it hit 51 degrees above and did a lot of melting over the rest of the week. The trees seem alive with singing birds and the first geese arrived. I finally figured out a couple places that felt comfortably safe to eat in and started alternating between the Red Fox Bar for burgers and fries-type food and the Lemongrass restaurant for fantastic Thai food. Lemongrass made my all time favorite desert the first time I ate there - hot sweet sticky rice on one side of the bowl and cold coconut ice cream on the other, with a salty coconut sauce poured over it with a dab of honey and some toasted coconut flakes on top. This is a combination of hot and cold, salty and sweet, crunchy and smooth. Every time I went in after that, they would ask if I wanted my special dessert - of course I did. I tried a different meal each time I ate there, and they were all excellent. The elephant art all around the restaurant reminded me of my daughter, who loves elephants. I failed to get anyone else to join me in eating out, but on one of my last days I had Marissa, her partner Max, and Aren join me in the whale building room after work for Thai food that we got to go. I realized that was the first time I had ever seen Marissa's lower face. I'm not sure I would have recognized her on the street without her mask on. As for the rest of us, we have gotten pretty shaggy.

Starting Monday we took the wooden centipede out of the rib cage, at about the same rate we moved into Jonah-land as we drilled 1/4-inch holes through the 1/4-inch thick stainless steel banding that was now welded to the 3/4-inch round bars inside the rib cage. I was nervous about how difficult it was going to be to drill those holes. By drilling a 1/8-inch hole first and following it with a 1\4-inch drill bit, both dipped occasionally in dish soap, we made it through all the necessary holes without breaking a single drill bit. I had Aren get extra drill bits, and we didn't even need them. That was an occasion of cheap thrills on the bone building front. Once the hole goes through the steel and the rib bone (which are very tough bones), a carriage bolt is inserted. This is a bolt with a smooth rounded head and square shaft immediately below it. The square shaft bites into the bone, keeping the bolt-head from spinning. The ribs are rounded and the bolt-head is flat underneath. To get the bolt-head to form around the curve of the rib, we do something that causes even the most hardened curators to cringe. Someone hits the bolt head sharply with a steel hammer over and over and over and- - - - - while the second person tightens the nut up as the bolt head is bending and the square part is sinking into the drilled hole. Eventually it makes a tight fit following the curve of the rib, looking like a ships rivet from days of old. It fits the nautical theme we have generally been striving for. Aren quit cringing and did most of the hammering after the initial demonstration on his one of a kind, 50-year-old whale bones.


Marissa made forward motion on the flippers, as well as building the tail. She has come a long way since her first foray into the bone building world of painting watered down PVA glue on the huge skull with a little brush. She got the fingers all strung and the silicone cartilage between the joints. They looked like a bunch of whale bone shish-kabobs at that point. She had them all bent and had fit them in holes we had drilled in the radius and ulna. I had the bright idea - NOT - of standing the connected big arm bones up in this perfect-sized plastic trash bin so we could mix up a bunch of glue and glue all the fingers in one hand at once. This was with some bulk epoxy glue that comes out of gallon-type containers with a push pump. We use it thin at first to pour into the drilled holes, and then mix thickening powder to the glue to make it almost toothpaste thick, and spread it on the threads of the all-thread rods just before the finger goes into the hole of the arm bones. I wanted it upright so the thin glue would stay in the holes and soak into the bone around the holes. This makes for a very strong connection in real bones. and I was hoping it would reinforce the foam inside the printed  plastic bones. We got the first couple fingers in, then realized we lost our marks as to how far in  they should be inserted. Then one finger  went in only 4 inches and came to a stop. First thought was it was in a hole we had changed our mind  on and had accidentally covered up the desired replacement hole. We pulled all of them out, drilled through the patch over the other hole. Fingers still didn't fit right AND they kept flopping to one side and not matching up. Marissa had an  Oh-Shit! moment when she figured she had reversed the sequence of the fingers - but she hadn't. Meanwhile my pot of thickened epoxy was getting hot, signaling it was about to go from liquid to solid. YIKES! Pulled all the fingers out, wiped down the threaded 12-inch rods, cleaned off the ends of the big bones, drilled out the sticky epoxy mess from the holes, and called it quits on that flipper till it could harden and we could rethink the process, and re-drill the holes.

Adding the fingers to the second flipper, the one with the real arm bones, we did by laying it on a table. Marissa propped it at the correct angle. The life-size picture of the flipper bones was taped to the table top so we knew where and how deep each finger should go. We used a less thick epoxy mix so it was easier to get into the holes. We test-fit all the fingers first. This method worked perfectly.

The next day we went back to the first disaster flipper - the jinxed one. Cleaned up the holes some more and put it together with it on the table as well. This worked better but we still had a moment when one of the fingers got stuck going through a metal bracket necessary to hang the flipper. Aren drilled it out some more while Marissa and I held sticky dripping fingers so he could get the drill in there. Such drama happenes sometimes with epoxy glues that have a short liquid life before they start setting up.

Both flippers are still having silicone built up around the wrist areas. They are looking fantastic thanks to Marissa's magic fingers. She got the tail bones in order and drilled and spaced, while Aren and I got the scapulae on the skeleton. Aren came up with a method of bending 3/32-inch brass rods to lock the tops of the ribs into the vertebrae in such a way that it transfers some of the weight from the rib to the vertebra and keeps the ribs oriented in exactly the desired position. It is a throwback to a method once used to wire skeletons together, scaled up to some elegant nautical brass wire in whale-sized thickness. Aren spent a long time experimenting to get the right look and strength we would want. I like it. We're calling it the Gunderson Method.

