Jason Andrew Esler, beloved son, brother, cousin, uncle, and friend, passed away in a tragic accident in Willow, Alaska on September 12.
Jason was born and raised in LaGrange Park, Illinois, part of a tight-knit and vibrant pack of kids on the 500 block of Catherine and Ashland avenues. He attended Lyons Township High School and then Illinois State University, where he majored in Anthropology and played on the lacrosse team.
Music was a huge part of Jason’s life, from singing in the LTHS choir, to recording an album of improv acoustic folk songs in his late 20s, to his frequent appearances at the Thursday open mic night at McCarthy’s Golden Saloon. Wherever Jason was traveling, it was rare to see him without his guitar.
He was also a passionate outdoorsman. Raised hunting and fishing in the fields, forests, and waters of the Midwest, Jason also loved skiing, backpacking, and boating among the great mountains and rivers of the West.
During a summer in college, Jason discovered Alaska, namely the small, remote town of McCarthy in the Wrangell Mountains, a place he would return to for several following summers and eventually make his permanent home. Over the next 15 years, Jason became a fixture in McCarthy, working to build community and striving to be a good neighbor. Always an entrepreneur, he started several businesses, including excavation and homesteading services, and the town’s first organized trash and recycling program. With dreams of one day building a cabin and homestead for himself, he purchased a piece of property on the west side of the Kennicott River. His family hopes to one day make his dream a reality.
Jason is survived by his father Jeff, his mother Linda, his siblings Jamie and Beth, his niece Shantaya, and many cousins, aunts, uncles, and friends.
A Celebration of Life will be held for Jason at 6 p.m., Friday, October 11, 2019 at Capri Banquet Hall, 6240 Joliet Rd. in Countryside, Illinois. His formal Laying to Rest will follow in June 2020, where his ashes will be spread on Fireweed Mountain, overlooking his spiritual home in the Wrangells of Alaska.
About Jason's Memorial Fund:
Jason spent several winters in the Arctic Circle working seasonally for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game-Division of Subsistence Northern Region conducting subsistence surveys throughout the Arctic villages of Alaska from January to May. In honor of Jason and his love for the whaling community of Utqiagvik (Barrow), 100 percent of memorial funds raised will be donated to the Barrow Whaling Captains’ Association through the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission (AEWC) to continue Jason’s lifelong work of preserving Alaskan culture and history. The funds will help defray the costs of the hunt for local captains and ensure this important tradition continues for generations to come. Read about one of Jason's visits in this journal reflection
The Inupiat and Siberian Yupik Eskimos living along the coastal villages of the Arctic Ocean, Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, have been harvesting the bowhead whale for thousands of years as their primary source of nutritional and cultural well-being. The bowhead whale subsistence harvest is the keystone of their northern Alaskan subsistence economy. As the whale feeds their bodies, the subsistence harvest feeds their spirits. The entire community participates in the activities surrounding the subsistence bowhead whale harvest, ensuring that the traditions and skills of the past are carried on by future generations.
The AEWC was formed in 1977 in response to an international ban on the bowhead whale subsistence harvest by Alaska Natives. The ban was imposed by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) based on an inaccurate population estimate provided to the IWC by western scientists without consultation with whaling captains. As a result of the ban, many whaling villages, reliant on the bowhead whale to feed their communities suffered food shortages.
The members of the AEWC are the registered whaling captains and their crew members of the eleven whaling communities of the Arctic Alaska coast, including: Gambell, Savoonga, Wales, Little Diomede, Kivalina, Point Hope, Point Lay, Wainwright, Utqiagvik (Barrow), Nuiqsut, and Kaktovik. The AEWC operates as a not-for-profit 501(c)3 with a mission of protecting the bowhead whale and its habitat, as well as the aboriginal subsistence hunting rights of Alaska’s indigenous people. The whaling communities rely on the AEWC to protect the bowhead whale and successfully manage the bowhead whale subsistence hunt through an international agreement between the U.S. government and the IWC. This agreement includes meeting numerous un-funded mandates on the hunt, which places a significant financial burden on subsistence hunters.
In addition to protecting the bowhead whale and aboriginal subsistence hunting rights, the AEWC works with each village to pursue funding to cover the costs of the hunt. Located in the most remote areas of the Arctic, whaling villages are not connected the rest of the state by road and many do not have employment opportunities or other means to feed their communities. As it has been for thousands of years, whaling captains are honored for their role as providers for their communities. However, along with this honor comes the financial responsibility of subsidizing the hunt. Each captain must provide fuel, food, and equipment for his crew during the spring and fall hunt. With the changing environment and loss of sea ice, whaling crews must travel further each season to harvest whales, increasing the financial burden for whaling captains.
As the world changes with lightning speed, the whale, the harvest, and the sharing of resources are the constants that bind Inupiat families and communities together, that define social and leadership roles, that keep children in school, that allow elders to pass their knowledge to their youth, that teach patience, perseverance, interdependence, and generosity. The harvest is what continues to strengthen subsistence community across Alaska. The tradition provides wisdom and insight. It provides hope. The whale and the harvest are a way of life for the Inupiat, their cultural identity, and a means for survival.
Families and children that Jason knew and loved very dearly will be able to continue to benefit from his life through this memorial fund.