For centuries, gray whale hunting was a defining characteristic of the Makah Indian Tribe, which used every part of the animal to help nurture the nation.

But the hunts ended some 70 years ago as demand for whale oil brought the animals to the brink of extinction. Tribal members these days admit they don't even know what whale meat tastes or smells like.They will soon get a chance to find out. The Makah are returning to whaling and have permission to hunt as early as Thursday. Tribal members have been preparing for the event for months, practicing on their 32-foot hand-hewn cedar canoe, the Hummingbird.

Like their ancestors, they will paddle out and strike first with a harpoon. But in a departure from tradition, they will use a .50-caliber rifle to kill the whale and at least two motorized boats to tow it home.

The hunters paddled their canoe out to within 50 yards of a gray whale Wednesday in a "dress rehearsal," said Keith Johnson, head of the tribal whaling commission.

The coming hunt has been a cause of celebration for the 2,200-member tribe. The would-be whalers feel they are helping to unify their community, which is struggling with a jobless rate of 55 percent, faltering fishing runs and a changing logging industry.

"I'm hearing drumming from houses where I never thought I'd hear drumming," says crew member Darrell Markishtum.

Not everyone is celebrating the resumption of the tradition.

A candlelight vigil for the whales was held Wednesday in Port Angeles, 50 miles east. "Please help save the whales," read a flier handed out by the dozens of people who gathered downtown. It declared Wednesday "the last free day for whales."

A lawsuit filed by conservation groups was rejected in federal court in September. Some mainstream environmental groups do not oppose the hunt, saying commercial whaling is more of a threat.

But the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a Los Angeles group that prides itself on "interventions" to save whales from commercial whalers, has vowed to disrupt the hunt. The Coast Guard said it will enforce a 500-yard protective zone around the Makah as they hunt.

The Makah live 120 miles from Seattle at the northwesternmost point of the continental United States.

For thousands of years, the Makah gleaned a life from the Pacific and the forested Northwestern coast, taking berries, roots, deer and elk from the land, and shellfish, salmon, halibut, seal and whale from the sea.

Gray whales, which grow up to 50 feet and can weigh 40 tons, were prime targets as they migrated to Alaska in the spring and Mexico in the fall.

The Makah would paddle out in canoes and spear the whale repeatedly with cedar harpoons with mussel-shell points and barbs. The harpoons had ropes connected to air-filled sealskin bladders, which would act as floats, allowing the Makah to track the whale and drive it to exhaustion.