A broken rib got repaired and installed when the metal workers finally finished making a splint piece we had been waiting for. It looks a bit surgical. Some zygomatic bones around the eyes were attached. We got a good start on the printed chevron bones (that had just been finished being painted), that go under the tail vertebrae. I haven't seen anyone yet who have been able to determine the real bones from the plastic ones without touching them first. The painters are doing amazing work with that.
Until the last few printed bones arrive or the metal pieces get done from the welding/fabricating shop, I was (again) at a standstill, so went back home on Saturday. Another beautiful sunny drive. Turnagain Arm had reflected mountains upside down in the blue water. We don't see that very often.  


Marissa and Aren can finish the chevrons and the remaining silicone work without me and the plan is for me to go back just before the hanging in mid-May, to help get the last pieces in place and the whale through the double doors and into the air. 


Flipper Fingers

Photos by Roger Topp
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Lee and Aren Attaching a Scapula to the Ribs

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Marissa Adding Silicone to the Tail


Marissa and the Completed Flipper

Photos by Roger Topp

Aren and Marissa with the Completed Skull


Fourteen-foot Mandible

The Last Act

I left Fairbanks (back to Homer), and was waiting for the metal parts to get welded and three more bones to be 3-D printed in plastic. I had my overworked bookstore staff trying to plan around my ever stretching time period of how long I was going to be available in Homer and when I might be going back and for how long. It ended up being for more than a month in Homer followed by one more week away.

During this time period, the metal parts were delivered. Aren and Marissa installed them. Marissa got the silicone cartilage added around where it was needed. They took some of the ribs and scapulae off and got the bulk of the skeleton squeezed through the double door opening, once they took the doors off, then reassembled everything. The riggers hooked up to the sections of the skeleton and lifted them into the air. While a worker was pulling on another line that was to hold the tail up, something came unattached from the ceiling fixture and fell down. Fortunately without the 7-foot tail section attached yet. This caused some consternation and resulted in someone going back up into the ceiling, to examine all the other cable fittings to make sure they were locked in correctly. They were, and the tail fitting was done up again - this time twisted and locked in place as it should have been. Just to be sure, they lifted a 300-pound concrete block from each cable and bumped it up and down a bit.

The tail was attached and now most of the whale was also left hanging. Waiting - waiting - waiting for a missing rib and some 14-foot plastic printed mandibles. They were supposedly shipped on Monday, May 17th - next day air, from Victoria, British Columbia. By Thursday May 20th, they had made it - all the way to------Memphis, Tennessee. I figured if they kept going that direction, next stop might be Africa, then China, and eventually Anchorage and Fairbanks. I asked if they wanted to just call me when they got them in their hands. They were given a new date of delivery for Monday, May 24th, so I headed back to Fairbanks on the 23rd and reported into work on that Monday. Delivery was to be that morning, then that day by 5 PM, then by closing time, and we all waited, expecting to have a pizza-bone-assembly-painting-party happening that night. At closing time we gave up waiting and went home. 

The mandibles were delivered the next morning in 3 sections per mandible, in a wooden case on a wood pallet. We spent the day gluing, fixing, assembling, and sanding the sections into two, fourteen-foot-long mandibles. More sanding and filling and they were turned over to the painters the next day. While the painters did their magic, we installed the flippers, the hyoid bone in the throat, and the pelvic bone and femur bone sets below the waist. It's a big waist so these look like silly little bones hanging out in space way below the beginning of the tail section.

We attached the hardware and figured out a very unobtrusive way to hang the big mandibles in a mostly closed-mouth position below the skull. The real mandibles (of which they only had one side of) weighed most of 300 pounds each. It wouldn't have worked to hang one real one on one side and a plastic one on the other. The plastic mandibles weighed about 27 pounds each. We could have had the skeleton in a sideways curving dive just by adding one real mandible.

On Thursday, the skeleton was lifted way up into position and the head and body were navigated in midair until the two big threaded rods coming out of the head, entered two smooth, steel-lined holes, drilled through the cervical vertebrae. This was something like the space shuttle docking with the space station. There was a lot of excitement when those two parts came together. It was a little mechanical as it was done by a skilled fellow operating remote electronic buttons from the ground. Because the skeleton is in a bit of a diving position, the pins have to enter at the exact downward and forward angle  at the same time The head is about 1000 pounds and the rest is 1400 more pounds. The rods, as big as they are, look tiny coming out of the back of that big head. Did I mention, they did this in front of an audience? All big-wig, important University and donor base Foundation members were there to watch. The collective exhale of everyone letting out their breath when these big sections mated  together successfully was audible. Two brass nuts were manipulated by hand tools until tight and the the bowhead whale skeleton was now happy and swimming  with everything . . . except it's lower jaws. They will be attached next Tuesday and the skeleton, again will be a complete and  satisfied swimmer.

What was left was the cleanup - and a long drive back home. We looked at photos of the other 7 bowhead whale skeletons in the world - not one of them on the American continents. I think it is safe to say that this bowhead whale skeleton is the nicest and most accurate of any of them. Of course I'm a little bit biased. Next time you are in Fairbanks - - - .

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Photo by Aren Gunderson

Below is a flipbook of the Bowhead Whale Skeleton Manual

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